If you think that ringing you heard was the bell tolling the death knell of the revolver, think again. Not only is interest in the wheel-gun at an all-time high, the designs, material, and ergonomics of this all-important tool are as modern as this minute.
Simply put, revolvers work. And that's something people treasure in these overcomplicated times. "Six shots for sure" was the old adage, and it remains true today. A revolver is a simple machine. You pull the trigger and it goes bang. The semiauto, even into the 1970s, was sometimes a Rube Goldberg contraption and when the often-unreliable ammo of the time was factored in, its performance was an "iffy" proposition at best. Notwithstanding the classic designs-like the 1911, the Hi-Power, and a handful of others-officers of that era simply didn't have the confidence in those "dang autos" they had in their trusty revolvers.
When my own agency, the San Diego Police Department, was initially going through the "change of life" to autos, there was much wringing of hands and pulling of hair by old-timers. I distinctly recall one deputy chief patting his Smith & Wesson Model 10 .38 in its moth-eaten holster, as he said, "If this old girl was all I needed then, it's all the new crop of cops needs today." No fooling. We eventually won the battle and the deputy chief retired, taking his Model 10 with him.
Fortunately, times change and companies like SiG, S&W, Walther, Glock, Springfield Armory, Beretta, and others have introduced autos that actually run really well. The reliability of today's generation of semiauto designs is as close to 100 percent as we will probably see in a mechanical device. But still, there remain just enough of those disturbing stories that float around-many true-about an auto failing just when it was needed most. Whether from poor quality ammo (common), magazine failure (more common), or simply poor maintenance, autos sometimes fail and people's lives can be endangered.
I cut my law enforcement teeth on revolvers and the funny thing about it is that I never felt under-gunned (whatever that means). We took great pride in our well-tuned six-shot revolvers, shot them in competition regularly (PPC Shooting and early IPSC), and carried them in break-front holsters or Border Patrol styles. But as the bad guys began the arms race, it was only inevitable that law enforcement made the switch. Yet, decades later, tens of thousands of small revolvers still ride in ankle holsters and back pockets as backup guns. And for some important reasons.
A New Breed
In the '70s, an innovative firearms company figured out how to stuff seven shots into a large-framed S&W revolver and used full "moon" clips to hold it all together. The wheel-gun had a temporary new lease on life. But alas, the swing to the auto continued and eventually won out. That is, until gun companies figured out how to make lightweight, tough revolvers, and give them seven- and even eight-shot cylinders.
Suddenly, the prospect of an almost infinitely reliable seven shots sounded pretty good; especially as the wholesale race toward high-capacity autos slowed. In addition, many agencies were finding that some of their officers had trouble handling the fat-gripped autos. Slender grips meant seven to nine shots and well, why is that much better than a seven- or eight-shot revolver? It's arguably not.
Semiauto advocates can wave their arms and discuss reload speeds, but with a full-moon clip or a good speedloader, a good man-or woman-with a wheel-gun can almost match a reload with an auto. Remember, the real selling point here is seven shots for sure.
And if that's not enough to convince you that the revolver may still have a place in contemporary law enforcement, consider the following. You're in a muddy fight with a suspect in a slippery, slush-covered gutter. After dropping your duty gun during the struggle you pick it up. It's covered with muck, but you manage to stuff it against your antagonist's side in-between the biting and clawing and pull the trigger. Will that auto function after the first shot? Will it even function for the first shot?
Now, let's look at the gun in question. The Model 386PD offers seven shots of .357 Magnum and weighs only 17.5 ounces. How is it so light? One word: scandium.
In the 1870s, scientists discovered a rare element called scandium, but it wasn't until 1966 that anyone was able to refine even one pound. We're talking rare here. Still it wasn't so rare that it couldn't be useful. About 30 years ago Russian metallurgists discovered that if you added just a touch of this wonder metal to aluminum, it suddenly decreased the grain structure of the alloy and increased its strength dramatically.
S&W picked up on the Russian research and figured scandium would do wonders for its aluminum-framed guns and presto. The results are .357 Magnums that weigh only 17.5 ounces.
