Bill Laughridge perfects the S&W
 Mountain Gun .357 Magnum!
By Dave Spaulding

Originally published in
Combat Magazine December 1999 Issue
Click on bordered images to see larger size.

It's OK to mention in public that you like revolvers for cowboy shoots and hunting applications, but if you hap­pen to admit, during an unguarded moment among supposedly gun savvy people, that you think they may even have some validity for self defense, the reaction ranges from scorn ("I've been to Gun site. Twice.'), to pity ("Can't afford a real gun, huh?").

Surprising as it may be, there are still people who do believe a revolver can get them through the night. I won't go into the pros and cons because you've prob­ably already got your mind made up,, and I'm not here to defend revolvers. I will just say that a quality revolver, loaded with appropriate ammunition and in the hands of a competent operator, really can get you through to the other side of the fight, and then we'll move on.

Another surprise to many, beside the fact that there are people who actually still carry revolvers, is the additional fact that there are also companies who are quite happy to customize them. And I mean customize, not just a trigger job. The 1911 is not the only handgun that can benefit from some tweaking here and there.

As an example of the forgoing, we're
going to take a look at Smith & Wesson's L frame .357 Magnum seven shot Mountain Gun, and see what can be done by a master gunsmith. 

The Gun 

It's sometimes hard to keep up with Smith & Wesson and their new introduc­tions. I gave up trying years back when their autopistol line exploded, and even current catalogs don't give you the whole picture. Several of Smith & Wesson's more interesting variations don't appear as catalogued items, and the only way to know what's really new is to call the com­pany periodically, talk to a knowledge­able dealer, or read the magazines.

I was not much impressed by the seven shot six shooter race, which seemed kind of gimmicky, until I saw a 686 L frame with the Mountain Gun treatment. Standard full plugged L frames tend to be on the heavier side, the Mountain Gun concept uses the older­style tapered barrel to shave some weight for long carry periods, and the combination of stainless steel, medium frame, lighter barrel, respectable caliber, and that seventh shot, all adds up to a revolver with some potential as a serious carry piece in those places without mountains. So, I got one.

Basic Gun Details

  Out of the blue plastic S&W box, the 686, Mountain Gun had a bright satin fin­ish, a four inch barrel and black rubber Hogue Monogrips on the round butt. Sights were conventional S&W microme­ter rear with front ramp, trigger and ham­mer were color case hardened, and the ejector rod shroud was the older three quarter style, which didn't extend all the way to the muzzle as do full plugged L frame , shrouds. The trigger face was smooth and the trigger pull was rough. In common with many of the current upgraded S&W revolvers, the cylinder thumblatch was the newer angled type, and the firing pin was frame mounted. One feature I liked immediately was the fact that the seven chambers require the bolt notches on the outside of the cylinder to be located between chambers, not directly outside each chamber at the thinnest part of the chamber wall as are all Smith six shot revolvers. I've never heard of a Smith blowing up around a factory cartridge, and it's more of an imagined issue than a real one, but the offset notches are just sort of comforting. As mentioned, the potential was there, but four inch barrels are a bit long for concealed carry, the action needed work for best results, and the large Hogue grips gave a very secure hold but were way too bulky for a concealed carry gun, so it was obvious some work needed to be done.

 The Gunmith

      Bill Laughridge's company Cylinder & Slide, is well known for the work they do on autopistols, but you don't hear a lot about his wheelgun work. When I mentioned that during a phone call, and told him I wanted a carry gun, he agreed to take on the project. After batting some suggestions back and forth, the  686-5 was shipped off to Bill in Nebraska in its unfired condition. When it came back, it was a different gun.  

