Smith and Wesson’s Best Pistol


by R.K. Campbell

photography by R.K. Campbell

July 7th, 2005




If ever there were a revolver of excellent, almost perfect ergonomics, it is the Smith and Wesson Model 19 Combat Magnum.  This revolver is well balanced and offers more power per ounce than practically any other handgun. While the .357 Magnum may be considered a bit light for hunting the game we all like to take, the fact remains that the original Magnum has taken every game animal in North America.  The history of the Combat Magnum begins in 1899 with the introduction of the Smith and Wesson Military and Police revolver. This medium frame revolver is among the best handling and smoothest revolvers ever produced. The Military and Police gained wide acceptance due to its excellent handling qualities. The inherent accuracy of the type was recognized early on and a number of adjustable sight versions were introduced.  These included improvements on the basic design that led to the Smith and Wesson Combat Masterpiece and the K-38.   But the best of all was yet to come.


Prior to World War Two, revolver design and custom work reached a new high. From the factory we had the high quality adjustable sights found on the .357 Magnum revolver and the remarkable achievement of producing the first Magnum revolver.  By lengthening the cartridge case of the .38 Special by 1/10th of an inch, the sharply invigorated .38 Special known as the .357 Magnum was born. This cartridge could not be chambered in .38 Special revolves.  The pressures, well over thirty thousand pounds per square inch, were unheard of in those days. The .357 Magnum quickly became a sensation.  The revolver was used to take every type of game on the North American continent, including moose and bear. You may draw your own conclusions as to whether the .357 was suited for this size of game animal, but it was done.  The original .357 Magnum loading jolted a 158 grain SWC to well over 1,400 fps from a 8-3/8 inch barrel. Today’s loads are more sedate, but you can count on a 158 grain JHP at 1,200 fps from a four inch barrel.


A development during the same time was the modification of revolver actions to a new short action. Lock time was decreased and accuracy and practical shooting ability increased. These D.W. King-inspired  short actions were legitimatised after World War Two by the introduction of the Smith and Wesson’s ‘short action’ revolvers. These revolvers, from the lowly Military and Police to the deluxe Combat Masterpiece, became highly popular handguns.  It was inevitable that the two advances, the Magnum cartridge and the modern K frame revolver, would be combined.


Smith and Wesson discovered that with modern heat treating the K frame revolver could withstand the pressure of the .357 Magnum cartridge. The cylinder of the Combat Masterpiece revolver was lengthened in a deeper frame and the revolver renamed the Combat Magnum, later the Model 19.  The addition of heavy target stocks and a recoil underlug, along with a heavy barrel, made the Combat Magnum the best balanced K frame revolver ever produced.  The revolver is light enough,  comes on target quickly, and has a high hit probability.  However, Smith and Wesson and many authorities recommended the Combat Magnum be considered a .38 Special to be fired occasionally with Magnum ammunition. The frame is light and the parts the same size as the .38 frame guns. There is no free lunch. Quite simply, the revolver was long on carrying and handling but while no more fragile than any other revolver, it was not meant to be fired with thousands of heavy loads. Shooters who understood this simple rule have enjoyed thousands of rounds with the Magnum revolver.  A good rule of thumb is that a practice ratio of ten to one, with ten .38s fired for every Magnum, should be maintained.  A number of  accurate combinations can be put up in the Combat Magnum with excellent results.  I have loaded various loads using heavy cast bullets of 180 to 200 grains that give excellent accuracy and a hard slap- but they are not quite Magnums.


The Combat Magnum has excellent leverage for the size of the handgun. The average hand fits the revolver well, offering good purchase on most types of grips. The trigger finger reaches the trigger with a minimum of effort, and the orange insert front sight stays on target if the shooter does his part.  Many peace officers using the Combat Magnum remarked upon the high hit probability afforded a handgun using this front sight insert.  A friend of mine took his deer some years ago with one of my handloads using the Combat Magnum. He was in the shadow of a tree and all he could see was the orange dot and little else- and he connected with an instant one shot kill of a large buck.


The Combat Magnum is light enough to pack on the hip constantly.  While not as powerful as the .44 Magnum, it is much easier to shoot well.  While some of my friends think it is all play when I test handgun, it can be tiring testing big bore handguns.  I have never regretted a day on the range with the Combat Magnum. Even with the most powerful handloads, the Combat Magnum is not unpleasant to fire.  When using the moderate loads I tend to rely upon for practice, the Model 19 is downright pleasant. This is an advantage difficult to discount.  Anyone who contemplates working his way up to the .44 Magnum would be well advised to begin with the .357.


