Missing Link: The Smith & Wesson Model 68

Smith & Wesson Model 68

When Smith & Wesson introduced their Model 69 Combat Magnum revolver in .44 Magnum back in 2016, there were a few RevolverGuys out there who wondered if S&W skipped a model number. The shooting world already knew about the popular Model 67 Combat Masterpiece Stainless, and now we had the new Model 69 Combat Magnum in .44, but shouldn’t there have been something in the middle? A Smith & Wesson Model 68, perhaps?

Well, yes! Although most RevolverGuys have never heard of the Smith & Wesson Model 68, there actually is such a revolver. Smith & Wesson built a little over 6,000 of them for two special customers during an 11-year span, and they’re really neat guns.

But, first things first. Before we discuss the Model 68 in detail, we need to understand where it came from. To do that, we have to go back to a vicious gun battle in a small town called Newhall, California.

Tragic Roots

In the opening moments of 6 April, 1970, four California Highway Patrolmen were killed in a gunfight that had far-reaching implications for law enforcement.  In the wake of the Newhall Shooting, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) took a close look at their tactics, training, policies and equipment, and found all of them wanting. As a result, immediate efforts were made to fix the deficiencies, with the aim of preventing “another Newhall.”

Ammo In The Crosshairs

The first change involved the ammunition policy. For decades, the CHP had issued .38 Special, 158 grain, round nose lead (RNL) cartridges to its officers for duty, and had supplied a mix of 158 RNL and .38 Special, 148 grain, wadcutter (WC) cartridges for training and qualification. However, department policies allowed officers to carry other ammunition on duty if they purchased it, and many officers did.  In fact, three of the slain Newhall officers carried revolvers loaded with .357 Magnum ammunition, and the fourth carried a .38 Special revolver loaded with hot SuperVel loads.

Department policies did not require officers to actually train and qualify with the privately purchased ammunition however, so many officers shot low-powered wadcutters in training, and carried Magnum loads on duty that they had little experience with. In the wake of the Newhall shooting, the CHP blamed this situation (incorrectly, I argue) for the officers’ inability to score a hit on the Newhall felons, and changed the policy to require officers to train with their duty ammunition. If an officer wanted to carry a better load than the issued 158 RNL on duty, he now had to purchase enough to cover his training and qualification shoots as well.

Predictably, the additional cost soured some officers on the idea, and they went back to carrying the ineffective, issued load. Other officers simply ignored the new policy and continued carrying the Magnums, while shooting the department’s ammo during training. Neither of these options was particularly acceptable, and a better solution was needed.

Magnums Need Not Apply

The CHP knew that .38 Special 158 RNL was a pretty dismal performer, and they realized that they had to give the troops something better to carry, but stepping up to the .357 Magnum wasn’t in the cards. To begin with, not everybody was up to handling the harder-kicking Magnum, and with the imminent arrival of the first female cadets in 1974, that concern was magnified.

There were logistical issues as well. The CHP required officers to supply their own six inch Colt or Smith & Wesson revolvers, and only a portion of the officers on the department had purchased guns chambered in .357—many, perhaps most, were armed with .38 Specials. Lacking the funds to retrofit the growing department with .357s, sticking with the .38 was the most cost-effective choice in the short run.

Lastly, there was a bit of a public relations concern with the Magnum. By the mid-70s, it had become a lightning rod for several activist groups that were waging campaigns against perceived “police brutality,” and the CHP brass was probably eager to avoid that political complication.

A special .38

So, the Patrol went looking for a more effective .38 Special round. Fortunately for them, there were many agencies doing the same thing at the time, and a great deal of effort and money was being spent to find a better solution than RNL.

In 1973 the federal government launched an intensive study of police ammunition funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and their Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). When the results were published in 1975, they favored rapidly expanding bullets that created a large stretch cavity in 20% ballistic gelatin.

