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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 improvements in the gun helped them to handle 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 larger and heavier 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.
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.
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. Jim Supica states 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!