Concealed Carry

Review: Taurus 856 Defender .38 Special

Taurus 856 Defender Revolver with VZ Grips

I am presently involved in university-level gunsmithing projects and many of them are focused on revolvers.

The reason is that revolvers remain immensely popular even after the introduction of the tactically superior self-loader. But is the self-loader really superior?

Personal defense isn’t combat. Feel, balance and heft mean a lot in personal defense. The handgun must be concealable, but it must also have a balance that allows it to ride comfortably.

It must set well in the hand. By the same token, the handgun must be useful in personal defense. The trigger action and sights must compliment a trained shooter.

There are several types of personal-defense revolvers. The snub-nose .38 Special with a two-inch barrel is often chosen for concealed carry.

The four-inch barrel, service-size revolver is often chosen for home defense. Might there be a single handgun that could perform each chore well? There is, and it is a very good handgun.

Original Taurus 856
The original 856 six-shot J-Frame was an innovation. The 856D is also a ground-breaking revolver.

The original claim to fame of the Taurus 856 is that it is a six-shot revolver. Well, most revolvers are six-shot handguns, but not the smallest . 38s. The J-Frame revolver is sometimes called a . 38 on a .32 frame.

A small six-shot .32 was morphed into a five-shot .38. Taurus designed a slightly larger cylinder and changed the lockwork of the five-shot Taurus Model 85 to come up with the Taurus 856.

The balance, handling and shooting of the revolver are basically identical to other small revolvers. The Taurus Defender is a well-balanced handgun that performs well on the range.

The improvements earning the handgun its Defender moniker are simple but important. The new Defender features a larger, hand-filling grip. There are several versions including VZ, Hogue and Taurus grips.

My example features Hogue Monogrips. These feature a tacky rubber composition practically ideal for most uses. The next improvement is the addition of a heavy, three-inch barrel.

This lengthens the sight radius, provides better balance, improves practical accuracy, and makes for extra velocity as well.

Buffalo Bore .38 Special Ammunition
Buffalo Bore Ammunition is a great choice for outdoors use.

The Colt Official Police as well as the Smith and Wesson Military and Police revolvers are six-shot .38s, but are much larger than the Taurus, even when these service-size handguns have a short barrel.

The Colt Police Positive Special was a very popular small-frame .38 that led to the Colt Detective Special. The new Defender is similar in concept to the Police Positive Special.

As a comparison, I broke out several revolvers for reference. I put a micrometer on the cylinders to measure the width.

Here are the measurements, all besides the Smith and Wesson Model 38 five-shot J-Frame are six-shot revolvers.

Revolver Cylinder Width
Smith and Wesson Model 38 J-Frame 1.30 Inches
Smith and Wesson K-Frame Military and Police 1.43 Inches
Colt Cobra (Original 1953 Version) 1.39 Inches
Taurus 856 1.40 Inches

As you can see, the Taurus 856 isn’t that large, but the frame is the real difference. There is plenty of steel in the cylinder. Revolvers don’t normally have problems in the cylinder, it is the small parts that take a beating in recoil.

While nothing takes the place of a two-inch barrel snub-nose for concealment, the Defender has advantages that make it more shootable. The revolver is conventional in appearance, with an exposed hammer and a double-action trigger.

There is a single-action option for deliberate fire. My example is a stainless-steel version weighing in at 24 ounces. There is also a 16-ounce “Ultra Lite” version.

Taurus 856D, Colt Cobra, RIA Snub nose.
Compared to other six-shot revolvers, the Taurus 856D is practically svelte.

Revolvers for Personal Defense

First, let’s look at the revolver on its own merits, then its advantages compared to the original Taurus 856. A double-action revolver makes a great deal of sense for personal defense.

Few shooters have time or initiative to train as they should. Most train as little as possible to get by. The revolver is simple to operate and offers a proven system.

A revolver will function with a less than perfect grip and isn’t sensitive to differences in power levels among ammunition. As far as the Defender’s fit and appearance, it is a well-finished revolver.

I especially like the fit around the side plate, which is difficult to get right, and the smooth trigger face. A serrated trigger face is fine for target work, the smooth type better for double-action work.

The cylinder release is a low-snag type. It did not berate my thumb when firing heavy loads. The grips fit my average-sized hands well. The trigger action is smooth in operation in double-action fire.

The Taurus features a transfer-bar safety system. For many years, there was competition among revolver makes in inventing safety blocks, Colt’s positive lock, Smiths several designs and the old hammer-the-hammer type.

The modern transfer-bar system is easily the best answer. The ejector rod is protected by a shroud under the barrel. The Taurus 856 doesn’t lock on a button under the ejector rod, but rather by a lock on the crane.

This makes for a rigid lockup. The rear sights are well-designed for a fixed-sight revolver. The big news is the day or night front sight.

The front sight features a tritium dot inside of a fluorescent roundel. This is an excellent feature for a defensive handgun.

Taurus 856 Front Sight
A big advantage of the Taurus 856 Defender is the Tritium front sight.

I began the firing test with Federal’s 148-grain target wadcutter. At 700 fps, recoil is mild and accuracy proven. The Taurus 856 Defender exhibits modest recoil and is easily recovered in recoil.

