Gun Review: Smith & Wesson Model 60 .357 Magnum (Take Two)

When I wrapped my hands around the diminutive Smith & Wesson Model 60, my first thought was “Honey, I Shrunk The 686!” As I turned it over in my hands, I started to  wonder if Rick Moranis had accidentally pointed his shrink-ray at a real gun, because the Model 60 looks and feels like a 2/3 scale model of my favorite .357 Magnum. But trust me: it’s a real gun. In fact it’s a fire-breathing fistful of ballistic fury, and you’ll use two fists if you know what’s good for you . . .

Overview:

The Model 60 is an all-steel .357 Magnum version of Smith & Wesson’s pocket-sized ‘J’ frame revolver. Unlike the Model 36 Chief’s Special or the hammerless Model 640, the Model 60 is not designed for deep concealment. It features precision adjustable sights,  slender but full-length grips, a 3″ barrel (on our test gun), a smooth narrow trigger, and a petite exposed hammer. It feels in hand like a miniature Model 686, holding only five shots instead of six or seven.

This photo isn’t staged or Photoshopped; it’s an unintentional double-exposure from an iPhone camera (don’t ask me how). It shows the sharp, quick recoil that this gun delivers with .357 Magnum defensive ammunition.

Ergonomics

With the exception of the snappy recoil, the Model 60 handles and operates more like a full-sized revolver than a pocket snubnose. I’ve always been a fan of 3-inch revolver barrels; I’ve found them to provide a decent compromise between accuracy, ballistics, concealability and recoil. The Model 60′s 3-inch tube only confirms my opinion.

The double-action trigger is heavy but smooth; I’d estimate it at around twelve pounds. This sounds awfully heavy, but the smoothness makes it feel much lighter, and it delivered some very accurate double-action groups.

This double-action group shows what this gun will do at seven yards when you have the luxury of taking your time between shots. When you’re in a hurry, groups open up fast; but I’m skipping ahead to the ‘Accuracy’ section. Back to ergonomics . . .

In single-action mode, the trigger is an absolute jewel.  No, it’s not actually a Jewell Trigger, and it’s not actually jeweled, either, but you’ll treasure it because it’s fine and smooth and it breaks like a crystal rod at exactly four pounds. While useless for defensive use, such a fine S/A trigger is ideal for recreational shooting and could make this pistol a viable option for small game hunting. The narrow, low-profile hammer is adequately checkered for secure cocking, but S&W lightly de-horns the edges and rounds off the rear so it’s not egregiously snaggy on clothing.

I couldn’t fully evaluate the carry ergonomics of this gun, because I lacked a proper holster to carry it in. If you’ve got a yen for the Model 60, however, rest assured that a proper holster (or several of them) will be easy to find. It will fit any J-frame holster with an open muzzle, although you’ll want to be sure that the Model 60′s tall front sight won’t get hung up in your holster of choice.

Sights

The fully-adjustable target sights are very precise–a real bonus on a surprisingly accurate gun like this–but they’re small and difficult to acquire in many lighting conditions. If this were my gun I’d dab them with fluorescent Sight Bright for a quick and cheap fix. If I were ordering a new Model 60 I’d consider the factory Crimson Trace laser grips or fiber-optic front sights. Either (or both) would be excellent choices, although the Crimson Trace grips are pricey.

Even these dark target sights are worlds better than the godawful ‘ramp and groove’ sights that most snubbies have.

Size and Weight

Some alloy-framed snubbies (like the Model 642) weigh just under a pound. The all-steel Model 60 weighs in at just under 1.5 pounds empty. I wouldn’t complain; this is pretty svelte for a pistol in this ballistic class, and it doesn’t beat the stuffing out of you the way most 2-inch J-frame .357s do. It’s a full pound lighter than its big brother, the 4-inch Model 686, and you’ll love not having to carry that extra pound on your hip.

But if you drop the hammer on full-powered .357 loads (remember that double-exposure photo?) you might wish you had it back.

The hammer is small and narrow and lightly de-horned, but it will still snag in your pocket. Don’t bother to test for yourself: at over seven inches long, the Model 60 is not a pocket gun. It’s more than 1.5 inches longer than most subcompact 9mms, twelve ounces heavier, an inch taller, and half an inch thicker around the cylinder. Even with a shorter 2-inch barrel, the Model 60′s comfortable but bulky grips would wedge the gun in your pocket tighter than [insert risque simile here] and you’ve still got the sharp-edged rear sight and the hammer to think about. So just, don’t, m’kay?

It may not be a true pocket gun like a Model 640, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good CCW pistol. Like all J-frames, the Model 60 carries discreetly and comfortably in an IWB or OWB holster, and its slim 5-round cylinder won’t dig painfully into your kidney. The bulky (yet comfortable) grips might be a drawback, depending on your size and build, but you can swap them for shorter, non-rubbery grips cheaply and easily. Any J-frame grips will fit.

Accuracy

I already let slip that the Model 60 is exceptionally accurate for a gun of its size and weight. Offhand two-inch groups at seven yards were no problem in slow D/A shooting, and I’m pretty sure that the slight vertical stringing was caused by the heavy D/A trigger. Single-action accuracy was only a little bit better at close ranges.

