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Classic Carry: Ultimate Cop Revolver

The Smith & Wesson PC13

From the mid ’90s until the early 2010s … call it 1994 to 2011-ish … if you walked up on the support-hand side of a uniformed law enforcement officer in the United States and wanted to bet a friend what was in the holster on the side of their duty belt you couldn’t see, you were probably within a coin flip’s accuracy by wagering the duty gun was a .40-caliber Glock 22.

For probably better than a decade and a half, the .40-cal full-size blaster from Austria was practically the definitive cop gun in the duty holsters of America. But even that lengthy run of dominance is only second place when it comes to good-guy gats.

The uncontested heavyweight champion, long-term survivor of the domestic law enforcement sidearm market, is the medium-sized K-frame Smith & Wesson revolver, which fulfilled that role from the time Roosevelt was president (the Rough Rider Roosevelt, not the Secretary of the Navy one) until the second or third season of Miami Vice.

From its origins in the fixed-sight 4-inch blued steel Military & Police model in the closing years of the 19th century onward, the medium-frame Smith wheelgun was gently massaged to fit the requirements of any department or agency that might need an issue blaster for their uniformed officers, plainclothes detectives, or undercover cops.

You need adjustable sights because you issue an unusual duty load and need accuracy at a distance? Sure thing! Smith would fit adjustable sights to the M&P and call it the “Combat Masterpiece” if it had a 2.5- or 4-inch barrel or a “Target Masterpiece” if it had a 6-inch tube.

The one thing these revolvers generally all had in common was that they were chambered for the .38 Special cartridge. For decades, no other cartridge even came close in its acceptance by law enforce-ment.

However, as far back as the early 1950s, legendary Border Patrolman Bill Jordan was pressing Smith & Wesson to chamber the K-frame revolver in the more potent .357 Magnum caliber.

You could see how this would be attractive, especially in the open terrain of the Southwest. Not only did the .357 Magnum pack a lot more muzzle energy than its parent cartridge, but in any bullet weight

the higher velocity would translate into a flatter-shooting cartridge, a trajectory that didn’t require as much guesstimation for holdover when ranges opened up to 50 or 100 yards.

The resulting handgun was released in 1955 as the “Combat Magnum,” and when S&W switched to model numbers in 1957, it became the Model 19.

The Model 19 took your basic medium-frame cop revolver and added better sights — an adjustable rear and a Baughmann quick-draw ramp up front — as well as a heavy barrel and shrouded ejector rod.

Acceptance was slow at first. Full-house 125-grain .357 Magnum loads had ferocious muzzle blast out of the 4-inch barrel and accelerated wear on the revolver. The forcing cone of a K-frame revolver had a flat spot on the bottom, creating a weak spot that cracked after enough 125-grain jacketed projectiles slammed into it. The high-velocity 125-grain .357 Magnum bullets were hitting the forcing cone at roughly 1,000 feet per second, faster than a .38 Special 125-grain bullet left the muzzle of a 4-inch du-ty revolver.

However, using medium-velocity 125-grain bullets or 158-grain loadings ameliorated this problem, as well as using softer-shooting .38 Special loads to practice and saving the Magnum stuff for actual car-ry.

With these lessons learned, the Model 19 was adopted by an ever-larger base of users. Outfits as di-verse as the Dayton, Ohio, Police Department, U.S. Customs, Secret Service, and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service became enthusiastic users of the Combat Magnum at various times over the years.

One of the more interesting configurations was the one issued to U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security Service personnel overseas in the ’80s. What made it interesting was that while it had a 4-inch barrel, typical of uniformed duty revolvers, it also had a round-butt grip frame, normally only available on 2.5-inch Model 19s intended for concealment.

If you wanted to discreetly tote a Combat Magnum inside the waistband and under a sport coat or shoot-me-first vest, the 4-inch round-butt configuration is hard to beat. There’s enough barrel length to help stabilize the blaster, and the rounded-grip frame avoids that unmistakable square-cornered hump in the cover garment — just the thing for providing discreet security for diplomats overseas.

