Those who are most serious about Cowboy Action shooting tend to favor lighter-recoiling firearms so they can cut their times down, never mind that bigger guns like .45s tend to be more authentic, especially when stoked with black powder. Not that it takes any less skill to do well with lighter recoiling equipment, but it can give an edge, or so we've been told. This means .38 Special loads in handguns and rifles, and probably 20-gauge shotguns. How much benefit does a .38 Special offer over, say, a .45 Colt? There's a huge difference in recoil, even if the .45 shoots only light cowboy loads.
To find out more, we gathered a trio of .38 Special single-action six-shooters to see how well they'd do for us, and to find out how much we liked ‘em. All were .357 Mag-capable, and all had 4.75-inch barrels. The guns were a Ruger New Model 50th Anniversary Flat Top Blackhawk ($583), a Taurus Gaucho M38SA ($499), and from EMF Co., a resurrection of the old Great Western revolvers, the Great Western II "Californian" model ($450). We tested with three main types of ammo, Black Hills Cowboy loads, Federal 110-grain JHP .357 Mag, and with a modest handload in .38 Special cases that approximated Cowboy loads. Here's what we found.
No losers here: Ruger's KSP-821X and Smith & Wesson's 3-inch 60-15 are classics we wouldn't hesitate to buy. But Our Pick is the 5-inch S&W 60-18, a smooth, accurate, powerful gun.
At only $461, we would buy the Taurus 851 SSUL ahead of the more expensive Smith & Wesson 638-3, $620. Reason: The Taurus has a nifty adjustable rear sight that adds versatility.
The guns in this test — Smith & Wesson's .45 ACP 325PD and .357 Magnum 327, and the Taurus .41 Magnum 451 — all have problems that would make us think twice before buying them.
As a subscriber-supported publication, it is reasonable to believe that Gun Tests readers are passionate about guns. This means they have an active interest in collecting, shooting, participation in gun sports, and of course, self-defense. While it is easy to appreciate the most expensive firearms such as the Korth revolver (July 2002), each of us know that nearly any reliable handgun can be used to stop an act of aggression. In fact several people among our staff and associates became interested in firearms not from a family member nor via the NRA, but after playing the part of the victim wherein a handgun might have changed the outcome. It is easy to be reminded of this whenever we see a movie that begins with a horrendous or unspeakable crime against a defenseless victim. For example, in Jean Claude Van Damm's The Replicant, a serial killer enters the apartment of a young mother and brutally kills her. She is aware of his approach but does nothing. We find it amusing that this representative film and so many others could be shortened to approximately three minutes if the intended victim had merely lifted an unadorned .38 Special revolver and fired. But then we would have been denied the pleasures of so many more movies by the "muscles from Brussels."
At Gun Tests we often speak of features and modifications that push the performance of a given design further up the pyramid. What is this pyramid and why is it so important? Atop the pyramid is where all parts combine to produce the greatest possible results. Often the ability to climb the pyramid is linked directly to money. Most guns hover about midway up the pyramid in performance, function and appearance because they are priced in terms of available markets, i.e. your pockets and mine. But what if a firearm was produced without a price point in mind? How much would such a gun (in this case a 4-inch combat revolver) cost?
The five-shot snubbed-nosed .38 Special revolver is a traditional backup gun, but recent trends have tended to favor aluminum and titanium featherweights instead of steel-framed models. But steel still has its appeal, and we wanted to go back to earlier wheelgun versions to see what first made them favorites of couriers, detectives, and regular joes fifty years ago.
For this comparison, we chose two standard steel guns in .38 Special, the Taurus 85, $286, and S&W's $539 small-frame 36LS LadySmith, marketed to women, as its name suggests. But we paid no attention to that market positioning, because we've handled the LadySmith and knew its handling was on par, or perhaps better, than other boot-size guns pitched to men. Our thinking: From the muzzle forward, a bad guy can't tell the difference.
Also, with recent memories of testing featherweight titanium revolvers in mind, we wondered how much porting would affect felt recoil, and toward that end we also acquired a Taurus 85 with a ported barrel, $305. By comparing Taurus's standard barrel to the ported model, we hoped to find if we were willing to spend more time practicing with it than not.
Thirty-eight snub-nose. The phrase brings to mind old detective stories with sinister characters, clever plots and strange intrigues from the pens of Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie and Mickey Spillane. One can't help but think of Joe Friday on Dragnet, Cannon the fat man, and a host of other characters, some fictional, some real, all of whom used a snub-nose .38 to good—or other—purpose. The .38 snubbie might be considered an icon but, romance aside, the gun type is something of an anomaly. It suggests a hide-out gun, yet they're not the easiest guns to conceal. Also, if you want to hit something, you'd think a longer barrel would be preferred. However, there's another name for them: bell...
Terminology to describe lighter-framed concealable revolvers seems to be tracking changes in professional boxing. In the sweet science, no longer does a fighter compete merely as a bantamweight, middleweight or heavyweight. Now the prefixes light, for just under a given weight-class structure, and super, meaning a little heavier than a certain poundage range, are divvying up the match-ups so tightly that we may soon see 170-pound guys whacking only 171-pound opponents.
Likewise, in gun terms, we're confronted with evermore descriptive language for heft, such as Air-Weight, Air-Lite, and Ultra-Light—most often labeling snubbies demanded by today's CHL holder. These airy words are designed...
It may be misleading to refer to the guns in this test, the Ruger GP100, the Rossi 971, and Smith & Wesson's Models 14 and 686-5 as double-action revolvers. This is because each revolver is actually two guns in one. They can be fired single action just like the cowboy guns of old as well as by double-action pull. Surely there are more than a few semiautos on the market that offer double- and single-action triggers on the same frame, but few of those can match the precise double action of even the lowest-priced wheelgun in this test. Furthermore, these revolvers in box-stock condition go a long way in replicating the sensation of a "hair trigger" often found on custom-built single-action 1911...
Along with our experiences with the .32 Magnums, we also shot and evaluated two more ultralight .38 Special +P revolvers, which in our minds offer comfort on par with the .32s while shooting rounds most Gun Tests readers will recognize and prefer. Here's what we thought of S&W's seven-shot titanium Centennial 242 and the Taurus 85ULTi five-shot .38 Special +P.
Smith & Wesson 242
Our first experience with Smith & Wesson's Centennial series was the little five-shot alloy Model 442. Perhaps the best hideout gun of all time, it featured a fine double-action-only trigger that seemed custom. The trigger pull was long but very smooth and could be halted with the firing pin ready to go...
[IMGCAP(1)] Shortly after the advent of Colt's Model P Single Action Army, range-riders, lawmen, desperadoes, and even average citizens suddenly wanted a revolver that handled the new self-contained brass cartridges. However, many shooters liked the feel of their old Navy or Army cap-and-ball six-shooters, and didn't want to give them up all that quickly. Solution: They could have their percussion pistol converted to a breech-loader.
During the 1870s, many percussion revolvers were converted to handle cartridge-type ammunition. Gunsmiths drilled out the existing percussion cylinder, added a breech plate with loading gate and ejector rod, and fitted a firing pin to the hammer. Afterward, t...