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July 31, 2023

Registered Magnum: The Original .357 Revolver

By Joe Engesser

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Whether it’s the Winchester Model 1866 or the Colt Paterson, there’s an undeniable pride in owning a gun model that launched a legacy. Enter the Registered Magnum, the first and finest of the .357 Magnum revolvers and one of the holy grails of gun collecting.

This well-document Smith & Wesson .357 Registered Magnum revolver, registration no. 4467, from FBI Agent and later CIA operative Birch O'Neal, includes its original box, registration certificate, and factory letter.

To say the Registered Magnum changed the face of handgunning, law enforcement, and hunting is putting it mildly. Rock Island Auction Company's August 25-27 Premier Auction offers some of the rarest and most coveted examples of this iconic Smith & Wesson revolver, most hailing from the prestigious Dave Ballantyne Collection. Click on the images throughout this article to learn more about each gun.

A Smith & Wesson .357 Registered Magnum revolver with a scarce 7 inch barrel, a Call gold bead front sight, and square notch rear sight. Each Registered Magnum offered a multitude of custom options.

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Developing the .357 Magnum Cartridge

By the early 1930s, law enforcement officers were increasingly outgunned by heavily armed criminals. Douglas B. Wesson, the grandson of Smith & Wesson co-founder Daniel Wesson, worked hand-in-hand with ballistic experts Phil Sharpe and legendary outdoors author and wildcatter Elmer Keith to develop a new cartridge more potent than the .38/44 S&W Special.

Using a heat treated, hand-built .38/44 Outdoorsman revolver as a test platform, the .357 Magnum emerged, a cartridge that was widely advertised and reported as reaching a muzzle velocity in excess of 1,500 fps when fired from an 8 3/4 inch barrel, a 37% improvement over its .38 Super competitor.

An excellent pre-war Smith & Wesson .38/44 Outdoorsman with its box. Manufactured from 1931 to 1941, the .38/44 revolvers were built on the hefty N-frame and were capable of firing both conventional .38 Special rounds as well as higher pressure loads like the .38/44 S&W Special.

The new heavy-duty .357 Magnum cartridge was based on an elongated .38 Special case to prevent it from being chambered in other .38 caliber guns that couldn't handle the higher pressures. Smith & Wesson built a new revolver on a beefed-up .38/44 Outdoorsman and its large N-frame design, a blueprint for what would soon become the Registered Magnum.

Smith & Wesson's Registered Magnum revolver forged the legacy of the .357 Magnum cartridge.

Offered below is a historic pre-production S&W .357 Magnum used in U.S. government testing and evaluation by the military and FBI, one of two prototypes assembled in March of 1935. The revolver was owned by legendary FBI firearms expert Special Agent Thomas Franklin Baughman who served as an administrator and adviser to J. Edgar Hoover and was heavily involved in the testing and evaluation of weapons considered for the FBI's arsenal.

A historic pre-production S&W .357 Magnum for sale this August. This revolver was instrumental in the development of the .357 Magnum for use with the FBI and its popularization with other law enforcement agencies.

In the factory letter, Smith & Wesson historian Roy Jinks states, “This revolver is a very important handgun in the history of the .357 series. It was one of the very first .357 series. It was one of the very first .357 Magnums produced for testing and evaluation. Because this handgun was to be used for evaluations it was not assigned any registration number.”

Birth of the Registered Magnum

Some of the earliest pre-production Registered Magnum revolvers are known as club guns. These extreme rarities, marked with a “zero” prefix number, were assembled between 1934 and 1935 to be evaluated by the period’s leading shooters and hunters. The accompanying factory letter for the revolver below lists the gun as shipped on September 20, 1935, and delivered to M.H. Bingham, a lifelong employee at the Smith & Wesson factory who also shot on the S&W pistol team.

A stunning, one-of-a-kind pre-production .357 Registered Magnum revolver. Produced in 1935, the gun was later engraved, re-barreled, and restocked for Mr. Bingham's long-term protégé Charles McGowan.

