[Review] Taurus 856 Defender

I like snub-nose revolvers. I admit it. If that makes me a Luddite, so be it. I started shooting more seriously and frequently at a time when the only double-stack semi-auto pistol available at your local gun store was the Browning Hi-Power, with its “enormous” 13-round capacity. In 1978 most cops/armored car drivers/security personnel/etc. carried revolvers, as did most folks who carried a gun for self-defense. Things really changed in the early ‘80s when Gaston Glock introduced his wunderkind, but until then the revolver was king. Some of us still carry revolvers even in this age of the Striker-Fired-Plastic-Fantastic. Of course, I own several semi-autos and carry them as well – it’s just that I also really like wheelguns. I’ve reviewed several different revolvers herein…you might want to check some of them out. Here are a few to start with…

So, I guess that I’ve had some experience with revolvers. At least I’ve owned my share and have learned about them over the years. I am not done acquiring them yet, hopefully. (I’m still looking for a 4-or-so inch .44 Magnum that I could carry around our property as a utility/protection/hunting gun. I’d shoot mostly .44 Specials out of it, or at least some of my favorite .44 Mag mid-range loads. Something on the order of a Taurus Tracker or one of the single-action reproductions. At least, that’s the plan… I like revolvers.

The Model 85

“Since when has Taurus made a .38 snubbie”, you might ask? Near as I can tell, the model 85 dates back to around 1984. That gun, and the model 66 .357 revolver, have been Taurus’ bread and butter revolvers for many years. Taurus was once owned by Bangor Punta who also owned Smith and Wesson at the same time. Some shooters have commented to me how much Taurus revolvers look like S&W’s, which is due to the fact that a lot of them were made, legally, on the same or similar machinery from similar blueprints. I researched and chronicled a fairly detailed history of the Taurus company when I wrote my review of the Taurus Spectrum .380. It makes an interesting read. The model 85 revolvers are very popular – I own one. (Not that they’re popular just because I own one – they were popular all on their own way before I bought mine, of course). Mine’s the Model 85 Ultralite .38 Special +P model with an alloy frame – it weighs about 17 ounces empty and fits in a pocket. It is a 5-shot revolver, somewhat similar to a S&W J-frame. It uses a transfer bar for safety, and has the ubiquitous Taurus safety key lock. It also has a feature that I really like – an extra spring-loaded locking stud on the yoke. More on this later.

Enter A Six-Shooter

A five-shot snubbie in .38 Special is the norm, at least as far as the mainstream is concerned. Smith and Wesson legitimized the concept in 1950 with the introduction of the 5-shot Model 36, the Chief’s Special. (It is interesting to note that this gun was not only made with a 2-inch barrel, but three-inchers were available as well.) Colt, early on, decided that six shots were desirable in their snubbies, the same as in their larger guns. I once owned a Colt Cobra six-shooter that was very nice – I should have hung on to it, of course. It was only a matter of time before Taurus brought out a snub-nosed .38 with a six-shot cylinder. It happened in 2019 when the company introduced a new line – the 856. I guess the model designation came from the old “85” plus a “6” for 6 shots. This was a 2-inch-barreled gun that was pretty much identical to the 85 except that it had a six-shot cylinder. Growing in width only a few hundreths of an inch, the new 856 became popular and today sells very well. Why not have an extra round if it only adds a tiny bit of girth to the cylinder? The same holsters (well, most of them) for the 85 fits the 2-inch 856. Taurus made the 85 in many different finishes and colors at one time, but sadly is no more. Now, there are no 85s on the Taurus web site…the only .38 snubbie they show is the 856. This is, of course, no big deal and only makes sense from a marketing standpoint. If you want the 5-shot gun, you can still find them for sale at the usual locations but, if I were buying one today, I’d go with the 6-shooter 856. Now…if it only had a longer barrel and better sights…

The Defender 856

It does – it’s called the Defender 856. Sporting a three-inch barrel, this gun comes in six different variations (at the time of this writing), with stainless steel, black (anodized and matte) and tungsten cerakote finishes available. Grip materials include hard rubber, rosewood and VZ. One constant across the line is the night sight with bright orange insert. The Defender 856 mounts an AmeriGlo H3FJ sight on the barrel. I cannot begin to tell you how glad I was when I first read that this revolver was going to sport, from the factory, a useful and highly visible front sight. With most snubby sights consisting of the typical trough/notch in the top of the frame coupled with an almost-visible tiny front post, it was with a great sigh of relief that I opened the box and saw that big, glowing orange dot up front on the replaceable post with a wide notch in the rear.

Taurus Defender 856 front sight

Taurus Defender 856 rear sight

I have tried almost every bright shade of nail polish and enamel paint on the black front posts of many revolvers over the years as my sight ages along with the rest of me. Once upon a time I could get by with a black front post but not anymore. I really appreciated the red inserts that came on various Smith and Wessons that I’ve owned – they helped. So, it is with great fanfare that I announce the brand of nail polish that I’m using now – it’s Pure Ice© orangey-pink. (There is no color designation, so I went with the scientific name). That shade stands out in a sight picture. But, the Defender 856 doesn’t need it, as it’s already orange to draw your eye, and then glows in the dark by way of the tritium insert. This, to my almost-70-year-old eyes, is the best of both worlds. I had no trouble seeing the sight when I was shooting the gun.

