6- & 8-inch .357 Magnums: How Long Is Too Long?
Rugerís shorter, easier-to-handle GP100 makes more sense in this matchup than the longest-barrel guns from Smith & Wesson and Taurus.
[IMGCAP(1)] The .357 S&W Magnum is at the low end of acceptable hunting cartridges. Some states allow it for the hunting of deer, though that would seem to be stretching things a bit, given that some deer are very big and that some hunters can’t get as close to the game as they ought to, so we have the potential condition of a marginal cartridge being used at long range on large game, which can lead to disaster for the game animal.
Logic would seem to indicate a long barrel would be a great advantage when this cartridge is used in the field. While a short-barrel .44 Magnum might still have enough horsepower to deck a deer at 100 yards, the .357 could stand all the help it can get. Longer barrels also mean more weight for better recoil control, a longer sight radius, and steadier holding, thus better shot placement under field conditions. All of this would be good for the hunter who wants to use a .357 Magnum.
We decided to find out how much the cartridge benefits from the longest barrels commonly available for the .357. We also wanted to assess the handicaps, if any, of that long tube. To this end, we acquired the longest offerings three different companies make: 8.4-inch barreled Taurus and Smith & Wesson revolvers ($529 and $534, respectively), and Ruger’s shorter 6-inch tube, $474. The Ruger would also give us some idea of how much velocity is lost with a little less barrel. We tested all three handguns with Winchester 110-grain JHPs, Federal Classic 140-grain Hi-Shok JHPs, and Speer 158-grain Gold Dot HP ammunition. Here’s what we found:
Smith & Wesson Model 686
All stainless, this six-shot Smith had a full underlug and full top rib, which made the revolver extremely muzzle heavy. The grip was a black Hogue Monogrip with finger grooves that were too small for most of our shooters’ fingers, but still managed to give a reasonably comfortable grasp because of the softness of the rubber. The overall finish was a muted, not-quite-glossy polish to the steel, with a thoroughly flat finish to the top of action and rib, leading to the front sight.
The Smith’s sights were, as always, among the best in the industry. The pin-replaceable front was blued with a red insert. The rear was blued with a white outline around the notch, and fully adjustable. The top strap of the frame was drilled and tapped (under the rear sight) for scope mounting. The timing was perfect and the cylinder lockup very tight with the hammer in the firing position. Chambers were cleanly machined and carefully polished. The barrel throat was also clean, with no trace of machine marks that can cause leading or spitting. There was zero felt movement of the cylinder forward or rearward. The barrel/cylinder gap was minimal. The ratchet at the rear of the cylinder showed no burrs, even after our shooting session, which normally raises some steel if there’s any fitting problems there. The star was clean and smooth, and properly fitted as well.
The case-hardened hammer and trigger were both 0.4-inch wide, though the case colors were dull gray. The hammer had sharp checkering for good control, and the trigger surface was smooth and nicely contoured. The DA pull was extremely smooth and even, and the SA pull—how the gun would likely be shot in the field—was 4.75 pounds with zero creep and no significant overtravel. The pull felt a whole lot less than it measured because of the curved, comfortable trigger. It could have been lighter, but we could live with it as is. With all the care evident in its manufacture, this S&W .357 promised to be one accurate revolver.
In the not-too-distant past we’ve had to manually deburr our new S&W’s to remove tiny razor blades from some of the sharp edges. That was not needed here. All the corners of the action were clean and smooth, and we could run our fingers along any edge without fear of getting cut. This was true of the inside of the frame as well, with the cylinder swung out. The rear edges of the chambers were also deburred, to our amazement.
In the field we liked the muzzle-heavy heft of this long-tube revolver. It helped steady the piece and permitted relatively fast hits. No, at 3.25 pounds this is not a carrying-type handgun for personal self-defense, though it would do admirably for home defense.
On the range we were not disappointed. The Smith averaged around 1.5-inch groups at 25 yards with all the test ammo. The heaviest bullet load, the 158-grain Speer Gold Dot, averaged more than 1,380 fps. Comparatively, the same ammunition produced 1,283 fps in the 6-inch Ruger, or 7 percent less velocity. (In case you’re wondering, the same load ran 1,120 fps out of a 3-inch revolver.)
