As much as some may think the revolver’s sun has set, we see the platform being reinvented and reconfigured for today’s shooter and everyday carry (EDC). For those who like the simplicity of a double-action wheelgun — at contact distances, they’ve always been durable point-and-shoot choices — we chose three six-shot 357 Magnum revolvers that are newly manufactured and in a reasonable price range of $504 to $894.
The Smith & Wesson Model 66 Combat Magnum comes from an iconic line of Model 66 revolvers. We tested a Model 66-8 variant and found a lot to like about this newest version. There were also a few things we didn’t like. Remember, with a 66-8 you are investing in a pedigree, and there is a cost to access that lineage.
Next, we tested a Ruger GP100 Model 1790, this particular one being a Talo Exclusive, and we think Ruger and Talo did a great job of trying to make a compact revolver out of Ruger’s medium-size GP100 revolver. The Ruger is chunky, but that just means there is more to love, right?
Our third handgun was Rock Island Armory AL3.1 3520S. The Rock Island (RIA) is a relatively new revolver imported from and built in the Czech Republic. We tested a blued AL3.0 a few issues back and gave it a solid A- rating, so here we wanted to handle and shoot a stainless revolver to see how it fared. Could it be a good choice for those wanting to get into a 357 revolver, but who are on a strict budget? Out of the box, we could see it was not as eye appealing as the S&W and Ruger, but we’ll take performance over looks any day.
The common elements of these powerful revolvers are first and foremost the frame size; all are more or less medium-size frames. All have a six-round capacities, 2-inch to 2.75-inch barrels, rubber stocks, double-action/single-action triggers, and plenty of recoil with stiff 357 Magnum loads like the Federal Hydra-Shok self-defense round we used. They also have good accuracy off the bench. The Rock Island has a fixed-groove rear sight, and the Smith & Wesson and Ruger/Talo have adjustable rear sights. The Ruger revolver was more traditional with an all-steel barrel. The S&W and RIA both use more-modern manufacturing approaches with two-piece barrels.
How We Tested
Before actual range testing, we dry-fired these revolvers in double-action trigger mode to accustom ourselves to the trigger pulls. Double-action trigger-pull weights ranged from 11.5 to a very heavy 15 pounds. A heavy trigger-pull weight makes shooting these revolvers more difficult. We thought the Model 66’s trigger was way too heavy, the RIA trigger was okay, and the Ruger trigger was exceptionally smooth and slick. We did not have any issues short-stroking these triggers. These guns were factory new, but we still went through our pre-range testing of the cylinder gap with a feeler gauge and used our range rod match kit ($130; Brownells.com) to check barrel and chamber alignment. All the guns were in spec for cylinder gap, the space from the forcing cone to the front of the cylinder. This dimension should be from 0.004 to 0.010 inch.
On the range, we tested for accuracy using our range bag as a rest and fired in single-action trigger mode with targets set at 15 yards. We used Thompson Trouble Shooter Target ($6 for five targets from ThompsonTarget.com) with 4- and 6-inch red and bright yellow bullseyes. These targets have a legend at the bottom that shows bullet holes clustered in different areas around the bullseye — left of bullseye, right of bullseye, top of bullseye, etc. — that provides an explanation of why you are not hitting the center. Could be jerking the trigger, anticipating recoil, etc. We have a few “lazy-finger” shooters who push the trigger slightly to the side, rather than pull straight back. Right-hand shooters with lazy fingers will push hits to the left, and left-hand shooters with this affliction will push shots right of center.
The 357 Magnum revolver is as much practical and versatile as it is effective. These revolvers are compatible with both 38 Special and 357 Magnum cartridges. Starting at the mild end, we ran Armscor 38 Special ammo loaded with a 158-grain FMJ bullet. For 357 Magnum ammo, we used Aguila ammunition loaded with a 158-grain JSP and Federal Premium Hydra-Shoks loaded with a 158-grain JHP bullet. The 158-grain bullet is a sweet spot and original load for the 357 Magnum. This bullet weight is also very common for 38 Special and 38 Special +P loads. We also noted that the 38 Special loads printed higher on the target when using the same aim point as 357 Mag ammo. This is due to bullet speed and muzzle flip.