Take a strong grip, work the trigger action to the rear smoothly, and allow the trigger to reset during recoil. As the sights are brought back on target, fire again.

When ejecting the spent cases, the three-inch barrel offers an advantage as the ejector rod is longer than a two-inch barrel variant. Keep the muzzle pointed upward, strike the ejector rod sharply, and shake the empties clear.

I used the Lyman Products speedloader with good results. The version for the K-Frame fit nicely. I moved to the Federal Hydra Shock +P. This 129-grain number exits the Defender’s barrel at 909 fps.

Recoil remained pleasant and controllable. I fired the revolver at five, seven and 10 yards, using double-action fire and firing as quickly as I was able to recover the sights during recoil.

This revolver handles much better than a snub-nose revolver, even my heavy Military and Police two-inch .38.

Federal .38 Special Ammunition
Federal offers excellent training and defense ammunition.

There aren’t many revolvers this size and caliber that are as easy to use well. I like the Taurus 856 Defender a great deal. It is a fine house gun and carry gun, and even a passing field gun.

That’s a lot of versatility. It cannot be slipped in a pocket as easily as a two-inch revolver, but the Defender isn’t difficult to conceal in an inside-the-waistband holster. The Defender also has much merit as a camper or hiker’s revolver.

.38 Special loads are very versatile. You may load a CCI shotshell and have a loading that will shred a dangerous reptile at close range.

If you are concerned with feral dogs or the big cats, Buffalo Bore offers several loads that offer excellent wound ballistics.

As an example, both the Outdoorsman 158-grain hard cast SWC and the 158-grain LSWC hollow point break over 1,000 fps from the Defender’s three-inch barrel.

That is a lot of power on the hip in a 24-ounce revolver! Recoil is there, but so is power.

Galco Wraparound Belly Band Holster with Revolver and Speedloader
The Galco WalkAbout inside-the-waistband holster is a well-designed rig. This is an excellent option for summer carry.

Packing the Taurus 856 Defender

There are plenty of belt holsters for revolvers and a few really good concealed carry options. Among these is the Galco WalkAbout inside-the-waistband holster.

The handgun is carried between the trousers and the body. A belt clip is secured to the belt.

You do not need a heavy draping garment to conceal the handgun, the trousers conceal the barrel and most of the frame.

Another option that offers excellent concealment even if you cannot wear a belt, is the Galco Wraparound.

This is a high-quality belly band with two holster components and pouches for a wallet or spare ammunition. This makes for excellent concealment and security.

Have you shot the Taurus 856 Defender? Tell us what you thought of it in the comments below!

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 (7)

  1. The Defender 856 was announced in January and I’ve been on the lookout since. I usually go for magnum caliber revolvers and I don’t care for light weight snubnosed revolvers. The Defender in all stainless has really sparked my interest. Of course, a polished, blued steel model would also be amazing. I’m anxious for them to become available.

  2. I have the Taurus 605 poly protector in .357. 5 shot. I like the partial covered hammer,less snagging. I dont see much mention of it in articles. what are the downside points of the 605 in comparison to the other 38 / 357s?

  3. Both my wife and I have a T-856. Fine gun for the money, but my dealings with the Taurus website and contact with the company Have Not Been Encouraging.
    If a decent night stand gun is all you want this 6-shot is a good one. If high grade quality and service after the sale matter, buy Ruger or S&W.

  4. Thanks for the nice review. I like this revolver very much, my sole concern is that the tacky Hogue grips will grab shirt fabric and cause the grip to “print” under your clothing. This happened on my 2.5” Model 19 .357, so I switched to a Hogue boot grip in smooth cocobolo, and clothing slips right off the grip. It’s certainly not as comfortable to shoot though!

  5. Have a 3″ model 60 in .357, and two .38 “J” Frames with 2″ barrels. One “J” Frame is an AIRWEIFHT, the other is an all STEEL model. Having shot all three on the same day, with the same ammo, I can confirm that the AIRWEIGHT IS NOT FOR first time shooters. Airweight (12 oz.) revolvers are best left to an expert.

    The “K” frame size S&W with a 4″ barrel is possibly the best all around size for the majority of uses by beginners. At ~24 oz,. with a 3″ barrel, sounds like TAURUS now has a “K” Frame substitute that will be the ideal gun for beginners and most everyone else. Now if the 856 only came with adjustable sights….

  6. If they could make this gun in .357 I’d have one in a heartbeat. I decided I needed a small frame 3″ .357 about 5 years ago. I have had good luck and like Taurus revolvers so I started looking. I found two guns on Gunbroker but I was unable to attain one. I did some research and found 3″ 605 barrels at Numrich. I bought a 2″ 605, a 3″ barrel and all the grips I could find that were longer than frame length. I bobbed the hammer spur and polished the trigger, cylinder latch, ejector rod, hammer and internals. After the 3″ barrel was installed the gun was bead blasted. I tried the grips I had available and chose an Uncle Mike’s Combat grip. I built an ambi two tone kydex iwb holster for it. I love the gun and I might do another that is finished the opposite of this one but if Taurus would make a 6 shot 3″ 605 I’d buy that instead. If they would build a 5 shot .45 Colt Tracker I’d have one of those too.

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