Like so many other shooters, our evaluators like the 357 Magnum cartridge for defense as well as the flexibility of lower-recoil and lower-cost training using 38 Special ammunition. To see if we could find a bargain, we wanted to pit two expensive high-capacity snubnose revolvers in that chambering—the Models 327 and 627—and add into the mix a more traditional, affordable used six-shot snubnose, the Model 686 164231, which is no longer in current production but which is widely available from around $600 to $800.
The 6-shot Model 686 is the stainless-steel version of the Model 586, which debuted in 1981 and was one of the first L-frame or medium-sized revolvers offered by S&W. The L-frame guns are slimmer and lighter than the hefty N-frames. Both the Model 586 and the Model 686 were immensely popular with law enforcement, outdoorsmen, competition shooters, and home defenders. The 586 went out of production but was reintroduced a few years ago. The Model 686 is a pure S&W classic that is able to withstand continued use of 357 Magnum ammo. We have reviewed the 686 in various configurations in past issues, such as the 2.5- (No. 164192, Grade A January 2002), 4- (No. 164194, Grade A March 2007), 6- (No. 164224, Grade A- March 2011), and 8.4-inch (Grade A February 2001) barrels and the Plus variant (M686-6, Grade A January 2002), which has a 7-shot capacity, and all have been excellent revolvers. We have also reviewed the Model 327 in the past (Grade B February 2005). The snubnose revolver new to our team is the Performance Center Model 627.
Smith & Wesson introduced the first, the original, 357 Magnum revolver in 1935 known as the Registered Magnum. S&W chose to chamber the powerful 357 Magnum cartridge in a six-shot revolver built from the company’s large, heavy-duty carbon-steel N-frame. Almost immediately, the Registered Magnum was adopted by the Kansas City Police Department, and other LE agencies soon followed. To say the revolver and cartridge combination was successful is an understatement. When introduced at the height of the Great Depression, the revolver cost $60 — nearly a king’s ransom in those days. Yet Smith & Wesson had a hard time filling these special-order items because the big N-frame had a lot of desirable details, such as a pinned barrel, counterbored cylinder chambers, and checkering across the top strap of the frame and barrel.
Over the years, the revolver went through several name changes. In the late 1930s, the model name was changed to “.357 Magnum.” Eventually, it would become known as the Model 27 when S&W started to use numeric model names in the mid-1950s.
General George S. Patton carried a 357 Magnum model and outfitted it with ivory grips and a Tyler T-grip to fill that gap between the rear of the trigger guard and front strap. He called it his “killing gun.” From the 1940s through the 1960s, many FBI agents used a 3.5-inch-barrel model. J. Edgar Hoover is said to have owned one of the first Registered Magnums. Noted gun writer Skeeter Skelton was known to favor a 5-inch-barrel model. In 1994, the M27 was dropped by S&W, and wheelgun aficionados gasped with despair. Around 2009, the Model 27 was reintroduced.
In that gap when Model 27 production went dark, S&W brought out the Model 627 in 1996. Following a similar introduction as the Registered Magnum, the Model 627 is a semi-custom gun produced by S&W’s Performance Center. S&W enhanced the Model 627, making it an 8-shot 357 Magnum. In 2008, another 8-shot N-frame debuted, the Model 327. These two models are direct descendants of the Registered Magnum, and these newer-generation guns offer added capacity and are constructed of different materials.
To find out how they were all put together, first we used Brownell’s revolver range rod for 38/357 Service (080-617-038WB, $40) on the used 686 to check the alignment of the six chambers and the barrel. The rod slid down the barrel and into each chamber, so we were confident that the 686, though used, would still perform. We also checked the new 627 and 327, and all their chambers checked out. We used a Go/No Go 60/68 Cylinder Gauge (080-633-668WB, $36) from Brownells to check the headspace on the revolvers, which is the gap between the rear of the cylinder and recoil plate in frame. The used 686 was in spec. If the gap is too big, the revolver may misfire. The new revolvers were in spec, too. All revolvers exhibited a tight lock up of cylinder to frame. The full-size, old-style cylinder latch was loose on the 686, but a flat-blade screwdriver took care of that issue.
