Recommending a revolver to a new shooter isn’t always a great idea, but I get the impulse. There’s something friendly about revolvers. The mysterious black magic of auto-loading handguns can be intimidating to the uninitiated, but wheel guns present a familiar face to newbies, and the analogue design is easy to understand.
Taurus certainly hasn’t ignored their revolver line even as they wheel out new striker-fired offerings. As millions (literally) of prospective new gun owners descended on gun shops around the country this year, Taurus was well-positioned to meet their needs with reasonably priced handguns of both varieties. I’m not privy to sales numbers, but I’d be shocked if the 856 Defender lagged behind any of their other self-defense handguns.
The 856 Defender is the 3-inch-barrel version of the popular 856 line of snub-nosed revolvers. Chambered in .38 Special (+P), the 856 Defender is capable of holding its own in a self-defense situation, and it’s small enough and light enough to carry comfortably. With attractive options between $390 and $450 MSRP, the Defender is a revolver for the everyman and a welcome addition to any wheel gun arsenal.
- Item Number: 2-85635NSVZ
- UPC: 7-25327-93389-2
- Capacity: 6 Rounds
- Action Type: Double Action / Single Action
- Firing System: Hammer
- Front Sight: Night Sight with Orange Outline
- Rear Sight: Fixed
- Grip: VZ Black/Gray
- Cylinders Included: 1
38 Spl +P
- Frame Size: Small
- Barrel Length: 3.00 in.
- Overall Length: 7.50 in.
- Overall Height: 4.80 in.
- Overall Width: 1.41 in.
- Weight: 25.52 oz
- Extended Ejector Rod
- Night Sights
- Frame Material: Stainless Steel
- Barrel Material: Stainless Steel
- Cylinder Material: Stainless Steel
- Frame Finish: Matte Stainless
- Barrel Finish: Matte Stainless
- Cylinder Finish: Matte Black
The .38 Special for Self-Defense
The .38 Special gets a bad rap as a self-defense cartridge mainly because it’s been famously eclipsed by 9mm plastic pistols in virtually every law enforcement agency in the country. It’s sort of like the beauty queen who loses in the final round to Halle Barry. Is she ugly? Not at all. But everyone remembers her as the one who wasn’t quite pretty enough.
Bad metaphors aside, here’s some hard data for you.
As you can see, the .38 Special is ballistically comparable to the 9mm, and bumping up to a +P load will shrink that gap even further. You might argue that a +P 9mm would reinstate the energy gap, and you’d be right. But the .38 Special is without question in the same ballpark as it’s more popular brother. With self-defense bullets like Hornady’s 110-grain FTX, the .38 Special has more then enough juice to get you out of a self-defense situation in one piece.
Nine-millimeter fans will counter that their favorite handguns can carry quite a few more rounds than anything in .38 Special. The 9mm’s shorter dimensions allow gun engineers to design magazines that hold 8, 15, and even 30 rounds without being too cumbersome. The .38 Special is great for revolvers, but after the advent of the 9mm, manufacturers haven’t bothered to make .38 autoloaders.
That additional capacity is a powerful argument against the .38 Special as a self-defense cartridge, but it’s not airtight. There’s an entire self-defense philosophy based around the idea that most self-defense incidents take place in under three seconds, from three yards away, and in three rounds or less. If you ascribe to that line of thinking, a .38 Special revolver is more than enough to get you home alive.
The Perfect Size
If you adopt the .38 as a viable concealed carry cartridge, you’ll be happy to strap the 856 Defender to your hip. In my opinion, it’s the perfect size for a concealed carry revolver. The barrel is long enough to provide a little additional velocity, but it’s not so long that unholstering feels like drawing a broadsword. It’s also heavy enough to absorb a little recoil but not too heavy that you have to invest in a new pair of suspenders.
Here’s a quick weight comparison between the 856 Defender (.38 Special), the ever-popular Springfield Hellcat (9mm), and a Smith & Wesson Model 16 (.357 Magnum).
