November 2014

Big-Bore Snubnose Revolvers In 44 Magnum and 41 Magnum

For carry, we looked at four juiced-up S&Ws: A 329PD Alaska Backpacker IV and three from the company’s Performance Center: a Model 629-8, a Model 657-5, and a Model 629-6.

Big-Bore Snubnose Revolvers In 44 Magnum and 41 Magnum

These revolvers offer plenty of horsepower in relatively small, compact packages. They are not for the inexperienced shooter due to their recoil. Those shooters accustomed to recoil might find these small brutes a worthwhile conceal-carry option. In the big woods, they are best suited for defense at close quarters. The four S&W snubnose revolvers we reviewed, starting from the bottom right and going clockwise, are a LNIB S&W Model 329PD Alaska Backpacker IV ($750-$900), new S&W Performance Center Model 629-8 ($900-$1000), new S&W Performance Center Model 657-5 ($750-$850), and a new S&W Performance Center Model 629-6 ($1079). The 657-5 is chambered in 41 Magnum and the other three are chambered in 44 Magnum. The target shown is the type of accuracy we got from these wrist-crackers.

To make an S&W N-Frame revolver into a compact carry gun means reducing the revolver’s barrel length and grip. What’s left is still a large frame and cylinder that holds six cartridges. It is big metal, compared to an S&W J-frame, Ruger, or Taurus compact revolver normally used for concealed carry. The N-frame is renowned for its strength and has three safety features built into the mechanism: a hammer block, rebounding hammer, and hammer stop. All three safety features work unseen inside the frame and under the sideplate and make the revolvers very safe, guarding against accidental discharge from being dropped on a hard surface or a hammer slipping out from under a thumb. All of the N-frames tested were derived from the classic S&W Model 29.

The Model 29, along with the 44 Magnum cartridge, debuted in 1955 due to Elmer Keith arm twisting and convincing Smith & Wesson that shooters needed a more powerful revolver cartridge. Keith was a gun writer, outdoorsman, and big-bore revolver aficionado who hand-loaded the 44 Special to its maximum potential. His theory was to push heavy bullets at high velocity. Bullets designed by Keith, often referred to as Keith-style semi-wadcutters, feature a wide nose and convex sides. They also allow more powder to be loaded into the case. These bullets, when loaded properly, are a benchmark in power and penetration. We actually tested some Keith-style bullets loaded by Buffalo Bore for this report.

Keith had tremendous input on developing magnum cartridges for revolvers and also had his hands in the development of the 41 Magnum, which was introduced in 1963 as a cartridge to bridge the gap between the 357 Magnum and 44 Magnum. The 41 Magnum has more power than the 357 and less recoil than the 44 and was designed with law enforcement in mind, though it did not have a big impact on the LE market. Hunters, however, found the cartridge was plenty powerful for medium-size game, including black bear. The 41 Magnum is similar to the 16-gauge shotgun in terms of compromising power and recoil as well as popularity. Both have strong but small followings, and in the 41 Magnum we can see why from our range sessions.

Since its introduction, the Model 29 has gone through numerous design changes that are reflected in the “-” model names found in these variants’ model numbers. Stainless-steel models have a “6” prefix in the model number; those built from scandium alloy have a “3” prefix in the model number.

If carrying around a huge revolver for everyday concealed carry literally sounds like a pain in the hip, consider this: For everyday carry, Keith wore a Model 29 with a 4- or 5-inch barrel. He was a man of small stature but great influence. Before Hollywood discovered the Model 29 and made Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” character synonymous with the big bore, long barrel revolver, Keith lived it. Eastwood played it.

To live it means to carry it, and that is what we did with the four revolvers in this test. They are all six-shooters, have 2- or 3-inch barrels, small compact grips — except for one model — and are chambered in bone-bashing 44 Magnum or 41 Magnum. Real power, real recoil. Not for the faint of heart nor faint of recoil. If Elmer and Harry can carry around long-barrel variants, we figured these compact versions would be easier and more convenient for concealed carry. After shooting, with hand palms aching and lots of big holes in the targets, the team felt one model would really make your day, offering a good combination of features in a big-bore compact revolver for daily concealed carry.

Prior to testing, we ran Brownells revolver range rods (080-617-044WB, Rod Combo for .44/44 Mag., $40; 080-617-041WB, Rod Combo for .41, $40) down the bore of each revolver to check chamber alignment. We checked the gap between rear of cylinder with Brownells’ Go/No Go 60/68 Cylinder Gauge (080-633-668WB, $36). We assumed that since these were new or LNIB, they would pass and they did.

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