I have always had an attraction to snub-nosed revolvers. I’ve owned a few, including a Charter Arms .44 Special Bulldog back in the late ‘70s when David Berkowitz, aka “Son of Sam” used that gun for nefarious purposes in New York. The large-ish Bulldog stretched the definition of a snubby, but technically it fit. It had quite a reputation then, not all good. But, the gun itself was simply a tool used by a madman to perform his executions – mine was used for more peaceful purposes, like shooting wax bullets powered by primers only on an improvised indoor range. The results were… interesting… I’ll let I go at that. We learn by doing… Anyway, it was a decent gun and was chambered for the .44 Special. I really liked the way it handled.
I shot that gun a lot and carried it even more. The only thing I didn’t like was its unsupported ejector rod. It was out there all by itself without an underlug to fit into. I’d heard stories of guys who’d bent the rod on their Bulldog…it was rare but it could happen. That was the only thing remotely “con” about that gun. I also at one time owned a Charter Arms Undercover .38 Special snubby. Charter Arms is a name to be reckoned with in terms of heavy-caliber snub-nosed guns. (A note about 2020…Charter Arms is coming out with a line of slightly-larger-framed 6-shot revolvers in different calibers, including .357 Magnum. Those would be interesting to shoot!).
I graduated, a little later, into owning a Colt Detective Special – the newer one with the very cool underlug barrel and full walnut grips. Being an aluminum-framed beauty, it was very light. Colt’s famous 6-shot cylinder that went backwards when compared to a S&W’s was one of the gun’s outstanding features. Here it is…
A luxurious, deep blue covered the gun. This was an example of Colt’s prowess in finishing handguns. You could literally see yourself in the reflections given off by the blued finish. The ejector rod, which was exposed on earlier Detective Specials, was enclosed in a one-piece barrel extension. Topped off by hand-filling checkered walnut grips, this is one gun I certainly still kick myself for trading – 41 years later. It was a Colt, from the 1970s…what was I thinking? So, cutting to more modern times, I acquired a used S&W 638 – the “humpback whale” of snubbys.
This gun is a current model – I saw a new one in Duane’s gun case today for a little over $400. You can buy it at any stocking S&W dealer. Why do I mention that? Because the other two guns above are still able to be purchased – you just have to look harder in the used gun marketplace. To be sure, Charter Arms is building the “classic” Bulldog like the one pictured above again…it just isn’t cheap. The demand was that high. I wish Colt would jump on that particular bandwagon and make the Detective Special again.
What is the 638’s main identifying feature? In my book, it’s the “humpback”, or hammer shroud. If you peek at the top of the shroud, you will see a little black piece sticking up above it. That’s the tip of the hammer. This gun, for all its unwieldy looks, could be one of the most practical snubnoses out there. Squeeze the trigger for a standard double-action shot, or thumb the hammer back for a lighter single-action pull. The hammer can’t get snagged on your pants pocket…there isn’t enough of it sticking up to do that. I added a Laser Lyte laser to mine…makes it a whole easier to aim in dim light.
So, I’ve had a little experience with different snubbys. I like them. They are simple and fairly fool-proof. Carried in a pocket holster or inside the waistband (or even on an ankle), they are easy to draw, easy to point and easy to shoot (with the right ammo).
OK…let’s take a little closer look at this gun. It surely has some interesting features. First, the specs…
|Caliber||.38 Special +P|
|Finish||Matte black anodized|
|Rifling||Right-hand with 6 grooves|
|Rifling Twist||1 in 16"|
|MSRP||(Model 856) $363|
(The Model 85 has been discontinued in favor of the 6-shot 856. The 85 is still available as new, in stores and online).
Now for a little deeper dive…
Let’s start with the grip. A snubby’s grip is the only interface it has with your hand, so if it doesn’t fit well, it should be replaced. The rubber grip on this snubby is excellent. I’ve owned the whole gamut…hand-carved walnut grips that I made to top-notch wraparound composites. This grip was well thought out. It has a subtle palm swell on either side with a thumb shelf so it doesn’t matter whether you are right-handed or wrong-handed like me…it fits either way.
