Why test revolvers? They will never be as popular as they once were, but total sales are far higher than when revolvers were in their heyday in the 1970s. Reliability and accuracy are hallmarks of the revolver, and there is no more proven cartridge for personal defense than the 357 Magnum. The revolvers tested are versatile, durable, accurate, and powerful. We pitted a new Colt Python against similar long-barrel competitors, the Smith & Wesson 686 Plus and Ruger GP100. Also, to see how far the wheelgun’s development has gone in the last couple of decades, we threw in a classic Colt revolver, the Peacekeeper.
Long-barrel revolvers are useful for hunting small to medium game, for competition, target shooting, protection against wild animals, and home defense. In a day when new technology is rendered obsolete quickly, revolvers rely on proven technology that has changed little in dozens of years. As far as chambering, the 357 Magnum is a versatile cartridge, and, of course, 38 Special ammunition may also be used in these wheelguns for pleasant practice and smaller game. If you handload, the 357 cartridge is economical. Fast-stepping 110- to 140-grain defense loads are well suited to stopping an attack, while 160- to 180-grain loads are useful for hunting. There is no difficulty in operating the revolver with light loads or heavy loads because the revolver is manually operated, although it may be run quickly, if needed. Revolvers are so reliable that the standard malfunction drill for them (in case of a bad round) is to simply pull the trigger again to get access to a fresh cartridge. Ammunition is presently difficult to come by in some calibers, but 38 Special and 357 loads have not been hit as hard. However, high-quality pistols are in short supply, but revolvers seem less affected. Some of the wheelguns tested, the Python in particular, may represent a kind of financial irresponsibility because they are quite pricey, but then its performance is excellent.
Because we are interested in accuracy in the combat sense as well as bench accuracy, we chose ammunition carefully. Ammunition has a tremendous influence on accuracy. SAAMI-regulated ammunition ensures compatibility, performance, and accuracy. For combat shooting, we chose the Black Hills Ammunition 158-grain lead load, a cowboy-action load at an average of 805 fps. It is loaded in the Magnum case but operates at 38 Special pressure. We also used the Federal Train and Protect 125-grain JHP at 1470 to 1520 fps and the 1280-fps Hornady 158-grain XTP. We also used a single 38 Special load, the Black Hills Ammunition 148-grain wadcutter. This 38 Special load averaged 750 fps in velocity.
Prior to testing, we checked the barrel cylinder gap of each revolver. The Python was tightest at 0.006 inch, and the Smith & Wesson was almost undetectably larger. The Ruger was 0.007 inch, and the older Colt measured 0.008 inch. We have tested revolvers with a barrel-cylinder gap as large as 0.016 inch, and usually, velocity is linear to the barrel-cylinder gap. A 125-grain load may lose 180 fps as a result of a larger gap, a 158-grain load may lose 160 fps. As it turned out, the revolvers were fairly uniform in velocity.
We liked all of the revolvers, but there was one obvious Best Buy, which we will get to presently.
Gun Tests Grade: D
In several particulars, this handgun is an anomaly among the revolvers tested. First, it is a seven-shooter. Next, the cylinder is cut for moon clips, but we did not use them. This would make for excellent reloading speed if this is important, but the moon clips may not be as rigid as a speedloader, depending on the practice the user puts into speedloading. Next, this revolver features a 5-inch barrel. The heavy flat-sided barrel is well done and well finished.
|Action Type||Double-action revolver|
|Overall Length||10.6 in.|
|Overall Height||5.5 in.|
|Minimum Width||1.5 in.|
|Weight Unloaded||39.3 oz.|
|Weight Loaded||41.3 oz.|
|Barrel||5.0 in., stainless steel|
|Front Strap Height||2.5 in.|
|Rear Strap Height||4.0 in.|
|Grip Thickness||1.2 in.|
|Grip Circumference||5.0 in.|
|Front Sight||Replaceable post|
|Sight Radius||6.5 in.|
|Trigger Pull Weight Single Action||5.0 lbs.|
|Trigger Pull Weight Double Action||11.0 lbs.|
|Trigger Span Single Action||3.25 in.|
|Trigger Span Double Action||3.75 in.|
Elsewhere, the revolver is also stainless steel. This revolver features a post front and fully adjustable rear sight. The front sight may also be changed out. In the retail shop was another 686 Plus with a terribly cheap-looking orange-plastic front sight, which we passed on. The grips are an excellent choice. These Hogue Monogrips were rated the best for gripping and recoil control of the four revolvers tested. This revolver features the new-style Smith & Wesson cylinder release and the action lock, which some love and some hate. The double-action trigger is very smooth, and the single-action trigger broke cleanly at 4.6 pounds.
We fired the 686 plus on the combat range with the Black Hills 357 Magnum 158-grain cowboy round and a cylinderful of the Federal 125-grain JHPs. Control was excellent with the lower-power load. The front sight simply hung on the target. The Magnum loads exhibited heavier recoil but were not uncomfortable. The 686 Plus did as well on the combat course as any of the other revolvers. Maintain sight alignment with the front post and rear notch at equal height and pull straight to the rear and you get a hit.
The Smith & Wesson was on its way to Best Buy status, save for a recurring problem. The revolver failed to ignite a primer one to two times with each cylinder of ammunition. We used several types of ammunition with the same result. We removed the grips and checked the springs. We would have tightened the mainspring, but it was fully tightened out of the box, and nothing made a difference.