The Registered Magnum enjoyed an incredible marketing campaign upon its release. The Hartford Courant newspaper touted Smith & Wesson’s state-of-the-art custom handgun in their March 31, 1935 issue and reported, “Orders will take three or four weeks to fill.”

Douglas Wesson selected three of his finest craftsman to assemble the new .357 Magnum revolvers. Each gun received extensive hand assembly and fitting, resulting in some of the smoothest actions to ever leave the Smith & Wesson factory. The Registered Magnum offered customers a bespoke premium revolver with a remarkable level of customization. Choices included barrel length, grips style, grip adapters, blue or nickel finish, and numerous front and rear sight options.

An extremely early production Registered Magnum, registration no. 19.

The first Registered Magnum revolver was gifted to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover on April 8, 1935. Registration no. 2 went to Phil Sharpe shortly thereafter. General George S. Patton's registration no. 506 was shipped to Hawaii in October and would be carried by “Old Blood and Guts” along with his ivory-handled Colt SAA throughout WW2, where Patton nicknamed the .357 Magnum his “killing gun.”

Phil Sharpe's Smith & Wesson .357 Registered Magnum, Registration No. 2, sold at Rock Island Auction Company in September of 2019 for $54,625.

Other notable Registered Magnum customers included shooting legend Ed McGivern, founder of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services “School for Spies and Assassins” Colonel Rex Applegate,  and actors Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, and Gary Cooper.

Registered Magnum Certificates

Though the new revolver was advertised and known to the general public as the “.357 S&W Magnum” some shooters and gun writers dubbed the model “Registered Magnum” due to the individual registration number stamped inside each revolver and the registration card that was sent to customers after an order was placed. This registration number is separate and unrelated to the gun’s serial number.

This law enforcement shipped Registered Magnum includes a factory box with a matching serial number, its registration certificate, and a factory letter. "REG. 4597" is stamped in the yoke cut.

Once received, the registration card could be optionally filled out by the owner and mailed back to Smith & Wesson in order to obtain a registration certificate. Each registration certificate was a guarantee of quality from the manufacturer that was carefully shipped in a mailing tube and intended for framing.

A registration number is stamped inside each Registered Magnum revolver, located on the yoke cut of the frame.

In addition to Douglas Wesson's personal signature, each Registered Magnum certificate also listed the owner’s name and the revolver’s registration number, serial number, barrel length, front and rear sights, the distance the revolver was sighted, the type of hold, and the ammunition. Surprisingly, out of the 5,400 Registered Magnums manufactured from 1935 to 1939, only half saw their registration cards mailed back to Smith & Wesson, making examples that include a registration certificate highly prized by today’s collectors.

Registration no. 19 Smith & Wesson .357 Registered Magnum revolver. Includes its factory letter, registration certificate, and original box.

Registered Magnum Finish

The Registered Magnum revolver was offered in countless possible factory combinations that made each gun a unique work of art. Two types of factory finish were available, blue and nickel. Smith & Wesson’s high-grade polished blued finish was the overwhelming favorite, with nickel available at an additional cost. The example below is one of only 144 Registered Magnum revolvers produced with a nickel finish.

A gorgeous Registered Magnum revolver with a nickel finish.

Registered Magnum Grips

The first grips available for the Registered Magnum were the pre-war service style checkered S&W medallion walnut grips that had been worn by most Smith & Wesson N-frame revolvers since 1907. The Registered Magnum was the first Smith & Wesson to be fitted with Magna stocks, which were soon available as an option in the later half of 1935, advertised as “the new MAGNA grips which make the heaviest loads feel comfortable.”

A documented Ed McGivern revolver, this Smith & Wesson .357 Registered Magnum sports checkered walnut grips. From the Dave Ballantyne collection.

Rare Registered Magnum grip choices included pearl, ivory, stag, and Roper, with fewer than 7 of each option shipped from the factory. The revolver below is furnished in the rarest Registered Magnum factory grips, the only documented example of original tuskoid, an ivory-colored early polymer material.

