Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout
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By Austin Knudsen

I was recently in one of my favorite Montana gun shops, perusing the used rifle rack and minding my own. It was a Saturday afternoon, and the gun department was fairly busy. As I browsed, I kept noticing one middle-aged gentlemen who was trying to ask questions of the salesmen behind the counter.

One tries not to eavesdrop, but two things quickly became clear: 1) the middle-aged gentlemen knew absolutely nothing about firearms, and 2) the sales staff was losing interest in helping him. That’s not to say that the middle aged man was being obnoxious, nor that the sales staff was being rude.

The man was well-dressed, and was genuinely trying to elicit information on a subject he knew nothing about. However, the staff was very busy, and while they were trying to be polite, they were just too busy with other customers to give him the education he wanted.

So, I did something I rarely do: I walked up, introduced myself and asked him if I could answer any questions for him. He politely thanked me, accepted my offer, and introduced himself as “Spencer.”

Spencer was interested in purchasing a home-defense handgun, as he was quite concerned about the state of affairs in the world today. However, Spencer confirmed to me that he knew absolutely nothing about firearms.

He was very polite, clean-cut, well-dressed, and was clearly an educated, successful man. He had brought with him a blank spiral notebook in which he studiously jotted down notes as I walked him through various handgun designs and calibers. When I finally asked him what he thought he wanted to purchase, he sheepishly shrugged, pointed to the GLOCKs, and said, “I guess one of those. That’s what everyone keeps telling me.”

I concurred with him that GLOCKs are a fine product, but then asked him if he knew how a GLOCK –or any semiautomatic handgun- functioned. He shook his head “no,” and assured me that once purchased, he intended to take a firearms class. I concurred again – a class was an excellent idea.

I then gave him a contemplative look and he asked me what I would recommend for him. Without hesitation, I walked him over to the revolver counter and asked the salesman to remove a Smith & Wesson 686 .357 Magnum revolver. Spencer gasped when I said “.357 Magnum.” However, I explained to him that this revolver could also fire the lower power .38 Special cartridge, which is ballistically very similar to the 9mms he had been considering.

Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout
By Shotgun – Own photo work, CC BY-SA 3.0

I explained how this revolver is made of solid steel and when fired with .38 Specials, it wouldn’t recoil as much as a semi-auto would (or jam on the occasion of a limp-wrist shot from a new shooter). I then explained to him the simplicity, safety and reliability of a quality double action revolver.

No, it doesn’t have the ammunition capacity of a semi-auto, but it could be left loaded for years and be picked up at a moment’s notice and fired. In the event of a misfire or dud primer, you just pull the trigger again. To make the revolver completely safe, simply opened up the cylinder.

We shook hands and Spencer left the store that day without purchasing anything, but I had obviously given him more to think about and he went home to research revolvers.

If you spend any time on internet firearm forums, there are inevitably a dozen, “if you could have only one gun…” threads or discussions going on. While I find these “only one gun” discussions, A) horrifying, because why would I possibly only have one gun, and B) pointless because we don’t live in a country with such restrictions (at least not yet), they do set a guy to thinking.

If, God forbid, I was limited to only one firearm, what would it be? A .30-06 bolt action rifle? A pump action 12 gauge shotgun? A good .22 rifle? I could make the case for all of those for a one-gun battery. But after a couple of days sitting in the tractor pondering the question, I always come back to the same conclusion: if I could own only one gun, it would be a Smith & Wesson model 686 .357 magnum revolver with a 4 inch barrel.

Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout
Courtesy Smith & Wesson

Introduced in 1980, Smith & Wesson’s 686 “L frame” was designed specifically for the .357 Magnum cartridge. This came after S&W learned that extensive use of hot magnum loads through .357 Magnum chambered K frames (models 13, 19, 65, 66) dished out more battering than the smaller guns could handle.

Beefier than the K frame but not as massive as the N frame, the L frame models 686 (stainless steel, adjustable sights), 681 (stainless steel, fixed sights), 586 (blued finish, adjustable sights) and 581 (blued finish, fixed sights) could take the steady pounding of heavy .357 magnums and keep on ticking.

Also, for the first time in its production history, S&W installed full underlugged barrels on the L frames. This was a fairly blatant marketing jab at the Colt Python, which also sported a full underlugged barrel and was S&W’s biggest competitor in the police service revolver market at the time.

Full disclosure: the 686 was my first big handgun (as in, not a .22). On my 18th birthday, my dad presented me with a new-in-the-box 686 that had been sitting in the local hardware store’s display case for over 15 years. It was a 686 “no dash,” indicating it was an early model with the hammer-mounted firing pin, which predated any engineering changes.

It also had never been back to the S&W factory for the “M” stamp modification, which is a replacement firing pin bushing in the frame to prevent primer flow with high pressure loads. My 686 sported a 8 3/8″ inch barrel with a partridge front sight, square butt frame, wide serrated target trigger, and original S&W target wood grips, aka “cokes.” This picture is a pretty close representation:

Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout

I carried and shot my 686 in this form for a couple of years on the ranch, shooting pests and targets with bulk .38 special rounds until I was, without bragging, a pretty decent long-range shot with it.

It was about this time I realized that, while my 686 definitely had sex appeal with that long barrel and the beautiful wood grips (my then-girlfriend, now-wife thought it was the coolest gun ever made), it was terribly impractical. The huge coke bottle target grips, while pretty, had never fit my short-fingered hands. On top of that, I had put a good scratch in one of the grips while crawling over a barbed wire fence, and that clinched it: the pretty wood grips had to be replaced with something tougher that fit my hand better.

