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.

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.

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.

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.

Written and photographed by Robert Sadowski, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers. GT

S&W Performance Center Model 629-6 170135 44 Magnum, $1079

The Model 629-6 comes from S&W’s Performance Center constructed of stainless steel, a non-fluted cylinder, and quite usable sights. The 629-6 and 657-5 are identical in appearance, except the 629-6 is chambered in 44 Magnum and the 657-5 is chambered in 41 Magnum. The matte-stainless finish on the frame and cylinder was well executed, and the chrome-flashed finish of the trigger and hammer matched nicely. With the non-fluted cylinder and wood grip, the revolver looks rugged yet refined.

The ejector rod on the 629-6 was a good length to punch the long empties out of the chambers.

The slab-sided 2.6-inch-long barrel gave the revolver less bulk there compared to the 629-8’s round barrel. The crowned muzzle was nicely done. We did not like the sharp edges of the barrel, as it required more effort reholstering. We feel a carry revolver should have all the sharp exterior edges broken to make it snag free. A cut-out in the ejector shroud allowed dirt or sand to be removed easily or fall out on its own. Serrations were machined in the top of the barrel, and a ramp front sight with red insert was dovetailed into the barrel. It could be easily swapped, if a user so desired. The rear sight was fully adjustable and matte black, with the base of the sight serrated to reduce glare — a small detail but very useful. The rear blade’s notch had a white outline and the top corners were rounded — another nice touch to reduce the possibility of snagging on draw. We liked the sights as they were since they were fast on target, especially when using the red insert to aim at a dark target. These taller sights made the outside more snag prone, but when the sights came up on target, they let the user know exactly where this big bore was pointed.

Serrations ran along the top half of the 629-6's frame and barrel.

The weight of the 629-6 was in the middle of all the revolvers tested at about 42.7 ounces loaded. When the shooter gripped the 629-6, the checkered wood Eagle Secret Service grips fit most hands very well. Before actual firing, many testers felt the grip seemed too small compared to the revolver’s bulk. The compromise was more concealable grips for less shooting comfort. The grips were slim with finger grooves and nice friction to the checkering. They were mated well to the frame. Where the frame’s grip butt ended so did the grips, and some users curled their small fingers under the grip. The left grip panel allowed use of a speedloader.

The smooth-face trigger had a stop built in, and it offered a smooth pull in DA mode that felt less than the 11.3 pounds measured. Since three out of the four revolvers tested had the Secret Service–style grips, the DA trigger span was the same on those revolvers. The hammer was compact, with a teardrop shape. Though smaller than a full-size hammer spur, it offered plenty of toothy texture for cocking. The small cylinder latch allowed use of speedloaders; we used Tuff Products Quickstrip, which is a flexible polymer that silently holds six rounds in line and allows users to load two rounds at a time. We also used HKS speedloaders that allow loading of all chambers at the same time. The chambers were chamfered to assist reloading, another appreciated feature. The ejector rod was long enough to get the empties started, but as always, gravity is an asset when unloading and reloading revolvers.

The Performance Center uses a ball detent built into the front of the 629-6’s crane that snaps into a V-shaped groove in the frame, enabling the 629-6’s cylinder to lock up tight. No wiggle. That’s an important feature if you are going to run hot loads or a lot of rounds through a revolver.

We range-tested at 15 yards and found that all four revolvers grouped five shots in less than 2 inches when we used a rest and fired in single-action mode. Firing in double action, we found we shot these revolvers slower due the muzzle flip and recoil. It took more time to get back on target than, say, with a similar revolver configuration in 357 Magnum. Recoil was stout, requiring testers to rest their hands between sessions. The 629-6 felt tall in hand due to the high sights. It is a big gun with a little grip.

Our Team Said: The 629-6 is serious steel to carry concealed, and testers thought it had the features to make a good, but big, concealed-carry revolver. All agreed they would carry 44 Magnum loads if they carried the revolver. They liked that with all of the 44 Magnum revolvers, there is a variety of ammo to choose from. The ability to run 44 Special in the 44 Magnums was a plus. This would make a good defense weapon for dangerous game, as well as against wolves of the four-leg and two-leg variety.

S&W Performance Center Model 657-5 41 Magnum, $750-$850

The Model 657-5 is aesthetically and mechanically the same as the 629-6 except it is chambered in 41 Magnum. The fit and finish were well executed and were a good example of Performance Center craftsmanship. Instead of rehashing the features, we concentrated on this revolver’s cartridge. This 41 Magnum wheelgun is not catalogued by S&W any more because it was not a big seller, though a small, but passionate, group of shooters like the cartridge. One team member was included in that group.

