The five-shot snubbed-nosed .38 Special revolver is a traditional backup gun, but recent trends have tended to favor aluminum and titanium featherweights instead of steel-framed models. But steel still has its appeal, and we wanted to go back to earlier wheelgun versions to see what first made them favorites of couriers, detectives, and regular joes fifty years ago.
For this comparison, we chose two standard steel guns in .38 Special, the Taurus 85, $286, and S&W’s $539 small-frame 36LS LadySmith, marketed to women, as its name suggests. But we paid no attention to that market positioning, because we’ve handled the LadySmith and knew its handling was on par, or perhaps better, than other boot-size guns pitched to men. Our thinking: From the muzzle forward, a bad guy can’t tell the difference.
Also, with recent memories of testing featherweight titanium revolvers in mind, we wondered how much porting would affect felt recoil, and toward that end we also acquired a Taurus 85 with a ported barrel, $305. By comparing Taurus’s standard barrel to the ported model, we hoped to find if we were willing to spend more time practicing with it than not.
Using sandbags topped with a leather Protektor brand rabbit-ear bag, we felt there was enough control and clarity of sight picture to test reliably at 15 yards. Choice of ammunition was actually telling. Since these revolvers offer fixed sights only with a ramp front blade integrated atop the barrel, the weight of the slugs could have much to do with elevation and point of impact. Heavier bullets that stay in the barrel longer can be affected by muzzle-rise, which raises the point of impact. Since lighter bullets typically print lower, reducing the height of the front blade may be necessary to raise point of impact. But there isn’t much material to remove on a snubby. We were on the lookout for the bullet weight that would produce the desired point of impact for each gun. Also, we paid special attention to grip technique to make sure a rise in elevation did not result merely from letting the gun recoil excessively. Our choice of a traditional-style ammunition was Winchester’s standard velocity 150-grain lead round nosed cartridge. On the modern side we fired Speer’s +P 125-grain Gold Dot Hollowpoints and a new round from Federal, a 110-grain “Personal Defense” Hydra-Shok JHP. Since we were dealing with compensated and non-compensated models, chronograph readings were just as important as felt recoil.
Also, reliability in these smaller-framed guns can be affected by choice of ammunition. With less mainspring, it is possible to experience failures to ignite. The fact is, some primers are capped with harder metal than others. We tempted each gun to produce a light hit by firing double-action-only in the slowest, most controlled press we could muster in an effort to reduce the inertia of the falling hammer to a minimum. In some cases, we noted failures to fire in a revolver, which most shooters don’t expect. All in all, here’s what we found when we shot these guns head to head:
The Taurus 85 is the heaviest of these three snub-nosed revolvers, but they all weighed around 1.5 pounds, give or take an ounce.
While it did not register the smallest groups in the accuracy test, it was the most consistent, producing on average 2.25-inch groups with all three choices of ammo. This is noteworthy because this means you can practice with less expensive lead round-nosed ammunition and measure your score the same as if it were the more expensive hollowpoints. Elevation was point of aim for all three rounds despite the difference in weight and velocity of our test ammo. Reliability was 100 percent. For $286, you can’t ask much more of a gun.
The grip is small but comfortable and offers a padded backstrap, but fits flush to the butt of the frame for minimal height and easy concealment. The trigger is wide but radiused and the hammer is brief. The ejector rod is fully shrouded for protection from impact and dirt, and the crane includes a spring-loaded detent. The rear notch is generous enough to allow light bars of a little less than one-third the width of the front sight. The action of the trigger was smooth, breaking at 12 pounds double action and 4 pounds single action. There’s a key-operated lock on the hammer.
Taurus 85 Ported
Virtually all of the above goes for the ported model 85, except for two points, one good and one bad.
The good side concerns accuracy. We found the gun shot groups smaller than 2 inches when chambering the Speer Gold Dot Hollowpoints. This may be because the extra downward pressure from the ports prevented the muzzle from lifting, making follow through more consistent. Also, we found a difference in sight picture as well. From behind the grip, we saw less front blade.
