When target shooters, hunters or those interested in self-defense want handguns that fit particular needs, they may turn to custom-modified firearms. While some can afford high-end custom guns, those that can’t can turn to Smith & Wesson’s Performance Center line. The Model 686 from S&W’s Performance Center is a .357 7x Revolver enhanced for self-defense.

Now a distinct division of Smith & Wesson, the Performance Center bridges the gap between standard factory production and individually produced pieces coming out of a custom shop. The modifications are designed to improve functioning or handling, enhance appearance, or provide a high degree of specialization at a price point that falls between factory standard and true custom handguns.

History Behind the Model 686

The Performance Center Model 686 is based on the standard stainless steel L-Frame 686 revolver. L-frame revolvers appeared in the 1980s as law enforcement revolvers. The design was meant to bridge the gap between the smaller K-frame .357 Magnum revolvers and the much larger N-frame revolvers. The L-frame became quite popular.

The L-frame 686 was the last revolver design to receive major law enforcement acceptance. While today’s 686 series is often for hunting medium-sized game, it also has a following for self-defense users. The Performance Center .357 7x modifications are designed to optimize its use as a concealed carry handgun.

The 7x has a striking appearance. The bead-blasted matte finish highlights its most distinctive feature: a 7-shot unfluted cylinder.

Today, cylinder flutes no longer perform a useful function. Back in the days of black-powder single-action revolvers, flutes may have come in handy for rotating the cylinder for loading, especially when the revolvers were heavily fouled.

Model 686 Features & Specifications

The 7x’s cylinder helps impart the custom appearance the Performance Center is looking to produce and adds functionality. The 7x cylinder is also cut to accept full moon clips, making for faster reloading. The barrel is 2.5 inches with a precision-cut crown to enhance accuracy. It is nicely trimmed to reduce weight and enhance appearance. The short barrel also allows the 7x to balance very well in the hand.

The trigger and hammer are hard-chromed, and the action is tuned by the Performance Center for smoothness. I guarantee it is much smoother than a standard, out-of-the-box 686 action. The hammer has a wide spur for easy single-action cocking. The trigger is equipped with an adjustable stop.

The sights are old-school 1980s S&W. A plain black micrometer rear sight, adjustable for windage and elevation, is paired with a black front sight with orange insert. The front sight is the one thing I would like to see changed on the 7x. It screams for something classier, such as a brass or gold bead front sight like the company uses on some of its other Performance Center models. Brass or gold beads pick up ambient light better, are more precise and enhance the custom look.

Another nice touch found on the 7x is the use of laminated walnut color wood finger groove grips. I am a bit tired of synthetic rubber grips on everything. These are a welcome change. They look very sharp and have the Smith & Wesson logo laser-etched into the grips. In actual shooting, they spread the recoil effectively. The side panels are lightly stippled to ensure effective gripping with wet hands.

Overall weight of the 7x is 34 ounces, which is enough to mitigate recoil while remaining manageable for concealed carry. It turned out to be a joy to shoot.

S&W Model 686 at the Range

I went to the range with three different test loads: SIG’s 125-grain Elite Performance V-Crown .38 Special, SIG’s Elite Performance 125-grain V-Crown .357 Magnum and HPR’s 158-grain .357 Magnum. As expected, chronograph testing showed that overall velocities dropped as compared to the velocities I recorded in my recent ammo test using a 4-inch Smith & Wesson Model 65. In most cases, about 100 feet per second was lost from the removal of 1.5 inches of barrel length.

Practical accuracy testing was done by firing the 7x from the two-handed standing position at 30 feet. Firing double-action at this position and distance, I was able to shoot groups with the .38 Special SIG loads in the 2.5- to 3-inch range. Both .357 Magnum loads ran 3.5 to 4 inches due to increased (though manageable) recoil. The 7x is capable of better accuracy. I hate to finally admit this, but a shooter with younger eyes should be able to do better.

The late afternoon, with fall lighting conditions and the sun low on the horizon behind the backstop, wasn’t the best. The short sight radius kept me from gaining a sharp focus. Had I mounted a pair of Crimson Trace laser grips on the 7x, I feel could have done better. Even so, the accuracy of the 7x is more than adequate for combat work.

Velocity, as mentioned, was attenuated due to barrel length. The average velocity of the SIG V-Crown .38 Special ammunition was 855 feet per second with 203 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle. The SIG V-Crown 125-grain .357 Magnum averaged 1,223 feet per second with a resultant 415 foot-pounds of energy. And the HPR 158-grain .357 averaged 1,090 feet per second and 417 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle.

While all three loads had their power reduced by the loss of 1.5 inches of barrel length, they are still effective self-defense loads.

The Smith & Wesson Performance Center 686 .357 Magnum 7x represents a different approach to defensive handguns. In these days of mass-produced cookie-cutter semi-automatic defensive pistols, the 7x is definitely a breath of fresh air. MSRP is $1,089.


Smith & Wesson: Smith-Wesson.com
SIG Sauer: SIGAmmo.com