Review: Taurus Model 856 Defender and Ultra-Lite

Dirty Bird pistol target with a Taurus revolver and box of Hornady .38 SPL American Gunner ammunition

Taurus has an extensive revolver line with something like 25–30 different models. Some of those models are similar to Smith and Wesson designs, which is to be expected since Taurus and Smith and Wesson were both owned by Bangor Punta during the 1970s. In 1995, Taurus purchased the rights and tooling to enable it to make Rossi revolvers. The Judge and the Raging Bull lines are totally unique to Taurus.

The two Model 856 revolvers that are the subject of this review — the Defender and the 856 Ultra-Lite — resemble the S&W J-Frame revolvers in many ways, but they are Taurus designs.  The 856 line is derived from the Taurus Model 85. The addition of the 6 in the model number signifies the 856 models all have a 6-shot capacity as opposed to the Model 85 being a 5-shot revolver. Taurus has done a fine job of making several attractive versions of the Ultra-Lite with the 2-inch barrel and the newer Defender with the 3-inch barrel.

Taurus 856 Ultr-Lite 2-inch and 3-inch models
The 856 Ultra-Lite series includes the 2-inch barreled ULs and the 3-inch barreled UL Defender series.

Taurus 856 Features

The 856 UL DA/SA models are rated for +P ammo, making them an excellent choice for personal defense. The snubby weighs 15.10 ounces, has an overall length of 6.55 inches, and a height of 4.8 inches. The newer Defender came about because some revolver fans wanted a 3-inch barrel.

The Defender weighs 20.75 ounces with dimensions almost the same as the snubby except for the length of the barrel. Both guns are 1.41 inches wide at the cylinder. The snubby is made of carbon steel in some color schemes and stainless steel in others. They are available in black, silver, burnt orange, azure, and rouge or black anodized, oxide or matte with several grip options. If you don’t like the grip, Hogue and Pachmayr have others.

The Defender features a factory-installed post front sight with an integrated tritium vial. The face of the sight surrounding the tritium is bright orange resulting in one of the fastest acquisition front sights I’ve seen on a revolver. The 3″ barrel provides a slight increase in muzzle velocity and a longer sight radius, yet the gun is still short enough for deep concealed carry. The DeSantis pocket holster I picked up for carrying the 856 UL snubby works just as well for the Defender. When I want to wear it on my belt, I use a ComforTAC IWB holster.

The Defender comes with an extended ejector rod for fast reloads. It comes in four standard models — all featuring the ergonomic Hogue rubber grips. These include a stainless-steel frame with matte finish, ultralight aluminum alloy frame with matte finish, stainless steel frame with a black Tenifer finish, and an aluminum alloy frame with hard coat black anodized finish.

Because I received my Defender during the Coronavirus lock-down and associated gun sales, my choices were limited. I got the stainless steel matte finish with black grips, which I later swapped out for walnut grips made by Altamont but branded by Taurus. The hammer on either gun has a wide, checkered thumb rest. The triggers are smooth and wide. Trigger pull on both guns is just under 12 pounds double-action and around 6 pounds single-action. Although the guns are both called Ultra-Lite, they are made from steel and absorb recoil well.

Taurus .38 SPL revolver , speedloader, and Cobra shooting timer
.38 Special revolvers may be old school, but they still have their place as defensive firearms today.

Taurus also offers the Defender 856 in two upgraded versions featuring special grips and finish treatments. The two-tone model has a stainless-steel matte finish frame and barrel with a black cylinder and aggressively textured VZ grip in matching gray and black. If you like hardwood grips, you can opt for the Tungsten Cerakote model Defender 856 with the stylish Altamont walnut grip I have on my gun.

I’m comfortable carrying the Defender as a primary carry gun at times. I have to say my attitude toward carrying a six-shot revolver for personal protection has mellowed. Because these guns have a transfer bar safety, carrying six rounds in them is safe. A .38 caliber hole equals 9.6 mm, so it’s plenty of bullet.