In benchrest accuracy, the 686 Plus was an accurate revolver, with the Black Hills Ammunition 148-grain 38 Special cutting a nice 1.76-inch five-shot average group. Group sizes were only slightly behind the Python. We liked the sights, and we liked the grips the best of the test. The L-frame revolver is better balanced and smoother than the Ruger or the Colt MK V revolver.
Our Team Said: After cleaning, inspecting, and tightening the revolver, we still experienced malfunctions, including, oddly enough, a couple in single-action fire during the accuracy stage. The 686 Plus is accurate and handles well. It has good features, including an extra shot and the ability to use moon clips. But our sample wasn’t reliable, with a constant nagging misfire rate. This isn’t acceptable, so we’d have to pass on this one.
357 Magnum and 38 Special Range Data (25 Yards)All groups were fired from a Bullshooters gun rest from a benchrest firing position. The groups were fired in strings of three five-shot groups for each load in each handgun. Velocity was tested by firing over a RCBS Ammomaster Chrono-graph.
|357 Magnum Hornady 158-grain XTP 90562||Colt Peacekeeper||Smith & Wesson Model 686 Plus||Ruger GP100||Colt Python|
|Average Velocity||1239 fps||1280 fps||1267 fps||1275 fps|
|Energy||539 ft.-lbs.||575 ft.-lbs.||563 ft.-lbs.||570 ft.-lbs.|
|Small Group||2.3 in.||1.65 in.||1.6 in.||1.8 in.|
|Average Group||2.8 in.||2.0 in.||2.1 in||2.2 in.|
|357 Magnum Federal 125-grain JHP||Colt Peacekeeper||Smith & Wesson Model 686 Plus||Ruger GP100||Colt Python|
|Average Velocity||1472 fps||1455 fps||1490 fps||1502 fps|
|Energy||601 ft.-lbs.||588 ft.-lbs.||616 ft.-lbs.||626 ft.-lbs.|
|Small Group||2.5 in.||1.8 in.||2.0 in.||1.5 in.|
|Average Group||3.0 in.||2.4 in.||2.7 in.||1.8 in.|
|38 Special Black Hills 148-grain Wadcutter||Colt Peacekeeper||Smith & Wesson Model 686 Plus||Ruger GP100||Colt Python|
|Average Velocity||770 fps||739 fps||756 fps||750 fps|
|Energy||195 ft.-lbs.||179 ft.-lbs.||188 ft.-lbs.||185 ft.-lbs.|
|Small Group||2.5 in.||1.76 in.||2.1 in.||1.5 in.|
|Average Group||3.3 in.||2.3 in.||2.5 in.||1.8 in.|
Value Guide: 38 Special/357 Magnum Revolver Rankings
|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||Offered good accuracy and is ultra-lightweight. The DA trigger pull was smooth but heavy, with a bit of stacking.|
|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 Python (2020) PYTHON-SP4WTS 357 Magnum, $1300||Jan. 2021||A||Pricey, but the new Python is a winner, even if it isn’t an exact clone of the original Python.|
|Colt Python (2020) PYTHON-SP6WTS 357 Magnum, $1800||Jan. 2021||A||We really liked the trigger and found the revolver to be quite accurate.|
|Colt Python (1980) 357 Magnum, ~$2500||Jan. 2021||A||The trigger is superb and the royal blue finish is brilliant. The aftermarket Hogue grip helps reduce felt recoil.|
|Colt Python (1964) 357 Magnum, $1800||Jan. 2021||A-||It provided good performance and accuracy. This is a shooter and perhaps is a candidate for restoration.|
|Colt King Cobra KCOBRA-SB3BB 357 Magnum, $838||2020-05-01 00:00:00||A||The revolver offers good performance with the 3-inch barrel and is well made. Carrying it takes a bit of effort.|
|Rock Island Armory AL3.0 357 Magnum, $504||2020-05-01 00:00:00||A-||There was a lot to like, price, accuracy, shooting comfort. Not a beautiful revolver for sure.|
|Rossi Model 971 VRC 357 Magnum, $295||2020-05-01 00:00:00||B||A great trigger, and the porting helped keep us on target. But the accuracy was less than stellar.|
|Taurus Model 66 2-660041 357 Magnum, $371||Oct. 2019||A||Well suited to personal defense and home defense. Good field gun for protection against animals.|
|Taurus 608 Matte Stainless 2-608049 357 Magnum, $548||Oct. 2019||A-||It is a big gun. Just the same, the size and eight-shot capacity made it ideal for home defense.|
|Smith & Wesson M27 Classic 150339 357 Magnum, $909||Oct. 2019||B-||The grips are not the best design for handling magnum loads. Trigger action was the big problem, very heavy.|
|Ruger GP100 KGP-141357 Magnum, $500||Sep. 2018||A||The stainless-steel GP100 performs in all categories: accuracy, smoothness, control, and velocity.|
|S&W M66 Combat Magnum 357 Magnum, , $420||Sep. 2018||B+||Stainless steel, smooth action, and a round-butt configuration seldom seen on the Combat Magnum.|
|Ruger GP100 GP-141 357 Magnum, $480||Sep. 2018||B+||The blued GP100 doesn’t perform on par with the stainless, and the stainless is easier to maintain.|
|S&W M19 Combat Magnum 357 Magnum, $800||Sep. 2018||B||Came with a display case and a knife with matching serial number — pretty neat, but also pricey.|
|Taurus Model 66 357 Magnum, $325||Sep. 2018||B-||The barrel length of 6 inches did not generate greater velocity. Current-production version is 2-660069.|