Taurus Model 608
With all eight chambers loaded with 158-grain Speer ammunition, this was a very heavy package, totaling nearly 4 pounds. Although the eight holes in the cylinder made it more air than steel, the Taurus’s barrel had a full-length underlug and a ventilated rib on top of its barrel. Its frame was deeper than that of the S&W to accommodate the larger cylinder. All that steel adds up.
The finish on the stainless steel was a matte silver everywhere. There were, here and there, small burrs to catch the fingers. The hammer checkering was quite slippery to our thumbs. The chamber openings were not relieved like those on the Smith, and we had a minor problem with the star interfering with one of the chambers. The star overlapped the chamber, making it slightly difficult to insert the Speer ammunition. We didn’t notice it with the other brands of ammo. This mismatch of parts was easy to see when looking through the cylinder from front to back. The edge of the star overlapped the chamber opening on three of the chambers, but only one caused the ammunition to hang up. The two small pins that located the star prevented it from being rotated slightly in the direction that would fix the problem. Close inspection showed that the pins appeared to have been slightly bent out of alignment. A few strokes with a file or circular stone would fix the problem, and it might be possible to straighten the pins for better alignment. This was not a serious problem, but an aggravation.
Cylinder lockup was very tight. The single-action pull had zero creep. However, the trigger pull weight was inconsistent. It varied from 3.5 to just over 4 pounds. The plated trigger and hammer were 0.4-inch in width. The hammer included Taurus’s clever gun-locking system in the form of a key-driven stud. This worked very well. Grips were of rubber with muted finger grooves that again didn’t fit our shooters’ fingers all that well. Overall, the big Taurus was attractive and fairly well made, in spite of our nit-picking. It was extremely muzzle heavy, with all the problems and benefits already mentioned about the S&W.
The double-action pull left something to be desired, in that it was gritty or rough. It took about the same force to run the cylinder DA as did the Smith, and perhaps the Taurus DA pull would smooth up with use. We didn’t use it enough in our shooting to see improvement, however.
The barrel had eight vertical holes in its muzzle on either side of the front sight, forming a brake that none of our shooters thought was necessary. It made the gun slightly louder than either of the other two revolvers, and didn’t cut muzzle flip or recoil to a noticeable extent, in our view. With the great weight of these long-barrel handguns, recoil, even of very hot ammunition with heavy bullets, is minimal. Instead, the eight holes produced more places to clean. The barrel was actually counterbored from the muzzle rearward to a position before the brake holes began, which would seem to reduce the velocity benefit of the 8.4-inch barrel. However, the chronograph told us the Taurus gave higher average velocities with all ammunition than did the unbraked S&W.
The sights were similar to those on the S&W, clean, simple, highly visible, and outstanding. The front was a blued, pin-replaceable serrated ramp with red-orange insert. The adjustable white-outline rear was pinned, not screwed, to the frame. There were no visible provisions for scope mounting.
On the range we found the Taurus didn’t have the golden accuracy of the Smith & Wesson, but it was not bad. Most groups averaged around 2 inches, giving up approximately half an inch to the S&W on average. There were no outstanding individual groups like there were with the Smith, which in that case showed the direction in which to search for a “best” load. The Taurus had a tendency to clump its shots, with two or three touching here and there on the targets. We concluded its accuracy was probably sufficient for most purposes, but not as good as that of the Smith & Wesson. Other than the star misalignment discussed above, there were no problems with the Taurus. It was a solid handgun that worked adequately well.
In the course of this test series, we also examined a 6.5-inch-barrel, eight-shot Taurus, and our conclusion was just the same as for the 8.4-inch version. This was a muzzle-heavy, clumsy revolver that only a specialist would want, and the specialist most likely would want the longer barrel. We don’t believe Taurus will sell many of its 6.5-inch eight-shooters. The DA trigger pull on this one was better than on the longer gun, but the rest of it was essentially identical.
Neither the S&W nor the Taurus are all-around revolvers; both were huge, heavy and relatively clumsy handguns. They are essentially special-use items, for the dedicated shooter or small-game hunter who wants to use a .357. Numerous .44 Magnum or .45 LC revolvers will do everything the .357 will do and quite a bit more, and have about the same (or less) weight along with a whole lot more power. These bigger-bore revolvers can be loaded down, just as the .357 can be used with lighter loads. But the .357 has an upper power limit, and it’s not all that high. The .44 or .45 revolvers have a much higher upper limit, and would be better choices for serious hunting of “large” game, and are more versatile. We conclude that unless you really need an 8-inch barrel, there are better choices, including our next test handgun, the 6-inch Ruger.
