Review: Smith and Wesson’s L Frame Magnum

By Bob Campbell published on in Firearms, Reviews

Smith and Wesson’s 1935 .357 Magnum was introduced to a handgunning world far different than the one we live in today. Smith and Wesson .38 K frame revolvers, the Colt Army Special, and even the Colt Single Action Army were popular sidearms. The Smith and Wesson Triple Lock was the choice was many professional shooters.

Smith and Wesson 686 plus revolver with open cylinder and SIG Sauer V-Crown ammunition box

SIG Sauer’s V-Crown JHP gave good results in the 686 revolver.

The deluxe .44 frame revolver that chambered the .357 Magnum cartridge was plenty accurate and ruggedly built. Very few could afford this revolver. Some peace officers obtained the 3.5-inch barrel version. This was a well balanced and accurate handgun.

Smith and Wesson introduced a version with a less attractive finish and without the checkered top strap in the Highway Patrolman. This is an accurate and powerful handgun. Law officers wanted the Magnum, because the chances of dropping a felon with one hit was much greater than the .38 Special. The .357 Magnum is simply a .38 Special cartridge with the cartridge case lengthened by 1/10 inch.

The result was greater powder capacity. With heavy charges of slow-burning powder, the velocity of the .38 Special was nearly doubled in the new cartridge. 158 grains at 1,400 fps from a six-inch barrel was standard. With a hard cast bullet, and carefully crafted handloads, the Magnum revolver was accurate well past 100 yards. The problem was weight and bulk. A handgun over 35 ounces is a difficult burden for a peace officer to carry on a long shift.

Smith and Wesson 686 plus revolver with Speed Beez speedloader

Using the Speed Beez speedloader, the revolver may be reloaded quickly.

The Smith and Wesson K frame revolver was the most popular service revolver of all time. Chambered for the .38 Special (and others) cartridge, the K frame was among the best-balanced and fast-handling revolvers ever designed. Smith and Wesson developed the technology and improvements in metal and metal treatment to engineer a K frame revolver chambered for the .357 Magnum cartridge. The result was the Smith and Wesson Combat Magnum. Basically, it was a Combat Masterpiece revolver with a lengthened cylinder and hand-filling grips, the Combat Magnum quickly became the prestige revolver in law enforcement.

The recommendation at the time was to fire 20 rounds of .38 Special for every Magnum fired in practice. In issue use, most Combat Magnums were loaded with .38 +P ammunition or the +P+ developed for the Combat Magnum. The single most effective cartridge and load ever used by peace officers was the .357 125-grain JHP. This load broke 1,400 fps from the major makers. I have clocked the 125-grain at 1,450 fps from a four-inch barrel.

This is a stout load to control and demands attention to training and detail. The philosophy was one hit with a clean trigger press, not a tightly-centered group with several 9mm handguns. Officers that trained with the Combat Magnum enjoyed a higher hit probability than those armed with the 9mm when both were issued.

Smith and Wesson 686 plus revolver, left, profile

Note the adjustable sights and full-length underlug as well as the red insert in the front sight.

This ammunition, and the hot-burning powder loaded, results in gas cutting of the forcing cone, excessive wear on the gas ring and small parts, and even cracked frames. We were asking a lot of a revolver frame designed prior to 1899 and originally chambered for a cartridge that fired a 158-grain bullet at 800 fps. Smith and Wesson instituted a considerable redesign of the revolver and the result was the L frame.

The K frame revolver was a .38 frame, and the N frame was a .44 frame. The new revolver is closer to the K frame than the N frame, and is beefed up in many particulars. The L frame featured a barrel lug that ran the length of the barrel. This added dampening weight and balance. Otherwise, the revolver was simply incrementally larger than the K frame.

This revolver was introduced in 1980. There were blue steel and stainless versions, short- and long-barrel revolvers, and fixed-sight revolvers. The L frame was very popular in police work until the revolver was replaced by self-loading handguns. The K frame, however, remained in production.

Bob Campbell shooting the Smith and Wesson 686 plus revolver

The Smith and Wesson 686 Plus is a great shooting revolver with plenty of power and accuracy.

The L frame is a heavier revolver, but most importantly, it has more steel in critical points where K frame revolvers suffered stress. The grip frame of the L frame, however, is the same size as the K frame. This makes for good control.

The round butt, L frame grip frame is very comfortable and offers a good grip for rapid presentations from the holster. The modern L frame features a transfer bar safety system. This type of action is not only safer, the frame-mounted, floating firing pin is better suited to taking heavy pressure and combating primer flowback.

The L frame revolver illustrated is one of the special editions offered by Smith and Wesson. This is the 686 Plus, the seven-shot version of the L frame Magnum. Smith and Wesson managed to design a seven-shot cylinder into the new revolver. This revolver features a well-balanced, three-inch barrel.

