May 09, 2016
By Joseph von Benedikt
In his 1977 book History of Smith & Wesson—considered by many to be the definitive work on the company—Roy Jinks wrote that without doubt the K-frame line of revolvers is the company’s most important development for two reasons: Some of S&W’s most famous handguns are within the K-frame line and—a fact I was unacquainted with—“…its production exceeds the combined quantities of all the other handguns produced by Smith and Wesson.”
My revised copy of Jinks’s book was printed in 1996, and at that time both statements were probably still true—and perhaps they are yet. The introduction of the company’s semiauto M&P line and the popularity of semiautos in general has made serious inroads on revolver production numbers, but that doesn’t change the fact that, in the world of legendary revolvers, those built on the K frame rank high.
Originally designed in 1899 for the .38 Special, the K frame was drafted into magnum duty by post-World War II Smith & Wesson President Carl Hellstrom after a lengthy conversation with sixgun artist and lawman Bill Jordan at the National Matches at Camp Perry. The topic was designing the ultimate law enforcement sidearm, and the result was the Combat Magnum. Chambered for the newish .357 Magnum cartridge, it sported a shrouded barrel and adjustable sights. The first serial-numbered gun was presented to Jordan in 1955.
However, time would prove that the K-frame Combat Magnum had an Achilles’ heel. Over a period of time, sustained shooting of heavy magnum loads could fatigue the frame of the revolver just below the rear of the barrel, where machining for the ejector rod weakened the portion of the frame enclosing the threaded barrel. Frames would occasionally crack, so shooters learned to control the diet of their beloved revolver, feeding it mostly .38 Specials when practicing and reserving the heavy .357 Magnum loads for duty carry or personal protection use.
Amid anguished cries from revolver lovers, Smith & Wesson discontinued building the svelte K-frame .357 Magnums in 2005. Two models had existed: the blued or nickel-plated carbon-steel Combat Magnum (to which the designation “Model 19” was added in 1957) and the stainless steel Smith and Wesson Model 66. Built with barrels varying from 2.5 to six inches in length, the former was in production from 1955 until 1999, the latter from 1971 to 2005.
This brings us to the recent introduction of a new Smith and Wesson Model 66 Combat Magnum. Like previous Smith and Wesson Model 66 Combat Magnums in configuration, the new revolvers have one key difference. As Smith and Wesson’s Paul Pluff pointed out when he first showed me the new revolver, the machining around the barrel is slightly different, leaving the frame more robust in critical high-stress areas, eliminating the potential for cracked frames.
The new Smith and Wesson Model 66 has a 4.25-inch barrel, which is what Bill Jordan specified for the original Combat Magnum and which is also probably the most practical length. The bore is five-groove rifled with a 1:18.75 right-hand twist. It has a classic ramped front sight with an orange insert for increased visibility pinned atop the shrouded barrel. Both the top of the barrel and the rear sight base are serrated to reduce glare. The rear sight is fit beautifully tight, without any discernible play.
Finished in a nice non-glare satin, “Smith & Wesson” runs down the left side of the barrel, “-357 Magnum-” over “COMBAT MAGNUM” down the right. The classic S&W trademark logo is engraved just below the cylinder latch, and the model designation “66-8” is rollmarked on the frame inside the crane, along with the serial number.
Minimal cylinder play exists when the revolver is at full cock, indicating a nicely machined cylinder stop and well-tuned action. The cylinder gap between the rear of the barrel and the face of the cylinder is nice and tight, too. Fluted for appearance and to reduce weight, the cylinder shows minimal marking from the cylinder stop, further indicating clean action timing.
Like the previous generation of Smith and Wesson Model 66s, the new revolver has a smooth trigger face (Model 19 triggers were for the most part serrated). While not of precision-tuned custom quality, the double-action pull rolls over cleanly and smoothly, stacking ever so slightly just before the hammer falls.
My Lyman Digital Trigger gauge maxes out at 12 pounds, and the double-action pull is more than that. However, I did get good measurements on the single-action pull, which is characteristically clean and crisp, breaking at four pounds, 11 ounces with about five ounces of variation over a series of five pulls.
- The new K-frame magnums are more robust in critical areas, which prevents the distress cracking seen in older K frames that had been fed a lot of magnum ammo—as the author did during his test, with no problems.
Heavily knurled, the hammer is a semi-combat type—fairly low profile to minimize snagging but substantial enough to enable a shooter to flick it back easily should the precision of the single-action function be desired. Like the sights, trigger and cylinder latch, it is finished in a matte black that contrasts nicely with the glass-bead satin of the stainless frame and barrel.
A locking mechanism is accessible via a tiny keyhole just above the cylinder latch, enabling the owner to render the handgun inoperable if desired. It’s the one element I don’t like about the new Smith and Wesson Model 66 Combat Magnum. Sporty-looking synthetic grips feel even better than they look. Slightly tacky and offering just a bit of texture, they are emblazoned with Smith & Wesson’s intertwined S&W logo.
