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Colt Python vs. Smith & Wesson 686+

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The Colt Python and the Smith & Wesson 686 are two mid-sized .357 Magnum revolvers that have competed with one another off and on for decades. While I have long been a fan of Smith & Wesson revolvers, Colt’s reintroduction of the Python in 2020 made me curious as to how the modern iterations of each revolver stack up. Recently the stars aligned, and I have both the new Python and 686+ in inventory. Although I expected a day and night comparison between the two, shooting them both side by side gave me a more evenhanded picture. But there are legitimate reasons to prefer one over another.

Colt Python and S&W 686+: The Background

Coming out of World War II, Colt and Smith & Wesson competed for law enforcement contracts. The 1950s saw an increasing motorization of the American public and the more powerful .357 Magnum cartridge was starting to gain steam over the archetypical revolvers chambered in .38 Special that more often rode in police holsters.

Colt produced only one .357 Magnum revolver at the time—the Colt .357 Magnum. Post-war, Colt sought to go up market by taking their Officer’s Match revolver and beefing it out for the magnum round. The Colt Python that debuted in 1955 was a completely different animal. This hand-fitted six-shooter featured adjustable sights, a fully under lugged barrel for recoil control and the unique vent rib sighting plane. Despite its price, it was well received.

Smith & Wesson, up to that point, had been more proactive on the magnum front. Their Registered Magnum, or Model 27, had been in production since 1935. That revolver, the simplified Highway Patrolman or Model 28, were joined by smaller K-frame guns like the future Model 19.

Revolvers like the Model 19 and the later Model 13 and Model 65 became law enforcement staples. Although easy to carry, these revolvers were largely unchanged from the original .38 Special M&P on which the K-frame is based. Steady diets of magnum ammo tended to damage forcing cones over time. To answer the demand for a revolver that could handle magnum loads full-time, Smith & Wesson made the K-frame cylinder frame. They made that cylinder taller and beefed up both the barrel and forcing cone. In 1981, the Smith & Wesson 686 made its debut.

In the mid 1990s, the first Smith & Wesson 686+ models hit the market. These are seven-shot, rather than six-shot revolvers. Although the standard 4-inch 686 and 686 Performance Center models are still made and feature six-shot cylinders, most 686 models out there now are Plus models.

While the 686 has been in continuous production, Colt scaled down Python production until finally terminating the model in 2004. But in 2020, the model was reintroduced by popular demand.

Quick Specs:

                                       Colt Python                S&W 686+

  • Caliber:                       .357 Magnum             .357 Magnum
  • Capacity:                      6                               7
  • Barrel Length:               2.5 inches                  2.5 inches
  • Overall Length:             7.5 inches                   7.5 inches
  • Height:                        5.13 inches                  5.75 inches
  • Width:                         1.45 inches                  1.55 inches
  • Weight:                       2 lbs. 2 oz.                  2 lbs. 2.7 oz.

Colt Python vs. 686+: An Up-Close Look

The 2020 Colt Python and 686+ are available in a number of configurations and barrel lengths. In this particular case, the models I have are the snubnose 2.5-inch configuration.

The Smith & Wesson 686+ is an all stainless-steel revolver. It is classed as an L-frame revolver, although this simply signifies the taller frame and reinforced barrel, but the grip frame is all round-butt K-frame. The revolver ships with Hogue over-molded rubber grips and has a seven-shot fluted cylinder. Although this is a snubnose variant, it features the same full under lugged barrel and the same sights—an adjustable square notch rear and a pinned red-ramped front.

It is a double-action/single-action revolver, that has an exposed hammer that can be thumb cocked for a lighter trigger pull. Alternatively, the revolver can be fired by pulling the trigger all the way through. Unlike some of Smith & Wesson’s smaller revolvers, the 686+ uses a leaf mainspring, which translates to a smoother and more predictable trigger pull. On my Lyman scale, this revolver’s trigger breaks at 3 lbs., 12 oz. in single action and 8 lbs., 2 oz. in double action. Characteristically, the trigger pull in double action starts off light and gets heavier, before getting lighter before the sudden break.

In terms of controls, the 686+ has a push-forward cylinder release and a short ejector rod to match its shorter barrel. This new production Smith & Wesson features a head-shaking keylock safety that you can choose to use or disuse.

The 2020 Colt Python debuted as a polished stainless steel revolver fitted with service-style checkered wood grips. Now, a matte version with rubber grips is available. In 2024, the first blued Pythons rolled off the assembly line. Like the 686+, it comes in a number of barrel lengths from 2.5 inches to 8 inches.

