When Cops Carried Wheelguns
In the beginning there were … uh … revolvers. And we paid for them out of our own pockets, along with most other stuff like uniforms, leather, ammo, handcuffs and raingear. But that was allright because we were making the princely sum of $505 a month.
I hired on a Northern California sheriff’s department in 1967 with a two-year LE degree and the feelings of invulnerability and invincibility only a 21-year old can possess. These two traits didn’t last all that long. I was issued a hat, a bat and a badge and given the keys to a ’67 Ford. I was actually on patrol for 17 months before being sent to the academy. Things were a lot different back then.
My first duty rig was purchased from a former city cop for a total of $65 and consisted of belt, holster, cuffs, drop pouch and an old-model 4″ Colt Trooper .357. That was an okay gun, aside from the fact the cylinder turned in the “wrong” direction, but wasn’t entirely satisfying. Being a “gun nut” (something that kinda continued on down the road), I wanted to carry one of two things: a .45 Auto or a S&W .44 Magnum. Elmer Keith was my hero.
The auto was outlawed by departmental policy. That same policy, however, allowed us to carry any revolver we desired so long as it was a minimum of .38 Special and had a 3 ½” or longer barrel. This left a lot of firearms-ground to be covered. Smith’s Model 29 had been issued a scant decade before and was very, very scarce, as in impossible to find. Undeterred, I learned one of our reserves had a 6 ½” 29 he was kind of afraid of and would part with for the modest sum of $185. To my wife of the moment, this was a new living room suite. To me, it was all my National Guard summer camp pay plus $35. The choice was simple.
I still have the gun.
Acquiring about a thousand rounds of assorted .44 Mag brass I began some serious reloading sessions on an RCBS C-press. My stock load was 21 grains of 2400 behind a 240-grain Keith hard-cast, gas-checked bullet, which I cast myself. Every service station in my various beats saved wheel weight lead for me and I’m forever grateful to them all. I loaded and fired that brass until the whole lot just about gave up the ghost, as did, eventually, the revolver. But it was all worth it.
Model 27 3 ½” with Super-Vel 110-grain JHP.
Mac and Sundance in 1973. Note the 6 ½” Hoyt holster carrying
Mac’s prized Model 29 .44, peeking out of his Ike jacket.
No Duty Reloads
Obviously, reloads weren’t going to cut it for duty use, so a small stock of factory ammunition was acquired and carried. My initial carry ammo was Remington’s 240-grain JHP, which was extremely hot. Recoil was excessive but controllable, particularly after much practice. My favorite round, however, was SuperVel’s 180-grain JHP. This scooted along at about 2,000 fps and had a magnificent muzzle flash, but little apparent recoil when compared to the Remingtons. I was able to conjure up a box or two of this stuff for my photo shoot. Long out of business and very hard to find. Lee Jurras was a genius.
Initially carried in an Earl Ginn swivel/snap holster, it soon occurred to me a long-barreled revolver in a swivel holster was not exactly conducive to getting in and out of a car, chasing crooks or even comfortably walking down the street. This holster was soon swapped for a then state-of-the-art Hoyt breakfront.
There are two types of cops who’ve carried pistols in Hoyt breakfront holsters: Those who’re going to lose their guns out of them and those who already have. I soon became one of the latter, on several occasions.
Going through the academy with a .44 Magnum was an experience for all. Everyone else was shooting .38 Special 148-grain wadcutters. Not many people liked to be near me on the line. Firing prone on the outdoor range at 60 yards (the old PPC course) involved seeing through a large haze of dust and gravel kicked up with each round. The saving grace was being the top gun of that class, which made it pretty hard to argue with my choice of weaponry.
Extra ammo was carried in both loops and — also cutting edge at the time — a Multi-Loader speedloader setup also made by Earl Ginn. This consisted of two 6-round rubber cups that snapped into a plastic tube fastened to the gunbelt. For quite awhile I was the only guy on the department who used speedloaders, since they almost hadn’t been invented yet. Everyone else was stuck with drop pouches and belt loops. Everyone else was also very slow.
Model 29 4″ with Ginn Multi-Loader cup. Cutting edge technology for the time!
Big Rifle Too
The big .44 belt loops also provided the ability to carry three .444 Marlin rifle rounds on my person. At the time my “trunk” gun was a Marlin lever gun in that caliber. Gave some people quite a start when they noticed those huge rounds. Kind of a “Josh Randall” effect. Look him up on the internet if you need to.
