January 03, 2011
Smith & Wesson reintroduces the Model 27--a gun worthy of the title "Classic"-- and the author puts the new 27 through a head-to-head shootout with a 30-year-old gun wearing the same model number.
The New Model 27 Classic, and the "Classic" Model 27.
Inevitably, if you shoot them long enough, study them hard enough, and want them bad enough, there will be a gun that haunts you, always slipping through your fingers and keeping you awake at night. It lurks tantalizingly close. Your gun-collecting buddy, the one with the solid-gold horseshoe in his rear end, casually mentions picking it up for $100 less than the rest of the free world paid for it 10 years ago and has no interest in selling. Or, walking into the local gunshop--the one you visit three times a week for just the slightest chance that "the gun" might show up on the shelf--a fellow grinning ear to ear slides "the gun" into a case as the clerk signs off on the 4473. If only you had been there an hour earlier. You see them in magazine articles, the author crowing how it was the first gun he ever bought and will be the last gun he ever shoots. But the spot reserved in your gun safe remains empty.
More than any other gun, the firearm that haunts me the most is Smith & Wesson's Registered Magnum and its direct descendant, the Model 27. While plenty of S&W aficionados are sent into conniptions by Dirty Harry's Model 29--insert yawn here--I have always preferred the revolver that was carried by real heroes, not pretend ones. Gen. George S. Patton carried one with a 3.5-inch barrel and blued finish. Fitted with ivory grips and carried nearly as often as his famous Peacemaker, it now resides in the Patton Museum in Fort Knox, Kentucky. So it is highly unlikely I will ever get to shoot, much less own, this particular gun.
While liberating Europe from the Nazis must have been exciting, I would wager the Registered Magnum carried by adventurer and jaguar hunter Sasha Siemel saw its own fair share of excitement in the Mato Grosso jungles. Numerous books and magazine articles included a famous photo of Siemel standing beside a huge jaguar hanging from a tree. In Siemel's right hand is a Registered Magnum with an 8…œ-inch barrel.
As a boy--and even today--I was captivated by the scene, wishing I too could have chased cats through the jungle behind a pack of hounds.
If the adventurer's and general's praise were not enough, longtime Shooting Times Handgun Editor Skeeter Skelton considered the Model 27, with a 5-inch barrel of course, as the world's best all-around handgun. I could not agree more.
Smith & Wesson only registered guns for three years--from 1935 to 1938--with some 5,500 guns leaving the Springfield, Massachusetts, factory before demand overwhelmed output. Myriad barrel lengths, sights, grips, finishes, and even hammers were offered with the Registered, but the factory standardized features to streamline production. When S&W gave all its models numeric designations in 1957, the N-Frame chambered for .357 Magnum became the Model 27. Production of the same but unregistered guns continued until 1994, with interruptions for small engineering changes and World War II.
For me, the Model 27 has proved nearly as elusive as the Registered Magnum, although thousands are floating around. At least I have gotten to hold and shoot a Model 27--a feat as yet unaccomplished with a revolver whose serial number begins with "REG." I can't remember the year, but when my dad brought one home, it was a revelation. The big N-Frame was cased in a walnut box with a velvety blue liner, cleaning rod, brush, and sight-adjustment screwdriver. The barrel was pinned, and the cylinder chambers were counterbored so the cartridge rims sat flush with the cylinder face. A lovely, dark set of Goncalo Alves target grips wrapped tightly around the square butt. The gun had probably been shot a little, but it was hard to tell how much.
Counterbored cylinders (right) were a nice but unnecessary touch. Smith & Wesson dropped that feature in 1982.
The feature that really set the Model 27 apart from other N-Frames was the fine checkering along the topstrap and barrel rib. The stated purpose of the checkering was to reduce glare, though we all know the artisans at Smith & Wesson were strutting their stuff, looking for the highest possible coefficient of coolness. This detail, combined with the excellent fit and finish work, was a statement that this revolver was the finest in the land, and it made the Model 27 instantly recognizable.
Walking through the Smith & Wesson booth at the SHOT Show last year, I saw Tony Miele deep in conversation holding a big N-Frame. Miele, who has spent the last 34 years in Springfield, manages the Performance Center and Classics lines, so it was no surprise to see him with a revolver wearing diamond Magna grips. It was the topstrap checkering that caused me to interrupt. With the exception of a few special issues from the custom shop, the Model 27 had been absent from the catalog since 1994. Could it be?
When I finally caught up with Miele, he confirmed that the next Classic model to be introduced was indeed the modern-day Registered Magnum, the Model 27. I was elated and immediately asked for a sample to review. I was in a unique position to compare and contrast the newest Classic with an original classic and called my dad to ask if I could borrow his Model 27 for the story.
"Which one?" my dad asked.
"You have two? When did you get another one?" I gasped and then made a note to work out a deal with my brother before the will was read.
"I don't tell you everything," he said, no doubt grinning ear to ear.
The Old & The New Models
I ended up borrowing his first Model 27 since it was stock from butt to barrel. His second revolver, which I found out later shoots one-hole groups at 25 yards with pet handloads, had some action work and a smooth combat trigger installed at some point in its past. The double-action trigger pull is so smooth and perfect it makes Colt owners throw themselves from the first available bridge.
The stock gun, though the pull is a tad bit heavier, is just as nice.