A Hogue rubber grip was purchased and installed, and voila, the new grips fit my hand. My 686 stayed in this form for a few more years, until one year while packing into mountain sheep – and grizzly bear – backcountry on horseback for a week of scouting, I had the bright idea to carry the 686 in an old Jackass shoulder holster rig I had found in a pawnshop.

While the rig definitely looked cool in the bathroom mirror with my long-barreled 686 strapped into it a la Dirty Harry, a week on horseback and climbing mountains spotting for sheep taught me that packing a 8 3/8” barreled howitzer in a shoulder holster was a miserable experience and not for me (that was the first and last shoulder holster I’ve ever purchased). I realized I needed a shorter barreled revolver.

I didn’t have the money to simply go out and purchase another 686. At this time of my life, any decent S&W revolver was selling for $400 and up (ah, the good ol’ days), I had just gotten married, and my gun fund was non-existent.

The only way I was getting another revolver was by selling or trading the one I had. And I really didn’t want to part with my 686, even for another 686. It was my first “big gun,” and was a gift from my father. I was a crack shot with it, and had more than once made outstanding long-range shots that were witnessed by others. So the 686 stayed as it was. And then I started reading Elmer Keith.

In one of his books, Elmer talked about having one of his Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum revolvers re-barreled to the more-handy 4-inch length. His work was done at the Smith & Wesson factory, but this got me to thinking: why couldn’t I re-barrel my revolver myself?

I bought a used 4-inch 686 barrel from an internet vendor and, upon its delivery, set to reading about how to undertake the task. A little trial and error, some hand filing and emery cloth, and several hours later, my work paid off: my old 686 had been transformed into a much handier 4” barrel revolver.

Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout
The author’s original 686, re-barreled from 8 3/8” to 4”

Needless to say, the old girl balanced and carried much better than it did with the 8 3/8” tube. The shoulder holster was tossed in the leather drawer, replaced by a Bianchi strong side pancake holster, and I actually carried the gun as my primary CCW gun for a couple years.

As my gun fund grew and other handguns were purchased, the 686 was carried less and less, especially when I started getting into USPSA and later 3-Gun competition. And then, a few years ago, a funny thing happened: my wife and I attended a Friends of the NRA banquet in Helena, Montana. On a lark, I purchased a raffle ticket. Sure enough, my name was called and I suddenly became the owner of a brand new, 4-inch model 686.

Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout
Courtesy Smith & Wesson

This was a new-manufactured model, and was actually a 686-6 (indicating it was S&W’s sixth engineering change to the model). It differed from my old 686 in that the new one had a round butt grip frame, a frame-mounted firing pin, a redesigned extractor star, MIM parts, and, unfortunately, the dreaded Clinton lock.

Home with me and into the safe, next to the old 686 it went. Both went largely unfired for a couple of years.

The Question

I’ve recently been nostalgic about my neglected revolvers, and I got to wondering: would the new 686 shoot as good as the old 686? And then an even more interesting question: how would the old 686 stack up if I re-installed that original 8 3/8 inch barrel?

Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout
Author’s original 8 3/8” barrel, his old 686 rebarreled to 4”, and new 4” 686

My testing protocol: the old 4” and the new 4” 686s were fired by me, single-action, from a seated position off of a rest, at a paper target at 25 yards. Five different loads were used to fire five six-shot groups: three .357 Magnum hand loads, one .38 Special hand load and one .38 Special factory load. Then, I uninstalled the 4” barrel from my old 686 and reinstalled the original 8 3/8” barrel. Once done, I repeated the test firings with the same 5 loads through the now-long barreled 686. In effect, I tested 3 different S&W 686s, to see if date of manufacture and/or barrel length had any effect on accuracy.

Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout
Loads tested, from R to L: Hornady 158 grain JHP .357 Magnum hand load; Speer Gold Dot JHP .357 Magnum hand load; 173 grain cast Keith LSWC .357 Magnum hand load; Fiocchi 158 grain FMJ .38 Special factory; 158 grain cast LSWC .38 Special hand load.


Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout
Set up, sight picture, and target in the background. This is how the author fired all groups for this article.

Old 4” vs New 4”

This test did not go the way I thought it would. Everybody knows that old Smith & Wesson revolvers shoot better than new Smith & Wesson revolvers, right? Wrong.

Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout

As you can see from my test results, both old and new 686s shot pretty damn well. Neither revolver particularly cared for my 158 grain lead semi-wadcutter .38 Special reloads.

Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout
Groups fired from the old 686 no dash with 4” barrel

However, they both shot everything else pretty well, and both guns had definite favorites. The old 686 4” really liked my .357 Magnum reload consisting of a Hornady 158 grain hollow point and 13 grains of Alliant 2400.

Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout
Groups fired from new 686-6 with 4” barrel 

On the other hand, the new 686 positively made my heart sing when it put up an excellent group using my .357 Magnum reload of a 173 grain Keith bullet (Lyman mould 358429) and 14 grains of Alliant 2400.

Time for a change

First a disclaimer: re-barreling a Smith & Wesson revolver is not for the novice gunsmith, nor the faint of heart. If you are impatient, or don’t know how to operate tools, or don’t have the correct tools, or aren’t incredibly anal retentive, DON’T TRY IT. Hire a gunsmith. That’s what they get paid for. Seriously, if you mess up, you can destroy a perfectly good revolver.

