April 2013

Available Revolvers: Colt Python and S&W 686 Go Head to Head

In a tight gun market, used guns become more palatable to potential buyers, such as a classic 357 Magnum all-steel 4-inch model. The trouble is, they’re becoming ‘investments’ as well.

Revolvers changed the firearms world when Samuel Colt introduced the first true production model revolver available to the general public. Since then they have been surpassed by semiautomatics in capacity and overall use, but when it comes to reliability and staying power, can you really beat a classic wheelgun? In this test we look at two revolvers head to head that are considered by some to be the best available: the Colt Python and the Smith & Wesson Model 686-2.

We chose these two for a range of reasons, but the overriding motivation was fun. We believe most people who are purchasing these kind of revolvers are doing so for collecting and shooting entertainment, especially the Pythons, but there is the issue of availability as well. Our FFLs tell us that distributors are sold out of nearly everything but bolt-action rifles. Even single-action cowboy-style revolvers are sold out. People are buying whatever guns they can find, so with supplies tight and prices high, many are using their dollars to invest in iconic wheelguns, just like collectible Fords or Chevys.

We also wanted to look at these pistols on a value basis. The Python is widely regarded as one of the finest production revolvers ever made, and our testing here reconfirmed that. But that quality comes at a price, as Python sales figures continue to climb. When we tested this gun in 2000, a year after its termination, we priced it at $595. A recent check of concluded sales at GunAuction.com showed a pristine blued 1981 Colt Python 357 Magnum 4-inch barrel at a high of $2005 and a low of $995 for a blued gun in Very Good condition. Another blued gun in Very Good condition went for $1212, and an Excellent blued sample went $1799. A factory nickel finish sold for $1507. One gun like our test Python in matte stainless steel sold for $1299 on GunAuction. We found a GunBroker.com auction for one in near-mint condition that sold for $3025 (#327961477). Current "buy it now" prices on GunBroker range from $2000 to $3000. We’d rate the buttery action and low wear on our test gun as at least Excellent. FFL Kevin Winkle has our test gun up for sale and says the first $2500 or best offer will take it. It comes with the factory letter. A factory letter from Colt ($75) tells what the year of manufacture was, dealer it was sold to, and finish, barrel length, etc., so authenticity can be verified.

The 686 (no dash) was introduced in 1980 as the S&W Model 686 Distinguished Combat Magnum Stainless. It featured a flash-chromed forged hammer and trigger and had a six-shot cylinder. The -1 (1986) introduced the floating hand, then an "M" recall (1987) for the no-dash and -1 guns fitted a new hammer nose and firing pin bushing to deal with some ammo causing cylinder binding when fired. The -2 (1987) incorporated the "M" recall features as standard production. Like other 686-2s, our stainless six-shooter is built on S&W’s excellent L-frame with a full-lug barrel. It has a hammer-mounted firing pin, which means it’s a pre-lock design, has no MIM parts, and has its original Goncalo Alves flared wood grips. Those grips have minor chipping along the edges, and there are faint turning marks on the cylinder and not much else wrong. Winkle said he would want $900 for it if he were selling it, which he is not. That’s in line with Gunbroker buy-it-nows ranging from $700 to $900.

Also, these guns are no slouches when it comes to personal self-defense. The revolver offers an on-demand choice of single or double action, it will run reliably on any load strength, and the 357 Magnum guns will also shoot cheaper 38 Special rounds to boot, mixing power and affordability, given normal ammunition pricing. Also, hung with a 4-inch barrel, they offer good sight radius and plenty of power. In sum, for many Gun Tests readers, they’re just right for car or home defense.

So we’ll give away the ending and say that if money were no object, we’d buy the Python. But for most of us, money does matter, and the 3:1 dollar ratio between a Python and a Smith is a lot. Essentially, the question that has to be answered is, Would we be willing to settle for the Smith & Wesson? Read on to find out.

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