April 2000

Four-Inch .357 Mag. Revolvers: Enduring Choices for Car or Carry

But which one is best? We put five to the test: the simple and affordable Ruger GP100, a Coltís Python, S&Wís seven-shot 686-5, Taurusís seven-shot 66SS4, or Taurusís new Tracker?

[IMGCAP(1)] Whatever happened to the old 4-inch service revolver? Take a look around and you will see they’re on the hips of many uniformed police officers. Yes, the majority of peace officers today do carry the semi-automatic, but take part in your own survey and you will be surprised to find out how many rely on a 4-inch wheelgun.

The reasons for this gun’s popularity as a duty weapon for officers or, correspondingly, as a personal self-defense gun for citizens are manifold. The revolver offers an on-demand choice of single or double action, it will run reliably on any load strength, and the .357 Magnum guns will also shoot cheaper .38 Special rounds to boot, mixing power and affordability. Also, 4-inch revolvers aren’t as expensive as a good semiauto, and hung with a 4-inch barrel, they offer good sight radius and plenty of power. In sum, for many Gun Tests readers, they’re just right for car or home defense or even carry. You can even get them in seven-round capacity, as a recent five-way evaluation showed.

Our test guns included the steady $423 six-shot Ruger GP100-series GPF-340; the new Taurus Tracker 627SS4 seven-shooter, $445; the stainless seven-shot Taurus 66SS4, $406; the venerable (but no longer in production) Colt Python, $595; and Smith & Wesson’s 4-inch seven-shot 686 Magnum Plus, $542.

Range Session
We found setting up a range session for a series of combat revolvers was more complicated than it sounds. If these were merely target guns for sport or competition, the search for the most accurate gun would be simple. Certainly, we tested for accuracy, but we also looked for consistency in double action and some specific concerns in regard to concealment.

Whereas these test guns are of traditional duty-size and are not designed specifically for hiding on the body, we found an alternative holster design, the Hoffner Mirage, that would allow for fast access standing or seated, which fit our protocol of testing for car-to-carry use.

Our first evaluation step always is raw accuracy. Firing single-action from a sandbag rest, we tried three different cartridges from Black Hills Ammunition in Rapid City, South Dakota, ([605] 348-5150). We chose the .38 Special 148-grain Match wadcutter as our traditional accuracy load, the .357 Mag. 158-grain jacketed hollowpoint (JHP) for self-defense, and the high-pressure .38 Special +P round, which carries a 125-grain JHP slug.

With our test rounds, we collected some remarkable and unusual data. Calculating to the hundredth of an inch (we only report to the tenth of an inch in the accompanying accuracy tables), the most accurate gun overall was the used Colt Python, averaging a five-shot group size of 2.13 inches for all shots fired. The Taurus Tracker was next at 2.30 inches, followed by the Smith & Wesson and Ruger GP100 at 2.33 inches. But even the last-place finisher, the Taurus 66SS4, had nothing to be ashamed of, averaging 2.60 inches overall.

Other interesting results included that the Taurus 66SS4 and the Taurus Tracker both shot the wadcutter ammo to identical ballistics in terms of average velocity (746 fps) and standard deviation, (6 fps). We’ve never seen that before. Also, the Smith & Wesson 4-inch Magnum Plus refused to shoot the wadcutter into anything other than a 2.2-inch five-shot group—very consistent, but not outstanding. Last, we noted that all the guns fired full-house .357 Magnum loads as accurately as .38 Special wadcutters. That combination of power and accuracy should give comfort to any consumer who considers buying these guns.

Colt Python
Our recommendation: At $595, this discontinued product is expensive, but very well made. As such, it fares very well in a matchup of currently available offerings. If you can find a good one (and we give you some pointers below on what to watch for), buy it.

Click here to view the Colt Python features guide

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Although no longer in production, there are still quite a few Pythons available on the used market. They are worth buying if they are as well made as our test product. Beyond their obvious appreciation on the collectibles market, this is one of the most formidable .357 Magnums of all time. There were actually three Pythons on sale in the store we visited (Collector’s Firearms in Houston), but we liked this one the best. All three guns were tight in lockup and lacked endshake.