For speed shooting, we moved to 10 yards and fired at 8-inch paper plates in double-action mode as fast as we could while still being accurate. This exercise pushes you to that point where too much speed with the trigger can cause a miss on the target. We can safely say Jerry Miculek is still the speed king with a wheelgun. If you want to train for speed with a revolver, we suggest using 38 Special cowboy loads or reduced-velocity loads so you can practice technique. Going full speed with Hydra-Shoks, we felt as if we grabbed the tail of a rattlesnake. Not exactly fun, and the more we pushed, the worse it was.
For speedloaders, we used Tuff Products six-round QuickStrip speed loaders ($9.45 for two strips from TuffProducts.com), which are a flexible urethane material that allows you to load two rounds at a time, and it lays flat in your pocket. These are what we use for EDC. For holsters, we used a nylon Uncle Mike’s Inside the Waistband (IWB) holster and a Galco leather Phoenix belt holster. Here’s what we found:
Gun Tests Grade: A- (OUR PICK)
The Model 66 Combat Magnum was introduced in 1971 and produced until 2005, when it was discontinued. It went through seven design changes during that time. In 2014, S&W resurrected the Model 66 with an eighth engineering change. Our sample is the newest 66-8 model. This revolver has a legacy to uphold, and we think this revolver could be better. First, some history.
|Overall Length||7.8 in.|
|Barrel Length||2.75 in.|
|Barrel Twist Rate||1:18.75 in. RH|
|Sight Radius||4.5 in.|
|Overall Height||6.5 in.|
|Maximum Width||1.4 in.|
|Weight Unloaded||33.5 oz.|
|Weight Loaded||36.3 oz.|
|Cylinder Gap||0.005 in.|
|Frame||Matte stainless steel|
|Barrel Shroud and Sleeve||Matte stainless steel|
|Cylinder||Matte stainless steel|
|Frame Front Strap Height||2.6 in.|
|Frame Back Strap Height||3.6 in.|
|Grip||Textured rubber, finger grooves|
|Grip Thickness (max)||1.2 in.|
|Grip Circumference (max)||4.62 in.|
|Front Sight||Ramp w/red insert, pinned|
|Rear Sight||Adj. notch|
|Trigger Pull Weight (DA)||15+ lbs.|
|Trigger Pull Weight (SA)||4.5 lbs.|
|Trigger Span (DA)||3.6 in.|
|Trigger Span (SA)||3.0 in.|
The Model 66 was the stainless-steel version of Model 19, which was introduced in 1957. The Model 66 uses a K-frame, which is larger than a J-frame and smaller than an N-frame. The idea was this midsize revolver would be perfect for law enforcement back in the day when we still used rotary-dial telephones and cars had tail fins (Google it if you don’t know). The Model 19 was lighter to carry, but it was not strong enough to stand up to a steady diet of 357 Magnum loads — frames stretched and forcing cones cracked. Users, however, were not jaded by this, and the Model 19/Model 66 were very popular with police, security forces, and civilians. S&W solved the integrity problem with the L-frame, and the 357 Magnum handgun has been built with this frame since 1981. The new Model 66-8 is built on a K-frame and was reintroduced in 2014 with a 4-inch barrel. S&W re-engineered the new Model 66-8 to be more durable. A 2.75-inch-barrel model was introduced in 2017, and this is the sample we tested.
In hand, the new Model 66-8 is comfortable, lightweight, and a natural pointer. It is easier to grip compared to a J-frame and not as bulky as an N-frame. Just right. The 66-8 features a matte-stainless finish on the frame, barrel sleeve, and cylinder. The trigger, cylinder latch, and hammer are blued. The trigger was wide and smooth, and the hammer spur offered a nicely checkered rectangular pad, which made cocking the hammer easy and gave confidence.
The 66-8 uses a two-piece barrel, an inner steel barrel tube with an outer sleeve or shroud. A traditional red-insert ramp front sight is pinned in place. We thought this front sight gave the 66-8 a retro look. In bright sunlight, we lost the red insert. We’d prefer a red fiber-optic pipe. The rear sight is fully adjustable, and the shooter-facing side is serrated to reduce glare. The top of the barrel is nicely serrated, and the muzzle is crowned. Because the barrel is 2.75 inches long, this allows use of a full-length ejector rod, which helps shuck cases from the chambers faster. All edges are slightly rounded, which we liked.