The 41 Magnum was designed to bridge the gap between the 357 Magnum and 44 Magnum and does it well. As we stated, Keith had a hand in the 41 Magnum, as did former Border Patrol officer turned gun writer and fast-draw shooter, Bill Jordan, and the legendary gun writer Skeeter Skelton. The round debuted in 1963 along with the S&W Model 57, another N-frame. The 41 Magnum cartridge really performs with 180- to 210-grain bullets. Many testers assumed finding 41 Magnum ammo would be a difficult quest, but they found out there are many big-factory offerings and smaller niche-ammo companies that loaded ammo. We gathered two big-factory loads — Winchester Super X 175-grain JHPs and Federal Power Shok 210-grain JHPs. From a niche ammo loader we grabbed Buffalo Bore loaded with a 230-grain Keith-style bullet. We saw immediately the faster velocity from the 657-5 compared to the other 44 Magnums. The 41 Magnum Buffalo Bore 230-grain clocked at 1226 fps compared to the fastest bullet out of the 629-6, which was the Hornady Custom 240-grain at 1107 fps. The muzzle energy difference between these two cartridges was very different, with the Buffalo Bore having more than 136 foot-pounds more energy in some cases.

Team members felt the difference in recoil between the two calibers: The 41 Magnum had a quick snap to it, while the 44 Magnum had a big wallop. Controlling that snap took effort in the 657-5. There was muzzle flip, and getting back on target took slightly longer. Have no doubt, there is significant recoil with the 41 Magnum; though some thought that recoil felt less severe in the 657-5 compared to the recoil from any of the 44 Magnums tested.

Concealed-carrying the 657-5 was similar to the 629-6. The thickness of the revolvers is 1.7 inches, which is big. We used an OWB holster and a heavy belt to tote these two hefty six shooters. You can’t go cheap with a belt unsuited for carrying these revolvers, so make note that an investment in gun leather is needed to carry concealed properly. One should also consider training. Team members felt that the 44 Magnums, due to their compatibility with the softer recoiling 44 Special ammo, made them a better candidate for concealed carry. The testers felt they would train with 44 Special and carry 44 Magnum. The 41 Magnum did not offer that factory-ammo option.

Our Team Said: The correct holster and belt are required for any of these revolvers. The 657-5 fell out of favor with testers in part due to the availability of more 44 Magnum and 44 Special ammo. The gun was well made and filled with great features, but the 44 Magnum chambering offered more for the investment.

S&W Model 329PD Alaska Backpacker IV 150545 44 Magnum, $750-$900

The 329PD is a departure from the stainless-steel revolvers tested as it is constructed with a matte-black scandium-alloy frame and a brightly finished stainless-steel cylinder. It is the lightest of all three tested at 32.8 ounces loaded. A grizzly bear and “Alaska Backpacker IV” are engraved on the right side of the frame. A slab-sided scandium barrel shroud is fitted over a stainless-steel barrel. Above the barrel in the scandium frame is a steel heat shield that protects the scandium from hot gases that escape between the barrel and cylinder gap. The steel barrel liner is crowned and slightly protrudes from the shroud. The muzzle is rounded off to assist in reholstering, and the edges of the barrel shroud are slightly chamfered.

The 329PD’s ejector rod pushed the empty 44 Magnum cartridges out, but not all the way.

The front-sight blade is pinned in the shroud and uses a gold bead. Serrations run on the top side of barrel frame. The rear sight is fully adjustable and finished matte black, with the rear-sight base serrated to reduce glare. The notch is shaped in a V on the Backpacker. These sights were quicker to align that the 657-5’s or 629-6’s ramp and square notch, our shooters said. With the 329PD, just drop the gold bead in the shallow of the V; it is fast, though testers felt these sights were also high, making the revolver feel tall in the hand.

The trigger was smooth but not as smooth as the PC-produced revolvers, nor did it have a trigger stop. The hammer had a larger hammer spur that was plenty toothy. The small-style cylinder latch wore a nice, fine checkering, and like the trigger and hammer, was finished in matte black. The cylinder is built from stainless steel and brightly polished. We liked the chamfering on the front edge of the cylinder. Unlike the other three revolvers, the cylinder of the 329PD locks via a detent in the elector rod shroud; it snaps into a hole at the end of the ejector rod. The ejector rod was a good length and pushed out empties about three-quarters of the way. Again, use gravity to help this process.

The 329PD is marketed as an Alaska Backpacker to provide defense against dangerous beasts. The big bore and light weight are well suited for that role, carried on a belt in the open with a knapsack, but with a backcountry pack with hip belt, that might be an issue.