The Pythons are always tight because of their hand-to-ratchet construction. On most revolvers, the hand turns the cylinder until it indexes into the timing slot. Pythons have an extra mechanism that catches and holds the cylinder in place. This makes for a strong lockup, but ironically can malfunction if the gun is exposed to excessive dry-firing.

Otherwise, when buying a used revolver, we always check bore-to-chamber alignment with a range rod. Range rods come in two varieties, service and match grade, and both are available from Brownells catalog ([515] 623-4000). We chose the match-grade rod (No. 080 618 138) in .357 for our test, and over 12 insertions, we never once found the cylinder and bore out of line. We also noted tolerances that connect the yoke to the frame were very close, yet worked without binding. While there is no detent lock up at the yoke or frame, the width of contact area between these two parts is nearly one third more than can be found on the other guns in this test.

The Colt Python featured a full lug barrel with shrouded ejector rod and vented rib. Unlike most revolvers, the cylinder of the Python rotates clockwise. To release the cylinder, the shooter slides the latch toward the rear, not forward. Even when the cylinder is swung away from the frame, there is no play. Attention to detail and style includes an exact silhouette of the control portion of the ejector rod cut into the underlug. The trigger face is narrow with a deep arc and three serrations. The hammer presents a wide-checkered, target design with a short spur. Hard-rubber Pachmayr Presentation grips, which feature checkering but lack finger grooves, finishes the gun in stark contrast to its chrome appearance. The gun’s 42-ounce heft (the heaviest in the test) along with this simple, but effective, grip make this gun very comfortable to shoot.

In terms of combat use, we think the other guns can learn a few things from the Colt Python. The hard-rubber grip isn’t tacky and it lacks finger grooves, which can actually inhibit a good grip. Finger grooves make it harder to correct a wrong grip. We’ve felt lighter actions on Pythons before, but even with its trademark hint of stacking, you can fire this gun rapidly.

The Colt’s front sight blade (a serrated ramp) is double pinned into place. The rear sight is adjustable for windage and elevation, and the delicate blade that contains the notch is housed within a sturdy frame to protect it. We judged this rear sight to be the strongest and the most durable combat-ready two-way adjustable sight we have seen to date. The Ruger GP100 is perhaps stronger, with only a rear notch and not an adjustable blade that can be broken or knocked out of adjustment. But the Tracker and Taurus 66SS4 share a sight blade that is the least protected. Even the Smith & Wesson sight is somewhat exposed, but shielded and well anchored. We prefer the Ruger sight overall, the Colt Python second, and the S&W next. There is no fourth and fifth place.

Ruger GP100 GPF-340
Our recommendation: The $423 GPF-340 is the plain Jane of the GP100 line up, but we can’t fault its simplicity. The finish, which is Ruger blue/gray, soon becomes mottled with fingerprints, but is handsome enough when wiped clean. This gun is all business. Buy It.

Click here to view the Ruger GP100 GPF-340 features guide

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The GPF-340 has a heavy barrel with just enough underlug to shroud the ejector rod. The front sight is serrated and ramped, but it proved too high for correct elevation adjustment. A change of blade (it is pinned in place) or a simple filing down is called for, we think. The top of the barrel is flat and lined to reduce glare and the rear sight is a simple notch cut into the stop strap. As crude as this sounds, the relief is actually very good and the sight picture is fast and clear. The advantage here is it cannot be damaged with rough use. The lack of adjustability, however, can limit the bullet weights that can be used accurately.

The gun’s grip is similar to the Pachmayr American Legend series, rubber with a wood insert. The rubber on the grip looks almost like modeling clay. Recently, we rated these grips inadequate when used on the 454 Casull Super Redhawk, but they are perfect for this .357 Magnum revolver. We were able to index the trigger accurately and easily, but these grips do favor the right-handed shooter, having an indentation for the right-hand thumb. Another downside: Irritation from the set screw, which protruded with a jagged edge from the left-side grip panel.