Ruger Model GP100
This six-shot revolver made some sense. It was well balanced, felt good in the hand with its ungrooved rubber grips that fit all hands perfectly, was light enough that it might actually be carried into the field, had good, visible, blued adjustable sights (sorry, no red front insert—use nail polish), was all-stainless steel with a matte finish, and actually outshot the Taurus on average.
Ruger seems to have a patent on producing great products for shooters, and this one would be high on the list of greatest Ruger products of all time. There were no offensive sharp edges anywhere. Cylinder lockup wasn’t as tight as either of the other handguns, but it wasn’t sloppy either. The chambers were not relieved at the back, but they were mirror polished inside, about on a par with those of the S&W and superior to the chambers on the Taurus. The star fit and functioned perfectly.
The Ruger’s metal was evenly polished overall, and gave a matte luster to the stainless steel. The fit of the crane didn’t quite line up at its joint with the front of the frame, but the cylinder obviously ended up in correct alignment with the barrel. The hammer and trigger were 0.3-inch-wide units. The hammer checkering was sharp and functional. The trigger was smooth and gave a 5-pound single-action pull that was about a pound too heavy. The double-action pull was long and smooth and useful.
The barrel had no underlug except for a protective shroud for the ejector rod. The rubber grips were wider than those on either of the other two revolvers, and that went a long way toward recoil comfort. The grips had wood inserts on each side, breaking the severity of black-on-white. There was no provision for scope mounting. The front sight blade was within a dovetail cut into the full-length top rib, and had a sprung plunger retaining it so the blade could be replaced, if need be.
On the range, the Ruger had no unpleasant recoil, but obviously came back a bit harder than the two heavier revolvers. It averaged 1.8 inches for all ammunition, all groups. It showed a slight preference for Speer 158-grain Gold Dot, but not by much. All in all, this was excellent performance for an all-around .357. Of course, many readers will wonder about velocity advantages the longer barrels might produce. In general terms, we found the longer barrels produced roughly 100 fps more velocity with 158-grain bullets than the Ruger. With the 140-grain Federal fodder, the advantage was much less. The 6-inch Ruger got essentially the same velocity as the Smith, with the Taurus besting them both by 50 fps. Moreover, with the 110-grain Winchester JHP, velocity was higher in the Ruger than in the Smith, and the Taurus was an insignificant 15 fps faster. You’ve got to test your ammunition in your handgun of choice if you want to know what it’s doing.
How about steadiness in the field? That’s a hard one to call. The trained handgunner will seek out a tree or other steady rest to help make hits, or will get into a sitting or kneeling position to make his task easier. Once the shooter knows how to do this quickly and efficiently, the weight and sight-radius advantage of the 8.4-inch barrel diminishes. However, for continuous shooting, especially with hot loads, the long, heavy barrel would have a great advantage. Most game hunting takes one shot, and if the shooter knows his stuff, that one shot can be accomplished with a shorter, handier barrel like that found on the GP-100.
Gun Tests Recommends
Smith & Wesson Model 686, $534. Buy It. There were no problems whatsoever with the Smith & Wesson. Smith makes a 7-shot version of the 686, but we liked the handling, accuracy, overall workmanship, and simple sanity of only six shots in this “six-shooter.”
Taurus Model 608, $529. Conditional Buy. We had no quarrel with the long Taurus or the long Smith in the overall big picture, but can’t recommend them for all-around use by most shooters. If we had a need for one, we’d pick the Smith over the Taurus for its superior accuracy and fitting. We could not see a need for eight shots in such a handgun. The Smith’s six shots seemed more than adequate, coupled with a slightly lighter gun and the ability to mount a scope easily if needed. We suspect most who buy these long-barrel revolvers will mount scopes, which again gives the nod to Smith.
Ruger GP-100, $474. Best Buy. We had no problems with the Ruger whatsoever. We liked its balance, performance, and lower price, and would choose it before the other, longer handguns if we needed a good .357 Magnum.