Another difference between the 66-8 compared to previous models is how the cylinder locks up with the frame. Previous models locked up the front of the cylinder via a pin in the shroud. The new 66-8 locks the front of the cylinder via a ball detent on the frame that locks into the crane. There was hardly any wiggle in the cylinder with this new design. Another design improvement is a thicker forcing cone.
The rubber grip does a good job of filling the area behind the trigger guard. The texture is not that aggressive since the rubber material is slightly sticky. It grabbed covering garments. In hand, it felt thin, but there are palm swells to fill your hand, and there are finger grooves. We felt the grip was better suited for a 4-inch barrel model. For EDC, the grip is long and harder to conceal. We also anticipated more felt recoil due the thinness of the grip.
Our best five-shot group measured 1.02 inches with Federal Hydra-Shok 357 Mag ammo loaded with a 158-grain JHPs. We could feel the recoil in the palm of our hands using this hot load. Like we said, we’d rather use 38 Special ammo for extended training and keep the magnum ammo for limited training and self defense. With the Armscor 38 Special load with a 158-grain FMJ, we shot a best group that measured 1.45 inches. The best group with the 158-JSP Aguila 357 Magnum ammunition measured 2.64 inches. On average, the 66-8 kept groups between 1.8 and 2.7 inches. This was the best-performing revolver of the three tested.
In double-action mode using a two-hand grip, we held the revolver higher up the grip to reduce the distance below the bore axis. This helped us to recover from recoil faster and control the flip, especially with magnum loads. The 66-8 came in second behind the Ruger in speed shooting. We found the trigger in double-action mode took 15 pounds of pressure to fire a shot, and in our opinion, that is too much. A heavy double-action trigger pull makes a revolver more difficult to shoot accurately. We think we concentrated on our trigger press more with the S&W than the RIA and Ruger, so the 66-8 came in just behind the GP100 for speed and accuracy. We had no issues shucking empty brass.
This gun carried well in the Galco rig, but we think we’d look for an IWB holster for EDC.
Our Team Said: The Model 66-8 Combat Magnum lives up to its iconic reputation, and we think S&W made some very good improvements. We think the weak features of this revolver are the front sight, heavy double-action trigger pull, and large grip. The 66-8 had the best accuracy and was lightweight. If price were not an issue, we’d opt for this revolver and tolerate the deficiencies or make some modifications.
38 Special/357 Magnum Range DataTo collect accuracy data, we fired five-shot groups from a bench using a rest. Distance: 15 yards with open sights. We recorded velocities using a ProChrono digital chronograph set 10 feet from the muzzle.
|Armscor 38 Special 158-grain Full Metal Jacket||Smith & Wesson Model 66-8||Ruger/Talo GP100||Rock Island Armory AL3.1|
|Average Velocity||803 fps||807 fps||799 fps|
|Muzzle Energy||226 ft.-lbs.||228 ft.-lbs.||224 ft.-lbs.|
|Smallest Group||1.45 in.||2.81 in.||1.55 in.|
|Average Group||1.81 in.||2.85 in.||1.97 in.|
|Aguila 357 Magnum 158-grain Semi-Jacketed Soft Point||Smith & Wesson Model 66-8||Ruger/Talo GP100||Rock Island Armory AL3.1|
|Average Velocity||1097 fps||1115 fps||1000 fps|
|Muzzle Energy||422 ft.-lbs.||436 ft.-lbs.||351 ft.-lbs.|
|Smallest Group||2.64 in.||2.29 in.||2.02 in.|
|Average Group||2.75 in.||2.63 in.||2.65 in.|
|Federal Hydra-Shok 357 Magnum 158-grain Jacketed Hollow Point||Smith & Wesson Model 66-8||Ruger/Talo GP100||Rock Island Armory AL3.1|
|Average Velocity||1112 fps||1164 fps||999 fps|