At 15 yards, our D/A groups opened up to 4-6 inches, while S/A accuracy stayed sub-minute of beer can. Loaded with mild .38 loads (to avoid meat destruction) this pistol is a viable small-game hunter out to beyond 50 feet.

It’s a pretty mild shooter with .38 Specials, but quick double-action firing with defensive .357 loads is an exhilarating endeavor. At barroom fighting distances, Wayne and I consistently emptied our meager cylinder-full of Winchester .357 PDX ammo inside a six- to eight-inch circle, firing as quickly as we could bring the gun back on target. According to the Rabbi, that’s acceptable combat accuracy for a handgun.

Wayne’s no wuss: even with moderate-recoil defensive ammunition, this gun really jumps. It pounds your hand solidly, in a way that’s less painful than most subcompact 9mms, but produces more muzzle flip and a slower recovery time between shots.

With defensive-grade .38+P ammo, you get less recoil, quicker recovery time, and most, but not all, of the ballistic devastation on target. We shot a handful of standard-pressure .38s through the Model 60, and it was a pussycat.

Fit And Finish

Like just about all classic Smith & Wesson revolvers, the fit and finish on this Model 60 is extremely good. The external finish of the gun is marvelous, and the stainless steel is polished to a gorgeous sheen. The only flaws I could notice were very minor ones: a very slight looseness in the grip panels which persisted even when tightened fully down, and a slight mismatch of the external contours of the front face of the cylinder crane and frame.  The crane and frame are starting to show signs of wear, and their external surfaces don’t quite match up anymore.

Ballistics

Wayne and I were both surprised by the good ballistics it produced, compared to two other Smith & Wesson .357 revolvers. The 3-inch barrel doesn’t carry the same velocity penalty that shorter snubby barrels impose; it behaves more like a full-size 4-inch revolver. I’ll reprint the ballistics numbers from our Performance Center 686 review here:

Bullet/Gun    60-3 (this gun)″         686-4″        686-6

125-gr JHP        1140                              1244            1187

158-gr JHP        1015                              1090            1031

If these numbers seem a bit slower than the hotrod velocities some .357s can generate, it’s because we were shooting defensive .357s designed for minimal muzzle flash and controllable recoil. I’m still surprised that this little 3-inch Model 60 spit out its slugs only a nudge slower than the Performance Center 686 with twice the barrel length.

I wish I could find my feeler gauges to prove it, but these velocity numbers indicate that the Model 60′s cylinder gap is properly tight. Unfortunately, the cylinder lockup is not so tight. When you press (not too hard) on the side of the cylinder with the hammer cocked, the crane already shows more flex and wobble than my quarter-century-old Model 686.

Durability, or, A Short Lesson In Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum History

This brings us to one of the unavoidable disadvantages of most small-frame .357 revolvers: durability. The classic Model 27, introduced in 1935, was built on Smith & Wesson’s large N-frame. That first .357 was much stronger than the cartridge required, and as a result they basically never wore out no matter how much they were shot, or with what ammo.

The Model 27 was large and very expensive to manufacture. After 20 years, the immense popularity of the .357 cartridge led Smith & Wesson to engineer smaller and less-expensive handguns for it. The medium-sized K frame (used by the classic .38 Special Model 10) was the basis for the also-classic Model 19 and Model 66 revolvers, introduced in 1955 and 1957.

They were smaller and lighter than the Model 27. A 4-inch Model 19 weighed in at 36 ounces. The K-frame .357s were designed and marketed for police use. The po-po complained that their wheelguns wore out fairly quickly on a diet of heavy .357 Magnum loads. In particular, the frames would stretch slightly and the cylinder crane (swingarm) would loosen until the cylinder didn’t index properly.

For the last half-century, conventional wisdom has held that you shouldn’t shoot too many .357 Magnums through your K-frame Smith & Wesson. While they don’t mind an occasional box of full-power .357s, they’ll shoot themselves loose after a few thousand rounds of them. For decades Smith & Wesson ignored this problem and told shooters to buy the expensive Model 27 if they wanted something more rugged.

In the meantime, an upstart gunmaker named Bill Ruger started selling millions of ridiculously strong, competitively-priced .357 revolvers that never seemed to wear out or break down, and Smith & Wesson finally got the message.

Smith & Wesson’s answer to the Ruger Security Six was a long time in coming, but it stands as one of the finest revolvers ever made: the medium-large L-frame Model 586 and 686 in 1980. They beefed up the K-frame with an extra quarter-pound of forged steel around the frame, cylinder and crane. The result was a nearly indestructible heavy-duty revolver. It may not be as elegant as a bright-blue Model 19, but my own beloved 686 has fired many thousands of rounds of .357 Magnum over the last quarter-century. If anything, it shoots better now than the day it was born.

The Model 60 and other J-frame .357s move against this trend of larger and more rugged .357 revolvers. The result is a very trim and handsome gun, but it asks a lot from modern metallurgy to expect that a small-frame pistol to tolerate a steady diet of heavy .357 loads when medium-frame revolvers couldn’t.