Out of curiosity, we twisted arms at S&W until they relented and sent us a Model 386PD. What arrived was a nifty seven-shot revolver in .357 Magnum that was scary-light, had rubber-like finger-groove grips by Hogue, a 21/2-inch barrel, and adjustable sights. The frame is the miracle combo of aluminum and scandium (complete with a laser-etched atomic whiz-bang symbol on the side), the cylinder is titanium, and the barrel is stainless steel with a titanium shroud.[PAGEBREAK]
The trigger on the 386PD is smooth, as triggers should be on all proper double-action revolvers, and the cylinder release is a cool new contoured version that even comes with S&W's new built-in key lock. You just turn the widget and lock the action solidly.
Sights are a shallow "V" notch rear and a big, orange dot front, encased in a solid plastic block. S&W's encased design lets light gather in the orange sight, and it really jumps out in virtually any ambient light. The shallow "V" rear sight makes quick work a snap, and it didn't hamper fine target work in the least.
The 386PD's action was, unfortunately, rough and gritty, as seems to be the trend these days. Hand fitting costs money and increases the retail cost accordingly. Ever the closet gunsmiths, we installed an after-market spring kit, smeared some moly-lube in the action, and made it tolerable. Once we'd worked on it, the action was smooth and indexed perfectly. Old double-action revolver snakes were able to stage the trigger and deliver very accurate shots at all ranges. It was great fun to remember just why we loved these guns in the first place.
On the Range
After assembling a selection of .38 Special and .357 Magnum ammo we trundled off to the range. The gun was such a pleasure to carry due to its light weight, but we had to balance our enthusiasm with our trepidations about potential recoil with full-power .357 Magnum loads. So being the big chickens we are, we started with Federal .38 Special wadcutter loads.
Wadcutters have to be the most delightful load ever invented. Virtually no recoil, accurate, and deadly on small game and even human antagonists in a pinch-we never tire of shooting them. Indeed, the Model 386PD took to them like a newborn calf takes to its mother. Ten yards revealed ragged one-hole groups. And even at 25 yards, we were able to coax solid 2- to 21/2-inch groups, double action, by carefully staging the trigger. We loved the gun and ammo combo and shot up all the wadcutters much too soon.
Then we got semi-serious and loaded some fighting hollow-points from several makers. While the recoil of the plus-p ammo was much more than the wadcutters, it was certainly manageable, and we would have no hesitation to carry any we tested as a duty load.
Our sojourn into the realm of the .357 Magnum was another story.
Can you say "Muzzle Blast?" Can you say "Recoil?" Gads...it was awful. And frankly, we see no reason to ever do it again. The "are we having fun yet?" quotient dropped into oblivion after the first few rounds. The .357 Magnum works best in at least a 4-inch barrel and likes a 6-inch barrel even better. So when you cut the weight and barrel length in about half you pay the price. Honestly? With today's high-performance .38 Special loads there is simply no reason to need a .357 Magnum in this particular gun. Unless you're out to prove your manhood (or womanhood), just say, "No" to .357 Magnums in this gun.
On the range we discovered only one little complaint (other than the action) and it was the short ejector rod. We'd much rather have seen the Model 386PD in a three-inch barrel configuration with a correspondingly longer ejector rod for reliable ejection of empties. As it stands now, make sure you put the muzzle up and punch the rod smartly to knock them free. Using the slightly shorter .38s helps to alleviate this situation. There may also be a slight "stickiness" to the titanium chambers that has a tendency to be grabby with the empty cases.
I don't want to belabor a point here, and this is not an "auto vs. revolver" article. But simply put, today's high-performance revolvers like the S&W 386PD have made the wheel-gun a realistic option for cops.
Smith & Wesson
Caliber: .357 Magnum
Barrel Length: 21/2 inches
Capacity: 7 Rounds
External Safety: N/A
Internal Safety: Hammer Block, built-in lock
Sights: Red dot front, "V" notch rear (adjustable)
Finish: Scandium/titanium/aluminum alloy (black and gray)
Grips: Hogue Bantam
Roy Huntington is editor of American Handgunner magazine and a retired police officer who serves on the Police advisory board.