With that said, it’s possible to re-barrel your own S&W revolver at home, if you have some mechanical inclination and are patient and meticulous. I won’t take the time to go through the process here, as it would probably have enough content for its own article. Maybe some other time.

The point is, I took my time, properly uninstalled the 4-inch barrel from my old 686 and replaced it with the original 8 3/8 inch barrel. When I got done, this is what I had:

Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout

The Hogue grip was reinstalled, and then back to the shooting bench I went.

Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout

With the 8 3/8-inch tube reinstalled, I was tickled when my old girl put up four pretty fair groups. Notice that the point of impact for all groups was higher than with the 4” barreled guns.

The long 686 didn’t like my 158 grain LSWC .38 Special hand load any better than the other two guns had; however everything else shot pretty well. The lone factory offering, the Fiocchi 158 grain FMJ .38 Special, posted a very good 1 ½” group, with two shots in the same hole:

Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout

Once again, my 173 grain Keith .357 Magnum load performed excellently, putting up a six shot group just north of 1 ½”.

Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout

Another impressive group came from the 158 grain Speer Gold Dot .357 Magnum hand load, which was posting a sub-one inch group until a slight flyer opened the group to 1 ½”:

Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout

But the real winner was the Hornady 158 grain jacketed hollow point .357 Magnum hand load, which posted this legit 1” group:

Smith & Wesson 686 Shootout

The Takeaway

So what did I learn? From 30,000 feet, Smith & Wesson made a damn fine revolver in 1980, and they still make a damn fine revolver now. The older, long barreled 686 shot the best groups, but I suspect that has more to do with 1) its longer sight radius, and 2) its excellent partridge-style target front sight.

Both of these assets let me shoot the long 686 more accurately. I honestly can’t say that either the new or old 4-inch 686s aren’t capable of the same accuracy. In fact both shot excellently. They’re simply shorter-barreled and sport red-ramped combat front sights, which I don’t find as precise for target shooting.

In short, the Smith & Wesson 686 is one of the most versatile, utilitarian firearms ever made. This revolver can do just about anything: personal protection with proper 125 or 158 grain JHPs; mountain/woods duty loaded with heavy Buffalo Bore factory ammo or hand loads consisting of 173 grain cast Keith bullets in front of a good dose of 2400; or plinking/target shooting with (relatively) inexpensive .38 special fodder. Heck, I’ll even load my first couple chambers with CCI shot shells and carry it to dispatch the inevitable summer rattlesnakes on our place.

Over the years, several friends and acquaintances who learned I’m a “gun guy” asked me for advice when they want to buy themselves a handgun. To a person, they want to buy the blackest, coolest-looking semi-auto in the gun shop case.

My advice for new handgun shooters is always the same: start with a .22, and shoot it. Then shoot it some more, and then shoot it some more. Then, buy a quality .357 revolver, like the S&W 686.

The 686 is simple to operate, simple to load, easy to shoot, and most importantly for a new shooter, safe. There are no external safeties to fuss with, just a long, smooth double action trigger pull, or an excellent crisp single action trigger pull.

Flop the cylinder open, and the firearm is completely safe for everyone to see. Even for the seasoned shooter, the craftsmanship and accuracy offered by the S&W 686 can be refreshing.

All images courtesy the author.

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    • Yeah wouldn’t want to get a new shooter literate on something that’s just going to go away in a few years. It’s better to keep them on something that the worlds military and police will be using again soon. Revolvers are also the best choice against an active shooter. When 17- 33 round magazines are being fired at you that .357 will will knock them back through a window probably.

      • Who cares what the military and police are shooting? I shoot and carry what I like.
        Are you gonna stand in the middle of the room and trade shots with the active shooter? Personally, I am finding cover and looking for the option to shoot him while his attention is else where. If you need to spray and pray, more power to you. I just hope there are no innocents down range while you are burning through your ammo.

    • with my marksmanship skills fading…I managed to qualify one last time using the long-barrel version of this gun…probably wouldn’t have passed without it…

    • And cars are just a fad that will go away like the Model T. After all, revolvers have been around for decades longer than a motor vehicle.

  1. I regret selling my 686 with a 4 inch barrel. It was an M stamp model as well. I purchased it in 1987. I put Pachmayr grips on it and I loved that gun. On a side note, the 586 did come in a nickel finish as well for a time.

    • I have a Smith and Wesson model 65-6 with 4″ barrel. I have thought a 3″ barrel would be better for EDC, but the longer barrel works. Just a great old gun that works every time.

    • yes I had one that I traded for another really liked that pistol but I really like that old norinco SKS and the 350 on top of it and this is one of the short lug screw in barrel rifles a very good shooter and in great shape stock only thing mismatched besides I have a nice 38 german 38 double action tha shoots sweet and fits my little hand better

  2. For the new shooter who is not going to go balls deep into the hobby like a lot of us the revolver has a lot to offer. The ‘ I only want one gun for emergencies and am not really a gun person’ is well served with a revolver. The fact is most dgu’s occur without a shot being fired.

    As for the 1 gun only scenario? Because of age my hunting days are numbered. And I’m gradually easing myself into bow hunting. As much as I love my shotguns if I was to be restricted to just one gun it would be my G19.

    The glock would cover all my self defense needs and still be cheap enough to shoot regular.

    • I’d probably go G19 over my Security Six for the one gun scenario also (God forbid such a horrible situation). The G19 is a very practical tool. Still, I have far more affection for the revolvers.

