March 2002

We Test Ultra-Lightweight 7-Shot .357 Magnum Revolvers

Straight from the box, Smith & Wessonís $800 386PD and 386SC Mountain Lite models and the $600 Taurus M617Ti are ready to go as topnotch self-defense handguns.

The S&W 386PD shot and carried well, but
also packed a wallop at the practice range.

In the January 2002 issue, we presented an evaluation of seven-shot .357 Magnum revolvers from Taurus and Smith & Wesson. Based on the trend toward lower-capacity pistols chambered for larger cartridges, our conclusion was that seven-shot revolvers such as the Taurus 617 and the S&W 686+ might be too heavy for carry.

However, in this test we feature revolvers that address this problem with super-light metals such as titanium (Ti) and scandium (Sc). As its name suggests, the $600 Taurus M617Ti includes parts fashioned from titanium; it arrived ported to offset muzzle flip. Also, we acquired both of Smith & Wesson’s $800 lightweight revolvers, a 386PD and a 386SC Mountain Lite model, which have titanium cylinders and scandium frames. Beyond their metal composition differences, the PD fires using a 2.5-inch barrel and the SC Mountain Lite has a tapered barrel 3.125 inches in length.

Because one tester often carries a heavy but proven 686+ .357 Magnum, we discovered immediately that these guns were a joy to wear. But would they shoot accurately, be reasonably comfortable to shoot, and avoid pulling bullets out of the cases (wherein heavier bullets move slower on recoil than the rest of the gun and dislodge themselves from the cases, locking the cylinder)? We were eager to find out.

Range Session
To compare these lightweights to the seven-shot steel .357 Magnums we fired two months ago, we used the same ammunitions in these trials. Featured were the 110-grain JHP from Winchester, Black Hills’s 125-grain JHP, and a .38 Special +P load topped with a 125-grain slug from Speer, the Gold Dot Hollow Point (GDHP). As previously, we accuracy tested at 15 yards and evaluated handling by shooting 8-inch falling plate racks at 10 and 15 yards. The difference in this “get acquainted” session from the earlier test was the use of jacketed ammunition only.

Click here to view "Accuracy and Chronograph Data."

In our test of the all-steel revolvers, we had used soft lead 148-grain double-end wadcutters. Full wadcutters are favored for target use because they cut a clean full-diameter hole that is easy to score on paper. They also occupy the most case volume when handloading. By assuring the position of the powder in the case in relation to the primer, this removes excess variation in velocity by moderating pressures and powder burn rate. The result is a consistent elevation at point of impact.

We didn’t use lead bullets in our current test because in light revolvers, the gun may recoil so fast that the slugs can be dislodged from their crimps. The inertia of a heavier bullet can cause it to sit still long enough to overcome the pressure of the crimp, especially if that crimp is mild or is set into soft lead.

S&W 386PD, $798
S&W 386SC Mountain Lite, $794

With the exception of color, the PD and SC are identical from the frame back. The PD is black with a charcoal-gray cylinder, and the SC is light gray with the same charcoal-gray cylinder.

Click here to view the S&W 386PD features guide

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Click here to view the S&W 386SC Mountain Lite features guide

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On both guns, the cylinders are titanium and the frames are made from scandium. The main difference between the two materials is that scandium is slightly more elastic.

Accent points on each revolver are a series of dots on the left side. These signify the location of the studs upon which various inner workings are hinged. The SC has dark gray dots where these pieces appear, and the PD has light gray dots. The reverse coloring of the trigger on each model follows this suit as well. The PD is perhaps more striking because its graphics appear in greater contrast to the finish.

Each revolver handle features the Hogue Bantam grip. This grip is remarkable because no screw or bolt is necessary to hold it in place. This prevents any possible interference with the mainspring inside the grip. The Bantam grip simply slips on and off with the help of a wedge device which is supplied. This grip features an exposed backstrap for minimum distance to the trigger plus bold finger grooves that add room for the pinkie by extending slightly below the frame. Frankly, we didn’t like this grip when it first appeared, but we suspect it has been re-sculpted with additional palm swell that seems to work very well in reducing recoil. Outside of the material being very grabby on clothing, this is an excellent grip. Each revolver has a round-butt design with an indented accommodation for lanyard attachment (supplied). The lanyard can also be attached to the deluxe aluminum case supplied with these guns.

New for 2002 is an internal locking system located just above the cylinder latch. Key operated, this device locks the hammer in the down position.

Thus, the primary functional differences between the 386PD and 386SC occur at the barrel and shroud. In each case the shroud is scandium surrounding a stainless-steel barrel, but the PD’s tube is only 2.5 inches long and the SC’s barrel measures 3.125 inches. Along with the difference in barrel length, however, comes a slight variation in sights.

The SC has the additional appellation of Mountain Lite in its model name, distinguished by a tapered rather than full-lugged barrel and a plastic-filament, light-gathering front sight made by HiViz. This sight appears through the rear sight as a glowing orange dot sitting in a V-shape to speed acquisition and alignment. The HiViz sight works by its filament gathering ambient light (it will not glow independently in the dark). The more filament exposed to light, the brighter the dot glows. One drawback to this arrangement, however, is that this cuts down on sight radius. As a result, the sight radius on each of the guns, despite the difference in barrel length, is the same. The HiViz sight is pinned in place, so for those wishing to trade the dot for a standard front sight that would offer additional sight radius, this can be done without too much trouble.

Looking over the accuracy and chronograph results, it would appear that the PD is superior in performance. Overall accuracy for the PD totals to five-shot groups averaging a diameter of 2.5 inches measured center to center. The SC averaged groups of 2.9 inches in size. In contrast, the 3-inch+ barrel of the SC gave it much more power. Average velocity was higher by 73 fps overall, but closer to 100 fps more when firing the magnum rounds.

