3 Smith & Wesson Revolvers with Famous Owners
By Joel Kolander
We all know the frequent lament of many a gun owner: “If only this gun could talk!” Often voiced when pining to know more of a firearm’s life in combat, where it has traveled, the things it has overheard, and perhaps most importantly, who owned it.
Thankfully, there are men like Chad Gripp around today. “Who’s Chad Gripp?” you ask. Chad Gripp is a dedicated firearms enthusiast whose collection of Smith & Wesson revolvers, featured in Rock Island Auction’s upcoming September Auction, is enough to drop the jaw of anyone remotely familiar with firearms. I mean, they look positively amazing. These revolvers have clearly been cared for by trustworthy hands for decades, and with such high condition one might be tempted to think that the only story these handguns could tell would be entitled, “My Life as a Safe Queen.” You’d be wrong. In this week’s article, we take a look at three of the gorgeous wheelguns of the Gripp Collection that not only define high condition, they have one heck of a story to tell.
Before we delve into who exactly owned these guns, we need to touch briefly on the history of Smith & Wesson Registered Magnum revolvers since The Gripp Collection contains a larger number of them than is typically seen at one time. Learning about the already high desirability of a Registered Magnum, allows one to understand how truly rare and exceptional Gripp’s examples truly are.
The .357 Registered Magnum revolver, the first production gun to fire the .357 Magnum cartridge, was first made in in 1935 and came at a premium price of $60, something not common in the shadow of the Great Depression. They were sleek, well-polished revolvers with an emphasis on quality. They also came with a registration card that the buyer could mail back to Smith & Wesson to obtain a registration certificate. Far from what we think of today as “registration,” this certificate served as a guarantee of quality from S&W and listed you as the original owner of a fine revolver. With this high-end emphasis, it should come as no surprise that Registered Magnums were also highly customizable. In addition to other features, barrels would be made to the owner’s specification down to the 1/8th of an inch, and would be sighted in with an ammo of your choosing up to 200 yards. The first one, SN 45768, REG. 1, was shipped to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover on April 8 of that year, and following sales were good. Too good. The factory couldn’t keep up with the growing demand for the high performing gun firing the fast, lethal new cartridge, but especially the cost of the registration process. So in 1938 Smith & Wesson ceased Registered Magnum production with a total believed to be 5,524 revolvers.
Needless to say, this low number of revolvers combined with their high quality and place in the annals of handgun history put them on the bucket list of many a collector. Even serious S&W collectors would have their hands full trying to collect the entire scope Registered Magnums and their various front sights, rear sights, finishes, barrel lengths, and grips. Now, let’s take a look at some Smith & Wessons, not all of which are Registered Magnums, that are desirable far beyond their factory configurations.
Gary Cooper’s Smith & Wesson Registered Magnum
Only 108 Registered Magnums were shipped with 4 ½ barrels, but that is only a small part of what makes this revolver so special. More notably, it possesses an iron clad provenance to famed Hollywood actor Gary Cooper. For you youngbloods out there, Cooper had a film career that spanned 35 years and 84 films, though he is arguably best known for his work in “Sergeant York” and “High Noon.”
Once carried as Cooper’s personal weapon, this Smith & Wesson .357 magnum was purchased from his estate, along with 25 other guns, by Kerr’s Sporting Goods in Beverly Hills. The provenance also states that the handsome leather holster that accompanies Cooper’s Registered Magnum was made by Arvo Ojala, a famed leathersmith who also worked in Hollywood as an actor, quick draw coach, and general technical advisor for anything firearms related. Tied to both a Hollywood legend and a real life gunslinger, this lot will have collectors rediscovering their respect for the understated actor and love of all things Western.