|Muzzle Energy||434 ft.-lbs.||475 ft.-lbs.||350 ft.-lbs.|
|Smallest Group||1.02 in.||2.35 in.||2.25 in.|
|Average Group||1.83 in.||2.49 in.||2.60 in.|
Value Guide: Shorter Revolver Rankings
|S&W Model 60 38 Special, $459||Dec. 2021||B+||Stainless-steel construction throughout. We docked it a grade for the very heavy trigger.|
|Ruger Light Compact Revolver (LCR) 5401 38 Special, $699||Dec. 2021||B||A little lighter, with recoil that goes with that. One of the best revolver triggers we have seen.|
|Ruger SP101 5737 38 Special, $859||Dec. 2021||B-||Stainless-steel weight mitigates recoil. Too heavy for pocket carry. Okay for home defense.|
|Taurus Tracker 692 38 Sp./357 Mag./9mm Luger, $487||Oct. 2021||A||Our Pick. Excellent versatility. Other revolvers do not have this versatility or offer seven shots.|
|Taurus Defender 856 2-85639NS 38 Sp. +P, $306||Oct. 2021||A-||Best Buy. Offers six-shot capacity, a 3-inch heavy barrel, and a tritium-insert front-sight.|
|EAA Weihrauch Windicator 741566103612 357 Mag., $394||Oct. 2021||A||Need a house gun or truck gun to be fired occasionally, but which must always come up shooting? This is it.|
|Rock Island Armory M206 51283 38 Sp., $240||Oct. 2021||B||We disliked the too-long hammer spur, and the wooden concealment grips are not well designed.|
|Taurus 856 Defender Ultra-Lite 2-85639ULNS 38 Sp. +P, $405||Aug. 2021||A||Our Pick. Offered good accuracy and is ultra-lightweight. The DA trigger was smooth but heavy, with stacking.|
|Ruger SP101 Model 5784 327 Federal Magnum, $749||Aug. 2021||A||This offers excellent accuracy and versatility with the ability to fire multiple 32-caliber cartridges.|
|Charter Arms Professional 73230 32 H&R Magnum, $420||Aug. 2021||A-||Offers 7-shot capacity and can fire a variety of 32-cal. cartridges. Light weight, nice fiber-optic front sight.|
|Smith & Wesson Model 351 PD 160228 22 WMR, $766||Apr. 2021||A||Our Pick. Offers light weight, 7-shot capacity, and a bright Hi-Viz fiber-optic front sight that we really liked.|
|Ruger Model LCRx 5439 22 WMR, $599||Apr. 2021||A-||Light weight, great grip, good accuracy. DA trigger pull was very heavy. Would have liked more capacity.|
|Taurus Model 942 2-942M029 22 WMR, $309||Apr. 2021||B||Eight-shot capacity. Heavy, so concealability in a pants pocket is not practical. Trigger pull was heavy.|
|Smith & Wesson PC Model 986 10227 9mm Luger, $1129||Mar. 2021||A||Our Pick. All-business, made-to-perform revolver. Offered excellent accuracy with Hornady Critical Duty ammo.|
|Rock Island Armory AL9.0 9231B 9mm Luger, $599||Mar. 2021||A||Offered good accuracy and shooting comfort due to the full-size grip. Aesthetics are not its strong point.|
|Taurus Tracker 692 2-692039 9mm/38 Sp./357 Mag., $705||Mar. 2021||A-||Offers a lot of versatility with the extra cylinder assembly. The price is reasonable.|
|Colt King Cobra KCOBRA-SB3BB 357 Magnum, $838||May. 2020||A||Our Pick. A 357 Magnum powerhouse. Offers good performance with the 3-inch barrel and is well made.|
|Rock Island Armory AL3.0 357 Magnum, $504||May. 2020||A-||Best Buy. Good price, accuracy, shooting comfort. Not a beautiful revolver, but it did provide performance.|
|Rossi Model 971 VRC 357 Magnum, $295||May. 2020||B||Great trigger, and the porting helped keep us on target. Accuracy was less than stellar.|
|Ruger LCRx 5435 22 LR, $470||Apr. 2020||B+||The LCRx is lightweight and would make a nice kit gun if that were the only consideration. Cost is too high.|
|Smith & Wesson Model 637-2 163050 38 Special +P, $389||Dec. 2018||A||Our Pick. Consistent trigger pull, DA or SA trigger mode, recoil absorbing grip, and lightweight.|
|Taurus 856 Model 2-856021 38 Special, $278||Dec. 2018||A-||Consistent trigger in double-action or single-action mode, a small grip, and it offers six shots.|