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.

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

  1. 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.

    • 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  10. 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 .

  11. 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.

  12. 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

  13. I picked up a 20-year-old Taurus 85 for $300 awhile back. I had it out at “the range” (a wood pallet on edge, with 6″ paper plates stapled to it, in front of a dirt mound) with a couple of other guys a month or so ago. I put all five shots into the right side of one plate from 25′. They were amazed I did that with a snub nosed revolver. I did shoot it single action. Still I did it within 10 seconds.

  14. Interesting article. I was born and raised in Brazil. Moved to US about 13 years ago. My first shots were from Rossi and Taurus revolvers. Some of these guns are still with my relatives down there. We are talking about 50 to 60 YO guns still rocking and rolling. I can assure you the trigger problem will improve if you give more trigger time. That doesn’t mean shooting live rounds.You just need to dry fire. I have a black 1993 Taurus 85. It is safe to dry fire this model. Taurus makes good revolvers and some Semi_auto are really reliable, like my 24/7 Pro in 9mm (wonderful ergonomics and polished barrel by default) , with 45000 rds so far and the only thing I replaced was the recoil spring. As far as customer service goes, if you need something for pistols made in Brazil, it will take a lot of time to get to, just like the recoil springs took me almost 10 months. I ordered 3 of them. That means I will be ok for the next 9000 rds. Most of the Taurus revolvers bashing comes from father to son parroting. I shoot my 85 better than my 642 (too light). Love them both for what they are.The wood grip on the 85 is perfect, and gives my medium sized hand a perfect angle.

  15. I can tell ya’ll that the lifetime warranty that Taurus has is not worth the words it is written in , I sent back a Model 80 .38 Special for repair as it had gone out of time , I called to check on the repair status , used their toll free number for this purpose waited almost an hour for someone to pick up , so then I called back and chose their sales line on the menu low and behold they picked up after the second ring , I asked the woman who answered my call if she would help me , she did , I was told they could not repair my firearm but they could sell me an updated version for $200.00 , I told her they could keep it and not send me back the old paperweight , I will never buy another Taurus , and I would advise ya’ll that if you want a firearm with a lifetime warranty that will be honored as it should be don’t buy a Taurus . Be prepared and ready . Keep your powder dry .

  16. Today I purchased a NEW Taurus M85 I was told was purchased NEW in 1985 or 1986, by, get this, a Little Old Lady, for personal protection. With it came a new (same vintage) box of 158 grain RNL .38 Special R&P ammo.
    Outside of factory testing, this gun has NEVER been fired and is, as expected, in perfect condition, including the original box and a new (unused) cleaning kit in .38/.357 caliber.
    To say I’m happy would be an understatement for sure and the asking price ($200.00) was certainly fair.
    I didn’t buy this gun for me specifically but, rather, for my fiancé who has MS with small hands and who can barely shoot any of my other pistols (mostly Glock’s, Colt’s) without trouble, even the G17 in 9mm. Truthfully, she can shoot my Ruger .22/45 but with the bull barrel of 6″, even that is too much weight, although she is accurate.
    So had been looking for an all-steel small frame 5-shot revolver that isn’t too heavy and fed light-recoiling ammo like full wadcutters she could practice and, hopefully, be convinced to carry CCW, although in AZ she doesn’t require a permit now (but I hope to get her the permit).
    Before I present it to her I plan to take the little gun out and shoot it at least 200 rounds to break it in then let her try it. IF she can master 125 grain non-plus P ammo accurately, that is what I hope to have her carry in it but if not, I’m confident 147(?) grain wadcutters will suffice as long as she does her part in placement of the rounds. I’ll also provide her with a couple of speed loaders to carry with it.
    After reading all the comments here, I’m confident this was a good purchase and I hope to convince her to be armed when she is out and about.
    Providing this little revolver does its part and turns out to be a faithful companion, I’ll feel MUCH better knowing she can protect herself should the need arise, although I pray that day never comes.

