By Austin Knudsen
In 2014, Smith & Wesson introduced the model 69, a 5-shot .44 Magnum revolver built on S&W’s slightly-larger-than-medium-but-slightly-smaller-than-large “L” frame. I love the L frame. I’ve owned an L-framed 686 in .357 magnum since I was 18. As a guy who spends time hunting in the Montana mountains, an L-framed .44 magnum revolver made a ton of sense to me.
The L frame is smaller and lighter than Smith’s N frame, which has been the standard .44 Magnum platform for S&W (models 29 and 629) for nearly three quarters of a century. The model model 69 sacrifices one round in the cylinder to the 29/629, but I thought that the weight and size saved might be worth it.
I needed another .44 magnum like a needed a hole in my head. I already owned a 4-inch barreled Smith & Wesson 629 and a stainless 4 5/8 inch barreled Ruger Super Blackhawk, both in .44 mag. So I really couldn’t justify another 4-inch .44 magnum revolver. However, fortune smiled during a horse trade, and I acquired the nearly new S&W 69 you see here. The previous owner was an outdoorsman, but he informed me that with full-powered bear loads, the smaller model 69 bucked too hard for his early-onset arthritic hands.
For the model 69, Smith & Wesson made a few noteworthy changes from the traditional S&W revolver. First, to fit the potent .44 Magnum into the L-frame (which had originally been designed for the .357 Magnum cartridge), S&W dropped one round from the norm and manufactured the 69 with a 5-shot cylinder.
To my knowledge, the only other .44 magnum revolver manufactured with a smaller, five-shot cylinder is the Taurus Tracker. The Tracker was also marketed to the outdoorsman as a lighter, svelter .44 magnum package, but I personally had a bad experience shooting a friend’s brand new .44 magnum Taurus Tracker with factory ammo. Let’s just say that if I owned a Taurus Tracker in .44 magnum (I don’t and never will), I would only shoot .44 Special loads through it.
The good news is that Smith & Wesson appears to have gotten a 5-shot .44 magnum right. This change resulted in the bolt stop notches on the outside of the cylinder no longer being machined directly over each chamber, in the thinnest steel on the cylinder. On the 69, the bolt stop notches are machined between each chamber, in the thickest steel. I don’t have to be a metallurgist to understand that this eliminated a weak spot in the traditional S&W six-shot .44 magnum cylinder.
I didn’t stress test the 69 to see how heavy a load it would take before blowing up, and have no desire to do so. I did fire a few heavy loads through the 69 just to see what would happen, and aside from some hellacious recoil and a sore hand, all was good.
Another engineering change: the S&W model 69 got rid of the traditional S&W front “lock” on the ejector rod, which had been used by S&W since the venerable “triple lock.”
To make up for this removal of one action locking point, Smith added a ball-and-detent locking point on the crane of the model 69. This is a feature that had largely been a custom gunsmith nicety, but apparently Smith & Wesson’s engineers finally got the memo.
Finally, S&W made another engineering change on the 69 (and other new manufactured revolvers): a new two-piece barrel manufacturing process consisting of a rifled inner sleeve inserted into a shroud, rather than the old-school, solid one-piece barrels.
This is a money-saving technique from S&W, which I reluctantly understand. It’s getting harder and harder to produce a steel revolver in the U.S. for under a grand, so big blue is always looking for ways to keep costs down.
The really interesting thing about these new 2-piece barrels: the rifling isn’t cut as was historically done on S&W revolvers. Rather, the new inner barrel sleeves have their rifling cut via computer-controlled electrical discharge machining (EDM). In doing my homework, I discovered that some keyboard commandos on the interweb forums suggest that the rifling lands and grooves on the new EDM-cut barrels aren’t cut as sharply and aren’t as smooth as the old style S&W barrels, and therefore aren’t as accurate as the old ones.
Based on my informal plinking with the 69, I was inclined to agree. But I didn’t have any hard data. Soooo, what does any aspiring gun writer do when an opportunity presents itself?
I decided to conduct a thorough accuracy test of the Smith & Wesson model 69. I’ve owned and been shooting S&W revolvers since I was sixteen. I collect S&W revolvers, and have previously accuracy tested a few, which was published on this site.
