Thursday, September 20, 2018
Smith and Wesson 66 - a Range Report
I have more "old" weapons than new. Some of it is simply the comfort of those things that have been proven reliable. Then there is simply the sheer love I have for that which is history, of the acts of courage that defined a persons freedom, of the mechanical workings of objects which support self-sufficiency and strength. Planes, trains, steam engines, old tools, and yes, the gun. There's an attraction to old tools and old machines, the human values they represent. Nothing that withstands history gets built without the brilliance of design, a laboring effort and the dreams of man. Some say a gun is a killing instrument. Man is a killing instrument. A gun is only a tool, from which we have the pure mechanical force which can keep one alive or take a life. As a tool, it is as weak or as strong as he or she who holds it, as good or as bad as the collective soul that keeps it in working order. The guns I own are defenders of good, soldier's weapons, officer's weapons, my weapons.
The Smith and Wesson 66 was born in 1970 as a stainless, and therefore more corrosion-resistant, version of the already-popular Model 19 Combat Magnum. That particular firearm was produced from 1957 (first model number stampings) to November 1999
The Model 19 was produced in blued carbon steel or nickel-plated steel with wood or rubber combat grips, an adjustable rear sight, semi-target hammer (wide hammer spur with good checkering), serrated combat-type trigger, and was available in 2.5" (3" particular to the Model 66 being rarer), 4", or 6-inch barrel lengths. The weights are 30.5 ounces, 36 ounces, and 39 ounces, respectively. The 2.5- and 3-inch barrel versions had a round butt, while the others had square butts. I'm not a big fan of the Spongebob Squarepants gun butt from a "feel" standpoint, but they've got a nice crisp look to them.
The Model 19 was produced on Smith and Wesson K-frame platform (S and W refer to their frame sizes by letter) and was chambered for .357 Magnum. The K-frame is somewhat smaller and lighter than the original N-frame .357, usually known as the S&W Model 27. The Smith and Wesson no longer make the K-Frame, replacing them with the heavier L-Frame models, which include models 619, 620 and the model 686. The L Frames are a bit heavier, and for me, don't point as naturally as does the 66.
Stainless steel offers many advantages in a gun, outside of just "SHINY", including the fact that you can polish out minor imperfections without removing bluing. Additionally, minor rub wear doesn't affect the gun's finish appreciably as it would do to a blued finish.
The Model 66 is a double-action, six-shot revolver, retaining most of the characteristics of the 19. The one I have fired the most, like the 19, had a target trigger (featuring vertical grooves), target hammer (wide hammer spur with good checkering), fixed point sight and adjustable rear sight.
If you are on the lookout for one of your own, the first issued ones are easily identifiable with the stainless steel rear sight, pin barrel, serrated stainless trigger, recessed cylinder and the “mod 66” stamped on the frame. If you think you see one there just waiting to be purchased somewhere, it should have stamped on the left side of the gun the words "SMITH & WESSON" along the barrel, with the trademark S&W logo on the frame below the cylinder latch. If you have a S&W you would like to know more about you can send a picture and a form from the S&W Website to the Historian, Mr. Roy G. Jinks.
The gun remained virtually unchanged until 1977 when the 66-1 model came out which changed the gas ring from the yoke to the cylinder. The later 66-3 designation indicates design tweaks to delay development of cylinder end-shake as well as the elimination of the recessed cylinder. Future changes through the 70's and 80's slightly lengthened the cylinder and installed a new yoke retention system/radius stud package/hammer nose bushing/floating hand.
In 1994, with the 66-4 model, the rear sight leaf and drill, extractor and tape frame were slightly changed and Hogue grips were introduced. In 1998 there was a change in frame design and in 2002, with model 66-6, it introduced the internal lock. I believe the last one was manufactured in 2004 or 2005.
This firearm was a favorite of many law enforcement agencies in the mid to late 70's, some even carrying it into the late 90's (or later than that, if the rumors are true). The demise of the K-Frame (and with it, the 66) came as owners started to get a hankering for the lighter and faster 125gr .357 Magnum load as an alternative to the 158gr lead projectile that was the bulk of the ammo available in the early production years. The forcing cone on the model 19 is not as thick at the very bottom. The lighter bullets at very high velocity using very hot burning powders, apparently subjected the forcing cone to what I guess, in layman's terms, you could call metal fatigue, with resultant cracking of the forcing cone. Smith and Wesson have made the recommendation to not use the 125gr loads though I've not heard of any cone cracking issues with the 66 Model. Some 66 owners recommend alternating .38 with the .357 in the 66, others have shot nothing but 158gr for thousands of rounds and still have a nice, tight weapon.
The .357 Magnum is a story in and of itself, being probably the oldest handgun "magnum" cartridge. Its collaborative development started in the 30's, in direct response to Colt's .38 Super Automatic. At the time, the .38 Super was the only American pistol cartridge capable of defeating automobile cover and the early ballistic vests that were just beginning to emerge in the post-World War I "Gangster Era". ("Gangster" not to be confused with "Gangsta" as the future felons of the 1930's had the common sense not to wear their pants so low the waist is about knee level. It would have been hard to be a successful bootlegger in pants a clown wouldn't wear because they were too undignified.