An even better revolver was introduced for police work, but it has become a favorite of outdoorsmen. The Model 66 stainless steel revolver is a genuine rough use revolver.  When police cars first began to be delivered with factory air conditioning,  the problem of condensation on blue steel handguns was real.  The problem was addressed by stainless steel duty handguns.  Stainless is just that, stain-less, and it will rust and pit but requires much less maintenance than comparable blue steel handguns.  The stainless steel Model 66 is a Godsend for those working in the rain or snow.  Personally,  I prefer the rich lines of a blue steel revolver and my personal go anywhere do anything revolver is a blue steel Model 19.  But if the weather looks rugged I will not risk marring my treasured friend - I have a well used, even battered stainless version I will use.


The Combat Magnum will often be found with some type of adornment representing the regard we have for these revolvers.  One of my personal revolvers was laser engraved by Smith and Wesson and sported Blu Magnum grips. That is as good as it gets!  Others may wear custom grips or have various amounts of engraving.  The Combat Magnum is a much appreciated handgun.  




We think of the Combat Magnum as a four inch revolver but many six inch versions have been produced.  I owned one some years ago and won numerous silhouette and bowling pin competitions with this revolver.  If you like the K-38 you will like the six inch Combat Magnum even better.  The 2.5 inch Combat Magnum was designed for personal defense but I have seen a surprising number in field use.  It generates plenty of power for finishing off downed game.  Many hunters find the Combat Magnum, loaded with birdshot shells, fine snake medicine.  Still others like the Combat Magnum with it’s shortest barrel length because it makes great truck gun.


To say I like my Combat Magnums is an understatement.  I have as much regard for these revolvers as I do any handgun. They have served me well with no compliant for many years.  They are the Cadillac of mid frame revolvers, serving well in difficult situations. It doesn’t get any better than this. 


Enough has been said about the .357 Magnum that I can add little to the accolades given this caliber. Every collection is incomplete without a good .357 Magnum.  Listed below are a number of  loads that I have worked up for practice, loaded in the .38 Special case.  They are too hot for regular use in a light frame .38 Special and should be used sparingly in ANY .38, but a good .357 such as the Combat Magnum will run forever on such loads. They are accurate and quite effective on small game. The full power Magnum loads are just that, full power and should be used sparingly.  Begin ten to fifteen per cent below my loads and work your way up.  These loads will do anything a Magnum needed to do.



.38 Special


Bullet Charge / Powder Velocity
Hornady 125 grain XTP 11.0 gr HS7 1105 fps
Hornady 140 grain XTP 8.5 gr HS6 970 fps
Hornady 158 grain lead SWC 4.3 gr HP38 750 fps*
Hornady 158 grain Lead SWC HP 6.2 gr HS6   844 fps


*light target load




Ammunition Performance


Bullet Charge / Powder Velocity
Hornady  110 grain XTP  22.0 gr H110 1390 fps
Hornady 125 grain XTP 22.5 gr Lil’Gun 1422 fps
Hornady 125 grain XTP 8.5 gr HP38 1404 fps
Hornady 158 grain XTP 16.7 gr H110 1350 fps
Hornady 180 grain XTP 15.0 gr Lil' Gun 1182 fps



Factory Loads


Load Velocity
Hornady 158 grain XTP 1309 fps



Typical 4-inch Barrel M19 Accuracy

(25-yard 5-shot groups)


Load Group Size
125 grain XTP .38 Special 1.5 inches
125 grain XTP .357 Magnum 2.0 inches
140 grain XTP .357 Magnum 0.9 inches
158 grain XTP .357 Magnum 1.5 inches
180 grain XTP .357 Magnum 1.25 inches



R.K. Campbell


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Click pictures for a larger version.


This engraved Smith and Wesson sports Blu Magnum grips, among the very best options for a first class revolver.



The Combat Magnum is the perfect size for easy carry and good handling. This version has been engraved by the Smith and Wesson Custom Shop with affordable but attractive laser engraving.



This very nice and slick Model 66 is an ideal outdoors handgun.



The revolver is simple to make safe - simply open the cylinder.



The author often carries his personal Magnum in this Gold Line holster from Gould and Goodrich. It is first class for all around carry.



OK, here is good gear. This particular Magnum features Smith and Wesson’s affordable laser engraving and Hogue grips. The knife is from Spyderco and the holster is a Fobus, noted for economy and utility.



This is the author's original duty holster from Don Hume. It is well over twenty five years old and still useful as a field holster.