Handling the revolvers, team members soon gravitated to certain ones. All had excellent finishes; even the used 686 looked as if it has held up well to constant use. We also concealed-carried the revolvers to get a better understanding of how they felt in day-to-day use. In the end, the team members ranked the Smiths by which one they would carry concealed most comfortably.
There’s something about a N-frame 357 Magnum that endears itself to users, and the Model 627 is one of those revolvers. Constructed of stainless steel with a matte finish, it was the heaviest of all three firearms tested, more than 40 ounces. The Performance Center’s attention to detail—tight fitting, clean metalwork, smooth woodwork—was all over the handgun.
The 2.6-inch-long barrel was slab sided, which gave the revolver less bulk. The muzzle was nicely crowned, but at the outside edge of the barrel we found a sharp surface that would need to be filed off, in our opinion, to make reholstering the 627 slightly easier. The full ejector shroud had a cutout to relieve some material and weight as well as allow any debris like mud or snow to easily be removed. However, whatever weight loss was due to the ejector shroud cut out was negated by the unfluted cylinder. We think if S&W wanted to slightly lighten the 627, fluting is an option.
The top of the barrel was serrated to cut glare, and the front sight was dovetailed into the barrel. We liked the dovetail front sight because it could easily be swapped out. Testers agreed they would keep the original red ramp front sight because it was quick to acquire a target. The rear sight was fully adjustable and matte black. The rear blade’s notch had a white outline. Of the revolvers tested, we liked these sights the best. It made the revolver less smooth and snag free compared to the 327, but that was not a show stopper.
In hand, the small grip was slim and fit most testers quite well. Grips with pronounced finger grooves have a way of not fitting all hand sizes, like the 686’s grip, which we will get to. The grip of 627 ended at the revolver’s frame, and the frame’s back strap was exposed. Nicely checkered sections of wood were on each grip panel. The left panel was scooped out for ease of use with a speedloader. The grip reminded testers of the Secret Service grip from Eagle Grips. For concealability, this is the grip most testers gave an approving nod to compared to the grips on the 686 and the 327.
The trigger was smooth faced, and the 11-pound pull actually felt lighter than the scale indicated. A trigger stop was built into the trigger. The hammer was teardrop shaped and had an aggressive texture that assisting us in cocking it. Both the trigger and the hammer had a chrome-flashed finish that matched the stainless finish of the rest of the revolver. The double-action trigger span wasn’t too big, so even shooters with small hands could easily fire the 627, 327, and 686 revolvers in double action as well as transition from one gun to other.
The cylinder latch was the newer type, cut for ease of use with speedloaders. Chambers were chamfered to aid in reloading, and the ejector and the rear of the cylinder were cut to allow use of moon clips. The ejector rod was long enough to purge empty brass from the cylinder. Team members like this rod length, particularly when 8 rounds need to be ejected all at once.
A detail that separated the Performance Center revolvers from the standard 686 was a ball detent built into the front of the crane. The ball bearing locks into a V-shaped groove in the frame. This is an accuracy enhancement long used by PPC shooters customizing revolvers for competition. Both the 627 and 327 locked up tight due to this feature. The 686 locked in the front via a detent into a hole at the end of the ejector rod.
In hand, both of the N-frames stood taller than the L-frame 686. The 627 was the heaviest revolver of the trio and that extra weight made the 627 more pleasant to shoot even with the abbreviated grip. Usually, we had to tuck our small fingers under the grip to get the most comfort.
Before shooting the 627, our team thought it was going to be a handful with 357 Magnum loads. In fact, it was very tolerable due to the excellent grip and the weight. At 15 yards, we fired for accuracy using a rest with Winchester White Box 357 Magnum 110-grain JHPs, and 38 Special +P 125-grain JHP ammo as well as Federal Tactical 128-grain Hydra-Shok JHPs. Looking at past ballistic and accuracy data from 4-inch-barrel revolvers, we saw the Winchester 357 Magnum ammo was about 200 fps to 300 fps slower out of these snubnose revolvers. Felt recoil was noticeable with all ammunition fired. In DA mode, firing for speed, the 627 was easier to stay on and get back on target due its heft and sights. There was a ramp up time to get used to pulling the trigger eight times, not a hard thing to learn.
