Gun Review: Taurus Defender 856 .38 Special +P Revolver

Taurus Defender 856 38 special +P

Virgil Caldwell for TTAG

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 Revolvers will never die or go out of date and for very good reason.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.

Taurus Defender 856 38 special +P

Virgil Caldwell for TTAG

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.

Taurus Defender 856 38 special +p

The 3-inch Defender 856 (R) and a 2-inch J-frame (L) (Virgil Caldwell for TTAG)

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.

Taurus Defender 856 38 special

The Taurus Defender 856 with Hogue rubber grip (Courtesy Taurus)

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.

Taurus Defender 856 .38 special

Defender 856 with VZ grips (courtesy Taurus)

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.

Taurus Defender 856 38 special +P

Virgil Caldwell for TTAG

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.

Taurus Defender 856 38 special +P

Virgil Caldwell for TTAG

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.

Taurus Defender 856 38 special +P

Virgil Caldwell for TTAG

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.

Taurus Defender 856 38 special +P

Courtesy Taurus

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)
Height: 4.8″
Width: 1.41″
Weight: 35 oz.
Barrel Length: 3 inches
Overall length: 7.5 inches
Action: DA/SA
Sights: Fixed rear, front tritium night sight with orange outline
MSRP: $429

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.

 

 

 

comments

  1. avatar Hannibal says:

    “The revolver will not jam if thrust into an opponents body and fired repeatably.”
    -True! Although the opponent can easily stop it from shooting by grabbing it, even accidentally, around the cylinder. Tradeoff to consider.

    “The revolver is also a simpler instrument.”
    – It may look simpler to an operator (and may be simpler to shoot- not the context I see here) but a revolver is much more complex than most semi-auto handguns- which anyone who opens one up will see. The timing and tolerances are much less forgiving and the thing is much more akin to a clock than autos are. Talk to an old police armorer about the tribulations of dealing with rusting wheelgun internals (yes, that happens) and you’ll see someone relive terrors.

    “If left in storage for long periods, it will come up shooting when you retrieve it.”
    -True of modern handguns.

    “It will withstand exposure to the elements in an ankle holster, at least up to a point.”
    – True of modern handguns

    I like wheelguns. They have their place (especially with hotter cartridges in small packages) but they doesn’t deserve the mythology built around them.

    1. avatar uncommon_sense says:

      Hannibal,

      Well said on all points.

      My cousin pulled out a revolver out of storage after about eight years and attempted to dry fire it. It would not index the cylinder at all if I remember correctly. He disassembled it and an internal spring had broken into several pieces.

      Revolvers can fail.

    2. avatar DFW_Patriot says:

      Also, even the stalwart Glock 19 is a much better power to weight ratio in this size range.
      And just as (more?) shootable at speed.

    3. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

      Neither will a semi-auto if the bad guy grabs it and slide is pushed even slightly out of battery.

      1. avatar Hannibal says:

        This is true. I guess a good semi-auto shotgun is a better answer to the problem.

    4. avatar jwtaylor says:

      “Although the opponent can easily stop it from shooting by grabbing it, even accidentally, around the cylinder.”

      I’ve tried this many times, and have never found anyone that can actually keep the cylinder from turning while struggling with a small revolver. It’s one of those things that “in theory” is possible. In reality, not.

      1. avatar uncommon_sense says:

        Interesting Mr. Taylor — how many people have you shot who were grasping the revolver in your hand?

        (Just kidding for anyone who fails to see the sarcastic humor in my comment.)

      2. avatar Mustard Biscuits says:

        It was easy to jam the Taurus 357 I had. Fire 3 or 4 rounds…cylinder binds hard against the forcing cone. Jam! Send it to Taurus…comes back with the front sight indexed at 1 o’clock. Eff Taurus forever. Save up for a Ruger, S&W etc. They only cost a little more.

        1. avatar Kim Curtis says:

          I have several Taurus revolvers and several Smiths as well. Neither of the brands is any better or worse than the other! One of my Smiths is over 56 years old and still works every time I pick it up which isn’t often but the Tauruses do the same! Perhaps your ammo was what jammed the cylinder.
          I’ve had bullets move forward, (if they don’have a VERY solid crimp) and jam the cylinder! I’ve had the same problem with Smiths that I’ve had with the Taurus revolvers I have!
          Other than that, which is not the revolver’s problem I’ve never had any of them jam!

        2. avatar Mustard Biscuits says:

          I guess you missed the part where Taurus Customer Service unscrewed the barrel to solve the cylinder gap issue. By the way, multiple ammo brands/types were tried. Even 38 spl locked it up.