I’ve owned multiple .44 magnum revolvers, both Smiths and Rugers for the last 20 years, and at one time shot them pretty regularly. I say that only to provide some bona fides that I do have some familiarity and ability to shoot decent groups. Take that for what it’s worth.
I tested five different .44 Magnum handloads (I’ve never purchased factory .44 Mag ammo) through the model 69, three with jacketed bullets and two with lead bullets. I fired five separate 5-shot groups while seated, using a bag rest, at 25 yards.
Handloads tested in the S&W model 69, from left to right:
200 grain Hornady jacketed hollow point, 12.5 grains Unique, CCI large pistol primer
240 grain Sierra jacketed hollow point, 17.5 grains 2400, CCI large pistol primer
265 Hornady jacketed soft point, 17 grains 2400, CCI large pistol primer
240 grain lead semi-wadcutter, 18 grains 2400, CCI large pistol primer
250 grain Lyman 429421 Keith, 18.5 grains 2400, CCI large pistol primer
The results, from best to worst:
1. 240 Grain LSWC propelled by 18 grains 2400. This everyday shooter load put up an exact 2-inch group. I was surprised that it ended up taking the top spot. Not the tight clover leaf group that I hoped for, but not terrible. After 5 shots, this load left significant leading in the first 2 inches of the bore that had to be scrubbed out.
Photo courtesy author
2. 265 grain Hornady jacketed soft point, propelled by 17 grains of 2400. This load put up a 2¼-inch group, with 4 shots decently clustered. Recoil was substantially higher with this heavier bullet.
Photo courtesy author.
3. 240 grain Sierra jacketed hollowpoint, propelled by 17.5 grains 2400. A 2½-inch group opened up by a slight flyer.
Photo courtesy author.
4. 250 grain Keith lead semi-wadcutter from Lyman 429421, propelled by 18.5 grains of 2400. This is one of my go-to loads in .44 magnum, and I was disappointed it didn’t perform better in the 69. It put up a 2¾-inch group. These bullets were alloyed a little harder, so this load did not lead the barrel like the other lead bullet load did.
- 200 grain Hornady jacketed hollow point, propelled by 12.5 grains Unique. This load is actually the accuracy winner, but the dumbass behind the trigger ganked the second shot into a flyer, as noted in the picture.
For the sake of journalistic integrity (and at the expense of my pride), I included all five shots and reluctantly placed this load last with a 3¼-inch group. HOWEVER, after I cussed myself and concentrated for the last 3 shots, I did end up with a very respectable 13/8-inch four shot group (excluding the flyer, which was entirely my fault).
As you can see in the pictures, there are 3 shots touching in this group, with 2 shots almost in the exact same hole. Whether it was the lighter bullet, or the Unique powder as opposed to my .44 magnum standby 2400, I can’t say. But this load is clearly the accuracy winner, except for my flyer.
After an afternoon of shooting this flyweight with 5 different, proven .44 magnum handloads, I have to cautiously concur with the forum gurus. I don’t believe the EDM-cut barrels are as accurate as the old-style, cut rifled barrels. And I say that trying to be as objective as possible.
All of the loads I tested in the 69 were proven loads that I have fired sub-2-inch groups with an older S&W 629 and a Ruger Super Blackhawk. A notable exception seems to be the 200 grain jacketed hollow point, which shot exceptionally well except for one flyer caused by the bonehead pulling the trigger.
I will also add the caveat that the model 69 has a red ramp front sight, which SUCKS for shooting tight groups. For target work, a sharp, narrow, black front sight is much better. The red ramp collects and reflects light (which is the point), and is great for combat or fast shooting in the timber. However, for punching holes in paper (especially at targets of the same color), it’s pretty tricky.
To be completely honest, this is not a very fun revolver to shoot, even with medium-power .44 magnum loads. I’m goofy in the head and actually enjoy hard-recoiling guns. But an afternoon of steady shooting with the 69 is all I need for a while.
None of the loads I tested are maximum loads, but neither are they cowboy action loads. And after a couple cylinders, my shooting hand felt like it was getting smacked in the palm by a baseball bat. Not a lot of fun. I’ve never fired a .44 Special before, but you may want to consider it for the 69.
For the right application, I think the model 69 is a genius concept. This thing is made to be carried all day on the trail where you feel every ounce at the end of the day. The L-frame is much more compact and weighs significantly less than the N-frame 29/629, and I think the loss of one round is worth it. It fit perfectly into my old Bianchi pancake holster for my 686, and the feel in my hand is exactly the same as that old friend.