Inside the frame under the cylinder yoke, below the serial number, on just about all S&W revolvers can be found the model number followed by a dash number. The dash number indicates a part or dimension change and can be an important clue as to when the gun was manufactured. The new Model 27 wears a "27-9" stamp; obvio
usly, it's the latest version. According to the Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson, a most excellent reference book by Jim Supica and Richard Nahas, my dad's first Model 27, stamped "27-2," was manufactured sometime after 1975 and before 1982 since it came with a presentation case and Goncalo Alves target grips but still had the pinned barrel and counterbored cylinder that were deleted after 1982.
Setting the new and old revolvers side by side, a few differences were immediately apparent. The new Model 27 has a 6.5-inch barrel with a pinned, Patridge front-sight blade, and the adjustable micrometer rear-sight blade has a thin white outline. The 6-inch barrel on the older Model 27 has a plain black rear blade and serrated front blade. Both barrels are tapered with an ejector-rod shroud.
There are four screws securing the sideplate on the reissue revolver and just three on the older version. According to the Standard Catalog, the fourth screw present on the reissue was deleted in 1955, so the additional screw was a really nice touch.
Both new and old Model 27s shot extremely well from the bench with a variety of ammunition brands and bullet weights.
Another 1950s-era touch was the grips. Miele said the new grips were produced as an aftermarket accessory by Altamont in Illinois prior to the Model 27 Classic's introduction, but they were so well-designed and executed, it was a no-brainer to pair the two together. They are a very functional square-butt hybrid of the Magna and Goncalo Alves target stocks. The width at the butt is similar to the Magna grips, and they have the iconic diamond interruption of the checkering around the grip screw. The grips cover more of the sideplate than the old Magnas, but they lack the left-side thumb groove of the Goncalo Alves stocks. The Altamont grips are thinner, and most shooters who handled the revolver thought they were very comfortable. I actually prefer the thicker target stocks, but that is due to long, skinny fingers and a couple decades of shooting with target stocks. The checkering is perfect on the sample stocks, as is the wood-to-medallion fit around the S&W logo.
Magna grips are available and look just like the originals, but in my opinion, the Altamont grips are much more functional.
From a purely aesthetic point of view, about the only thing missing from the dash-nine guns are the rich colors of casehardened parts like the hammer and trigger found on older guns. If the new parts are color-casehardened, it is hard to tell. The finish, described now and then as bright blue, is just that--bright and beautiful.
Internally, MIM parts have replaced many of the old forged parts, though the frames are still hammer-forged from carbon steel. An internal safety lock was added to make the gun compliant in all 50 states. Like all new S&Ws, the firing pin is mounted internally and not on the hammer. Miele, who started at Smith & Wesson as a fitter, said the advancements in tooling--namely the addition of dozens of CNC machining centers--and tighter tolerances allow workers to spend less time swapping and lapping parts before the final products head out the door.
When the Registered Magnum was being built, hundreds of workers built every part of the gun with the exception of a few springs, and the gun underwent hundreds of machining steps before it was finished. Labor and raw materials were much cheaper then, but the gun still cost a whopping $60 ($930 in 2009 after inflation). That was 15 to 20 1935 dollars more than the next most expensive gun in the catalog. Modernization of parts and manufacture is what it took to bring this revolver to market again.
I had always read that the Model 27's topstrap was hand checkered, and it was easy to imagine a gray-haired man in a leather apron carefully cutting in that most distinctive of features with his calloused hands. Not so according to Miele. He said the checkering was cut by an ancient machine that had been in the factory since the turn of the century, and he knows because he actually spent time running the old beast. These days, it takes a CNC center about 30 seconds to get the job done.
In the old days, the Model 27's barrel would have broached rifling. These days, an electrode is passed through the blank, and the rifling is literally burned into the barrel. Miele said the process, though not as fast as broaching, produces lands and grooves that are crisper, and there is a complete absence of tooling marks.
The Model 27 Shootout
I filled my shooting bag with a few hundred rounds of .357 Magnum ammo and headed to the range with both the old and the new Model 27s. The 30-something revolver was first up to bat, and I dropped five 180-grain Remington semijacketed hollowpoints into the cylinder and nestled the revolver's chin down into the rest. The gun must have been zeroed for a similar load because I could see a growing hole in the bullseye 25 yards away with each round.
I tinkered around with a few rifles to give my revolver-shooting muscles a break and then settled in behind the new Model 27 Classic. The Patridge front sight was perfect for punching black bullseyes, and the single-action trigger pull of 4 pounds, 3 ounces was heavier than the first revolver but creep-free. The gun did not prefer any particular brand or bullet weight, and it shot everything pretty well.
After the dirty work of shooting groups was done, I dropped a double handful of cartridges into my pocket, tucked a Model 27 into my waistband, and walked out to the backstop. I took turns shooting rocks and dirt clods both double- and single-action. The big N-Frame sits steady on the bench but excels when wielded by two hands. In just a few minutes, I was out of ammo and had to call it a day.
When Smith & Wesson started reproducing the classics, I was a bit perplexed as to why the Model 27 was not first and foremost. Miele said S&W had produced a couple of specialty runs for distributors and did not want to crowd the field with new Model 27s. Never having caught up with one of those special distributor reissues, I am extremely glad the company got around to producing this most classic revolver.
Looking down the sights, glare noticeably absent, I have something in common with America's greatest battlefield general, a courageous adventurer who chased South America's most dangerous game, and one of the best writers ever to pen a story in the pages of Shooting Times. I am strictly a blued finish man, so my only dilemma is what barrel length. General Patton carried a Model 27 with a 3.5-inch barrel, Mr. Skelton liked 5 inches, and Senhor Siemel preferred 8 inches plus. I guess that means I will just have to get both the 4- and 6.5-inch guns.