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Handgun Reviews

Smith & Wesson’s .357

by Frank W. James   |  July 7th, 2003 0

Smith & Wesson’s latest .357 is an eight-shooter.

The Smith & Wesson Model 27 N-frame .357 Magnum revolver has been absent from the regular product line for some time now. This was the first “magnum” revolver, and it introduced to the world the .357 Magnum cartridge. Therefore, it is extremely gratifying to welcome to the Smith & Wesson product line this close relative of the original in a new and modernized form.

When it was introduced on April 8, 1935, the first .357 Magnum revolver was presented to J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI. With this as a precedent, it’s easy to understand why so many Special Agents of the FBI carried similar heavy-frame S&W .357 Magnum revolvers in subsequent years. (It is said that no one knows where that first .357 Magnum revolver is today, as it was not listed in the probate inventory following Hoover’s death in 1972.)

Smith & Wesson’s original marketing concept for this first “magnum” revolver was to make it as a custom gun, built to the customer’s own specifications and registered to them with a certificate listing a corresponding registration number that was stamped into the yoke of the revolver. The management at S&W at the time didn’t believe there would be that much demand for a revolver launching a 158-grain semiwadcutter bullet at 1,515 fps with the longest barrel available, the 83⁄8-inch length.

Well, they just flat underestimated the demand, even at the astronomical Depression-era price of $60, a price that was $15 more than the next most expensive product from Smith & Wesson. The only standard feature on the original Magnum was a ribbed barrel with the top of the barrel and frame finely checkered to reduce the glare from bright sunlight. All other features were custom ordered by the customer. The barrel could be any length from 3 1/2 to 8 3/8 inches, in half-inch increments. The customer also had a choice of seven different front sights to go with the fully adjustable rear sight.

Smith & Wesson didn’t offer what we now know as full-profile target grips, but it did offer the Magna-style S&W grips together with a metal grip adapter that filled the space between the triggerguard and the grip frame. This metal grip adapter was secured with a screw. Gen. George Patton’s .357 Magnum had this feature on it when I saw it at the Patton Museum just outside Fort Knox, Kentucky, some years ago. (And yes, the grips were ivory, not pearl as George C. Scott so eloquently announced in the film Patton.) A total of about 5,500 of these .357 Magnum revolvers were registered before the company stopped the practice in 1939 due to the tremendous demand. By the end of 1941, when production was halted for the duration of WWII, 6,642 .357 Magnum revolvers had been made.

In December 1948, production of the .357 Magnum was resumed, but the lockwork had been modernized and the barrel lengths were standardized at 3 1/2, 5, 6, 6 1/2 and 8 3/8 inches. In 1957, the revolver was given the designation Model 27. Demand was so strong for this revolver in the 1950s by both law enforcement and sportsmen that in 1954 Smith & Wesson introduced the .357 Highway Patrolman (later to be given the designation Model 28), which was nothing more than the N-frame .357 Magnum revolver in either 4- or 6-inch barrel length, a brushed-blue finish and uncheckered topstrap and barrel.

.357 Magnum revolver--the Model 627-5

It is gratifying to see the return of a close relative of the original .357 Magnum revolver--the Model 627-5 "Eight Times." This new N-frame is built by the Smith & Wesson Performance Center and offered by all its distributors.

Over the years the Model 27 underwent a number of modifications and improvements. The first after the model number designation was the elimination of the fourth screw holding the sideplate in place at the top. The ejector rod was changed from a right-hand thread to a left-hand thread. Then the screw in front of the triggerguard was abandoned when the design for the cylinder stop was improved.

The Model 27 had always sported a narrow trigger and hammer, with the possible exception of the prewar models featuring the custom-order “hump-back” target hammer, but in 1975 the wide target hammer and trigger became standard features. In 1979, the barrel lengths were once again standardized at 4, 6 and 83⁄8 inches.

In 1982, the pinned barrel and counter-bored cylinder were eliminated in favor of the “crush-fit barrel” and the shorter 1.57-inch cylinder. In 1992 the 4- and 8 3/8-inch barrels were dropped, leaving only 6-inch barrels available to the consumer. Then in 1994 the Model 27 was dropped from production altogether because of declining demand.

