The first known revolver appeared in the late 1500′s, some 300 years before the Mauser’s Broomhandle introduced the world to the joys of a reliable semi-automatic pistol. In the last century, revolvers have not only survived the introduction of semis, wheelguns have thrived. These days, Smith & Wesson can’t build them quickly enough to meet demand. While it’s one of those “rising tide lifts all boats” deals, point taken. Revolvers still have a role to play in modern self-defense. Yes, but what? The Smith & Wesson Model 60 provides plenty of answers, and a few questions besides . . .
Smith & Wesson introduced the Model 60 in 1965. It was a year marked by political upheaval and violence: the Watts riots, the first anti-war “teach-in,” the first major Vietnam ground battle and Martin Luther King’s march on Selma. It was a time when millions of uneasy Americans reckoned a good pistol was a good thing to have. Smith’s first production all-stainless steel revolver fit the bill.
The Model 60—chambered in .38 Special and fitted with a 2.125″ barrel—was an immediate hit. The waiting time for delivery stretched to six months. The heavyweight J-framed wheelgun went on to achieve infamy in 1984, when “subway vigilante” Bernhard Goetz shot four men with a first-year Model 60. In the intervening years, the Model 60′s popularity has kept pace with Smith’s larger and (especially) smaller revolvers.
Any why not? The Model 60′s design is simple, balanced and elegant. The five-round, exposed hammer, swing-out chamber wheelgun says revolver like a contour Coca-Cola bottle says Coke. The Model 60′s withstood the test of time to become a genuine classic.
There are a couple of significant differences between the original Model 60 and today’s gun. For one thing, the modern Model 60 has an internal lock. Some gun owners won’t buy a Smith & Wesson revolver with a built-in key-operated “safety device.” As regular TTAG readers know, my Smith & Wesson 686‘s lock failed. The hammer and trigger locked back and . . . that was that.
What are the odds of a Model 60 internal lock failure? What are the odds of it happening during a defensive gun use? Infinitesimal. But the possibility is vexing for American gun owners who bet their life—and the lives of their loved ones—on their firearm’s functionality. Provided, of course, they know about such things as lock failures. Truth be told, most gun buyers don’t. What’s more, they believe that a revolver is mechanically infallible; profoundly more reliable than a semi. Yes well . . .
The video above shows what happens when you run 400+ rounds of cleanliness-challenged Sellier & Bellot ammunition through a Model 60 without giving the gun a damn good scrubbing. A revolver that doesn’t work! This will come as no surprise to informed gun guys and gals, many of whom consider firearms maintenance a perfect outlet for mild to wild OCD. The wider point: all guns can fail.
Equally, most guns don’t. In this age of high-quality, value-priced semi-automatic polymer pistols, buying a $700 revolver for its “superior” reliability can no longer be considered a “no-brainer.” Especially when there are obvious disadvantages to revolvers in general and the Smith & Wesson Model 60 in particular.
Statistically and practically speaking, the ability to reliably hit what you’re aiming at—say, a person trying to kill you—is more important than the remote chance that your [well maintained] handgun will go “click” instead of “bang.” With the Model 60, accuracy at combat distances is not a ballistic slam-dunk.
I’m not saying the Model 60′s trigger pull is heavy, but have you ever tried lifting an SUV with your index finger? Nestling the go-pedal in your distal joint affords a smoother pull—but only just. Jerry Miculek could shoot the eye out of Birchwood Casey zombie target at ten yards with a Model 60. The rest of us, not. Weak-handed, inexperienced shooters? Not at all. Not even close.
This despite the Model 60′s accuracy-enhancing heft. The handgun weighs-in at 24.5 ounces. A Model 60 with a 3″ barrel [shown] loaded with .38-caliber rounds eliminates recoil issues for all but the most squeamish shooter. The 60′s four-finger rubber handle provides the kind of secure grip denture makers dream about. If the Model 60′s blade front site wasn’t black (on black) and the trigger was a bit easier . . .