One of these loads in .38 Special was the +P+ pressure, 110 grain, jacketed hollowpoint from Winchester that had recently been adopted by the U.S. Treasury Department. The “Treasury Load” was a hot number that got the .38 Special closer to .357 Magnum territory than any other load in the caliber, and the CHP took the historic step of making it the first mandatory-use duty and training load in the history of the agency. Once it was adopted, the CHP would no longer allow any other ammunition, including privately purchased ammunition, to be used on duty or in training.

Treasury Load
The Model 68 was born of a requirement to handle high pressure .38 Special ammunition, a later version of which is seen here in the Second Six speedloader which CHP adopted alongside the new revolver, circa 1976-1977.

Breaking with tradition

Continuing with the standardization effort, the CHP next turned its attention to revolvers.

The CHP had traditionally required officers to provide their own sidearms, which were required to meet certain criteria and receive periodic inspections by agency armorers. This left officers carrying a mix of Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers with six inch barrels, and while the policy had worked for a long time, it was about to change.

Moving forward, current officers would be “grandfathered” to continue carrying their privately purchased firearms on duty, but new cadets would receive standard issue firearms in the academy. As funds and inventory allowed, officers who wanted to retire their personal guns could do so, and draw a department-issued gun for duty.

But what would that gun be?

To determine the answer, the CHP requested samples from manufacturers and began a test and evaluation project that eventually led them to work closely with Smith & Wesson on the final design. By late 1976 to early 1977 the details were finalized, and in 1977 the CHP began to issue its first-ever standard revolver to the troops.

Enter the Smith & Wesson Model 68

It was no surprise that the new gun, the Model 68, was a .38 Special with a 6 inch barrel. The longer barrel was the traditional standard not only for CHP, but for Highway Patrolmen throughout the nation (where the extra velocity helped bullets to get inside automobiles), and the .38 Special chambering would eliminate the use of unauthorized .357 Magnum ammunition.

Smith & Wesson Model 68
The 6 inch barrel of the Model 68 helped to maximize the energy of the hot .38 Special ammunition selected by the CHP. A red ramp front sight graced the tip of this elegant looking revolver.

What was a surprise, however, was that this .38 Special was built on a .357 Magnum frame. Knowing that the gun would be fed a steady diet of the overpressure, +P+ Treasury Load, the CHP sensibly built the gun around the stainless steel frame of the Model 66 Combat Magnum Stainless, which was heat treated for .357 Magnum ammunition. This medium-sized, K-frame was likely to fit more hands than the larger N-frame, and it boasted the corrosion resistance of stainless steel (there was no stainless N-frame available yet).  The stainless Model 66 had only been released a few years prior, in 1971, but stainless guns had already become the hot ticket for police use (despite some initial teething problems—a story for later) and the CHP had insisted on it for their new gun.

Model 66 frames were overstamped to turn the second “6” into an “8,” and the Model 68 frame was born. The frame wasn’t a new creation, but since there were no 6 inch versions of the Model 66 in the catalog yet, Smith & Wesson would have to make a new barrel for the CHP’s flagship gun. In 1978, after initial Smith & Wesson Model 68 production demands were met, the Model 66 was offered with this same 6 inch barrel (with proper .357 Magnum markings).

The Model 68’s barrel had a heavy profile (like the Combat Magnum it was derived from), was marked for the .38 Special cartridge, and had an ejector rod shroud to protect it. Up front it had a Baughman-style ramped front sight with a highly visible red insert, which mated with an all black (no white outline), target-style, adjustable rear sight. The sight combination was regulated for the high speed, lightweight, 110 grain semi-jacketed hollowpoint of the Treasury load, and you’ll probably run out of elevation adjustment pretty quick if you’re shooting other loads that might be heavier and slower—a change to the rear blade may be required.

The unique feature of the Model 68 barrel is that the extension was longer, where it poked through the rear of the frame, so that it could be mated with a .38 Special-only cylinder (stamped with a “V” on the face, to denote the .38 Special chambering).  The cylinder window of the repurposed Model 66 frame was built to accommodate a longer (1.67”) .357 Magnum cylinder, so when the shorter (1.56”) .38 Special cylinder was fitted, the forcing cone had to be moved rearward to maintain an appropriate cylinder gap.  The longer barrel extension and shorter cylinder are the major items that make a Model 68 visually distinctive.

