Since first detailing my adventures in searching for the ideal carry revolver in 2015, I have gotten a lot of questions about the 3-inch S&W Model 66-6 I eventually chose. Unfortunately, the 3-inch versions of this gun are pretty scarce, so it’s not something I’ve been able to recommend as an easy off-the-shelf option for other wheel gun aficionados. At SHOT Show this year, I got to take a quick look at what would seem to be the next best thing: Smith & Wesson’s new 2.75-inch version of the Model 66. I finally got my hands on one of these six-shooters a few months ago, and I have a some thoughts about S&W’s latest attempt at the mid-size magnum. The full review is in the video below, or you can scroll down and read the transcript.

 

The Smith & Wesson Model 66 Combat Magnum is one of my favorite revolvers ever, but they were tough to find for a while once production ended in 2005. Two years ago, Smith & Wesson re-launched the Combat Magnum with the slightly redesigned 4-inch Model 66-8. This year they added a 2.75-inch version that’s a little more friendly for concealed carry, and that’s the model we’re looking at today.

Firing the 2.75" S&W 66-8

Every version of the Model 66 is a stainless 6-shot .357 magnum with adjustable sights built on the medium Smith & Wesson K-frame. It was first introduced in 1970 as a stainless steel alternative to the original blued-steel Combat Magnum, the Model 19. Both were extremely popular police sidearms through the last few decades of the 20th century. Like most revolvers at the time, the Model 66 was usually found with a 4-inch barrel although 6-inch and 2 ½-inch models were in regular production as well.

There were also some limited runs of a 3-inch model offered sporadically over the years, and that’s my favorite version of the 66. Some of you might have seen the video I did on my modified 3-inch Model 66-6 a couple of years ago with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek title, “The Best Revolver in the World”. I like the 3-inch barrel partly because it’s more concealable than the 4-inch, but still long enough to allow room for a full-length ejector rod. The old 2.5-inch models have a short ejector rod, which doesn’t eject all the empty casings quite as reliably when you’re reloading.

full length vs partial length ejector rod

The new Model 66-8 also has a full-length ejector rod, even though the barrel is only 2.75 inches long, which is made possible by the new lock-up design. On the old models, the cylinder locks into the frame between a pin found in the center of extractor star and a second pin (called the “locking bolt”) below the barrel that locks into the tip of the ejector rod. So the barrel has to be at least as long as the ejector rod plus the spring-loaded locking bolt.

S&W revolver lockup
Old style lockup: Previous K-frame cylinders locked into the frame via pins in the extractor star (left) and a locking bolt in the barrel shroud (right).

But check out the same spot on the new 66. There’s no locking bolt, and that’s because it’s been replaced by a ball detent on the frame that locks into the yoke. This is supposedly a more secure locking point, it allows the barrel to be a little shorter, and it also solves the occasional problem of the ejector rod backing out under recoil and locking the cylinder closed.

S&W 66-8 lockup
The new lockup for the S&W 66-8 omits the locking bolt in the barrel shroud (left) in favor of a ball detent on the frame that locks into the crane/yoke (right).

Just above that area, you can find a second design improvement. On the old K-frames, the forcing cone was flat at the bottom, and that was a weak point that would occasionally crack, usually after firing a lot of high-velocity magnum loads. The new forcing cone is thicker which should eliminate that weakness in the design.

S&W Model 66-8 Technical Specs
caliber  .357 Magnum
capacity  6
weight  33.5 ounces
barrel length  2.75 inches
sights  red ramp front sight, adjustable rear
action  double action
MSRP  $849

Unfortunately, while Smith & Wesson may have made some durability improvements, there is a lot about this gun I am not real excited about. Of course, it’s got the internal lock where the revolver’s soul leaks out. I’m not really a fan, but that’s old news. There are plenty of other issues to talk about.

Let’s start with the way it is configured. Traditionally, short barreled K-frames have been valued for handling and shooting like full-size revolvers, but in a smaller package that’s practical for concealed carry. But neither of these advantages are easy to see in this latest version of the Combat Magnum. The rubber stocks are large and cling to clothing, which compromises concealability. And the small rear sight notch and unreasonably heavy 15-pound trigger make the gun tough to shoot well.

Smith & Wesson Model 66-8 2.75-inch

The challenge of shooting the Model 66-8 was apparent when I ran it through our nine-stage Lucky Gunner practical handgun test that we have been using for all our reviews this year. My best score out of three runs with this gun was 47.87. That is the worst score out of all of the handguns I have tested so far, including a few small-frame snubbies and pocket pistols. Compared to my modified 66-6, I only dropped a couple of additional points in target penalties with the new revolver, but thanks to the smaller sights and the heavy, uneven trigger, I had to slow way down to get those hits, and my raw time was almost 10 seconds slower. [Note: A more detailed look at how the S&W 66-8 compares to the other handguns I’ve run through the test can be found on the Handgun Scoreboard.]

Mechanical accuracy testing was a little more encouraging. From a 25-yard bench rest, I fired two 5-round groups with each of 6 different loads in .38 Special and .357 magnum. The average group size was right around 2 to 3 inches for all but one of those loads, which is not bad at all.

