When we encountered the first iterations of two revolvers we test in this issue, Taurus’s $420 Model 617 and Smith & Wesson’s latest 686 Plus, $534, preferences among pistol shooters leaned toward higher-capacity semi-automatics in medium- to full-size frames. This capacity issue on the pistol side was important to these wheelguns (first tested in April 1999) because the semis were pushing even the extra-capacity revolvers out of the limelight. Why would anyone not leave the revolver behind for more firepower?
More recently, however, the trend in semi-autos has moved toward smaller pistols in larger calibers with lower capacity. In fact, 6+1 and 7+1 capacity is the norm these days in smaller single-stack 1911s, such as the short-handled Springfield Armory Compact reviewed elsewhere in this issue. The success of the SIGArms P239 and the hoopla surrounding the Glock 36 are other examples.
Many shooters seem willing to give back some of the capacity advantage that pistols have traditionally held over revolvers to carry more effective cartridges such as the .40 S&W and .45 ACP. So, we asked, would seven shots of .357 Magnum in a simple revolver woo back diehard pistol shooters? We were eager to find out.
Since handling the latest barrage of semi-automatics, our staff thirsted for some good old revolver fun. We attacked the plate racks with box after box of Black Hills 148-grain lead wadcutter ammunition, a cheap super-accurate round we used to break in and learn the action of each gun. When it came time for accuracy tests, we set up our sandbag rest at 15 yards. Earlier versions of these guns had proven themselves at 25 yards, but we felt that the fixed sights without color contrast on the Taurus, though aided by a front blade that was serrated, would be at too much of a disadvantage to the Smith & Wesson, which featured fully adjustable sights.[PDFCAP(1)]
Also, 15 yards is the distance we have been shooting the latest crop of sub-compact pistols, and we wanted fresh data for a wheelgun-to-revolver comparison. Choice of ammunition was Winchester’s 110-grain JHP and PMC’s 158-grain JHP, each in .357 Magnum. We also chose a .38 Special +P round from Speer in the form of 125-grain Gold Dot jacketed hollowpoints. All shots were fired double-action-only (DAO). Conditions were not ideal, with constant changes in light from dim to bright sunlight and unexpected gusts of wind. Certainly, we had to be on our toes to bring the best out in each revolver.
Taurus 617 SSCH No. 2-617129, $420
The suffix “CH” stands for concealed hammer, and this is just one of the ways this revolver differs from a very similar model we tested nearly three years ago. Actually, the hammer is not concealed at all, but the spur has been machined off. At the base of the hammer is a key operated locking device that prevents the hammer from moving back.[PDFCAP(2)]
This model was double action only, and compared to the older Taurus revolvers, we feel there has been a real improvement in the action. Though Taurus revolvers continue to utilize a coil mainspring, two of its design pitfalls have been overcome. In the past we have remarked that the trigger on a Taurus revolver was forcing us to rush our shot. There was also a distinct sensation of stacking before ignition. These are two pitfalls common to coil-sprung revolvers. The hand-to-ratchet relationship also plays a part here. To Taurus’ credit we found this latest model devoid of these problems and much improved in feedback to the shooter. This was evident not only at the bench but at the plate racks. Steering the sights in tune with the trigger was a real pleasure.
As previously mentioned we would like to see more contrast between the front and rear sights. The notch in the top strap, in our opinion, did a better job of defining the front sight than we would expect, but a bolder front sight would still be a big improvement. For some, simply adding a section of epoxy-based paint in black or orange to the front sight blade would be enough. New for 2001 is a crane detent pin with the pressure of a stout spring beneath it. This helps longevity of the pistol by ensuring consistent lockup. Taurus has chosen to relieve the tip of the ejector rod from this job and let it float freely in the shroud of the full-length underlug. The advantage of this design over that of the Smith & Wesson, which locks up at the tip of the ejector rod, is that should the rod become bent, there is no chance it will hinder rotation.
The 617 SSCH is a much more compact revolver than the 686-6, especially in height. Part of this can be attributed to the Hogue Monogrip found on the Smith & Wesson revolver. While the L-framed 686-6 offers perhaps the best ergonomics of any revolver we have tested, how this grip connects adds more than 1 inch in height. The Taurus grip also connects by a screw from the bottom of the grip frame, but this adds only a little more than one-tenth of an inch. Naturally, the Taurus was the winner in the category of concealment.
In terms of weight, we measured a difference of approximately 5 ounces. But with its compact construction, the 617 SSCH seems to carry a lot lighter. In terms of accuracy, the 617 SSCH takes a back seat to the Smith & Wesson product. But at 15 yards, every choice of ammunition produced at least one sub-2-inch five-shot group, finally averaging 2.0 inches with both the 110-grain magnum round and the .38 Special + P round as well. The best single group measured 1.2 inches firing the Winchester 110-grain cartridge. This equaled the best group of the 686-6, but the Smith & Wesson product proved more consistent. (This same round was used in our April 1999 test, fired from 25 yards instead of 15. Once again, results were comparable, averaging 2.7 inches from the Taurus 617SSKL and 2.6 inches from the Smith & Wesson 686-4.) In terms of recoil, the .38 Special +P round from Speer was the softest, but the 110-grain magnum round was not harsh, either. Certainly the extra flash was worth the increase in power, which amounted to as much as an extra 130 foot-pounds of muzzle energy, (370).
