January 1999

Colt King Cobra Our Pick In A .357 Magnum Revolver

The Colt had a smoother action and was more accurate than the Smith & Wesson 686, the Ruger GP100 and the Taurus 689VR.

Some time back on these pages we gave you the results of a test of three .357 Magnum double-action revolvers with four-inch barrels. However, our gun stores tell us that, because so many shooters don’t read Gun Tests, folks continually come in and ask which brand of .357 they ought to buy.

Sometimes, they don’t know what barrel length they want. More often they know which length, but not which brand gives them the most bang for their buck. Is, for example, the 6-inch Smith & Wesson just as good as the 4-inch version? We thought it would be a good idea to test the same three revolvers in the 6-inch version, and see if the same gun came up a winner. As a bonus, we added a Taurus to the mix. On pages 16-17, there is a review of the top six .357 Magnum defense loads.

The Test Guns
We chose the Colt King Cobra, the Smith & Wesson Model 686-5, the Ruger GP100 and the Taurus Model 689VR (vent rib). All were made of stainless steel and had 6-inch barrels. Taurus brightly polished their stainless gun. Colt did a bang-up polish job that made the King Cobra only slightly less lustrous than the Taurus. The other two guns had a semi-matte gray appearance.

All of the guns, except for the Taurus, came with black rubber grips. The Taurus grips were made of nicely figured, good-looking Brazilian hardwood. All four revolvers had adjustable sights featuring a white-outlined black rear sight, and all but one had a red front insert—the exception here being the Ruger. The Taurus’ front blade was integral with the barrel rib and was made of stainless steel, but its face was serrated to cut glare. In our shooting tests, we could not see a big difference between it and the other guns, which had black front sight blades.

The top of the Colt’s barrel rib was bead blasted to eliminate glare. Smith & Wesson gave their Model 686 a similar treatment, and also provided longitudinal serrations. The Taurus treatment was similar to that of the S&W. However, the Ruger had shiny top surfaces, and its serrations didn’t do much to cut glare.

The sight radius of the revolvers varied from 7.5 inches on the Ruger to 8.12 on the Taurus. The Colt and Smith & Wesson had a sight radius that measured 7.8 inches. For all intents and purposes, the sight picture provided by each of the four guns was identical.

All of these revolvers had rather massive underlugs on their barrels, giving them essentially too much weight for the caliber, unless you plan to shoot heavy bullets in hunting situations. To this end, we noted that two of the guns, the Smith & Wesson and the Colt, came pre-drilled for easy scope mounting. Smith & Wesson hide their scope-mount holes under the adjustable rear sight, but Colt let them hang out in the breeze. They thoughtfully provided two plugs for these holes which, if you don’t intend to scope the gun, are easily installed. Taurus is said to have a mount that clamps to their vent rib, but we haven’t seen it yet. The Ruger had no provisions for mounting a scope.

First Impressions
Our Colt King Cobra had a great feel to its action. It was so slick and smooth that, when we first tried it, we wondered if there was enough spring tension to fire the gun reliably. (There was.) The Colt’s trigger curved around the finger very nicely and added to the very slick feel of the gun. One possible complaint had to do with the grip angle. The barrel pointed distinctly upward when the King Cobra was pointed in the direction of a target, so the shooting hand’s wrist had to bend considerably to bring the barrel down in line with the target. Some of our testers didn’t like the grip angle at all, but others didn’t care. Of course, the individual shooter can replace the grips with whatever he or she wants.

Click here to view the Colt King Cobra features guide

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The Taurus Model 689VR had a smoothly curved trigger, but it felt almost flat when compared to that of the Colt. There was a slickness to the action of the Taurus. In fact, all the guns felt quite slick, but nothing like the feel of the Colt. The Taurus alone of our test quartet had wood grips. We must tell you, right up front, that although wood grips look good, they transmit much more of the gun’s recoil to the hand than any sort of rubber grip. Other than that, this gun felt pretty much exactly like the Smith & Wesson. A major exception was that the Taurus sat a full half-inch lower in the hand than the Smith because of the grip style. That was to Taurus’ credit. In extended shooting sessions, the ventilated barrel rib seemed to help maintain a sight picture free of heat mirage.

Click here to view the Taurus Model 689VR features guide

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Smith & Wesson now puts the Hogue Monogrip on the Model 686, and most of our testers didn’t much like the grip. It positioned the gun far too high in the hand, and the finger grooves forced the fingers of some hands apart when they should be jammed together for best control. The grip, though narrow, did afford a comfortable grasp on the gun as far as recoil goes, due to the springiness of the black rubber material of which it was composed. Other than that, the gun felt pretty good, just about like any Smith & Wesson out there.

Click here to view the Smith & Wesson Model 686 features guide

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The Model 686’s controls were familiar, so there was not much to learn, or report, new here. The double-action pull was the second smoothest of the test, after the incredible Colt, and we had no trouble hitting distant targets during double-action shooting. Unfort-unately, the gun sat so high in the hand that fast followup shots were distinctly slower than those fired with the other three guns in this test. Again, the shooter can replace the Hogue grip with whatever he or she desires. We like Pachmayr Presentation black rubber grips on our personal Smiths. They don’t have finger grooves.

