Competitive Shooting

Colt and Smith & Wesson: A Story of Two Classic Magnums

Colt and S&W Magnum Revolvers

Double-action, or self-cocking, revolvers took a while to catch on in America.

Among the first double-action revolvers were examples still tied to old technology.

Colt manufactured a double-action revolver that used rod ejection and a loading gate coupled with the double-action trigger, and Smith and Wesson introduced break-top, or hinged-frame, revolvers with a double-action trigger.

Once the swing-out cylinder double-action revolver was invented, all previous types were obsolete.

Colt and Smith and Wesson were in a race for the most sales, the most military contracts, and the most prestige.

Colt’s Army revolver was the primogenitor of the highly successful Official Police. These are sometimes called .41 frame revolvers.

These revolvers were most often chambered for the .38 Special, but sometimes the .32-20, .38 S&W or .41 Colt.

Smith and Wesson’s Military and Police revolver is a smaller frame and was chambered in other calibers, but mostly the .38 Special.

These revolvers duked it out in the marketplace and police sales. They were well-made, well-fitted and well-finished revolvers.

A cop or citizen armed with either was a well-armed individual.

While the big revolver makers also competed with large-frame revolvers and hideouts as well, the real competition was in the police market.

The medium-size revolvers were comfortable enough to carry on a long shift.

The .38 Special wasn’t the most desirable man stopper, but it was a reasonable choice for those that may not practice as often as they should.

Colt and S&W Magnums
The 1959 Three-Fifty-Seven (above) and a 1890 black powder frame Colt Single Action Army (below) still in business!

Introduction of the .357 Mag

When the .357 Magnum was introduced, Smith and Wesson had a tremendous advantage in prestige. Colt had to catch up.

The original Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum was a large-frame revolver. The N-Frame was designed to take .44 and .45-caliber cartridges.

Colt followed suit and chambered the New Service, a huge double-action revolver, and the Colt Single Action Army for the .357 Magnum round.

But in terms of geometry, the .357 Magnum could easily be chambered in a medium-frame double-action revolver.

After all, the cartridge case is only 1/10th of an inch longer than the .38 Special.

Lengthening the cylinder and opening the frame a bit was all that was needed. The real question was metallurgy.

Would the K-Frame Smith and Wesson and .41-frame Colt hold up to the tremendous pressure of the magnum load?

As it turned out, they could — but not forever!

.357 Magnum Cartridge on target with revolver
Magnums present power and accuracy. 178-grain SWC at 1050 fps all in the same hole with Titegroup powder!

Medium-Frame Magnums

It is sometimes overlooked that Colt also introduced a medium-frame magnum revolver about the time Smith and Wesson introduced the highly popular Combat Magnum.

Colt was actually ahead, but Smith and Wesson got better publicity and won out on the price point. Colt’s revolver was the Three-Fifty-Seven.

The Three-Fifty-Seven is a .357 Magnum version of the popular target-sighted .38 Special Colt.

Likewise, Smith and Wesson’s .357 Magnum was a magnum version of the .38 Combat Masterpiece. Each is well-made and well-balanced.

(Colt also produced a cheaper version of their revolver called the Trooper. Smith and Wesson offered a heavy-frame revolver with dull finish called the Highway Patrolman.)

The consensus is that the Colt is the smoother gun and perhaps more accurate, although it takes a fine shot to prove this out.

The heavier-frame Colt would seem to take a beating better, but this wasn’t the case. The frames did not wear and tear as much as small parts.

The design of the Colt keeps the cylinder locked up tight on firing, but also transfers recoil into the action.

This mattered little with thousands of .38 Special loads. The .357 Magnum is another matter.

The Colt went out of time more often when used hard in competition. The Smith and Wesson lockup seems more durable.

Smith and Wesson’s Combat Magnum won the battle in sales and went on to become the single most popular .357 Magnum service gun of all time.

The Three-Fifty-Seven went out of production in 1963.

While it is rarer than the Colt Python, the Three-Fifty-Seven brings half the price of a comparable Python or less.

The Combat Magnum is still in production in an updated version.

.357 Magnums in holsters
Magnums demand good leather for comfortable carry.

Wear and Tear

It is interesting that when Smith and Wesson answered problems with magnum longevity and battering, their L-Frame revolver was pretty near the frame size of the Colt Python.

The Python may be called the highest derivative of the original Three-Fifty-Seven, with its strengthened frame and deluxe features.

Today, the Python and Custom Shop 686 still slug it out in sales.

An advantage of the larger frame is that the L-Frame is able to contain a seven-round .357 Magnum cylinder.

I own both Colt and Smith and Wesson revolvers and would hate to be without any of them.

As an example, the six-inch barrel 686 is among my favorite all-around house guns and long-range revolvers.

It is easy to use well, recoils but little, and offers superb balance. The four-inch barrel Python is one of my favorite revolvers for packing in the woods.

But I also own the original Three-Fifty-Seven and a stainless steel Combat Magnum.

My personal Three-Fifty-Seven was minted in 1959, the Combat Magnum about 20 years later.

While I own more modern guns, the older pair are carried more often.

At one time, the best advice given to a rookie that could not afford an off-duty gun was to carry his four-inch barrel revolver.