On early Model 68s, the barrel was pinned to the frame and the cylinder had recessed chambers, but those features were eliminated by the time of the 68-2 version pictured in this article. One feature that did survive were the grooves along the top strap, to reduce glare on the long-barreled gun.

Smith & Wesson Model 68
The frames of CHP-issued Model 68s were distinctively marked. Note the .38 Special-length cylinder, which required a longer barrel extension, since the frame window was designed for a longer, .357 Magnum-length cylinder.

The Model 68 was built with a grooved service trigger that measured 0.265” across, which was a good width for a combat gun that was intended to be fired double action (although the grooves are of debatable merit).  It had a 0.375” semi-target hammer, which was also a good choice, as the old days of training officers to shoot single action were over, and a fat target hammer would have been both unnecessary and a hindrance.

The Smith & Wesson Model 68 came from the factory with checkered walnut target stocks, but a large percentage of officers replaced these immediately with aftermarket grips that fit the square butt K-frame, like the extremely popular Pachmayr “Gripper” model grips shown on this sample.

In service

The Model 68 was a sturdy gun for the Patrol, and fared much better than the 4 inch Model 67 Combat Masterpiece, which was also adopted by the CHP for officers who needed or desired a shorter gun. The early Model 67s had particular problems with the hot Treasury Load, and CHP armorers were left dealing with a lot of broken guns before a better heat treatment was developed for their .38 Special K-frames, to prevent them from stretching and torquing so much under the non-SAAMI, +P+ pressures.  Even then, the Model 67 required more frequent armorer-level maintenance to keep them within specs after shooting the overpressure load. The stronger, .357-rated frame of the Model 68 endured more abuse before it required similar maintenance.

When fed a steady diet of .357s, the Model 66 and its blued brother, the Model 19, developed a reputation for forcing cone cracks at the 6 O’Clock position, where the barrel extension was shaved to make room for the cylinder and gas ring. However, the +P+ .38 Special didn’t seem to bother the longer barrel extension on the Model 68.

In the beginning, almost all Highway Patrolmen rode motorcycles. But by the 1960s, most CHP officers were driving cars, and a 6 inch gun could be difficult to wear in a seated position on a bench seat, or in the close confines of a vehicle like the tiny Ford Mustang pursuit vehicle that came on line in the mid-80s. Swivel holsters had always been a popular choice amongst Highway Patrolmen, and many Model 68s were carried in them by officers who didn’t want to carry a shorter gun, like the 4 inch Model 67, instead.

Smith & Wesson Model 68
“A swivel holster, like this Hoyt Breakfront, could make carrying the six inch barreled Model 68 more comfortable while seated, but could also beat your leg to death if you had to run while wearing it!”

When the Model 68 and 67 were first issued, they came with a pair of Second Six speedloaders to assist in reloading them more effectively, another derivative of the tragic Newhall experience.

End of an era

The Smith & Wesson Model 68 came aboard in 1977 and lasted until 1990, when the CHP left the revolver behind and went to a semiauto pistol.  It was replaced with another Smith & Wesson product, the .40 S&W Model 4006, making the CHP the first large agency to adopt both the gun and the caliber.

Smith & Wesson made a reported 6,055 Model 68s between 1977 and 1988, most of which went to the CHP. In 1983, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) purchased and issued some Model 68s to its officers, and all of those were modified to fire double action only, per LAPD policy.  The Los Angeles Police Revolver and Athletic Club did sell a few Model 68s to members and officers for personal use, and those guns had unmodified actions that retained the single action capability.

Smith & Wesson Model 68
The Model 68 carried the CHP into the autopistol era. It was replaced by another stainless Smith & Wesson that (like the 68) the CHP was the first agency to adopt–the .40 S&W caliber Model 4006.