A one-of-a-kind Registered Magnum, this Mexico City shipped .357 Magnum revolver is the only example of its model to wear factory-shipped tuskoid grips.

Registered Magnum Barrel Length

The Registered Magnum revolver was produced in 23 different barrel lengths ranging from 3 1/2 inches to 8 3/4 inches. All barrels were manufactured in 8 3/4 inch length and later cut to size according to each order. For owners who initially opted for longer barrel lengths, it wasn’t uncommon for a Registered Magnum to be returned to the factory to have their barrel shorted.

Short barrel lengths such as 3 1/2 inches were popular with law enforcement as demonstrated with this example ordered for FBI Agent Birch O'Neal who later joined the CIA and became entangled in the JFK assassination.

According to factory records and the research of Smith & Wesson historian Roy Jinks, the most popular Registered Magnum revolver barrel lengths were 6 1/2 inches, 5 inches, 6 inches, 8 3/4 inches, 4 inches, and 3 1/2 inches. Most of these lengths were retained as standard options for future .357 Magnum revolver models.

Ten factory-shipped Registered Magnum barrel lengths are extremely scarce, listed as seeing only 11 or fewer examples shipped. Of these, four barrel length choices only saw a single example shipped and were truly one-of-a-kind, including 5 3/4 inches, 6 1/4 inches, 7 1/4 inches, and 7 3/4 inches.

This fantastic Registered Magnum, registration no. 477, has an extremely scarce 7 inch barrel.

Registered Magnum Sights

In addition to selecting the sighting for yardage on a newly ordered gun and choosing either a center or six o'clock hold, Registered Magnum customers had a multitude of front and rear sights to pick from, including options from Smith & Wesson, Lyman, and King. By the end of the Registered Magnum revolver’s production run, at least 13 different front sights and six different rear sights were offered. The revolver below was shipped with a King No. 80 peep sight, one of only six documented Registered Magnums produced with a factory peep sight.

This Registered Magnum is equipped with a King red bead front sight and an extremely rare King No. 80 peep sight.

The Registered Magnum served as a test platform for new sight styles, including the McGivern front sight and the Baughman Quick Draw sight. FBI firearms expert Agent T. Frank Baughman designed the ramped combat sight with law enforcement in mind. The Baughman sight proved a popular option and remains in use today.

Ed McGivern’s Registered Magnum with the distinctive McGivern front sight.

The Power of the .357 Magnum Revolver

The Registered Magnum packed the strongest punch of any revolver since the 19th century Colt Walker, and Smith & Wesson heavily advertised the .357 Magnum revolver as “The Most Powerful Pistol Made.” J. Edgar Hoover agreed, commenting, “Many a gun will shoot and hit a man but before he is killed and stopped in his path, he can return fire. The Magnum ammunition will go through two sheets of steel, two thicknesses of pine wood seven eights of an inch thick. Bullet-proof cars and vests are of no avail against the Magnum ammunition.”

A Smith & Wesson Pre-Registered .357 Magnum zero serial number “Club Gun.”

The March 31, 1935 issue of the Hartford Courant declared the .357 Magnum revolver’s “penetration power exceeds not only all foreign and domestic revolvers and automatic pistols, but submachine guns as well.”

In one of his demonstrations to the FBI, Douglas Wesson fired a .357 Magnum cartridge at the center of this glass panel.

Douglas Wesson went to great lengths to showcase the previously unheard-of strength of the .357 Magnum, demonstrating his apex handgun’s effectiveness against 1 1/8 inch thick bulletproof banker’s glass. But as his company touted, “A moose and an elk each dropped with one shot by the Magnum is better proof of its power than any ballistic table can give.”