Elsewhere on the gun, we liked the push-button cylinder release and the smooth, rounded trigger. Regarding cylinder to bore alignment, our range rod test yielded 12 clean passes from muzzle to breech face. Ruger’s lock-up system does not include the ejector rod, but adds a detent lockup in the frame that should keep everything aligned. Thus, in terms of overall durability, we’d guess that the Ruger would have the longest trouble-free life span, but certainly the 686-5 is a close second. We’d like to add a double-ball detent lockup to the crane of the Smith & Wesson.

Certainly, the Taurus 66SS4 revolver would benefit greatly if it had pressure taken off the lock up of the ejector rod, which would prevent friction between the rod and the shroud.

Shooting the gun double-action, we thought the Ruger had a heavy lockup feel with more torque-over than we expected from a mid-size revolver. We’d radius the edges off the trigger for comfort and have the chambers polished because they didn’t always want to eject spent cartridges. The single action had a little grittiness to it, and a mild action job on the DA trigger would be welcome. The gun has a heavy barrel but no real underlug. This makes the gun slim, which we like, but porting would be the one option to really speed up a string of fire.

Taurus Model 66SS4
Our recommendation: The Taurus 66 is very similar to the Smith & Wesson 66 and the Ruger GP100 tested above, but it has a seventh chamber. Even with the extra round, we think the other guns are better.

Click here to view the Taurus Model 66SS4 features guide

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The 66SS4 (the SS is for satin stainless) comes beautifully appointed with a contrasting bright-stainless treatment applied to the cylinder latch, hammer, and trigger. Unfortunately, the satin finish is carried over to the ramp front sight, which in some light virtually disappears. The rear sight carries a target style “blinder” blade that we like at the range, but feel is too vulnerable to be carried in a glove box and too likely to snag clothing for carry. We adjusted the sights after one string of fire, and it seemed like they didn’t index properly. A better choice would be the Carter Custom Novak-style rear sight.

The grip is Taurus’s new design, which features a pebble finish, mild palm swell, and clearance for speedloaders such as the HKS Model 587, which also fits the S&W 686+ series. As wide as this speedloader is, it can be carried comfortably and discreetly in the Safariland Split Six belt holder. The gun carries a warning against dry firing without snap caps because the enclosed firing pin, which floats in a chamber much like that of a semi-auto pistol, is tapered and can actually deform the firing-pin hole. We’ve tried and broken a lot of snap caps, but the most durable we’ve been able to find are from A-Zoom ([949] 770-4868, or ammo@a-zoom.com).

Despite being chambered for the .357 Magnum, there is no additional lock up beyond the timing slots and the ejector rod. We also noticed that after only a couple of hundred rounds, the ejector rod was spinning with a deflection that if it continued to get worse, will add friction to the trigger stroke and weaken lockup. For all its fancy finish and seventh chamber, this is an old-fashioned revolver, as evidenced in the gun’s trigger, where the coil mainspring just wants to rush the shot. We’ve had luck in the past replacing the coil spring with a progressively wound spring that can add feel and control to the pull. Both Taurus products include a built-in safety-lock system.

Smith & Wesson Magnum Plus 686-5
Our recommendation: The 4-inch Combat Magnum Plus is a seven-shot version of S&W’s most popular revolver. The Smith & Wesson action is just a joy to shoot in DA or SA. You always know where you are. The 686 series revolvers are substantial in the hand and reassuring, but the rubber grip could grab clothing, and it doesn’t exactly do the job of killing recoil. That would need changing if you bought this gun.

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

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The $542 L-framed Magnum Plus revolver had a heavy, full-lug barrel, shrouded ejector rod, pinless CNC-machined ejector star, relieved cylinder latch, and Hogue Monogrip with exposed backstrap. Sights were a black, serrated ramp, pinned into place, with an orange insert. The rear sights were fully adjustable with a white-outline notch. The hammer spur was somewhat abbreviated both in height and width, and the trigger was moderately wide, rounded, and smooth. The finish was a natural-buff stainless steel.

