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Exclusive: Three From The Performance Center

Exclusive: Three From The Performance Center
A Trio Of Pro Series S&Ws Highlights Focus On Specific Revolver Needs.

“Revolver” and “six-shooter” are synonymous to many, but the options range wider than that. There were the four-shot “Cloverleaf” pocket guns of the 19th century. Smith & Wesson will sell you up to an 8-shot .357 Magnum in their current 27 series N-frame revolvers, and 10-shot K-frames in .22 Long Rifle, as used by National Shooting Sports Foundation for their First Shots program.

Looking at some of the latest offerings from the Smith & Wesson Performance Center, I found myself in possession of three wheel guns of varying cylinder capacity. A comparison of the three was irresistible.

Five-Shot: Pro Series J-frame .357

Pro Series guns are designed by the Performance Center, and then manufactured on Smith & Wesson’s regular production line. One of the most popular of late is the Model 60 in .357 Magnum, with 3″ barrel and adjustable sights. S&W collectors drool over the rare, un-catalogued .38 Chief Special that came with that Kit Gun treatment. Now, courtesy of the Performance Center, you can buy it new in its coolest format, and in the Magnum chambering.

The “hump” atop the backstrap seems rounder than in J-frame S&W’s of yore. Whether or not it improves handling will be subjective to the individual shooter. Looks pretty cool, though. The front sight has a Trijicon night sight. The grips are handsome, newly styled wood, and feel like a cross between checkered and stippled.

Half a century ago, in his 1960 book Handgunner’s Guide, holster-maker and quick-draw champ Chic Gaylord opined, “The Smith & Wesson Chief Special with the 3″ barrel is the best and most effective carry gun available ‘as is’ from the factory. It is nearly as effective as the regular .38 Special service revolvers.” Gaylord believed with the non-expanding bullets of the time, a .357 Magnum wasn’t worth the recoil and muzzle blast unless it had a longer barrel than this Chief’s, but I suspect some of our modern self-defense loads would have changed his mind on that if he’d lived to see and test them.

This particular stainless Chief Special most certainly did shoot like a “service revolver.” The common rule of thumb is that 4″ groups from the bench rest at 25 yards constitute “adequate service handgun accuracy.” The test gun beat that with every load we put through it.

I started with red box Black Hills, virgin ammo in .38 Special match wadcutter configuration. Using the sights out of the box, the group went 4″ low and slightly right. All five hits measured 1.80″, center to center. One round showed signs of starting to keyhole. To factor out human error and get a better idea of the gun/ammo combination’s inherent mechanical accuracy, I measured the best three of the five shots. The result was 0.90″, including a “double.” Recoil with this light load was, of course, very mild.

Next was a light-recoil .38 Special defense load, the standard pressure 110 grain Silvertip. This went way low, about 10″, and very slightly left. The five shots were so evenly dispersed in a pattern of two, two, and one, there was only .05″ difference in the two group measurements. All five shots measured 2.05″, and the best three were in 2″. Recoil and report were both very easy to manage.

Finally, of course, some .357 Magnum had to go downrange. Because this Pro Series gun is all steel and spec’d for 23.2 ounces unloaded weight, it doesn’t give you the tortuous recoil we’ve come to associate with the lighter “baby Magnums.” Kick was substantial with Remington 125 gr. full power semi-jacketed hollow point .357, and blast was profound, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the recoil wasn’t all that bad. The 25 yard group measured 3.30″, but the best three were in 1.20″, a very promising indication of accuracy potential. With this load, the Pro Series Model 60 grouped about 6″ low and maybe an inch left.

Things like low groups are what adjustable sights are for, but this gun just didn’t have enough range of adjustment to compensate for groups that low before bottoming out. I had shot another of these guns previously and didn’t recall that problem. I think it’s simply a case of a too-high front sight finding its way onto this specimen. Held by pins, the front sight — which has the desirable Trijicon night module — could be changed at home by a confident user. Failing that, S&W has a great rep for customer service.

Action was smooth, and shooting the Model 60 was fun. For those comfortable with a 5-shot revolver as primary handgun, it should be an excellent performer. You’re looking for SKU 178013, which carries an MSRP of $877.

Six-Shot: Pro Series .327

The J-frame was created at midpoint-20th Century from the old I-frame, to be a 5-shot .38 caliber weapon on a 6-shot .32 frame. It’s obvious to get more than five cartridges into one, we need a smaller caliber. With its roots in 6-shot .32 format, the J-frame was logically chambered for the .32 H&R Magnum shortly after that round came out, and S&W eventually dropped that caliber due to lack of sales. Now the concept returns in the most powerful .32 caliber revolver cartridge yet, the .327 Federal Magnum.

Arriving just before the monster ammo crunch of 2008, the new .327 cartridge arrived at the worst possible time for it to thrive. It certainly looks promising. One of the most street-proven loads for the 9mm Luger is the 115 gr. JHP at 1,300 feet per second, and the Speer Gold Dot 115 gr. .327 load exactly duplicates those ballistics, at least on paper. Because so few .327 revolvers have been available, and so little ammo, they haven’t had a chance to build a track record. I haven’t heard of a single shooting with one. Will the smaller diameter bullet, which predictably won’t contact as much tissue as a 9mm of the same weight and speed, do as well as that otherwise identical 9mm load? I dunno. Nobody really knows yet.

Nonetheless, it’s an intriguing caliber, and the latest Pro Series entry is an intriguing gun. It’ll take a .32 Long cartridge or a .32 H&R Magnum as well as the longer .327 Mag, and that allows a considerable range of ballistic versatility. The famously accurate Federal 98 gr. full wadcutter .32 Long round felt almost like a .22 in recoil, and delivered a 2.90″ group for five shots from the 25 yard bench, with the best three hits 1.70″ apart. The load shot to point of aim the way this revolver and its adjustable sights came out of the box.

The 100 gr. American Eagle .327 Magnum jacketed soft point is rated by its manufacturer at 1,400 fps. The old .32-20, proven an excellent small game load by sportsmen back when Elmer Keith was young, spits the same weight bullet at only 1,210 fps by comparison. In the Pro-Series six-shooter, it grouped five shots into 4″ exactly, the best three in 2.35″. The group formed a bit high left of point of aim. Recoil wasn’t bad, roughly similar to a .38 Special duty load, but muzzle blast was sharp.

Federal’s 85-gr. Hydra-Shok personal defense hollow point for the .327 Magnum, spec’d by its maker for 1,400 fps, proved to be the most accurate load of the day. Four shots went spot-on to point of aim in a 1.5″ group at 25 yards, with one straying to stretch the 5-shot group measurement to 2.85″, but the best three were in a gratifyingly snug 0.55″. This isn’t the first time this round has proven most accurate for me with a .327 revolver.

Maybe it was the ported barrel — I didn’t have an otherwise identical solid barrel example with which to compare it — but muzzle jump was mild. I think this might be a cool “woods-walking” revolver when small game might be on the menu. The action was pretty decent. It comes with S&W’s current “rubber grips,” done by a supplier who sells exclusively to them. They’re ugly, but they’re soft and cushiony and great for a long day of shooting. This gun is SKU 170329, and carries a $1,011 MSRP. One thing you’re paying for is the extra machining on that ported barrel.

Seven-Shot: Pro Series 686 Plus

This particular 686-Plus (the heavy duty L-frame with a 7-shot cylinder) was designed by the Performance Center with a match-grade double action trigger pull. It was super-light and super-smooth, and came with S&W logo finger-grooved Hogue grips. The 5″ barrel is lightened for speed work from the usual full underlug configuration of a 686, narrowing in a sleek swoop toward the muzzle, not just under the barrel but also along the sides. This reduces friction when drawing from a tight holster, and eases holstering, and the lightened barrel tracks faster between multiple targets.

The leaf mainsprings of these larger S&Ws lend themselves to smooth, light trigger pulls more than the coil mainsprings at the heart of a J-frame’s mechanism, and it showed. This wasn’t the easiest carrying gun in the test, but it sure was the sweetest shooting. I wrote it up as the cover gun for our sister magazine GUNS some months back.

A handload by fellow gun writer and competitive shooter Chris Christian gave the best accuracy with this 686+. It consisted of a 140 gr. Speer semi jacketed hollow point assembled in a .38 Special case with 6.1 grains of Hodgdon Longshot powder and a Federal small pistol primer. The quintet of bullets went well under an inch at 25 yards – 0.85″ — and its best three would all have hit a single large caliber bullet hole, with a cluster measuring only 0.45″ center-to-center. “Match Grade” in capital letters!

A couple of Black Hills .38 Special loads weren’t far behind: 148 gr. wadcutters did five shots in 1.65″, best three in 0.95″, and light 158 gr. .38 Special “cowboy loads” delivered 1.35″ for five shots and 0.90″ for best three. Winchester Silvertip 145 gr. .357 Magnum did 2.45″ for five rounds, but still 0.95″ for best three.

With the 5″ barrel, this L-frame is an inch over-length for IDPA Stock Service Revolver competition, but both its barrel length and its seventh shot would be welcome at an ICORE (International Congress of Revolver Shooters) match. The test gun came with a handful of fast-loading 7-shot full moon clips, and of course, HKS makes a 7-shot speedloader to fit the 686+, too. It’s SKU 178038, with a retail tag of $1,059.

The S&W Performance Center designed these Pro Series guns, then turned them over to the production side of the house. The results are “custom” features still kept to “production” price range. Hiker’s gun, urban CCW, or home defense with match potential thrown in — 5-shot, 6-shot, 7-shot or more — the Pro Series offers a well thought out selection.
For more info: www.americanhandgunner.com/smith-wesson
By Massad Ayoob
Photos By Gail Pepin

Pro 60 1

Pro Series Model 60, left side

Pro 60 2

Pro Series Model 60, right side.

Pro 686 1

Pro Series 686-Plus, left side.

Pro 686 2

Pro Series 686-Plus, right side.

Pro 632 2

Pro Series 632 Carry-Comp, left side

Pro 632 2

Pro Series 632 Carry-Comp, right side.

Pro 3 guns

From top: 5-shot .357 Model 60, 6-shot .327 Model 632, 7-shot Model 686-Plus .357.

Pro 60 3inches

These were the loads tested in the 3” Pro Series Model 60.

Model 632

Model 632 Carry-Comp was tested with two .327 Magnum loads, and
.32 Long match wadcutter.

Pro Model 60

Action was acceptably smooth on the Pro Series Model 60.

Model 60

Note tapered barrel of Model 60. Front sight was too high.

New Model 60

“New look” of the Pro Series Model 60.

357

Modern cylinder release didn’t cut thumb even with .357 Mag recoil.
Internal lock (keyway above latch), detested by some, worked fine on test sample.

Model 60 Black Hills

25 yard group with Model 60 and new Black Hills .38 wadcutters.

110 Grain Model 60

110 grain Silvertip .38 Special from Model 60. Aiming point had been
the dot above the one shown here.

125 grain remington

125 grain Remington .357 Mag SJHP, legendary for stopping power, grouped
acceptably from the Pro Series Model 60 concealment gun.

Pro 642

Pro Series 642 shot well with .32 Long Federal match wadcutters at 25 yards.

327 hollow points

These .327 hollow points were satisfyingly close to point of aim at
25 yards, out of the box.

Model 60

Everything shot low from its point of aim with too-high sight (easily remedied)
on this particular Model 60. Bottom group was fired at bottom dot, the one
just above it at middle dot.

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  1. Nice to see S&W working so diligently on revolvers! For those of us who have taught others to shoot handguns, approaching a hundred, in my case, I like the fact that all aspects of handgunning are being addressed by the company. Of my 4 sons, 3 carry handguns in their daily jobs as Michigan State Troopers! I won’t say my teaching had anything to do with their career choices, but S&W handguns were in the mix of handguns used in their home handgun education!! THANK YOU!! ( I really intend to try the .327 Mag…neat little gun!!)

  2. Sheldon Padawer says:

    I just bought my 686 pro Tuesday Jan 29. I saw it in person for first time the day before and was smitten. I ran through a box of .38 Special 130 grain Federal and shot about 6″ from a bench at 25 yards. Unbelieveable balance and fire control, but the sights needed adjustment and paint. Enter Hobby Lobby. I bought orange and white Testors enamel and duplicated the scheme from my old 686 4″ (which was stolen three weeks ago). I’ll try it out again and report. The fact is this gun feels like the holy grail of .357s. With a familiar sight picture I expect to improve quickly.

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