Not long after its birth in 1935, the original Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum was fitted with a barrel shortened to 3 ½” – the minimum possible length considering the dimensions of the ejector rod lug on the big .44 frame gun. A sloping Baughman blade was also affixed to a heavy ramp on the tip of the barrel rib. The result was a particularly vicious-looking piece of machinery that captured the imagination of pistol packers over the entire globe.
Law enforcement men especially liked the powerful snubbie, and it was seen in the Myres holsters of every Border Patrolman who could afford one. Although a bit bulky for good concealment in plainclothes, this short cannon found favor with many detectives and federal agents who fastened it to sagging pants belts. The FBI Special Agent of that era who didn’t sport a 3 ½ inch .357 Smith simply wasn’t living up to his image.
Many of our constabularies didn’t go for the .357 because of its bulk and weight. In 1956 Smith & Wesson introduced its Model 19 Combat Magnum, a smaller version of the bigger Model 27, that retained the older gun’s refinements of fit, finish, and extras. This gun utilized the ancient Military & Police .38 frame, as did the K-38 Combat Masterpiece in .38 Special which preceded it by seven years and had gained popularity with police who liked its adjustable rear and ramp front sights.
The Combat Magnum, unlike the K-38, had the heavy S&W ejector rod housing integral with its barrel. The barrel itself was of larger diameter than the K-38 as then produced, and its rib much wider, giving the short, four-inch tube the muzzle heavy feel of a long-barreled target gun. The cylinder was longer, leaving much less unsupported barrel exposed inside the frame – a good safety feature with high pressure loads.
Many shooters, including me, were doubtful about the little sixgun’s ability to stand up under continued use of magnum loads. Aficionados of the old .44 frame Magnum had especially liked it for double action work. Its extra heavy cylinder threw a lot of inertia into play when it got going, and spouted double action strings that sounded like burp gun fire. The new K-frame, small diameter cylinder moved with a different feel.
Suspicions about the strength of the Combat Magnum were gradually and completely dispelled. Over the years it has proved to be amply strong for all factory loads and anything a sane handloader would chamber in it. As to speed of double action fire, it is to be noted that the famed Ed McGivern set most of his still-unbeaten speed records with target model S&W Military & Police guns – mechanically almost identical to the Model 19.
Its handiness has made the Combat Magnum an increasingly popular gun, with handgun hunters petitioning for, and getting, a 6” version in 1964. not many knew about it, but Smith & Wesson produced a few round butt models of the Combat on a special order basis. The few I saw were fitted with 3” barrels, the shortest practicable length with the standard ejector rod lug. The factory didn’t advertise these guns, having their hands more than full trying to complete orders for regular production models.
Seeing the demand, Smith & Wesson now has announced a version of the Model 19 that may well prove to be the most popular law enforcement revolver yet designed. Tooling up for a new barrel, their production people have managed to shorten the gun by a half inch under previous minimum standard length. The new tube is a masterful bit of machine work, 1 ½” inches long, with a shortened ejector rod housing that permits this length. Where previous Magnums have separate ramps and front blades that are inletted and pinned into the barrel rib, this barrel is one unit – blade, ramp, barrel, and lug are all beautifully fashioned from a single hunk of steel.
At first glance, the skimpy round butt, featuring the same stocks found on the M&P .38 Special snubnose, does not seem too good an idea. Granted, they would be much easier to conceal for plainclothes use, but how would they handle the brisk recoil of the 40,000 psi .357 factory load?
SHOOTING TIMES’ telephoned request to Dick Marble, ramrod of American Arms Company, 172 Main Street, Wareham, Massachusetts, got quick action. Dick had the new Combats in stock, even before they had been advertised in the gun journals, and he sent us a test revolver.
Despite its small size, the cut-down Magnum looked like distilled dynamite with a three second fuse. It handled exceptionally well, despite the short barrel. Unlike snubbed .38’s, this sawed-off is sufficiently muzzle heavy that when the grip is relaxed and the gun allowed to pivot on the trigger finger, the barrel end will drop, rather than the butt. This makes for a fast handling, good pointing handgun.
The walnut stocks bear the usual S&W checkering, and the front and backstrap are grooved for a sure grip. Sighting equipment is the same as found on the 4” Combat Magnum – Baughman ⅛” ramp front and the S&W Micrometer rear, adjustable for both windage and elevation.
