(This is a reader-submitted review as part of our gun review contest. See details here.)
Before the dawn of the GLOCK era, the default cop guns were Smith & Wesson’s Model 66 and it’s blued sibling the Model 19. Lots of them hit the used market as police departments made the switch to striker-fired pistols, so they offer a reasonably affordable option for beginners or experienced, but revolver-curious, autoloader shooters. Smith & Wesson recently started selling the Model 66 again, but the new ones have a weird two-piece barrel, and to my mind, lack the visceral appeal of the older guns.
The Model 19 was introduced in 1957 as the first K-frame chambered for .357 Magnum. Allegedly developed with input from Bill Jordan, a border patrol agent and gun writer, the Model 19 was meant to let law enforcement types have a .357 revolver that was easier to carry than the heavier N-frame revolvers that were then chambered for .357.
Billed as the “Combat Magnum” and offered in 6, 4, 3, and 2.5 inch barrels the Models 19 and 66 (the stainless version) occupied much the same niche that the GLOCK 17/19/26 family does now. Patrol officers could have the 6 or 4-inch versions and plainclothes officers could carry the 2.5-inch version.
The particular version under review here is a 66-4 with a 2.5 inch barrel and the round butt. The 66-4 was made in the mid-1990s and does not have the internal lock that seems to instantly take $150 off the resale price of used Smiths. It was a police trade-in that I got for $350 about three years ago. I have not seen any offered at that price or as trade-ins recently, but you still find them in gun shops and online for $500-600.
The 2.5 inch version was meant to be concealable while still offering the capacity of a full-size service revolver – a whopping six rounds – and useable sights. It was, in effect, the revolver equivalent of a GLOCK 19, small enough to conceal but not intended as a pocket gun or back up like the five shot J-frames.
Model 66 is the archetypical double action revolver. It has a long, but smooth, double action trigger. It’s so long, and, at about 10 pounds, stiff enough that it serves as a safety. It would be quite difficult to fire the gun unintentionally, and the trigger pull is long enough that you might actually be able to reconsider and abort your decision to fire part way through the trigger press. The downside of the double action trigger is that it hard to shoot well. It takes some practice to keep everything lined up for the duration of the trigger’s travel.
The single action trigger is entirely different. Cock the hammer and you get no take up at all and a trigger pull that can’t be more than 3 pounds. The break is clean, crisp, and light. In fact, I think it’s a little too light. I have only to contemplate the concept of pressure and there is lead going down range. It’s fun to play around with, but you could get yourself into a lot of trouble with a cocked revolver in a self-defense situation.
Unloaded, the all-steel M66 weighs in just under the two-pound mark. You feel the weight and size of the gun if you carry it. I have a Remora holster for mine, and I can carry it inside the waistband fairly comfortably at 4:00. The round butt seems to help it stay close and unobtrusive. At 3:00, however, the width of the cylinder is hard to hide and makes me look like an inept shoplifter.
Shooting the M66 is fun. Far too many people’s only experience with revolvers is shooting Airweight J-frames, which is not fun. You could burn through hundreds of rounds of .38 Special in an afternoon with this gun and still have a smile on your face. Even a box of .357 is manageable, although the small grip on mine becomes uncomfortable after a couple of cylinders. The double action trigger is challenging, but does teach you skills that transfer to DA/SA autoloaders. For me the main difficulty is figuring out what to do with my thumbs. Because the grip is wider than the frame, my thumbs, which settle comfortably on an autoloader, seem to dangle in space.
The Model 66 has good, adjustable sights. The front sight has a bright red insert and the rear is a square notch with a white outline. Compared to the fixed sights that many service revolvers have, they’re pretty nice.
A common complaint about the Model 66 is that it is not really capable of handling a steady diet of .357. Some have suffered cracked forcing cones and flame cutting of the topstrap. The Internet consensus, for what it’s worth, is that one should avoid excessive use of hot 125 and 130-grain loads, but 158-grain bullets cause less trouble. But what “excessive” means in this context is never clear to me. My solution? Just shoot .38s. My wallet and hands fully support this decision.