Unlike the other revolvers in this test, the trigger was controlled by tension from a single torsion bar mainspring. The Smith & Wesson double action trigger also presented the shooter with the most consistent feedback by way of two distinct clicks. This made firing predictable every time. The movement of the single-action trigger was almost imperceptible. Checking bore-to-cylinder alignment with the Brownells match-grade range rod, we found two chambers to be slightly out of time. We found the Hogue Monogrip offered a very good hold for shooters with smaller hands due to the thinning of the grip, especially in the circumference from the uppermost finger groove to the backstrap. However, it was also our observation that recoil seemed to be magnified along this path as well.

Taurus Tracker Model 627SS4
Our recommendation: For $445, this gun has promise, but ours bound up initially. We’d pass on it for now.

Click here to view the Taurus Tracker Model 627SS4 features guide

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The Tracker utilizes some of the design patterns from the Raging Bull series, Taurus’s most successful revolver to date. The Tracker carries over the V-shaped blended underlug from the Raging Bull. Also from the Bull series is the stanchion underneath the front sight, but it’s too bad they didn’t carry over its target blade as well.

The Miami-based importer of Brazilian-made firearms offers this gun in three different metals (blued steel, stainless, and titanium), and we chose the satin stainless-steel model for this test. The Tracker has a low-profile fit and feel to it, a definite plus for personal carry or fitting it into a glove compartment. Take away the adjustable sights and it’s the same size as the Ruger GP100. The Taurus Tracker is also the lightest gun in this test at 36 ounces. Beneath the front sight assembly on each side are four ports to reduce recoil, a familiar sight on Taurus guns. However, on all other revolvers from Taurus these ports work off an expansion chamber, which means the area beneath it is unrifled. On the Tracker, the ports follow straight through to the rifling, which runs without the interruption of an expansion chamber from the forcing cone to the muzzle. We didn’t notice any difference in operation as a result of this design difference.

While the ejector rod is fully shrouded, we felt it should be longer for sure ejection of magnum rounds. The ejector rod is not part of the lockup, but the crane is bolstered by a spring-loaded detent. This is the right idea, but we would like to see it bolstered by the stronger, more traditional, design ball configuration. The trigger is wide and slightly rounded, but we could still feel the edges a little bit when firing double action.

Nonetheless, the Tracker, with its effective porting and special ribbed grip, was the most comfortable gun in this test to shoot. The action on the gun is closer to the Colt than to the Taurus 66 series because it shares with the Colt the same sequence of cues at the trigger. Click into place, stack, or load the mainspring, then a sudden release as the shot is broken. The double-action trigger of the 66 seemed to fire suddenly as the mainspring lets go in a rush, without the sensation of the cylinder locking on to the bore line. Fourteen separate passes down the barrel of the Tracker with our match-grade range rod revealed only one cylinder slightly out of line.

Like with the Taurus 66SS4, the Tracker could benefit from replacing its coil spring with a progressively wound spring that can add feel and control to the pull. Still, the DA feel is an improvement over the old style, because now we get a click and a predictable spring load to off which to index our stroke. Initially, the Tracker wanted to bind up, actually scuffing the cylinder face with the forcing cone, not good for a defense gun. It did wear in, which is also not preferable. It also needs a longer ejector rod.

Gun Tests Recommends
Ruger GPF-340, $423. Buy It. We trust this gun to be ready and shoot accurately. It was best overall firing the full magnum loads. With it, you may not need the seventh shot.

Colt Python, $595 (street). Buy It (depending on condition). Colt did not drop this model line because it was a poor product. Even the other used Pythons we passed up were tighter than many of the new production guns we see today.

Smith & Wesson 686 Magnum Plus, $542. Buy It. It’s just too easy to have faith in this gun. It shoots easily and well, the sights won’t fail and need replacement.

Taurus Tracker, $445. Conditional Buy. We like the porting and compact, low profile. However, the gun bound up initially. Caveat emptor.

Taurus 66SS4, $406. Don’t Buy It. This is the cheapest way to get a seventh shot, if the extra hole means that much to you. But there are better guns out there, in our estimation, and we’d buy them before we’d buy the 66SS4.