The Ruger GP100’s grips were black rubber without grooves, but the sides had decorative inserts of brown wood-like material (which some actually found attractive) that give the gun a distinctive look. The grips felt just great in both aimed single-action fire and in rapid-fire double action. Recoil was spread over a large area of the hand and that made for good shooting comfort, even with the heaviest loads. The controls all functioned well and positively, and we found this to be a pleasant gun to handle and shoot. The trigger was well curved and smooth, and the double-action cycling was just slightly heavier than that of the Smith & Wesson. Trigger movement was even and smooth enough to permit good accuracy when shooting it slowly in the double-action mode. Because it sat lower in the hand than the S&W, the muzzle didn’t rise as high. Thus, it allowed faster follow-up shots.

Click here to view the Ruger GP100 features guide

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All four revolvers had swing-out cylinders that opened and closed easily yet securely. The Colt was the slickest, having much the feel of old Pythons, and they were pretty slick. The Colt was so smooth it felt like it had been hand polished.

Fit and Finish
Our close examination of each of the four revolvers found no significant problems with fit or finish. All looked pretty good, and were fully up to their prices in this regard. We found the grips of the Colt to be loose-feeling, side to side, and tightening the screw did not alleviate this problem. However, we don’t believe it hurt the gun’s accuracy. The slop there might give some hands a sense of misalignment, but our testers didn’t complain at all.

The Ruger GP100 was equipped with a front-end latch that secured the cylinder at the crane. However, this didn’t seem to give it a tighter lockup than the other guns. In fact, the Colt was the tightest gun at the crane when the guns were new, and it had only the one latch at the rear end of the cylinder. The Ruger’s grip screw was too long and it protruded out past the left grip panel.

After firing about 50 rounds through each gun, we found some wear marks. The Ruger’s hammer was noticeably scuffed on the left side, which showed that it was rubbing against the frame. The Taurus had some obvious rub marks on the left side of its trigger. The Smith had a few very slight rub marks on its hammer and trigger, but the Colt appeared unfired in those two areas. The Colt did have a noticeable drag mark around its cylinder. Its locking bolt popped up almost as soon as the cylinder began turning, and this eventually put an unneeded shiny mark there that the owner will simply have to live with. On the other three guns, this was largely unnoticeable.

Weights and Measures
There were not a lot of differences between the quartet’s trigger pulls, either single action or double action. In fact, there was more of a difference in the feel of the double-action pulls than their weights, which we’ve already discussed. The single-action pulls were all quite crisp with no apparent creep. The Smith & Wesson had minimal overtravel, the Ruger and Taurus had rather a lot, but the Colt had absolutely no detectable overtravel. When the King Cobra’s hammer fell, the trigger ran into a brick wall at exactly the same time. The Colt’s trigger had an adjustment screw for this, accessible via an Allen wrench on the underside of the trigger itself.

The Colt King Cobra’s barrel-to-cylinder gap was 0.005 inch, and its single-action (SA) pull was 4.6 pounds. The Taurus Model 689VR had a 0.006-inch barrel-to-cylinder gap, and its SA trigger pull was 4.4 pounds. The Smith & Wesson Model 686, however, had a 0.008-inch barrel-to-cylinder gap and a SA trigger pull of 5.2 pounds, while the Ruger GP100 had a 0.006-inch barrel-to-cylinder gap and a pull of 5.5 pounds.

Seldom have we found three test guns so close in weight as this particular Colt, Smith & Wesson, and Ruger. There was no weight difference between the Colt and S&W to three decimal places. Both the Colt and Smith & Wesson weighed exactly 2.79 pounds each, while the Ruger weighed 2.77. The Taurus was the lightweight at 2.51 pounds.

We measured the forcing cone diameters of all four test guns at their mouths. We got 0.375 inch for the S&W and Ruger, and 0.380 for the Colt and Taurus. By comparison, a near perfect specimen of a Colt Single Action Army in .38 Special from 1927 (hand fitted, of course) had a cone that measured a precise 0.360 inch, and it doesn’t spit. Part of the penalty of mass production, we suppose, is the need to increase the size of the funnel by which the bullets enter the barrel. In spite of this increase, some new guns still spit.

It would seem that the tight gaps and good trigger pulls of the Colt and the Taurus should give them an advantage over the other two revolvers in producing tiny groups. Let’s see how they did.

Shooting
In the shooting tests, we found the Colt to be as well timed as it was slick. There was no spitting, and the revolver shot with good accuracy. It easily bested the field with the hottest .357 Magnum ammunition tested, the Federal 125-grain JHP load. Sad to say, this was not the case with either the Smith & Wesson or the Ruger. The Smith shaved a bit of bullet, and spit back somewhat. The Ruger spit back considerably, and we got lots of powder blown into our faces from this gun.

Please note that the Ruger felt extremely tight with the hammer back, there being no movement to the cylinder whatever. It was, in fact, the tightest feeling gun of this test in this regard. Nevertheless, it spit the most material back at us. We mention this because so many shooters try to evaluate a revolver’s qualities by how tight the cylinder feels, but the real proof is in the shooting. With the test Ruger, there was apparently some misalignment of the cylinder to the barrel. We frequently noticed one of the shots from each group was significantly away from the others.