We used moon clips with the 627, and the eight cartridges took a bit more time to reload, at times, compared to the six cartridges in the 686. Aligning the rounds into the chambers at times required wiggling the moon clip, our team found.
Testers liked to shoot the 627, but concealed-carrying the 627 was a different story. The 627 was comparable in weight to a 1911 steel frame fully loaded, but the pistol was slightly thicker than a typical 1911, 1.7 inches compared to 1.3 inches, respectively. The 327 was comparable in thickness to the 627, while the 686 was thinner at 1.5 inches. That extra girth was noticeable, and team members resorted to carrying the 627 in an outside-the-waist-band holster as a result.
Our Team Said: With the correct holster and belt, the Model 627 makes a good concealed-carry sidearm and trail gun, but you will probably need to wear a cover garment. The price is high, but that is because this revolver has features like a dovetailed front sight, chamfered chambers, and trigger stop. The weight and girth of revolver would make it heavy, but it is comparable to the weight of a 1911 and holds the same number of rounds as many 1911 magazines.
S&W Performance Center Model 327 170245 357 Magnum, $1309
The Model 327 is another 8-shot N-frame out of the Performance Center, but without the heft of the Model 627. In fact this was the lightest revolver of the three tested at only 24.7 ounces loaded. To achieve that light weight, the 327 is constructed with a scandium frame, steel barrel sleeve, a titanium cylinder and barrel shroud, and a 2-inch barrel. The cylinder and barrel shroud wore a light gray finish, while the frame had a contrasting matte-black tone. If weight were the sole criteria for getting in our good graces, the 327 would have won hands down.
The Model 327 actually looks as if it has been “Fitz’d.” John Henry Fitzgerald was a Colt employee in the 1920s and 1930s who chopped up Colt’s large-frame revolvers for concealed carry. Where Fitz Colts were customized with smaller barrels and grips, among other features, the 327 had a full-size grip, which was odd for a concealed-carry handgun.
The 327’s barrel had chiseled edges at the muzzle, which assisted in reholstering. The short barrel had a red-ramp front sight dovetailed in, and the rear sight was a groove along the top of the frame. The team liked the dovetailed front sight since it could be replaced to match a certain load because the 327 did not have an adjustable sight. The ejector-rod shroud had a cutout.
The revolver’s surface was snag free, more so than the 627 and 686. Like the 627, the 327 had a smooth trigger face with a built-in trigger stop and a teardrop-shaped hammer, but these parts had a casehardened-type finish. The trigger was exceptionally smooth and did not feel like it took 12 pounds to fire the 327 in DA mode. The new-style cylinder latch was easy to manipulate, and the cylinder closed with authority. A ball detent was also used in the 327 to lock up the front of the cylinder to the frame, same as the 627.
The ejector rod on the 327 was as abbreviated as the barrel, and gravity was a necessary ally when ejecting empty brass. Shooters preferred the longer ejection rods on the 627 and the 686. Getting the empty cases out could be an issue with the 327, but in most deadly encounters, only a few shots are fired. Thus, the 8-shot capacity of the 327 might be okay since reloading might not be required. Chambers were chamfered and the rear cylinder face and ejector rods were machined to accept moonclips.
As noted, the 327 had a full-size grip, which meant our shooters did not have a pinky finger dangling off these wood grips. Like the 627’s grips, the 327’s grip was well fitted to the round-butt N-frame. The wood grip panels were stippled texture, and the back strap was exposed. The revolver felt like a full-size gun in the hand, but looking down the sights it seemed to be missing some length. We expected the 327 to have more felt recoil than the steel revolvers, and we were spot on. With hot 357 Magnum loads, the 327 rapped the web and palm of our hands. If we bought this gun, we would replace the grips of the 327 with the grips from the 627 or with a set of rubber grips made for maximum concealability. The trade off, of course, is a large grip is more comfortable to shoot, but they are not as concealable.