It had become a tough sell for the heavy-frame .357 Magnum revolver despite the fact that this revolver proved the versatility and the popularity of the .357 Magnum handgun round. If there had been no heavy-frame Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, then it only follows there would have been no demand for the K-frame Model 19 .357 Magnum the legendary lawman and shooter Bill Jordan pioneered, nor would there have been the interest in the cartridge by so many law enforcement agencies.

All of this history is meant to demonstrate the mystique and the attraction the N-frame Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum holds for some of us. My first Magnum handgun was a Model 27 with a 6-inch barrel, and I still have it. Unfortunately, it has had the stuffing shot out of it, and, on average, it is about 200 fps slower than other comparable 4-inch-barrel guns with any load you care to chronograph. I have no way of knowing, but I’m sure it has digested way more than 60,000 rounds of ammunition in more than 34 years–and almost all of those were heavy handloads featuring ample amounts of Elmer Keith’s recommended Hercules 2400 smokeless powder and a hand-cast Lyman No. 358429 173-grain semiwadcutter bullet.

To my way of thinking, there is no better vehicle for the .357 Magnum–especially if you are working with heavy handloads–than the large-frame Smith & Wesson revolver. Which is why I was excited to work with this new venture, the Model 627-5 sporting the eight-shot cylinder.

The Model 627 is the stainless steel version of the blue-finish Model 27, but unlike other N-frame revolvers made in both carbon steel and stainless, the 627 has never featured a barrel with the exact same profile as that found on its blue-steel predecessor. Starting in 1989 and for almost 10 years, the Model 627 featured full-lug barrels, tapered barrels and barrels with removable compensators, but none that exactly duplicated the profile of the original barrels. That process has been continued with this newest model.

.357 Magnum revolver--the Model 627-5

The key to the lockable firing mechanism is inserted into the frame just above the cylinder-release latch. The latch must be moved forward to fully insert the key into the lock. Notice the small flag that is raised on the left side of the hammer when the locking mechanism is engaged.

The big news, of course, is the fact that it sports an eight-shot cylinder. This is not totally new, as it has been seen before in Performance Center products marketed exclusively by various Smith & Wesson distributors. The difference is that this revolver, while still made by the Performance Center, is available to all distributors who handle Smith & Wesson handguns and therefore is available to any retailer offering S&W products.

However, the eight-shot Model 627 Smith & Wesson revolver seen in the latest Clint Eastwood film, Blood Work, is not the same revolver under review here. The particular model used in that film sports a 25⁄8-inch barrel, an unfluted cylinder and is available from the Performance Center solely through a marketing arrangement with Lew Horton Distributing.

This Model 627 has a round-butt frame, and the frame bolster is found at the left rear of the cylinder window. In keeping with the legislative mandates to make guns safer, this model has a firing-mechanism lock. This lock is located above the cylinder-release latch and is operated through use of a key.

The cylinder-release latch must be pushed forward in order for the key to engage the lock mechanism. Once the lock is engaged, the key is turned a quarter turn counterclockwise and the trigger mechanism is locked. Once locked, there is a small metal tab or flag raised along the left side of the hammer that has the laser-engraved word “LOCKED” on it. The cylinder can be opened, but the trigger and hammer are immobile and cannot be moved.

The key, while resembling a traditional handcuff key, is not the same because it has no tab on the end of the shaft. Instead, the end of the shaft is hollow and slips over a center pin when inserted into the lock. The outside of the shaft end has five straight sides in the manner of a common hex-head wrench, only with five surfaces instead of six. It is these surfaces that engage the lock and turn it on or off.

Other than the eight-shot cylinder and mandated locking system, the next most noticeable difference between the Model 627-5 and previous Model 27s is the barrel. Of all the Model 627 barrels used over the past decade or more, this one more closely resembles the original ones found on the Model 27. However, the barrel profile is not exactly the same. The barrel on the test revolver has a tapered shroud forward of the housing enclosing the ejector rod. This tapered shroud adds a small amount of weight to the end of the barrel, but the truth is it is virtually unnoticeable while firing or when holstered, even by someone like myself who is an old hand with heavy-frame Smith & Wesson .357 revolvers. The sides of the barrel are flat–again a nontraditional touch when compared to the old blue-steel models, but aesthetically pleasing nonetheless.

.357 Magnum revolver--the Model 627-5

The author shot his tightest eight-shot group at 25 yards using Hornady 125-grain JHP ammunition. It measured just under two inches.

