Many a Christian pilgrim doubtless sought the Holy Grail. The term has drifted to collectors, and certainly, to gun collectors. Each seems to have one particular piece that has eluded him, for which he searches as assiduously as the fictional Indiana Jones went after the Ark of the Covenant. Shooter folk call them “grail guns.”

My grail gun is the Smith & Wesson Model 27 .357 Magnum revolver with a 3 ½ inch barrel. This was the shortest barrel length in which that iconic revolver was ever offered, and the length of the first one that came off the production line in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1935. That particular revolver was presented to J. Edgar Hoover, and reportedly was the centerpiece of his personal gun collection.

This was the revolver that introduced the popular .357 Magnum cartridge, and S&W offered it in barrel lengths up to 8 ¾”. That maximum extension was later reduced to 8 3/8”, when Smith & Wesson discovered that the latter was the length that made the cut for maximum sight radius in competition with the then-active United States Revolver Association (USRA). Since it was the only one of its kind, it was known simply as the “Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum.” In the mid-1950s, S&W introduced two more revolvers in that caliber, the smaller frame .357 Combat Magnum and the gray finish, plain Jane utility model of the big gun, which they called the Highway Patrolman. In 1957, the company went to numeric model designations, and the Combat Magnum became the Model 19, the Highway Patrolman the Model 28, and the original, the Model 27.

When I was a little kid, the only guns at home were rifles and shotguns; dad kept the handguns at his jewelry store until his youngest, me, got a little bigger. The only gun book in the house was a tattered 1947 edition of “The Shooter’s Bible,” also known as the Stoeger Catalog. In the Smith & Wesson section was a spotlighted photo of the 8 3/8” .357, and below it, an insert with the 3 ½” model titled “Super Undercover Service Gun.”

And, then and there, I imprinted.

I wanted one. Hell, I wanted both. When I turned 15, my dad gave me an 8 3/8” Model 27, and I used it for years in the centerfire stage of bullseye pistol competition, firing .38 Special target wadcutter ammunition. Nine years later, a young patrolman who had made the department pistol team, I had gunsmith Nolan Santy put a 6” barrel on it, since that was the maximum length allowed in “police combat” matches. I was 25 when I won my first state championship with it. That gun sits today in a safe deposit box, a “safe queen” as gun collectors put it.

I went on with life and with other guns, and my desire for a short-barrel Model 27 sublimated itself, sort of like an anaerobic bacteria that was just waiting for a chance to surface. It surfaced a few years ago, when I hit that age where we baby-boomers decide that with little time left, we just gotta have those things we wanted and couldn’t get when we were kids. For me, it was that 3 ½” Model 27.

Try to find one when you’re ready to buy one…

I’ve run across them with prices that I wouldn’t have paid for the former Governor of New York’s mistress. I’ve run across rusted ones, poorly refinished ones, and specimens that were customized until they didn’t look like the original, and all those things were deal-breakers.

I’ve gone through two Model 27 4” barrels in the last few years. Should be close enough, right? Nah…that ain’t the “grail” mentality. S&W is producing a limited run of “retro” .357s with 3 ½” barrels, but they’re 8-shot .357s instead of the traditional 6-shot, and the cylinders look different. Great guns…just not the exact same guns.

The 4” version of this revolver was good enough for the famed Col. Charles Askins, Jr., a man I was fortunate enough to know personally and learn a lot from. It was good enough for FBI agent Walter Walsh to use, along with a Colt .45 automatic, to win one of the Bureau’s most famous gunfights in the 1930s. I got to meet him late in life, and admire Walsh’s accomplishments enormously. And the 4” guns have the same superb S&W Bright Blue™ finish, the same checkering along the sight plane that marks it as the high-end Cadillac of the entire 1852-2008 epoch of a great American gun manufacturer.

But the half-inch difference in barrel makes a stark difference in looks. At 3 ½”, the 27’s barrel is almost level with its classically styled ejector rod shroud, and that plus the ramped front sight rising above it like a shark’s dorsal fin gives it a look like no other handgun. This was the barrel length of the Hoover gun, after all. It was the barrel George Patton chose for the ivory-handled S&W .357 he called his “killing gun,” now on display at the Patton Museum in Kentucky after a long stint on display at West Point. It was the length famed Oklahoma gunfighter Jelly Bryce chose when he swapped his Smith & Wesson .44 Special for the .357.