Overall, I don’t think the Model 69 is capable of the tack-driving accuracy of the old-style S&W .44 magnum revolvers. It appears that the internet commandos may be right; the EDM barrel does not seem to be as accurate as Smith’s old-style manufactured barrels. However, this revolver is still plenty accurate for social work, which seems to be its intended purpose.
Let’s be honest: the model 69 is not a revolver you are going to take to a long range silhouette match and fire heavy loads at 400 yards. This revolver is made for the outdoorsman, who is counting every ounce he’s carrying in the backcountry, and who may just need to fire on a grizzly bear (or meth user) at spitting distance. For that purpose, I think the S&W model 69 is perfectly accurate.
SPECIFICATIONS: Smith & Wesson Model 69 Revolver
Caliber: .44 Magnum
Sights: S&W adjustable rear, red ramp front
Weight: 37.4 ounces empty
Length: 9.6 inches
Barrel: 4 ¼ inches, 2-piece
Construction: Stainless steel
Grips: S&W rubber, replaced with Hogue
MSRP: $854 ($779 retail)
Ratings (out of five stars)
Ergonomics * * * * *
I’ve been shooting Smith & Wesson revolvers since I was 16, so it could be I’m a bit biased. They just feel right to me. The factory rubber grips are OK, but they enclose the rear grip strap, which adds to the overall grip circumference. I don’t like that, and replaced the factory grip with rubber Hogues, which I’ve been using on my field Smiths forever. There are no sharp edges on the 69, and even the lead edge on the cylinder has been chamfered for ease coming in and out of a holster. One gripe: why did S&W make the barrel ¼” longer than every other 4” barrel they ever made? This makes the 69 too long for almost all of my holsters.
Cosmetics * * * * *
For the initiated, the model 69 looks like a K-frame model 66. Only the slightly longer (1/4 inch) barrel and the odd looking 5-shot cylinder give it away. But the look is pure Smith & Wesson. Matte stainless steel and a black rubber grip. No complaints from me.
Accuracy * * * *
Not bad. Not stupendous, but not bad. One of my loads showed great potential, albeit with a lighter bullet than I would ever use in the wilderness. In my opinion, the model 69 is not as accurate as other S&W .44 magnums I’ve fired. I believe this can be attributed to the EDM-cut rifling in the barrels. This manufacturing process does not appear to make rifling lands and grooves as sharp as the old-style S&W barrels. Additionally, I suspect that the EDM rifling is not as smooth, or lapped, as the old cut rifling. This will lead to barrel leading if firing lead bullets, which will affect accuracy.
Trigger * * * * *
No complaints here. While Smith uses metal injection molding (MIM) to manufacture most of its small trigger parts now, I honestly couldn’t tell the difference in the 69. Whether in double action (long with some stacking) or in single action (crisp), it felt like a Smith trigger.
Reliability * * * * *
Nary a hiccup. I expect flawless function from a revolver designed to be an outdoorsman’s weapon of last resort. The 69 didn’t disappoint.
Overall * * * * *
This is a handy little revolver. “Little” is a relative term, but when we’re talking about .44 magnum, a five-shot L frame is about as small as I’d want to go. I think this is a great concept: marrying S&W’s best revolver frame size — the L frame — with the most popular hunting/outdoors handgun cartridge ever, the .44 magnum. The accuracy rumors concerned me at first, and my own testing seemed to confirm them somewhat. But I’ve been carrying and shooting the 69 for a few weeks now. It’s killed a few critters and I believe it’s plenty accurate for anything I’m going to do. And next hunting season, it’s going to replace my Ruger as my grizzly bear backup gun in the Montana mountains.
It’s getting harder and harder to produce a steel revolver in the U.S.. Except for Ruger. Apparently Ruger is able to do it without “cast” barrel sleeves.
Ruger casts just about every part of the revolver.
And you will note the new Redhawk has a barrel sleeve.
Wish my backyard looked like that. I’d get a lot of shooting in.
Not a bad gun. I’m partial to polished steel guns myself but it has a utilitarian look to it. Price seems a little steep given it’s not polished or adorned with wood grips.