      The Model 10 in a 4″ is probably the best option for the non-gun person. Damn good gun, easy to shoot, minimal recoil. Leave it loaded for years, with no worry.

      • “The Model 10 in a 4″ is probably the best option for the non-gun person. Damn good gun, easy to shoot, minimal recoil. Leave it loaded for years, with no worry.”

        That’s what I suggested for a friend who asked me what he should buy. At the time, the market was flooded with police surplus units very cheap. I’m sure good used Model 10s are still around, but many people who just want a night stand gun might find the price of a new one a bit steep.

        • My model 10 was a police surplus. Damn fine gun and I will keep it.

          But for the price of a new one why not get a Ruger magnum and have the option of different ammo. The good old days of surplus handguns are gone. Pity.

        • You guys are right of course. Model 10s are too expensive now. Someone might luck into a good deal on a Security Six. Mine was $315 three years ago.

          Besides that, there are so many inexpensive but quality autoloaders out there. The Canik, Security Nine, and S&W SD9, all go for about $300. So does the Shield, and trade in M&P pistols. The G2C seems decent, and only runs around $200 as does the EC9s.

          Maybe the $185 Ruger Wrangler is the budget revolver to buy now. (If you don’t mind AS and 22lr)

    • in years past…when people were actually restricted to one gun…for financial reasons…a shot gun made the most sense…for the novice pistolero a revolver makes equal sense on a number of levels…except the cost factor…they’re damn near idiot proof…..

      • In years past, hunting and varmit control rather than security were the primary reasons for having a firearm. Today, more people want one for protection.

      • I’ve seen what happens to an improperly maintained revolver. It ain’t pretty. Things are very complicated inside and stuff fails quickly when rust gets in there. At this point, for manual of arms, the wunder-9 is just as ‘idiot-proof’ as a revolver with the exception of limp-wristing. In exchange for that consideration you get more than double the ammo capacity.

      • Glocks work. Do a good job. Glocks are good guns. If you like the ergonomics. I don’t. I carry a Springfield XD-45 I bought before the Illinois kerfluffel.

  3. When I was in the army a friend bought a 6″ 686 used. That would have been 1981. That was one fine handgun. I coveted it, but he would not let it go. I would still like to have one, but it would have to be an early one.

  4. The 4″ . 357 is a wonderfully versatile handgun. Mine is the Ruger Security Six. It was less expensive (and I think just as good) as the 686.

    I’ll run away now before the battle of Smith vs Ruger revolvers commences.
    I’m a fan of both.

    • Art, no debate from me. I probably own a half dozen or more S&W revolvers. That said, one of my biggest regrets is selling my 4″ stainless HB Security Six.

    • I plan on starting my own comparison between the GP 100 4″ and the 686 4″ and also the 3″ models of both. Needless to say I will be having some fun this summer.

      • Vinny, let me save you the trouble. A GP-100 is a poor comparison to an early 686. Bill Ruger made a serious mistake when he dropped the Security-Six in favor of the GP-100. Told him so at a SHOT Show. He didn’t appreciate my opinion.

        • 33Charlemagne –
          The GP100 is a little oversized/heavy for a .357 revolver. I’m not knocking it. It is an awesome revolver. The SP101 is only a 5 shot, and usually comes with a short barrel.

          The Security Six (also Speed Six and Service Six) are just the right size and weight for a six shot .357 magnum revolver.

          Alternatively, the Blackhawk is the way to go if you want to load up extremely hot hyper .357 loads.

  5. I agree the best option for someone who knows nothing about guns and likely will not put in time to train is a .38 revolver. Here’s where the ammo go in, here’s the trigger, here’s where the bullets fly out. Done.

  6. Thanks for writing this article, it was very interesting! I like it when this blog publishes pieces like this.

    • I was thinking the same. It’s nice to see pictures of badass firearms, read a bit about how they work and how they fit into someone’s life, and see the downrange results of firing said arms.

      That’s what got me started reading TTAG years ago, and I wish there was more of it.

    • Good article. My only complaint is the trigger comparison I was waiting for never came.

      • That’s a fair point. The triggers were very comparable. The old 686 has a wide, serrated target trigger, whereas the new one is a smooth, narrow “combat” trigger. Both are crisp and excellent. The old one is probably a little nicer, but that could be because it has a far higher round count.

  7. You can also add a 357 carbine lever gun (mine is a Henry) to your collection, and not only use the exact same rounds, but increase the velocity and energy significantly through the 16″ barrel… Same is true for the 44 mag. round.

  8. This retired Marine @ ‘Original Precision Bulletproof Parts’ has the fix for the Hillary Hole.
    Worked for my 627 and 632 Smith’s.

    • If you don’t need the patch and belt buckle, or even a numbers matching case, you can pick up 15-2 Pistol Packs for less than you’d think. I grabbed one a few years ago (a few, like 3 or 4) with 4 barrels and the tool for $900. It had a Wesson case,but it was from a .44. New Barrel liners and nuts are dirt cheap as are spring kits. The shrouds (and grips) are where you’ll end up spending $$$.