For concealed carry, we had problems with the full-size grip. The hard-rubber grip had a pebble texture and pronounced finger grooves; it reminded us of a Hogue-style grip, though the 329PD’s grip wore the S&W logo. The left panel was scooped out to allow use of a HKS-type speedloader. This was a full-size grip, and though it felt good in hand for most testers, it was much too large to carry concealed. We might trade the rubber grip with a set of the wood Secret Service grips or a compact set of rubber grips.

At the range we feared that this revolver would brutalize our shooting hand. We have fired 329PDs with the titanium cylinder and prefer to carry those guns a lot and shoot them very little. The added heft of the stainless-steel cylinder in this 329PD Backpacker gave the revolver weight and was the most pleasant of the revolvers to shoot, we thought. On average, the 329PD gave slightly more velocity than the other 2.6-inch-barreled revolvers. Accuracy with the Hornady Custom ammo was exceptional, with a best five-shot group just over a half an inch at 15 yards using a rest. We surprised ourselves at how accurately we could shoot this revolver and feel it was due to the larger grip.

Looking at the data we discovered that the muzzle velocity from the Hornady Custom ammo was the most consistent across all three 44 Magnums. The 329PD also had the lowest velocity and worst accuracy with the Sellier & Bellot ammo.
Our Team Said: The 329PD made a good compromise of weight using the stainless steel cylinder and scandium frame. It was light but not so light that it stung the web of our shooting hand. The grip worked well to mitigate recoil, but it was too large for concealed carry. The sights were fast on target but plenty tall.

S&W Performance Center Model 629-8 44 Magnum, $900-$1000

The 629-8 came out of S&W’s Performance Center a few years back and is not currently catalogued. Testers felt that the 629-8 got concealed carry right for a big-bore revolver. At first glance, the 629-8 looked like a traditional revolver, but the features are what pushed this revolver ahead of the others. The frame, barrel, and cylinder wore a matte-stainless finish while the trigger and hammer had a chrome-flashed finish. It also wore a set of the Secret Service–style grips that we grew to appreciate. The grips were fitted well to the frame and allowed use of a speedloader. The 629-8, unlike the other revolvers, had a longer 3-inch barrel that was ported and equipped with fixed sights that were large and serviceable.

The 629-8’s ejector easily pushed empties free of the chambers. Always use gravity to help unload.

The round barrel was longer than the other revolvers, but it featured an oblong port between the muzzle and front sight. This helped tame felt recoil. The team said the 629-8 came in right behind the 329PD in terms of felt recoil. On average, the longer barrel gave slightly more muzzle velocity even with the port. With the Sellier & Bellot load, the 629-8 had a muzzle velocity almost 100 fps more than the other revolvers.

The front ramp sight with red insert was dovetailed into the barrel, allowing the user to swap out the front sight to sync up point of aim with the ammo used. This is important since the rear sight was a groove machined in the frame’s top strap and was not adjustable.

The surface of the trigger was smooth and made DA mode feel less than it actually measured. A trigger stop was built into the trigger, which is a nice feature to reduce rear movement of the trigger to the barest minimum. The teardrop-shaped hammer spur added to concealability and usability. The cylinder latch was similar to the other revolvers: Small, well checkered, and worked precisely. The front edge of the cylinder wore a nice chamfer, and all the chambers were chamfered for ease in reloading. The crane also had a ball detent that locked into the frame rock solid. The ejector rod was housed in an enclosed shroud under the barrel and was more streamlined than any of the other revolvers. The ejector-rod length was similar to the other revolvers and performed similarly. Yes, use gravity. The barrel was longer yet slender compared to the other revolvers.

The 629-8 was the heaviest of the four tested revolvers, weighing 43.7 ounces loaded. What we felt was the added weight, along with the porting and longer barrel, made this revolver easy to shoot. The 629-8 also had a slightly longer sight radius, which also made the revolver easier to aim. At 15 yards, we were able to consistently shoot five-shot groups at one inch. The sights on the 629-8 were not made for accuracy work and were less refined than the sights on the other models, but the 629-8’s sights were designed for concealed carry, and they performed. They were smaller than the other sights, yet very usable and since we are looking for a concealed-carry revolver to be used at spitting distance, the 629-8 meets that spec. It also felt shorter when shooting and less bulky compared to the others. This revolver, like the rest, is a brute in recoil, but we felt it was easier to manage compared to the 629-6 and 657-5.

When carrying it around town, the extra barrel length made little difference. Drawing the 629-8 from concealed carry, the outside of the revolver was smoother and more snag free than the other revolvers.

Our Team Said: The 629-8 was a serviceable concealed carry big bore, but finding one may be difficult since it is no longer produced. The porting, longer sight radius, and lower sights exclusive to this model, along with the other features that were on some of the other models (trigger stop, grip, trigger pull, chamfered chambers) made this revolver a better choice for our shooters to carry concealed.