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.
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
Photo courtesy author.
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.