May 1999

Versatility Plus: Smith & Wesson Tops Test of 6-Inch .38 Specials

There seems to be an army of snub-nosed carry guns to choose from, but what do you buy if you simply want a good-shooting, good-looking, dependable revolver for targets, plinking, and fun?

It may be misleading to refer to the guns in this test, the Ruger GP100, the Rossi 971, and Smith & Wesson’s Models 14 and 686-5 as double-action revolvers. This is because each revolver is actually two guns in one. They can be fired single action just like the cowboy guns of old as well as by double-action pull. Surely there are more than a few semiautos on the market that offer double- and single-action triggers on the same frame, but few of those can match the precise double action of even the lowest-priced wheelgun in this test. Furthermore, these revolvers in box-stock condition go a long way in replicating the sensation of a “hair trigger” often found on custom-built single-action 1911-style pistols.

Learning to shoot a handgun well is perhaps one of the hardest shooting skills to acquire, yet it is one of the most appealing. But how can you learn and instill the rudiments of proper grip, stance, sight alignment, trigger control, and safe handling effectively and cheaply? Answer: Pick a good revolver, fill it with light target loads, and head to the range.

Toward that end, we recently gathered up a quartet of interesting wheelguns that, ideally, would allow us to shoot well in a variety of situations that emphasized accuracy and smooth operation. In the broadest sense, we were looking for a versatile wheelgun that would allow us to shoot bullseye competition capably, if we so desired, and then switch to an IDPA course, then crank on a metal silhouette or two, then hunt small game. If the gun had home- or car-defense capability, so much the better, since we wanted to shoot it enough to become proficient with it.

Each of the guns we’ve chosen, the Ruger GP100 KPG-161, $474; the Rossi 971, $300, Smith & Wesson’s Model 14/K38 Masterpiece, $484; and the S&W 686-5, $534, are capable of handling a range of ballistic power, and they are otherwise similarly configured with 6-inch barrels, full lugs, weights in the 40- to 45-ounce range, and adjustable sights. To show off their accuracy capability and to maximize our ability to shoot well with them, we used .38 Special target loads from Hornady, Winchester, and Federal, plus the 3D company, a commercial reloader. 3D is one of the few (maybe only) companies offering the 125-grain SWC lead bullet, once the subject of much testing by Action Pistol devotees in the early days of the .38 Super cartridge, as well as .38 Specials.

Range Work
Much is made of gun craftsmanship in the olden days. But our tests on these guns do not support the notion that fit, finish, and accuracy on modern-day guns suffers in comparison to what was once built. The 686-5 delivered all five groups of Winchester 148-grain wadcutters 25 yards downrange under 1 inch. Likewise, the K38 managed an average group size of 1.08 inches, but its groups varied from 0.67 inch to 1.52 inches. The Ruger managed to shoot one group of the Winchester ammo under an inch, and notched 1.24-inch average groups. Even the Rossi checked in with groups well under 3 inches with three out of the four rounds tested.

Click here to view the Accuracy and Chronograph Data

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While the 158-grain semi-wadcutter and the 148-grain wadcutters are widely used for target shooting, the 125-grain wadcutter is a throwback. We’d like a chance to experiment more with them, but the reloaded 3D rounds were victim of the inconsistent quality of their components. Our first group out of the rest with the 686-5 measured 0.90 inch. Each gun was able to shoot very good if not spectacular groups with this round, but had trouble maintaining consistent results, as the accompanying accuracy table shows.

Of course, as we shot we gathered other insights about the guns and formed opinions about whether we would buy them or not. Here’s what we thought about each gun.

Smith & Wesson 686-5
Our recommendation: Buy it. The only thing better than a good six-shooter is a good seven-shooter, and this may be Smith & Wesson’s best all-around firearm. As good as it is, it can be even better, and durable to boot.

Click here to view the Smith & Wesson 686-5 features guide

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The 686-series revolvers are referred to as Combat Magnums. The name conjures up a rugged image of ready to go at any time. The original answer to the ballistic shortcomings of the Model 10 police gun in .38 Special was Bill Jordan’s switch to the .357 Magnum round in the Model 19. When Smith introduced the Model 28 for police use (Model 27 with target sights for the civilian market), the company was seeking more durability. The 27/28 N frames proved more durable but were considered a little too large for daily carry. The answer was a .357 Magnum sized in between the K- and N-framed guns, designated the L frame. The L frame is only slightly taller but allows for a full outside diameter at the forcing cone, heretofore abbreviated in K-frame models. This added strength made it possible for repeated use of one of the most effective handgun rounds of all time, the 125-grain JHP .357 Magnum traveling in excess of 1,400 fps.