Another difference is that the yoke is locked to the frame via a ball-detent arrangement. The ball detent is on the front of the yoke and not the top like many PPC bull-barrel revolvers. Here, the ball detent engages the corresponding recess on the back of the shroud encircling the ejector rod. There is no corresponding lock on the ejector rod like that traditionally found on production Smith & Wesson revolvers.

Tom Kelly, head honcho at the Smith & Wesson Performance Center, says if they locked the ejector rod and cylinder in three places, like that found presumably on the old Triple-Lock revolvers, the gun would go out of time–so they lock the cylinder at the yoke and the rear of the ejector rod. My personal experience runs counter to this view. I have a Model 57 with a custom gunsmith-installed ball-detent lock in the top of the yoke that also maintains the two factory locking points. It has remained perfectly in time while also exhibiting some of the best accuracy I’ve ever experienced with an S&W .41 Magnum revolver equipped with a factory barrel. It is slower to open due to the resistance of the yoke ball detent, but the installation of the PPC-style ball detent on the yoke improved that gun’s long-range accuracy, in my opinion.

A nice feature on this Performance Center barrel is the interchangeable front sight, which is a Patridge blade with a McGivern gold bead. In my view, this is the best sight available, but should the consumer want something else, it is easy to change it. Alternative sight blades to fit the spring-loaded channel are available from either the Performance Center or Brownells. The gold bead offers a fast sight acquisition, like that found with bright-colored fiber optic wire inserts, but it is far more durable and works better in low-light environments. In my experience, the only shortcoming of the McGivern gold bead is that a really precise sight picture is sometimes hard to achieve because of the glare off of the gold bead.

The length of the barrel is five inches, which is darn near perfect. The balance and feel of a 5-inch N-frame Smith & Wesson is one of the best combinations that can be found in a double-action heavy-caliber revolver. When worn on a wide gunbelt with 25 or more cartridge loops and carried in a Tom Threepersons-style holster, this revolver is an ideal outdoor gun for those hunting whitetail deer with an iron-sighted handgun.

The Model 627-5 also comes with three full-moon clips for eight rounds of .357 ammo. They worked and ejected well, but I can’t say they sped up the reload all that much. It seems the long length of the .357 Magnum cases more or less worked against a quick, speedy reload. While it was faster than loading each round individually, it wasn’t as fast as reloading a conventional six-shot Model 27 with a standard speedloader. I soon found I preferred to leave the full-moon clips in the bright aluminum Performance Center case the gun was shipped in.

For the competition-oriented shooter, I would recommend using only .38 Special ammo, or a better choice might be the equivalent Performance Center Model 627 revolver chambered for the shorter .38 Super cartridge.

The test gun came equipped with Hogue rubber grips, and while they help dampen the felt recoil, I substituted a new set of replica “Coke bottle” diamond center grips from Eagle grips during testing. I am a traditionalist, and I admit it. I just flat like the look and feel of these grips, and I’m glad to see someone has taken the time to reproduce in look and dimension what has to be the greatest factory grips ever put on a double-action revolver. The full-moon eight-shot clips cleared the left grip panel easily each and every time they were used, so there is no concern about not being able to use either full-moon clips or speedloaders with these reproduction grips.

As for shooting the Model 627-5, it proved to be an accurate and powerful .357 Magnum revolver. Because of the eight-shot capacity, the trigger movement has been changed considerably from that experienced with the six-shot guns. It is now shorter and much quicker. This quickness is something some old-timers may find disturbing, but the gun itself is an overall joy, especially for hunters.

Do I recommend this revolver? You bet I do. Especially if you are one who enjoys working with heavy loads in the .357 Magnum caliber. Over the years, I’ve tried working with lighter guns when developing good hunting handloads for the .357 Magnum, and every time I’ve returned to the heavy-frame Smith & Wesson for one simple reason–this frame size handles this cartridge so much easier for both the gun and the shooter.

I have found that heavier revolvers swing more smoothly and remain more steady when engaging running game. It’s a good gun and close enough to the original Model 27 .357 Magnum revolver to welcome its return with open arms.

Ironic, isn’t it, that the first .357 Magnum revolver was virtually a handmade custom-order gun, and now this Performance Center product is being offered to all? History does repeat itself, even if it changes slightly in the process.

 

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