FYI, an article on the new Python in American Rifleman attributed *that* gun’s 4 1/4″ barrel to compliance with some manner of Canadian requirement, although I thought the only real Canadian requirement was “you can’t own a gun”. I suspect S&W’s reason is the same.
That makes a ton of sense Larry. Thanks.
Canada has a 4.25″ minimum on pistol barrels. This way Smith can sell their gun in the US and Canada without making a separate barrel.
BLAME CANADA! BLAME CANADA!
I’ve shot a bunch of .44 Special through mine, since that was my plan when I bought it. Predictably, it’s much more comfortable to shoot. One of my go to nightstand guns.
my compltely unfounded concern would be corrosion creeping in between the barrel and shroud.
nigasil coated iron cylinders pressed into aluminum jugs exhibit this. it just gets in. might take a hunnert thouz (it’s the years) but i seen it.
You mean Nikasil? Yeah, dis-similar metal corrosion is a very real thing.
A full-house .44 mag in a less-than-full-size frame doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence, either. I don’t see anything there that a Superedhawk in .44 mag already has…
Dissimilar metals like aluminum and steel corrode due to electrical process exchange. The sleeved barrel use the same metals so no dissimilar metal corrosion should be forthcoming.
I’ve always felt that the L frame was a bit overwhelmed by the .44 Mag and that the platform is better suited to the .357 Mag and spectacular with .44 Spls.
So I carry this gun but the 2 3/4 inch barrel version. Double Tap 200 grain JHP .44 Specials are an absolutely DISGUSTING combination with the revolver.
When you say this combination is DISGUSTING is that disgusting good or disgusting bad?
Excellent review. Though .44 mag or Special is not my cup of tea, this was a great, thorough evaluation of of a handgun from every relevant angle, photos and all. Very well done, Austin ! Thank you.
Good review. I owned a Model 29 for years, but finally sold it, simply because I grew to despise shooting the gun when Degenerative Joint Disease started taking a toll on my shoulders. .22LR through .45 ACP didn’t bother my shoulder joints, but the .44 Manum began to hurt like hell after one cylinder. Sold my .300 and .338 Winchester Magnums and 12 gauges for the same reason. Discovered that when they cause that level of pain, my accuracy suffered right along with it.
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“hand cannon” would be an apt description!….
“This is a money-saving technique from S&W, which I reluctantly understand. It’s getting harder and harder to produce a steel revolver in the U.S. for under a grand, so big blue is always looking for ways to keep costs down.”
I’m very curious about this- please elucidate. I know very little about the economics of manufacturing, but why does it “now” cost so much to manufacture a revolver? I understand that it’s more labor intensive than “pouring” or “molding” a gun out of a “vat”, but revolvers (along with all traditional firearms) require a certain amount of “hands on” machining. I have to believe that firearm manufacturers have long since updated to modern automated/robotic machining processes- they are decades-old technology now. No one will convince me that Smith & Wesson does not have the ability to economically manufacture a revolver (with one hand tied behind their back)- they’ve been doing it since 1852! The material costs obviously fluctuate, but revolvers aren’t typically made from “unobtainium”. So where does all this “cost” come from?
Raw materials come in, you have the machine tooling and the trained workforce to fabricate the product- just as you always have. I don’t understand how being able to make a new/different product for less money can make a current product COST MORE to manufacture. I have been shocked watching the price of revolvers increase in an outrageous proportion to other firearms- even traditionally manufactured ones. What gives?
I will never accept that a simple, steel, small or medium frame 5 or 6 shot revolver costs more to purchase than a complex, high capacity auto loader. It just doesn’t add up. I can accept that newer polymer frame firearms should be able to be sold for less than their metal frame counterparts, but all I’m seeing is the retail prices of traditionally manufactured guns being increased WAY out of proportion to the “new” manufacturing types. Help me understand this.
Peter, I speculate (and it is just that) two reasons: 1) cost of materials- steel is expensive. Most mass produced semi-auto pistols are largely polymer now. 2) union labor- I suspect this is the REAL culprit with S&W revolver pricing. S&W’s skilled labor force is located in MA, a heavily union state. I suspect the union’s collective bargaining agreement states that S&W can never produce their revolvers in another (non-union) state, and the union’s contract labor price goes up every time they renegotiate. This is EXACTLY what happened to another historic northeastern U.S. firearm manufacturer, Winchester. And another, Remington. This is why Ruger moved almost completely to Arizona. S&W knows a couple things: 1) the U.S. shooting public generally won’t buy a revolver if it costs more than $700-800; and 2) they are stuck building the things in MA. So they have to come up with ways to keep manufacturing revolvers from being cost prohibitive.