Major General Julian S. Hatcher’s Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum Revolver
When Registered Magnum production ceased in 1939, the company continued making “non-registered” Magnums until 1942 when their production prowess was needed for the war effort. Resuming production in 1946 are “post war” Magnums, but before those could truly be started, remaining parts from the “pre-war” Magnums were utilized resulting in a small batch of “Transitional Post-War” revolvers, one of which is this exceptional example from the Gripp Collection. Also of note is that leftover Magnum boxes were also used until about 1947-48 when the switch to gold boxes was made.
Transitional post-war Magnums are often identifiable by the “S” prefix of their serial numbers, indicative of the improved hammer block safety, and the Smith & Wesson patented micrometer click rear sight. These examples are extremely scarce – only 142 post-war Magums were made from December 5, 1946 through 1949, and most of those were ordered by police departments and so it is estimated that less than 6 possess long barrel lengths. As you can see, the example from Rock Island Auction Company is already a near-mint, rare gun with nearly unheard of barrel length, but the Gripp Collection ups the ante even further. This particular revolver was presented to none other than Major General Julian Sommerville Hatcher and it is engraved with his name.
For those that have not heard of Hatcher or Hatcher’s Notebook, he is an accomplished military man, as well as a firearms expert and pioneer. He set up the Army’s first machine gun school, invented the “Hatcher Hole” in the M1903 rifle to avoid catastrophic failures, was involved in resolving early issues with the M1 Garand, and generally a force in the U.S. Ordnance Department for almost 30 years. His Hatcher’s Notebook is a trove of behind-the-scenes information regarding military trials, experiments, ballistics, and all things U.S. military arms.
This provenance of this phenomenally scarce gun will have Smith & Wesson collectors bidding against any firearms enthusiast who recognizes Hatcher’s historic contributions.
One of 15 Registered Magnum Revolvers of the U.S. Post Office
Returning back to Registered Magnum revolvers, seen here is one of 15 purchased by the U.S. Army for the Post Office as documented in the National Archives. Of these 15, only 1 other is known and its serial number is two digits higher than the one being offered by Rock Island Auction Company. It should go without saying that this level of rarity goes far above and beyond the level of a standard Registered Magnum .357. Considering that this was a military contracted item, it remains in spectacular condition with an inky black finish, vivid casehardening on the trigger and hammer, and tight-fitting, sharply checkered grips.
Honorable Mention – An Alvin White Masterpiece
While this revolver is not known for any famous provenance, I would be remiss to not at least feature it in any article showcasing this phenomenal collection. It is an absolute masterpiece carved and engraved by Alvin A. White. From the nearly full coverage of rich vinous engraving, to the deeply carved and detailed panel scenes, this gun requires proper time to appreciate all its nuance and excellence. Smith & Wesson historian Roy Jinks states, “This revolver is an outstanding example of Alvin White’s early engraving and may be one of the more profusely engraved handguns completed by him.” Here are some photos worth more than their usual 1,000 words.
These are select highlights of the Gripp Collection, but they are far from the only ones. Seeing them all laid out next to one another would make any collector agree that they are deserving of their own coffee table book. There is so much history, rarity, and beauty that one would easily fill a volume or two.
Smith & Wesson revolvers also possess an interesting place in the firearms market today. After the skyrocketing prices enjoyed by Colt snake guns, especially the Python, the Smith & Wesson double action market noticed a jump, albeit a relatively smaller one. This is most curious considering that a good number of people consider Smith & Wesson revolvers on par with or superior to the Colt double action revolvers. With this relative price increase and level of quality in mind, a savvy collector must ask: Are Smith & Wesson revolvers currently underpriced? If you agree, then now marks the perfect time to wade into the market and invest in some superior, high quality, and collectible double action revolvers from one of America’s most celebrated manufacturers.
Mullin, Timothy John, and R. Blake Stevens. The S & W .357 Magnum Phenomenon. Cobourg, Ontario, Canada: Collector Grade Publications Incorporated, 2012. Print.
Pate, Charles W. U.S. Handguns of World War II: The Secondary Pistols and Revolvers. Lincoln, RI: Mowbray, 1999. Print.