The Performance Center, a sub-brand within the Smith & Wesson family, has come out with a pair of new Model 686 revolvers—one with a four-inch barrel, the other with a five-inch barrel—that have you covered whether you’re a dedicated wheelgun competitor or someone who likes to carry a revolver for defense. The Performance Center is the in-house custom shop of Smith & Wesson, and it is staffed with pistolsmiths who have decades of experience.
The Model 686 has been around since 1980. It solved the problem law enforcement officers (who still carried revolvers then) were having with Smith’s K-frame guns in .357 Magnum. The repeated hammering from magnum loads proved too much for the frame size, so the company merged its big N frame and its .44 dimensions on the front end with the K-frame grip and trigger action geometry on the back end. The resulting L-frame gun also benefited from an increase in cylinder diameter, which was boosted just enough to let it shrug off the pounding of .357 Magnums, and a full-length underlug that added weight out front to help handle recoil.
In a nod to the popularity of shooting revolvers in competition, the new Performance Center 686s are built with “staging” triggers. The double-action trigger can be pulled to the point just before it releases the hammer, held there—staged—and then it takes just a little more pressure to fire the gun. Some shooters like to do it this way, some like to pull straight through, and the beauty of a stage-able trigger is you can do it either way.
The individual parts for each revolver arrive in the Performance Center, where the pistolsmiths there carefully pore over the frames, cylinders, barrels and action parts. They make the actions smooth and clean, and while not the lightest triggers to be had (Smith & Wesson does have to ensure they will go bang with any factory ammo you find to stuff in them), they are light enough to shoot competition.
The trigger face is the S&W medium-width and smooth. This is also done for double-action shooting. Some few shooters like to have a checkered trigger face for fast double-action shooting, but most of us want the face smooth. That way your trigger finger can slide across the trigger face just a bit as you shoot at warp speed.
On the four-inch model, the chambers are machined for the standard use, reloading one at a time or with a speedloader. My go-to here is the classic HKS speedloader.
The five-inch model uses moon clips. International Defensive Pistol Association’s revolver rules do not permit moon clips, but rules in U.S. Practical Shooting Association and International Confederation of Revolver Enthusiasts competitions do. And a savvy competitor will always opt for a moon-clipped revolver over one that has to be loaded via other methods because it’s so much faster.
The cylinders on each of these are fitted with no end shake. End shake is the marginal, almost imperceptible movement of the cylinder front to back on its axis. If a cylinder has too much end shake, it can rub on the barrel or cause problems with headspacing. If the cylinder is fitted too tightly, it will bind in rotation, and the trigger pull will suffer. The PC 686 revolvers are fitted to have no end shake, and they don’t bind.
If you have grown up with S&W revolvers and are not a competitive revolver shooter, you’ll notice right away the cylinder latches are different. They are huge, and they’re placed back by the hammer. This allows you to open the cylinder one-handed by pressing the lever with your thumb and the cylinder with your trigger finger, a process much faster than conventional methods.
If you’re an IDPA shooter you may be concerned about whether such a setup would be legal for these matches. Tony Miele, the Performance Center’s general manager, told me that since the latch is a factory part and the gun comes from Smith & Wesson this way, it is okay.
The cylinder is held in place fore and aft, so the alignment of each chamber with the barrel will remain secure. The cylinder holds six shots in the four-inch model and seven shots in the five-inch model. IDPA limits capacity to six shots; USPSA and ICORE allow for more than six shots.
The barrels on these new guns represent a change from the L frame of the past. The Performance Center profiles these barrels with a tapered underlug instead of the full-size lug that made its debut on the L frame. If the underlug was such a big deal back then, why not continue it today? One, people who would consider carrying this gun don’t want the extra weight. Two, no competitive shooter will be firing .357 Magnum ammo, so the extra weight of the full lug offers no advantages. The underlug on the 686s is long enough to cover and protect the ejector rod, and it also contains the spring-loaded front locking plunger.
There are more changes up top, starting with the ventilated rib. The rear sight is the standard S&W adjustable sight, which has windage and elevation adjustments. The front sight is a bright orange plastic blade pinned into the rib. If you want something else, it is easy enough to drift out the pin, swap the blade and replace the pin. You can have a fiber optic, a night sight, some other color than orange—pretty much whatever your heart desires.
As you would expect from a Performance Center gun, the barrels are expertly fitted, with tight gaps between barrel and cylinder. I measured the gap at each chamber and found the five-inch model was snug on a .003-inch gauge, and the four-inch model passed a .004-inch gauge but refused a .005-inch gauge. Nice.
So are these new 686s competition guns or carry guns? If you’re a competitor and shoot IDPA, the four-inch version would be your choice. If you shoot USPSA or ICORE, then the five-inch version is your best bet.
But what about everyday carry? Well, a revolver with a four-inch barrel is always going to be a bit easier to carry than the same one with a five-inch barrel. But with the right holster and clothing, you can carry a five-inch revolver with ease. Back in the early days of concealed carry, it wasn’t uncommon where I live for people to carry five- and six-inch revolvers.
I didn’t test the five-inch model, but shooting the four-inch 686 was more than a blast from the past—it was an improved blast from the past. The .357 groups were larger not because .357 ammunition is less accurate but because it is more work to shoot.
When looking at the accompanying accuracy charts, keep one thing in mind. At 25 yards the front blade of your handgun subtends four inches, so any group that is less than four inches is a group smaller in size than the apparent width of your front sight blade. A two-inch group? That’s bragging-good, and the four-inch gun did it on a regular basis.
The accuracy with factory ammo was more than just good, it was impressive. If you’re going to use either of these guns for carry, finding defensive performance ammo that will shoot tight groups will be easy. And it will be no sweat for competition shooters, who typically load their own, to find recipes that will be accurate (probably exceptionally so) and also make the minimum Power Factors mandated by the various competitive shooting groups.
Basically, if you prefer a revolver for everyday carry, the Performance Center 686s have you covered. Ditto if you’re a competitive revolver shooter. And if both of these activities describe you, the PC 686 might just be the Holy Grail of wheelguns.