The 6-inch 686 is stainless steel with a full-lug barrel. This means recoil-absorbing weight sits under the barrel from frame to muzzle. The front sight on our sample was a ramp style with orange insert. We found the slick surface to the insert detrimental since the glare from its smooth surface made the front sight hard to decipher, especially its upper portion. The grip was the rubber Monogrip design from Hogue that includes a beaded finish, exposed backstrap, palm swell and support lug between the trigger guard and front strap. The frame was a round-butt design unlike the K38, and along with the application of the Monogrip maintains a slim profile. The double action was heavy but consistent. Our experience with S&W guns has showed us that a Smith revolver delivered with a heavy action should be considered an uncut diamond. This gun’s single action was deceptively smooth, solid, and heavy. The hammer would fall before we could predict it. The new Smiths include a floating firing pin, and when the hammer drops in single action one feels its inertia with authority.

Regarding the addition of a seventh cylinder and the according ratchet/hand relationship, the change in inertia from a six-cylinder pattern was unnoticeable, we thought. We did find that one of the cylinders was less willing to eject spent cases and receive fresh rounds than the other six. We searched for the answer with our Oehler chronograph, looking for one cylinder to produce higher velocities than the others. To this end we chrono’d from all seven cylinders, not the usual five chosen at random. In review of the figures under extreme spread (maximum difference in velocity from shot to shot) we only found one glaring inconsistency and that was traced to a split case from 3D, a commercially reloaded round. Standard deviation was 12 fps for the Winchester and 16 fps for the Hornady ammo. A SD of less than 10 fps is considered match grade, and the Federal ammo clocked in at 8 fps.

Smith & Wesson Model 14/K38 Masterpiece
Our recommendation: Buy it. One of the best feeling guns of all. Although limited to .38 Special, this is the type of firearm every dedicated shooter deserves to own.

Click here to view the Smith & Wesson Model 14/K38 Masterpiece features guide

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The Masterpiece designation in the S&W catalog refers to fit, not a fancy stainless finish, on this pistol. In contrast to the stainless Rossi, the money in this gun was spent on fitting the barrel and tuning the action. It can even be said that the dark-blued finish is not by way of cost cutting but serves to reduce glare when taking careful aim. The makers of the Model 14 have obviously been to a shooting match or two. This $484 model has been in production since its reintroduction in 1991, but has been subtly updated over time with features such as the wide, easily-accessible target hammer. The specially-designed cylinder latch, relieved for speed loaders, is one of the more recent updates. The Hogue monogrip with S&W insignia was new for 1998.

Thanks to CNC machining, the ejector now meshes cleanly into the cylinder instead of settling over pegs that were prone to break off. This gun was a favorite in the early days of Practical Shooting competition and was known for its accuracy. Today, it is one of the few pure .38 Special target revolvers still available. Unlike the other participants in this test, nearly all are now chambered for the .357 Magnum as well.

The Smith & Wesson Model 14 was the only gun in our test whose out-of-the-box single-action and double-action pulls could be considered ready for competition. Smith triggers respond extremely well to tuning, which is usually important in getting them ready for double-action competition. It has been our observation that the majority of S&W revolvers are shipped today with SA triggers ranging from very good to excellent. Usually the double actions straight from the factory are decidedly heavy. Not so with this K38. A machinist could improve it further, but out of the box, we enjoyed the choice of using either the single-action or double-action mode with equal ease.

Furthermore, accuracy was consistent with all four types of ammunition. We took a trip down the barrel with our range rod to inspect cylinder-to-bore alignment and found three cylinders slightly out of time. Still, all four brands including the 3-D factory reload shot well enough to serve as match ammo. This tells us just how good the K38 really is. Properly timed, this revolver should be extremely rewarding to shoot. Careful handloading would undoubtedly add to its outright exceptional performance.

Ruger GP100 KGP-161
Our recommendation: Buy it. The $474 GP100 was handsome, strong and accurate. Its double-action operation was good, but if you like single-action games like silhouette or bullseye, it will be your friend for a long time.

Click here to view the Ruger GP100 KGP-161 features guide

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The stainless-steel finish and rugged construction of the Ruger GP100 made a strong first impression. Indeed, no .38 Special loads we know of will test the durability of this gun. How does durability fit our quest for accurate results? You can practice as much as you want without fear of damaging the gun no matter what ammunition is used, even hot loads. As a result, the GP100 may be a little heavy, but not enough to complain about.

However, the gun’s rear sight does need work, in our estimation. It has a white outline around the notch that we found distracting when carefully searching for the front sight or the light bars around it. The intended purpose for this blade design is to speed sight acquisition, but it is our feeling that the front sight is the component that should be accentuated. Once the front sight is found in hard focus, it can then be readily placed into the rear notch. We would prefer that the Ruger have a plain black rear blade to relieve it, and if we bought the gun, we would blacken the white outline out completely.

On the upside, the Ruger grip was excellent. Full-sized and devoid of finger grooves, it proved to be just the right shape to fill a variety of hands. The left side of the grip featured an indentation to anchor the thumb.