The barrel was cut to three inches, recrowned, and a custom front sight was fabricated and dovetailed into the barrel rib. The outside front edge of the cylinder was beveled and the rear of each cham­ber was slightly chamfered. The trigger face was polished literally to a mirror sur­face and the sharp edges at the rear of the trigger were radiused. Bill's people did their Carry Bevel job to smooth up any rough edges outside, and their Carry Action job to smooth up any rough edges inside. As part of the carry package, the trigger spur was removed, and the rear sight blade corners were rounded off. Although we hadn't discussed it up front, a ball bearing detent was installed in the upper surface of the yoke, which mates with a small milled recess in the under­side of the frame just below the barrel to provide a more positive lockup. The fac­tory mainspring and trigger return spring were replaced with Wolfe versions. Finally, the C&S logo was etched on the crane, and the gun was beadblasted to leave a matte gray exterior finish. Since the beadblasting removed the etched brand and caliber markings, the numbers "357" were stamped on a small milled flat at the bottom rear of the ejec­tor rod shroud.

  What Work Was Done

      Let's take a minute to look at why the modifications were done.

Some writers I respect greatly say they can conceal a four inch barrel as easily as a shorter one, and in a good IWB holster I have no doubt they can. IWBs don't work for my body, though, and I prefer the shorter tube. Three inch barrels are the best compromise for those who want to increase concealment without degrading muzzle velocities any farther than absolutely necessary. Three inchers also allow room for a full-length ejector rod for better extraction/ejection; usually anything less means a shorter rod which won't punch empty brass out quite as far. It's also a good idea to keep the sight radius as long as possible.

Beveling the front edge of the cylinder can aid in holstering the gun, it can reduce wear and tear on the holster, and, although this one wouldn't be used normally as a pocket gun, a beveled cylinder is also much more comfortable for rear pocket carry, if needed. And, I just think it gives a revolver a more finished appearance. Chamfering the rear chamber mouths aids in smoother reloads.

The mirror polish on the trigger face provides a very comfortable surface under magnum recoil, actually tends to resist rust more than a case hardened surface, and allows the trigger finger to smoothly acquire its firing position. Rear edges are usually left fairly sharp at the factory, and radiusing them reduces the possibility of pinching.

There are fewer sharp edges in general on a typical Smith & Wesson revolver than you'll find on a typical production 1911, and operating a revolver during normal loading or malfunction clearance drills involves less chance of drawing blood than similar operations with an autopistol, but the Carry Bevel package just eases wear during overall handling. The Carry Action job addresses the guts of the revolver, and there's a world of difference in the before and after. Most quick defensive shooting occurs at short distances, most will be done out of the holster in a double-action mode, and a smooth trigger pull is a necessity for best results. While I would prefer to cock the gun for longer shots, there's no problem in hitting a standard silhouette out to twenty-five yards with the double-action trigger.

On that hammer spur, C&S removed only the spur, to prevent snagging on clothing during a draw, not the singleaction hammer notch, which means the gun can still be cocked for single-action firing. There are two ways to cock a spurless hammer, one's bad and the other's not real good in a hurry. The first, with the revolver held in the basic firing grip, involves starting the hammer back slowly by pulling the trigger just far enough to get what's left of the hammer out to where it can be engaged by the stronghand thumb, which pulls it back to a fullcock position for single-action fire. This looks easy in dry-fire and would appear to be the best way to go, using the least movement of both hands out of the firing grip; but it's actually the one with the most potential for an unintentional discharge under stress if the trigger finger overloads on adrenaline and the thumb doesn't catch the hammer in time, or if the hammer slips. Trust me on this (check's in the mail), it can happen. It can also damn near sprain your thumb when the gun bucks in recoil and the rear of the frame just under the sight blade smacks into it just after it oopsed on the hammer. When this happens, by the way, among other things you can count on the bullet not going where you thought it was going to go, and that means a probable adversary miss and a possible innocent hit. A better way if you really want to cock a spurless revolver is to take the support hand clear off the gun, slowly and carefully start the trigger pull with the muzzle in a safe direction, catch the hammer between the thumb and forefinger of the off hand as soon as
it's back far enough to get a good grasp, immediately release pressure on the trigger, pull the hammer the rest of the way to full-cock, resume your two-hand firing grip, acquire the target, and fire. If you're thinking this sounds a little slow during a gunfight, you're right. I wouldn't recommend either way for normal defensive use, I used the second method for sighting in the revolver and doing single-action accuracy tests at the bench. Single-action pull, by the way, came back from Nebraska at just over three pounds. DA pull is off my eight-pound scale, but not by much.