But a closer look at our accuracy numbers shows the Smiths shot groups of the same size with the most potent round, Black Hills’s 125-grain JHP. In our view, this round represents the archetypal .357 Magnum cartridge. Why then did the SC lag behind the PD model firing our other test rounds?

We would have to blame either the sights or rather, the shooter’s ability to use the combination of the HiViz front sight and special V-shaped rear notch. When we shoot fast, we only see the dot. This is good. When we control press at the bench and stare intimately at the front sight, we began to notice that the filament was slightly off center in its mount. At this point do we trust the glow of the dot or the edges of the clamp holding it in place?

However, what bothered us the most about the relationship of the sights wasn’t the sight picture. We found that to get a point of impact that corresponded to our point of aim, we had to jack up the rear sights considerably. The danger here was that with the adjustable rear units high above the top straps, they are open to being damaged. This is a rudimentary concern in any gun meant for carry. Firing a heavier bullet is one solution, but this problem is better addressed by lowering the front sight. This can be done with either the PD or SC models, but it would appear to be simpler to accomplish on the notch-and-post-sighted PD model. This is because the stanchion beneath the blade of the SC is slightly taller to begin with than the one on the 386PD.

Whereas the smaller titanium models we have tested in the past came with a warning about using cartridges with slugs weighing more than 125 grains, no such disclaimer was enclosed with these revolvers. Perhaps the L-frame, which is rated as medium-large, is not bothered with this problem.

Nonetheless, for human hands, recoil and shooting comfort for each of the Smith & Wesson models were punishing even with moderately high-powered ammunition. We finally had to resort to wearing a padded glove during our bench session. If you buy either of these guns, we suggest you practice with standard pressure .38 Specials. Or the dedicated wheelgunner might buy both the steel 686+ and one of the 386 models. The heavier model could be for the home and practice range, and the lighter model for carry on the hip or in a briefcase. Gun Tests puts forth this option because if you are really serious about self protection, we think this is could prove to be an optimum solution: Two guns of identical operation and power, each with its own application.

Taurus M617Ti, $600
When we tested the stainless-steel 617, we remarked that it was not especially heavy for an all-steel revolver and that it carried quite well due to its compact design. So, when we applied the logic of buying two Smiths, steel for the range and titanium for the hip, it appeared that the option of a buying an extra Taurus might not be necessary. Now that we have tested both the steel 617 and the titanium version of the same gun, we feel it is a matter of personal choice. Some will like the luxury of owning two guns, but others will be comfortable with a compromise of owning either the lightweight gun or the heavier, but not too heavy, model. There are three likely reasons why.

Click here to view the Taurus M617Ti features guide

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For one, the titanium Taurus is not necessarily superlight. In fact, it is one quarter-pound heavier than the Smith & Wesson 386PD. At 24 ounces the 617Ti weighs as much as many full-sized polymer pistols, for example. Second, the grip is ribbed, which compresses and conforms to the hand. It does a nice job of absorbing shock. More important still, the 617Ti we acquired was ported with three holes on each side of the front sight. While we have seen this on other Taurus revolvers, the porting on the Ti gun proved most effective due to the nature of the high-pressure .357 Magnum round. Certainly, each of the Smith & Wesson models would benefit from porting as well. But would porting the scandium 386s be enough to make long practice sessions bearable? We don’t know. We’d have to try these guns after a visit to some of the pre-eminent porting services such as Mag-Na-Port International, (810) 469-6727, or Jack Weigand, (717) 868-8358.

Despite being plain, the 617Ti is one of Taurus’s most expensive products. This is because titanium is expensive compared to steel. Standard features include a key-operated hammer-lock and a crane strengthened by a spring-loaded detent. The ejector rod is capped and not part of the lockup. It is shrouded in a full-length underlug.

The rear sight is not adjustable without subsequent frame alignment because it is merely a notch in the top strap. The front-sight blade is a shallow ramped affair with serrations. This blade is also the same color as the frame, but the serrations help to distinguish it when viewed through the rear notch. This combination is commonly referred to as “Service” sights. As limited as they may be, the Service sights, unlike adjustable units, are nearly indestructible. Blast from the ports also serves to darken the front blade. Some refer to this jokingly as an “automatic sight blacking” system, but the combination is functional just the same.

In terms of velocity and accuracy, the Taurus shot the Speer .38s slightly better than the Smiths did, by 0.2 inch. But it shot the two .357 loads into noticeably larger groups than the PD. It was a tick better than the 386SC firing the magnum Winchester 110-grain jacketed hollowpoints. Of the three revolvers in this test, the Taurus shot closest to point of aim.

Despite having the shortest barrel of the three, it was only slightly behind in producing velocity from the magnum loads. But to our surprise, the 617Ti drove the .38 Special rounds the fastest.

Gun Tests Recommends
Smith & Wesson 386SC Mountain Lite, $794. Buy It. The light-gathering sight system is fast, but we feel the gun’s point of impact needs to be brought down to protect the rear unit, which has to be jacked up to make the gun shoot nearer point of aim. This will require a lower front sight. Some might also prefer to take advantage of the longer barrel to mount a shorter front blade that will offer additional sight radius.

Smith & Wesson 386PD, $798. Our Pick. On this gun, it should be easy to change out the front blade to lower POI. Also, the shorter barrel feels faster out of the holster than the 3-inch model.

Taurus 617Ti, $600. Best Buy. With its spongy grip and ported barrel, this gun is shootable as is, even with heftier .357 loads. Even though this is one of Taurus’s most expensive models, we feel that the 617Ti is still a good value.