Some wheelguns are unqualified classics. In this Smith & Wesson Model 66 review, I take a close look at two modern versions of one of those iconic revolvers.
Dubbed a Combat Magnum, there is little doubt that Smith & Wesson designed the original gun for serious business. Widely respected, the original Model 66 served law enforcement and armed citizens for nearly 50 years. As they say, all good things come to an end, and the Model 66 could not escape the downturn in the revolver market.
But that wasn’t the final chapter in the book on this classic handgun. Nearly 10 years after the gun was dropped from the company catalog, Smith & Wesson reintroduced the Model 66 Combat Magnum. Then, the company expanded the line with a shorter barreled version of the legendary six-shooter.
Though the new Model 66-8 guns bear the same name as the original, they have significant differences. I set out in this S&W Model 66 review to find out if the new guns live up to the reputation of the classics.
People love the classics. That is one reason why Ford and GM both sell modern sports cars with stylings that harken back to the height of the muscle car era. Yet, people have very emotional attachments to the original product. Create a spectacular new version of an old item, and the public will love it. Do it wrong and you wind up with an embarrassing albatross – or Jar Jar Binks – hung around your neck.
Smith & Wesson is very well known for its revolvers. Many of its wheel gun designs are considered classics and beloved by collectors and shooters alike. Unfortunately, with the rise of the modern auto-loading pistol, the revolver has taken a back seat in handgun sales over the past decades. Consequently, some of the classic designs have been discontinued over the years.
The Model 66 was one of those.
A Brief History of the Model 66
Smith & Wesson introduced the first Model 66 in 1970. Labeled as a Combat Magnum, the revolver was chambered for the potent .357 Magnum. Built on the company’s K frame, the guns offered a balance of relatively light weight and good durability.
The gun was very similar to the popular Model 19, though with a stainless steel frame instead of one made of carbon steel. While the Model 19 remained a hot ticket with shooters and police departments, the Model 66 gained its own following of enthusiasts and law enforcement agencies.
Various changes to the design took place over the years – several significant enough to warrant a model number update. These updated versions are designated on the gun’s frame with a hyphen and number. For example, the first engineering update designated the gun as Model 66-1.
Although it survived in the company’s catalog past the mass transition of law enforcement agencies to the semi-automatic pistol in the 80s and 90s, Smith & Wesson dropped the gun from its catalog in the mid-2000s. (Note: For more information on the history of the Model 66 and all of the Smith & Wesson firearms, I suggest reading The Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson.)
Customer demand prompted a return of the Model 66 to the lineup in 2014. Equipped with a 4.25″ barrel, the newly released revolver was dubbed the Model 66-8, indicating the eighth major revision.
More recently, Smith & Wesson released 2.75″ barrel version of the Model 66. It was introduced at the 2017 SHOT Show and also identified as a 66-8 revolver. While there are minor differences between the 4.25″ gun and the 2.75″ version, both are essentially the same.
The Modern Model 66-8
The new Model 66 is built on the company’s K-frame, a medium-sized frame that traces its roots back to the 19th century. With more than 100 years of real-world use, the frame design has proved to be a great combination of durability, size and weight.
I’ve always felt that the K-frame revolvers balance very well in my hand. I own several including a Model 10 and Model 64. When the new Model 66 arrived, it immediately felt like an old friend. A little muzzle heavy, the gun still points very well. When shooting a .357 Magnum, a heavy barrel is not necessarily a bad thing. The extra weight can help reduce muzzle flip.
As previously mentioned, the new guns are designated as 66-8 models. As the “-8” suggests, these new production handguns have a number of differences from the earlier production versions of the Model 66.
One of the most significant differences is the use of a two-piece barrel system. Classic Model 66 revolvers used a single-piece barrel that required a greater degree of labor to complete assembly. The two-piece design combines an inner barrel with a shroud.
For a better understanding of how the new two-piece system works, I reached out to Grant Cunningham. Cunningham is a revolver expert – both as a gunsmith and as a combat instructor.
