The first .357 Magnum. Smith & Wesson's Registered Magnum Revolvers of 1935-39.
In 1935, Smith & Wesson announced the debut of an extremely powerful new firearm cartridge as well as a new revolver with which to fire it. Both the gun and the cartridge shared the name "Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum".
The powerful cartridge measured-in with ballistics that well-exceeded anything else the handgun industry had produced up until that time. And, the first guns that Smith & Wesson manufactured to chamber the new round were examples of a heightened degree of American hand craftsmanship that would never again be matched by a large-scale firearms manufacturer.
Each early Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum was, by today's standards, a custom-made gun. Customers could specify a barrel length from 3.5 inches to 8.75 inches in any increment of 1/4 inch. A number of different sight design choices were also offered. And, the purchaser could choose between two hammer styles. Every aspect of the new .357 Magnum revolver was uncompromised with respect to quality, fit, and finish.
The grip handles were milled from dark old-growth walnut and featured fine, sharp checkering cuts. Skillful checkering was also applied to the top of the barrel, top of the frame, and on the revolver's hammer. The guns were polished to an extremely high luster before receiving a blued finish that was so deep and pure that a person could see their reflection it like a mirror.
Internally, the action lock-work parts were hand-fitted to ensure a smooth, slick trigger pull. The tuning of the action involved carefully filing, honing, and polishing adjacent parts until the lock-work cycled butter-smooth.
Smith & Wesson did not anticipate the .357 Magnum revolver being a high-demand item. It was priced relatively high, and the gun made its debut in the middle of the Great Depression. The idea was that such a premium-grade firearm would only be purchased by hard core sportsmen and certain law enforcement personnel. However, actual demand exceeded the company's expectations by far.
To further enhance the ownership experience of purchasing a .357 Magnum, Smith & Wesson established a registration process by which customers could receive a special certificate stating their ownership of a specific serial-numbered revolver. The certificate also indicated the specifications of the firearm, such as barrel length, sight choice installed by the factory at the customer's request, and walnut grip shape/type. Over 5,000 certificates were issued before Smith & Wesson discontinued the registration process. The surviving examples of the 1935 through 1939 "Registered Magnums" are highly coveted by collectors and can garner up to $13,000 at auction when they are in excellent condition and accompanied by their registration certificate plus original box.
The .357 Magnum cartridge was developed through the collective efforts of two firearms enthusiasts/authors, Elmer Keith and Phillip B. Sharpe, in conjunction with Smith & Wesson Vice President D. B. Wesson. Externally, the .357 Magnum cartridge was for the most part a slightly elongated version of a .38 Special. However, the .357 Magnum was loaded with a charge generating more than twice the pressure of the .38 Special. The cartridge holds tremendous historic significance in that many other cartridges over the last 7 decades subsequently adopted the "Magnum" moniker.
However, there is always only one true "first". That, coupled with Smith & Wesson's keen application of exquisite American craftsmanship to the inaugural .357 Magnum firearm, is what launched a uniquely iconic stature for the .357 Magnum cartridge and gun.