    • I got my 2 15-2’s and my 715 before the prices went nuts. I wonder what took them so long to finally get to what they should have been a long time ago? My first gun from an auction was a near mint 715 6″ VH, with 3 grips, custom sights, box, papers, including the original receipt, and a little bag of every part you would ever need replacing, all for $269. I scored a “pitted” 4″ SS barrel and shroud assembly on the dreaded Ebay for $50, and discovered that the barrel wasn’t pitted it just had some lead stuck in it. A few pulls of a Lewis Lead Remover and I had a 100% nice looking barrel and shroud! Next came a 4″ 15-2, that was $356, and I found a 6″ VH barrel and shroud for like $79, and finally my last one was a complete frame only for $300, no barrel, but on Ebay again, I found a 4″ “pitted” barrel and shroud for like $120 that wasn’t pitted either. Once cleaned up, that is the prettiest of all my blued barrels. I also have a blued DW 44 magnum 6″ VH barrel, and for something different, I have a SAR 4″ sr38 (A decent S&W 586 clone) I got new for $357, it’s not a bad gun at all. I’m actually looking at pre lock 686’s right now, probably a 4″ is going to be bought one of these days.

  9. I think a revolver for a new shooter is an excellent idea.

    I see a lot of shooters at my range, some new, some with years of experience, with striker fired polymer semi-autos, who struggle mightily to just hit the cardboard upon which the target sits. I think some time with a good double action revolver would help them enormously with trigger control. I know it sure made a big difference for me.

    • Also pulled the trigger on a 6″ S&W 586 sometime in the 80’s.
      Wanted a 6″ Python, but couldn’t bring myself to spend the extra $ even way back then.
      Very happy with my choice. Actually now think it looks better than a Python.

    • A “partridge” front sight is just as the author pictured in the photo below the paragraph where the word “partridge” appeared: A square-backed front post sight with flat, parallel sides and a flat, perpendicular top edge to the sight.

      NB that on most of the rest of the barrels/guns pictured, the rear edge of the front sight is a ramp. Those are not partridge sights. What makes a front post a partridge sight is the squared/vertical back side of the sight that you see on that 8 3/8ths barrel above. Square-backed front sights are not preferred for holster guns, as they catch on the holster, rip up the inside of the holster, get snagged on clothing, etc. They’re for target/long-range work on a handgun.

  10. There is a 686 5 inch barrel, unfluted cylinder at a local LGS.
    I’m thinking it needs a home this weekend.
    Man, that thing was a beauty. Nice balance to it too. And, no Hillary hole!

    • 5 inches is probably the ideal barrel length for a .357 revolver. You increase the velocity and shootability over the 4″, and 6″ just seems a tad too long to be practical.

      • Art Out West,

        I agree completely.

        Some day I will acquire a revolver with a 5-inch barrel.

    • I don’t know why, but the non-fluted cylinders just look great to me, but every time I’ve tried to buy one, I never win the auction. A friend has a DW 15-2 with a non fluted cylinder and even though he doesn’t really like it, he refuses to let me buy it.

  11. A fine article. I agree on the utility of the 686. One of S&W’s strongest offerings in their entire history, IMO.

    As for neophytes changing barrels on revolvers: There are few Bubba-moves that make a gunsmith’s heart sink faster than watching someone use a mop handle shoved through the window to twist a frame off a barrel held in a vise.

    • Thanks, DG. Appreciate the kind words. I don’t claim to be a gunsmith, and am certainly an amateur. But I agree with you that one does not want to clamp the barrel and go reefing on the revolver frame.

  12. Revolvers are fun, and mostly practical but pricey. For the $700-1000 that a new .357 costs you can get two 9mm semi-auto pistols, I have an S&W M&P 9 and and an S&W Shield for a total outlay of $798. That covers most of my defense and sporting needs, although the $399 S&W Model 64 trade-ins are Aim Surplus are very tempting.

  13. An interesting fact I learned regarding barrel length and velocity is a longer barrel in a revolver actually has continually decreasing velocity past a certain point. The cylinder gap allows gas to escape at an increasing rate the longer the barrel becomes. I think the sweet spot is somewhere between 4 and 6 inches. Even some 2-3 inch barrels have a higher velocity than the longer ones. Check out Has some great info.

    • Very, very true – but not just in revolvers. It just happens sooner in revolvers.

      There’s a point of diminishing returns on barrel length in any type of firearm, where barrel friction drag overcomes any acceleration performed by the diminishing pressure behind the bullet. In some rifles, this might start somewhere at 26 to 30″. In rifles that are burning larger quantities of powder, you might still be getting an improvement in muzzle velocity by going from a 24″ to 26 or 28″ barrel. Actions where we pick off some gas will suffer this diminishing return length sooner, for the same reason we see it in revolvers.

      There is at least one revolver that tried to address this “gas lost through the cylinder gap” issue, and that was the Nagant M1895 revolver. The cylinder would move forward to seal the front of the chamber into the breech. I’m sure there must have been other, similar designs, but none which have come across my bench.

  14. Love my 686 with a 6 inch barrel…. very accurate and a no nonsense wheel gun… for a rookie you cannot beat the reliability and if you need more than six shots you are in deep doodoo……..

  15. My first duty pistol was a late 80s vintage 4″ Smith 686. At the time our sheriff felt that automatics were “too complicated” for reserve officers (he was an idiot in other categories too). Anyway I carried the Smith until the next election when I went to a Smith 4006 auto as the then latest and greatest.

    I loaded the 686 with 125 grain Federal hollow points and carried a Smith 640 as my backup. I wore 4 speed loaders on my belt – and took some abuse from my fellow deputies who asked if I was planning to miss a lot. That gave me 30 rounds of very stout ammo and if that wasn’t enough, there was always my Mossberg 500 to fall back on.