This handgun features the same fully adjustable rear sights and post front sight of the L frame revolver. This revolver features an unfluted cylinder, making it even stronger than the standard L frame revolver. Attractive, hand-filling and recoil-absorbing synthetic grips are part of the package. I have fired this revolver extensively and it proved to be both reliable and accurate.

Smith and Wesson 686 plus revolver with open loaded cylinder

The seven-shot geometry of the 686 makes for a fast lock time.

The 686 is fast from leather. I often carry it in a Wright Leatherworks strong side belt scabbard. Most of the ammunition fired have been handloads. Using WW 231 powder in a .38 Special cartridge a Hornady 125-grain XTP at 1,000 fps is a useful practice load.

By using the Magnum cartridge case and increasing the powder charge with Titegroup powder, I have been able to jolt the 125-grain XTP to a solid 1,250 fps. This isn’t a full-power Magnum load, but it is a useful all-around load for many purposes with much to recommend. As a field load, for use when hiking, this load is plenty for feral dogs or the big cats. It would also make a great defensive load for most uses, but there are better, more potent choices, and we really should use factory loads for personal defense.

The Hornady Critical Defense is one load that works great. I fired a number of loads and was surprised that the velocity retained in the three-inch barrel was more similar to a four-inch barrel Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum than a 2.5-inch barrel revolver. As an example, the SIG Sauer V-Crown defense load clocked a full 1,370 fps and the Hornady 125-grain Critical Defense 1,340 fps.

Bob Campbell shooting the Smith and Wesson 686 plus revolver

The Smith and Wesson 686 Plus is a great shooting revolver with plenty of power and accuracy.

Most 110-grain +P .38 Special clocked 1,000 fps. Recoil isn’t the most difficult to handle, but it demands plenty of practice, which is why I handload. Factory .38 Special practice loads would do for those that do not handload. As a house gun that might be used by members of the family that are less practiced, the .38 Special +P is a good choice. The SIG V-Crown is a 125-grain JHP that provides good results and would do as well as any .38 Special load for personal defense.

In a heavy-barrel .357 Magnum the size of the L frame revolver, even the heaviest .38 Special loads are controllable. I like the 686 plus a lot. I have fired similar revolvers in the K frame versions, and the L frame has better balance and handles recoil much better. With the new Speed Beez speed loader, the 686 plus is very fast to load—giving the armed citizen 14 rounds at the ready, if the user wears this speedloader.

As for absolute accuracy, the 686 is a typical Smith and Wesson magnum, very accurate. With the Hornady 125-grain XTP, the 686 cut a .75-inch, five-shot group at 15 yards, and a little over an inch with the SIG V-Crown JHP and the Critical Defense load. The L Frame 686 Plus is an ideal packing revolver for long treks in the wild and defense in the wilder urban sprawl.

K Frame, L Frame, N Frame — Which revolver is your favorite and why? Share your answers in the comment section.

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Comments (22)

  • Olen P Biehl

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    The best day I can remember was the day I bought both a S&W 27 in polished nickel and a Browning blr in 243. Tge worst day I now regret is the day I sokd the 27.

    Reply

  • Sam

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    I agree Jerry about the Model 66, and I like and agree with your comment: “…one of the most elegant revolvers made.” It is still one of my favorite Smiths, even though I carried and used the 1911 .45 on-duty the most.

    Reply

  • Robert

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    That is the problem with you arm chair types; you do all your work from a book or catalog instead of from the gun. The S&W 686 is not and never has been a transfer bar fired gun. Many of you that do not actually work on the guns or understand how they work mistake the drop safety for a transfer bar as it moves up and down like a transfer bar. But it moves opposite of a transfer bar and moves down out of the way as the gun fires, not up as a transfer bar does. Your link does not go where you think it goes, sort of like your take on transfer bars. Have fun in my hand: no transfer bar. Has drop safety. No room here to teach you the details.

    Reply

  • Robert

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    I lament the loss of the SW 696 in 44 Special. Smith & Wesson could make itself a ton of money if they brought it back. What might even exceed all expectations is if they brought out this very same iteration in 41 Magnum which could then fire the 41 Special- In my humble opinion, perhaps the ultimate chambering for this model. Now the 696 is being hawked at auction houses at more than twice the original production price.

    Reply

  • JERRY KENDRICK

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    While the L frame is undeniably a more durable revolver, I still prefer the Model 19 or 66. They’re noticeably lighter, and therefore easier on your back across an 8 hour shift. Plus, to my eye, they’re one of the most elegant revolvers made. The Texas PD I was with for 31 years issued them at one point, but restricted us to carrying .38 Spcls in them. Since we had the option of carrying our own handgun, that motivated me to transition to the 1911 .45.

    Reply

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