Tests at the time revealed that those early ballistic vests defeated any handgun cartridge traveling at less than about 1000 ft/s. Colt's .38 Super Automatic just edged over that velocity and was able to penetrate car doors and vests that bootleggers and gangsters were employing as cover. Smith and Wesson's Dan Wesson agreed to produce a new revolver that would handle "high intensity" .38 Special loads, but only if Winchester would develop a new cartridge.
Though .38 and .357 would seem to be different-diameter chamberings, they are in fact dimensionally identical. 0.357 inch is the true bullet diameter of the .38 Special cartridge. The .38 Special nomenclature relates to the previous use of heeled bullets (such as the .38 Long Colt), which were the same diameter as the case. Thus, the only external difference in the two cartridges is a slight difference in length (the .357 having a .125 inch longer case). Those first revolvers referred to as the Magnum Models were completed by Smith and Wesson in April of 1935.
Retired Assistant Chief Patrol Inspector of the U.S. Border Patrol, and noted firearms and shooting skills writer, Bill Jordan consulted with Smith and Wesson on the design and characteristics of the Model 19. His idea? The Peace Officers perfect dream. A sidearm with a heavy barreled four inch K frame .357 Magnum with a shrouded barrel like the big N frame .357 and adjustable sights. After months and months of experimenting with improved strength steels and the latest in special heat treat processes, the result was the .357 "Combat Magnum" firearm (later designated as the Model 19). The first, serial-number K260,000 was presented to Jordan on November 15, 1955, and a legend was born.
So how does this "old legend" shoot? Flawlessly. With the weight of the K frame and the barrel, it points more naturally then a German Short Haired Pointer. Never having shot the weapon before, I still got a nice tight group, even with the bigger round, once I learned where it shoots with the sight picture. I can see why it was so popular with law enforcement.
The trigger was one of the smoothest I've tried, no stacking. Double tap didn't require me to do the "Dance of the Seven Veils" trying to get my hand back in position from recoil. Single hand holding with double actions pulls was not hard at all with this piece. It was accurate, it was tight, it felt really good in my hand (no ow!!! factor with multiple rounds and tender skin) and even better, it made a nice big HOLE right where I wanted it to go.
Now for the ammo question. Generally speaking, any .357 Magnum revolver will safely handle any factory 38 Special ammo (but do NOT attempt to load or fire .357 in your .38 special - BAD dog. . BAD!). The Model 66 should safely shoot both 357 Magnum and 38 Special ammo, including extra-hot 38 ammunition known as "plus-p" (+P) and "plus-p-plus" (+P+). Of course, check with your manufacturer if any doubt as to what rounds are the best to put in your newly acquired firearm. I've not fired it enough to recommend any particular type, so will leave it up to my readers to pass that information along.
The double action (DA) was not as quick as smooth as the Colt Python, but that's like saying Vanilla Hagan Daz ice cream is not quite as rich and tasty as the Coffee flavored. The feel was consistent throughout the pull, even more so than the Python, which to me has a noticeable change in the pull weight partway through the DA trigger travel.
You may have to hunt around to find one. But there are not a ton of good condition, clean ones available. If you have to chance to buy or borrow one, you probably won't regret it. The first one I shot, and one of those pictured here, belongs to a partner in squirrellville. It's what he carries when off duty and it's a beautiful piece.
The leverage is excellent for the size of the handgun. I've got really long fingers and a good sized hand. However, I think the hands of most women and men who are not built like Grizzly bears, would find a good grip with this. The trigger finger reaches the trigger with a minimum of effort, and the front sight stays on target if the target isn't a Bobble Head.
Cleaning is a snap. Remove the cylinder and clean with a little Break-Free. There's no side plate removal or detail stripping that's required on other types of guns you're used to cleaning. Even if you dunk the thing in salt water, it's just a field strip, clean with Break-Free CLP, rinse in hot water, spray with more CLP, wipe down and air dry.
Why salt water you ask? Seal Team Six used the Model M66 until the M686 came along, as did other Teams. The reasoning was that if lubricants washed off the weapon during the swim to the. . uh. . . objective, a revolver was more likely to function than a semi-auto. Blued finishes don't hold up to such exposure. Parkerized, anodized and stainless finishes do quite well. There was no special ammunition used, as the Winchester Silver Tips of the time were considered reasonably waterproof.
It's a wee bit big to be totally indiscernible, but with the right holster, it will make a good concealed piece for someone that's not hobbit sized. Dennis at Dragon Leatherworks has made several beautiful ones of the FlatJack type for the Model 19 (K Frame, just like the Model 66) and a J Frame (Chief's Special) including a couple that blogger Jay G. owns.
I was sold the first time I got my hands on it. It's light for what it packs and comes on target easily with a high hit probability. It's a legend, a true sculpture in stainless. Like my partner, I'd trust my life with it, and that says a lot.