Fired single-action, the Model 60 makes mortal men into Miculeks. You (and people less talented than you) can put three out of five bullets through the same hole at five yards. Gun gurus don’t recommend shooting a revolver single action—ever. Needless to say, the Model 60′s double-action accuracy problem gets decidedly worse when you load it with the [otherwise] ideal self-defense caliber: .357.
There’s the second major difference between ye olde Model 60 and the one sitting on my desk: the words “S&W .357 MAGNUM” etched into the barrel’s left side.
If you fail to stop a threat with five .357 hollow-point bullets, there’s only one possible explanation: you missed. In this case, it’s a perfectly credible excuse. The Model 60′s double-action trigger is heavy enough with .38′s. Empty a Model 60 loaded with .357′s as fast as you can (call it “point shooting” instead of “panic shooting”) and you can miss a target at three yards. I know. I did.
Again, shoot the Model 60 single action and it’s bullet on top of bullet. Bad guy down. BUT if you switch from double-action to single-action mode—and maybe even if you don’t—you WILL shoot a round without “meaning” to. Hence the gun guys’ stricture against cocking a revolver’s hammer when trouble comes knocking.
The Smith & Wesson Model 60 highlights a simple, inescapable fact: for most people, a revolver’s safety-oriented heavy ass trigger pull makes it a “belly gun.” At bad breath distances, you can aim a wheelgun towards the bad guy Jack Ruby-style and pull the trigger and eliminate the threat. Unlike a semi, you can even put it against the bad guy’s body, pull the trigger and git ‘er done. Only . . .
You really don’t want to shoot a bad guy at bad breath distance (think knife). The more real estate between you and the life-threatening perp the better. By the same token, the more distance ‘twixt you and your foe, the greater the need for accuracy. The less you want to be carrying a Smith & Wesson Model 60 revolver—especially with .357s on board.
If you’re a casual shooter looking for close-in armed self-defense, a hammerless stainless Smith & Wesson 642 firing hollow point .38s is a more sensible choice. The 642′s smaller handle’s not good, but the smaller gun’s more concealable, lighter and less of a bother to brandish than the Model 60. If you want a bedside revolver, the next-size-up 686 is considerably more intimidating and vastly more controllable—even firing 357s.
To paraphrase Inspector Callahan in Magnum Force, a man’s got to know his gun’s limitations. The five-shot Smith & Wesson Model 60 is what it is: a beautiful, superbly made handgun that can fire maximum protection .357 rounds. Whose owner is well advised to treat his pricey revolver to a quality trigger job, STAT.
Model: Smith & Wesson Model 60
Caliber: .38 Special/.357 Magnum
Capacity: 5 rounds
Material: stainless steel frame, stainless steel cylinder
Weight empty: 24.5 ounces
Barrel Length: 3″
Overall length: 7.5″
Front sight: black blade
Rear sight: adjustable
Action: single/double action
Frame size: J-frame (small), exposed hammer
Finish: satin stainless
Price: $759 msrp
RATINGS (out of five stars)
Style * * * * *
Ergonomics (carry) * *
Slightly too big for pocket carry (exposed hammer too). When compared to the convenience of a smaller stainless hammerless snubbie, the Model 60′s “extra” accuracy and .357-compatibility’s not worth the hassle.
Ergonomics (firing) * * * * *
The Model 60′s four-finger grip sits in the hand like a baby in its mother’s arms. No recoil issues with .38s. None. Self-defense .357s are more than merely manageable.
Reliability * * * *
As long as you clean it and love it, it will not let your down. Unless the lock fails (star removed for not removing it).
Customize This * * *
The sooner you swap out/paint the black front blade, the better. Give serious thought to a professional trigger job. Actually, just get one.
OVERALL RATING * * * *
A timeless design still built like the proverbial brick shit-house, whose Sumo-class trigger pull works against it. Unless it doesn’t.
[TTAG's targets are supplied by Birchwood Casey]