[Compared to a single-piece barrel,] the system can, if properly engineered, tension the barrel and achieve a slight gain in precision,” said Cunningham. “The two-piece barrel can also reduce the labor and material costs in gun manufacturing. Less expensive alloys can be used for the shroud since it is not subjected to the same punishment the inner portion of the barrel is.”
“A very big reduction in cost is the elimination of the very expensive procedure of timing the barrel, getting it perfectly aligned with the rear sight, which requires a lot of hand work,” said Cunningham. “The shroud is indexed to the frame and the barrel is simply screwed in. This reduces assembly time and the skilled labor needed to index the barrel.”
So, if I understand Cunningham correctly, the new Smith & Wesson design reduces the cost associated with production and possibly increases the accuracy of the gun. I think both of those things will set well with the average shooter.
The new barrel design is not the sole change from the original.
Original Model 66 guns offered a full-size cylinder latch release through the mid-1990s. Also called a thumb piece, the release on the 66-8 models is more triangular in shape. While I’ve not experienced any problems accessing the latch in drills, I still prefer the feel of the older thumb pieces.
Unfortunately, Smith & Wesson continues to include the internal locks on its revolvers, and it appears to me that the older thumb piece would cover the keyway. So, it would appear that we are stuck with the new thumb pieces for the foreseeable future.
Finish is another difference between new and old guns. While both eras of revolver use stainless steel for the cylinder and frame, the new guns have a bead-blasted matte finish. While the new matte finish isn’t bad, many of the people I’ve spoken to do not like it. At all. Several people have told me it makes the gun look “cheap.”
While I have no animosity toward the new finish, I understand how they feel. The older guns do have a good-looking finish, and the matte doesn’t look as good (to me) when compared. I have no doubt that some people will disagree with this S&W 66 review, and that’s ok.
Another difference from the earlier versions of the gun, but one that is not immediately visible, is the use of a round butt frame. Square butt frames were common on the classic Model 66 revolvers until about 1995.
Synthetic grips are standard on the new revolvers. While not as attractive as the classic wood stocks with the S&W medallion, they are well made. A slight amount of excess rubber was visible around the seams of my 4.25″ barrel test gun. The excess did not impact comfort or shooting, but I would carefully remove it from my own gun to improve the look. Even better, originally styled wood stocks would be a nice option for the handgun.
Smith & Wesson uses a classic, time-tested sight arrangement on the new Model 66. Up front, the company uses a pinned ramp sight with a red insert. Surface serrations and a black finish reduce the possibility of glare when shooting in the bright sunlight. In its center is a red insert. The insert is relatively easy to find quickly in stressful conditions due to its size and bright color.
A few years ago, I taught an in-service class at one of the nearby police academies. The class was on vision and threat identification in low light conditions. During the class, I talked about the potential failings of the three-dot sights found on many semi-automatic pistols. When I brought up how well the bright red inserts on the classic Smith & Wesson Combat Magnum revolvers worked, two older deputies in the back of the class sat up and leaned forward, suddenly interested.
After class, those deputies told me that both of them started work for the Sheriff’s Office when the Model 66 was the issued gun. Each related to me experiences in which they clearly remembered that bright red ramp when aiming their guns in violent encounters. Neither could recall ever seeing the tiny tritium vial in the front sight of their current issue 9mm pistol in similar conditions.
According to the company, the rear sight should have a white outline on all of the new Model 66 guns. The 4.25″ Model 66 had this outline while the smaller gun did not. I personally like the white box on the rear sight, but do not feel that its absence created any problems for me when shooting. The rear sight is adjustable, and the aiming notch is sharp for a clear sight picture.
Reloading the Snub
For the inexperienced, reloading a revolver can be a cumbersome process. It doesn’t help that many of today’s shooters learn how to run a wheelgun by shooting a snubnose revolver.
