March 2006

Three Small .22 Wheelguns: We Loved the Taurus Ultra-Lite

We gathered two of Smith & Wesson’s $600 feathery-light eight-shot revolvers and a $400 Taurus Ultra-Lite Nine and put them through our wringer. Here’s what came out.

Smith & Wesson’s eight-shot revolvers are feathery-light in weight but heavy in price. The Air-Lite with a 2-inch barrel (left) and fixed sights lists at $633. The one with 3-inch barrel and adjustable HIVIZ sights (center) goes for $691. In contrast, the Taurus Ultra-Lite Nine (right) costs only $375, though it is heavier. It outperformed both of the Smiths in the most critical aspect of gun performance — hitting the target.

Last month we reviewed a batch of Walther .22 semiauto pistols, and we have a couple more from other makers in the works. The autos shot well enough, but some shooters will never like self-loaders. Also, some folks don’t want to leave behind all that brass, which the autos fling everywhere. The solution is to get a revolver, so — in keeping with our small-gun scenario — we gathered two of Smith & Wesson’s feathery-light eight-shot revolvers, one with a 2.0-inch barrel and fixed sights ($633), the other with a 3-inch barrel and adjustable “HIVIZ” sights ($691). We also got a Taurus Ultra-Lite Nine ($375), which seemed to have a mix of the S&W’s features at the cost of a significant weight penalty, but with the benefit of a huge price reduction.

How We Tested
Our test team included two primary shooters with close to 100 years of handgun shooting experience. Both shooters have competitive shooting backgrounds. One was a lefty. Our main shooter uses the handy Merit (www.meritcorporation.com/) optical attachment on his shooting glasses, which gives a precise sight picture that largely eliminates the age factor. We used several other experienced shooters to help us gauge the gun’s overall function.

We with Winchester Super X Power-Point HP, CCI Velocitor Gold Dot HP, Remington Rifle Target, and Eley Pistol Xtra. We also tried a few CCI CB caps in each of the guns, which we could easily shoot without ear protection, and with which all three guns gave about one-inch groups from six yards. These might be useful for low-intensity practice, or for special close-range applications. All in all, each gun digested approximately 200 rounds apiece in accuracy, chronograph, and performance assessments.

For accuracy testing, we shot from a solid back-rested seated position at 15 yards. This maximizes the distance to the sight picture, which results in increased accuracy. The setup eliminates head and gun motion. One reason we avoid Ransom Rest testing is that if the individual can’t make the gun perform, it makes little difference how well a machine can shoot it. We printed our groups on targets with a 4-inch black bull, and measured the groups with a dial caliper. After we put them through our wringer, here’s what came out:


This amazingly light little revolver held eight shots. Among the other favorable first impressions were the minimal black-rubber Uncle Mike’s Boot grips, a clever lanyard slot behind the grip, the near-total absence of steel on the gun, the bobbed hammer that still permitted hand cocking, and the pleasant light-gray color of the “Clear Coat” finish.

Smith achieved much of the light weight (we got it at 10.9 ounces) by cutting into the gun deeply along the (aluminum) cylinder flutes, into the rear strap and bottom of the trigger guard; and through innovation such as inserting a thin, rifled steel tube into the alloy barrel shroud from the back, giving a large reduction in weight while still permitting an all-steel rear-barrel face where gas cutting could occur. The cylinder as well as the frame, crane, and barrel shroud were all made of aluminum alloy. The gun was tightly fitted, and used the long-proven S&W method of locking the ejector rod into the barrel lug at its extreme forward tip, combined with the usual central locking pin at the back of the cylinder. The gun had a storage lock that required a special key to put on or take off. The sights were a serrated, sloped-ramp front post and a square notch cut into the top rear of the frame. These sights gave a good sight picture, as long as they could be seen in silhouette, which in our testing turned out to be almost never. With all normal lighting, the sights tended to disappear against each other, which we found fatal to practical shooting accuracy on the range.

The single-action trigger pull was your typical magnificent, clean, crisp S&W at 3.2 pounds. The DA pull, though, was off our scale and was probably close to 14 pounds. We thought it was too heavy, but the smooth and well-placed trigger made it seem less in practice than it actually measured. All fitting was tight, with no slop nor looseness anywhere. The design of both of these S&W revolvers enclosed the eight case heads with the outer rim of the cylinder, which would help keep dirt out of the guts, especially if this short gun was packed in the pocket like it seems designed to be carried. This light revolver seemed to be more like the sort of thing you’d put on your key chain than something you’d pack in a holster.