Again, this is my speculation, based on some information from a few industry folks.
That sounds like a reasonable explanation- thanks. Of course, having always lived in right to work states, I find it unbelievably unreasonable to hobble oneself in such a manner- but I guess that’s just one of the reasons why I don’t live in such unreasonable places.
If you have “cheapen” your product’s quality in order to raise the price, then I’m starting to understand why Unions are to be avoided. Geesh.
69. It just rolls off the tongue.
I have hoped Ruger would do a .44 Mag in the GP100. Ruger revolves fit my hand better than Smiths and of course Ruger has the reputation of being stronger. But then that may be why they haven’t done one, the medium/large frame may not really be strong enough for .44 Mag.
Nothing I read would made me surrender my 4″ S&W Mountain Gun for one of these. Now, do away with the barrel shroud and lenghthen it to 5″. Oh, loose the trigger lock. Then you have my attention.
I have the Combat 69 with the 2.75 inch barrel and a weight of 34 oz. You notice the recoil for sure in that gun but the sting, I’ve found wears off quickly after putting 50 rounds through it. It is a dream to carry though!
Thanks for the article.
While I have little interest in any revolver Smith makes nowadays, it is interesting to see how one performs. It would have been nice to see a comparo between this and an old model 29..
Sounds like you may have some “thread choke” where they screw the thin barrel into the frame. This, coupled with the EDM rifling (roughness) may be causing the leading you saw.
It also can affect your accuracy. You might want to consider fire-lapping to smooth the rifling and remove the thread choke.
Not terribly hard (since you reload) and with a little patience can drastically improve accuracy.
Well the K, L and X frame S&W revolvers have the same size grip frame and trigger reach. Unfortunately S&W has continued to use a larger grip frame and resulting longer trigger reach on the N frame line. This makes double action work with N-frame guns substantively harder to master for most handgunners.
I have a S&W 69. I consider it an excellent .44 Special revolver, but with the option of .44 Magnum if needed. I suspect that S&W made the 69 in .44 Magnum for more sales than if it had just been chambered for .44 Special only, like the S&W 696 was back in the 1990’s.
Nice revolver. Had one a couple years ago but a faulty bear load blew the cylinder apart. Ammo company paid for the gun but I replaced it with a Ruger gp100 in 44sp.
44 mag is a bit much for me anymore…and I just can’t adapt to that dang “Hilary hole”.
If one hand loads there is really no reason to shoot full power loads in these lite weight revolvers to be effective.
A 300gr WFN at around a 1000fps or a 240 at around 1100fps gives one a lot of penetration needed for effective 4 legged defense.
As seen it is far more important to have a handgun that ones has with you and one you can shoot effectively.
Then having the biggest and most powerful.
With the proper powder and bullet selection one can create loads that are effective but not horrible to use.
But is it enough gun for a meth using grizzly?
I like my Model 69 with a 2.75″ barrel. I carry it on occasion, usually off-body in a tactical backpack. I also just recently bought a Model 629-6 with a 3″ barrel , mostly because it was the right price when it crossed my path (like the author, I needed another short barrel .44 mag like I needed a hole in my head). I was very surprised at how much heavier the N-frame was over the L-frame.
Ya’ll remember that Dan Wesson revolvers have been made with 2 pc barrels forever and they work real good!
If Hickock 45 likes them ,thats good enough for me!
Save us all time regarding your bona fides and shoot from the Ransom Rest if you want to test the weapon’s accuracy. No budget? Pistol perch and LER scope, but half credit for effort. Also always shoot factory ammo so people can duplicate your work to the greatest degree possible. That way we will not be reading about your eyes, trigger control or whether you weigh powder under 1/10 grain.
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Absolutely love this firearm, I have owned it for 2 years now and shot the crap out of it with full house mag loads and Love it !!!
It’s a little snappy with recoil but not near as bad as a .500 snub nose . What can I say I’m a glutton for punishment… lol
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loved the article. well written and funny. Thank you.