Registered Magnums and Handgun Hunting

In his 1937 book, ‘Complete Guide To Handloading,’ Phil Sharpe wrote, “The .357 Magnum cartridge was born in the mind of the author several years ago. On a hunting trip with Col. D.B. Wesson, Vice-President of Smith & Wesson, a pair of heavy framed Outdoorsman revolvers was used with a large assortment of handloads developed and previously tested by the author. In the field they proved entirely practical, but Col. Wesson was not content to attempt the development of a Magnum .38 Special cartridge for ordinary revolvers, and set to work on a new gun planned in the field.”

A Registered Magnum, registration no. 303, with a blue finish, a rare 8 3/4 inch barrel, and one of only six documented Registered Magnum revolvers with a factory peep sight.

Wesson generated publicity for his new gun and cartridge on numerous hunting trips. Using both a 6 1/2 and an 8 3/4 inch barrel, Wesson took everything from woodchucks to grizzly bears. In their November 2, 1935 issue, the El Paso Herald Post reported that Wesson had recently killed “an antelope, an elk, and a moose with the long-barreled model. The antelope was killed by a shot from 230 paces.”

(Left) Douglas Wesson poses with a moose he took with his .357 Magnum revolver in 1935. (Right) The record-sized walrus taken by Wesson's friend Father Bernard Hubbard and his Registered Magnum.

Wesson’s friends also helped establish the .357 Magnum as a big game hunting gun. In 1937, Father Bernard, a famed geologist, Alaskan explorer, and media darling dubbed the “Glacier Priest” used a Registered Magnum to kill the largest walrus bagged up to that point in time.

This Mexico City shipped Smith & Wesson .357 Registered Magnum demonstrates the international appeal of the model.

Law Enforcement and the Registered Magnum

Law enforcement agencies had been calling for a cartridge capable of penetrating automotive sheet metal and the makeshift padded body armor of the period. The short-barreled .357 Magnum revolver proved an ideal fit and quickly gained popularity around the country. Some officers privately purchased a Registered Magnum, while the gun was bulk ordered and officially issued to departments like the Butte P.D., the New Hampshire State Troopers, and the Kansas City P.D.

FBI Agent and CIA operative Birch O’Neal’s Smith & Wesson .357 Registered Magnum revolver with extensive documentation.

The FBI appreciated the Registered Magnum as well. Special Agent Thomas Franklin Baughman served as lead contact for all FBI and individual agent orders. Baughman began his 30-year career with the FBI in 1919 and was later assigned to the General Intelligence Division where he worked closely with J. Edgar Hoover.

Following the infamous Kansas City massacre in 1930, a shootout at Kansas City’s Union Station involving that notorious Pretty Boy Floyd that left four law enforcement officers dead, Baughman was appointed as a firearms instructor and played a pivotal role in organizing a more standardized firearms training or the Bureau. In this role, Baughman championed the stopping power of the Registered Magnum.

A historic U.S. Military and FBI test and evaluation Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum owned by FBI Special Agent T. Frank Baughman.

Another Registered Magnum with a storied law enforcement history, the revolver below was owned by Sheriff Rex Sweat of Duval County, Florida. During his 24-year tenure as sheriff, Sweat is credited for successfully fighting organized crime. When he passed away in 1986, the then-current Duval County sheriff expressed his gratitude for Sweat's service record, remarking, “He served Duval County very well during the turbulent years of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. His most important contribution is that he never let organized crime get a foothold in Duval County as it did during those years in much of the state.”

A staunch supporter of the death penalty, Sheriff Rex Sweat administered the execution of nine criminals sentenced to die. On his role as executioner, Sweat said, “The law clearly made it my duty. It was an unpleasant task, but there was no trace of doubt in my mind that these nine men were guilty.”

A Florida Sheriff shipped Smith & Wesson .357 Registered Magnum revolver with a desirable 4 1/2 inch barrel.

