S&W 686 — A Hard-Hitting Magnum Upgrade

Smith and Wesson 7-shot .357 magnum with the cylinder open

I am not one who waxes poetic over the great revolvers of the past. Sure, a Triple Lock or an early .38-44 is an interesting firearm. Modern revolvers from Smith and Wesson have certain advantages. The steels are better. But then, this is a trade-off as some models use MIM action parts.

Still these parts will stand a lot of use, so long as you don’t abuse them or attempt to modify the MIM parts. The precision fit of the chamber and barrel throats are better than ever, resulting in the most accurate revolvers of all time. These handguns also feature quality, fully adjustable, rear sights — and in some cases, an adjustable front sight set in a beavertail groove.

Smith and Wesson 686 7-shot .357 magnum revolver, left profile
This is a viable handgun for ‘heavy duty’ defense.

I decided to retire or trade several of my long serving .38 Special, .357 Magnum, and .45 Colt handguns. I wanted to end up with a superior handgun suitable for protection against dangerous animals as well as protection against criminals. I did not wish the handgun to be so specialized or heavy that it would be too large to carry daily. The .357 Magnum cartridge seemed right for this role.

S&W 686 Features

The Smith & Wesson 686 is a mid-size frame revolver that is well-suited to personal defense. While the frame is heavier than the K-Frame revolver, the round butt grip is the same size as the K-Frame. This grip fits most hands well and makes for good control. The extra steel in the frame helps to cushion recoil.

In the Performance Center piece, a flat-sided, target-grade, 2.5-inch barrel, and unfluted 7-shot cylinder are good features. The action seems smoother than comparable modern Smith and Wesson revolvers. The grips are superb and offer an excellent platform for handling recoil.

The S&W 686 Plus is a seven-shot revolver. Six shots are perhaps a little short in a defensive situation. One extra shot is good to have. The cylinder is cut for fast loading moon clips, a custom addition that is much more affordable in this factory handgun.


Model: 686 Plus (Performance Center)
Frame size: L-Frame
Caliber: .357 Magnum / .38 Special +P
Action: Double Action / Singe Action
Capacity: 7 rounds
Barrel length: 2.5 inches
Front sight: Red ramp
Rear sight: Adjustable
Overall length: 7.5 inches
Grip: Wood
Weight: 35 ounces
Barrel material: Stainless steel
Cylinder material: Stainless steel
Frame material: Stainless steel
Finish: Matte Glass Bead Blast


I test fired the revolver and found it to be good. The action was smooth, and accuracy was exceptional for a short-barrel revolver. Next, I chose to look at the pros and cons of this revolver for hard use. While there are revolvers with adjustable sights that have been in use for decades, I have seen quite a few with the rear sight knocked off, knocked out of whack by contact with a door jamb or car door, or simply dropped and broken.

round butt on the S&W 686 revolver in .357 mag
The round butt fit most hands well.

They don’t seem to wear out, but they are too fragile for my intended use. Since the front sight is windage adjustable it would not be difficult to sight the revolver in, once I added a set of rugged fixed sights. It isn’t difficult at all to change the rear sight out.

Simply remove the original sight by taking out the single stabilizing screw. The rear sight is also held in by butting into the top strap in a small trough in the rear. Slip the sight to the rear.

Modern S&W revolvers such as this one feature three holes drilled for optional mounts and sights. Slip the rear sight into place and then button it down. I had a very small adjustment to make with the front sight at this point.

Bob Campbell shooting the S&W 686 revolver at an outdoor range
The author found the S&W 686 controllable in off-hand fire.

My next move may be controversial. If it isn’t for you, don’t consider this move. However, the Smith & Wesson action lock isn’t a safety. We are not removing a safety lever, firing pin block, or a safety feature we find superfluous.

The action lock is a relic of a past that has nothing to do with current Smith & Wesson owners and management. Some jurisdictions may require some type of lock. The problem is that there have been well documented failures of the lock — including one in my own hands.

The chances are very small, and there have been very few of these locks to fail. I am eliminating that possibility. Online, you can find replacement kits. The lock is removed, and a small stud is placed in the hole left by the lock’s removal.

The 686 Plus isn’t a small revolver, but it isn’t the largest handgun either. It is remarkably well balanced. I took the upgraded revolver to the range with a wide choice of .38 Special and .357 Magnum ammunition.

Five-shot Accuracy 25 Yards Using a Solid Rest

.38 Special

Remington 130-grain FMJ                                      2.0 inches
Remington 158-grain RNL                                      2.4 inches

.357 Magnum

Hornady 125-grain Critical Defense                       1.75 inches
Remington 125-grain JSP                                        1.9 inches

With .38 Special loads, this is a cream puff easily handled in rapid fire and very accurate. Moving to .38 Special +P, such as the Federal Punch, I found the handgun remained docile. For those preferring a revolver for home defense, you would be hard-pressed to find a better combination.

bullet grouping on a blue silhouette target
That is a 7-yard double-action group at top and 10 yards at the bottom.

