Registered Magnum PrimerEver since I wrote my original "Grail" story in October of 2007 I have received several e-mails from gun owners that believed that they might have one of Smith & Wesson's most desirable handguns. While I would love to tell someone that they did indeed have a pre WWII .357 revolver I haven't been able to so far. In most cases what the gun owners described (or sent photos of) was a S&W "Pre" Model 27 revolver, an unmarked M27, which was the case until 1957 when the company started marking them as such. While a "pre" 27 is a great gun well worth owning, they cannot even compare to the rarity or value of the pre-war model. So with that in mind I thought I would put this little article together to help anyone that might think that they have one of these illusive guns, or for those that would like to know what to look for just in case they might ever run into one.
The basics - I'm going to pare this down to some main points to look at in a gun. While there are numerous little details that might help you tell if what you're looking at is a pre-war magnum the main points that I will be covering here should answer the question in nearly every case.
The Serial Number - The serial number is the easiest and most conclusive way to check to see if you're holding a pre-war .357, but first you must find it. On older Smith & Wesson revolvers the serial number was marked several places on the gun, inside the ejector rod housing on the barrel, on the yoke (crane), on the face of the cylinder, under the ejector star, on the grips. But in all of those cases parts (and the numbers) could have been changed, sometimes by the factory and sometimes not. So parts replacement and the switching of parts between guns did happen on occasion and might confuse the issue of serial numbers. Also there are assembly numbers inside the gun's frame and yoke that might be mistaken for serial numbers. For those reasons the most reliable place to get the gun's serial number is on the butt of the grip frame. This number could not easily be changed. You may need to remove your gun's grips to check this number, do so if necessary because it is very important, that is the surest way to know your gun's true serial number. If the gun has a serial number ranging from the mid 40,000s to the low 60,000s you could very well have one of these sought-after revolvers! On the other hand if the gun's serial is in the high 70,000s (or higher) you have a post war model. If your gun's serial number is preceded with an "S" or an "N" you definitely have a post war gun.
The Registration Number - If the gun has a registration number stamped inside the frame, under the yoke, "REG123" or something similar, then it is a pre-war magnum. But not having a registration number does not rule it out as a pre-war gun. There were approximately 1400 "Non-Registered Magnums" made between 1939 and '40 that did not have that factory marking and in fact these guns are actually more rare than their "Registered" counterparts.
The Hammer - Another (usually) obvious clue is the gun's hammer. If you look at the photo above note the differences between the pre and post war hammers. I won't go into the differences here between long and short action guns but just looking at the two hammers you can see the differences between them. The thumb pad area on the pre-war hammer is higher up and has a less distinctive shape than the post war. Also pre-war and post war hammers do not interchange so the swapping out of parts is not likely. However, you should be aware that on occasion a skilled gunsmith would reshape a pre-war hammer to make it look more like the post war model. Many such guns have been noted by collectors and it is reason enough that the hammer alone might not tell the whole story.
The Front Sight - Another distinctive feature on pre-war guns was the front sight. It can often times (but not always) show when the gun was manufactured. On pre-war magnums the sight was slightly set back from the end of the barrel. The front sights of pre-war guns were also secured to the barrel (thru the sight base) with one pin. On the other hand sights on post war guns were left nearly at the end of the barrel (just behind the crown) and were secured with two pins. You might have to carefully check these post war guns as sometimes the pins were so well fitted that it can (at times) be very difficult to see them. Please also note that some pre-war guns had their barrels cut shorter at some point in their history and depending on how the gunsmith did the work they might resemble post war guns.
The Back Sight - Although not pointed out in the above illustration you can clearly see the distinctive differences between the pre and post war rear sights. The post war sight is larger, has one large screw click adjustment on the right side and the back has a more rounded appearance. Unfortunately this is not always a reliable way to determine when the gun was made as in some cases pre-war guns were later re-fitted with post war sights.
The One Exception - The one exception to all that I have said above is the very rare early post war "transitional" model. From 1946 to '49 Smith & Wesson produced a very limited quantity of .357 Magnum revolvers, in fact less than 150 were made in those years. The gun was basically constructed using leftover pre-war magnum parts with some post war improvements (like the rear adjustable sights). These early guns have most of the features of the pre-war guns and would be recognizable to most collectors as such. However their serial number (70,000 range with an "S") might lead some unknowing owners/buyers to consider them an "ordinary" Pre Model 27. These guns deserve to be given special consideration as they cross the realm into two different collector's worlds.
I hope my little essay has helped any out there that might think they own one of these extraordinary guns and needed more info to know for sure, or helped enlighten anyone that might hope to own one someday. Finally, I wrote this short piece for the enjoyment of those of us that just consider this topic interesting...