Stepping up to the firing line, our shooting technique was dictated by the characteristics of the Ruger’s trigger. Casual dry-firing had led us to believe that firing the gun double action would be a good idea, because it seemed the trigger could be staged or pulled back to rotate the cylinder and held before the final short press. This did not prove to be right. Time seems to slow down when you bring all your concentration into play, and we found the final stage of the GP100’s double-action trigger stroke proved longer than we expected. We sensed our grip was changing over the final millimeters of travel. As GT readers know, any change in grip during trigger pull is likely to spoil accuracy. Polishing and contouring the trigger face to allow the finger to roll across it without adding a deflection could minimize this problem on the Ruger, or a reduction in grip size could make it less of a problem for those shooters with smaller hands. On the single-action side, the press, only 3.75 pounds, was a joy to use. The hammer was easily reached by the strong-hand thumb, so it could be cocked in plenty of time for the next shot. In single action, the GP100 displayed a smooth weighted let-off without any distracting mechanical warning. Overall, we would like a gunsmith to smooth and lighten the DA pull for faster response, but we thought the stock single action was just right.

We tested the gun’s accuracy out of a Ransom Rest, firing four different types of .38 Special ammo at 25 yards. Results were unspectacular with Hornady’s 148-grain hollow-based wadcutter and Federal’s Classic 158-grain semi-wadcutter. In the Ruger, 3-D’s 125-grain SWC produced one really good group out of five, measuring 1.18 inch (actually a 0.43-inch four-shot group with a flyer). We take this to mean a handload using a 125-grain bullet would be worth investigating. This GP100 liked the Winchester Super Match 148-grain Lead Mid-Range (X38SMRP) best. Consistent groups of less than 1.5 inches are well within this gun’s reach right out of the box.

Rossi/Interarms Model 971
Our recommendation: Pass. While offering more accuracy and stopping power than so many other guns at this price, it’s still a weak sister compared to the other revolvers in this test.

Click here to view the Rossi/Interarms Model 971 features guide

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The $290 Rossi M971 is the lowest-priced revolver of this trio. It is a close copy of a S&W K-frame with a coil-action spring similar to the Smith J-frame series. The resulting trigger is more than acceptable, both in DA and SA mode. The stock grip strongly resembles the aftermarket accessory available from Pachmayr. Upon inspection, it is easy to see where money was saved. Despite a nicely-polished stainless-steel finish, some of the gun’s machining needed to be cleaned up. The cylinder latch was difficult to operate at times. The breech face and ratchet guide could be smoothed as well. The crown of the barrel definitely needed improvement, in our estimation. It was finished with a rounded edge that lacked definition.

The Rossi’s accuracy reflects all of the above and one other element. We found accuracy for each gun shot from the Ransom Rest to be directly related to how well it fit the supplied inserts. The Rossi would not seat perfectly in either the K-frame round-butt insert or in the K-frame square-butt insert. Since it fit noticeably better in the square-butt insert, we settled the M971 into the rest as firmly as possible and fired on, recording data after a few settling in shots. None of the ammunition tested suggested this gun was able to overcome its shortcomings in comparison to the other guns in the test. The Winchester ammo again produced the brightest moments. A three-shot 0.25-inch group was spoiled by two other shots expanding it to 2.24 inches. Another group featured a lone shot just below two other holes that were nearly double hits.

This inconsistency most likely reflects a tolerance problem. When we applied a match-grade range rod from Brownells to the barrel of the Rossi, we found all six cylinders were out of line. This ranged from a slight misalignment on one chamber to timing bad enough to prevent the rod from entering another chamber at all. A slight turn of the cylinder relieved the misalignment and let the rod pass. With its proven design, a careful refitting of moving parts would probably make this into a more than acceptable gun.

Gun Tests Recommends
We believe three guns in this test are worth the money: the Ruger GP100 KPG-161, $474; Smith & Wesson’s Model 14/K38 Masterpiece, $484; and the S&W 686-5, $534. However, we recognize that you don’t need to buy all three to get a lot of shooting versatility, so which one would we pick over the others?

Our favorite would be the S&W 686-5. With the right ammo, it shot more accurately than the others, carried an extra round, and could shoot both target-load .38s and full-bore .357s. Out of the box, we thought this handgun had a slightly better trigger action, which gave it the edge over the Ruger.

Next up would be the Model 14/K38 Masterpiece, which simply shot superbly across the board, winning three of four ammo-accuracy matchups. Since this gun isn’t offered in a stainless finish, some shooters might not consider it, but we think that would be a mistake. Compared to the 686-5, it lacks only the former’s seven-shot capacity and the ability to handle .357 Magnum rounds, making it slightly less versatile.

The Ruger GP100 KPG-161 is similarly versatile and durable. But in this test it didn’t shoot as accurately as the Smiths and wasn’t quite as good operationally, we thought.

The Rossi 971 was simply outclassed by the other products in this test; unquestionably, we would spend the extra money for the Smiths or the Ruger instead of buying the 971.