A Gun to Ride the River With: The Smith & Wesson 686

Smith & Wesson 686

Many of the guns I have purchased have been done so with the idea of being the “last rifle” or “last pistol” I’ll ever need to buy. Of course this never actually works out in practice – something new comes along and I catch the bug. Once in a while, though, I find something that is pretty much perfect as-is, and it endures. An example of this phenomenon: the venerable Smith & Wesson 686. It is my One if I could have only one, my hell or high-water sixgun, my “gun to ride the river with.”

Smith & Wesson 686

The 4″ Smith & Wesson 686 is the revolver that captured my imagination more than any other as a kid. Because I didn’t handle many actual revolvers as a kid, my fascination was merely due to the aesthetics of the thing. And I admit that to this day, no other revolver comes close to achieving the perfectly balanced look of the 4″ 686 (except maybe the 3″ and 5″ 686s…which still only come close). But calling a revolver perfect based on looks alone could responsibly be characterized as irresponsible. So why do I consider the S&W 686 to be the perfect revolver (and maybe even the perfect handgun)?

Perfect Revolver
My 4″, pre-lock 686-3.

It’s made to shoot. The 686 is built on the L-Frame, Smith & Wesson’s medium-large revolver chassis. The L-Frame was designed to correct the weaknesses of the smaller, lighter K-Frame with a thicker top strap and heavier forcing cone, while keeping the grip the same size. A few other dimensions in the gun were increased, resulting in a revolver that is designed for hard use with full-power .357 Magnum ammo.

Perfect Revolver
The beefy forcing cone and top-strap of the 686.

The mid-large dimensions of the L-Frame make the 686 heavy. This is not the worst thing. First, it soaks up recoil like a sponge. You can run the gun hard and run it fast. You can shoot any SAAMI-spec’d .357 Magnum load available, and do so with a smile on your face. The heft of this wheelgun also lends some stability when more precision is desired. In competent hands, a revolver of this size can be counted on to ring steel reliably at 100 yards or more. It is likely that it could also make an ill-intentioned rifleman of mediocre skill downright uncomfortable at similar remove.

Perfect Revolver

It doesn’t need modification. I have toyed with the idea of lightly customizing this revolver. But I’ve reached the conclusion that S&W pretty much did it right when they made this one. The double-action trigger is one of the smoothest and cleanest I’ve ever seen, breaking right around an even 10 lbs. Even the Hogue Monogrip that no one else likes just works for me.

Smith & Wesson 686It’s rugged and reliable. It is said that a man to ride the river with is a man that can be counted on in any situation and against any peril. A revolver to ride the river with should live up to the same standard. It should be one that earns and keeps the confidence of its owner, as the 686 has and does. The Smith & Wesson 686 is as reliable a gun as I’ve every carried.

The one facet of this revolver that I have contemplated changing is the rear sight. As my “hell or high-water” sixgun, this revolver is expected to accomplish its task regardless of difficulty. The factory adjustable sights are the most visible weak link in this gun if there is one. Possible replacement candidates are the Bowen Rough Country adjustable rear sight or the D&L Sports fixed rear sight, but I have not yet committed to either. I like the idea of both, but each has a disadvantage. The Bowen cuts a slighter higher, sharper profile, and the D&L would require the gun be permanently sighted in with a specific load (probably 125-grain Speer Gold Dots).

Smith & Wesson 686

It’s versatile. This is perhaps the most compelling reason that the 686 would be the one, if I could only have one. It’s also my go-to gun for outdoor carry. Although it gets a little heavy for all-day carry, it can be carried. Though it’s a little large for concealment, it can be concealed. Though it’s a little light for predator defense, it works. Appropriately loaded for the task at hand, the 686 will do what needs to be done. It’s the minimalist’s gun: a generalist in the extreme.

Smith & Wesson 686
These Buffalo Bore 180-grain LFNs are capably handled by the 686, as are the lightest of .38 Special loads. Check out the heavy roll-crimp on these rounds.

As I stated earlier, if I could have only one, this would be The One. The 686 is classy, rugged and reliable, and above all, versatile. So let me hear from you: what is your “gun to ride the river with”?

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20 thoughts on “A Gun to Ride the River With: The Smith & Wesson 686”

  1. The 686 is never a bad choice, having owned several I can understand the allure.

    Personally I always found the full underlug too much of a good thing (mass) and ended up going back to either a 4″ Model 57 .41 Magnum or a 629 Mountain Gun, both pre-lock/MIM, for carry and trail use.

    Funny thing, I did the exact opposite and got rid of all my wheel guns, settling instead on a Colt Gold Cup for most things and a Glock 23 for concealed carry and teaching classes.

    Won’t say that my choices are the best, but just like your choice of wheel guns, it’s our choice.

    1. It’s hard to argue with the allure of Glocks. They’re cheap, they work, and you can have one (or two or three) in just about any caliber you fancy. I’ve been eyeing a Mountain Gun for awhile, but I never got into the .41 Magnum…at least not yet.

  2. My 686 was the first pistol I bought. Still have it and shoot it quite often. I wish I would have bought the 4″ barrel, but the 6″ barrel is pretty sweet ! From shooting target .38 Special loads or full power .357’s the 686 does it all !

  3. I too am chiefly a revolver guy but usually it’s a Ruger SP 101 or GP100. I don’t have your credentials but choose a revolver for most of the same reasons. However, a 1911 in .45 is in my carry rotation too.

  4. I completely agree with this article, only I prefer the 3″ barrel to the 4″ barrel. This does not mean much though seeing as I have owned neither.