One thing that hindered wider adoption of the Smith 19 was that it had a number of features that increased the base price above what more cash-strapped agencies could afford. Model 19s only came in highly polished blue or nickel finishes — unless you were willing to order them in boxcar lots like the USN and could request a matte blue finish. The ejector rod shroud was integral with the barrel and added expensive machining steps. The adjustable sights cost more and were seen in some circles as fragile and prone to snag on things. Besides, if you were only issuing one duty load, why would you need to adjust the sights?

It was because of this that the Combat Magnum acquired a less-expensive stablemate when Smith introduced the Model 13, aka the .357 Magnum Military & Police, in 1974.

The Model 13 wasn’t as highly polished as the 19, dispensed with the ejector rod shroud (while retaining the heavy barrel), and eschewed the adjustable sights and serrated barrel rib in favor of simple fixed sights.

Available in 3-inch round-butt and 4-inch square-butt configurations, the Model 13 was not only adopted by domestic LE agencies from the Anchorage, Alaska, Police Department to the New York State Police, but it also saw foreign sales to agencies in countries as diverse as Hong Kong, France, Thailand, and Canada.

Probably the most famous user of the Model 13, however, was the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for whom it was the last issued service revolver.

The FBI started issuing the 13 in its 3-inch round-butt configuration in 1981. It offered durability and a potent cartridge in a smallish package that was easy to carry concealed, and wouldn’t tear up the sports coat linings of plainclothes accountants and lawyers with sharp-cornered adjustable sights like a 19 would have.

By the mid ’80s, though, the wheel gun was on its way out for domestic law enforcement use, largely because of a perception that the FBI had been outgunned in the infamous Miami Shootout of ’86 (when a more accurate analysis would’ve laid the blame on a combination of “bringing handguns to a rifle fight” and “pure bad luck”).

However, The Model 13 did have one last blaze of glory left in it.

In the early ’90s, Smith & Wesson introduced their Performance Center, and back then it was much more of a custom gun shop than it is now. With the pistol half of the Performance Center helmed by Paul Liebenberg and the revolver side of the house under the supervision of John French, the shop turned out small numbers of essentially hand-built variations on the standard production models found in the Smith & Wesson catalog.

In 1995, the Performance Center took standard round-butt Model 13 frames and fitted 3-inch heavy barrels, but with a full underlug. The cylinder latch was cut away on the bottom to make sure it would clear speedloaders, which wasn’t the standard practice on S&W revolvers at the time. With the action converted to double-action only, the hammer spur was bobbed and the trigger had a non-adjustable overtravel stop fitted in its backside.

The action was slicked up, the cylinder charge holes were chamfered, and the barrel was treated to quad Mag-na-ports to tame recoil. Finally, the whole thing was finished in a bead-blasted matte blue, fitted with abbreviated Eagle Secret Service grips for maximum concealability without compromising grippiness, and the finished product was etched with the Performance Center logo.

The resulting product, of which 400 were made, was dubbed the PC13 and is referred to in The Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson, the collector’s bible, as “a very serious carry revolver.” It’s certainly one of the most sought-after modern Smith wheelguns by collectors, but its proper place is in a holster, not buried in a collector’s safe …

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One response to “Classic Carry: Ultimate Cop Revolver”

  1. Deaf Smith says:

    Just find a 3 inch S&W 65 ‘LadySmith’ .357, with fixed sights, and be done… yea you can add Eagle Secret Service stocks if you have $200 just for wood but you will find Pachmayr ‘Professional’ Compac Grips do just as well..

    Then use Buffalo Bore 158gr LSWHP ‘Plus P’ .38s.. 1100 fps from a 3 inch barrel!!

    Good as any, better than most.

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  • Just find a 3 inch S&W 65 'LadySmith' .357, with fixed sights, and be done... yea you can add Eagle Secret Service stocks if you have $200 just for wood but you will find Pachmayr 'Professional' Compac Grips do just as well..

    Then use Buffalo Bore 158gr LSWHP 'Plus P' .38s.. 1100 fps from a 3 inch barrel!!

    Good as any, better than most.

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