Registered Magnum Cost

Introducing a premium revolver during the Great Depression was a risky strategy by Smith & Wesson, but the Registered Magnum was well received by its target audience. The Registered Magnum cost $60.00 when it debuted in 1935, or about $1,281.68 in 2022 dollars. This $60.00 price tag was $15.00 more than the Registered Magnum’s .38/44 Outdoorsman sibling and comparable to the price of the Winchester Model 21 shotgun, a high-end firearm of the age.

As confirmed in the accompanying factory letter, this Registered Magnum revolver was shipped on March 28, 1939, and delivered to Pondera County Sheriff's Office, Conrad, Montana.

In their November 16, 1936 issue, the New Jersey Courier News reported that the Registered Magnum “cost approximately twice as much as a policeman's service revolver.”

Smith & Wesson offered significant discounts for law enforcement and military personnel to offset some of the cost. The initial 20 percent discount brought the Registered Magnum price down to $48.00, with some bulk orders for police departments reducing the cost to as low as $43.40. Today, the prices of these incredible revolvers have been on the rise due to the model’s history, quality, and diversity of configurations.

End of the Registered Magnum

Registered Magnum orders poured in faster than Smith & Wesson could produce the hand-crafted revolver and backlogs began mounting. In September of 1939, Smith & Wesson ceased the practice of building each .357 Magnum to order and discontinued the costly process of stamping a registration number inside the yoke and registering each revolver. Known to collectors as “Pre-War Non-Registered Magnums,” only about 1,400 of these revolvers were produced over the next 15 months.

Manufactured in 1946 as one of 2,300 total produced, this Smith & Wesson Outdoorsman transitional revolver uses a leftover pre-war Registered Magnum barrel.

Production finally ceased in early 1941, when Smith & Wesson's manufacturing prowess was instead directed to arming America for WW2. Six years later, remaining parts from the “Pre-War” Magnums were utilized for production and resulted in a small batch of “Transitional Post-War” revolvers. Only 142 Post-War Magnums were produced from late 1946 through 1949, with one revolver going to President Harry Truman.

A production table for the .357 Magnum revolvers produced from 1935 to 1942. From the S&WCA Journal Volume 4, Number 2 articile 'Registered .357 Magnums' by Roy Jinks.

The .357 Magnum revolver was shifted back to regular production in 1949 and became a standard catalog item with standard features. A more limited range of sights and barrel lengths were offered based on the most popular Registered Magnum selections, with custom barrel lengths available for an additional fee.

In 1957 the .357 Magnum revolver became a number instead of a name, and the Model 27 officially arrived. Though still a quality revolver, the Model 27 never enjoyed the top-level customization of its predecessor, and the Model 28 variation was introduced as a lower-cost model. Still, the spirit of the .357 Magnum endured, and these less costly models proved popular with law enforcement and the general public.

A factory engraved Smith & Wesson Model 27-2 revolver with case.

Registered Magnum for Sale

The Registered Magnum revolver launched the “Magnum Era,” a period where larger caliber revolvers dominated the firearms market for decades. Thanks to their precision engineering, hand workmanship, and pioneering place in the annals of handgun history, these custom made-to-order Registered Magnums enjoy a prominent position on the bucket list of nearly every firearms fan, and some of the finest Registered Magnums for sale can be found in Rock Island Auction Company's August 25-27 Premier Auction.

A police shipped Registered Magnum with a 4 inch barrel, a Cockeye hammer, and scarce nickel finish.

The market for the .357 Magnum revolver thrives today. From Colt’s recent re-issuing of the Python to a range of options from Ruger, Kimber, Freedom Arms, Dan Wesson, and Taurus, there’s a .357 Magnum revolver out there to suit just about anyone’s fancy. But when it comes down to it, nothing beats the Smith & Wesson Registered Magnum. As with classic cars, nostalgia has only enhanced the elite status of the first .357 Magnum revolver and the investment potential enjoyed by these treasures in arms collecting.

This .357 Magnum Colt Python revolver is a one of 250 "Silver Snake" edition from Colt's Custom Shop..

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AvatarGregory MyersAugust 06, 2023

A wonderful collection of early smiths

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