…And Back To Our Review

I don’t know the history of this particular sample gun. For all I know other writers may have already put a few thousand rounds of .357 through it. This would be more .357s than any non-masochistic shooter would want to fire through any gun so small and jumpy. In any case, it’s not valid to judge an entire design based on the unknown use and abuse of a single pistol. But…

Our sample Model 60 is already starting to show signs of crane wear. Its eventual owner would be well advised to shoot it primarily with .38 Specials. Full-power .357 Magnum ammo shoots well (if violently) but it’s just not for everyday use in a gun like this. Like steak dinners and single-malt scotch, they’re best saved for special occasions.

I would treat any *new* Model 60 as though it were a sturdy .38 Special revolver, with the added bonus that it can also fire any SAAMI-standard .357 ammo you’ve got the minerals to load it with once in a while. If you plan to shoot industrial quantities of .357 Magnums each year, you’ll want a bigger gun. Both it and your wrists will thank you.

Reliability

Revolvers are supposed to be 100% reliable, and our sample hasn’t lived up to expectations. Farago experienced a trigger failure with this very pistol a few months ago:

His problem was caused by extreme crud buildup in/on the gun after 400 rounds of firing without cleaning. It disappeared after a vigorous cleaning, so I’m thinking that it was caused by a bit of crud jamming up the hammer safety lock mechanism. I’m calling it a maintenance-caused failure, since 400 rounds is a hell of a lot of shooting for a gun like this.

OTOH, I’ve never experienced a S&W revolver FTF of any kind before (besides a few squib loads). The Model 60 gave me my first. While firing single-action, I cocked the gun and pulled the trigger. We heard a ‘click’ instead of a ‘bang’ and discovered that the cylinder had failed to advance. Instead of indexing the next chamber and firing a fresh round, the gun had dropped the hammer on the same spent case that had just been fired.  The one spent cartridge had its primer nearly caved in (from two solid firing pin hits) while the other four rounds were untouched.

This particular malfunction isn’t necessarily fatal (all I had to do was pull the trigger again and the gun fired as normal) but it shouldn’t happen. Ever. Without a gunsmith’s advice, it’s my suspicion that the cylinder crane rattle is starting to cause indexing problems.

The Model 60, in its original .38 Special chambering, is a dependable revolver that has passed the test of time. The recent ‘Internal Safety Lock’ unfortunately has not. If this were my revolver I’d schlep it to a gunsmith immediately to have the safety lock mechanism removed and melted into slag. Gunsmiths do it all the time (the removal, not the slagging) and I’d also look into replacing the crane. That’s not a cheap job, unless it’s under warranty.

Conclusion

The Model 60 represents something nearly unheard-of in today’s highly segmented handgun market: an ideal general-purpose handgun. It’s surprisingly accurate and easy to shoot, especially with .38 Specials. It also gives more experienced handgunners the option of sometimes firing full-power .357 Magnums. Even the most experienced shooters won’t want to shoot .357 Hydra-Shocks all day long (and neither will the gun). But the Model 60 isn’t about ballistics, or firepower, or pinpoint accuracy: it’s about amazing versatility.

The Model 60 is a pistol you can carry discreetly on the street as a capable defensive handgun, or carry openly in the field as a small but powerful tool for hunting and survival. Shooting mild .38 Specials, it’s outstanding for recreational shooting, introducing new shooters to the sport, and even small-game hunting. Smaller-handed and beginning shooters will have no quarrel with its weight and grip size, and with .38s they’ll have no problems with its recoil either. Loaded with heavy .357 Magnums, it punches well above its weight and delivers terminal ballistics that no other concealable handgun can touch. (Except a compact .45 ACP, that is.)

It ain’t perfect: it’s heavy for a snubnose, and five rounds of anything isn’t a lot of firepower for a defensive handgun. But these are reasonable tradeoffs for a gun that serves well in so many roles.

Specifications

Action: DA/SA Revolver
Capacity: 5 rounds
Caliber: .38/.357
Material: Stainless Steel
Barrel Length: 3 inches
Overall Length: 7.5 inches
Weight Unloaded: 24 ounces
Price: $475 street, plus shipping and transfer fees

Ratings (out of five)

Accuracy *  * * 1/2
I wouldn’t normally rate an almost-snubnose for accuracy, but this one is accurate enough for small-game hunting.

Styling * * *  **
The world’s most elegant revolver.  Only smaller.

Ergonomics (Carry) * * * *
You’ll hardly notice it’s there, but it’s not quite perfect: subtract a star for the weight, exposed hammer and longer barrel.

Ergonomics (Firing) * *  **
Mild .38 recoil is a delight; good grips make snappy .357 recoil more comfortable than expected.  Kudos for the smooth (if heavy) D/A trigger and superb S/A trigger.

Reliability *  * * 1/2
Remove the Infernal Safety Lock for four stars, but revolvers should be perfectly reliable and this one wasn’t.

Customize This * * *
Smaller grips and better sights are about the only options you’ve got.

Overall Rating *  * * *
An elegant and well-made pistol of amazing versatility.