So for about the same $550 to $600 you’d pay for a used Model 66, you could have a new GLOCK 19 that is lighter and slimmer, has more than double the capacity, is infinitely easier to reload, shoots less expensive ammunition, is easier to shoot accurately, and is just as reliable. Police departments did not abandon revolvers just because GLOCK had an aggressive sales force; there is a lot to like about the striker-fired guns.
But revolvers like the Model 66 have their virtues too. If you were to devise a gun for someone who was not willing to train regularly or for someone whose careful training has been flushed from his nervous system by a flood of adrenaline, it would be a revolver. There are three controls on a revolver that you can manipulate: the trigger, the hammer, and the cylinder release. Someone who has never touched a gun before could pick up a loaded revolver and, assuming he has had sufficient exposure to television to locate the trigger, get off six shots.
The hammer is probably best left alone unless you are playing around on the range and the cylinder latch is only necessary for the second six shots and, let’s face it, if your problem has not been resolved by your first six rounds, you’re in trouble. There may be a few people able to reload a revolver under life and death pressure, but it’s not me and, unless your initials are J.M., it’s probably not you either.
So, assuming that the gun has been loaded, only one of the three controls is really necessary to operate the gun. If you were looking for gun that a spouse who is less enamored of the range than you are could use in an emergency, a full-size service revolver like the Model 66 would be a good choice. At least that’s how I justified buying mine.
A few years back RF suggested that the ideal beginner’s gun would be a Ruger SP101 with a three-inch barrel. Its only shortcomings, he thought, were the fixed sights and the protruding hammer spur. He even suggested that Ruger make a version of the SP101 with adjustable sights and a bobbed hammer. Ruger has introduced a lot of new product since then, but the Farago-ized SP101 is still languishing somewhere in the Ruger skunkworks.
Until Ruger delivers the ultimate beginner’s gun, the M66 offers everything RF said a beginner’s gun ought to have save for the bobbed hammer. And that can be fixed pretty easily. It’s a little bulkier than the SP101, but you do get an extra round and it’s still concealable. A 3-inch M66 would be even better, but they are rare enough that the extra half-inch of barrel pushes you well beyond reasonable beginner gun pricing.
For the non-beginner the M66 has its appeal too. I use mine for backpacking and hiking in black bear country. I figure a round (or two) of .357 is probably more practical for that application than a magazine of 9mm or .40 cal. But more than anything else, I just like the way it looks and feels. It has the same ineffable appeal as a custom 1911 or a Ducati.
There is something about the heft of the gun and the precision with which the parts fit that is absent in a polymer-framed pistol. For practical purposes (and price) polymer guns are hard to beat, but the Model 66 has an aesthetic appeal that polymer guns can’t begin to approach.
Specifications: Smith & Wesson Model 66-4
Capacity: 6 rounds
Materials: Stainless Steel
Weight: 31.5 ounces
Barrel Length: 2.5 inches
Price: $500-650 (over $1000 if you want the 3”)
Ratings (out of five stars):
Style * * * *
It may not be a Colt Python, but it’s a good-looking gun.
Accuracy * * *
Pretty good for such a short sight radius.
Ergonomics * * * *
Totally depends on the grips it comes with. For my moderately large hands the grip seems a little small, but the length of pull is ideal.
Carry * * *
It’s not a pocket pistol but it carries pretty well. Generations of police detectives carried them.
Reliability * * * * *
It’s a revolver. They can fail catastrophically, e.g. total lock up, but tend not to be subject to the routine minor failures of autoloaders. They’re as dependable as any mechanical object is ever going to be.
Customization * *
There are a bazillion options for grips ranging from utilitarian rubber to gorgeous, rainforest destroying tropical hardwoods. Holsters are another matter. There are nice custom holsters out there, but you are not going to walk into a big box store and find a holster designed for your Model 66.
Overall * * * *
It’s the quintessential service revolver.