January 11, 2018
By Brad Fitzpatrick
Smith & Wesson has been experimenting with frame size in revolvers for more than a century, and the results have not always been positive. In 1935, the company unveiled the new .357 Magnum in its beefy N-frame wheelgun, which was large enough and strong enough to handle the .357's prodigious power. It was also so large some shooters found it cumbersome, so the decision was made in the 1950s to start chambering the brand's K-frame revolver — which had traditionally been linked to the milder .38 Special- in .357 Magnum.
It was a good idea, and the guns were popular, but there was a problem. As .357 velocities and energies increased, so did stress on the K frame, and it became apparent these guns didn't hold up as well as hoped with newer, hotter .357 loads.
S&W looked at its options. The K frame was a popular and portable handgun, but red-hot loads increased wear rates. The N frame was rugged and plenty stout, but it was big, bulky and heavy. The best option, it seemed, was to generate another frame- a "medium-large" frame that filled the void between the K and the N. And thus the L frame was born.
The L frame shared the same grip size as the K but featured a wider cylinder and improvements to the barrel, including a then-new full-length underlug. Smith & Wesson had its .357 frame, and life returned to normal.
Smith & Wesson once again traded down frame sizes for a magnum wheelgun; this time using the L frame to create a compact (relatively speaking) five-shot .44 Magnum. Known as the Model 69, this 4.25-inch-barreled .44 Magnum broke cover in 2014. With this gun, the company had managed to create a .44 that was easy to carry. But one question remained: Would a downward move in frame size cause headaches for Smith & Wesson yet again?
Nope. Modern metallurgy has caught up with hot ballistics, and Smith & Wesson did its research before rolling out the gun, which has won favor with just about everyone who tested it- including me. Now Smith & Wesson is expanding the L-frame Model 69 family with a new short-barreled edition: the Model 69 Combat Magnum.
It comes with the standard 1.56-inch-wide L-frame cylinder that comfortably holds five rounds of .44. A spring-powered ball bearing in the frame locks in place in a detent in the crane of the revolver- a simple system but one that is secure and robust, allowing the Model 69 to handle the heaviest .44 loads without fear of damage.
The term "Combat Magnum" may seem confusing to younger readers. After all, the last time the majority of law enforcement officers carried wheelguns Ronald Reagan was president and Tom Landry was still coaching in Dallas. But the Combat Magnum moniker is a Smith & Wesson tradition, and the defensive revolver is nowhere near dead despite a never-ending influx of new polymer-framed semiautos.
Sweeping acceptance of concealed-carry laws has created a new market for revolvers and has renewed interest in these guns. In addition, the inherent strength and reliability of revolvers allow them to be chambered in powerful rounds while still remaining portable. As long as there are grizzly bears roaming the American wilderness, there will always be a place for defensive wheelguns.
The Model 69 Combat Magnum doesn't try to cover all the revolver bases. It has limited hunting applications, and a 2.75-inch barrel does not a target pistol make. No, this is a purpose-built gun, one designed for defense against furry and bipedal threats, and in that arena the Model 69 Combat Magnum shines.
It's just about as close to a genuine concealed-carry revolver as the .44 Magnum has ever been, but let's not forget that a .44 Magnum can also fire .44 Special ammunition.
For the big-bore lovers of the world, that's a real plus, and the .44 Special is one of the most underrated personal defense cartridges of the modern era. That's due in part to the fact that most .44s were so large that they were at best difficult to conceal and carry. But with this gun concealed carry is at least feasible.
The Model 69 Combat Magnum features stainless steel barrels, cylinders and frames- all of which have a bead-blasted matte silver finish that should stand up well to the elements, an important consideration for a handgun that will primarily serve duty as a bear-stopper in the Far North. By contrast, the hammer, cylinder release and trigger are blued.
Like other Combat Magnums, this version has a short, aggressively textured hammer spur that is easy to manipulate. The black rear sight is screw-adjustable for windage and elevation, although it lacks the white outline that appeared on the M69 4.25-inch I had tested previously. There's a red ramp front sight that is relatively easy to see under most light conditions.
The grip on the Model 69 is made of black synthetic with fish-scale texturing. It is soft to the touch, fully supporting the hand and extending around the rear of the trigger guard. At its widest point the grip measures an inch-and-a-half and there are comfortable grooves for all the fingers- an important consideration when touching-off full-power loads in one of the lightest and most compact .44 Magnums to come to market.