For many years I have rounded the corners of the rear sight leaf of Smith revolvers with a file, touching up the raw edges with cold blue. This helps save coat linings from being worn by the sharp edge of the sight, besides giving a sight picture that I have come to prefer. Knowing their new belly gun would generally be carried concealed, the factory has rounded the corners of the leaf on the new M19, but not enough, I think, to serve the desired purpose. As long as they have to cut this radius anyway, they should remove more metal and round the pointed corners sufficiently to leave a minimum of wearing surface, and to give a sight picture almost identical you get with their fixed sight guns.
Trigger pull and function of this test revolver were even better than I have come to expect from the finely finished Combats. Single action pull was an extremely crisp 2 ¾ pounds, and the double action seemed a bit lighter than ordinary. This may or may not have been peculiar to this particular test gun. At any rate, the test revolver needed no alterations whatever to its lockwork to make it perform perfectly in either double or single action shooting.
Shooting from a two handed rest at 25 yards, I sighted in the 2 ½” Combat and compared it for accuracy with my older, 4” model. I was not able to shoot better with either revolver, groups running nearly identical through tests of Federal .38 Special 148 grain wadcutters and Remington .357 Magnum jacketed loads. A hundred rounds of my favorite combat load were made up in Remington .38 Special cases, loaded with the Lyman 358156 gascheck hollowpoint bullet over 13.5 grains of 2400, capped with CCI Magnum small pistol primers. Although the slow burning 2400 can be expected to perform better in longer barrels, results were excellent in the short one, and no perceptible difference in the expansion of the hollowpoint bullet was detected. Jackrabbits taken amidships at less than 50 yards were blown apart as efficiently by the 2 ½” as they had ever been by a 1 ½” longer sixgun.
Fears of excessive recoil and inability to control the little gun with heavy loads proved unfounded. The comfortably rounded butt simply backed solidly into my palm, where the groves of its backstrap prevented any side play. My grip stayed uniform during firing of the hottest ammunition, and I, for one, do not want to clutter up the new Combat with any thick, bulky, target-type grips that completely ruin its hideability.
Even a grip adapter to fill in the space between front strap and trigger guard would be gilding the lily. Thick, cumbersome grips, while they absorb recoil to a greater degree, and can be and aid to accurate shooting, are sometimes a liability in a fight. The officer’s gun is much more readily wrested from his grasp if the stock is so big that it prevents his completely encircling the wood with his fingers. To me the round butt K-frame grip is almost perfect. The only thing that could improve it would be making it even thinner.
And this short equalizer can’t be dismissed as just another hideout gun. Uniformed officers are going to be pleased with its combination of compactness and power. Anyone who has ever worn a Sam Brown belt can testify that a long barreled revolver is a burdensome thing while sitting eight hours in a prowl car. The thing pokes against the car seat, pushing the holster up against the belt and making the gendarme miserably aware he is wrapped in heavy equipment. With this snug magnum, even the longest-waisted harness bull will sit with his gun muzzle clear, and still be packing enough power to shoot through car doors and similar barricades.
To make the ideal undercover arm, the new Model 19 should be offered optionally with its hammer spur removed. This alteration would make it handle much more cleanly under a coat or shirt, or from a pocket. Sixgunners not acquainted with spurless hammers think that a gun so fitted cannot be easily cocked for single action work, but this is not so. Simply starting the hammer back with a short pull on the trigger brings it under the ball of the thumb, from where it can be cocked in the normal manner.
In a conversation with Fred Miller, the S&W sales manager, I suggested the hammer spur alteration and further rounding of the rear sight leaf. Finding it hard to be critical about any other feature of the new Smith, I asked about the possibility of its being brought in stainless steel, as is the tough little Chief’s Special .38. While Fred stated that nothing of the sort is projected at this time, he didn’t rule out the possibility, either.
Stainless steel is a bear to work. It eats cutting tools for breakfast and tries machinists’ patience to the limit. Smith & Wesson has licked it, putting the first all-stainless revolver on the market, with demand far outrunning the supply. When they get around to putting out another stainless model, the choice will have to be the Combat Magnum.
In the meantime, they have given the lawman and defense shooter the most versatile single gun he could own. And the day of the two gun man isn’t as remote as some might believe. I would hate to face a pistolero armed with a holstered, long barreled .357 Magnum that was backed by a concealed 2 ½” Combat Magnum.
Smith & Wesson started this Magnum business more than 30 years ago with a long heavy sixshooter that fitted a special purpose. To meet the public’s wishes, they shortened it. Then they made it smaller. The buyer was still not satisfied, so they shortened it again. Sorta makes you believe in evolution, doesn’t it?
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