The double/single action revolver has been around long enough for the design to seem somewhat timeless. There have been very few innovations in the design that are truly considered news worthy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t spill some ink in praise of a new take on an old classic, and Smith & Wesson’s revolvers have long set the standard for wheel-gun classics. From their five shot Scandium J frames, to their .460 S&W tank-busters, Smith & Wesson continue to be the standard on which all other revolvers are judged. Today we’re going to look at a midsized revolver, a.357 686, a gun that can do just about everything.
Model: 686 Plus
Caliber: .357 Magnum®
.38 S&W Special +P
Capacity: 7 Rounds
Barrel Length: 6″ / 15.2 cm
Front Sight: Red Ramp
Rear Sight: Adjustable White Outline
Action: Single/Double Action
Frame Size: Medium – Exposed Hammer
Finish: Satin Stainless
Overall Length: 11.94″ / 30.3 cm
Material: Stainless Steel Frame
Stainless Steel Cylinder
Weight Empty: 43.9 oz / 1,244.6 g
Purpose: Recreational Shooting, Home Protection, Handgun Hunting
Smith’s homepage cites the intended purposes of their guns, and they say the 686 with its 6 inch barrel is good for recreational shooting, home protection, and handgun hunting. I tend to concur. While it wouldn’t be my first choice for duck hunting, it can do just about everything else. If I could only own one gun (God forbid), my choice would be easy: I’d take this 686.
Part if my deep respect of the 686 comes from the performance of the long barrel. If you look at the tables on Ballistics by the Inch, you’ll see some of what I mean. Under controlled conditions (meaning no loss of pressure from cylinder gap), the .357 puts out muzzle velocities somewhere around 1,600 fps. Revolvers push out some gas before the bullet leaves the barrel, so they drop 100 to 200 fps, but it still a sizable bullet traveling at devastating speeds.
And shooting the 686 couldn’t be any easier. The double action pull is heavy, off of the scale I use to gauge pull. This is typical. My scale stops at 10 pounds, and it is close to that. Yet the pull is even and predictable, and you can hold it at any stage without a lot of effort. My groups with the double action pull are still wider than I’d like. I’m not good at the motion. I was training with revolver guru Bob Lawman, in Farmville, Va. He could bang out night tight groups with a double action pull.
The trick to it, I’m told, is to use the trigger pull to help stabilize the gun. Where most single action pulls use only three fingers and one thumb for a grip, the double action revolver grip adds in the extra finger that would normally be used to tweak a touchy trigger. You pull back as you are refining your aim, and then rocket through with a consistent motion. The result should be a more stable platform for the shot, and a more accurate shot.
As I said, I’m not good at it. I still prefer the single action mode. I have a hard enough time getting down the support hand cocking motion. I fall back on those bad habits I learned at the hand of my father, who taught me to shoot with an old Iver Johnson snubbie. We couldn’t hit much with that gun, so actual skills were an afterthought. The 686 is incredibly accurate. And with a 3.5 pound single action pull, it is in credibly consistent.
The long sight radius helps with the accuracy. The front post is almost 8 inches from the rear, which makes it appear smaller. The visible space on the sides allows for greater precision. If you are shooting single action or double, these sights are ideal. The back sight is a flat black with horizontal ridges. At the cut out, a white U provides just enough of a quick reference point for actual defensive sight acquisition. The front post is mostly black, though there is an orange insert that is easy to see. The mix of sight styles is kind of a compromise between true target sights and sights meant for defensive shooting. You can find them fast, or take that extra time to really dial them in.
If there is one aspect of the longer 686s that is a detriment for self-defense, it is the length. These guns don’t come out of holsters as fast as their snub-nosed brethren. You have to haul it out its holster. It must be like drawing a sword from a sheath. It requires an exaggerated movement that feels unnatural to me, as I’m habituated to drawing a GLOCK 19. I wear this gun a lot, but only when I’m not concerned with the extra time required for a draw. It is ideal for stomping around in the woods. I wear it often when I’m at the range. I even carry it hunting. It has everything I want for rural OWB carry.
The 686 Plus has the advantage of one extra round. Reloads happen as quickly as you can reload a revolver, but seven round relaoders aren’t as common as six rounders, so you’ll likely be doing it the old fashioned way. As this is a .357, you have an wide variety of ammunition to chose from. From .38 shotshells on the low end, to fat 158 grain .357 JHPs, this revolver will handle it all. And point of impact isn’t going to shift much between .357s and .38s, at least not as reasonably close distances. I regularly shoot at a 100 yard range that has 12 inch steel plates. Once I find the hold-over for whatever round I’m using (maybe an inch for .38s, almost none for a .357), I can hit those plates about 90% of the time.
And that would make the 686 Plus a viable candidate for handgun hunting, especially for smaller game at closer ranges. The .357 has been a popular cartridge for ranch rifles for years for this very reason. It has enough kick to take a deer, or to put down a cow, or to punch through the skull of a hog. While folks who live in big bear country still favor larger rounds, there’s an argument to be made for a gun you can control (which is the only kind of gun control I’ll endorse). I’ll take the speed and precision of this L framed revolver. I can control it, rocket out shots into a 2 inch square at 25 yards, no problem. I’ve tried my hand with the .44 Magnum, and larger revolvers, and the time between shots increases, and I tend to flinch like a madman. Adrenaline might mitigate that behavior, but it might not.
I’m an L framed shooter. Who am I kidding? I’m actually an X frame on the S&W scale. But this gun fits my hand perfectly, and fits me too. I tend to wear it in a cross-draw holster at my waist. In this position, I can sit, stand, run, and even cover it up with the tail of a field coat. As long as I keep the bottom two or three buttons on my Carhartt buttoned, I can adequately cover the gun.
If you’re not graced with extra girth, cross-draw carry may make you look like a wanna-be civil war general. Traditional strong-side carry is a viable option, and shoulder holsters are plentiful. It is a versatile gun, for sure, and whether you carry it on your hip, or in a toolbox, or keep it tucked under the seat of your truck when you’re out on the back 40, the 686 will get the job done. Pull the trigger and it will hit what it is pointed at.
It is this last feature that makes the gun that much more valuable for me. I carry when I’m at home. I have family members, though, that don’t shoot hundreds of rounds every week. They don’t attend training classes, despite my constant prodding. Yet they know there’s a go-to gun that will always work. While I don’t leave a loaded gun out where anyone can pick it up, it is accessible to those I trust. And they know how to use it. And I don’t have to worry about them remembering to rack the slide, or drop the safety, or dial up a red dot. It is ready to roll with frangible .38s, at just a touch.
The revolver as a genre doesn’t get the respect it deserves. The .357 is really one of the most all-around versatile guns I own. There are few task specific jobs that 6 inch barreled 686 does better than guns designed for more singular purposes. It isn’t the best option for concealed carry. It may be too big for some people’s daily carry preferences. It isn’t light enough to be a pack gun. It isn’t as big as some shooters would like for really big game like bear or moose, and it isn’t as small as some might want for plinking, but it can do all of these things.
The MSRP on the 686 Plus is $849. I’ve seen various 686 models similar to this, most of which were six shots, anywhere from $550 to $900 used. They hold their value a hell-of-a-lot better than most automatics. And they’re harder to screw up. While you can mar the sights bay banging them around, or wreck the trigger attempting to lighten the double-action pull, about the only other thing you can do to one of these is bend the center pin rod by slamming the cylinder home like some Hollywood gumshoe. The 686 offers tremendous accuracy in a gun that will never fail, and there’s something timeless about that.