April 1999

Carry Question: Which High-Cap Revolver Should You Purchase?

When we examined holster-to-hand performance of double-action seven-shooters, we liked the $518 Smith & Wesson 686 Plus somewhat better than a $395 Taurus 617SS2KL.

Choosing between a semiauto and a revolver has always been a dilemma. Not long ago the choice was between six reliable shots of .38 Special (later .357 Magnum) or seven (then eight) shots of .45 ACP in a 1911-style pistol that until recently was not at all foolproof. The revolvers were also more accurate out of the box due to their fixed barrel design, and they were capable of firing ammunition of any description so long as it fit inside the cylinders. GI and even post-war 1911s were often fit with generous tolerances to ensure reliability, but as a result, their accuracy suffered.

By the time 1911s were offered with true precision fit and custom features (which were simply upgrades that should have been offered all along) other, more user-friendly designs had entered the marketplace. The industry had begun to serve not only military and law enforcement personnel, but also the growing ranks of private citizens licensed to carry concealed weapons. Before a capacity limit of 10 was legislated into effect, pistols holding as many as 15+1 rounds of 9mm Luger were available. Naturally, this left the six-shot revolver in the dust.

However, the realization that 9mm was too light for police use was underscored by encounters with felons under the influence of drugs that gave them an air of invincibility. Going to the larger diameter .40 Smith & Wesson cartridge offered more stopping power but also took up more space in the mag and effectively lowered capacity. Downsizing the frame for better concealment lowered capacity further to a round count of eight or nine—sometimes even less if you like to give the spring in your mags a break for reliability purposes and leave one round out. All of a sudden six shots of the volcanic .357 Magnum cartridge was looking better, and the gap narrowed further with the introduction of seven and eight-shot revolvers. Simultaneously, having changed to issuing high-cap semi-autos, police departments and manufacturers decided via fear of litigation that double action–only operation was safer to carry and deploy than single-action cocked and locked. Suddenly, with action similarities and capacities converging, choosing between a revolver and semiauto has become even more difficult.

To make choosing an extra-capacity concealable wheelgun easier, we tested a stainless 2-inch Taurus 617SS2KL, $395, and Smith & Wesson’s 2.5-inch stainless L-framed 686 Plus, $518. In our judgment, these two short-barreled guns best represent which revolvers of this type consumers are most likely to carry, since eight-shot revos are large-framed guns, and the 4-inch seven shooters are noticeably longer and heavier than this pair. Of the two guns, we liked the Smith product better, since its accuracy and fit were superb. However, the Taurus product performed suitably as well, and its cheaper price may make it a better budget choice.

Following are more details about how the two products performed in our tests:

Smith & Wesson 686 Plus
Our recommendation: Buy it. You will have utter confidence in its ruggedness and your ability to shoot it well.

Click here to view the Smith & Wesson 686 Plus features guide


With an exposed backstrap and thin-profile Hogue grip, this $518 medium-frame 2.5-inch-barrel .357 Magnum revolver does its best to play the role of a concealable carry gun. The seventh round adds nothing to the 1.54-inch diameter of its cylinder, making it a mere 0.10 inch larger than the six-shot K-frame cylinder. Only the target hammer and adjustable rear sight threatens to snag clothing. The 686s are considered to be medium large in size, fitting between the small J-frame, medium K-frame, and jumbo N-series frame. The L-frame was built slightly taller to distance the crane from the barrel and accommodate a full outside diameter at the forcing cone. Additional weight can also be traced to the full lug barrel, which shrouds an abbreviated ejector rod.

Originally called the Combat Magnum, the 686 series is favored by Action Pistol aficionados for its accuracy and strength. As noted elsewhere, it shot sub 3-inch groups with all but one ammo tested. The front sight is pinned in place and can be switched out with little work. For pure target use we would have preferred a patridge rather than a ramped blade with orange insert. Depending on your ability to see color (many men are red/green color-blind), a plain ramp serrated to avoid glare may actually be easier to pick up.

The 686 Plus comes tapped for a scope mount just like the 6-inch target models, but the supplied adjustable rear sight is excellent. It should be pointed out that in the early days of hopping up the 1911 auto pistol, gunsmith Armand Swenson equipped his custom guns with this very same sight, purchased from S&W.

Initially, we sought to challenge the guns in a test of pure accuracy by placing targets at 25 yards and shooting five five-shot groups from a bench rest. We chose this distance to ensure we touched the limitations of each gun. For speed tests, we also fired the guns at paper targets designed to represent an 8-inch plate rack at 10 yards, recording elapsed times. We strove for variety in our choices of bullet weight and configuration.

Our accuracy and time-trial testing revealed serious flaws—and strengths—of the individual guns. The two revolvers had to make do with short tubes, 2.5 inches for the S&W 686 Plus and only 2 inches for the Taurus 617. One thing these short barrels had in common was a dislike for the Winchester 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter. With that round, both guns shot 5-inch patterns—five shots with that round was too large to call a group. (The most remarkable feature of this round, besides its gold color, was the hole it punched in the paper target—measuring 0.485 inch in diameter. Keep in mind, a .45 ACP case will fit cleanly through this hole. If it were accurate, this would surely be a Bullseye shooter’s dream round.) Otherwise, the 686+ was well below 3 inches with every ammunition tested. Why shouldn’t it be? This is S&W’s top target gun with the barrel refinished to snubby length. Within these five-shot groups were four-shot clusters of 1.7, 1.3, and 1.3 inches and two three-shot groups measuring 0.60 inch. Mind you, this is with ammo ranging from 180 to 110 grains.