Before we get too involved with details of the Defender, let’s look at some basic specs from both the Taurus web site and my observations.

Capacity6 rds
Action typeDA/SA
Caliber38 Special +P
Height4.80"
Width1.41"
Weight35.00 oz. (two of the six models use an alloy frame and have a 16 oz. weight)
Barrel length3.00"
Overall length7.50"
Trigger pullsSA, 5 lbs. 3.5 oz; DA, 8 lbs, 9,5 oz measured
Front sightAmeriGlo H3FJ Night Sight W Orange Outline
Rear sightFixed
SafetyTransfer Bar, Keyed Lock
MSRP$429.00 - $477.00 depending on model.

Real-world pricing is a bit hard to find at the moment, as these guns are very popular and have just started to ship…keep checking with your favorite gun retailer.

After digesting the specs again (especially the 2-pound-plus weight), I’m beginning to see this revolver in the same size and weight class as the newly-released Colt King Cobra. Granted, that gun is a 357 Magnum but the Defender’s height and length are in the ballpark and so invite comparisons. The steel-framed Defender actually outweighs the Cobra by 12 ounces (23 vs. 35). Don’t misunderstand – I’m not saying that the Taurus is going to take sales away from Colt, but I’m merely stating that this gun frame size/barrel length seems to be really popular right now again. After shooting the Defender, it’s no wonder that the three-inchers are so hot now.

That Extra Inch

The three-inch barrel has long been a popular choice for revolver fans. Starting back in the old west (or even before), some shopkeepers and lawmen had their Peacemaker’s long barrel shortened to three or so inches in order to conceal it more easily – Colt even made what became known at the Sheriff’s Model, with a three-inch barrel. Right up to modern times, the three-incher is a viable choice for concealed carriers who think that a four-inch barrel is a bit too long but want more than a two-inch tube. Smith and Wesson, for one, has made many regular production and Performance Center guns with that length barrel, mostly in .357 but also in other calibers. They handle very well and are better-balanced in your hand than they have a right to be. To my mind, they’re the best of both worlds.

Another small advantage of that extra inch is velocity. But… owning a chronograph has done a couple things for me – it has shown me that a longer barrel makes a difference with velocities and that a longer barrel really doesn’t make a difference. Huh? How can it be both of those things? I am continually being surprised by what my chrono’s screen tells me. For some loads in short-barreled guns, velocities are amazingly high, while other short tube loads register lower-than-expected readings. Nothing can be taken for granted as far as barrel length and velocities are involved. Generally speaking, longer tubes equal higher velocities but nowadays with loads formulated for shorter barrels, you never know what velocities you’ll get until you shoot it over your chronograph. Don’t just assume – actually measure your velocities.

Speaking of velocities, here is what I found shooting just a couple of loads through two guns…the first gun is the Defender 856 and the second is my 2-inch-barreled model 85.

Load:Defender 856 3 inch85 2 inch
Hornady Critical Defense 110-grain875 fps, 187 ft./lbs800 fps, 156 ft./lbs
Handload, 160-gr cast SWC/3.5 gr. Tite Group761 fps, 141 ft./lbs735 fps, 189 ft./lbs

(energy provided for comparison. Don’t count just on bullet energy when you decide on what load to carry).

I wish I had more .38 ammo on hand, but my supply is very low and it is harder to restock with all the current events taking place. I had done a big experiment (for me, anyway) with several various .38 handloads to shoot in my 85 but came back to my standard 3.5/Tite Group load – not exactly +P but at least it won’t bend anything when you shoot it. It is accurate, for the most part (depending on the gun, of course). Interesting to note that the extra inch mattered more with the faster defense load and its 110-grain bullet than it did with the heavier cast bullet load. I do believe that some folks who are planning on carrying a revolver for self-defense may well opt to carry a 3-inch version with its longer sight radius and slight gain in ballistics, but there is nothing wrong with the old standby 2-inch version – you don’t give up all that much.

Speaking of shooting, here are a couple of targets I recorded. Nothing very special here, but at least we know that both loads are at least in the ballpark in terms of printing close to point of aim. I shot these at 10 yards from a rest, center hold.

target critical defense
Hornady Critical Defense
target shot with handload
Handload

It’s interesting to see the difference in impact. The Critical Defense hit lower on the target, which stands to reason since a lighter bullet moving faster exits the barrel more quickly than a heavier one moving more slowly since the barrel has less time to rise in recoil. Both loads hit to the right, but that’s me – you could pick up this same gun and print a group dead center. I must look at the sights sideways, I guess. Both loads were accurate for the type of gun it is…it shows solid close-range accuracy for the task at hand. In shooting both guns and describing felt recoil, the heavier 856 wins every time in terms of less felt recoil. Again, that stands to reason since you’re comparing a 35-ounce gun to a 17-ouncer. Even so, neither gun was overly brisk when shot. The rubber grips on the 85 soaked up the recoil more than did the very nice VZ grips on the 856 – no surprise here. But, the VZ grips held the gun against recoil in my hand every bit as well as did the rubber grips on the other gun. The front sight was a blessing on the 856, for sure. It would definitely be of value in a low-light situation. I wish I had more ammo on hand, but as I always say when I review a gun – it’s a gun review, not an ammo review. With the quality of firearms today, I have run across precious few guns of any type that weren’t accurate with at least one type of ammo, so I don’t worry so much about not shooting 15 different loads in my trials, especially when certain types of ammo are still somewhat hard to get. This gun will do just fine in the accuracy department.