Snubs like the Model 642, one of my personal favorites, are great for carrying. I feel, however, that snubnose revolvers are guns best employed by experienced, not novice, shooters. While they can be effective combat pieces, they simply are not as good for learning the basics. Recoil is harsher, grips are smaller and stubby extractor rods can fail to remove empty cases fully from the cylinder. All of this can be frustrating for any new revolver shooter.
The Model 66 Combat Magnum with a 2.75″ barrel offers all of the handling advantages of a full-size revolver while still being concealable. For example, the gun has a full-length extractor rod that allows for complete ejection of spent cases from the cylinder charge holes. Additionally, the width and balance of the gun allow my medium-sized hand to wrap around the cylinder and perfectly control the gun during a rapid reload.
I was impressed by the perfectly smooth extractor rod movement. Even when hitting the rod from an angle, it slipped nearly frictionless through its channel and dumped spent cases onto the ground. There was not even a hint of dragging. Also, Smith & Wesson uses an extractor rod spring that offers the optimal amount of resistance that is easy to overcome when removing spent cases but still snaps the rod home quickly. Getting excited about the extractor rod function might seem silly, but there are some poor examples on the market, and S&W should get credit for making a great one.
Like I said before, I really like my Model 642. However, the Model 66 is a far easier gun to reload under any circumstance.
Running the Gun
I own a lot of semi-automatic pistols, and really like most of them. But few things are as pleasurable as shooting a really good double-action revolver. While not perfect, both versions of the new Model 66 were a lot of fun to shoot. Accuracy was good on both and reliability was 100%.
Shooting the 4.25″
There is a certain amount of satisfaction to be had when going to a public range with a fire-breathing Magnum and making the plastic pistol crowd stop and take notice. I own, shoot and carry semi-automatic pistols, but I am a bit nostalgic when it comes to duty-sized revolvers.
Making a little noise with one will often start a few conversations with old hands and new shooters alike. I took the 4.25″ Model 66 on several range trips, and every one of them sparked a conversation about the gun.
The Model 66 felt good in the hand. I wasn’t sure how much I would like the rubber grips as compared to the old-style wood stocks. However, the grips did fit well in the hand and gave a modest amount of cushion when firing full-power Magnum loads. I was shooting outdoors on a warm Florida afternoon, so my hands did get a little sweaty. The rubber material helped me keep a solid hold on the revolver, and at no point did I feel the recoil was going to slip the gun from my grasp.
Accuracy was good. Shooting double-action off-hand, I was able to get sub-4″ groups at 25 yards with a number of Magnum loads. The best of the bunch was the 125 grain Remington Golden Saber where five shots went inside 3″.
Shooting .38 Special wadcutter target loads really tightened up the groups. With both Sellier & Bellot and Blazer 148 gr wadcutters, I managed 1″ groups off-hand and double-action.
I doubt there are many people that would argue that .357 Magnum recoil isn’t stout. That does not mean that the recoil is not manageable. A solid grip on the gun combined with an aggressive stance can easily help a shooter handle the cartridge’s power.
When rapidly firing, the bright red insert in the front ramp is your friend. The insert seemingly jumps into your field of view and helps bring you right back onto target. At seven yards, a cylinder-full of Magnum rounds will go into center mass as quickly as I can pull the trigger.
Reliability is one of the key features of the wheel gun, and this Smith & Wesson revolver did not disappoint. Every round loaded, fired and extracted as one would hope.
Shooting the 2.75″
Shooting the shorter barreled gun wasn’t much different than shooting its big brother. Accuracy was very similar and reliability was flawless. Visually, the shorter gun made larger fireballs at the muzzle – even in the summer sunshine.
Recoil was quite manageable. In fact, it may have been slightly more manageable in this configuration. I suspect that the curve of the grips may play a role in that. The more rounded lower portion of the grip panels gave my hand a little better purchase. I think this allowed me to have a slightly firmer grip on the gun during shooting.
