It’s funny how things have a way of coming back into vogue with the passage of time. While I hope never to see the return of those hip-hugger, bell-bottom jeans and zip-up Naugahyde boots from the 70s, I am thrilled to see the return of a venerable and street-proven revolver, the Smith & Wesson Model 66 Combat Magnum.
The Model 66 was popular for police work during the 1970s and 80s, but it eventually lost market share with the advent of the plastic, high-capacity revolution. Even still, the Model 66 remained in production from 1970 until discontinued in 2005. You can’t keep a good gun down, however, and Smith & Wesson brought back the Model 66 Combat Magnum in 2014.
Good Size, Good Caliber
There’s something just right about Smith & Wesson’s medium sized K-Frame revolvers like the 66. They don’t feel blocky and heavy, nor do they have that uncomfortable lack of substance of the featherweight six shooters. The cylinder is thin, not like those whiskey casks on larger frame revolvers. Weight is just enough. By that I mean it’s heavy enough to help soak up recoil, but no so much that it feels like you’re carrying a couple of patio-paver stones strapped to your belt. All in all, it’s not only a perfect carry size, but it's also comfortable to shoot any load within its stated caliber range.
Another great advantage of the Model 66 is its chambering. If you feel the need for speed, you can stuff the cylinders with hot 125 or 158 grain .357 Magnum rounds and satisfy most any desire for an effective, but still controllable, handgun round. If you want to practice, plink, or introduce a new shooter to the joy of wheel gun shooting, stoke it with slow and easy .38 Special cartridges. In the .38 Special range, you can shoot anything from 125-grain lead cowboy loads that launch with more of a “whoosh” than a bang, to higher-powered .38 Special +P defense loads.
Don’t get me wrong—I love my snubbie revolvers. But, you have to admit, they’re really expert guns. The short sight radius and use of a long, double-action trigger pull requires some solid trigger press expertise. The small size and light weight means it’ll snap and jump when firing any type of self-defense ammo. That’s okay, as its big value is portability and ease of concealment. If you can handle larger dimensions, primarily in height and overall length, the Model 66 Combat Magnum is actually pleasurable to shoot. The large front sight blade with orange insert and an adjustable rear sight not only create a “bullet-proof” sight picture, but you can also adjust the point of impact to your favorite ammo.
How Does It Shoot?
When I got the 66 to the range, I decided to start mellow, so I loaded it with my favorite .38 Special “just for fun” ammo. It’s one of my handload recipes that lobs a 128-grain lead bullet at 725 feet per second from the 4.25-inch barreled Combat Magnum. On a cold day, I just might be able to out-speed-walk these bullets, but boy, are they fun to shoot. This load was a pussycat when fired from the Combat Magnum, not much different in the recoil department than a .22LR handgun.
This gun wasn’t built for wimpy loads, however, so I quickly moved up to a variety of less tame .38 Special and .357 Magnum cartridges.
I tested velocity from the Combat Magnum using a Shooting Chrony Beta Master Chronograph. I set it up fifteen feet down range and fired a boatload of rounds, only nicking the screens on my chrony once:
Ammunition Caliber Weight Velocity (FPS)
Winchester Train .38 Special 130 grain 840.2
Hornady Critical Defense .38 Special 110 grain 980.2
Speer Gold Dot +P SB .38 Special 135 grain 1,011.9
Winchester USA +P .38 Special 125 grain 1,034.4
American Eagle .357 Magnum 158 grain 1,208.3
Hornady XTP .357 Magnum 125 grain 1,441.0
All of the .38 Special loads were comfortable, and I would have no aversion to practicing with regular, full-power ammunition. As I expected, the .357 Magnum loads tested felt like just that—.357 Magnums. Even still, I would have no qualms about carrying either 125-grain or 158-grain .357 defensive ammunition in this revolver. The combination of size, barrel length, and recoil-absorbing grip material make it perfectly controllable.
Speaking of grips, the material is synthetic, with a texture I would describe as firm, but slightly pliable. (It's similar to the grip on a good Estwing hammer, if you're into quality tools.) While you can feel a bit of “give” with pressure, it’s certainly not like a soft foam rubber feel. The grip design is very narrow, noticeably less than that of a typical semi-auto pistol. Before shooting, it felt a bit awkward and on the narrow side. However, once I moved to double-action mode use, I found that the narrow grip profile allowed me plenty of finger reach to operate the trigger with proper leverage. The synthetic material does an admirable job of helping tame recoil of heavier loads.
The finish on the new model is a satin brushed stainless. It doesn’t create glare, yet offers the same resistance to corrosion of the shinier models. Admittedly, finish is purely a personal preference decision. I find the satin finish attractive, yet I wouldn’t fall into an abyss of depression if I picked up some nicks and dings over time.
Perhaps the great gun-buying spree of 2013 encouraged Smith & Wesson to bring this revolver back into production. The size and weight attributes does it a great gun for a newer shooter. It couldn’t be simpler to operate, and it’s easy to handle. Personally, I think it’s one of those rare crossover guns: suitable for beginners, and appreciated by experts.
S&W Model 66 Combat Magnum Specifications
Caliber: .357 Magnum and .38 S&W Special +P
Capacity: 6 Rounds
Action: Single/Double Action
Barrel Length: 4.25 inches (10.8 cm)
Front Sight: Red Ramp
Rear Sight: White Outline, Adjustable
Weight: 36.6 oz. (1,037.6 g)
Overall Length: 9.6875 inches (24.6 cm)
Frame Material: Stainless Steel
Cylinder Material: Stainless Steel
Finish: Glass Bead