All the major manufacturers make defensive rounds for the .38 Special. I particularly like Speer Gold Dot, Hornady XTP, Hornady Critical Defense, and Federal Hydra Shok. I’m not too fond of shooting +P ammo, but the guns are fine with it. So, as it’s commonly talked about among gun professionals these days, if this is the gun you feel comfortable carrying and shooting, then all the talk about bigger, more powerful guns with more ammo is moot.

Orange front sight on a Taurus Defender revolver
The Defender’s front sight is highly visible with its tritium dot surrounded by orange.

Range Results

I shot the 2-inch Ultra-Lite several times before getting the Defender. It’s not a tack driver, but it doesn’t need to be. I can put all six rounds in a 9-inch circle from five or six yards firing single or double-action. Satisfied I could defend myself, I began carrying the 856 UL in my pocket holster primarily as a backup, but occasionally as the only gun on me when leaving the house briefly for a foray to the fast-food drive-thru or to visit the grandkids.

The 3-incher isn’t much different as far as carrying goes. The orange/tritium front sight on the 856 Defender is easy to pick up with my eyesight. For that reason, I can shoot tighter groups using the same ammo as with the snubby. I shot them both with a variety of defensive rounds, one of which was a +P load and one was Hornady’s Critical Defense Lite, which my wife carries in her S&W LadySmith revolver.

Revolver in a DeSantis pocket holster
The author carries his 856 Ultra-Lite in a DeSantis pocket holster.

If you’re going to carry a revolver, you need to practice with it. A large percentage of that practice should be double-action fire or double-action dry-fire. The more you work that trigger with the relatively heavy pull, the better you will become with it, and that should pay off should you ever need to use your handgun in a self-defense situation.

Final Thoughts

Either of these Taurus 856 revolvers will make a good option for concealed carry, home defense, stashing in your truck console or for fun shooting at the range. The price on them will run between $350 to $450 depending on the configuration you pick and nationwide availability.

I find these two revolvers to be a lot of fun. The fit and finish on both guns seem to reflect quality that exceeds the price. Anyone who looks at one of these guns with a critical eye will find little to criticize. They just look and feel more expensive than they are. For this reason, I kind of like to show them off a little.

Should you be concerned about Taurus quality? In a word, no. A situation occurred some years ago with one of their semi-automatic models having been proven to sometimes discharge when dropped. This resulted in a class-action lawsuit in which Taurus compensated owners and redesigned the gun. It has since become one of the best-selling semi-automatic carry guns on the market — the G2.

Some gun buyers are wary of the prices Taurus charges for its guns, thinking low price means low quality. The real story behind Taurus’ ability to price its guns affordably is its ability to make all its parts and guns in house in South America where the cost of labor is significantly less than here in the States or in European countries such as Germany or Austria.

I’ve been a long-term owner and user of numerous Taurus products, and I’ve never experienced any problems with its guns. Besides, Taurus offers a lifetime warranty.

Do you carry a revolver as a primary or backup? What is your favorite carry position or method with a short barrel revolver? What has been your experience with Taurus’ 856 revolvers? Share your answers in the comment section.

  • Gold checkered, non-slip, hammer on a taurus revolver
  • Taurus 856 .38 Special revolver with a radio and earbud
  • ComforTAC IWB holster with revolver inserted
  • Taurus .38 SPL revolver , speedloader, and Cobra shooting timer
  • Wide, gold trigger face on a Taurus revolver
  • Orange front sight on a Taurus Defender revolver
  • Dirty Bird pistol target with a Taurus revolver and box of Hornady .38 SPL American Gunner ammunition
  • Revolver in a DeSantis pocket holster
  • Taurus 856 Ultr-Lite 2-inch and 3-inch models

About the Author:

David Freeman

David is an NRA Instructor in pistol, rifle and shotgun, a Chief Range Safety Officer and is certified by the State of Texas to teach the Texas License to Carry Course and the Hunter Education Course. He has also owned and operated a gun store. David's passion is to pass along knowledge and information to help shooters of all ages and experience levels enjoy shooting sports and have the confidence to protect their homes and persons. He flew medevac helicopters in Vietnam and worked for many years as a corporate pilot before becoming actively involved in the firearm industry.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (11)