Although it is a snubnose, my Python retains the full underlugged barrel that the later 686 mimicked. It also has the same distinctive vent rib and target crown. Mine is polished stainless with service grips. It features a pinned red-ramped front sight and an adjustable-notch rear, although the setup is different than on the 686. The rear sight on the Smith is longer and the sighting plain is milled to cut down on glare, whereas the Colt is not. The Colt has a thinner front sight and a cylinder that is 1/8 inch shorter and slightly leaner than the Smith.

Like the 686, it comes from the factory as a double-action/single-action revolver, although the Python’s hammer is both longer and wider. It uses a serrated trigger, a relic of older revolver designs that prioritized good single-action shooting. The Colt’s trigger pull measures 5 lbs., 8 oz. in double action and stacks to its heaviest before the break. In single action, there is no trigger travel, but the final break comes at 5 lbs. 2 oz. This is likely because of how Colt revolvers lock up. The hand continues to work and the cylinder bolt pops in place when the trigger breaks. The Smith & Wesson locks up before that final break.

The Colt retained the clam-shaped cylinder release that must be pulled back, instead of pushed forward. This snubnose Python has a thinner ejector rod than the 686, but it is still short to complement the barrel.

Shooting Impressions: How Do They Stack Up?

I fired the Smith & Wesson 686+ and Colt Python through several shooting sessions and at the start I thought the 686 would come out ahead. After all, I was used to Smith & Wesson revolvers and their triggers. Although there are now models of the Python that feature rubber grips, most versions of the Smith & Wesson 686 also have the advantage of coming with larger Hogue stocks from the factory. Thus, I expected the Smith to be easier to handle and more accurate. But the Python proved to be a surprise.

In timed drills, the Python kept up in terms of accuracy and rate of fire when peppering bullseyes at 7 yards in double action when using .38 Special ammunition. Recoil between these two all-stainless steel guns was mild, although there was some blast from their shorter barrels.

The story changed somewhat when shooting full-bore .357 Magnum ammunition including Federal 158-grain Hydrashocks and Remington 125-grain HTP loads. I found that the bare metal backstrap on the Python allowed for my hand to slip, requiring me to adjust my hands. But the shelf at the top of the grip prevented me from losing control of the revolver. Between the two, accuracy at the same distance was the same between the two.

I extended the range out to 25 yards on some 8-inch steel plates. While I had an easier time running the trigger on the Smith and making hits, the wider front sight on the Colt allowed me to more quickly reacquire my aiming point.

Other Considerations

Shooting the Smith & Wesson 686+ and Colt Python was a wash, but there are differences between each revolver that are not always obvious when on the range. From a carry perspective, the 686+’s marginally larger cylinder can make it harder to carry, particularly in an IWB holster. It is also a few ounces heavier, which may make it easier for some to shoot but harder to carry.

The Python’s single-action trigger pull is crisp, but nearly as heavy as its double-action pull, whereas the Smith gets heavier but ends its travel lighter. On the other hand, if you prefer to shoot in single action, the Smith’s hammer is smaller and requires a longer reach for the thumb. The 686+ has the advantage of having a seventh round, but the Achilles’ heel is fewer speed loading options.

In the world of revolvers, HKS and Safariland makes the most robust speed loaders. The HKS requires a twist to release the rounds, whereas the Safariland, which I prefer, requires pushing the base against the cylinder to accomplish the reload. Both companies make a loader for the Python, but Safariland only makes a loader for the six-shot 686.

Internally, both models have departed from their original iterations. The 686+ has a number of metal injection molded parts including the trigger and hammer. The Colt’s design is improved over the original with a thicker top strap and a longer cylinder pawl to prevent premature wear to the hand, which caused timing issues on the old models. On the inside, the Colt is forged and milled, although the stirrup is a cast steel piece.

The Bottom Line

If you are looking at a mid-sized .357 Magnum, the Colt Python and the Smith & Wesson 686+ are two options you are guaranteed to look over. It is a rivalry that has been played out for decades, although the latest models are somewhat different animals than what they were historically. The 686 has a deserved reputation as a workhorse, but that does not make the Colt inferior as a shooter. In fact, the new Python is a more durable handgun than its predecessors. Between the two, I favored the 686’s trigger but little else as I found the Python’s controls, grip and size to be perfectly proportioned in what I believe a mid-sized revolver should be, while the 686 comes across as just a little too bulky. Naturally, this is one person’s opinion and a sample size of one Colt and one Smith. But how they compare in terms of features and on the range is worth a layout so you can pick one—if you can’t pick two.

 

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