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.”
That said, real-life self defense is a serious matter in which simple, deadly tools are often enough to keep kin and your own skin safe from harm. Toward that end, we recently tested three .38 Special-only revolvers that are inexpensive and simple to operate. I.e., the Smith & Wesson Model 10 was once the standard sidearm for police and military use. The M10 has also been the basis of many competition guns and is the most expensive of this test trio at a current MSRP of $489. In contrast, the least expensive revolver we could find in blued steel with a 4-inch barrel is listed at $199. This is the Armscor Model 200 from the Arms Corporation of the Philippines. Fitting neatly in between is the Model 82 from Taurus International. Available in bright stainless for an additional $50, we tested the blue model for $325.
Here’s what we found:
Smith & Wesson Model 10 .38 Special, $489
The latest Model 10 revolver from Smith & Wesson is perhaps the archetypal double-action revolver. The 4-inch barrel has become the standard for duty carry, offering enough sight radius and velocity for effective use. Our Model 10 is sold with a “heavy” barrel. This means the wall thickness of the barrel is oversized, and this becomes apparent when compared to earlier models sold with a tapered barrel. The front sight is now a serrated ramp, in stark contrast to the thin arcing blade that graced the earliest Model 10s. Also, we measured the barrels on both the Smith & Wesson and Taurus revolvers to be 0.1 inch longer than the manufacturer’s claimed 4 inches. This extra length offers a slight recess meant to protect of the crown or final edge of the rifling. But the distance from the mouth of the forcing cone to the end of the rifling is 4 inches.
Of our three test guns, the M10 was the only one that did not carry the ejector rod in a shroud. Despite weighing nearly as much as the Taurus 82, the M10’s 40 ounces did not include even a partially lugged barrel. Still, this design did not introduce more recoil than its competitors.
The rear sight on all three guns consisted of a notch inset atop the rear of the frame. This makes it impervious to damage and incidental readjustment, which can happen to click-adjustable sights, sometimes simply through repeated holstering or other administrative handling. Frankly, we’re always impressed with how well these sights work, especially when the front blade is serrated to flatten glare as it was on the M10 and the Taurus 82.
Both the trigger and hammer tang were of narrow design, and the most recent upgrades or changes to the M10 were the cutaway cylinder release, internally mounted inertial firing pin, and the key-operated hammer lock that now appears on all Smith & Wesson revolvers. The ejector star meshes with the face of the cylinder without the use of locating pins, relying instead upon the way each tip of the star fits into place.
While most of the Smith & Wesson models are being shipped with Hogue grips, our M10 arrived with a two-piece rubber grip that was checkered and included finger grooves. We recognized this design as possibly a Michael’s of Oregon (Uncle Mike’s) product. We completely forgot about the grips while shooting, which in our opinion is the highest recommendation one can bestow upon a grip.
In many ways a six-shot .38 could be looked upon as a “plain vanilla” weapon, but the gold-colored graphics on the right side made this gun seem special. The Model 10 actually lays claim to fame in at least two different places in history, first as a military and police sidearm and later as a competitive shooting iron. Police Pistol Competition, or PPC, is likely the first arena in which this revolver was successful at the range. Later, more sophisticated competitions, such NRA Action Pistol, were dominated by this type of revolver.[PDFCAP(2)]
The Model 10 is somewhat obsolete now for competitive use, but its accuracy and reliability was again proven by our test procedure. While the Taurus M82 produced more velocity, the Smith & Wesson Model 10 proved more accurate. Firing an economical target round (we paid $7.95 per 50 rounds for Mag-Tech’s 158-grain lead roundnosed bullet), our five-shot groups averaged out to 1.3 inches in diameter measured from the center of each hit. We consider the 158 LRN to be a classic design, one of the originals intended for use in the .38 Special revolver. But even when firing the latest available hollowpoints, performance was similar. In fact, group sizes fired double-action only (DAO) from a sandbag rest at 25 yards varied from only 1.1 to 1.8 inches. When a gun offers this much accuracy, it often encourages practice and assures that more time will pass before the owner grows tired of it.
Taurus Model 82 .38 Special, $325
The Model 82 is one of the first models Taurus introduced to the American public. The latest version of this model offers some much-improved features. The grip was a special design that Taurus began using in the middle 1990s, most recognizably when it introduced the eight-shot 608. This grip was narrow save for the palm swell, and it offered a wealth of cushion at the back strap as well. While each of our revolvers used grip panels held on by a screw that threads across the center of the grip, the Taurus hid it from touching the shooter’s palm. Only the head was visible from the right-side panel. The grip fit together using a tongue-and-groove design, and it will stay in place even without the screw.