Moving to the .357 Magnum, I fired a good mix of 125-grain JHP from Federal and Remington. These loads clocked about 1,300 fps from the 2.5-inch barrel, and still developed a lot of thump! (A four-inch barrel revolver has a more complete powder burn and will generate about 1,400 fps.) The magnums remained controllable.

The revolver is well balanced and has enough weight to make firing full-power magnum loads viable. This is a versatile handgun that offers a high degree of protection. It will be on my hip a great deal in the foreseeable future and not only in the wild.

How does the S&W 686 7-shot .357 Magnum compare to your favorite revolver? How important do you think seven shots versus five or six, would be in a self-defense revolver? Share your answers in the comment section.

  • Smith and Wesson action lock on a revolver
  • hand holding a S&W 686 revolver with a two inch barrel
  • Wright Leather Works Marshal strong-side holster for the 686 Plus
  • revolver sight picture with the with the factory sights removed
  • S&W 686 with the grip plates removed
  • flat sided barrel in a two inch revolver
  • DLS fixed sight on a revolver
  • Wright leather works holster with a revolver inserted
  • The strain screw in the front strap of a revolver that allows the trigger to be adjusted
  • adjustable sights on the smith & wesson 686 .357 magnum revolvers
  • Smith and Wesson 7-shot .357 magnum with the cylinder open
  • Bob Campbell firing the S&W 686 with a two-handed grip
  • bullet grouping on a blue silhouette target
  • bright red front sight on a revolver
  • round butt on the S&W 686 revolver in .357 mag
  • Smith and Wesson 686 7-shot .357 magnum revolver unboxed with case and paperwork
  • Smith and Wesson 686 7-shot .357 magnum revolver, left profile
  • Bob Campbell shooting the S&W 686 revolver at an outdoor range

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
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 (13)

  1. My revolver preference is the “N”frame in 357 and 44 Special.I don’t like any revolver to carry for “social encounters” with low life human or animals.The 1911 45ACP is my choice.The 357 is a great
    idea in the 9MM bore size and I have a fine one and gave a 686 to a close friend (female)who has a Summer camp out in the boonies here in WVa.Neither the 44Spl or the 357 which I have owned for
    decades has ever been fired with factory loaded ammunition.I’ll be 87 tomorrow and care not for any
    thing I see today in the world of revolvers.

  2. Bald Eagle

    I guess you are joking but just the same-

    The southpaw version is simply to practice a different type of speed load.
    Left hand shooters may reload a standard revolver very quickly.


  3. why not give mfg suggested retail in all your articles on guns? would give me an idea whether I can afford them!
    thanx John(Randy) pearce

    PS. maybe a western style grip would slow recoil ?
    thanx again

    1. John, Articles on the web have a long life versus an MSRP, In the past, we simply had too many issues with people seeing an article that is several years old and complaining to Customer Service that the price is not the same as the article. That’s why we stopped printing the MSRP. However, most stories have a link to the product (if in stock) that makes it easy to look up. ~Dave

  4. why not give mfg suggested retail in all your articles on guns? would give me an idea whether I can afford them!
    thanx John(Randy) pearce

  5. I had bought a smith 357 with a four inch barrel back in January. I been wanting a smith 357 for let’s just say, thirty years. It has a four inch barrel. I am not too good in knowing much about revolvers. It says, combat magnum. I did not know that you could shoot 38s in it. Until my brother in law told me. I shot those first. Then, I found some 357 magnum rounds in 125 amd 158 gran. It seems that the 125 gran had more of a kick. But it’s ok. I still like my 357 and will not get rid of it. Unless I am in desperate need of money.

  6. just purchased a 4 inch barrel version love the balance. i’ve been a devoted fan of smith&wesson for over 45 years and am yet to be disappointed.

  7. Because you asked for a comment, this is what I’m looking for, for my wife. Trying to find one is the problem and they tend to be a bit pricey. If you have to order one, most gun shops will add a fee.
    So I’m still looking.

  8. I agree about removing the S&W factory revolver lock and I don’t think it’s at all controversial. I’ve owned S&W revolvers for fifty years and when I bought the 340 PD as a lightweight substitute for my Model 36 I was annoyed that it had the infernal device factory installed. I found the lock to be annoying even though I never once engaged it until the day I removed it. I have much greater peace of mind knowing that that silly lock isn’t going to be one more bit of complexity to contend with in a situation requiring full concentration on the matter at hand. I did save the lock and keep it in the original box the gun came in so that it can be readily installed if some future owner wants/needs it.

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