ADDENDUM August 2020: I no longer use a 1957 M3, though I still believe it to be the best built Leica M camera. Currently, I use an M2-R (see here).
(Note: much of the technical information used in this post was provided by this site.)
The Leica M3 was manufactured between 1954 and 1967.
Many collectors favour M3s with high serial numbers (1 000 0000 and up), or — at the other end of the spectrum — the first 1 000 ones made (with serial numbers 700 XXX). The first group (with serial numbers over a million) are valued because they are thought to represent “perfected” late production examples, but as you will see below, that is a matter of perspective. The second group (early production ones) are coveted because, well, they were the first ones produced!
As a photographer however, my favourite M3s are the ones from the year 1957 (specifically the subset with serial numbers between 854 00 – 858 000) because they combine the very best attributes of both early and late M3 bodies.
Specifically, 1957 M3s have:
- Double stroke (DS) film advance levers with shorter arms (vs. single stroke arms); the shorter DS arms allow you to advance the film and simultaneously hold the camera with one hand.
- Modern shutter speeds (earlier models have the older speeds: 1, 1/2, 1/5, 1/10, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, 1/200…).
- Silent return on the film advance lever (later models produce a ratcheting sound when returning).
- Buddha (aka “Rabbit Ear”)-style lugs riveted (not screwed) to camera — no loosening or spinning of lugs.
- Film back door ball-bearing locking pins to prevent door from flapping open when changing film (only available in cameras with serial numbers between 854 000 – 858 000).