As you can see, it’s tough for an all-steel revolver to compete with polymer striker-fired handguns, but the 856 Defender offers the same capacity and barrel length as the S&W Model 19 while saving nine ounces of weight. The Model 19 is chambered in a hotter caliber, but I don’t know anyone who argues you need a .357 Magnum for self-defense (not that it wouldn’t be nice…).
The 856 Defender I received is constructed entirely from stainless steel. The barrel and frame are finished in a matte silver while the cylinder is matte black. The gun also comes with VZ black and gray grips and a front night sight with an orange outline.
But as is customary with Taurus firearms, the Defender comes in several different options depending on your needs and preferences.
Both the blacked out and all-silver models are offered with stainless steel and aluminum frames. The aluminum frame—what Taurus calls their “Ultra-Lite” line—lightens the overall weight to only 17.35 ounces. All of these models come with Hogue rubber grips and front night sights.
The most attractive option, in my opinion, is the tungsten Cerakote model with Altamont wood grips. This Defender model uses Cerakoted tungsten for the frame, barrel, and cylinder, and pairs that finish with a set of beautiful wooden grips. You’ll pay a little more for this model, but all 856 Defenders are priced between $390 and $455 MSRP.
At the Range
But you can read the product pages for yourself. You’re here to find out how the 856 Defender shoots.
In a word, great. I admit I’m not a fan of these VZ grips. They’re a little too slick for my liking, and the shape just doesn’t fit well in my hands. But otherwise, the gun is a pleasure to shoot. The .38 Special isn’t a snappy round to begin with, but the 856 does a great job controlling recoil.
The front sight is a super-visible central yellow dot surrounded by a square orange outline. The central dot shines in the dark, and as is common with revolvers (at least, more common than with autoloaders), there is no rear sight. Instead, the frame has been cut with a deep groove that ends with a square notch directly in front of the hammer.
This setup works well enough at short distances, but the front sight sits too high to come into perfect alignment with the rear notch. In most notch-and-post sighting systems, the front post appears flush with the rear notch when aimed properly. In this system, doing so would obscure the central yellow dot of the front sight and cock the firearm towards the ground.
As with all guns fitted with iron sights, the Defender takes some getting used to. Since neither the front nor the rear sight is adjustable, users will have to reconcile point of aim with point of impact before making confident shots beyond 10 yards or so.
The trigger is fine. It’s heavy in double-action (it’s far heavier than my eight-pound trigger gauge could measure), and I admit that my accuracy declined significantly in double-action mode. Shooting in single action, the trigger weight drops down to a consistent 6.5 pounds, and the break is clean without any mushiness or grittiness. (Update: A reader sent me an email and recommended this Reduced Power Spring Kit from Galloway Precision to reduce trigger weight. I haven’t tried it, but for $14 it’s worth a shot.)
The trigger is part of what makes the 856 Defender accurate… enough. Based on my somewhat limited testing (thanks, ammo shortage), the Defender can shoot a ragged hole at 10 yards while the 20-yard groups expand past three inches using a Ransom Multi Cal. Steady Rest. These results weren’t bad at all, and clearly the Defender is accurate enough for the vast majority of hypothetical self-defense situations.
Whether you can shoot accurately in double-action mode depends on how much you practice. As tempting as it may be to punch tiny holes at 10 yards in single-action, you should dedicate a significant portion of your range time to working on double-action shooting if you plan to carry this firearm for self-defense. You won’t have time to cock the hammer in an emergency, so you should be sure you can put shots on a man-sized target at 5-10 yards in double-action before strapping the Defender to your hip.
The 856 Defender isn’t a perfect revolver, but like many Taurus products, it lives in a nice middle ground between bargain bin and custom Gucci. It’s light (but not too light), well-built, reliable, reasonably priced, and accurate enough to get the job done. It’s the everyman’s revolver, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to carry it.