By Virgil Caldwell
Revolvers and semi-automatics each fill my safe, and for different reasons. Quite often I carry two guns out of long habit from police work. I began with two .38s and then a semi-automatic and a backup .38. Revolvers will never die or go out of date and for very good reason.
The revolver will not jam if thrust into an opponents body and fired repeatably. It will withstand exposure to the elements in an ankle holster, at least up to a point. The revolver is also a simpler instrument. If left in storage for long periods, it will come up shooting when you retrieve it.
I really don’t have an argument with most modern handguns. I own and use several types. But my default backup is a revolver and I keep a one — actually several — ready at home.
A few years ago Taurus introduced the 856 revolver, a six-shot variant of their popular model 85, which was a five-shot revolver with a two inch barrel similar in size to the Smith & Wesson J-Frame. For the 856, Taurus widened the cylinder by .1 inch and modified the lockwork to produce a light compact .38 Special six-shooter.
The small frame .38 Special has been a staple of armed citizens, cops and private dicks for more than seventy years. It isn’t the easiest handgun to use well and takes time and dedication to master. But nothing quite fits a pocket or ankle holster like a snubnose .38 wheel gun.
Just the same, there is a need for a slightly larger handgun that may serve well for home defense and concealed carry. Enter the Taurus Defender 856. Taurus has developed a version of the 856 that’s easier to shoot well by a considerable margin and offers unique improvements.
The bigger Defender 856 features a three-inch heavy barrel and hand filling grips. There are several versions including blue steel, Air Lite, and a version with VZ grips.
Home defense is the rationale behind the Defender 856, not to replace the lighter J-frame size revolvers as a pocket or ankle gun. What the Defender does is offer a light, fast-handling revolver at a fair price with excellent handling and accuracy for those who practice.
The Defender is easily concealed in an inside the waistband holster for concealed carry. This is a revolver that will also serve well as a home defense handgun. The Defender 856 is available for about $350 retail so there’s a lot of appeal for those on a budget.
Looking further at the Defender 856 we find some of the same features as the snubnose 856, including a smooth DA/SA trigger action. The single action trigger was not as light as I would have liked, but consistent. I estimate the double action trigger at 12 pounds. The single action broke at 7 pounds.
The Defender 856 revolver doesn’t lock up by a detent under the barrel but rather by a detent on the crane and seems very solid. The big advantage of the Taurus Defender 856 over most revolvers is a high visibility front night sight. There is a slash of bright orange surrounding a tritium dot in the center.
That’s right, a tritium night sight on a revolver selling for less than four hundred dollars. I have fired the revolver a good bit and find it very useful.
I shot the revolver primarily with the Winchester’s 158 grain SWC target load. At 750 fps this isn’t a hard kicker. The proper way to handle a double action revolver is to get on target, press the trigger, and then recover from recoil as the trigger resets, then fire again.
The cadence of fire is never set by how fast you are able to press the trigger but by how quickly you are able to recover the sights and fire again. The Taurus is very controllable, more so than most any two inch barrel version I have tried, but then it should be.
I also fired a number of personal defense loads. I believe in the 158 grain lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoint and Winchester makes a good one. At 855 fps recoil is more noticeable but still controllable. I also fired a few 125 grain Winchester Silvertips, and a cylinder full of the Winchester 130 grain PDX. These loads strike high.
The 158 grain load strikes to the point of aim, which seems counter intuitive. Sometimes greater velocity trumps bullet weight in point of aim and point of impact. During the range work I used the HKS speedloader. The K-frame 10A model worked with the Taurus 856. So should the Safariland and Speed Beez.
As for accuracy, firing off-hand at 15 yards a two-inch five-shot group is average if that matters. Groups don’t save lives. Straight shooting does and the Defender 856 is a straight shooter.
It’s good to have a reliable revolver and this one has proven to be both reliable and easy to shoot. I will probably carry it at some point, but not necessarily around town. The Taurus 856 Defender is one of those handguns that is light, powerful and accurate enough to go along hiking or camping. If you just like something on your hip when in wild, this is a good choice.
I’m a fan of the Taurus Defender 856. It’s a friendly and useful firearm. It handles personal defense loads well and invites practice. A big advantage in the role of a home defense firearm is the tritium night sight. As I mentioned the revolver is compact enough for vest or holster carry when hiking and handles +P ammunition well. This handgun is well worth its modest price.
Specifications: Taurus Defender 856 .38 Special +P
Caliber: .38 Special (+P rated)
Weight: 35 oz.
Barrel Length: 3 inches
Overall length: 7.5 inches
Sights: Fixed rear, front tritium night sight with orange outline
Ratings (out of five stars):
Style and Appearance * * * *
Nothing revolutionary here, but this is a well proportioned and well finished revolver. There is a variety of options including Cerakoted and anodized black versions.
Ergonomics * * * * *
Compared to most any small revolver, the Defender 856’s grips, grip angle and balance — larger due to the three inch heavy barrel — are superb.
Accuracy * * * * ½
If we compare the Taurus 856 Defender to a four-inch barrel Tracker it isn’t as accurate. A four-inch Python would get a higher rating, too. But for its barrel length and in its weight class, the Taurus is quite accurate.
Overall Rating * * * * 1/2
The Taurus Defender 856 38 Special is an easy-shooting, useful and affordable revolver. Concealed carry, home defense and outdoors are its use case and given its very reasonable price, it’s an excellent all-around option.