Two classics going head to head. Yes, I know, the Colt Python and the Smith & Wesson Model 686 have been compared ad nauseam, especially since the Python was reborn. This is slightly different since both guns are originals; the Colt was made in 1978 and the S&W was made in 1988. I am not comparing the current production guns here.
Why? Because to me, the current production guns from Big Blue are a knockoff of the originals. The current production 686s come with metal injection molded parts, two-piece barrels, frame-mounted firing pins, and the dreaded lock.
The current snake gun from the Prancing Pony isn’t really the same either. The current Pythons have up to thirty different parts that are different compared to the originals which resulted in different lock work. And the frame is stainless steel. Get off of my lawn.
Anyway, on to the main event . . .
The Colt Python, often considered the Cadillac of revolvers (back when that was a real compliment) was introduced by the Prancing Pony in the 1950s as their flagship wheel gun for the post-war premium handgun market.
Colt took everything they learned from their pre-war guns like their I-Frame Model .357 Magnum and their Officers Model (Match, Target & Special) and rolled it into one platform.
The first prototypes had half-lugged barrels, but Colt decided to go with a vent ribbed full underlug barrel for better balance and to give it a striking visual cue that made the Python an easily recognizable gun on any firing line. Its accuracy and smooth trigger was renowned.
A gun known for quality, Colt went so far as laser bore sighting the Pythons during assembly to ensure accuracy in the 1970s. That was a first in the industry according to Great Combat Handguns: A Guide to Using, Collecting and Training With Handguns.
A number of agencies issued the Python even though it was a high-priced gun. The Florida Highway Patrol, Georgia State Patrol, and Colorado State Patrol issued the snake gun and their officers loved ’em. Many other cops across the country purchased the Python privately and carried them when allowed.
Smith & Wesson, long in the .357 Magnum premium handgun game, since they started it in 1935 with their Registered Magnum. But from then until 1980, Smith only made their original large N-Frame guns and medium-sized K-frames.
The K-frame .357 Magnum was a 1950s cop’s dream, designed by the legendary lawman himself, Bill Jordan. But the K-frames had a minor issue. A steady diet of .357 Magnum ammo would eventually crack the forcing cone in the barrel and render the gun useless.
Back then, that wasn’t much of an issue since the mindset at the time was practice and qualify with .38 Special and carry .357 Magnum on duty. With a change in training tactics and the use of duty ammo during training, the K-Frames were being worn out.
The answer was something in between the N-frame and K-frame. Big Blue gave us the L-frame in the form of the Model 586 (blued) and the Model 686 (stainless).
The Model 686 was an instant hit. Having a beefier frame than the K-frame guns, but still using the K-frame grip, it was the perfect duty gun from S&W. Agencies all over flocked to the Model 686, especially since it was priced lower than the Python.
The U.S. Border Patrol, Immigration & Naturalization Service and the U.S. Customs Service all issued them. The U.S. Customs Service went so far as to have a special variant made for them and even the U.S. Navy SEALs used them for a period of time.
Additionally, the Model 686 was Smith & Wesson’s direct competitor to the Colt’s Python. The full underlug on the barrel is there for a reason…it was to appeal to shooters who liked it on the Colt. Prior to the introduction of the Model 686, shooters would take Python barrels and have gunsmiths install them on S&W frames, making the “Smolt” revolver.
All in all, the Model 686 was a hit and has been in production ever since. You’re probably aware of the Python’s different production history. While slightly different, it’s nice to have it back.
As mentioned, the Colt in this article was made in 1978 and is a gem of a gun. Everything is still remarkably tight on the gun. The factory wood grips have been replaced with a pair of Pachmayr Gripper grips. Why? Because wood might look nice, but rubber does a better job for guns that are being shot.
The Model 686 is a “-3” model. It’s the third variant in the design with some upgrades and changes to the original design. This one is special. It is part of Smith’s Classic Hunter line made for Lew Horton Distributing. Only 5,000 of them were made in 1988. The gun came from the factory wearing Hogue Monogrip and an unfluted cylinder.
Both guns have adjustable rear sights. The Model 686 has a serrated top strap and barrel while the Python has a bead blasted finish. Both are there to reduce glare for the shooter. They just do it in different ways.
Both have white outlined fully adjustable rear sights.
The front sight on the Model 686 has a single pin holding it in place while the Python has two. As mentioned, both have full underlug barrel.
An easy identifier many people use to distinguish the two guns at a glance are the characteristic cylinder release latches. The Python’s works by pulling it back while the Model 686 works by pushing it forward.
But let’s shoot these two . . .
As you can see, the Python has a slight advantage. Again, there’s a reason why folks used to take Python barrels and slap them on Smith frames. Those barrels were known for their accuracy and that is part of what made the Python such a great shooter.
Trigger-wise, the Colt uses a “V” mainspring rather than a flat mainspring (though the “V” shaped spring happens to be flat). Because of this, the Colt is long action and S&W has a short action design. All things being equal, the Colt’s long action double action pull will feel lighter through the longer arc since there is more leverage.
The Colt has an eight-pound double-action pull. The single action pull comes in at about three pounds while the 686 is 10 pounds in double action and the single action pull is about 2.5 pounds.
One issue the Python was known for was relatively delicate lockwork. If a Python was put through heavy use, they were known to go “out of time.” The cylinder wouldn’t exactly lineup with the barrel’s forcing cone and the fired round would actually be “shaved” sending lead into the shooter’s hand.
The Model 686, using the same lockwork as the N, K, and J frame guns, was a tough and reliable design that could take a licking and keep on ticking.
In the end, as a huge fan of both revolvers, I’d have to give a slight advantage to the Model 686 for its stronger lockwork. Yes, the Colt has better accuracy, but it isn’t very much of a difference and if I sit down and actually sight in the gun properly to that specific load, I get truly excellent results out of the 686.
If you’re looking for an investment, the Colt retains its value. I think the current production guns are better for the shooter since they have a more updated lockwork. But the original guns are classics.
If you’re looking for a shooter, get the Smith. But be forewarned…the prices on pre-lock guns are only going in one direction and it isn’t down.
I’m happy to have both and here’s the kicker. From what I can recall, I paid $300 for the 686 and $600 for the Python. That wasn’t in the last century, it was in the 2010s. I just happened to be in the right places at the right times.
Luis Valdes is the Florida Director for Gun Owners of America.