The Model 69 Combat Magnum weighs 34.4 ounces and measures just a hair under eight inches long, making it slightly shorter and lighter than your run-of-the-mill five-inch-barreled, steel-framed 1911. The widest point on the gun is the fluted cylinder, which, as previously mentioned, measures 1.56 inches.
Theoretically, the gun could work for concealed carry although it's certainly on the large side, and truthfully, that wasn't what this pistol was designed for. But in a sturdy outside-the-waistband holster, it's light enough and compact enough to stay out of the way until you need it. For someone who wants a predator-thumping wheelgun to wear while wading after fish in Alaska- the dominant market for a .44 Magnum like this- the Model 69's dimensions make it ideal.
The trigger pull on the Model 69 Combat Magnum I tested was excellent. It was right at 3.5 pounds in single-action mode and 11 pounds in double action. The single-action pull was a pound lighter than the 4.25-inch Model 69 I tested. I don't know if that's natural variation or if Smith & Wesson decided to lighten the trigger. Either way, this gun is ready to go boom with just a minor effort when the hammer is cocked. Be ready.
Now to indulge those readers who have skipped this far to read an impression of what it's like to touch off 100 .44 Magnum loads (plus 25 .44 Special loads) in a short-barreled gun weighing 34 ounces in a single sitting. No shock here, but with magnum loads this gun is a handful. Recoil is stiff, muzzle rise is significant, and muzzle blast is prodigious.
Smith & Wesson can't alter the laws of physics, but it's done what it can here by designing a grip that's sufficiently shaped and cushioned to help mitigate recoil.
In the midst of the first round of testing, the cylinder release started thumping my thumb. It wasn't a particularly painful blow, but after a few shots and a few grip readjustments, I decided to break out a pair of leather shooting gloves, which made the whole experience more pleasant.
Do I think you'll want to go out and shoot boxes and boxes of magnum loads at the range for fun with this revolver? Not likely. However, this gun is mild and quite manageable with .44 Special loads, and after littering the ground with empty cardboard .44 Magnum boxes, the magnum's less-abusive predecessor really does seem, well, special.
Making the switch to Hornady's Critical Defense loads makes this gun much more pleasant- even fun- to shoot a lot, and if I owned this gun I'd spend most of my time punching paper with the lighter .44 Special.
For defensive against hominid predators, the Model 69 Combat Magnum with .44 Special loads will warm the hearts of big-bore fans. In both single- and double-action mode, the gun's balance and bright red front ramp allow you to get back on target quickly, and that particular round hits with enough authority and leaves a large enough hole to exempt it from questions about stopping power.
And, as I said, you can conceal this gun. It isn't as easy as smaller revolvers or semiautos, but I did carry it in a belly band under a jacket, and it wasn't particularly obtrusive. It is larger and bulkier than the myriad .38/.357 wheelguns designed for personal protection, but some are willing to carry the extra load in exchange for the extra bore diameter.
After testing velocities in the Model 69 with the 4.25-inch barrel and comparing it against those generated by the 2.75-inch version, I was surprised to see velocities weren't all that much lower with the shorter gun. Though the loads weren't exactly the same in both tests, the velocities of comparable rounds showed the shorter-barreled Model 69 is losing, on average, about 50 fps to the longer barrel across the range.
So while you're giving up some energy with the shorter barrel, you aren't giving up as much as you might think. What you are trading is portability and weight for sight radius and accuracy. At 15 yards the 2.75-inch gun didn't do quite as well as the 4.25-inch gun did at 25 yards when fired from a rest. To my mind that's of little consequence; the Model 69 Combat Magnum isn't designed for benchrest shooting.
When fired from a standing position at seven yards the gun keeps all the rounds in a grapefruit-sized circle (provided you don't get the yips), which is perfectly acceptable for the type of applications for which the gun is designed.
The Model 69 Combat Magnum will appeal to those who like the .44 Magnum and actually like to carry them- particularly those who live, work or spend time outdoors in proximity to the great bears. But this gun will also appeal to the S&W fan for whom there's nothing else quite like the Combat Magnum, a wheelgun that's designed to play on the defensive side of the ball.
For the serious backcountry wanderer, it's light enough so that it won't be a burden during the exponentially greater period of time when you're in the woods and not being chased by a predator. But when called upon, the Model 69 Combat Magnum has the power needed to stop a threat in its tracks.