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Are Revolvers Good For Self Defense?

Though most concealed-carry shooters prefer pistols these days, a cadre of knowledgeable, experienced self-defense aficionados prefer revolvers, sometimes referred to as wheelguns for the...

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Compact 357s from Rossi, Rock Island Armory, and Colt

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Rossi Model 971 VRC 357 Magnum

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Colt King Cobra KCOBRA-SB3BB 357 Magnum

GUN TESTS GRADE: A$838The new King Cobra is different from the original King Cobra models made from 1986 through 1992. Unlike the original King...

Magnum Revolvers: 6-, 7-, and 8-Shooters from Taurus, S&W

We test three 357 Magnum revolvers with different capacities for personal defense. We liked the Taurus revolvers the best, with the Model 66 and Model 608 hitting like heavyweights. So which won?

Which Cowboy Revolver? We Test Three 357 Magnum Guns

We recently tested three single-action traditional-style revolvers in the popular 38 Special/357 Magnum chambering to find which revolver would be best for Cowboy Action Shooting. We also considered the merits of each as a trail gun. While some may scoff, there are many single-action revolvers in use for home protection, including protecting the homestead against predators, so we had to consider this role as well. The three revolvers were from Traditions Performance Firearms: the Sheriff's Model, the Liberty Model, and the Frontier Model. The qualifying difference between the three revolvers are their barrel lengths, though in this test, they are vastly different overall. The longer the barrel, the greater the weight of the revolver as well. The barrels were 3.5, 4.75, and 5.5 inches long. While we liked the 5.5-inch barrel the best based on balance, point, and fast-paced accuracy, the gun itself was the roughest revolver tested as far as the trigger action went and the only one that gave trouble. It wasn't difficult to get it up and running, but this just isn't welcome in a new revolver. On the other hand, the Sheriff's Model was a fun gun to shoot, but not the most practical. We cannot recommend it for CAS competition, but it makes a good recreational handgun and perhaps even a personal-defense revolver for those skilled with the single action. The 4.75-inch-barrel Liberty revolver was the most accurate revolver and was well finished with beautiful laser engraving. It was more accurate than the longer-barrel revolver from the benchrest but not as easy to get a fast hit with on the action course.

When you choose a single-action revolver for Cowboy Action Shooting, a sense of style and history are important. Reliability and good value are also important. When considering the single-action revolver, the 7.5-inch barrel length is regarded as too large and heavy by most shooters. A shorter-statured shooter may find the muzzle in his boot tops in a conventional holster. The fit, finish, and barrel length and balance, then, are important. For recreational use, one may be as good as the other. The greatest accuracy, velocity and handling advantages are more important in a handgun to be used in CAS competition. Considerations other than accuracy, such as heft and fast handling, are important. The speed of the draw is important. The so-called Tall Draw with a long-barrel revolver isn't as fast as with the shorter handguns. This fact gave birth to the original SAA that came to be known as the Gunfighter's barrel length. The barrel was cut right to the ejector rod, and this resulted in a 4.75-inch-barrel revolver. The compromise 5.5-inch barrel length was often called the Artillery revolver and issued to cannoneers. The short 3-inch-barrel revolver was called the shopkeep's or, more popularly, the Sheriff's Model. We tested all three to determine which has an advantage.

The caliber wasn't difficult to choose. While the 45 Colt, 44-40 and 38-40 may be more authentic to the time period, the 38 Special is the superior cartridge for competition today, we believe. The larger calibers are sometimes smoky when downloaded. The 38 Special responds well with Cowboy Action loads. If you desire, the 357 Magnum cartridge may be loaded for use as a trail gun or as a defensive handgun. Anyone who uses the SAA revolver well in CAS competition would be a formidable opponent in a home-defense situation.

For ammunition, we chose three loads, one in 38 Special and two in 357 Magnum. We used a handload consisting of the Magnus cast bullets 200-grain RNL ($49.10 for 500 bullets from MagnusBullets.com) and enough Titegroup powder for 720 fps. This is an outstanding load with plenty of bearing surface for accuracy. It hits the steel plates hard. Next, we used the Black Hills Ammunition 357 Magnum 158-grain cowboy load ($30.30/50 rounds from AmmunitionToGo.com). Loaded to 805 fps on average, this load offers the ease of loading of the full-length Magnum case but is loaded to 38 Special velocity. Finally, we used the Federal 125-grain JHP as a general-purpose 357 Magnum load to determine how the pistols perform with Magnum loads. It costs $21.30/20 rounds. While Cowboy Action guns are seldom fired with full-power ammunition, for Gun Tests, Magnum loads were an important part of the evaluation equation.