          Enjoy your Taurus, and pray you never have to send it for repair.

  2. avatar jwm says:

    There is a world of difference when you move from a 2 inch barrel to a 3 inch one. 1 inch makes it another beast altogether. A better beast for most uses.

    1. avatar Tom in Oregon says:

      THATS what she said…

      (Sorry. Couldn’t resist)

      1. avatar jwm says:

        That’s your one for today.

        1. avatar Art out West says:

          The 2″ revolvers pocket carry. The 3″ ones generally don’t. I do like the 3″ ones, but they are a different animal, like you said.

        2. avatar jwm says:

          Art. I have the standard j frame. I’ve had other snubbies from other companies but that is my one now. One of my sons has a model 85 that has the 3 inch barrel. It performs much better at the range than does the j frame. But that extra inch does make it not a pocket gun and that’s why I have the j frame.

      2. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

        A friend was teaching a carbine class at the academy. He was going over the differences between the M-4 and the non-NFA M-4. When he mentioned barrel length he said an 1 1/2″ doesn’t make that much difference. The only female in the class spoke up from the back of the room; “Oh, you’d be surprised.” It took a minute before Mark could continue.

  3. avatar LarryinTX says:

    Looks like a pretty nice gun!

    1. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

      No experience with Taurus, but appears to be the same concept as my S&W 3″ HB round butt 65s. Two of best defensive revolvers I’ve ever owned and very useful general purpose handguns.

  4. avatar former water walker says:

    I would get this as an ultralight. It sure took Taurus awhile to figure out lot’s of people want a 3″ barrel revolver! I hope the Brazilian travel ban doesn’t damage their business too much. Better than Turkish…

  5. avatar cgray says:

    Doesn’t weigh 35 ounces. More like 25. Their website has had that wrong for months.

  6. avatar Billb says:

    I have the stainless 5 shot 85. Would rather have this and may bite the bullet.

    1. avatar WI Patriot says:

      I just got a 3″ 692 to “replace” my 605 poly, great decision on my part…

  7. avatar uncommon_sense says:

    I believe in the 158 grain lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoint …

    Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!!! We have a winner.

    There is no .38 Special cartridge that will develop “fast” velocities in a revolver with a 2-inch or 3-inch barrel. That being the case, you might as well maximize the MASS of the bullet that it launches to compensate for the relatively low velocities and still get respectable bullet penetration with proper expansion.

    The other winning cartridge in .38 Special is 150+ grain full wadcutters.

  8. avatar DrewN says:

    Maybe I have girlish ankles, but I’ve never tried an ankle rig that didn’t make me look like I had a clubfoot or something. Hell, in the time it would take me to get my pant leg up over my boot and high enough to draw my assailant could mill and assemble an 80% AR to shoot me with. I guess you could access it even with your hands tied behind you, but I can’t see any other advantages.

    1. avatar Rad Man says:

      I wore an ankle rig comfortably for weeks til some ladies at the country club complained. The club president then insisted I put my pants back on.

      1. avatar I Haz A Question says:

        (groan)

        (golf clap, wry smile)

  9. avatar Manse Jolly says:

    Always wanted a Charter Arms Undercover .38

    Something similar..

    1. avatar BusyBeef says:

      I had one Charter Arms – seriously unimpressed, and I’m easy to please. The manufacturing was mediocre at best – lots of rough metal and markings.

      1. avatar jwm says:

        I had mine in the 80s. Much better quality then.

  10. avatar uncommon_sense says:

    I have a few Taurus revolvers and I love every one of them.

    In my experience they seem to have excellent triggers.

    My only complaint is a .357 Magnum whose factory grips are too narrow for my liking: I much prefer a fatter grip to spread out the recoil force onto a larger surface area of your hand.

  11. avatar Jimmy Beam says:

    Nice looking wheel gun. I especially like the full lug on the barrel.

    “Revolvers will never die or go out of date and for very good reason.”

    I own two semi-automatics and seven revolvers. I carry a Wiley Clapp GP-100 3″. I’ve been reluctant to purchase a Taurus because of rumored quality problems, but the Model 44 in a 4″ barrel looks mighty nice.

    1. avatar uncommon_sense says:

      Jimmy Beam,

      I have the Taurus Model 44 revolver with 6-inch barrel and I love it. Its trigger is outstanding. If you can afford one, get one. You won’t regret it.

      1. avatar Jimmy Beam says:

        Cool. Thanks.