  1. I carry the Tarus 856 Defnder w/2″Barrel. My load of choice is the Speer110 HydraShock Low recoil.+P loads produce a bit motre muzel raiise ,then I like Th is not a round to be used at the range.. Still, as an experienced, retired Police Officer, I realize the need for a a round that will I’m lead to believe that excessive use use in a Tarus, is not reccomende4d. .As an experienced<retired, Police Officer, I r the need ror a round that will knock them down. Thus, +P's would only be my carry load on the street.

  2. Definitely going to pick one up for fun, if the trigger isn’t as bad as I’ ve read, I may carry it too.

    And by the by, .38 special shoots .357 caliber projectiles.
    9mm shoots .355 caliber projectiles

    .38 special is plenty for self defense but im not sure what you meant by “plenty of gun”

  3. basically all i have is revolvers& shotguns. 3 of our revolvers are taurus & never an issue with them.

  4. I have the 2″ UL 856. I installed a lighter weight trigger return spring, painted front and rear sight flat black. Also installed a houge grip. The single action measures 4.25 lbs. Easily prints fist sixe grips at 20′

  5. I have three Taurus revolvers, one of which is the 856 Defender, which is one of my favorites. I did have a lighter trigger spring put in, but I found it to be an extremely reliable and accurate revolver.

  6. As an “older shooter”, I have found that there is an issue with the “ultra lite” CCW revolver craze. Anytime a .38 is fired in a 15 oz. versus a 20 oz. revolver, the felt recoil difference becomes noticeable. But the extra few ounces, with the longer 3″ barrel, is both easier to handle, and surprise, the extra barrel length adds to the performance of most .38 rounds while not having any effect on concealability in a decent holster. Now if somebody would come up with a way to slick up the DA/SA trigger pull to about 8 – 9 lb. in DA and closer to 4 1/2 lb. in SA, I would retire my S&W 3″ model 60 for the 856 and the extra round. Think a lot of those who carry an ultra lite revolver would change their CCW IF they realize that the reason to carry is not to be comfortable, but to be protected. As to the difference in barrel length, if that extra inch is a problem, then there are bigger issues to consider.

  7. I mostly carry a Taurus Judge on treks through the Georgia forest behind my homestead. I like the combination of .45 and .410 for potentially dealing with any wayward woodland creatures that give me a problem. It has disposed of several raccoons and opposums that were raiding my chicken pen. I and five of my friends (both male and female) like to carry and shoot the G2 or G3. Because of the cost, most of my friends and shooting buddies use a Taurus. I have carried a Taurus revolver in an ankle holster on and off for years. I have an older Taurus semi-automatic single stack that misfeeds too much, but never had trouble with the G2 or G3 models. I usually carry either my G2 or a S&W in a pocket holster as a conceiled carry option.

  8. I am very satisfied with my two recent purchases of Taurus Pistols, A Judge with a 6.5 inch barrel and a 856 Ultra Lite with a 2 inch barrel. But my daughter wants an 856 in Blue (Azule) but in searching everywhere for new or used I have not been able to locate one. If anyone has a lead for me, email me. Further the fit & finish on both of my revolvers is superb and “VIRDIAN” Optics offers a red or green laser pistol grip that adds to the performance of the pistols. check them out.

  9. I carry my Taurus 856UL with a Fobus paddle holster. Absolutely love this gun. I had a Taurus 85UL and traded it in on a Taurus 9mm/357 MAG. I immediately regretted trading it and went back 2 days later to repurchase but was already sold. So I purchased the new 856UL. Love my Taurus guns!

  10. Did you say 6 shots into a NINE inch circle? Typo? I can do 3.5 inches with my Taurus 5 shot .44 special and I have old eyes, lol. Do have a strong grip though

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