One other feature – this is not a two-finger nor three-finger grip, but a 2 ½-finger grip. What do I mean? There’s a small finger groove for your second and third fingers, but there is also a tiny little notch at the bottom to give your pinky somewhere to land. You can’t get three full fingers on it but at least your pinky isn’t left dangling out there.
The grip is also pretty good at doing its other main job…soaking up recoil. A +P-level .38 Spl. round can generate a decent amount of recoil in a 17-ounce snub-nosed revolver and these grips soak it up pretty well. All in all, this grip was well thought out.
The next item is something that some companies (including Taurus) sometimes includes on their revolvers that are chambered for higher-pressure loads. I’m talking about a forward cylinder yoke locking stud. Here are two photos, one of the locking stud and another of the slot it snaps into.
I just reviewed a Taurus Raging Hunter and noted that its cylinder locked up in two places, not just one. The first one was in the usual place, on the frame behind the cylinder. It also carries a second release on the yoke of the cylinder a la Dan Wesson. The 85UL has the usual rear-positioned latch release but it also includes a spring-loaded stud on the top of the yoke that snaps into a recessed slot on the frame. This is an excellent idea. A revolver rated for +P ammo should have very secure cylinder lock-up. Even though there’s no separate thumb release on the yoke, at least the cylinder locks there. And, to look at another form of lock-up, the cylinder locks up very tightly when the hammer is cocked, again a good thing. There should be no “spitting” of lead or jacket material. The cylinder is also long enough for some of the longer cast bullets out there…it had no trouble with my 160-grain Lee semi-wadcutter.
The trigger on my 85UL is very nice. I would guess the pull weights to be around 9 pounds DA and probably 4.5 in single action mode. To be sure, the pull weights are not as nice as those on my S&W 638, but as someone on You Tube commented about S&W’s snubby triggers, they’ve been making these little guns forever so they have the trigger down pat. I like two things about this trigger (the actual trigger, not the trigger pull weight)…I’ve used my share of revolvers with grooves machined into the trigger face, but this one is smooth. On a target gun, grooves are fine but on a concealed carry gun, I like a smooth trigger face. You never know if you’ll have to transition from a normal double-action to a single-action pull, and a smooth trigger facilitates that. Also, the edges of the trigger are not too sharp. I don’t remember how many handguns in general I’ve owned where I had to take the sharp edges off the edges of the trigger. This is not a place for a knife-edge-like machining job. I don’t know if I could explain why I like triggers on CC guns to be this way; I just do. It works for me, but you may be different. If so, let us hear from you below.
Taurus has made its fair share of wheelguns, too, and they seem to know what they’re doing. I’ve not met a trigger pull on any Taurus revolver that I couldn’t live with. Some were better than others, of course, but by and large they were very usable. The trigger pull on their Silhouette Target revolver is user-adjustable…that’s a great idea. On a snubby, you want a trigger pull that’s smooth, without catches. Pull weight (unless it’s in the “takes-two-fingers-to-pull-it” Colt 1917 .45 ACP category) is secondary. Of course, a lighter pull is better than something that would take Hulk Hogan to pull but if the pull is smooth and breaks cleanly every time, that helps to make up for a heavier pull. I noticed on mine that the pull is very even in double-action mode and, as stated, not too heavy. The single-action pull is great…very clean with hardly any creep. There is no take-up and darned little overtravel.
By the way…if you aren’t familiar with trigger terminology, here’s a quick tutorial…
- Take-Up is the distance you have to pull the trigger before you feel it engage the sear. Sort of like freewheeling on a bicycle…no resistance. It just takes extra time, and more concentration to hold the sights on the target.