  17. I have a model 85, probably newer than your dads and id stake my life om it! Especially with my critical defense rounds

  18. I own a Taurus 85, in .357 with a 4 inch barrel, J frame and is ultralight. I had not shot handguns prior to this pistol, and I quickly fell in love with it.
    The 4″ barrel is quite accurate; I can hit clay targets consistently at about 20 yards, so that’s a 4″ bulls-eye. It fires 357 more accurately than 38. But the kick is significant. Target practice with 38 is much easier on you.
    The trigger is light and crisp in single action, and allows for precise shooting at distance.
    Double action pull is a bit harder but with practice it becomes more manageable.
    What do I like best about revolvers? No fail to feeds, fail to ejects, and when you pull the trigger, it goes bang, every single time.
    This revolver makes a great hiking and camping gun, with enough power to fend off almost any critter, whether 2 legged or 4.

  19. Kevin6154

    Just picked up a barely used m85 38spl in 3 inch model. Ive been searching all over the net and so far I cant seem to even find a picture of another one. I have seen them in 2 inch but never the 3 inch. I was looking for an inexpensive revolver to load with snake shot and keep with me when Im on the river fishing. 215 was what I paid for it. I have only put one box of ammo down range but from what i can tell everyones claim of accuracy is true. It can be seen on my youtube channel. If anyone viewing this has seen another 3 inch modle let me know in the comments. My channel is kevin6154 link to the vid

  20. About 10 years back I picked up a nice looking, barely used stainless Mod 85 in .38 cal with a 2″ bbl in for about $250. It had a bobbed hammer and, oddly enough, a ported barrel. I carried it both off-duty and as a back-up gun. It’s GREAT for concealment for pocket carry as it has nothing on it with which to snag your clothing. Since it can only be fired DA, after buying it, I sent it back to Taurus regarding the trigger pull. They returned it saying that all was in spec (!?). Never had to rely on it “in anger” but its a good shooter and has never failed me at the range. Glad to see the comments here about the DA trigger pull. I’ll work it out at the range a little more and sit, dry-firing it, while watching TV to see if I can work out the hesitation and smooth out the trigger pull.

  21. I purchased a from Sports Authority a Stainless Model 85 in 1992, for my Mom, She didn’t care for it.
    Rosewood grip is a little small, even for me, but that’s the norm for snub nose revolvers. Sights consist of a small notch in the rear and a small ramp in the front. Neither is conducive for methodical, accurate shooting. Where this gun shines is for it’s intended purpose; point and shoot at close distances. Even though the single action (not recommended in an emergency situation) is the best of any firearm I have ever shot, pistol or rifle, the easiest way to shoot the Model 85 is to start with a two-handed grip at chest height, muzzle level, quickly extend both arms towards the target, using the end of the barrel as the point of aim, then pull the double action trigger all the way through. Accuracy was surprisingly good. Even double taps were consistently accurate.
    This way of shooting is not only more accurate, it is more fun too. No need to try to stabilize the gun and aim with nearly non-existent sights.
    And absolutely no reliability problems. Can recommend to anyone wanting a good revolver at a good price.

  22. Someone asked why everyone’s a great shot on the internet. Likely because if you’re reading this you have an interest in and experience with shooting. With the basics down it is not hard to be an accurate shooter. In fact in my LTC class we had a young woman who said she had never before fired a gun. She got some quick verbal instructions from a number of us in the class and LISTENED to what we said. She then EASILY passed the shooting portion of the test, liked it and said she was going to take it up seriously. It is beneficial to REMEMBER that if you are exchanging gunfire with a “bad guy” your shooting is LIKELY going to hell anyway. So while many curse “point shooting”, I heartily endorse it and recommend everyone practice it, a LOT. In a close up gunfight 2″ as opposed to 4″ barrel lengths make zero difference. Neither in ability to hit the target or velocity. Carry what’s comfortable and PRACTICE.

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