When I was a child, cartoon cowboys used six shooters to save helpless damsels from evil bandits. Cops pointed blued wheelguns at bad men to defend good ones. My first handgun was a silver capgun revolver that my brother and I used to rescue each other from countless imaginary foes, dispatching each with a snap and whisp of smoke. For us, the revolver was a symbol of protection. It allowed forces for good to stand against forces of evil. It stood for heroism and doing what was right. Yes, perhaps I had a bit of a sheltered environment, but my childhood notion that, a gun, in the hands of the right people, could be used to protect good rather than do evil is something that has stuck with me. Somewhere over the years, I lost the capgun, but revolvers still remind me of the fun I had as a kid. Smith and Wesson’s 686P is one such wheelgun that stirs up the nostalgia in me. But, as a shooter, the greater draw is in squeezing a few rounds through that big .357 Mag at the range.
The classic satin-finished S&W 686 revolver was originally released in 1980 as the blued .357 designated the 586. The predecessors to the 586/686 were the K-framed .357s that had gained popularity among law enforcement personnel (namely the model 19, and its stainless counterpart, the 66). S&W reapplied the K-frame grip size with a larger cylinder to increase the durability of the firearm under extensive .357 Magnum firing. The result was a medium-sized sturdy wheelgun with the option of a six or seven shot cylinder. The 686 is offered in several barrel lengths, from 2.5” to 6”. The model reviewed in this article features a 7 shot cylinder (which gives it the “P” designation, as opposed to the 6 shot 686) and a 4” barrel.
The 686 is chambered for the hot .357 Magnum round, but also fires the softer .38 Special cartridge. The sizeable L-frame is a compromise between the lighter K frame, and larger N frame. (The N frame serves as the platform for the first S&W .357, the model 27, and Dirty Harry’s famous .44 Mag enforcer, the model 29.) By increasing the weight and thickness of the K frame, the L maintained the maneuverability of the slender grip while increasing its resistance to wear, and increasing recoil management for the shooter. The 4” 686P is a weighty handgun. At 39oz, it doesn’t even come close to polymer lightweights like the 22oz Glock 17, but that extra heft comes into play when firing blazing rounds like the .357 Magnum.
The revolver itself is simplistic in design. Its only “controls” are its trigger, checkered hammer, checkered cylinder release, and the ejector rod within the cylinder. The straightforward operation recommends itself to newer shooters, but the style and shooting experience make it a favorite among veterans of the shooting sport as well (and a favorite of mine). The trigger on the 686 falls in with the Smith revolver standard, with long heavy trigger pull in double action (as the cylinder revolves), alternated with a seemingly featherlight switch in single action. After firing the Ruger GP100 and the 686, it was the Smith’s lighter, crisper trigger that won me over the Ruger revolver.
A white notch filled with red blade serves as the sight picture for most S&W revolvers, 686 included. Also in line with most S&W revolvers, the 686 does not include any options for night sights from factory, although Meprolights sells Tritium 3 dot night sights for the K, L, and N frames. The stock sight picture is large, however, and in most light conditions, it is easy to track during followup shots. The rear sights are also adjustable, which enhances the operator’s ability to fire accurately. Generally, I shoot more semi auto than I do wheelgun, so I’ve developed a comfort with the 3 dot sight picture. However, I had no problem adjusting to the notch and blade of the Smith. The sights themselves are large, and the contrast in color (white notch, red blade) makes the sights easier to align.
The solid construction of the reinforced frame and barrel were designed to make the 686 more durable, but it also confers the added bonus of improved recoil management. The recoil of .357 Magnum rounds (with muzzle velocities ranging from 1,200-1,600fps) can be severe. In this case, the extra weight means there’s more gun to move, and that so it takes more force to move the 686 than some lighter firearms, namely the K framed .357 revolvers that preceded the L framed 686.
Perceived recoil becomes more significant when shooting revolver-style guns. Without a recoil spring to dampen the force, rounds seem to “kick” harder. For more recoil-sensitive shooters (e.g., shooters with less upper body strength, or newer shooters), this could make shooting the 686 with full power Magnum loads a very negative experience. In these circumstances, being able to shoot the softer .38 special round allows a broader demographic to enjoy shooting the S&W. The recoil is much easier to manage, and is less (potentially) startling than the zip of the .357 Magnum rounds.
Regardless of caliber, the 686 is a fun gun to shoot. The simple fact that it’s a wheel gun has it’s own appeal. It is simple to operate, making it user-friendly for shooters of any skill level. The SA trigger is light and breaks predictably. The sights are large and boldly colored, making them easier to track. And the 686 offers a different experience in the punch of the .357 Magnum or the plink of the .38. Not to mention, .38 special is a relatively inexpensive round. Enjoying to shoot the S&W, and being able to afford to shoot it makes me want to shoot it more often. That is, until my arms get too tired. As an unfortunately noodly-armed female, I begin to fatigue after holding the +2lb hunk of steel at arms length for extended periods of time. While I could ameliorate that discomfort by improving my upper body strength, it’s not as much fun to shoot when I feel the need to work out ahead of time. Because of this, despite how much I enjoy popping off .357s in double action, I generally never put more than a box or two through the 686 before opting for a lighter handgun for the rest of my range time. For those more gifted in arm-strength than this lightweight college kid, the heft of this Smith may not be so noticeable. But, I’m betting for those of less bulky build, or for other females like me, the isometrics involved in shooting the 686 could serve to detract from an otherwise enjoyable shooting experience.
The bulk of the 686P is a distinct disadvantage for concealed carrying. In this respect, the 686’s smaller revolver brethren, the J frame S&Ws are more appealing. That isn’t to say that the 686 is impossible conceal, but it does take more consideration to hide nearly 10” of handgun. Not to mention, the wearer must adjust to toting an extra 2½ lbs with them. For this small reviewer, it isn’t feasible.
This Smith and Wesson is a hefty handgun, but it isn’t so large as to detract from having a good time shooting it. The simplicity of the revolver style firearm and the 686’s solid frame make for a reliable handgun, whether you’re plinking .38s or packing hot .357s. The factory trigger has a long heavy pull in double action, but is light and crisp after the hammer is cocked. Its sight picture is large and well defined. And the satin finish adds a classy look to an already classic firearm. Like my old capgun, the 686P honors the nostalgia of the time-honored wheel gun style. But the real joy of the 686 is in shooting it. Sending a cylinder full of seven fiery .357 Magnum rounds downrange is enough to make me smile any day.
Caliber: .357 Magnum, .38 Special
Capacity: 7 rounds
Weight: 39oz (unloaded)
Frame/cylinder: Stainless steel, satin finish
Grip: Synthetic Hogue
Barrel length: 4in
Photos by author