However, the CHP, by far, was the principal buyer of these guns.  Model 68s (and Model 67s) issued by the CHP were stamped on the left side of the frame with “CHP” just below the cylinder, and these markings were not altered when the guns were sold to CHP personnel after their use was discontinued. Some sources state that the distinctive “CHP” marking was overstamped to “OHB” on some guns, and this was probably done to the remaining inventory of guns that were not purchased by officers, before the CHP sold them to distributors for commercial resale.

Because of their relative rarity, most Revolver Guys will never see a Smith & Wesson Model 68 in person. That’s a shame, because they’re excellent firearms and a unique piece of law enforcement history. If you find one, make sure you don’t pass it up!

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Author: Mike Wood

Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Mike Wood is a certified revolver nut, an NRA Law Enforcement Division-certified Firearms Instructor, and a columnist at PoliceOne.com. He is also the author of Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis, the definitive study of the infamous, 1970 California Highway Patrol shootout in Newhall, California. Please visit the official website for this book at www.newhallshooting.com for more information.

14 thoughts on “Missing Link: The Smith & Wesson Model 68”

  1. Cool article. Was there ever an explanation of the “OHB” overstamp? Was it just to remove/hide the CHP stamp, or did it have a meaning (perhaps “One Handsome Blaster”)?

    I spend enough time in a car or seated in an office chair that a 6 inch gun really wouldn’t work for me (even open carried), but I sure want one each time I see pictures of the old police revolvers (the same thing goes for 6 shot N frames).

  2. Thanks for the kind comments, Gents! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    “One Handsome Blaster!” I love it!!!

    I’ve never seen an “OHB” marked gun, but Supica reports they are out there.

    Around the time that these guns were retired, the CHP surplussed some older Remington 870s to a distributor, and wouldn’t you know it–one of these CHP-marked shotguns was later recovered at a crime scene. That made a lot of folks at HQ unhappy, and I suspect the Model 68s had their department markings obliterated to avoid another incident like that. I don’t think the “OHB” had any special meaning–it was probably just the easiest way to deface the markings without damaging the frame.

    Again, if a 68 was sold to an officer (they were allowed to purchase their issued 67 or 68 in lieu of turning it in for disposal), the “CHP” markings wouldn’t have been touched. It was only the guns that were left over and surplussed to distributors that would have been defaced.

  3. Thanks for the history lesson!

    My dad was an Alabama Trooper in the 60’s and I started on the job in ’81. I was raised on Smith and Wesson wheelguns.

    Still have a few and don’t feel overmatched if I’ve got one on my hip with a couple of Safariland Comp II’s nearby…..

    I really enjoy your site and appreciate the work that goes into it. There are a few of us old school guys still around. I’m in year 33 toting a gun and shield and think I have a few more good ones left.

    1. Thank you Sir! We’re having a lot of fun and we’re glad to know others are enjoying it, too.

      Thank you for over three decades of service! That’s really something to be proud of. I hope the younger guys are paying attention to what you’re teaching them.

  4. There are also 68’s with the CHP motor symbol on the right side. They came in a presentation case and were from the Association of California Highway Patrolman. I am told a belt buckle also came in the box but have never seen the buckle. The presentation case for the one I owned did not have a spot for the buckle so just passing on what I have been told.

    1. Thanks Walt, I remember the presentation guns, but at the time I wrote this article, I couldn’t recall if they were 68s or 66s. I’m glad you are able to confirm them as 68s. Earlier versions of the presentation guns were 19s with the seven-pointed star on the right sideplate.

      The later guns you’re describing did indeed have the “winged wheel” symbol of the Highway Patrol on the right sideplate which dated back to the early motor squad days in California. The symbol was used as the cap piece on the uniform cap (and is still used today on the campaign hat) and the CAHP adopted it as well, with the addition of a banner bearing the association’s name.

      I remember the guns being sold both with and without the buckle. I think the buckle was an extra that you could upgrade the package with. Similar buckles were sold at the academy PX, and I think there’s one in my Dad’s collection still . . . will have to look for it.