The scalloped full underlug was another style point that Taurus has carried over since introducing the 608. The trigger was still wide and smooth as on the earlier M82, but the cylinder latch was abbreviated for better clearance when using a speedloader. The forward tip of the ejector rod is now capped and does not figure into lockup. Instead, a spring-loaded detent pin mounted in the crane reinforces lockup. The ejector star was still located by pins fixed to the cylinder, but appeared to be thicker than earlier models seating deeply into the rear face of the cylinder. The hammer spur was still wide and serrated, but a key-operated pop-up lock is now part of the hammer assembly. Graphics were nicely cut, but plain, and were not outlined in a contrasting color.
We found this latest Model 82 to be accurate and pleasant to shoot. Stacking, or the progression of resistance during a double-action trigger stroke, was minimal, although we did sometimes feel that it had caused us to rush our shots. Firing the Hornady 125-grain JHP/XTP rounds, all groups measured less than 2 inches. (The range was 1.4 to 1.9 inches.) Overall, the largest five-shot group we fired measured only 2.4 inches, but what we liked best was that the Taurus M82 produced the most velocity of our trio. Our M82 topped our trio with a high of 1,053 fps and with an average of 1,019 fps firing the 129-grain Federal Hydra-Shok rounds. We feel that an average muzzle velocity of 298 foot-pounds is considerable power behind expandable ammunition.
Armscor Model 200 .38 Special, $199
Armscor is an acronym for Arms Corporation of the Philippines, which is represented in the United States through the company office in Las Vegas. The Armscor M200 differed from the Taurus and the Smith & Wesson revolvers on a number of key points.
First, the cylinder rotated clockwise. That means your next shot will come from the chamber in the 11 o’clock position instead of from the other side, as in the Taurus and Smith & Wesson products. Also, the cylinder latch opened by being pulled to the rear rather than slid forward. These two characteristics would lead one to believe that the M200 is patterned after the Colt’s double-action revolvers.
On the right-hand side was one screw which secured the crane. The crane stem was short and stubby and does not travel deeply into the frame. In comparison, the Taurus and Smith & Wesson crane stems run the entire length of the cylinder. Should this effect durability? This is the first time we’ve tested an Armscor revolver, so we spent more time firing the M200 with a wider variety of rounds than our other two guns. If we were trying to break the Armscor 200, we had no such luck, so we can’t say that one crane design has an edge over the other.
Likely sold for less than its already low $199 MSRP, we couldn’t complain about the 200’s fit or finish. Though the seams of the left sideplates were obvious, the color of the gun was evenly applied, and both the trigger and the hammer were nicely machined. We didn’t like the grip, or rather the upper section where the corner of the grip panel was abrupt and created undue pressure on the inside of the hand. These were hard plastic grips.
When we measured the 200’s DA trigger pull (15 pounds) to weigh about the same as the other guns (15 pounds for the Smith, 14 for the Taurus), in terms of felt resistance the action was not as smooth, we thought. It seemed heavier because most of the resistance was found at the end of the stroke.
Shooting standing at 10 yards, we were able to land continuous strings of fire in a 3-inch group. At 25 yards the M200 proved markedly less accurate. It wasn’t unusual for us to measure a three-shot group of less than 2 inches, but when two more shots were added, the group-size ballooned to more than 5 inches. Point of impact was also as low as 5 inches at 25 yards. One problem was the glare coming from the smooth front-sight blade, which made visual definition difficult to achieve.
To find out why we were suffering so much inconsistency, we tried testing each revolver with a range rod. This device is a precision machined “plug” that gauges the inner diameter of the barrel and tests cylinder-to-bore alignment as it passes through the forcing cone into each chamber. We used a match model (Brownells,  741-0015, item 080-617-138) for tightest tolerances. In the Taurus our range rod slid with some resistance and found accurate cylinder to bore alignment. In the accurate Smith & Wesson M10, the rod entered the muzzle only after the most careful alignment. But the rod practically fell into the muzzle of its own accord when applied to the Armscor product. With a loose bore and variation in chamber volumes, inconsistent points of impact due to inexact rotation of the cylinder and inconsistent pressure is sure to follow.
Gun Tests Recommends
Smith & Wesson Model 10 .38 Special, $489. Our Pick. Paying a little extra for a gun capable of match-grade accuracy shouldn’t put anyone off. The M10 has a solid reputation for many of the good things a handgun should have, including long service life.
Taurus Model 82 .38 Special, $325. Best Buy. For anyone primarily concerned with self defense from a weapon that is accurate, easy to operate, and a cinch to maintain, the Model 82 should prove to be a wise and economical choice.
Armscor Model 200 .38 Special, $199. Conditional Buy. The M200 may not be tuned for match accuracy beyond 10 yards, but it should do a better job of protecting its owner than other comparably priced weapons of smaller caliber or questionable function.