    I still have both pistols – 686 and 640 – in my safe. I rarely sell guns. If for some reason the county said that I had to go back to a wheel gun I wouldn’t feel that I was poorly armed. I enjoy shooting my .357 and I can hit the target almost every time. My reload time is a bit slower than with my current duty pistol – a Springfield XD9 – but that 686 is a class act. No “safety” lock on mine, great sights, and a pistol that just works first time, every time.

    • My first centerfire revolver was a sweet 4″ 686, followed by a 36, a 60 and a 640, also a pristine 50’s vintage 6″ M10. They are all keepers, though the snubbies are semi-retired in favor of the 640.
      Then I found a 3″ heavy barrel M65 which is Just Right.

      • My first EDC was a mod. 64 SW. That and a pair of speed loaders and I never felt bad. I even had (gasp!) Dump pouches for partial reloads. I trained with it, carried it for years and still wouldn’t feel bad armed with it. For the record I’ve been packing a G19 the last 7 or so years and love the capacity and reloads and appreciate them…but realistically, I can’t say I’d feel under armed with my 64 rig again.

  16. I have a colt official police 38 with 5 3/8″ barrel. That would be a good basic gun for a newby. My .44 Super Red Hawk not so much.

  17. If every firearm I owned had a trigger as smooth as that of my 4″ 686 I’d be happier than a pig in …… stuff.

  18. I think we all “imprint” on our first big handgun. I bought a Sig P226 in the ’80’s. Went to buy a striker fired 9mm about 6 months ago and came home with my third P226 – a sao. Is it just me?

    • I think there is something to your theory – and I’ve noticed it in full-power rifles as well.

  19. A thoughtful, well written and informative article. How refreshing! Thank you.

  20. Great article Austin! Informative, personal, and gutsy on the barrel change. I love S&W revolvers.

  21. Wonderful article, Mr. Knudsen. Brings back fond memories. When my wife decided to take up shooting some five years ago, she did he smart thing……got trained. Came time to hit the range, my wife had nothing to shoot since I have only semi autos and she decided to start off with revolvers. Her most excellent instructor lent her her father’s 4″ S&W 686 to shoot with. Never shot before, and with no bad habits to break and having listened carefully to her instructor, my wife decimated to 10 ring. She fired 60 rounds and fell in love with the 686. Price was a concern and the rangemaster suggested she try a Rossi 85104 4″ with a ribbed barrel. She tried it and that was it. This S&W clone is now her baby. She outshoots most of the men at the range – including me. However, it was the “Older” 686 that got her into shooting.

  22. I commend you for taking the time to educate someone new to firearms and shooting; we need all the votes we can get. Let’s not forget that fifty percent of our population is female and we need their voice/votes, too.

    I’m surrounded by auto lovin shooters, but new shooters love my 686 plus, especially women. Easy, safe, reliable, and fun to shoot. But hey, if someone really isn’t sure about what their first gun should be, pistol or revolver, just have them clean each one side by side….

  23. For the uneducated buyer who has the money I would not suggest any specific gun. I’d be happy to talk about guns, answer questions, explain some basics. But before he or she buys I’d suggest a gun shop with an indoor range that rents guns and offers training classes.

  24. If I could have only one firearm for self defense, it is very similar to your choice, but my firearm of choice is a Colt Python circa 1980 or so in blue with a 4 inch barrel. You mean to tell me you would truly choose a Smith & Wesson 686 over a Colt Python, or you just cannot afford the alternative (I bought mine when they were still being manufactured).

    • I stand by my choice. I’ve been around a few Pythons now with high round counts that developed pretty severe timing problems. I at least can work on a S&W revolver. Colt DAs, on the other hand are “Greek” inside, and there are fewer and fewer gunsmiths who work on them.

      • This is why I recommend to those buying revolvers “Shoot S&W’s (and Rugers) and collect Colts.”

        The “old style” internal lockwork in Colt DA revolvers (Colt Army Special, Colt New Service, up through the Python, etc) are very subtle and involved mechanisms. There are not many gunsmiths left alive who really know these guns well. I don’t consider myself an expert on these older Colts. I know enough to be able to know what jobs I can take on competently and which I cannot, and I’ll refer a customer on to a ‘smith who really knows (and has the tooling) for the more intricate jobs.

        The problem in Colt old-style double action revolvers is this: If you change something in the lockwork, you often do not change only that issue. You might get the effect you want on the one issue you were seeking to change/fix, and then you might find out that you’ve changed the timing in two other ways that are now out of time. This is hugely frustrating to those who don’t take the time to really, really study what is going on inside a Colt DA revolver, and think before they touch or change anything. You can’t “just replace” some parts in these older Colt DA revolvers. Some parts in these older Colt revolvers come over-sized, and the gunsmith is supposed to know how to hand-fit them with a file and stones.

        Example: In a S&W, fitting a new cylinder stop is a pretty one-dimension activity; fit the cylinder stop to the cylinder, and install it. On a Colt, you do this, and then you start adjusting the tail of the bolt to get it to drop at the correct time as the hammer starts moving backwards.

        That’s the downside. What was the upside? Well, the old Colts had a wonderful lock-up. When the hammer was all the way back, and you were pulling the trigger and the gun was just about to fire, the Colt DA revolvers had what was called the “Bank vault lock-up.” The Colts really did lock up tighter than S&W revolvers. The cylinder on a properly timed Colt will not have ANY wiggle to it at all. It will be tight on the bolt. A properly timed Colt revolver is a joy to behold; it is like appreciating a Swiss watch if you know what is happening inside.