And, dammit, it was the one in the picture in that 1947 Shooter’s Bible that a little boy in New Hampshire once stared at so long, in such fascination.

If your first car was a ’57 Chevy BelAir and you head to the antique auto dealer to reclaim your lost youth, another variation of ’57 Chevy just won’t do. It has the same body, the same engine, the same transmission, perhaps…it certainly has the same dashboard, and drives exactly the same, and is thus identical from an operator’s perspective. But the chrome is different, that little rectangle on the rear fenders instead of the broom-shape sweep that begins by the headlights and reaches its widest point near those little tail-fins, which is the look that makes the ’57 Chevy of your memories.

That’s how the grail thing works. When my significant other watches me grind my teeth as yet another promised 3 ½” barrel Model 27 turns out to have a 4” barrel instead, she rolls her eyes and sighs, “Men.” But it’s of such things that grails are made.

So, if you run across a 3 ½” S&W heavy frame .357, let me know.

And if you’re looking for a grail for your gun collection – or for any kind of hobby collection at all – post it here and share it with us. 


  1. Great article!

    The one gun I really, really want but am unwilling to shell out for at current prices would be a Marlin Camp Carbine .45.

    I wish I knew what made Marlin discontinue that handy little rifle.

  2. Hi,
    I am a long time survivalist at heart,( started in 1975) and only now (since mid 07) I’m awakening and rediscovering myself and my needs to get ready for when SHTF. I was prepared before long ago, but, fell into a trance of utter stupidness, and sold everything off. What a mistake that was.
    I thought long and hard about the weapons I wanted. Having a limited budget, I went for these;
    An AK47 semi auto, A PSL sniper rifle in 7.62x54r w/PSO-1 scope , An SKS semi auto, A Mosin Nagant 91/30 rifle, A 12 ga. pump shotgun, a Winchester 22 cal semi auto rifle w/ telescopic scope, A 32 cal revolver.
    those were the first round of purchases.
    Next I bought these;
    A NEW S&W 1911 model,5 inch barrel, stainless version ,45 cal semi auto pistol. And a NEW Rock River Arms, 5.56 cal. LAR 15 with 20in. stainless heavy barrel, front Bi-Pod legs, a 4-16×50 telescopic scope, 10,20,30 round mag’s, a skeleton butt stock, and a tactical pistol grip. This rifle is a beast! And acurate as hell.
    I have purchased so much ammo for everything, I think I might be breaking the law.
    However, I feel I can now defend myself, and my homestead with a variety of firepower that will do the job.
    I keep thinking that I’ll buy more weapons, but, I think I have enough.
    Oh yeah, I stand to inherit my fathers Springfield M1A1 30.06 rifle, and his S&W 38 cal. police special..someday as well…but birds in hand are worth more than a dozen in the bush…
    I take the second amendment very seriously!

  3. Mine is actually a laundry list but the toughest was the Remington 512T .22 cal. Nothing real special but it’s accurate and one of the first if not THE first gun I shot on the local PAL team. Found one at a gun show and was ready to buy it, BUT the safety was bad. Tried to work the price down a bit but the seller was going to take it to his gunsmith friend to check out, come by in a little while. I came back and the gun was gone, he sold it on me! even after I had the cash in hand and was ready to take it. It’s the one and only time I have found one for sale and the ONLY reason I walk into pawn shops.

    After that would be a Remington 40X in .22 which I also shot on a team. Not hard to find but SURE is expensive.

  4. Mine is the Model 19 with the 3 inch barrel. I carried the 19 for years as a 4″ and 2&1/2″ during some small town police work and a 6″ version was my PPC gun. The 3″ however is the “grail” gun for me and NOT the power port model.

    One day…

  5. The “grail” for me is a gun I no longer own.

    Back in the late 1980’s I had a S&W 686 Ayoob/Cannon “Street L”. To me it’s what a fighting Revolver should be, and much thought was put in to what should go in to this gun by Mas and Andy Cannon.

    In the late 1990’s money was tight and I sold the one gun I said I’d never sell. I’ve not seen another, nor am I likely to ever again I’m sorry to say.

    Mas, I know you have one. Cherish it and take it out and shoot six rounds of .357 Magnum 125 Grain JHP’s through it for me.