- Creep is not that weird guy who lives down the block, but is what you feel after the trigger engages the sear, before it breaks. Creep can be a pain or not – it depends on how smoothly the engaging parts have been polished. You may want a little amount of creep, but not too much. Everybody’s different in what works for them. Having to put pressure on the trigger for a seemingly-long time before the gun fires can move your sights off-target.
- Overtravel is how far the trigger moves after the shot breaks. Some pistols have overtravel stops, either in the trigger itself as an adjustment screw (think higher-end 1911) or molded onto the frame of a polymer pistol. You don’t want the trigger to move much after the shot breaks…room for more error.
So, the 85UL has a pretty decent trigger, to sum up. I’ve shot guns with worse trigger pulls. And…let’s be honest. If this were a 50-yard bullseye target revolver, a top-notch match-grade trigger tuned to perfection would be indicated. But, it’s a “get-off-me” gun with a practical range of around 15 yards, give or take. The trigger that came in this gun is fine for that role and is good enough that it allows for some fairly sophisticated trigger control. Train with it in double-action mode for the majority of your range time, and then cock the hammer and explore the single-action mode…you’ll get good at double-action center-hits in short order. At least, that’s the goal. Learn to control the trigger and then see how it helps your shooting.
The sights are, well, snubby sights… a trough down the middle of the topstrap with a fixed post up front. I usually paint my handgun sights to make them more visible to my aging eyes. I will daub some brightly-colored nail polish on the front post, with the rear outlined with a white paint marker. So, how can a company mess up such a simple set-up? I’ve seen some snubbys (mostly older models) that used a very small, thin front post coupled with a shallow rear notch. This type of setup makes it hard to place the front post on target and simultaneously keep it centered in the rear notch due to the small size of the post and shallowness of the notch. The Taurus 85UL has a set of usable sights. The notch is deep and square, with a matching-size front post. It’s easy to get a good sight picture with these sights. Here are a few shots of the sight picture and sights…
When we talk of a snubby that is designed to be carried very close to the body, we think of the abuse that the gun will undergo in terms of rubbing against you or your clothes, dings and scratches, and other unpleasant events. I think probably the best overall finish wouldn’t be a finish, but a metal – stainless steel. It is fairly impervious to sweat (it will still rust, it just takes longer) and allows you to buff out a minor scratch without needing to re-blue it with cold blue touch-up. But, it does tend to cost more most of the time.
My 85UL has a flat matte black finish. It isn’t shiny blue, just black. I’m not exactly sure how it was applied to the aluminum frame – whether by a bluing process or anodizing, but it looks like a very dark blue that hasn’t been polished. Taurus has gotten away from bright, shiny bluing – they are cutting corners where possible. Their revolvers tend to be either stainless or black. There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s just different. I guess the main purpose of a finish is to protect the gun from rust or other surface blemishes… this finish does that. I once owned a Rossi .357 that had, literally, a mirror-polished stainless finish that you could see yourself in. That was all well and good, but it didn’t last. The more I shot and cleaned it, the less-bright the finish became. I liked that shininess then, but I’ve come around more to liking a more-utilitarian coating on my guns. As long as the finish holds up, I’m good with it. Time will tell.
One thing that is obvious in the photos above is that the anodized aluminum frame’s finish is rougher than the steel parts’ (cylinder, cylinder release, hammer and trigger) blued finish. That’s just the nature of the beast. As stated above, time will tell. Before we shoot this thing, let’s look at what you can buy for your Taurus snubby…
Other Goodies – Grips, Holsters and More
Suppose you don’t like the grips that come on this gun…what do you do? Taurus sells replacement grips…here are a couple from their website…
(remember, the 856 is the 6-shot revolver that replaced the 85. Grips will fit both).
And, if you don’t like the Taurus offerings, there are always Hogue, Pachmayr and others. In terms of adding a laser, if you don’t want to go with the grip above, I put a LaserLyte on my S&W 638…the same one fits a Taurus 85/856.