        Well-loved Colts can be out of time; sometimes dangerously so. There are a few ‘smiths left who really know these older Colts, but there’s almost no one under the age of 50+ who works on old Colts (that I know of).

        Why doesn’t S&W have the same issues? S&W split the lockwork into two halves: The firing half, and the trigger rebound half. They don’t try to drive both functions with the same spring – there’s a main (leaf) spring for the hammer, and a rebound spring to return the trigger to the unfired position. Same deal inside a Ruger. If I have a S&W and Colt in my shop at the same time in the future, I’ll take some pictures or video and try to explain why they’re so different – and why you should shoot S&W, and collect old Colts.

  25. I own a fair number of handguns , yet my SW 586, is one gun I can pick up after six months ,and just shoot it well . I’d feel well protected if I owned only that gun . A bit bulky but I did carry it concealed back in the day .

  26. I would not buy the trash Smith & Wesson is making today.

    They use the dreaded MIM cast parts which have a known higher failure rate than even traditional cast parts and a way higher failure rate than the older quality forged steel parts.

    Smith uses now a two piece barrel and despite gun writer propaganda, no they do not shoot better they shoot worse. Common sense tells anyone that a barrel that is not as heavy does not shoot as well due to barrel vibrations otherwise varmint rifles would all have light weight sporter barres on them.

    Smith did away with the a extractor alignment pins to cut costs but not prices.

    Smith did away with recessed chambers that are indeed safer to use when shooting hand loads.

    Smith did away with pinned barrels. And yes barrels that are not pinned can unscrew themselves from the frame, admittedly not very often but I have seen it happen.

    In short fk Smith if they want to make junk at least they could have reduced the price instead of insulting us with the highest prices they have ever charged for their revolvers.

    By the way even Walther took away Smiths right to make the PPk auto guns because they screwed them up so much they were not even reliable which was once the hall mark of the finely made French and German made PP series of auto pistols.

    The best thing Smith could do today for gun owners is shut down and go out of business and that may be closer to happening then most people realize. Good riddance if they do nobody will miss them.

    • I forgot to mention Smith rifling the barrels with an EDM type machine that burns in the rifling. Imagine what that does to the barrel. Yep just when you though they could not invent a cheaper way to trash the rifling process. The barrels are then cranked into the frame by inserting a tool into the end of the barrel with reverse rifling on it. Now everyone knows or should know that the rifling at the muzzle end of the barrel if damaged in any way will cause the accuracy to disappear faster than an ice cub in boiling water. Great Job Smith you could not have fked your customers more.

      The brittle MIM cast junk parts i.e. the sear and hammer are taken right out of the mold and then with no machining slapped into the gun. The result is the worst trigger pulls ever put in a Smith handgun.

    • Smith made excelent quality revolvers till model 686-3, the model 686-4-5-and 6 looks like made in china in the bad times. poor quality. terrible finish. The old made guns from Smith were excelent, then drop the cuality to save money. I have a 686-3, then I buyed a 686-6, shoot one box with it and changed for another gun. Rubish. (sorry my bad english.) Greetings from Argentina.

  27. Great article.

    As stated before, Patridge, not partridge. There’s no bird on the end of your barrel. Also, those are target grips, not “cokes.” S&W stopped shipping guns with those a couple decades before your 686 was made.

    Revolvers are a tough sell to novice shooters. Most people want guns at the intersection of smallest size, highest capacity, and lowest price. That’s why all the revolver action is in small-framed guns under $500. Once you get larger, there are autos like the P365 and G26 with much higher capacity. Yes, I am aware that a P365 is about the size of a J-frame from the side.

    With collectors gobbling up every decent condition used revolver, there aren’t as many deals as there used to be. Would you rather get a used S&W 64 or 10 that’s been carried for 35 years by some French cop, or a brand new Canik 9mm with 18+1 on tap for the same price? Let’s be real.

    I have 15 revolvers and my wife doesn’t shoot any of them. My daughters, thankfully, shoot them all with the right loads.

    • Carried 35 years by a french cop? I wouldn’t buy it until I knew how many times its been dropped.

  28. I have an old 686 Classic Hunter 6 Inch barreled and love shooting steel targets with it with 158 semi-wad cutters. It is one of my house guns. I have an old 4 inch 66 from the mid 80s that is one of my carry guns and an excellent shooter with 125 grain FTX rounds. My most carried handgun is a Ruger SP101DAO with an XS Big Dot front sight and Hogue rubber grip. It is incredibly accurate with the 125 grain FTX. I love the 1911 guns I have but I don’t feel under armed with my revolvers and a couple of speed strips or HKS speed loaders.

  29. I have auto pistols, and I have revolver pistols, small and large. love them all. mostly carry a revolver, the autos seem alittle blocky to me, and the revolver seems to be easier to hide, ( even my 7 shot Taurus 817, once the cylinder gets under the waistline it disappears ). but I do like my Sigs, carry them once in a while. but these days I am looking to be where there is not a lot of trouble and if there seems to be something happening I want to get out. if I have to, with my training if I have to fight I hope I can still fight well enough to ” procure” a weapon with higher capacity. if I need to. if you carry a gun, it should not be a weapon. YOU should be THE weapon. any form of hand to hand combat training has something to offer. just look at it realisticly, and don’t forget, you are the weapon and anything you pick up is an extension of yourself. even a ball point pen can be used to kill. area awareness and something not so common today, common sense is also a great weapon. ( which can mean get your face out of your smartphone). as far as guns go. both auto and revolvers are good. and they will always be as good as the person using them.