The ball bearing detent in the yoke provides a third lockup point while the cylinder is closed. Smith & Wesson originally included a more elaborate third locking point in their .44 Hand Ejector First Model large framed revolvers of 1908 for tighter lockup and more positive alignment of the cylinder, but the third lock was discontinued after about 15,000 units were made because it increased production costs above what the compa­ny wanted to bear. The ball detent is a simple way to provide this third lockup, and it does aid in keeping the cylinder firmly in place at the moment of ignition .

I generally don't like the idea of reduced weight springs in a serious handgun, and I told Laughridge reliability was first and foremost before the gun was ever shipped. He swears by Wolfe springs, though, and I respect his judgment. Combined with the internal polishing done, the lighter Wolfe replacement springs contributed to a trigger pull that gets an "Mmmm!" when people try it.  I did have one misfire with a good primer indent on a USA generic 110-grain .357 round toward the end of the tests, but that was the only glitch in over 200 rounds during the session, and the same round fired on the second try .

  The matte gray beadblast was done to reduce some of the glare inherent with a stainless revolver. I've had this done on a stainless autopistol I own, and I'm starting to prefer it as a finish on these bright guns. It'll wear shiny at continual holster contact points eventually, but it's far less reflective overall in situations Where you don't want to flash your presence. Or your gun.

The Grips

  Good as they are, Hogue monogrips are just too big for a concealed carry gun and had to go. I have Uncle Mike's versions of Craig Spegel designs in rubber on other revolvers, and I've had an itch about his original wood creations for some time now. The custom 686 seemed like the place to try a custom pair of grips out, and when they arrived I was absolutely delighted.

  Craig offers cocobolo grips to fit S&W revolvers in both round and square buff configurations at $60 for standard grade and $75 for better grade, and grips in both grades of cocobolo to fit the Browning Hi-Power, full-sized 1911s, and the Colt Officer's Model at the same prices.  (These prices have changed, since the publication of this article, please visit our online store HERE for the latest prices.)  He can also produce autopistol grips in Kingwood, African Blackwood, Madagascar Rosewood and Tulipwood, if you can talk him into it. The pair he made for my 686 was a smooth set of what he calls "Boot Grips with a little extra on the bottom", in a beautiful reddish brown shade of oil-finished cocobolo. They fit both the gun and my hand perfectly, with a slight palm swell, one finger groove separator in front, and a very graceful speedloader relief on the left panel. The backstrap is bare, the space just behind the triggerguard is filled in for support, and Craig has so closely matched the grain at the front and bottom of the two panels that they almost provide a mirror image of each other. Spegel wood grips are prominent members of the Gotta See'Em Club, and the photos don't do them justice. As a special touch, he even plugs the off-side screw hole with a perfectly fitted cocobolo insert. First class all the way.

Shooting Impressions

Can a short-barreled .357 Magnum shoot? Yep. With some effort, admittedly, but definitely, yep.

I took along eleven commercial magnum loads ranging from the generic USA 110 on up through four 125s and one 150 to five 158s to see what the Cylinder & Slide Mountain Gun preferred. At the 25-yard range, firing seven-shot strings from my indispensable Outer's Pistol Perch, the 686 kept its best groups under four inches in the magnum rounds with the exception of the Gold Dots, which usually do better for me. I also tried two .38 Special loads, both produced identical best groups of 2 3/4 inches. Some .357s shoot better with .38s, and two different weight .38 loads is a small sample to judge from, but accuracy seemed about equal between the shorts and the longs in this gun.

Many pros prefer a fixed sight on a carry gun, but the S&W micrometer rear sight is a rugged time-proven unit, and there's something to be said for having the ability to dial in precisely to a preferred load.

