First Shots: S&W Model 581 .357 Magnum

First Shots: S&W Model 581 .357 Magnum

This is a discussion on First Shots: S&W Model 581 .357 Magnum within the Defensive Carry Guns forums, part of the Defensive Carry Discussions category; Hello. I have never been what one might call an "L-frame" fan. I had plenty of "use" for the compact "J's" as well as the ...

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Thread: First Shots: S&W Model 581 .357 Magnum

  1. #1
    1951 - 2011
    Array Stephen A. Camp's Avatar
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    Aug 2005

    First Shots: S&W Model 581 .357 Magnum

    Hello. I have never been what one might call an "L-frame" fan. I had plenty of "use" for the compact "J's" as well as the very comfortable "K's" and I seem to have always really, really respected the big N-frame revolvers from Smith & Wesson.

    The L-frames, with their "Pythonesque"-looking full-length barrel underlugs just didn't "do it" for me. At the police agency where I worked, I was in a definite minority. Shortly after the S&W L-frame line hit dealers' shelves in my neck of the woods, they sold and I mean sold WELL! As one of my agency's firearm instructors, I qualified quite a few officers with their new service revolvers. (Shortly after this time, it seems that the police exodus to "high-capacity automatics" began.)

    Without question, the Model 686 was the most popular L-frame .357 among the officers I saw, though some went with the more traditional blue-steel 586 version. Those were the only two models I recall seeing/qualifying.

    I have to admit that after shooting a few of the Model 686's, I was convinced that these things would shoot, ie: group very well indeed! I also appreciated their being beefed up to handle an expanded diet of full-power magnums and liked the extra weight's aiding a reduction in felt recoil when shooting full-power magnum loads. My not being a big fan of the L's back then was admittedly purely subjective; the revolvers did precisely what S&W intended them to. (I seem to remember a recall in which the company applied a minor corrective action to prevent primer flow from locking up these revolvers with certain "hot" loads. In my view, this did not constitute any design weakness or "fatal flaw" in the design and it was corrected quickly. In any event, this one has had the "upgrade" and has the "M" stamped in the frame beneath the cylinder yoke.)

    So there I am, minding my own business, shooting my 1911's, Hi Powers and anything-but-an-L-frame S&W revolvers when I spy a very attractive morsel in my dealer's case!

    "Oooh," though I, "What is this?"

    It was the S&W Model 681, a fixed sight service revolver in the tradition of the Model's 10 and 58 except that it had the full-length barrel underlug, but it didn't look so "bad" now. Something about this "Plain Jane" revolver was appealing and I didn't even care for stainless steel, although I admitted it was very practical for police service. (I still prefer blue, but do have quite a few stainless revolvers now. Some of my friends say I'm not the quickest to accept "change".)

    The thing shot very well indeed and it was a "house gun" and remained loaded with Winchester 145-gr. STHP's for several years...and then one day...I so foolishly let it slip away. I traded it and then S&W quit offering either the 581 or 681!

    In more recent times, I have come to realize that I made more than a few "mistakes" years ago and letting that 681 get away was certainly one. (We won't speak of the Model 58's, 10's, 27's and 29's that "escaped"!)

    I never found one to replace the one I sold but recently did luck into a very clean, slightly-used S&W Model 581. (Let this be a lesson for us all. (As an old friend of mine tried to tell me, "When you get a good gun, keep it." I do wish I'd heeded his advice.)

    This 581 shows a tiny bit of holster wear but has been shot even less. I hope to "correct" that! The stocks shown are some old and long-discontinued Fitz "Gunfighters".

    Shooting: The revolver was used in a short session consisting of a series of "Failure to Stop" Drills done at 10 yards to see how the thing handles at speed for me and some more precise groupings at 15 yards. (Time prevented my fooling around with more loads and at farther ranges.)

    At 15 yards, groups were fired in single-action, slow-fire and using both hands with wrists braced and while in a seated position. The goal was to try and wring out as much of the revolver's inherent mechanical accuracy as possible. I am sure that the groups would have been smaller minus the human error, ie: the error provided by me.

    Average velocities provided are based on 10-shot strings fired 10' from the chronograph screens.

    The "Failure to Stop Drill", sometimes called "The Mozambique Drill" has fallen from favor with quite a few instructors in more recent times. The drill consists of putting two shots to the torso as quickly as is accurately possible, accessing the situation and firing one to the head. The idea against this exercise is that it "programs" us into firing a certain number of shots rather than firing the appropriate number based on the particular situation. I am not suggesting this as a training technique but I do think it gives at least an idea of how one performs with a specific weapon when moving from somewhat "coarse" accuracy to more precise in compressed time-frames. Anyway, I chose to do it. Average time for these was 2.19 secs. This is starting with a two-hand hold in a "low ready" position. Ammunition was Sellier &Bellot .357 Magnum 158-gr. JFP at an average velocity of 1199 ft/sec from this revolver. (Mr. Miculek has nothing to fear from me!)

    After chronographing the S&B and Winchester magnum ammunition, I decided that the Fitz Gunfighter stocks are not for me. They're quite narrow at the top backstrap area. Though the feel comfortable to me, felt-recoil is unpleasant between my thumb and trigger-finger due to the narrowness of these stocks. I have now replaced them with the wider S&W service stocks, which are still quite compact. The areas of "comfort" as well as stock selection is subjective and what is uncomfortable to me might not be for the next guy.

    The S&B 158-gr. JFP grouped nicely and was spot on a this distance. (POA for all of the bullseye targets was the middle of the bullseye itself.)