    1. I definitely don’t think you’d go wrong with a 3″ 686. I think they look great, pack a little easier, and still shoot wonderfully.

  5. Last year I bought a 3 inch 686 plus. I feel the same way you do, will never sell it. I carry it in a Galco holster made for a 4 inch. Started to send it back since I ordered a 3 inch, but never know, I might end up with a 4 inch one of these days. Great job writing about the 686!
    Bob

  6. I’m a Smith guy through and through but the title of this article caught my attention because it’s exactly how I describe my blued, Ruger Wiley Clapp GP100.

    Someone has been reading Askins and Jordan! Don’t know your age, but you are younger than me because I remember the 686 as a young adult. Yeah, it looked cool, but why the extra weight over a 66? That was before I understood the ::weeping:: weakness of the K-frame to stand up to a steady intake of full-power magnums.

    If you want great balance, out of something longer than a 3″ revolver, hunt down a 686+ with a 5″ barrel, sans under lug – don’t know the value of them these days, but let’s just say it’s worth it.

    Just discovered your site and am enjoying the articles. Keep posting – I added it to my bookmarks.

    1. David,

      Glad you’re enjoying it! I was talking with Mike Wood earlier today and we both agreed – the Wiley Clapp GP100 is a fine wheelgun. I might have to track one down one of these days. I also like the 5″ 686 – a close friend has one (with unfluted cylinder) and I really like it.

      Thanks again,
      Justin

  7. “Same gun,” meaning L-frame
    size, for me but in the
    design of the GP-100 from Ruger.

    I’ve shot Smiths for decades but
    in recent years I’ve turned to
    the GP-100. As to barrel
    length, I’m happy with 4 inches
    but I also like the 3-inch version.
    In a day or so I’ll have the new
    7-shot version with 4-inch bbl.

  8. After decades of using
    Smith revolvers including
    the 686, I now use mostly
    a GP-100 in 4-inch and 3-inch.

    The GP is Ruger’s L-frame and
    I just love the ruggedness of them.

    Soon I’ll have a new 7-shot
    version in 4 inch.

    1. Dan – If by “ruggedness” you are referring to Ruger’s alleged superior strength over other brands…this may be a myth. I used to think my S&W’s were weaker than Rugers. I recently learned about the differences between cast frames vs. forged. I think Ruger’s single action Blackhawk frame is indeed strong…as many custom makers re-build them for the powerful Linebaugh series of cartridges…but when it comes to DA revolvers, a lot of people assume Ruger’s are stronger because they have bulkier frames. Because Ruger frames are cast, and not forged, they need to be larger to maintain the same level of strength.

  9. My first, and only foray into wheel guns so far, is an early 4″ 686-4 (last of the all MIA). It’s made a believer out of me. I’d rather shoot it over my 17 rd S&W 9mm, my daily carry Walther compact 9mm, my mouse gun 380 acp. The only pistol I like to shoot more is my Springfield 1911. But, as the author said, there is just something about the aesthetics of the 686. It’s a siren song. In a 2 handed grip, it is perfectly balanced.

  10. I currently own only four S&W revolvers, & they are all older models, 629/6″, 657/8⅜”, 617/4″, and a 66/6″. I have owned three 686’s down thru the years, & had nothing but problems with them ! Always the same malfunction on every one. When I bought them, I was in awe of the accuracy & actions, but that didn’t last too long for me. The first one I bought a 6″ worked great for about three years, & suddenly started to malfunction in single action shooting. When the trigger was pulled, the hammer would drop of the single action sear, and catch on the double action sear, pushing the trigger forward and your trigger finger along with it. Back to S&W for four weeks. They repaired it and returned it to me. Within three months, it happened again. Back for repair, & I sold it upon getting it back ! A couple years later, I figured they may have corrected the problem, so I bought a new 4″ 686, & within a year it also began to malfunction, same problem ! S&W got it back also. Fixed it & sent it back. Next time it happened, I took it apart, and stoned the sears, & fixed it myself & sold it. I came to the opinion that the chrome plated hammers & triggers were too soft, and caused wear on the sear edges.
    Now, next one I looked at much later had black or dark gray triggers & hammers ! Problem solved, right ? Well no, not for me, because by that time I no longer trusted my life to it, & traded for my first GP100, and never looked back !! I would not ever get rid of my older S&W’s for any amount of money, & wouldn’t pay a dollar for a new one, if I had to depend on it to defend my friends or family !!! I truly trust any of my Ruger GP100’s, 4″, 6″, & MC 4″
    Jim

  11. Great read! I agree with everything you mentioned. Mind you, I’m a real revolverphile…
    I own a Ruger GP100 in 4.2″ which I shot with competitively, as well as a S&W 627-5 which I also shot with competitively in IPSC.
    Though admittedly, despite the huge advantage of having 2 extra rounds in a cylinder, the feel and maneuverability of the smaller yet still amply robust L-frame GP100 has me crawling back to it every time. And I think we can all agree that there are far more similarities than differences between the 686 and the GP100

  12. Thanks for a great review of a great handgun. I have a 686-6+ 3″ and 2 J-frames and I’m always amazed by all of them; but the 686 is the favorite.
    Keep up the good work and words.

  13. I have studied thoroughly for a S&W wheel gun and the Ruger 100. Both are very great designs and would proudly own either. After reading your great informative article, I have decided on the S&W 686 3″ barrel. I decided not to go with the Ruger 100 is the rear sight turned me off.
    Thanks for the great review, as it tipped the scales for me to go with the 686.
    Keep up the great informative articles. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece!

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