The Taurus shot very well during accuracy testing, and we liked its overall feel considerably. However, because of its lighter weight and wood grips, it transmitted by far the most recoil to our collective shooting hand. Spitting was minimal. This revolver laid ‘em in there quite well with the Federal Hi-Shok 125-grain ammunition, producing 1.7-inch groups at 20 yards. These were bested only by the Colt.

Click here to view the Performance Table

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The best groups with Federal’s Classic Hi-Shok 125-grain JHPs were fired by the Colt, with its smallest being 0.9 inch at 20 yards. Its average of five groups with this ammunition was just 1.26 inches. The smallest individual group fired by any of the other four guns in this series with this hot load was the Taurus’ 1.4 inches. The Colt’s largest group with this ammunition was 1.8 inches. The largest groups by any of the other revolvers was fired from the Ruger, and it measured 2.8 inches. Overall group size averages with the hot and popular Federal 125-grain JHP ammo were: Ruger, 2.1 inches; S&W 686, 2.0 inches; and Taurus, 1.7 inches. As we said, the Colt did 1.3 inches on average, significantly bettering its rivals with what was the smallest average groups of the entire test.

The Ruger seemed to like the 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter bullets of our Black Hills test ammunition. If we threw out one shot from each of the Ruger’s groups, its accuracy results would have been stunning with this ammunition. However, the honors with the Black Hills ammo were shared by Colt and Smith & Wesson, at 1.8 inches on average.

The Smith & Wesson shot the smallest groups with the Winchester 110-grain JHP ammo. As with the Ruger, one of the S&W’s chambers seemed to put one round significantly out of the main group, and with it went considerable back-spitting. This tended to destroy one’s confidence in the gun and its shooting abilities. We would rather have a comfortable gun (no spitting) with 2-inch accuracy than a spitter that provides 1.8-inch accuracy, for example.

We had the devil of a time adjusting some of these sights to center our groups. All of the guns had elevation adjustment screws that worked well and held their positions, and were also large enough to get a screwdriver into. However, the windage screw of the Colt defied us for some time until we could come up with a screwdriver small enough, and with enough purchase, to move the blade far enough to the left to get the groups centered. That, in fact, was about our only complaint with the Colt, other than its too-straight grip angle. A similar situation existed with the Ruger, in that its windage screw was so small that we had a hard time seeing it, much less making any adjustments. However, we were able to zero all guns with the three types of commercial ammunition tried. The Taurus rear sight had to be moved very far off to the left, which was unsightly, but that did get its groups centered.

There were no mechanical problems with any of the revolvers. All of them readily accepted and extracted the ammunition we used. None of these guns had ejector rod throws that were long enough to fully remove fired cases from the cylinders, but that didn’t matter. (Correct gun handling mandates elevating the muzzle skyward and swatting the ejector rod. If you don’t unload a double-action revolver that way, you’re doing it wrong.) Also, we found no binding with any of the guns in double-action mode, even after firing many rounds with no cleaning. This was commendable.

Only the Colt provided full shielding to the cartridge case heads, in the form of a recessed ring in the rear of the cylinder into which the case heads sink. We could still tell there were cartridges in there without opening the cylinder because the recoil shield was small enough to permit seeing the edges of the rims. What does this system do for you? It gives you a cleaner and more finished-looking handgun. It also reduces side-blast from gas escaping at the rear of the cylinder. That means you can put your supporting thumb where you want it, not where the gun dictates to avoid being injured by the gas.

Double-Action Testing
We shot the slick Colt King Cobra in the combat mode and put two shots dead center on a sheet of 8-1/2 x 11 paper at seven yards, as fast as we could work the trigger. That about summed up this outstanding handgun. We were able to hit the target very well during slow double-action firing at extended ranges, too. It clearly stood head and shoulders above the other guns in this test in looks, feel, and in practical shooting.

The Ruger GP100 felt really good in the double-action mode, either fast or slow fire. We were able to make relatively good hits on target at long range, not exactly the realm of the double-action system. Up close and personal, the Ruger fired shots smoothly and reliably as fast as we could stroke the trigger, and it was by no means clean at this point in testing. With some handguns, carbon and unburnt gun powder will often tie up the double-action mechanism so that repeated rapid-fire shooting becomes difficult, if not impossible. This wasn’t so with the Ruger. It kept on ticking.

The Taurus Model 689VR did quite well double-action at long range. This revolver was just fine in fast double-action shooting up close, but it did bang the hand a bit doing this kind of rapid shooting because of the hard grips. For a few shots, it didn’t hurt. It, too, kept its smooth operation going when dirty. We really liked the feel of the Taurus because of its lighter weight, which was more than adequate for the caliber, and the fact that the gun sat low and comfortably in the hand. The Smith & Wesson Model 686 felt pretty much like most of this manufacturer’s revolvers do—slick and controllable in the double-action mode. This one had a distinct hesitation just before the hammer fell. Shooters could make this hesitation in the trigger pull work for them, with practice, when they had to make a careful double-action hit.