Back in 1899, Smith & Wesson introduced the .38 Special. The K-frame model 10 offered civilians reliability, simplicity, a kick-ass caliber and a classic design—all at an affordable price. From day one, the competition was fierce. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but many .38 Special knock-offs were “special” in the non-PC ironic sense of the word. In fact, some of these wheelguns were so bad they earned a “use-it-once and throw it in the river” reputation— an activity that had nothing to do with target shooting, The “Saturday Night Special” genre was born. Flash forward today. Progress?
Regardless of the buyer (and liquor store owner) beware selection of small .38s available over the past century, this is America. Products evolve. Improve. Develop. The guns that represent the best overall value are the ones that stick around. That’s why a familiar handful of trusted names adorn the .38 home defense revolvers that occupy most armed American bedrooms today.
Three representative samples of .38s occupy the nightstands of family members. My dad used to serve warrants as a part-time constable. He owns the newest of these: the Taurus Model 85.
My mom is a former Justice of the Peace who issued the warrants dad served. She owns the original-and-even-more-ubiquitous Smith & Wesson Model 36.
My 82-year-old grandmother packs her pajama drawer with one of the best small .38s ever produced: the iconic Colt Cobra, a derivative of the famous Colt Detective Special.
So how’d they stack up? We begib with our third-place finisher, the Taurus Model 85.
Back in the day, people knocked BMWs as “the poor man’s Mercedes”. By the same token, you would be ill-advised to dismiss Taurus revolvers up as nothing more than cheap Smith & Wesson knock-offs. Since arriving on our shores circa the Nixon administration, the Brazilian manufacturer has come a long way – both in terms of quality and public perception. They’ve been building good guns at good prices for many years.
Dad’s nickel-plated Model 85 looks better than good, though. Languishing in the late-afternoon sunlight, the Taurus’s muscular aesthetics rivaled that of the similarly-bright Colt. A beefy shroud surrounding the 85’s ejector rod—just below the Taurus’s even thicker two-inch barrel—makes the gun’s classic “tough guy” revolver profile even more masculine. The original-equipment, medium-toned wood grips could be more lustrous. But color-wise, they strike a remarkable contrast with the gun’s brilliant finish.
The more utilitarian aspects of the Model 85’s control surfaces – such as the serrations on the trigger face and the checkering on the hammer spur and the grips – keep it party real without detracting from the gun’s overall aesthetics.
Although Taurus revolvers like this are usually compared to their more expensive Smith & Wesson counterparts, it was hard not to pit the Model 85 against the equally-large Colt Cobra. The similarity became even more obvious when I looked at the gun through the lens of potential concealed carry.
Yes, I know: I’m writing about “nightstand” guns here. But many – if not most – people own just one gun; it must fulfill various roles. Although the Taurus was physically larger than the Smith & Wesson Model 36, it wasn’t any heavier. The Cobra was significantly lighter than both.
All three .38s had exposed hammer spurs, which detract from their attractiveness as concealed weapons. The sights were virtually identical between the three. Given all of the above, the Taurus had no clear benefit over the others in the carry department. At the risk of offering a piercing glimpse into the obvious, they’re all small revolvers. They all carry like small revolvers.
They’re certainly not all the same in how they shoot. Here the Taurus Model 85 lagged behind the others. And didn’t.
I fired all three guns exclusively in double-action mode throughout this comparison, since that’s what one would likely do if confronted by an intruder in the middle of the night. Out of the three revolvers I tested, the Taurus Model 85 had the weirdest and least-satisfying double-action trigger pull. Watch the video and you’ll notice that I inadvertently jerked the trigger several times.
Despite firing a large number of rounds, I couldn’t get used to the trigger’s bizarre routine. First, it’s as hard to get moving as a Saturday morning teenager. Next, it gets light/numb for a long time. FInally, it suddenly becomes increasingly heavy, with no clear indication of when the hammer might fall.
In fairness, my dad’s gun is an early Taurus Model 85. I would like to see how a newer model’s trigger stacks (or, literally, doesn’t) stack up to our test sample. [ED: We’ll put in a call.] And a competent gunsmith could probably eliminate the problem with a good trigger job for not a lot of money.
When aiming and firing at a dimly-lit 3:00 a.m. threat, point-of-aim shooting is a very big deal. Despite the trigger, the Taurus did a good job of shooting to the point of aim (as good as it could have done in my hands, anyway). While the Smith & Wesson Model 36 consistently produced much tighter groups than the Taurus, the S&W’s bullet holes didn’t fall into the center of the target as well this Brazilian bull’s.
Going back to the “no-clear-advantage” department, recoil on the Model 85, like its two competitors, was extremely light and never became a distraction.
Regardless of its shortcomings, the Taurus Model 85 is still a worthy alternative to the Smith & Wesson and the Colt. It looks great, shoots accurately, and remains a fantastic value. For a nightstand gun – or even an everyday carry piece – you could do much worse than this shiny little .38. To see how you could do better, check out Parts II and III over the next few days here at TTAG.
Model: Taurus Model 85
Action type: Double action/single action revolver
Caliber: .38 S&W Special
Capacity: 5 rounds
Barrel length: 2.0″
Overall length: 6.5″
Weight: 21 oz. (unloaded)
Stock: Checkered wood
Sights: Fixed; front ramp, rear notch
Current Value: $225-$425 depending on condition
(Out of five stars)
Style * * * *
Gorgeous finish, good-looking grips, and a classic, tough-looking revolver design.
Ergonomics (carry) * * *
Though fairly light and compact, small-framed revolvers all have certain inherent carry issues (the thickness of the cylinder, for example), and the Taurus is no exception. It’s still more concealable than a larger revolver.
Ergonomics (firing) * *
It would be great if it weren’t for the schizophrenic trigger pull. Unfortunately, that’s a big part of the ergonomics of firing a gun. Still, it didn’t detract from the accuracy that much.
Reliability * * * *
This particular example, though old, hasn’t been fired that much, so the jury’s out. Overall, Taurus revolvers have proven very reliable over the years, so I doubt that even this older example would have any serious problems.
Customize This * *
For a nightstand gun, this is something you very well may want to do. Unfortunately, the market for small revolver accessories is nothing like the market for semi-auto add-ons. Still, a good grip-mounted laser sight might be a good – and easy to make – investment.
OVERALL RATING * * *
The trigger aside, the Taurus Model 85 is an accurate, competent little .38-caliber revolver, and my dad has every reason to sleep soundly knowing it’s by his bed each night.