  30. Where’s the Gov.? The 686 may very well be a fine revolver. If we’re talking about new pistols, I’ll keep my GP 100 over a Smith. Just my own opinion.

    • Agreed. I love my GP100, and no stupid lock on it. If S&W wants to re-invigorate their revolver sales, the single best thing they could do would be to start offering models again without the Hillary Hole.

  31. Always buy the pre clinton lock Smith. Smith sold us out!

  32. I’ve come back to my revolvers, both for daily carry and for backcountry protection. If I was to buy a S&W, it would be the 686. However, short of tracking down a pre-Hillary Hole model and paying a premium for it, I’ll be sticking with my Rugers. S&W is dead to me since that start using that that stupid lock. And frankly, I think the new 4.2″ Ruger GP100 with 7-round capacity is the top contender over a new 686 these days.

    • “686-Nice gun if you can’t afford a Python.” FIFY

      Hmmmmmm… no, that’s still not right…

      “686-Nice gun.”

      There. Now it’s fixed.

  33. Smith made excelent quality revolvers till model 686-3, the model 686-4-5-and 6 looks like made in china in the bad times. poor quality. terrible finish. The old made guns from Smith were excelent, then drop the cuality to save money. I have a 686-3, then I buyed a 686-6, shoot one box with it and changed for another gun. Rubish. (sorry my bad english.)

    • I had a 1984 686 with a 6 inch barrel. I used to load 110 grain with blue dot powder made in my basement. I know it’s a light head but the B Dot made up for it. At 100 feet it would only drop less than half an inch. Once accommodated for that 1-2 inch groups were typical. I’ve been doing mostly rifle shooting for quite a wile now I live on a smaller island and going back to the 686, probably the best and most fun hand gun I ever owned. One thing, i would only load shot shells for home defense as I didn’t want to shoot through a wall and hit one of my kids. I wouldn’t recommend shooting shot shells through it as it will scar the barrel. Get a shot gun.
      They have use and fun, don’t hurt your 686.

  34. S&W 66-4 was my first big boy gun bought at a gun show from a lot of sheriff department trade ins. Had to trade my first pistol, a Heritage Arms Rough Rider to get it. No regrets. It’s been with me 25+ years through thick and thin. I want a 627 but will not buy anything with a hillary hole!

  35. The 686 was my first big caliber revolver. I have one with a 6 inch barrel. Very accurate gun. If I had only one (who would do that) it would probably be it. In theory you can deer hunt with it and it is perfect for home protection.

  36. I’m kinda late to this conversation, but just found it.
    Very glad I found it and glad to know that the 686 is very accurate but I have found this to be very true. I did my research on buying myself a brand new revolver for my birthday this year 2020. It was quite a wait to locate the one I wanted…S&W 686-6 4in. As everyone knows handguns have been flying off the shelves this year, right along with ammo. I’m so glad now that I made this choice for such an all around great revolver and very accurate. I own a S&W 10-5 4in that I’ve owned for years which is also pretty accurate but now like having the extra fire power of the 686. Also love shooting 38 special for target practice…so smooth!

  37. Excellent article about one of the most practical, reliable firearms ever manufactured. Well done.

  38. Love my revolvers. I was started by my dad on his Idaho State Police S&W Model 65 back in 1980. He’s gone now, but that M65 is in my safe. It has other revolvers keeping it company (686 is in there). Some practical and some not so much. I shoot them and they’ve played a big role in improving my pistol marksmanship.

    I’ve been a cop for the past 21 years and I carry a Glock Model 45 (9mm) now. Good pistol for both on and off-duty. I own more than a few bottom feeders as well; also practical and not practical. Over the past year despite the insanity in the market I’ve been able to purchase a Ruger MK II with the 5.5″ bull barrel and a Savage Model 1907 pistol in 32 auto. Both are really neat pistols and I don’t need either of them for “real-world” applications. Luckily I’m past those days.

    Personally when asked by a beginner I suggest a full or mid-size (new) 9mm pistol; Glock, S&W, Taurus, Canick, Beretta, Ruger, TiSAS, Walther, FN, SIG-Sauer, CZ. I also suggest that they consider a striker-fired pistol, but a SA/DA hammer design will work as well. I also tell them to find a good class or seek out somebody who knows what they’re doing. I also suggest that they do some research, buy snap-caps and do practice both dry-firing and live firing.

    However, I haven’t been asked by any newbies for a few years and I stopped volunteering to provide info to newbies a few years ago as well. It’s been my (personal) experience that many folks don’t want to hear unsolicited advice. I have heard a few novices call revolvers “old”, “clunky” and “cowboy guns”. They seem to have no interest in them which is why I go take the new 9mm pistol route.

  39. Interesting article. Thank you for your time and effort.

    I bought a brand new, 686-No dash in 1984. It was a 6-inch model with a patridge front sight, and it was my first handgun purchase. After damaging the original upside-down ice cream cone target grips, I replaced them with S&W combat wood grips.

    I used this gun in Handgun Metallic Silhouette shooting for several years, putting thousands of rounds of .357 magnum loads through it, including many 180-grain, FMJ bullets designed for silhouette. After leaving too many 200 meter rams standing despite solid hits with the heavy bullets, I moved on to .44 magnum. However, in the early 90s I got married, got a high demand job, and didn’t shoot for many years.

    I still have my 686. It is one of my prized firearms. I cannot say whether it is as accurate at long range as it used to be, since I don’t see 200 meter targets well anymore. But it is still a joy to shoot.

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