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.
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!
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.
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.
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!