Like every Model 19 and 66 that rolled off the production line, the new Smith and Wesson Model 66 feels great in the hand, balances superbly and points like an extension of your body. At 36.6 ounces it’s light enough to carry comfortably day after day in a duty-type holster yet heavy enough to dampen the recoil of full-bore .357 Magnum loads into something approaching civilized.
The original K-frame revolvers were often shockingly accurate. To determine whether this new CNC- and EDM-produced version upheld the family reputation, I filled my range bag with various fodder from Remington, Winchester, Hornady, Federal, Fusion, Estate and Black Hills until it threatened to burst and headed to the Utah foothills for some accuracy and function testing.
- The 4.25-inch barrel sports an underlug for about three-quarters of its length, and simple, tasteful rollmarks denote caliber and model.
During the course of accuracy testing and chronographing, I burned through about 220 rounds and managed to shoot some surprisingly good groups—including the single best 25-yard, five-shot group I’ve ever fired from an iron-sighted revolver. Shot with Hornady’s 125-grain FTX Critical Defense ammunition, it measured a scant 0.253 inch center to center.
I sure couldn’t do it every time—and, frankly, I’m not sure that the Smith and Wesson Model 66 could either, superbly accurate though it is—but I shot at least one very small group with each ammunition type I tested. This in spite of winds gusting to 20 mph that buffeted me and the fact that my eyes just don’t resolve iron sights like they did 20 years ago. Several of the groups were small enough to make me wish I had a Ransom Rest to accuracy-test the revolver or had at least put a handgun scope on it. I’d cheerfully wager that it would average sub-inch 25-yard groups with ammo it likes.
In order to avoid fouling buildup in the forward portion of the chambers, I completed testing the .357 Magnum loads I had on hand before switching to .38 Special. Although the Smith and Wesson Model 66 was peppy with the hottest magnum loads, it was comfortable to shoot with most of them and downright kitten-like with .38s.
As you can see in the accompanying chart, not one load averaged over 3.0 inches at 25 yards, and two—both of them .357 Magnums—averaged under 1.5 inches. Hornady’s 125-grain FTX Critical Defense won the honors of best average, but its average was skewed a bit by that spectacular 0.253-inch group. In reality, the American Eagle 158-grain jacketed softpoint load consistently produced the best groups. Got to love it when a handgun shoots wonderfully with inexpensive ammo.
- The new Model 66 Combat Magnum demonstrated excellent accuracy, as evidenced by this 25-yard group with 158-grain American Eagle. And it’s not even the smallest group von Benedikt shot.
With accuracy testing complete, I did some casual drills and plinked with the Smith and Wesson Model 66 for a while, shooting rapid-fire two-handed, slow-fire in the old classic one-handed bullseye stance, and finally, in honor of Bill Jordan, from the hip. Nope, I couldn’t even hit dirt clods consistently from the hip—let alone aspirin tossed in the air like Jordan did back in the day—but the Smith and Wesson Model 66 did point noticeably well, and it behaved politely through recoil thanks to the excellent synthetic grips.
By the time I was out of ammo, the lovely satin finish on the Smith and Wesson Model 66 Combat Magnum was plenty dirty and honorably coated with gunpowder residue. Precision machine that it is, it never even threatened to hiccup—but that was to be expected because, after all, it’s a revolver.
I left the gunpowder residue on for photography—not because I was lazy (which I am) but because while examining it post-testing it just looked right that way. The new Smith and Wesson Model 66 is an extremely robust version of the legendary K-frame .357 Magnum that will digest the heaviest magnum cartridges you can find without pause or potential for distressing the frame.
I’ve shot sleek Dan Wesson .357 Magnum revolvers, Colt Pythons and little J-frame .357 Magnum hand cannons. I’m particularly partial to Smith & Wesson’s seven-shot .357 Magnum 686 Plus, and I consider the eight-shot N-frame Model 327 TRR8 to be the best all-out combat revolver available anywhere. But the new Smith and Wesson Model 66 Combat Magnum is arguably the most streamlined, balanced .357-Magnum size revolver being currently built.
Were I an officer who preferred to carry a revolver for duty, I’d likely opt for the new Smith and Wesson Model 66 Combat Magnum. As Bill Jordan once said about the blued twin of the Smith and Wesson Model 66, it’s “the answer to a policeman’s prayer.” However, few officers are actually likely to carry a revolver these days. But as a trail gun or for working outdoorsmen in harsh, dusty environments, it’s a superb choice.
The new Smith and Wesson Model 66 Combat Magnum is versatile enough to defend hearth and home, to fill the stewpot, to perforate cans at the local gravel pit or to teach somebody the finer points of revolver shooting. It’s a well-mannered, authoritative aristocrat of the wheelgun world.