S&W Model 66-8 25 Yard Accuracy Test
load avg. group size avg. velocity
.38 Spl Winchester 148 gr Wadcutter 2.2” 679
.357 Mag Speer Gold Dot 135 gr 2.8” 1147
.357 Mag Remington 125 gr Golden Saber 3.0” 1216
.357 Mag Winchester 125 gr PDX-1 Defender 3.0” 1252
.38 Spl +P Winchester 130 gr PDX-1 Defender 3.1” 914
.38 Spl +P Speer Gold Dot 135 gr 5.0” 914

My criticisms about how this gun is set up are mostly subjective, but there are also some quality control issues I feel obligated to point out. Smith & Wesson was kind enough to loan us this revolver to review, and this is actually the second one they sent. I had to send back the first one. Something was not fitted properly and a part of the yoke was rubbing against the frame, which made the cylinder really hard to open and close and even started to make the action feel a little sluggish.

When I told Smith & Wesson about it they apologized and quickly sent me this one. It has worked fine, but it’s also not exactly a perfect sample. There is a large burr on the cylinder release latch. Even though it’s just a cosmetic issue, this is the kind of sloppiness you don’t expect to see on a gun with an $850 MSRP.

With all of these complaints, you’d probably assume that I’m not recommending this gun. But really, it depends on what you’re looking for. If you want a new mid-size revolver that’s going to be ready to go right out of the box, I would not buy this one. You’d probably be better off with something like the 3-inch Wiley Clapp edition of the Ruger GP100. It’s a bit larger than the 66, but it’s an overall better execution of the mid-size carry revolver concept.

However, if you’re like me, and you just really prefer the size and the handling characteristics of the short barreled K-frames, the new model 66 might not be a bad starting point. My 66-6 is one of my favorite guns. But when I first got it, it wasn’t much different from this new one. It left the factory in 2004 — so it’s not exactly a shining example of Old World Craftsmanship. It has evidence of the same modern automation and cost-cutting shortcuts that Smith & Wesson revolvers have been criticized over for years. Even so, it’s still a fantastic shooter, I just I had to spend a little extra time and money on it. I think this new 66 has the same potential. To turn this into a decent carry revolver, at minimum, I personally would make the following changes:

I’d replace the oversized rubber stocks with something more concealable like Altamont wood boot grips.

I’d replace the mainspring with a Wolff Standard Weight Powerib spring to even out the double action trigger. There are better ways to improve the action, but the Wolff spring is a cheap fix that’s still a huge improvement.

On the new 66, Smith & Wesson has switched to using a shorter rear sight blade. So the notch is shallower and it’s harder to pick up the front sight. I’d swap that out for a standard height rear sight blade.

And the front sight with the plastic red insert also has to go. They wash out really easily in a lot of lighting conditions and can be tough to see. An affordable upgrade would be a red fiber optic sight from Dawson Precision.

That’s a little over $100 worth of modifications on top of a gun that’s currently retailing for somewhere between about $700-775. Is that worth it for a modern S&W revolver? Again, it depends on your priorities. With an older pre-lock 66, you get something that looks and feels more refined and comes with pride of ownership. But you’ll need to plan to spend least $1000 if you want the 3-inch version with the full-length ejector rod, and you still might want to change the grips or the sights. With a new 66, you’ll save some money even after you fix it up, you’ll have better spare parts availability, and it might be a little more durable. So for fans of the K-frames, for the time being, you’re stuck choosing between the benefits of yesterday’s craftsmanship or today’s technology. It’s going to be really tough to get both.


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  • Peakoiler

    Thanks for supporting us revolver fans, Chris. What a shame to see S&W quality slip like this. They should’ve inspected every gun they sent out to reviewers! Imagine carmakers sending shoddy examples to auto journalists.

    Our police trade-in 64, made in 1987, is as smooth as one could imagine, even with .38 special +p loads. It is not a carry revolver but it is such a wonderful shooter that we both feel confident using it as one of our home defense guns.

    • I have an old 3″ trade-in 64 as well. Fantastic gun. If it was machined for a real set of sights, it would be just about the perfect carry revolver.

  • Warren Pease

    Agree with the GP 100 suggestion. I put a gold bead front sight, some wolf springs and compact grips on a plain Jane 3″ GP 100 and couldn’t be happier.

  • retfed

    Now I’m bummed. Thanks a lot.
    As someone who carried 2.5-inch and 4-inch 66s on duty starting in 1976, and shot a 6-inch 66 in PPC competition in the 80s, I was looking forward to this new version, hoping for a gun that would fit all my old holsters and speedloaders and still be good for all Magnums all the time, if that was what I wanted. Now you’ve harshed my mellow and I don’t know if I even want to look at one.
    (Question: I haven’t bought a K-frame since the 2000 redesign. Is the frame still the old round-butt K-frame? Will the old Pachmayr Compacs for round-butt K-frames fit it? Asking for a friend.)

    • Same basic round butt frame design. Any round butt K/L frame grips should fit.

