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.