  5. Great article about the Mod 68. My 68 is marked on the left side of the barrel .38 S&W Special Ctg.
    The right side frame has the Calif. Association of Highway Patrolmen winged wheel logo and the words “limited addition”. Right side barrel in script “California Highway Patrol”. The belt buckle also has the winged wheel in gold with grey background.
    These guns were purchased through the CHP Association and I believe the Bill Davis Company did the engraving.

    1. Thanks for the great details Reid! Sounds like a beautiful gun. I think you’re correct about Bill Davis, since he had such a close association with the CHP (as a retiree and one of the most valued members of their Blue & Gold shooting team).

  6. Hey, so I stumbled across this when trying to identify an old revolver I inherited from my Uncle. It was a heck of a process, because I could tell by the size and weight of the thing, this gun was meant for magnum rounds, but the cylinder was obviously sized for .38 special. I started to think this was like, a baby ‘Dirty Harry’ for people who wanted that big sized revolver to show off but couldn’t handle a Magnum round.

    But after a few google searches, here I am. The gun I have is absolutely the same handgun, it’s identical to the one in your pictures, it even has the same rubber grips.

    There is a few oddities though. Mine says OHP on the side, and it looks like it might be an overstamp, but if it is, it’s a very neat and well done one. The O looks a bit thicker and darker then the HP. The ‘Model 68’ overstamp when you open the cylinder is much messier. Secondly, mine can fire single action. I thought all the ones surplus’d out were double action only? And finally, the inside of mine has ‘AZ’ stamped on it when you open the cylinder. My Uncle’s home state was Arizona. Did any of these end up in the hands of Arizona troopers as well perhaps? Would explain why it still has single action capability.

    Regardless, it’s nice knowing I have a notable gun here. This is actually the first gun I fired, back in the early 90s when I was very young (and by fired, I mean my uncle held it mostly and helped me aim and feel the recoil. I didn’t solo fire a gun until I was much older).

    1. Hi Jayson, I’m glad you found us here and I hope you’ll stick around!

      Your gun sounds like a CHP issue Model 68 that was surplused by the state. The “8” on the Model 68 designation looks a little messy on all the Model 68s that I have seen, since the frames were originally stamped “66” and the last “6” had to be corrected into an “8” with the overstamp. Similarly, the “O” on the frame was originally a “C,” which is why it is darker than the “HP” which follows. The state disfigured the “CHP” marking with an overstamp before they were sold as surplus.

      It’s interesting that only the “C” was disfigured on your gun. Supica reports that the “P” was usually overstamped to a “B,” but yours apparently was not. Honestly, I’ve never seen any of the overstamped guns before, and don’t know if Supica’s information is correct, or if your gun somehow escaped the full treatment. If you have pictures, please send them to Justin at Justin@revolverguy.com

      I don’t know the origin of the “AZ,” but I’m certain the gun wasn’t issued by Arizona DPS. They were already carrying Sig P220s and P226s by the time the Model 68 was surplused from CHP. If I remember correctly, the state of Kalifornia required the guns to be surplused through a distributor that was outside of the state, to help minimize the chance that they would show up in Kalifornia again, so maybe the “AZ” represents that the gun was surplused to an Arizona-based distributor? You didn’t mention where the AZ was stamped–can you specify?

      It’s not unusual that your gun has single action capability. All the CHP guns were true double actions, with both a single and double action notch on the hammer. The only guns that had no single action notch were those issued by LAPD. The LA Police Revolver and Athletic Club guns retained the single action notch.

      Again, I’m glad you found us and hope you’ll stick around to learn more about all these great guns and gear!

      1. So, I took a moment and re-examined the gun with a magnifying glass and better lighting and I fear I was mistaken. The P is indeed over stamped with B and the ‘AZ’ when you open the cylinder is actually ‘A2’. That’s embarrassing. Teaches me to rush as post like that.

        Looks like it’s just a regular, stock Model 68. Sorry for the error, but thanks for the article helping me identify this thing. I don’t think I’d have ever figured what this gun was without it. And I’ll absolutely be sticking around. I learned to shoot on .38 special revolvers. I have a deep nostalgia for them and am glad I own a somewhat notable revolver.

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