Our calipers measured the front blade on the non-compensated gun at 0.137 inches tall, and the ported model only 0.109 inches high. We can’t explain how this would account for the slight difference in accuracy, but it does point out that there are differences from one Taurus to another. Normally, we would think the lower front blade would sit more into glare off the top strap and have a corresponding reduction of light bars and accuracy. But we didn’t find that in this case.
The ported 85 also gave us the only malfunction of the test, one failure to ignite the Speer ammunition. The bobbed-hammer model tested in the September 2000 issue was also a light hitter, so we were watching for this problem. On the earlier gun, failures were so prevalent we sent this gun back to Taurus. Four weeks later it was returned and has been 100 percent reliable ever since. Compared to the two model 85s in this test, the trigger on the repaired gun was heavier to ensure ignition. While a heavier mainspring is all that it really asks, we’d like to point out a difference in ammunition that can go a long way to ensure reliability.
When handloading for competition and trying to maintain the lowest possible trigger pull, it is necessary to fully seat the primer so it does not shift when struck, thereby absorbing energy. Competitive shooters prefer Federal 100 Small Pistol primers because they break with the least impact but can still handle exceedingly high levels of pressure. It is not a coincidence that the revolver maven on our staff loads Federal ammunition exclusively in his carry gun, for this very reason.
S&W 36LS LadySmith
“Hey beautiful, where have you been all my life?” Before we go on to any other corny pickup lines, let us say upfront that we find the LadySmith 36 offensive. That is, we are offended that Smith & Wesson finally revives the basic steel snubby with a rich, classic blue finish and mahogany grip and they’d rather market it to women. That’s okay—because in some cultures the word “ladysmith” refers to a man who is a skilled lover. So, we wouldn’t let a little thing like a name on the sideplate keep us from buying the 36LS.
What we have here is a steel-framed snubby with a semi-exposed ejector rod, wood backless grips and metal work well above the current production standard of most manufacturers.
Still, for all its classic appeal the 36LS did not excel in shooting the traditional roundnosed lead (RNL) Winchester round. Although it was consistent at 15 yards from a rest, averaging 3-inch groups firing lead, nearly every jacketed round resulted in a group measuring less than 2 inches.
It also featured slightly more velocity in each shot, but also the most felt recoil. The grip is a little slippery, but swells nicely into the palm. The “slippery” grip actually has an upside, it will not catch on clothing or the inside of a concealment purse as rubber grips tend to.
Firing the 36LS was confidence inspiring because we felt it had the most consistent action. The Speer 125-grain Gold Dot Hollowpoint +P ammunition was the best performer, with the best overall group of 1.3 inches.
Beyond the grip, there really isn’t anything remarkable in terms of design or engineering. This is an older, time-proven design with subtle upgrades such as a frame-mounted firing pin and a modern, streamlined cylinder latch. Gone is the old grip that was too thin at the front strap and contoured way too high behind the trigger guard. The trigger is nicely rounded, and the aforementioned finish seems to look a little better when temporarily discolored by spent powder and heat. Any way you cut it, the 36LS is a classic.
Gun Tests Recommends
Taurus M85, $286. Best Buy. This reliable, small package is a bargain in the bare-bones self-defense market.
Taurus M85 ported, $305. Conditional Buy. Careful choice of ammunition could make this revolver a Best Buy along with its stablemate. Sticking with Federal products that feature their competition-proven primer should ensure ignition, but don’t be afraid to shop for the one with a heavier trigger pull. Porting plus the extra weight of steel lowers felt recoil.
Smith & Wesson 36LS LadySmith, $539. Buy it. We thought this gun had the best grip, best sights, best finish, best trigger, was the best shooter and generated the most velocity. The best of these three steel snubbies need not be for women only. If Smith were smart, the company would take the same gun and relabel it the “GT Special,” and sell a ton of them.
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