    2. avatar Mark N. says:

      I always preferred semiautos to revolvers, but somehow I ended up with more revolvers….I never understood snubbies, it didn’t seem that they’d be worth a damn past five feet. Three inches would be my lower limit, but I prefer 4-5″ barrels for their superior accuracy. Of course, most of the longer barreled revolvers carry a commensurately longer price tag

  12. avatar uncommon_sense says:

    Serious question for the Armed Intelligentsia:

    With respect to a revolver for home-defense, wouldn’t it make more sense to have a 5-inch or even a 6-inch barrel? That extra barrel length boosts velocity and even provides a better sight radius if you ever actually needed it (unlikely for home defense but you never know). The longer barrel also adds weight which helps reduce recoil and your time for follow-up shots. And yet the longer barrel is not a liability at all since it is for home defense and even a revolver with a 6-inch barrel is plenty maneuverable in tight confines.

    Come to think of it, wouldn’t a home-defense revolver also make more sense if it had a seven or eight-round cylinder since thickness and weight are not important?

    At this point I think the ideal home-defense revolver would have a seven or eight-round cylinder, five-inch barrel, and tritium night sight like this Taurus revolver.

    1. avatar Ing says:

      Makes sense to me. The ideal use case for a smaller revolver like this isn’t home defense per se, but being able to do double duty as a concealed-carry pistol and a nightstand gun. If home defense is what you plan to use it for, then the bigger the handgun is, the better.

    2. avatar jwm says:

      I bought a 7 shot Ruger .357 stainless steel revolver right before this lock down started. The only reason I haven’t included it in my rotation as a house gun is I’ve only had one range trip with it. It performed well for that trip but I like a little more trigger time before I give it full credit.

      It is not a concealed carry gun. But for house use it doesn’t have to be all that stealthy. I have a j frame for those times I want to answer the door and not appear armed.

    3. avatar MouseGun says:

      For me, personally, I find a shorter barrel= quicker acquisition of sight picture in a dark environment.
      Another thing to consider is this is a budget gun, and a lot of people can only afford one gun, or only want one gun, and I was part of this camp for a long time. For about three years, my model 60 3” was both my carry gun and night stand gun.

      1. avatar uncommon_sense says:

        MouseGun,

        Ah, both are very interesting points. If was only going to purchase one firearm for everything, I can see where this revolver with a three-inch barrel would be a strong contender.

        I will have to try some dry-fire practice and target acquisition in the dark to see if a shorter barrel is easier/faster to get on target than a longer barrel.

    4. avatar BradB says:

      Agreed. My Ruger GP100 is an older 6 shot with a 4″ barrel but it’s beefy. Lots of steel there. I can shoot it better than any of my Glocks. (9s and .40s) I have to go 1911 if I want to match the accuracy and controllability with a semi-auto.

      I typically shoot .357 hand loads,158gr copper plated lead RN with 14.6 gr of H110. The 38-y-o son has an older Taurus 686 with a 6″ barrel. It’s happier with 15 grains of powder. He likes it a lot.

      Too heavy on the belt but home defense sledgehammers.

      Paul Harrellesque disclaimers and provisos: I’m only talking about what works for me. Nothing wrong with the Glocks. And home defense with appropriate ammo, of course. Not handloads. That’s a topic for another video. The short version is, you don’t want to give an overzealous prosecuting attorney any ammunition. No pun intended… No. Pun intended. Don’t try this at home, I’m what you might call a…

    5. avatar st1100boy says:

      I use an 8-shot, 5 inch barreled .357 (S&W R8) with a Crimson Trace laser for home defense duties. With a couple extra moon clips, I figure 24 shots of .357 will do the job. And if I somehow run out of ammo, I’ve got a pretty fair club.

  13. avatar Grumpy 49 says:

    The S&W Model 10 was so popular because most folks found that “K” size frames are a nice balance of size versus power. Appears that TAURUS has re discovered that fact. As an old [email protected]%^, to teach somebody (including females) to use a handgun, a revolver is simplier. And – Yes, it is harder for a beginner to shoot a 2″ “J” frame and hit anything. “Air Weight” versions are worse. I have three “J” frames, and the #638 is the hardest to shoot and hit anything. Females prefer the similar size (but heavier) #36 instead.

    A 3″ “K” frame size, with sufficient weight (24 -25 oz.), is miles ahead of a “J” Frame. Just wished I bought a 4″ model 19 instead of a 3″ model 60 all those years ago.