  6. S&W Model 29, 2.5″ barrel, round but, I think they were made for Lew Horton Distributors back in the late 80’s or early 90. Saw my first, last and only one in a Military Gun Club in Germany in 89-90. Should have bought it, have wanted one ever since. Practicality has nothing to do with Grail Guns.

  7. My Grail gun exists, but must be built. I have the base gun for it now, a Ruger Bisley .44 mag. All that is left is to send it to John Linebaugh along with a 4 figure check and wait.

    A Linebaugh 5 shot .45 Colt would be the ultimate handgun for me.

    Time will tell if I can pull it off. My second choice would be a S&W 4″model 25 in .45 Colt reworked to duplicate Elmer Keiths 4″ M29’s that he carried.

    Best Regards,

  8. My Grail Gun…. Hummmm. I think I almost have it. My first duty revolver was a 2 1/2″ M66. I loved that revolver. When we went to autos, I missed my chance to buy mine and regret it. However, my Chief had a 3″ M66 and that was it. The lines the heft, the way it pointed, That was the revolver for me. I’ve looked and been amazed at the prices that these demand, when you can find them.

    Fast forward years and I had a SW M1076 I wanted to get rid of since I was downsizing my 10mm battery. I found a 2 1/2″ M66 I could trade for… at nearly the price I had paid for the 10mm. Although I wanted (and still want) the 3″ version, I got the 2 1/2″ M66 and when I heft it, it brings back memories of those first days as an LEO…. All I need now is an old Caprice with a hopped up 350!

  9. Hi Mas-

    Mine is the S&W (pre) model 34 .22/.32 kit gun, 4″ & round butt.

    I’ve got the big brother, a (pre) model 17 K-22 w/6″ tube (same age as me- old), but I quest for the smaller, lighter, shorter one.


  10. Great writing, Mas!

    For me, it’s a S&W 681 4″ round butt. I saw one about twenty years back at a local store but didn’t have the money at the time. I’ve never seen another one.

  11. Mine is somewhat more common then most of the above listed guns but I just haven’t seen one to date. It is a 4″ S&W Model 19. I own a 4″ Colt Trooper .357 that is ALMOST identical and also a 6″ Taurus Model 66 that is CLOSE to it. Darn it I want I still want that Model 19 though!

  12. There are some things more along what I’d like sometime in the near future, being a really tricked out Glock 30, a 3″ S&W 686, and a nice scoped Marlin Golden 39A with a trigger job. I’m looking to inherit two nice S&W police pistols from my dad, .38 & .357, and my grandfather’s old single shot .22 rifle and Derringer, so I’m looking forward to those, too.
    Of course, my true grail is a never-fired Lee-Enfield SMLE. Okay, ya got me.

  13. My “grail” is actually two grails. Both are S&W revolvers. #1 is a S&W .38/44 Heavy Dutry 5″Barrel, Blued finish. We had one on the family for 40 or so years till it was stolen from my Grandfather’s home by a burglar in the early 80s.
    #2 is a S&W .44 Hand Ejector 1st Model, aka New Century, aka the Triple Lock.

  14. My latest “grail gun” is a Smith & Wesson model 17-3 with a 6 inch tube. My wife thinks that one gun is enough, I actually have 4 guns though. A .44 Redhawk 5.5 tube, 686 6 inch tube, & Glock 17. I told her that they were all for differant uses, like her shoes & purses were for differant days of the week. I had been eyeing this model 17 for a while @ the gun shop. Out of the blue she told me to get it for my X-Mass gift. Oh joy, Oh joy, there really is a Santa, I gave up on him years ago, but he must have whispered in her ear. The blue is like 99% it buffed up nice with some fine steel wool and one of the grips have matching numbers. I almost hate to get it dirty, but I has ta know if it will tear out the center of a target like my 6 inch 686 will @ 15 yards. I bet it will. And Ladies the best way to a guys heart is 1. thru his stomach and 2. throwing him a steel bone. Thanks for the gift Babs.

  15. I bought one of those used in late ’62 or early ’63; as I recall, I paid $75 for it. I carried it working as a security guard while in school.
    A few years later,with a wife and kids to support,I sold it to my brother-in-law.I hated to part with it but had no choice.
    Later, I started rebuilding my collection and got a M19 4″, which I’ve now had over 30 years.Great gun, but I know what you mean.
    But wait–there’s more!
    A few years ago, I got a fantastic Christmas present from my ex-wife and her husband (long story).Seems my ex-brother-in-law needed some work done at her shop and she traded for–you got it!
    I now have the M27 back and you can try and talk my son out of it when I’m gone; it’s not for sale any more!