With non-adjustable sights, the Taurus 617 SSCH was dead on in terms of elevation firing the 158-grain hollowpoints from PMC. It would seem the Taurus was meant to shoot slugs of this classic weight. However, we would shy away from this particular brand because both the 617 SSCH and the 686-6 suffered failures to ignite under controlled press conditions. Nonetheless, muzzle energy with the PMC topped out at 406 foot-pounds from the Taurus. Compared to the Lightweight Commanders featured elsewhere in this issue, each of the revolvers in this test produced comparable accuracy and muzzle energy to pistols costing nearly twice as much.
Smith & Wesson 686 Plus, M686-6, No. 164192, $634
While Taurus has managed to close the gap on Smith & Wesson, the firm at 2100 Roosevelt Avenue in Springfield, Massachusetts, continues to lead the field. Perhaps we should consider the orientation of the two companies. Taurus is produced in Brazil and started with Smith & Wesson’s older facilities. The Taurus products have been described as “price point” or economy products. On the other hand Smith & Wesson has been an integral part of the history and development of the modern revolver. So it would seem from the outset that Taurus has been playing catch up while Smith & Wesson sets the standard.[PDFCAP(3)]
In this case we asked if the newest 686 Plus, the 686-6, is worth $114 dollars of MSRP more than the comparable Taurus. After looking at the pistols we’ve tested that have varied in price by considerably more, we would have to say emphatically, yes. At real world prices, we are sure the price gap would be less. The 686-6 is very much the same as the 686-4 but for a key operated lock which blocks the hammer and consequently all further action. As with the Taurus, two keys are provided. The lock is located on the left side just above the cylinder latch and a faint schematic showing which way to turn the key is etched next to the key hole. A small “flag” that reads “Locked” comes up from the side of the hammer when the lock is engaged. Even though this mechanism is next to the hammer, we could discern no interference with the action. The 686-6 can be fired double or single action.
As we said before, we find the combination of the Hogue Monogrip with exposed backstrap to create a perfect match to the position of the trigger. But, for a more concealable profile there are many, many available grips for this gun. With the grip off we see the 686-6 is built on a round butt frame and the quality of metal and machining is excellent. We could not help but notice a number of burrs on the inside of the grip frame on the Taurus. Actually, these burrs didn’t disturb any function, but this finish is an example of why there is a difference in price.
With adjustable sights, the issue of bullet weight goes away. With a little adjustment you can zero the 686-6 for any type of slug. The rear unit is the same one found on Smith & Wesson’s best target models. As rugged as these sights have proven to be, we would choose a bullet weight that required the least elevation adjustment. This would position the unit closest to flush atop the frame and keep it from harm’s way.
In terms of accuracy, the Taurus’s performance was really very good, but the 686-6 was even more impressive. Group sizes varied from only 1.2 to 2.0 inches in diameter. This level of versatility is what a good revolver is all about. We could shoot light target loads all day. Or, we could shoot the hottest rounds with equal accuracy. Certainly the revolver, without any secondary controls, is a fast actor in close fighting. But, in a study of which guns have been used to overcome a random sniper, the firearm most commonly used to vanquish such an assailant has shown to be any service weapon with which the shooter was especially competent. This revolver should give anyone confidence in even the gravest of circumstance.
The subject of weight is perhaps the only issue when it comes to carrying the steel revolver. We weighed this revolver to be 37 ounces unloaded. A member of our staff has been carrying the 686-4 we purchased in 1999 nearly every day and here is what he has found. The 7-shot cylinder is difficult to adapt to inside-the-waistband carry, but a good alternative is the Hoffner Mirage holster. This holster fits deep along the side of the wearer but holds the revolver high without asking the cylinder to come between the wearer and his or her belt. Regarding on-the-belt carry, the biggest danger is printing at the grip due to the tendency of a snubby to be top heavy. A low-ride pancake is a good idea, but for better concealment and control Hoffner’s, (281) 353-6484, has introduced a stiff-backed high-ride holster called the C2 High Revolver.
One improvement we would like to see in all models chambered for the longer .357 Magnum cartridge is a full-length ejector rod. According to statistics referring to the duration of gunfights in the real world, seven shots is well beyond common need. But a fast reload is one area where the revolver lags behind the semi-auto, and a full-length ejector rod would help. With so much emphasis on expensive upgrades, such as the use of space age materials, a change such as this would seem relatively simple to make. For fast reloading we have found that the HKS 587, $5.81 from Natchez Shooters Supply, (800) 251-7839, will recharge each of these guns with all seven rounds simultaneously. Experimenting with Safariland’s different “Split-Six” belt carriers (also from Natchez) led us to an adaptation of the model 371-2-C for sure carry of the speedloader. Split-six refers to mounting the speedloader over the belt so that only half its diameter protrudes. In the case of the seven round HKS speedloader (Safariland currently does not make a seven round unit), our best results were with three rounds in front of the belt and four inside it. Fourteen rounds of .357 Magnum should be plenty.
Gun Tests Recommends
In the coming months we will deal with more with 7-shot .357 Magnums. In fact we are expecting these very same models to appear in lightweight versions made from titanium and or scandium from both Taurus and Smith & Wesson. Perhaps this will mean the steel gun will be relegated to the practice range while the lightweight revolver goes on the hip. In the case of the Taurus, the steel gun might suffice. But an ultra lightweight revolver with the competence of the 686-6 will be a most welcome addition. For now, however, here’s how we would spend our money:
Taurus 671 SSCH, $420. Buy It. Dollar for dollar, this gun is one of the better arguments for carrying a .357 Magnum revolver.
Smith & Wesson 686 Plus (686-6), $534. Our Pick. The 686-6 allows you to carry any strength or style of ammunition you need in a target-quality firearm. Though the Taurus is competent at its job, we would pay the higher price to buy the S&W.