Photo Gallery

Let’s take a look at a few photos I shot of the 856.

5 vs 6-shot cylinder

Don’t try to use the speedloader you bought for your J-frame or model 85 with the 856 – that extra hole messes things up where that’s concerned! This is obvious, but it just made a fun photo…

6-shot cylinder
Cylinder close-up. The ejector rod is long enough to kick empties out completely.
Taurus Defender 856 grip logo
Grip close-up with the new(er) Taurus logo.
Taurus Defender 856 in box
What you get in the box. The usual lock, owner’s manual, “do not discard” messages…
Taurus Defender 856 yoke lock
The alluded-to yoke with its locking stud.

It’s not new – this is a feature that used to be found only on more powerful revolvers. Taurus is including it with its small-frame guns now – it is present also on my model 85. This is a good thing – it’s not a deal breaker if the gun would be without it, but it does add just a small extra layer of strength to the cylinder.

Taurus Defender 856 left side
Gun profiles.

Note the green tag on the trigger guard – this gun had been displayed at SHOT Show 2020.

Taurus Defender 856 right side

The gun is very well balanced and sits tightly in your hand. The grips are, in a word, excellent. VZ makes some great grips and these are no exception. I like the gun’s two-tone aspect – the black front sight, hammer, trigger and cylinder really stand out against the stainless frame and barrel. S&W does this treatment on their model 66 and 69 revolvers (except for the cylinder which is stainless). It produces a handsome revolver.

Carrying The Defender

Some folks have a little trouble carrying a revolver with a “long” 3-inch barrel, when they are used to the 2-inch variety. The extra inch really only means that you might have to carry it in an IWB holster as opposed to a pocket holster, which is certainly no big deal. Some have no trouble carrying a 4-inch or longer barreled semi-auto but balk at a 3 or 4 inch revolver. What needs to be remembered is that the barrel, usually, is not the part of the gun that dictates whether you carry it or not – the grip is the part that will print if it is too large. The barrel is stuck down your pants, to be blunt, where it’s hidden. So, a 3 or even 4 inch revolver may be “carryable” with the proper holster.

Add in the bright front sight and the extra inch of sight radius and we have a winner. Rated for +P ammo, the Defender could nip on the heels of a similar barrel length .357 Magnum snubby. Granted, the magnum round will produce more velocity, but its blast and recoil can be fierce. For a really good video that compares the ballistics of those two calibers in a snub-nosed revolver, check this out:

You should have a good experience if you decide to carry this gun – it seems very business-like but still is a good-looking revolver. Accurate, reliable – it should do the job. And, if you carry a speedloader or speed strips, your reload times should improve steadily – just practice reloading a lot with dummy rounds.

Final Verdict

What do we take away from this review? Hopefully, you might start to see carry revolvers in a new light, if you’re not already there. One can find several different three-inch-barreled wheelguns on the market, but this one is bound to make its presence known in a big way. I tried to find one online for sale so as to get a specific real-world price, but I couldn’t find one in stock. Granted, it is a new model and will take a while to get enough samples out there to provide decent stock numbers. Even so, if you are curious, get to your Taurus dealer and ask him or her to try to get one in for you to look at. I was glad to get one – it took a long time after my initial request for it to get here but the wait was worth it. Getting one that had been displayed at the SHOT Show was just icing on the proverbial cake. If you want a lighter-weight gun, there are two alloy-framed models…want all-black? No problem. Rosewood grips? Gotcha covered. Another really good choice on Taurus’ part was that ALL models have the AmeriGlo night sight. Good on you, Taurus.

For an approximate real-world price of around $375 or so, you could walk out of the store with a “retrograde” revolver instead of a poly-framed 9mm. I think you could surely make a worse choice. I’ve reviewed four Taurus revolvers here (here is my 9mm 905 snubby review), and I’ve been impressed overall. Taurus cut its teeth by making revolvers – their first one was made in 1941 – and they seem to have it figured out. Couple that with the new direction in which the company has pledged to go (I received a lengthy email from their CEO, as did many of you I’m sure) in regards to customer service and increased availability of parts on their web site and you hopefully have a recipe for success. With current-production .38 Spl. defense ammo, the updated, modern “old 38” is a viable candidate for concealed carry and this revolver is one classy way to carry it.

As always, leave a comment below if you like and be safe!

Written by Mike

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 9-and-counting grandkids.

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