  16. Mr. Ayoob – I have a S&W .357 Model 27 with 3.5 inch barrel. I bought it sometime in the 1970’s in Yakima Washington, at a store now long gone. It’s been fired a few times (a few boxes), is in good shape by my eye.

    I think I’ve seen one on GunsAmerica, not cheap. About like a 4″ Python…

    I sold my 6″ Combat Magnum prior to buying this pistol, to a friend, for some unfathomable reason. At least I get to look at it once in a while. Sorry I sold it. Also sorry I sold that long barrel Abilene .44 Magnum I bought in the early 70’s. Only sold two of my guns, and both sales were a mistake…

    Good L:uck with your search

    Fred Adams
    Kennewick, Wa

  17. Hey Ayoob,

    I may have your “grail gun” here waiting for you… it was a mail order from Stoeger, ordered in Nickle finish, 3.5inch heavy with adjustable rear sight and everything is pinned, only screws are in the grip, sight rail and mechanica cover. Serial starts with an S. I was considering donating it to NRA for auction or museum if they were intrested but i found your article here… have original invoice order specs but the case was trashed years ago.. guess the ball is in your court.. if it sounds like its what your after and im pretty sure it is.. you now have my email, feel free to contact me.

    Adios from Arizona

  18. I didn’t know you and I had this much in common in the few times we’ve communicated. Like wise when I became a police officer a huge, N-frame .357 mag. revolver was not acceptable on L.A. agencies I worked for…I’ve owned a plethera of M-27s in my gun owning life and NOTHING will take it’s place, nothing! I recently obtained a M-27; 3 1/2″ barrel and cylinder but NO frame! Thusly I am desperatly scearhing for a M-27 frame, or heck ANY magunm N-frame to “build” me another stubby! Got any ideas???

  19. My dad passed away when I was 22.(1998). We had a family farm that was sold 2 years before he passed that we’d go to and shoot, mostly .22lrs , shotguns & rifles, but on occasion dad would break out his .357 mag, after he passed , I inherited it, ( the rest were sold before he died ) . He told me Gen George S.Patton carried one like it. So it say in my safe til about 2007, I took it out , cleaned it, did research (was going to sell it but couldn’t ) it’s a S&W 27-2 3.5 blued .357 mag. It’s my favorite handgun although it’s not my holy grail. Mine are matching colt nickel plated revolvers ( like the ones the Lone Ranger carried) . Can’t wait to someday get them!

  20. I can relate some. Seeing a current reissue of the Model 27, and being a little disappointed in it, I recalled my days of youth, with an older gun book from the library and reading about the 357 Magnum, in this book cited as the most powerful handgun made. The picture of a 4″ tapered barrel N frame was most certainly imprinted in my psyche. Having been firmly settled in the idea of owning everything I’ve wanted, I soon stumbled upon a Nickel 3.5″ 1950’s pre-27. While I know that mechanically it is technically no better than my current 22-4, but man is it a thing of beauty and proportions like no other firearm I’ve laid my eyes on.

  21. I happened to be leafing through a gun sales site, Its not cheap and I have no clue about the seller but perhaps you know more than I, If you have not found one yet. Every one deserves to get their grail, mine happened to be a 60s Bulova Snorkel with orange face, applied markers, “penis hands”, the best coin edged dive bezel extant, and an aftermarket true ricebead bracelet just like the one I lost in 75 at a Koa campground. I am wearing it as I type, a friend found and bought it knowing I would repay him.

  22. Mas,

    I’m a little late but I finally located one of two grail guns.
    I managed to acquire a first production run model 58. It’s well worn with scars from being carried in a duty holster but to me is the prettiest one in the safe.
    I’ll be packing it at every opportunity I get.


  23. I have a 3 1/2″ S & W .357 nickel plated that I’m considering selling. The serial number is in the n series. Contact me if u are still looking for your Grail gun. Thank you

  24. My Holy Grail is the same, that’s what lead me here. The 3.5″ Model 27. I have an x- S.F.P.D. Highway Patrolman in 4″, but that 3.5″ barrel makes the gun look so cool.