Here it is on a stainless 85. I recommend LaserLyte for two simple reasons…they usually work as advertised, but if they don’t, they have excellent customer service. I had purchased one, used, from a gun dealer friend for an unbelievably small amount of money. I stuck it on my 638 and discovered the windage adjustments I made weren’t holding. Long story short – the company sent me a brand new one, no charge, no questions asked. That is excellent customer service. And, you may remember that I’m left-handed…the laser works with either hand shooting the gun. It also won’t get hung up in most holsters made for this gun.
In terms of other parts – speedloaders, holsters, etc. – check out Brownells and Midway USA. For more in-depth parts like barrels, cylinders, etc, go to Numrich Corporation. Any of these companies should have anything your heart desires for your 85, and increasingly so, for your 856.
But…How Does It Shoot?
In a short answer, it shoots like a snubby. OK, I hear you…no more cute answers. The good news is that, with the grip the gun wears, recoil is mitigated by a decent amount. I tested the gun with my standard .38 Special load – my hard-cast Lee 160-grain semi-wadcutter over 3.5 grains of Titegroup. This load shoots at 796 f.p.s with 225 ft./lbs. of energy out of my 1.87-inch-barreled S&W 638. It shoots, fairly accurately, to point of aim at 15 yards, so this is a great practice load. It does even better out of the Taurus 85…848 f.p.s with 256 ft./lbs. of energy. I usually don’t carry handloads, though…too many things can go wrong. Factory ammo is great, and the newer .38 defense loads are much better than those in years gone by. Even so, some of the best fight-stoppers are semi-wadcutters at a “get-up-and-stomp-’em” velocity. But, legally, factory ammo is the way to go. (To read about the .38 Special’s lineage, check out my article here). You can see a sample target at the top of this piece…it shot a little high at 7 yards, but that’s to be expected with that load. At least it was centered and fairly accurate. I shot a mixture of double-action and single-action shots.
And, In The End…
To end this quick look at this capable little gun, let’s summarize…the Model 85 (856) is one tough snubby, built to take a steady diet of +P loads without bending anything. If you are looking for a no-nonsense, pull-the-trigger-and-it-fires carry gun, give this gun a second look. With the 85 being discontinued, that means that a lot of dealers who have them in stock may be wanting to move them quickly. This usually translates into selling them at a bargain-basement price. This is a win-win…the dealer moves merchandise and you get a heck of a gun for not a heck of a lot of money. If you just have to have that 6th round, pick up an 856. With the pricing structure that Taurus is currently embracing, you will still get a good deal.
Add in the extra cylinder yoke latch, the very decent snubby sights and the recoil-soaking grip and you have a winner. Do I like my 638? Sure. It’s just that the Taurus has seemingly one-upped it in a few ways. I’ve mentioned some of them…let me add to the list the full-length barrel underlug that the 85 has. That will help mitigate recoil about as much as anything. I had to send the S&W back once, which was no big deal – they have excellent customer service. The only reason I mention that is that Taurus is not the only company that has to fix returned guns. I could buy one 638 or two Model 85s at the price I paid for this technically-used Model 85 that I don’t even think had been shot…that’s value for your dollar. I keep saying this as I review Taurus guns – I’ve written a bunch of them, about guns that I either owned or borrowed – Taurus is trying very hard to turn its once-bad reputation around. Their newer products are innovative and well-built, and are backed by a good warranty. They also are trying to improve turn-around times for guns sent in for repair, and are succeeding if my correspondence is any indication. Give a Model 85 a look – I don’t think you’d regret it. As always, leave a comment below if you have had any experience with this snubby. Now, get out and go shoot but stay safe!
Mike has been a shooter, bullet caster and reloader for over 40 years. Never one to be satisfied with the status quo, he is often found at his reloading bench concocting yet another load. With a target range in his backyard and after 40 years of shooting, his knowledge of firearms and reloading is fairly extensive. He is married, with four sons and daughters-law and 8-and-counting grandkids.