Click here to view the Accuracy and Chronograph Data


Under any circumstance, trigger control is what accurate shooting is all about. Double action means a longer stroke of the trigger, equating to a longer period of time to obtain or mess-up a good sight picture, depending how you look at it. Plus, the longer the stroke the more likely the finger position on the trigger will change. Some professional shooters prefer a wide serrated trigger they can track forward and back. Others prefer a rounded edge on a thin trigger that will allow the finger to “roll” and slide across the trigger as the finger is pulled back.

The 686 Plus’s double-action trigger response was crisp and fast, we thought, though its timed runs of 4.11, 4.67, 3.75, 4.30, and 3.71 seconds were noticeably slower than the Taurus. Why did the Smith wheelgun lag? In part because of the superb adjustable rear target sight. Explanation: After missing with the Taurus, we saw the Smith’s great sight picture so well we found ourselves cutting it too fine, trying for dead-center hits. Also to the 686 Plus’s credit, we felt its trigger return speed allowed for a more consistent stroke. The more we shot it, the better we got with it, and the final and fastest run featured nearly dead center hits on all targets, at a time comparable to the median Taurus reading.

Taurus 617SS2KL
Our recommendation: Though we like the S&W better, we still say this gun is worth the money. If you are on a budget or not, here are seven rounds of .357 Magnum that will conceal as well as most five-shot .38 Special handguns.

Click here to view the Taurus 617SS2KL features guide


This 2-inch-barrel, stainless-steel .357 Magnum sells for $395. With an overall length of less than 7 inches, the Taurus 617 will go nearly anywhere a small-framed revolver can go. It will disappear into many inside-the-pants holsters meant for J-frames and even manages to slide into Uncle Mike’s sleeve-like pocket holster.

The finish on ours was polished stainless steel. This is not our first choice for a concealment gun, but it makes cleanup a snap. Though the front sight is a serrated ramp, we would have liked a contrast, such as a black-anodized finish instead of the brushed stainless. The barrel has a full lug, and the ejector rod is miniscule, protruding just 0.59 inch past the crane. We wondered how this would eject full-length magnum cartridges, but experienced no trouble with it at all.

The Taurus 617 is also available with a bobbed hammer (look for the letters CH added to the prefix), and all 617s come with a key that locks the hammer down. This lock is discreetly machined into the hammer and does not affect the profile or bulk of the gun. We don’t think it can be easily picked. At the very least the side plate would have to be removed and parts cut and replaced. With the light .357 Magnum 110JHP in place, the 617 is a lot of fun to shoot fast. Despite the pounding we gave it, we found no signs of wear. We’d replace the front sight with a dark colored blade and shave it to a height that suited our choice of bullet weight. Remember, this gun is only 4.75 inches tall, including the front sight. Also, it spans only 8 inches measured from the grip butt to the muzzle, an inch less than the 686 Plus at 9 inches. Its butt was thinner than the Smith’s as well, measuring 0.75 inch compared to the thicker S&W’s 0.9-inch butt width. At their widest points, the Taurus measured only a hair thicker, 1.56 inches to the 686’s 1.54 inches.

In the time trials, the 110JHP was the favorite round for our testers—plenty of flash and little recoil add up to fun and fast recovery time. Shooting from low ready and coming up on the “plates,” the shooting, or rather driving, characteristics of each gun came to light. The little Taurus needed to be handled very carefully to make the first shot accurate. With a short sight radius, service-style rear notch and humble front sight, you’ve got to be ready because the nature of the trigger is very fast. That is, pulling the trigger compresses a coil main spring that loads up and releases quickly.

The frame is smaller than the Smith’s, but there is enough room to get a high grip without interfering with the hammer. Runs with the Taurus were timed at 3.61, 3.45, 3.54, 3.94, and 4.10 seconds. The fastest times of 3.45 and 3.54 seconds actually included a miss on the first plate. The closer we got to 4 seconds the better the hits were.

The Taurus averaged 3.2 inches for all ammo outside the aforementioned dastardly 158-grain LSWCs and nearly managed to match the 686+ shooting the Winchester 110-grain JHPs (2.7 inches for the Taurus vs. 2.6 inches for the S&W).

Gun Tests Recommends
We conclude that because magazine restrictions have narrowed the gap between semiautos and revolvers in terms of capacity, we strongly believe that many self-defense shooters will find .357 wheelguns easier to master, may feel just as comfortable, and may shoot more accurately than many similarly powered semiautos.

We are likewise convinced shooting accurately from a semi-automatic pistol with a DAO trigger takes more practice than the average gun owner may be willing to put in. More often than not, we have seen wheelguns outshoot magazine guns, and we have seen revolvers shoot faster in double action–only operation than pistols shooting cartridges of comparable power. Still, unquestionably, semiautos hold more rounds than revolvers. Yes, but if seven accurately placed .357 Magnum revolver rounds are not enough, your subsequent pistol shots better be fast and well placed.

If this logic makes sense to you, then the next question you face, of course, is which revolver to buy. Of these two seven-shot products, we feel that the Smith & Wessson 686 Plus, $518, is as good as a production revolver can be for carry. If money isn’t a factor, we would choose it over the Taurus.

Nonetheless, we think the $395 Taurus 617SS2KL, $395, is a solid tool for a reasonable price, and we recommend it as well.