When we shot from a solid seated rest at 15 yards, we were appalled at our poor initial results. Groups of 6 or 8 inches were common. Most of the problem was our inability to clearly define the sights. Light gray against light gray on a cloudy, bright day with light snow falling gave us very poor definition of the sights. We blackened the front sight and tried again, and our groups were much better. Best five-shot group was 2.3 inches at 15 yards with Remington Target Rifle ammo, and four of those were only 1.4-inch extreme spread. Despite our best efforts, we were unhappy with the shooting results. The center of impact of all groups was 3 inches high and 1.5 inches right at 15 yards. The front sight needed to be higher and over to the right, but there’s no easy way to change all that. The sight blade was integral with the barrel shroud. We concluded this was at best a short-range handgun. We did informal testing with other types of ammo to see if it made a difference to accuracy or impact results, but it didn’t. Rapid-fire double-action shooting at close range gave generally very good results and did so easily, which on the whole we found more satisfactory than slowfire at longer ranges. Recoil was absolutely not an issue with this gun. We never felt it.

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The differences between this longer-barrel version of the Smith 317 and the shorter one were immediately obvious. It had an inch more barrel, a light-gathering, plastic-tube front sight, and an adjustable rear. Combine those with bigger grips, and you get what looked like a handgunner’s .22, one with which he can expect to do some really good work. Or so we hoped, until we examined the sights closely. The rear was a V-notch, which was designed to mate with the circular green-glowing bit of plastic set into the front sight ramp. We found it took very little light to get that green glow, but it got mighty dim and even disappeared in low-light or back-lit situations. The top of the front sight was rounded, so when the sights were back-lit you had to guess where the top of the front sight was, and match that with the top of the rear, all the while trying to see enough light on the sides of the thick front post to be able to center it within the vee. The intent was good with these sights, we thought, despite our problems. Most of the time the shooter saw only the round green glow, and when that green dot was in the very bottom of the notch, the top of the front sight aligned perfectly with the top of the rear. The attempt here, we’re guessing, was to emulate the British express-rifle sights, but the best of those have a wide vee and a clearly defined, small round bead that makes acquiring the sight picture easy and fast. They also have the benefit of a long sight radius, and if you know how to use ‘em, they can bring home the bacon every time. We found that to not be the case with the sights on this S&W.

We liked the larger grip, which permitted all our fingers to rest in the right place. The grip wrapped around the back strap, which gave a longer trigger reach. The overall feeling was that the gun was just about as light as the smaller one (it weighed 12.5 ounces empty), but the longer barrel and adjustable sights should have made it into much more of a handgun.

On the range, we put five CB caps in 0.8 inches from six yards, which was promising, but then the careful 15-yard shooting proved our fears to be correct. We had the devil of a time holding elevation. All of our groups were vertically strung, with width about one-third of the vertical measurement with all loads tried. The little Walther P22, reported in the February 2006 Gun Tests, shot circles around this otherwise finely crafted S&W. Only at close-range rapid fire were we able to use that green dot to good advantage. We were then able to shoot fairly round groups quickly, and got much better groups than with the shorter-barrel gun fired from the same short (six yards) range, on the order of one inch versus three. We got our best slow-fire results with a six-o’clock hold on a black four-inch bull, holding very firmly. We also tried centering the green dot in the bull, but it didn’t work well for us. One thing we did notice was that glowing green dot stood out well against most backgrounds in the woods. But we still concluded these were about the worst set of sights we’ve seen on a handgun for precision shooting.

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Something about this Taurus gave us confidence. It might have been the weight, maybe the nicely blued finish, but probably it was the excellent-looking adjustable sights, with a bright red insert in the flat-top front post, and the white outline, square-notch rear, just the sort of thing you’d expect — but apparently can’t get — on fine little S&W .22 revolvers. Our inspection quickly showed the gun to be tightly fitted. Its nine-shot cylinder swung out positively, and locked back up tightly thanks to a sprung latch pin in the crane that snapped into a cut in the frame. The main lockup was at the rear of the cylinder, a central sprung pin as on S&Ws. We thought the Taurus lockup was as good as that on the S&Ws. Its overall size was essentially identical with the shorter S&W, but it was a good deal heavier, 18.2 ounces, tending to give the lie to its Ultra-LIte moniker. Grip sizes were also very similar to those of the S&W, but the Taurus’s wrapped around the back, giving a more hand-filling feel.