    1. avatar wr Roberts says:

      The Taurus 856 is a J frame, but a six shooter

      1. avatar WI Patriot says:

        “J-frame” is a S&W distinction, no other manufacturer…

        1. avatar wr Roberts says:

          Sure its a J frame, not just SW owns the J Frame moniker.
          They designate their revolvers J K and N frame and it is easy to compare other makers by using these designations– just like Python is a .41 frame and a whole lot of Commanders aint Colts

        2. avatar WI Patriot says:

          @wr Roberts

          Mmmm…nope…wrong on all accounts…

  14. avatar WI Patriot says:

    Love my Taurus wheelguns, have 4, 3 of them being Trackers(425, 627 and 692), 2 of them in 4″(425 and 627) and my newest, the 692 in 3″…

  15. avatar Mack The Knife says:

    5 shot 2 inch groups at 15 yards. Did the dog eat the targets. Those 2″ groups are not represented in the target shown. Good try, but, no buy.

    1. avatar uncommon_sense says:

      Mack the Knife,

      I assume that you are referring to the very first picture of the revolver laying on a target.

      As it turns out, the author put all five shots through the very same hole, every time he tested the revolver. Thus, each those dozen or so holes in that target is the result of an incredible five-shot group. Fearing that people would not believe that he was able to consistently put five shots through the same bullet hole at 15 yards, the author instead proffered the believable claim that he shot two-inch groups at 15 yards!

      (Once again, in case anyone is too dense to figure it out, I am kidding.)

    2. avatar Virgil Caldwell says:

      Those are fast combat shooting results not my accuracy results sir

  16. avatar Specialist38 says:

    May be the only Taurus I would be interested in buying.

    I might look at the lightweight version.

    Smith and Wesson dumped the 3 inch model 10 and 64. I have tried for years to get Ruger to make an LC6 – polymer-framed 6 shot with a 3 or 4 inch barrel in 38 Special.

    I see no reason I wouldn’t carry as a main weapon. 6 shots of real +P (BB, Underwood) 158 SWCHP would be dandy and easy to carry and easier to shoot than an LCR or Jframe.

    I dont hold Taurus in esteem, but their revolvers seem to be ok. Might check one out.

  17. avatar GS650G says:

    Reasonable price for a gun that size. I have a colt official police with 5 3/4 barrel and it’s a great gun but not carry-able. This gun would fill the gap between a stubby and full size very nicely.

  18. avatar Nate in CA says:

    If this makes it onto the CA roster, I’ll own one.

    I already got the 856CH (bobbed jammer, 2” bbl) and I’m still a bit surprised how much I like it. I added hogue grips and ordered a Wolff spring kit, but the trigger was nice enough as-is so hadn’t installed it yet.

    Beside my bed is a S&W 19, and the Taurus is secondary (and there’s a Charter undercover stuffed somewhere but for the life of me…) – the Taurus has only been fed 158 gr LSWC, but no complaints!

  19. avatar LastOfTheOldOnes says:

    My revolvers are an S&W Model 60×2 1/8 barrel, Taurus Model 85x 2″ barrel, Ruger SP101x3″ barrel. and Ruger GP100x4″ barrel, also 3 semi-autos.

    Smoothest shooting is definitely the Model 60, followed by the Model 85 (surprised me).
    The GP100 is the most accurate (heaviest), also smooth acting.
    The SP101 has the heaviest trigger, but on the bright side, it will shoot 357’s all day. However, due to the short barrel, is also VERY loud (good for scaring would be perpetrators).

    The model 60 and 85 make excellent carry guns. At 15 yards, both these guns are highly accurate and I can empty one in single action under 5 seconds into a 6″ pattern. Shot over 3200 rds. in these guns, so I have some experience.

    Since the 2 short ones are my nightstand guns, I feel very comfortable not worrying about safeties when in panic mode, just grab, point and shoot. They are always ready… 🙂

    PS. And they have ALWAYS worked…

  20. avatar BusyBeef says:

    I love revolvers. I shoot them very accurately.
    But you can’t claim they’re simple – I’ve gotten pretty good at taking apart K and L frames and I’ll be honest, those things are god damned Rube Goldberg machines on the inside.

    Want to lose your mind? Look inside a Chiappa Rhino.

  21. avatar Gregolas says:

    This is a revolver that I would buy.

  22. avatar Oscar Cannington says:

    Nice looking gun. I like the heavy barrel, 6 shot cylinder, and fixed rear sight with excellent front sight. Would be good for a bedside gun or for camping or hiking. Reasonable price.

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