    To me, the Winchester 145-gr. STHP had sharper felt-recoil than the one heavier S&B. The STHP load's average speed was 1221 ft/sec.

    At 15 yards, POI is right at 1" low for POA. Felt-recoil on this lighter-loaded .357 load was very manageable in this all-steel, 6-shot L-frame. Average velocity was 1004 ft/sec.

    Conclusion: Well, I like the thing and hopefully I've got enough sense to hang on to this one. No surprises and as others have noted, this service-style revolver's durable fixed sights are pretty much regulated for full-power 158-gr. loads, though the slightly lighter 145's hit very, very close to POA at 15 yards.

    Firing pin strikes were well-centered and extraction was at no time "sticky". This one has a very, very nice double-action trigger pull with the usual light-and-crisp single-action.

    In short, this revolver never malfunctioned at all.

    Based on the popularity of Ruger's GP100 fixed sight revolvers in both 3 and 4" barrel lengths, I think S&W's 581/681's built in the more "traditional" manner would be extremely well-received.

    I would buy another...and hope that they'd offer the same design in a 5-shot .44 Special!

    As far as I could tell way back when I had my original 681 and after testing this 581 today, this fixed-sight service revolver is a capable performer. I like its simplicity.

    I have not seem many of these at all...but I'm always looking. You might want to do the same if this style wheelgun suits you.

    Last edited by Stephen A. Camp; March 9th, 2009 at 12:50 AM.

  2. #2
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    Array ccman's Avatar
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    Jun 2007
    CT, USA
    Very Nice and good shooting.

  3. #3
    VIP Member Array rottkeeper's Avatar
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    Jul 2008
    Upstate New York
    Very respectable group, nice gun.
    For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the son of man be. Mathew 24:27

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  5. #4
    VIP Member Array dukalmighty's Avatar
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    Feb 2008
    In the 1980's my department issued 681's,they figured a fixed sight gun was less likely to get the sights knocked out of alignment,but you are right The 3 most common magnums I remember were Pythons,model 19 or 586/686.BTW the department armorer adjusted POI by using some tools,requiring him whacking the barrel left right up or down to adjust POI.I never saw the actual tool but I think it held the cylinder area and he would smack the barrel with a bar LMAO as I tell you this
    "Outside of the killings, Washington has one of the lowest crime rates in the country,"
    --Mayor Marion Barry, Washington , DC .

  6. #5
    VIP Member Array crzy4guns's Avatar
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    Oct 2007
    I used to carry a S&W 686 .357 magnum back in 1983 when I was on the PD. Your report brought back some fond memories. Shortly after I did a lateral transfer to the FD and have been there ever since. Sometime in the late eighties the PD I was on switched over to the Glock pistol in 9mm, G17 for patrol officers and G19 for detectives. I sold my 686 and like you have regretted it ever since.
    God bless our troops!

  7. #6
    Distinguished Member Array Rugergirl's Avatar
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    Jan 2009
    Oh my Stephen that is a beauty!
    Very good advice "When you get a good gun, keep it."
    It took 36 years to get my hands on this one and it will be until death do us part.

    And when I shoot groups like this, you can see why I love little "Smithy"
    Disclaimer: The posts made by this member are only the members opinion, not a reflection on anyone else, nor the group, and should not be cause for anyone to get their undergarments wedged in an uncomfortable position.

  8. #7
    VIP Member Array clarkston_cz's Avatar
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    Feb 2006
    Lewis-Clark Valley
    I picked up a 581 after my discharge from the MP corps.

    Back then everyone but the military seemed to use revolvers.

    The L frame was so new at S&W that they didn't even offer adjustable sights
    the first year.

    My 581 was a real shooter, and I shot it so much that it went out of time.

    By then I needed a Model 66 for police duty and the L frame went bye-bye.

    Those pics are like a time capsule.
    FB: CZ 2075 RAMI Owners USA

  9. #8
    Senior Member Array Frogbones's Avatar
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    Nov 2008
    Nice MAG.

    I'm very confident that's an excellent/fun shooter. Great Pistol with good history.

    I held one almost exactly like that one. Came really close to buying it, but the "well used" finish did not justify the price.

    So I picked a 686 K-frame (I think) I'm new to these kind of firearms in respect to frame classes. Sweet shooter non the less. Solid gun.

  10. #9
    Senior Member Array Sarge45's Avatar
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    May 2007
    I have a real affinity for the L-Frames. Those pics are some beautiful guns, fellas.

  11. #10
    Senior Moderator
    Array bmcgilvray's Avatar
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    May 2007
    Hi Stephen;

    I never was an L-Frame fan but the 4-inch fixed sight version has wormed its way onto my "want" list. Great post!

  12. #11
    VIP Member
    Array ctr's Avatar
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    Aug 2007
    Shenandoah Valley in Virginia
    The 581 is an awesome revolver. Great purchase. I had a 681 as well as a Custom Service 686 in the old days. Wish I had never parted with them.

  13. #12
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    Array GunnyBunny's Avatar
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    Apr 2007
    Victoria, B.C.
    I picked up a 681 a couple of years ago and it performs flawlessly. I already had two 686's, one 2 1/2" and one 4". I love L frames!
    Our conservation officers used to carry 681's until they switched to Glocks. All their old 681's went to the crusher.
    CCW permit holder for Idaho, Utah, Pennsylvania, Maine and New Hampshire. I can carry in your country but not my own.

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