We noticed the ejector rod did not give a long-enough stroke to clear rimfire cases completely, lacking an eighth of an inch or so from coming clean. This didn’t prove to be a big problem, but both the S&Ws got the spent cases all the way out of the cylinder. The frame of the Taurus was aluminum alloy. The cylinder, barrel, crane, sights, hammer and trigger were all steel, hence the added weight. The hammer was short but wide, making it relatively easy to cock, but we noticed the hammer spring felt inordinately strong. Of course we had no misfires, but if that spring were slightly less powerful we suspect the DA pull would be far more useful. The SA pull was 5.2 pounds; the DA pull was about 14 pounds, similar to the S&Ws’ DA pulls.

Fit and finish were generally excellent, but we found a nasty burr around the rear of the barrel inside the frame, and another on the outer edges of the barrel at the muzzle. This latter appeared to be a burr that was overlooked after the muzzle crown was cut. Cleaning it up would be mandatory to avoid cut fingers, but then — there goes the finish. There was a storage lock built into the rear of the hammer, with the appropriate key.

Our first impression at the range was joy in that we could see the front sight. But after a few shots we wanted more space on the sides of it, which would require a wider rear notch. That would be easy to get with a small file. We found the red-insert front blade stood out well against trees, black targets, and snow. We tried blackening it but didn’t like that as well. Five CB caps, offhand from six yards, gave four shots in half an inch, and all five in 1.1 inches. We were not surprised. At 15 yards, the Taurus performed as expected, beating the pants off the S&Ws. The first group fired (Winchester) was 1.8 inches, and the second had four shots in 0.7 inches. The very best group of the long-barreled S&W was 1.5 inches, and all the rest but one were over 2 inches. At this point we knew we had a winner in the Taurus. Our feeling of confidence was even more justified with further shooting, with the Ultra-Lite generally grouping better than the long-barreled little Smith. Goes to show what good sights can do.

Gun Tests Recommends
• S&W Model 317-2 Air Lite No. 160222, $633. Don’t Buy. There was nothing whatsoever wrong with this gun, and some readers might have a desperate need for it, and they’ll buy it no matter what we say. We wondered what exactly you would want to do with it, given its limitations. The sights certainly needed attention. Black or red paint on the front would help. The gun worked perfectly, and even seemed to have decent intrinsic accuracy that we largely could not use, and was extremely well made. The SA trigger pull was a dream, and the DA pull useful if too heavy. The gun could find a home with trappers or others who need to deliver close-range shots of this power level. It would be a poor choice, we thought, for self defense, though probably as good as any .22 LR handgun for that purpose, giving up little to semiautos. It would be a snap to carry anywhere, stuffed in the pocket. But the purpose of shooting is hitting, and we found that to be tough on small targets at any but the closest ranges. We thought the semiauto Walther P22 did better service for us in all our shooting tests. Of course, revolvers don’t drop empties on the ground like semiautos do, and that might be important for some. We would not buy this gun as long as its adjustable-sighted brother was available, unless we had a great need for the smallest, lightest .22 revolver for some special close-range purpose.

• S&W Model 317-2 HIVIZ No. 160221, $691. Conditional Buy. We liked this gun in every respect but for its “trick” sights. We’d throw them as far as we could, as fast as we could, if we owned this gun, and put on a black or red front post and a square-notch rear as fast as you can say “HIVIZ.” One possible “fix” would be to replace the V-notch rear blade with a square-notch one that would give more light on the sides of the front sight, but that would still not give precise elevation with that round-topped plastic abomination out front. A gun is only as good as it works in hitting one’s target. Most targets for .22 handguns are small, and we’d be doubtful of our ability to hit small targets with this revolver until it got a good set of sights.

• Taurus Model 94B2UL Ultra-Lite Nine, $375. Best Buy. If we needed a .22 revolver the Taurus would be our first and immediate choice, though we confess we’d like it to be lighter. Maybe Taurus can come up with weight-saving measures on this little gun, and then we suspect the .22-revolver world would beat a path to the company door. The cylinder and crane could easily be aluminum, from what we’ve seen of the S&W design. That would cut a bunch of weight, but might add too much to the cost. The lockup was fine, the grips were fine, and the accuracy was all you’d want. The ejection could be easily made better by cutting an eighth-inch into the knurling on the ejector rod so it can push farther. The rear sight can be fixed at the factory with a wider notch. We could live with the stiff DA pull and the clean SA pull. All in all, the Taurus doesn’t need a lot to make it into one of the finest .22 revolvers we’ve seen. As we found it, it worked well, and the price was modest.

tested all three revolvers

S&W Model 317-2 Air Lite No. 160222, $633 MSRP

S&W Model 317-2 .22 LR HIVIZ No. 160221, $691 MSRP

Taurus Mod. 94B2UL Ultra-Lite Nine .22 LR, $375 MSRP