Double-Action 357 Magnums: Ruger & S&W Revolvers Tested

Among the most popular revolvers is the double-action 357 Magnum, and shooters can confirm this because Smith & Wesson recently reintroduced the Combat Magnum and Ruger has introduced a seven-shot GP100 357 Magnum. Those companies wouldn't (purposefully) add a couple of dogs to their inventories. Shooters like the 4-inch 357 configuration because these revolvers make for excellent all-round hunting, personal defense, and target guns. Some revolver fans also favor them for concealed carry. Also, they will stand up to long-term storage and come up shooting. It is interesting that a number of special teams in Europe and the U.S. Military keep the 357 Magnum in inventory for this reason.

Readers have asked us to revisit the category with an eye toward picking a used wheelgun that could save them a couple hundred bucks — that is, they wanted us to go bargain hunting. So we purchased a quartet of used revolvers from major brands that included adjustable sights with 4-inch barrels capable of serving for some types of hunting and for home and auto defense. In other words, we wanted the best go-anywhere do-anything revolver, not a specialized concealed-carry type, such as the Ruger SP101. The 357 Magnum is a great defense cartridge and also a fine pest and varmint round in accurate handguns. With the proper loads, the cartridge is versatile and will take deer-sized game at modest distances. Also, a major advantage of the 357 Magnum is the ability of the revolver to chamber 38 Special +P or stouter cartridges, but as important, softer-shooting loads as well. A practice regimen of twenty 38 Specials for every Magnum is recommended by most trainers. We elected to test the revolvers with both 38 Special and 357 Magnum loads and also to include handloads that have proven themselves. Interestingly, the two Ruger GP100 revolvers, one in stainless steel and one in blued finish, showed practically the same firing line and absolute accuracy performance. However, the two Smith & Wesson revolvers, also one blued and one stainless, had considerably different characteristics.

The test firearms started with the Smith & Wesson Model 19 Combat Magnum, $800 used. This particular Combat Magnum came with a display case and a knife with matching serial number — pretty neat, but also pricey. The Combat Magnum name gave way to the Model 19 designation in 1957, the year when Smith & Wesson changed from names to model numbers. It has always sold well with a 4-inch barrel, in either bright blue or nickel finishes. Other barrel lengths have appeared as well, with 6-inch (1963) and 2.5-inch (1966) barrels showing up as mainline production guns. There is also a rare variation of the Model 19 with a 3-inch barrel. The Model 19 was dropped from the line in 1999 as police agencies migrated to semi-autos, but Smith & Wesson reintroduced the Model 19 Classic (4.25-inch barrel) at the 2018 NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits (Model No. 12040, MSRP $826). There's also a Performance Center Model 19 Carry Comp No. 12039 (MSRP $1092) with a tritium front night sight, custom wood and synthetic boot grips, and a 3-inch PowerPort vented barrel for recoil management. The revolver features a trigger overtravel stop and Performance Center tuned action. We previously tested a less-expensive Model 19-4 nickel-finish variant in the March 2015 issue, giving it an A grade.

Next up was a silver-skinned copy of Model 19, the stainless-steel Smith & Wesson Model 66 Combat Magnum 38 Special +P/357 Magnum, $420. In July 1971 Smith & Wesson announced its first stainless-steel 357 Magnum, the Model 66. Like the blued Model 19, the Model 66 was a favorite of everyday cops who wanted a Model 19 that was rust resistant. The 4-inch-version, like the one we tested, was the most popular. It stayed in continuous production until 2005, when Smith & Wesson dropped the Model 66 at its 66-7 iteration. Then production on the handgun was restarted in 2014, with the 66-8 unit, which is still in the catalog as Model No. 162662, with a suggested retail of $849. In the June 2001 issue, we tested a 2.5-inch-barrel M66, saying of it: "Even with the small problems we encountered, this is a superior weapon, and few revolvers can match this incarnation of the snubnosed K-frame." In the April 2002 issue, we tested a 4-inch Smith & Wesson M66-2, $219. That Smith & Wesson Model 66 was gauged to be in 95 percent condition, which would bring a Blue Book price of $300 at the time. It earned a "Buy It" recommendation.

Taurus Model 66 38 Sp. +P/357 Magnum, $325

When we began testing the 4-inch 357s, we wondered if a longer barrel, such as the 6-inch Taurus 66 357 Magnum, might give us the best of both worlds. It is a K-frame revolver like the Combat Magnum, but a 6-inch barrel might give us good velocity and accuracy. We were disappointed in its performance. Still, we would have got our money's worth for a modestly priced recreational and home-defense revolver.

New Revolvers from Kimber, Charter Arms, Ruger, and Colt

Why are there so many snubnose revolvers being manufactured? There is no sign that big-bore snubnose revolvers are going away any time soon, especially with manufacturers introducing new snubnoses. Snubnose wheelguns have been and are still excellent choices for self-defense sidearms. Easy to use, no magazine to lose, and chambered in powerful calibers, revolvers are here to stay. So we took a look at four new snubnose revolvers: the Charter Arms Boomer, Ruger's LCRx, the Kimber K6s CDP, and the Colt Cobra. These snubnose revolvers all proved to be reliable, safe, consistent, and accurate for self defense. What we experienced with these revolvers was a variety of grip sizes, some of which our testers said were too small for comfortable shooting or they were too big for ideal concealed carry.