The sights were fast on target and not nearly as refined as the adjustable sights on the other two revolvers, but this revolvers is made for close-range work. Accuracy with the 327, 627, and 686 all averaged about 1.5 inches with five-shot groups, which is more than adequate at self-defense distances under 25 yards.
We had the same wiggle issues while loading cartridges with the 327 as we did with the 627. Cartridges in a moonclip sometimes took a bit longer to load until all the cartridges aligned in the chambers. If the chambers were not chamfered, we suspect it would take even longer to reload. After extended shooting and no cleaning, cases started to stick in the chambers and the stubby ejector needed gravity to empty the gun.
For carry, we used the same holster as for the 627 and enjoyed carrying the 327 more because it weighed less. The large grip was an issue, however, and took more garment to hide.
Our Team Said: The Model 327 is pleasant to carry and unpleasant to shoot. Team members did not like the grip and were confused why S&W would make a concealed-carry revolver with such a large grip.
S&W Model 686 357 Magnum, ~$600-$850 (Used)
The used 686 felt small in hand after shooting the N-frames. The details that were in the Performance Center models were missing from the 686. The 686 uses S&W’s standard L-frame made of stainless steel and is a 6-shooter. The bright finish was glossy compared to the 627’s matte-stainless finish.
Even with years of use, this 686 was still very tight. The 2.5-inch barrel had a full underlug that completely shrouded the ejector rod. The top side of the barrel had a red-ramp front sight machined into the barrel. The rear sight was matte black with no white outline, and it was fully adjustable — a real treat after shooting the 327.
The cylinder was fluted, and like the other revolvers, we would want a better chamfer on the front edge of the cylinder to aid reholstering. The cylinder locked up via the end of the ejector rod. The end of the ejector rod on the 686, like the other S&Ws tested, was knurled so it gripped the palm of our hand when ejecting empties. The chambers were not chamfered, nor was it set up to use moonclips. It was, however, the easiest revolver to reload quickly. The rounds, even without the chamfer, slid into the chambers faster using a speedloader.
The backstrap was exposed and had serrations that help the user grip the revolver since the wood finger groove grips were smooth. The left side was scooped out to allow use of a speedloader, and they had a nice palm swell. These grips caused some users to either grip the revolver high or low. Drawing the revolver from a holster, the user needed to be sure he got the grip right. We would deep-six these grips, too.
The trigger was smooth and had a nice, consistent pull. The hammer had a full-size spur with a toothy checkered texture. Thumbing back the hammer gave the user a confident feeling in its action.
Some team members believed the 686 felt better in hand because it is slender and did not stand as tall as the N-frames. They felt the 686 was easier to control as well. Felt recoil with the 686 was tolerable. Shooters fell into the 6-shot rhythm with 686 naturally. When shooting the 627 or 327, some shooters missed counted shots, but that is an issue easily fixed with more training. Testers also felt there was less muzzle flip with the 686, since the bore was slightly lower in the hand than the bores on the 627 and 327.
Tuff Products Quickstrips and HKS speedloaders were used with the 686 rather than moonclips, and we found the speedloaders were slightly faster to reload. Testers felt they would carry a Quickstrip since it would lay flat in a pants pocket. If they were wearing a jacket or coat, they’d opt for the bulkier HKS speedloader.
Concealed carry could be accomplished with an IWB holster, and that is how team members would carry the 686. It offered less bulk with the compromise of two fewer rounds. If the extra weight of the 627 or the slightly larger girth of both the 327 and 627 is not an issue, nor the retail price, then the 8-shooters are an option.
Our Team Said: Even with only 6 shots, the performance of the 686 garnered praise from our testers. All the revolvers showed about the same accuracy, and no revolver seemed to prefer one brand of ammo over the other. Carrying the 686 was in the middle between the 327 on the light side and the 627 on the heavy side. For the cost, most testers would opt for the 686 for a carry gun.
Written and photographed by Robert Sadowski, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers.