One Wicked Wheelgun

Smith & Wesson's Performance Center 686 Plus
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The first time was more than frightening. I was standing behind a badge and pointing a gun at another human. The only comfort I could find was in the 40 oz. of fire-breathing nastiness I had in my hand. Six 158-grain jacketed hollow points, wrapped in a cylinder of stainless steel, were all I had between the threat and me. Well, that and the 13 lbs. of trigger pressure required for launching each of those bullets. Over the years I’ve pointed lots of guns at lots of bad guys, but I’ve never felt safer than I did with the big Smith & Wesson 686 in my hands.


A Uniformed History

Smith & Wesson’s Model 686 L-Frame revolver was introduced in 1980. The 4″ barreled version and its blued counterpart — the Model 586 — immediately became a favorite law enforcement duty gun. Both held six shots and had enough weight to make the .357 Magnum cartridge manageable. Both could also fire lower-recoiling and — just as importantly — less-expensive .38 Special ammunition for training and practice.

The long and heavy double-action trigger pull of the 686 circumvented a lot of worry law enforcement administrators had with accidental/negligent discharges. But with judicious practice, the trigger was manageable. After firearms training in the academy, most officers were a lot better with their 686 than minute-of-bad guy. I remember my weeks of training with the 686 and how, on the last day, the day that mattered, I managed to shoot a perfect score. This was accomplished on a B-27 target from three to 50 yards. I’m not bragging about my marksmanship — I only mention this to prove the trigger was serviceable.

The primary complaint I had with the 4″ 686 was its size. At 10″ long, it was near impossible to conceal off-duty unless you were wearing a trench coat and looking like a flasher. Most cops liked their 686 while on duty, but most also carried a different gun when not in uniform. Very few plainclothes officers carried a 686, at least the 4″ version. It’s only speculation, I suspect the larger duty revolvers were the primary reason the term “off-duty gun” was ever created in the first place.

Though only slightly shorter, modern duty handguns like Glocks and SIG’s are much easier to conceal. The dimensions of a 4″ S&W 686 are not really an adequate reflection of how big this pistol really is. You simply can’t appreciate its bulk until you stick it in a pancake holster and try to hide it while you’re out on the town with your family. To keep “revolver familiarity” many officers opted for a J-Frame when off-duty. But those who married well or lived off credit cards splurged and picked up their own 686. The 2.5″-barreled variation was substantially easier to carry and conceal.

I wanted one but could never afford it, and about the time I got to a point where I could, my department issued us plastic guns. As far as law enforcement was concerned, the plastic pistol put the nail in the revolver’s coffin. Not only did cops move away from the wheelgun, as citizens noticed the transition, they fell out of love with what was once considered Old Faithful.


Six To Six Plus One

Still, six rounds of .357 Magnum tucked inside a rust-resistant, stainless steel package is nothing to sneeze at. Revolvers are inherently more reliable than semi-automatics, and a comfortable-to-carry semi-auto duty gun, as powerful as the .357 Magnum and as easy to shoot as the 686, is yet to be invented. Recently, Smith & Wesson increased the capacity of the 686 by 15 percent, making it a 7-shooter. A 686 holding seven shots is called a “686 Plus.”

Yes, 15 percent more ammo, even if it is just one shot, is a big deal. I’m not saying it would have curbed the transition to the high-capacity autoloader, or kept the 686 in police holsters any longer. But in the right circumstance, one extra shot could make the difference in a visit to the morgue; either for your own autopsy or to see that of the bad guy who thought you were done after six.

Here in the new millennium, the revolver seems as unpopular as traditional marriage. But it doesn’t mean a wheelgun can’t still serve as a personal defense sidearm. Smith & Wesson realizes this, which is why they still offer a full selection of revolvers for those who want one. Not only do they have a wide selection of standard production models to consider, the Smith & Wesson Performance Center turns out several precision-tuned revolvers any 1980’s cop would have traded all his donuts for.


Something Special

The best of the bunch might be the custom, 2.5″ barrel, 686 Plus. Like all Performance Center revolvers, it receives an action job that — for lack of a better cliché — is out of this world. The single-action pull comes in at a consistent 3.5 lbs. It feels even lighter due to the wide, butter-smooth trigger, which has no take-up and only slightly perceivable overtravel. It used to be the only places you could feel a revolver trigger like this was at law-enforcement bull’s-eye match.

The double-action trigger isn’t bad either. It requires almost 10 lbs. of finger force to manipulate, but like with the single-action pull, it feels less due to the wide trigger shoe. And of course, the smoothness of the action translates to what feels like less trigger force too. I’ve never felt a police-issue 686 with a trigger like this, even those that were well worn. The first portion of the pull stages through cylinder rotation and then, at a noticeable but shallow shelf, you can break the trigger almost as smoothly as if it was in the single-action mode.

Another appealing feature is the PC 686 Plus is the unfluted cylinder. While its appearance might not add anything to the utility of the revolver, it does permit an extra chamber allowing for the seventh shot. Aesthetically, it also looks cool and businesslike. The good looks extend to the rest of the revolver too. The stainless steel has been glass-bead blasted to provide a soft gray finish. The overall effect is somewhat ominous, something probably even more pronounced if you are looking at it from the front end.

The rear sight is the common S&W revolver sight most are familiar with. It is horizontally adjustable for windage and adjustable for vertical alignment. The front sight is a black ramp with a blaze red insert on its face. It is also dovetailed into a ramp, which is integral to the slab-sided barrel shroud. The sights are easy to see in low light or with bad eyes.

With three exceptions, everything else about this pistol is similar to the 2.5″ 686 revolver you might have lusted after before Glock became a household word. It has the useless —though politically correct — lock on the left side of the frame. The cylinder is cut out to accept moon clips and the grip is of a slim line, custom configuration, not seen on original 686’s.

As for the lock, it’s nothing more than a lever rotated by inserting and turning a handcuff-like key into a hole located just above the cylinder release. This lever blocks the hammer so it can’t move. On its face it seems like a great idea, but I’d not want to try and manipulate this gnome-sized control in a moment of hazard. And given that S&W ships the revolver with a standard, cable-type padlock, I wonder if they trust its practicality either.

The fact the cylinder is relieved for moon clips is another matter all together. Speedloaders are things of beauty. But next to a full-moon clip they are about as appealing as that bad-smelling kid with greasy hair who sat behind you in high-school geometry. Of course, this revolver will work with or without the moon clips or with a speedloader.

With its smooth lines, finger grooves and stippling, the new custom grip looks good, feels good and didn’t detract from controllability—even when firing full-power loads. It allows for full-hand contact and, after allowing several shooters with hands sized small to extra-large to give it a try, it appears to fit well enough for all.


Smooth And Powerful

With 110-grain .38 Special +P Buffalo Bore loads, the short-barreled 686 Plus was very comfortable to shoot. The same goes for the 110-grain Winchester .357 Magnum loads. Throw in the Federal 158-grain JHP or 180-grain Doubletap Hardcast loads, and this gentle little revolver turns into Mr. Hyde. Call me a wimpy gunwriter, a pansy or whatever you want. I’m still going to tell you both of those loads — particularly the Hardcast Doubletap — will rock your world. If I were going to shoot either of these loads extensively, I’d probably opt for a rubber grip to fill my hand better and soak up some of the recoil.

None of this is really a surprise — the .357 Magnum is a beast of a handgun cartridge. Though it is often considered mild by those who have fired a .44 Magnum, the .357 is a handful when stuffed with full-power loads. Common semi-auto defensive handguns like the 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP are simply not in the same class. And this applies to terminal performance as well.

Though it had been a while since I’d run a qualification-type course with a revolver, I did OK. On the speedier drills I had a tendency to jerk the trigger, but during slow fire, even out to 25 yards, accurate shots were the norm. I think with a day or two more behind this gun I could once again shoot a possible score, at least out to 25. Admittedly, I ran the course with the lighter recoiling Winchester 110-grain .357 load (I’m not an idiot!)

All of this is, of course, why some are reluctant to step away from this old .357 warhorse. It has proven its worth on the street and it will continue to get the job done by those who know how to run a wheelgun and know how to shoot. The S&W Performance Center 686 Plus is the definition of wickedness in many ways. It’s a beautiful, well-assembled revolver and it will easily “out-wicked” any bad guy walking.

Manufacturer: Smith & Wesson,
(800) 331-0852
Model: Performance Center 686 Plus # 170346
Chambering / Caliber: .38 Special, .38 Special +P, .357 Magnum
Capacity: 7
Action: Double-action revolver
Barrel Length: 2.5″
Front Sight: Dovetailed Ramp
Rear Sight: Adjustable
Grip: Custom Contoured Wood
Weight: 34.6 oz. (unloaded)
Length: 7.5″
Frame: Stainless Steel
Cylinder: Stainless Steel
Finish: Glass Bead Blasted
MSRP: $849

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