Speaking of “trunk” guns, for the longest time I carried a regular potpourri of long guns in the trunks of my assigned vehicles, both marked and unmarked. Some were authorized; some most definitely were not. Amongst them were an M-1 Carbine, a High Standard Model 10B shotgun, an H&R Reising Model 50, a Remington 721 .30-’06, an Armalite AR-180, an M3A1 Greasegun, a Colt 1921/28 Thompson and an honest–to-gawd 1918 Browning BAR.
Those were the days, eh?
Both the .44’s shown here are “Pre-29’s,” in that they were made just before S&W assigned numbers to their gun models. That first .44 6 ½” was a 4-screw gun made around 1958. It was joined by a 4″ version, also a 4-screw, when I moved to the detective bureau. The pictured Herrett grips were swapped onto whichever gun was being currently carried. This gun was acquired from a retiring deputy who’d carried it in uniform for years.
(Clockwise, L to R) Model 27 3 ½”, Model 29 6 ½”, Model 29 4″. Multi-Loader
in .44 Mag. Ammo is Super-Vel: .357 110-grain JPH and .44 Mag. 180-grain JHP.
A True Story
One of my most memorable occurences with this gun was the day, working detectives, my partner and I drove by a 7/11 store in a seedier part of the county. Riding shotgun, I looked over and saw a guy walking into the store with a pistol in his hand. We called in a “211 in progress” (robbery) and pulled into the store’s parking lot where, bigger than life, the guy lifted and pointed a Model 92 Beretta at the two female clerks behind the counter, both of whom raised their arms and backed away. I jumped out of the car, moved to where I had a direct shot at the crook through the closed glass door and yelled something original like “Sheriff’s Office. Drop the f**king gun!”
To the guy’s credit, just as I was starting to apply pressure to the single-action trigger (bad habit I developed), that’s exactly what he did. He dropped the gun. Which saved his life.
We both ran inside and I hooked the guy up while my partner secured the dropped gun, all the while hearing (but not really “hearing”) what the clerks were yelling at us. After the guy was safe I became aware they were saying “He works here! He works here!” Seems this fool was, in fact, a store employee (but not for much longer) who’d been policing up the parking lot and found a very real looking black plastic water pistol looking like it came from the Beretta factory. He thought it’d be fun to “play” with his fellow employees. Very bad idea.
Side Note: This 21 year old kid turned out to be an okay guy and somewhat of a gun nut. I’m sure his nightstand held copies of all the latest gun rags and he was fairly gun knowledgeable. After the dust settled and I’d unhooked him, he blew my mind a bit when he asked: “Sergeant, was that a Model 29 Smith you were pointing at me?” In fact, this guy later became an IPSC shooter and we competed against each other a few times. I noted, however, he always seemed to give me a very wide berth.
Mac and “Sundance” circa 1973. Note speedloader tube on belt.
My Special Enforcement Detail in 1972, consisting of one .44 Mag, one
.41 Mag, seven .357’s, one .38 Spec. — and one neurotic Doberman.
The third and final “N” frame in this roundup is an early-50’s 5-screw “Pre-27” S&W .357 Magnum with a 3 ½” barrel. To me this revolver is arguably one of the best looking and sexiest Smiths ever made. Just something about that barrel length sets the whole thing off, particularly in profile.
This particular gun was carried by a deputy sheriff in Northern California who later worked for my old department and retired as the chief of homicide. He was a resident deputy on the California coast back in the early 60’s when he received word a San Quentin escapee was enroute up the coast in a stolen vehicle. The bad guy ultimately showed up at the deputy’s one-car roadblock, bailed out of the car and capped off a shotgun round at the vehicle-shielded cop. Choosing his moment, the deputy fired one round just as the felon stuck his head above his vehicle’s passenger front fender. The .357 round glanced off the hood and ricocheted right between the bad guy’s running lights. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
All three of the revolvers discussed in this article have been fired extensively and, in a least one case, just about worn out. All were returned, many years ago, to S&W for refurbishment. This was a service Smith offered for a long time; sadly, it’s no longer an option. The 6 ½” went back first and was returned within several months, completely reblued, retuned and frigging beautiful. I think the total charge, including shipping was around $65.
When I retired from law enforcement I was carrying a 1911, which I think is a far more desirable pistol for that intended purpose. That having been said, I wouldn’t go back and change anything about those several years I carried those big guns around. If for no other reason, it’s fun writing nostalgic articles about them
By MacGregor “Mac” Scott
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