As a bonus, the grip was comfortable also. It completely covers the backstrap, so it is absorbing some of the recoil impulse while shooting. The stocks do a good job of absorbing the sting that can often be felt in the web of the shooting hand.
Although I typically do not like finger grooves on a grip, these work very well for me. Since the K-frame guns have been around for a very long time, there are many different aftermarket grip choices available to you should the factory stocks not work.
Starting out, the double-action trigger pull was a bit rough. As I shot it, it did smooth out. After about 100 pulls, the trigger was certainly acceptable and equal to the pull on most service revolvers. Initially, I felt this impacted my accuracy, but once it smoothed out, it was not an issue. In contrast, however, the single-action pull was light and crisp right out of the box.
For a combat revolver, I prefer to shoot double-action-only. While some instructors will disagree, I strongly feel that practicing single-action shots on the range is of dubious value. While shooting in single-action mode off of a bag would almost certainly tighten up the groups, I still was shooting 2-3″ groups rapid-fire from double-action mode with full bore Magnum loads at 7 yards.
I hate to speak in cliches like “combat accuracy,” but this Combat Magnum is more than accurate enough for personal protection. You do your job, and it will do its job.
Ammunition performs differently from different guns and from different barrel lengths. The following information is provided to give you a sense of how some brands and loads may work from these guns. The first table shows ammunition shot from the 4.25″ barrel version of the Model 66-8:
|Federal 158 gr JHP||1,191 fps||498 ft-lbs|
|Remington Golden Saber 125 gr JHP||1,240 fps||426 ft-lbs|
|Speer Gold Dot 158 gr JHP||1,023 fps||367 ft-lbs|
|Aguila 148 gr WC||624 fps||128 ft-lbs|
|Blazer 148 gr WC||699 fps||161 ft-lbs|
The second table shows ammunition shot from the 2.75″ barrel version of the Model 66-8. Unfortunately, I shot the guns on different range trips and failed to shoot the same loads from each gun for a better comparison.
|Hornady Critical Defense 125g gr FTX||1,201 fps||400 ft-lbs|
|Remington Golden Saber 125 gr JHP||1,197 fps||398 ft-lbs|
|Speer Gold Dot 158 gr JHP||1,045 fps||383 ft-lbs|
The name Combat Magnum evokes a certain image. From unflappable lawmen to a parent protecting his or her family, the name suggests a surety of action from an age of common sense and reason.
The Model 66 Combat Magnum is just as relevant today as it was when it was introduced many moons ago. It is still a reliable performer in uncertain times, and six rounds of .357 Magnum ammunition remain extremely effective against all kinds of predators. With a 2.75″ barrel, the new Model 66 is an excellent choice for concealment. The 4.25″ model offers exemplary service as a home defense weapon.
The new versions look good, and more importantly, shoot well. For all but the die-hard purists, the new Model 66 will please anyone looking for a duty-sized .357 Magnum revolver. Even the purists will have to admit that while the gun is not an exact duplication of the original Model 66, it is well made and fun to shoot. They may not be perfect reproductions, but they are both combat-ready for today’s self-defense shooter.
Last update: September 2, 2021
Shockingly, few authors or publications offer a disclosure to inform you about potential biases that may influence the review. I take a different approach and clearly explain those biases.
Both of the revolvers in this article were loaners from Smith & Wesson. I wrote two different articles about the guns (one on each) for Combat Handguns magazine. I have reprinted some of the material here from those articles, but much of it is new. However, the conclusions are the same.
The company did not pay me to write this S&W Model 66 review, nor did it request a favorable review of the guns. It is not an advertiser.
This is not a sponsored review. Sponsored articles are another form of advertisement, though one which frequently masquerades as editorial content.
I do not have any financial interest in Smith & Wesson or any other firearms manufacturer.
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Some of the links on this page and site are affiliate links to companies like Amazon and Palmetto State Armory. These links take you to the products mentioned in the article. Should you decide to purchase something from one of those companies, I make a small commission.
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