.38 Special Comparison: 3rd Place – Taurus Model 85

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.

One tough little bull.

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.

Not an entirely original profile...but a nice one.

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

Finish: Nickel-plated

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.

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.


About Don Gammill Jr.

Don Gammill, Jr. is a freelance writer, educator and part-time musician living in the metropolitan Atlanta area. He acquired his interest in firearms from his family, with his WWII combat veteran grandfather being the most instrumental in fostering both a keen interest in, as well as a healthy respect for, guns and how they are situated in society. Although he is a proud gun owner and a practitioner of legal concealed carry, he doesn’t consider himself a “gun person” per se; with a greater interest involves how people relate to guns – especially people who see guns as foreign, often scary/over-politicized icons of danger.

15 Responses to .38 Special Comparison: 3rd Place – Taurus Model 85

  1. avatarMartin Albright says:

    Don: Good article. I own a Taurus DA revolver myself, a 94 in .22lr. Why? Well, because as much as I’d like to have a S&W 617 or a classic K-frame S&W .22, the thought of dropping 5 bills (or more) on a .22 just offends my Scottish heritage, I suppose. The Taurus is not glamorous, but it goes “bang” when I pull the trigger and with a decent set of grips, it’s easy to handle. It’s actually the wife’s favorite gun.

    The rub with budget priced guns like the Taurus is similar to the dilemma with budget priced cars: For the price of a brand new Taurus, you can often get a used Smith or Colt. Given that snubbie .38′s are self defense/concealed carry/nightstand guns, they tend to be carried or kept in a drawer for most of their existence and shot very little, which means that a 30 year old gun is functionally identical to a brand new one. So given the Taurus’ less-than-great DA trigger pull, by the time you spend money getting that smoothed out, you’ve either met or exceeded the price of a decent used Smith, Colt or Ruger.

    Final point: There’s a US made revolver that often tends to be forgotten in any gun discussions, and that’s Charter Arms. I confess I don’t know much about them except for their notorious link to the Son of Sam killings, but they have been around for a long time and they offer a number of budget-priced snubbies. Just a thought, especially for those who might prefer to spend their $$ on a US company.

    • avatarDon Gammill says:

      Good points, Martin (all of them). Regarding Charter Arms .38 revolvers, I hope to get a chance to shoot one soon. Also, my wife likes the pink one they make. But I hope that my opportunity to shoot one comes from something related to TTAG and not from my wife buying the pink one!

  2. avatarMike Summerlin says:

    I have both the Colt and the Taurus 85, in the 85 I have a 6 inch barrel standard revolver and a 2 inch barrel 85 Ultralight with the Titanium frame. the standard 85 is okay, like you said a bit heavy for a CCW and not real comfortable in a inner belt holster, what really surprised me is the 85 2″ ultralight not only weights a LOT less, it is by far more accurate then the 6″ or the Colt for some reason. My Wife swears by it and I have seen her tear up targets set at 10 yards, putting a 5 rounds within 3 inches

  3. avatarBill Harvey says:

    I’ve had a blue mod 85 that I’ve carried for almost 15 years and the gun has functioned flawlessley. The blue finish is also holding up nicely. I have bobbed the hammer and put a set of boot grips on it. Would I replace it with a S&W or Colt if I could afford it, probably not as this does everything I ask of it and does it well.

    While I would like it to be lighter I rarely notice it while pocket carrying. In fact it is pretty easy to forget it is there, which almost got me in trouble once.

    Yes, the trigger could be better but it isn’t any worse than many stock guns and a whole lot better than many of the newer DAO semi-autos that are so popular now. While I do sometimes carry a semi, 3rd gen S&W compact, my 85 is my everyday carry and goes with me almost everywhere.

  4. avatarNunzio says:

    I bought a Taurus Model 85, stainless steel, back around 1990 for about $200. It’s small and light enough to fit easily in a coat pocket. Accurate enough for a 2″ barrel, fit and finish is fine. I never had any problems with it. Living in North St. Louis at the time, it’s saved my life twice. Since I’ve been relying more on the 3″ barrel Rock Island Armory 1911 .45 as my concealed carry gun, I’m thinking more of carrying the Taurus (1 lb+, as opposed to a 2lb 1911).

    If you can find a used one, I’d recommend it.

  5. avatarPhilippe Rockholt says:

    I initially loved the gun but now I have mixed feelings about it since it’s the second time I had to return it to the factory. The first time everything locked up, couldn’t open the cylinder or pull the trigger. Taurus was great they didn’t even bother to fix it instead they gave me a new gun. Well guess what it’s been almost two years now and the new gun had to be returned back to the factory because the cylinder does not lock up, it free spins going clockwise. So new or fixed I think I will be selling it. On the other hand I have a Taurus two inch 7 shot ported 357 magnum for over ten years and never had a problem. Go figure!

  6. avatarNot Rambo! says:

    Personally I like the slightly heavier trigger pull on the Taurus 85. I like it to go “bang” at the appropriate time. Sometimes it seems prudent to blame the firearm, when in reality it is often operator error. Most Taurus firearms do have a rather lengthy trigger pull…. but many of us out there have no problem with that. Good luck!

  7. avatarBob says:

    I have found a lightly used Tarus 85 with a 3″ Barrel and it shoots very accurately. When I bought it, I had the grips changed to a larger size to fit my hand. I haven’t fired a weapon since I was in the military, over 50 years ago and I was surprised to find out I could still hit a target pretty well. You can’t beat a Tarus 85 for the price. I paid $285 including the new grips, the revolver is in like new condition.

  8. I used my Taurus 85 2″ barrel to obtain my Tennessee ccw permit. Everyone else had their Glocks. They were all amazed when they examined my target at the conclusion of the range qualification. You did that with a snubbie they asked? You bet!

  9. avatarcraig says:

    Why is it that so many people shoot like a champ on the internet?

  10. avatarjimmyjames says:

    Had a Taurus model 85 about 15-20 years ago. It broke one night on my local clubs lighted pistol range while a friend was shooting it. Love the stroboscopic effect of shooting at night under lights. Gun would not fire as the trigger and hammer would not move. Locked up tight. Sent back to Taurus who fixed it in short order. Sold that turkey and never looked back.

  11. avatarTodd says:

    I bought a Taurus mod 85 in 1992 and it has approx 3000 to4000 rds of both hand loads and factory ammo through it with no hiccups or problems. The double action pull has lightened along the way and I can put all 5 rds in the little scoring target in the upper left on a b-27 target from 15 yards with no problem. I call BS on all who say this not an accurate pistol for any reason .

  12. avatarMike drake says:

    I just purchased a taurus 605 blue steel and I love it. I went in to buy a charter arms 357 pug. It was not money that I was worried about it was this is the 2 guns that I liked the most.

  13. avatarCharles Ghant says:

    Hey Don,
    Not sure if you remember me bud but we graduated from high school together at Creekside. How have you been bud? Great article. I like what you had to say about the Taurus 85. Was looking at getting one of these for a friend of mine. I own a Colt Detective Special in nickel and a Smith and Wesson Model 36 no dash so I’m a bit of a revolver snob myself but the 85 would seem like a great night stand gun for a beginner that’s why I was researching it. Hit me up sometime. Good to see you dude.

    C. Ghant

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