The sights on three guns were very serviceable, while one didn't have sights at all. The triggers separated the pack, as did the chamberings. Two used a double-action-to-single-action trigger and two featured a double-action-only (DAO) trigger. A revolver chambered in 357 Magnum offers convenience because it can shoot 38 Special ammo, too. After tallying the scores, in our opinion the Ruger LCRx is a good choice for concealed carry, though we would tweak it. The Charter Arms Boomer, Kimber K6s, and Colt Cobra are all pretty good choices, but as you will see, the devil is in the details on those three.

We tested at 10 yards because these snubnose revolvers are made for concealed carry and short-range encounters. But we learned 10 yards was too far if you don't have sights, so we accuracy tested the Charter Arms Boomer at 7 yards. Not having sights is a liability as the distance between you and a bad actor increases. Though we typically test at 25 yards, FBI data shows that most gunfights between an officer and an attacker occur from a distance of 0 to 5 feet apart. We concealed-carry citizens can expect the same. The reality is these revolvers are made for up-close work. Short sight radii, smallish grips, and DA triggers do not make for tack-driving accuracy.

We also carried these revolvers in inside-the-waistband (IWB) and appendix-carry-style holsters. We took the time to practice our draw and dry-fire these revolvers at an imagined bad actor a few steps away. On the range, we tested for accuracy using a rest. The DA/SA trigger mode on the LCRx and Colt provided an edge over the DAO models. We also tested a variety of ammunition, and the K6s and LCRx proved to be more practical and versatile because they can fire both 38 Special and 357 Magnum cartridges. Here's what we thought about each handgun in more detail.

Good Buys, or Goodbyes? We Test Experienced Wheelguns

Before law enforcement changed over to semi-automatic pistols, most officers carried a 357 Magnum revolver. Though some write off revolvers as the firearms equivalent of rotary phones, many of our staff consider the revolver to be a simple-to-operate self-defense firearm with built-in safeties and no magazine to lose. We also like the 357 Magnum cartridge. In addition to self-defense use, some team members have used the round to hunt medium-size game, so power isn't an issue.

Because a good revolver stands the test of time and usage well, but also depreciates enough to become affordable for more folks, we assembled three used revolvers from what was once the big three of U.S. revolver manufacturers—Colt, Smith & Wesson and Ruger. In general, we would rate the condition of these revolvers from 80 to 90 percent by NRA standards—we could tell they have been used, but we could not see where they had been abused. All samples were chambered in 357 Magnum, and all were designed for self-defense with barrel lengths that ranged from 2.15 inches to 4 inches and double-action/single-action trigger modes. Safeties are built into these three revolvers. The S&W uses a hammer stop, while the Ruger and Colt use hammer transfer bars.

From that starting point, this pack then diverged, with each offering characteristics that ranged from thumbs-down to thumbs-up for our shooters. Some incorporated an excellent grip that helped tame the felt recoil of the 357 Magnum; some were slim and more easily carried concealed, and some were equipped with large, easy-to-align sights.

With any used revolvers, we have a process of testing the chamber-barrel alignment with a range rod, and we found all were aligned. We also check the timing to see how the cylinder rotates in DA mode and SA mode to ensure the chamber is aligned with the bore of the barrel. They were. We also look at the gap between the front of the cylinder and the forcing cone or rear of the barrel. We use a feeler gauge and expect to have .006 clearance. Any less and there is a chance the cylinder may bind after shooting as fouling builds up. Any more and the user might experience splatter from burning gases escaping from the gap. We also look for forward and rearward play in the cylinder when locked in the frame. These revolvers were tight and stood as good examples of the revolver manufacturers' art and science.

We tested accuracy at 25 yards, which pushed the envelope of these revolvers' capabilities, depending on the user. We also found these revolvers had good accuracy. In close-range testing, some of these revolvers could get lead downrange fast and in good groups. Test ammunition consisted of Winchester PDX1 Defender 357 Magnum with a 125-grain bonded jacket hollowpoint, Aguila 357 Magnum with a 158-grain semi-jacketed hollowpoint, and SIG Sauer 38 Special +P, loaded with a 125-grain jacketed hollowpoint.

We had no issues with any of the revolvers. They all performed in DA and SA mode and loaded and ejected empties if we did our part and used gravity to our advantage. We did find that the S&W had the advantage as a concealed-carry revolver, but the Ruger and Colt were quite capable. Here's what we found out about these handguns after the brass cooled.

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