I often carry the Combat Magnum concealed in an inside-the-waistband holster.

The Colt is just enough larger that it gets the nod as a field gun rather than concealed carry.

Either has that certain element called class and the more easily definable pride of ownership.

If I could own only one — and looking over the past 50 years as a guide to longevity in use — it would be the Combat Magnum.

S&W 686+ Revolver
The modern heavy-underlug barrel 686 is a fine shooter and one of the best magnums.

Conclusion: .357 Magnums

Today, we may obtain the finest revolvers ever made.

A Colt Python or a 686 Plus will shade the older guns in accuracy, are stainless steel rugged, and CNC machinery makes for excellent fit.

That is all we may ask of our magnums.

Do you prefer Colt or S&W magnum revolvers? Let us know in the comments section below!

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (9)

  1. I carried a Dan Wesson 4-inch Model 15 .357 made in 1983 while working as a plain clothes health officer doing felony child neglect (Sure! Try and take someone’s kid away and see what it takes to stop a mad Momma Bear.) and working alone in not-so-kind alleys and other undesirable spots. My training officer called it a ^&*^%$^ cannon, but I qualified Police Marksman, and it had the desirable quality of scaring the fight out of people without clearing leather. With rural property in bear country, I will continue to carry it to fend unfriendly critters. The two sons are “debating” who gets it when I go “out of service” permanently.

  2. I have found the original double action of my Ruger GP100, 3” smoother than that of the several S&W revolvers I have fired. I even like it better than the Dan Wesson I had stolen.

  3. I have a 686 Plus 5.5″, I would not trade it for a Python, although I sure would like to have a Python to go with the S&W. Now is a hard time to find a Colt, i am not willing to pay above MSRP for one. Thank you for the information on Colt and Smith and Wesson revolvers in 357.

  4. I’ve only shot a revolver once and that was at an indoor range using the 6 inch S&W 686 with .357 loads. To this day it was the most pleasant gun that I’ve ever shot and I hardly felt any recoil. The only reason my first gun was a semi auto chambered in .40 is because of capacity. I stuck to the advice of shooting the biggest caliber that you can handle. I didn’t initially choose .40 for that reason but I only chose it because I was on my way to the range with my cousin and I needed to buy a gun before getting there. There were no 9mm guns in the particular model I wanted to buy, and I didn’t have any experience with either caliber. I don’t regret it but would like to some day purchase a 686 or Python, whichever is more suitable for me.

  5. Dan & Wesson 357 Magnum has many options of barrel sizes that are changeable on my older model. Very nice option when you need to adapt from carry all the way to hunting. Fantastic groups.

  6. Over the years I have owned more Smith& Wesson revolvers than Colt I owned a Colt Detective special that would shoot 1 inch groups at 25 yards all day long out of an 1 ½ inch barrel. I preferred the trigger on my model 10 sw. when I first started my law enforcement career in 1989 most agencies issued SW model 10’s or 64’s. I love the feel of the python but view my revolvers as a tool and can’t bring myself to spend that much on a tool. I currently have a 5 inch DanWesson pre cz and no colts or S&W revolvers I think I need to find some.

  7. Many moons ago I bought a 6″ Colt Python and a 4″ S&W Model 19. I had a gunsmith tune the actions. This worked well for the Smith. The Colt, on the other hand, would not stay in timing. This was when I discovered the Colt mechanism was too delicate, which was a shortcoming of all their early Magnum designs. I ended up selling the Python and keeping the Model 19. In 38 Special, including +P, the S&W remains a delight to shoot. On the downside I have steadfastly limited the use of Magnum rounds in it to avoid frame/barrel damage and shooter fatigue. I’ve read that the latest version of the S&W Model 19 is much stronger than earlier designs and can handle a steady diet of Magnum rounds, including the dreaded 125 grain load. I don’t doubt this, but the lack of weight would still make it unpleasant to shoot. None of these problems exists with my S&W Model 27 and Model 28, but they are huge guns with mediocre factory actions. Tuning them would not drop their weights, so a few years back I picked up something equally rugged, yet slightly less filling, a secondhand 6″ S&W 586. I don’t know if the previous owner had the action worked on, but it is as smooth as silk. I even like the finger-groove wood grips he added (something I normally disdain). For Magnum shooting it offers the best balance between size and weight and is a delight to shoot. More recently I picked up a 4″ Colt Trooper MKIII and 6″ MKV with their much stronger lock-works. Like the Python and Colt 357, they are very comparable to the L-frame Smiths. It would be tough choosing between them and the 586. I give the edge to my S&W only because of its particularity silky trigger pull. On the other hand, now that Colt has debugged their new Python, I am curious to see how it compares with my 586. I’ve hesitated ordering one because I am not a fan of stainless steel finishes. I prefer the old royal blue look and keep hoping Colt will take the hint. While I’m dreaming, I’d like to know if it is possible to make the Colt a seven-shooter.

  8. the RUGER GP100 4″ or if you can find it:Ruger Redhawk 357-you’ll never wear that out!
    My 1st 357 was a S&W 28 Highway Patrolman 6.5″-but I switched to Rugers.

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