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The Pre 27 Smith & Wesson Magnum: The Gun That Started It All

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The Pre 27 Smith & Wesson, or arguably more appropriately Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum is a cornerstone gun for many revolver collectors. 

In production for less than two decades before Smith & Wesson released the Model 27, it was the gun that launched .357 Magnum as a caliber that’s now a staple ammunition to be found on virtually every ammo shelf of every gun store in the country. 

Before the advent of .40 S&W, not to mention the much older 9mm Parabellum that has only recently caught on for truly widespread police issue in the United States, the .357 Magnum was the standard, replacing the older cartridge from which it evolved, the .38 Special.

The Pre 27 was the pistol that brought the .357 Magnum to the American public. First designed and sold in the 1930s, like other popular calibers, it took some time to catch on. The .38 Special had a solid foothold in American police work, with revolvers from S&W and its primary rival, Colt, both having considerable representation in the market. By the time the .357 Magnum hit the market in 1935, times had, so to speak, changed. 

S&W adjustable sights weren’t the most robust design ever, but were used on custom guns right up into the 1970s. The cylinder is recessed for .357 cartridge heads, a refinement eliminated as a cost-saving measure in 1981.

The .357 was an answer to a perceived lack of power and penetration in an era of rapidly changing technology. The .357 Magnum cartridge was mostly the brainchild of Elmer Keith. If you don’t know who Keith was, shame on you; go read. Keith was one of the most influential people in pistol cartridge design and is responsible for giving the United States “Magnumitis.” No Keith, no Dirty Harry. The Pre 27 designation is simply the nomenclature for the Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum Pistol before the Model 27 brought the .357 Magnum to full mass production. 

The Pre 27, like the one pictured in this article, is a stout piece of police hip ordnance — the N-Frame by any standard is a serious overmatch for the .357 Magnum cartridge. The N-Frame later served as the basis for a now often forgotten but underrated cartridge, the .41 Magnum, and later the .44 Magnum. 

However, in this caliber the N-Frame adds valuable mass to help reduce recoil. If you doubt the value of mass in this particular instance, try firing a full-power .357 Magnum cartridge in a modern, compact, alloy frame pistol, then try firing the same cartridge in any N-Frame .357 Magnum, Pre 27 or not. 

The N-Frame offered a very stable platform for the cartridge and enabled a good shooter to achieve considerable accuracy with the right ammunition, even with the 3.5-inch “FBI Barrel” pictured on this particular gun. 

Like most full-size, production revolvers, the Pre 27 offered six shots in single or double action. The barrel lengths in Pre 27s vary considerably. The 3.5-inch FBI Barrel was probably the most common in law enforcement circles and derived its name supposedly from broad general use of the gun by the Bureau rather early on it its history. However, Pre 27s can be found in barrel lengths up to and exceeding 10 inches. 

Another design element eliminated from Smiths in the ’80s was the pinned barrel. Note protrusion just above forcing cone.

At the time that Pre 27s were produced, Smith & Wesson was particularly responsive to customer demands and feedback, especially if one was willing to pay, and it shouldn’t come as a shock to find the odd Pre 27 with an unusual-sized barrel from the factory. The Pre 27s weren’t only popular with law enforcement, but quickly became popular with target shooters and even hunters. 

At this point, some readers might tacitly acknowledge the importance of the Pre 27 in history but shrug their shoulders and reasonably wonder why the Pre 27 still has a devoted following among collectors. The best way to answer this question is to track one down and compare it to virtually any Smith & Wesson revolver made in the past 40 years. The Pre 27 is a masterpiece of the gun-making art. 

The gun simply drips quality. Every part and facet of the Pre 27 is only found in highly customized revolvers on the modern market. Simply closing one’s eyes and feeling and listening to the beautiful engineering and craftsmanship as the hammer is manually cocked in single action and the pistol is made ready to fire should be enough. 

Time, effort, and quality parts make the Pre 27 distinct from more recent offerings. The triggers are virtually all universally excellent in the Pre 27s, not only in performance, but in feel. 

The checkering on the Pre 27s is of the highest quality, and the finishes were gorgeous. Even the grips were noticeably better than more modern wooden Smith & Wesson grips. The sights are adjustable and set the standard for design during the period. The Pre 27 is one the revolvers that built Smith & Wesson’s reputation, and with good reason. 

Many Pre 27s come with stories. This particular Pre 27 belonged to the sheriff of Logan County, West Virginia, and was carried as a service revolver for two decades and saw use in every sort of condition. 

There are undoubtedly many others out there that could tell amazing stories if, like many of us who collect wish, they could speak. Pre 27s can be found on the market, but the condition and story drive the price upward. 

Almost any Pre 27 is a serious bargain in the $1,200 range, and the prices regularly exceed that by a wide margin. However, they’re sometimes sold well underpriced by the uninformed who simply think them to be just another “boring” .357, and quick eyes might catch a steal at shows and shops where little effort is expended. 

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