I do not buy into the ultra compact handgun for concealed carry and feel any caliber below 9mm or .38 Special +P isn’t suitable for personal defense. I work my wardrobe around concealed carry, not the other way around. While I occasionally bow to necessity, most often I carry an effective handgun in a service grade caliber.
This may be a Commander .45, .40 Glock, or a short barrel magnum revolver. These handguns are my go-anywhere do-anything handguns. No matter what type of situation I am in, these handguns will be the measure of the problem.
Personal defense is most important. Home defense is important and while size is less of a consideration in a home defense handgun, I usually keep the pistol I have carried during the day at home ready. Another concern is defense against animals in the wild, with an unfortunate incident in the news every week it seems. This may not be as important to you as it is to those of us that explore the wild.
The carry gun should be capable of handling many chores well. Handguns are individual and I think that my choice may not be yours. However, you should not discount the revolver or the .357 Magnum out of hand—unless you have tried it. While the Centurions did well with each carrying an identical Gladius, and the Army issues the same handgun to all officers and soldiers, the armed citizen has the opportunity to choose a credible handgun that will serve his needs well.
Today, there is always a counter argument to the author’s recommendations, and that is fine, but consider the source. I have served as a peace officer and been involved in—survived—critical incidents. I have studied wound ballistics for decades. Most importantly, I am a person who has spent his life shooting many types of handguns. I prefer to think that my writings are more of a conclusion than opinion, but that is your decision to make.
I admit to strong preferences for one handgun or the other based on experience. It isn’t easy to accept that a different handgun will serve as well as the types that have served so well, for so long. However, I am willing to learn. Among the facts that I have discovered in research is that in the average personal defense encounter few shots are fired. If you do not get your man down by the third shot your battle may be over.
Incidents in which many shots were fired involve high-capacity handguns and a great deal of misses. This is partly because of fear, panic, and because those involved had little or no training. The distance involved is usually less than 21 feet, more toward three to five yards. In training, thousands of shooters over the past 40 years, I have experienced far more malfunctions with self-loaders than revolvers.
Most of these are shooter-induced malfunctions were by individuals that did not understand how to run a handgun, and many that did not take the time to learn to load and fire the handgun before attending class. The revolver may have a malfunction that is difficult to clear—only well-worn revolvers and those of poor quality are subject to these problems, in my experience.
As an example, a few years ago a major chain store offered .38 caliber revolvers at the bargain basement price of $229. Several showed up in my class. All were rough and several suffered the actions binding during the drills. At least one simply refused to fire. Buy quality. A revolver is simpler to load and use. Unless you are willing to undertake training and regular practice, you have no business with a self-loading pistol.
Self-loading pistols use the action of the cartridge to rack the slide and make the piece ready for another shot. Revolvers are operated by the user’s firing hand. The trigger action cocks and drops the hammer. Some of the energy expended is used to rotate the cylinder. While the double-action trigger may be heavier than a self-loader’s trigger, the action is often smooth. The long rolling pull helps in avoiding the anticipation of recoil with powerful loads, beginning with the .38 Special +P.
The revolver cartridge most suited to personal defense is the .357 Magnum. Powerful and effective, this load produces ideal wound ballistics with the greatest likelihood of stopping a threat with a single shot. Some may feel the magnum is too powerful for the occasional shooter. They may be correct.
However, if the revolver is a medium-frame revolver with plenty of steel to absorb recoil and a heavy lugged barrel for balance, the .357 Magnum is surprisingly controllable by those who practice. While the ultra-light revolvers have a place, my .357 Magnum revolvers are steel-frame handguns. I also believe that a barrel shorter than three inches is counter productive in a .357 Magnum revolver. Two to 2.5-inch barrel revolvers do not properly burn the relatively slow burning powders that generate the velocity that differentiates the .357 Magnum from the .38 Special +P. The difference may be more than 300 feet-per-second in a three-inch barrel, and that is worthwhile.
The Ideal Magnum
My newest, and favorite, .357 Magnum revolver is the Smith and Wesson 686 Plus. This is a medium-frame revolver with a three-inch barrel and unfluted seven-shot cylinder. The unfluted cylinder and special grips mark this revolver as a limited edition custom shop handgun. Just the same, Smith and Wesson offers similar revolvers and others of the exact configuration are available, with a little searching. The balance is excellent, even ideal.
Many years ago, the great stunt shooter Ed McGivern had a Smith and Wesson Military and Police revolver cut to 2 7/8 inches and declared it the ideal carry revolver. The three-inch barrel Model 13 .357 Magnum and 3.5-inch barrel Model 27 .357 Magnum are other well-balanced revolvers. The three-inch barrel L frame is the best of the lot in my opinion.