  • Dazor Schotz

    I am an old school revolver enthusiast who owns two S&W Model 10 with 4″ barrels and one Model 10 with a 3″ barrel. The newest of those was made in 1982. Talk about sweet shooting revolvers.

    I want to like the newer S&W revolvers but reviews like this have dashed my hopes. That’s a major red flag that the first evaluation unit they sent was defective AND the replacement had a defect that could draw blood in the form of the burr on the cylinder release.

    This shows how much S&W has fallen over the years. I’m starting to think Ruger, Kimber, Colt, and Korth are the way to go these days. I am sad to even write that last sentence.

    • I wouldn’t single out S&W in that regard. I have heard some alarming reports of QC issues with the Kimber revolvers (missing sideplate screws, timing issues) and I have picked up a couple of Ruger revolvers in the last few years that also had to make trips back to the factory. The new Colt doesn’t seem very promising, either. I’m afraid the reality is that making high quality revolvers requires more skilled manual labor than what is going to be cost effective for most manufacturers. The original K-frame was first produced in the 19th century when labor was cheap and technology was expensive. Now the reverse is true and quality has taken a nosedive unless you’re willing to pay for a custom job.

      • Dazor Schotz

        I’m afraid you are right about quality taking a nosedive and it’s industry wide and not just revolvers. I had a Sig P229 that couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn and went back to the factory. I also had a Remington 870 that was so bad it couldn’t hit the open space surrounding the broadside of a barn and eventually got Remington to replace the shotgun which took about two years.

        Getting a defective gun addressed by the manufacture is frustrating and emotionally draining experience for the Average Joe consumer.

        You guys do excellent work on your blog, especially the ammo gel tests. Overall I think you’re the best in the business with the depth of testing thoroughness of your posts. Nobody else goes to the extent that you do.

  • sully v

    I’ll pass — not a big fan of the barrel and barrel shroud technology they use–plus, the new yoke lock-up seems like a cheap reaction to a GP-100… BUT thank you for the post…

  • Paul B.

    Thanks for the great article. I was considering buying one of these (I also have a pre-lock 66-2 which really looks like a different gun). The ball detent and forcing cone are durability improvements and the tensioned 2 piece barrel probably improves accuracy. I could even live with the lock if all else was good but your article mentions the same problems that some others do. One guy at the S&W forum had all sorts of problems with his, including a forcing cone that looked like a hippo teethed on it. I will pass on this one for now.

  • walt

    The problem I have found with the Altamont grips is they are very slick. To me especially the J frames are so slick that despite buying and trying many I refuse to use them.

  • Oldblue

    I think the velocity numbers must be transposed for the Winchester PDX loads in your test chart. I would bet the Magnums clocked 1200+ fps and the .38s 900+ fps instead of the reverse. Anyway,
    appreciate your taking the time to review the Model 66, discouraging as it seems to have been. I’ve become philosophical about faulty products emerging from even the best manufacturers. An S&W 29 Classic that I bought new in 1990 had to go straight back to the factory to fix a timing defect that sprayed hot lead particles sidewise at the range. I’ve learned to expect to be disappointed when I buy, so I’m often pleasantly surprised.

    • You’re right, I had the numbers reversed. It’s been fixed now!

  • Rod De Leon

    Your last two sentences pretty much sum up the state of factory-new revolvers these days, or anything, really. Technology is most often used to eliminate the need for craftsmen and, thus, craftsmanship. Sad.

    I was looking at this new model 66 to allow my three-inch model 65-6 Lady Smith to retire with dignity to her favorite spot in the safe. She’s a pre-lock example, but just barely, so she’s not as slick as an old P&R gun, but still quite smooth and straight shooting. I was also looking at the new Kimber three-inch, model, but why in tarnation did they neglect to put a full-length ejector rod on this gun? It makes no sense. This frustrating fact makes me favor the Smith. Though the internal lock is still a huge barrier for me, I could live with it if the rest of the gun were acceptable. Or maybe it’s finally time to save old-world craftsmanship for sunny days at the range and use the CAD planned, CNC machined, plastic, modular, soulless modern pistols for the serious stuff.

    Thank you for the honest review. It is because of articles like this that I shop at Lucky Gunner for my online ammo needs. Well, that and the fact that being from Colorado, I feel I owe you some support.

  • Nicholas Trueblood

    looks nice

  • Mitch Eaton

    Thanks for all the hard work you put in these reviews. The knowledge you share is really helpful to me it looks like the Ruger wins.

  • Paul Hacker

    Add the front lock (and keep the ball lock), solid barrel, no Hillary lock, and flash chrome the trigger and hammer, wood grips and I’d be interested. If not… no thanks as I have several older S&W 19 and 66 snubs.

  • Chris Zimmerman

    Any idea why the 2.75″ barrel had better velocity with most of the same rounds than the 4.2″ barrel in the ballistics tests?

  • Mike Keller

    To me it’s not a 850.00 revolver .. I have three 357mag revolvers all Ruger …GP100 & Security Six both with 4 inch barrels and a LCR 357 snubby .. All run great .. No cosmetic or functional short comings …