Best groups are shown in the chart.

Performance:  C & S Custom Mountain Gun .357MAG


Load Accuracy
Federal 125 Hi-Shok JHP 2 7/8
Remington 125 Semi-JHP 2 7/8
Remington 158 Semi-JHP 3 7/8
UMC 125 JSP 2 9/16
Blazer 158 JHP 2 5/8
American Eagle 158 JSP 2 3/8
Pro Load 125 JHP 2 9/16
Pro Load 158 JHP 3
Speeder G Dot 158 JHP 4 1/8
Eldorado Starfire 150 JHP 3 7/8
USA 110 JHP 3 5/16
USA .38 150 RNL 2 3/4
Federal .38 +P 125 NYCLAD HP 2 3/4
Bullet weight measured in grains, accuracy in inches for best 25-yard group from the bench using 7-shot strings.  Except for bottom two, all loads .357 Magnum.

The Pain

Pain? What pain? I'm a big guy, there is no pain.

Which is pretty easy to say while I'm here at the computer and you can't see my hand. In all honesty, the skin is growing back, and it was my own fault for relaxing at the wrong moment, but you should be warned that there is some discomfort in shooting the hot 125s through a three-inch gun.

After the accuracy tests, I set up a B27 silhouette, stood back about eight feet, and did some Mozambique drills with the 686. An analysis of the Mozambique several years ago during a weeklong Ayoob school left me with mixed feelings about its real world effectiveness, but it is a good short range drill for learning the rapid handling characteristics of a handgun. With this one, lean well into it and bear down on the grip for best results. The 686 tries to settle into the hand with each shot, but it was controllable with effort.

Final Notes

This particular package is not for the casual carrier.

It's a gun for a serious shooter built by a shop who recognizes what needs to be done in setting up a revolver well beyond what the factory does. The itemized bill sent back with the gun totaled $580 including return shipping, which did not include the price of the revolver, and this is neither a Nightstand Special nor a gun you put twenty rounds through and consider yourself competent with. It's no 9mm, but it can be controlled with practice, and practice is what it takes to control it well.

I As far as Revolver vs Auto goes, no it doesn't reload as quick, but a couple of good speedloaders like the HKS units carried in the Bianchi pouches can keep you running with some practice. Weightwise, just for comparison sake, the custom 686 Mountain Gun weighs in at 38 ounces even stoked with seven 125-grain JHPs. My Colt Government Model shows 43 ounces on the scale fully loaded with eight 230-grain JHPs, my steel Combat Commander is half an ounce lighter, my GLOCK 30 and eleven rounds of 230 JHPs tip at 33.5 ounces, and my aluminum-framed Ruger P93 with eleven rounds of 115-grain JHPs is only one and a half ounces lighter than the Smith at 36.5 ounces. There are lighter guns to carry; there are heavier guns to carry.

And, before you get too hung up on low-cap revolver vs high-cap auto, remember this gun can carry seven rounds of what is by consensus the most effective defensive handgun ammo available. Those who carry one of the chopped 1911 variants particularly need not sneer. If you can put the bullet where it needs to be, this gun will take you home.

After shooting the 686, porting is highly indicated, and the front sight fills too much of the rear notch for my eyes, which you've heard me say before and. will again, as my eyes don't get any younger day by day. During the rapid-fire Mozambiques, the front sight blade was too slow for me to locate and I fired mostly by the point and shoot method, which worked ok at that distance. There's a trip to Trijicon for a front sight insert on the horizon.

It's not for everybody, but if your circumstances allow, your preferences lean that way, and you're willing to master it, something like this is worth a serious look. The basic 686 Mountain gun was intended to be a limited edition, but it there's sufficient demand Smith & Wesson might be induced to make another run. If not, you can probably still find one if you look hard enough or Cylinder & Slide can make something similar out of a standard 686 Plus, which is a normally catalogued full-sized seven-shot L frame.