While Smith and Wesson has manufactured great revolvers for a long time, the 686 Plus is superior in many regards. Modern CNC machinery results in tight tolerances in the throat and chamber dimensions. This means excellent accuracy potential, which is important to me for some pursuits. No one has ever been sorry for carrying a very accurate personal defense handgun.
The L frame Smith and Wesson is basically a strengthened Smith and Wesson K frame (.38 frame) revolver with greater strength, weight, and a design intended to allow constant use of .357 Magnum revolvers. It is lighter and smaller than the N (.44 frame) frame revolver. The L frame features the same grip frame as the K frame. The modern L frame revolvers all have round butt frames but may be fitted with conversion grips that make the revolver a square butt.
The L frame 686 Plus (Plus means it is a seven-shot version) is well balanced. The unfluted cylinder is a distinctive feature. The heavy, underlugged barrel adds both strength and balance. The revolver features a ramp front sight with an orange insert. This insert is a great aid in sight alignment and has been instrumental in helping many good folks win their battles. The fully-adjustable rear sight is easily adjusted for accurate placement of .38 Special or .357 Magnum loads with bullets from 110 to 200 grains.
The hammer features a wide spur for easy cocking. The trigger is ideal for rapid manipulation in double-action fire. The action is smooth and the trademark action allows staging a shot at longer range. This is simply bringing the hammer back by pressing the trigger, holding the trigger press, and then applying a slight pressure to drop the hammer. This type of shot, with practice, results in excellent accuracy.
The revolver has a different feel than the six-shot Smith and Wesson revolvers. I believe, the different geometry results in a faster action and shorter duration of trigger compression with the seven-shot revolver. This revolver is fitted with a special type of synthetic grips. These grips fit the hand well and keep the hand separated from the steel frame when the revolver fires.
These grips are pebbled lightly to maintain good adhesion. Abrasion is light, however, and this is ideal for such a powerful handgun. A sharply-checkered wood grip would be too raspy for this revolver.
At just over 30 ounces loaded, the 686 is well balanced with plenty of recoil-absorbing weight. I find the seven-shot option appealing. Just the same, when deploying the 686 for personal defense, I keep a pair of SpeedBeez Speedloaders handy—just in case. While the average personal defense incident may entail a few well-placed shots, there is always the man that drowned in a creek of an average three-foot depth. I train for the worst case, not the average, and find these modern and effective speed loaders a comfort.
I tested this handgun with a good number of loads, including my own handloads, and the piece has performed beyond expectation. Using heavy .38 Special loads for practice, the revolver has proven fast on target and accurate on man-sized targets. Once on target, the front sight just hangs there as you press the trigger.
The cadence of fire is set not by how quickly you are able to press the trigger but by how quickly you are able to regain the sights after you fire and recover from recoil. When stepping up to .357 Magnum loads, the revolver remains controllable, but you’ll know you have fired something special. A good load for all-around use in this revolver is the Winchester 125-grain JHP. Breaking 1,335 fps from this three-inch barrel revolver (and 1,400 to 1,420 fps in a four-inch barrel) this loading features a bullet with a good balance of expansion and penetration with penetration of some 18 inches in water. Expansion is excellent.
The 125-grain JHP 1,400 fps load has a good reputation for wound potential. When reduced to 1,300 fps in a short barrel, the 125-grain JHP isn’t substantially downgraded. I have practiced extensively with this loading. Not long ago, while firing at a 100-yard range and testing rifles, I drew the Smith and Wesson 686 Plus and fired at a couple of gallon water jugs at the 100-yard berm. Both were instant hits with a discernible auditory feedback.
|Smith and Wesson Model 686 Plus|
|Caliber||.357 Magnum, .38 S&W Special +P|
|Barrel Length||3″ / 7.6 cm|
|Overall Length||8.2 inches|
|Front Sight||Red Ramp|
|Rear Sight||Adjustable White Outline|
|Weight||36.8 oz / 1,043.3g|
The .357 Magnum has been called a rifle on the hip. It can indeed be surprisingly accurate, and the power is sufficient to take medium-sized game well past 50 yards. If I anticipate the need for greater penetration, as against the big cats or large feral dogs, I load the Winchester 145-grain Silvertip. This is an overlooked combination and among the finest magnum loads ever produced.
The Smith and Wesson 686 Plus is a great all-around revolver. It is a suitable revolver for personal defense but also well suited to defense against animals. In a pinch, it will get you out of a hairy survival situation by keeping meat on the table or engaging opponents at 100 yards or more. The Smith and Wesson .357 is considerably updated from its introduction in 1935 but remains a marvel.
Do you prefer a six- or seven-shot revolver? Which caliber do you prefer for self-defense? What about barrel length? Share your answers in the comment section.
Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooters Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.
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