“Bring enough gun.”
The significance of these words comes to light when identifying threats to you and how to stop them. Whether two-legged or four, in the backwoods, you don’t want to merely slow down a threat when you need to stop it. Against dangerous game, multiple shots with a low-powered round are not as effective as one or two well-placed hits from a Magnum.
While there are many fantastic auto-loading pistols, few are as reliable or are offered in calibers as powerful as time-tested and proven revolvers. One revolver known for durability, ease of use, and solid performance is the Smith & Wesson Model 66 Combat .357 Magnum.
With a little modern gunsmithing and some improved accessories, I turned an old, weathered revolver into the perfect backwoods firearm.
The big joke of double-action/single-action revolvers is “double the pull and double the difficulty.” This comes from the heavier and longer trigger pull of double-action revolvers such as the Model 66. Reducing the trigger pull weight and smoothing the action help improve accuracy. Regardless of whether it’s a miniscule or major improvement, any improvement increases your chance of hitting your target. Consequently, I suggest a good trigger job prior to investing in fancy finishes or expensive grips.
I’m not a gunsmith, so I enlisted the help of my friends at JoJo’s Gunworks. John and Jody are well known in the New England area and do a lot of work for various law enforcement agencies. I wasn’t going to mess with the trigger myself when they do such solid work. And when they were finished, the DA trigger pull was lowered to 8 pounds and the SA pull to 4 pounds.
“For a woods gun, simple is usually best.”
Novak Extreme Duty Sights
The stock sights on the Model 66 comprise an adjustable blade and a standard front post. While these sites are fine for most shooters, I wanted to remove any additional parts that could fail. I chose the Novak Extreme Duty Sites for their simplicity. The front post has a tritium insert, and the rear site features solid construction with no adjustment.
This choice of sites was not without a tradeoff: While I lost the adjustment of the rear notch, I gained the durability of no moving parts. In defense of the fixed rear site, enough time spent shooting this revolver has shown me it is more accurate when bench-rested than shooting it off hand. Any inaccuracy is attributed more to user error than the sites being out of line with the bore.
Bead-Blasted ‘Battleship Gray’ Finish
Stainless is my choice for woods guns; however, I like blackened stainless whenever possible to eliminate glare. Unfortunately, some firearms finishes are expensive to apply.
When I purchased my Model 66, it was in pretty rough shape. There were many surface scratches and signs of obvious wear. I wanted a new finish, but I didn’t want to break the bank. With this in mind, my gunsmiths recommended a bead-blasted, battleship gray stainless. The firearm retained its stainless composition, but it lost the shine I dislike.
After years of carry, the less-polished finish has held up to the elements and has not taken on any rust. Also, the finish is relatively durable and hasn’t worn out. It is also easy to refinish without any chemical process. In fact, it can even be done on your own with a simple bead-blasting cabinet.
It has been years since I had this revolver built up to my specifications. Since then, I’ve used it at the range numerous times and have developed methods of practice to simulate conditions I might actually encounter when I need to draw it. Because I have access to an open range on more than 500 acres, I have the privilege of using this revolver in conditions most will not be able to copy at a standard indoor or outdoor shooting facility.
My practical testing has always been done with safety in mind. (I will never say that safety is my number-one concern, because shooting firearms involves an element of danger—errant rounds and negligent discharges can happen. If I wanted safety, I would stay home.)
In addition to the standard shooting drills and practice at ranges from point blank to 25 yards, I have also fired this revolver in the winter with gloves on; in the spring with a wet grip; and at night from my hammock. (You read that correctly—you have to train as if it were for real.) And when camping in bear country, swinging from the trees in my ENO and packing my revolver in a homemade chest rig, there is a possibility of shooting from an awkward position with little or no base.
Customized Black Micarta Grips
The stock grips of the Model 66 feature a square butt and are made of wood. While wooden grips certainly have a classic feel and look great, they are less durable than the rubber grips now found on most of the Smith & Wesson lineup.
Rubber seemed the obvious choice, but I had reservations about using it. I’ve had rubber and plastic products dissolve when insect repellent comes in contact with them; in addition, I have found that rubber grips tend to grip clothes when drawing a firearm from concealment.
The problem I needed to address was which grip provided the durability of rubber without the problems associated with it. Luckily, one of JoJo’s staff, Greg Haugh, is also a talented grip-maker. He fabricated a set of black Micarta grips identical to the wooden grips originally on the Model 66. Because I was familiar with the feel of those, the transition to using the new grips was easy, and accuracy was not affected.
“One revolver known for durability, ease of use, and solid performance is the Smith & Wesson Model 66 Combat .357 Magnum.”
Recommended Ammunition and Accessories
The beauty of the .357 Magnum is the ability to practice trigger pull with less-powered loads such as the .38 special. I suggest doing a thorough cleaning between interchanging .38 and .357 loads to avoid any excess fouling in the cylinder—which could prevent the longer .357 rounds from being inserted or ejected.
When in bear country, I like Buffalo Bore ammo in the heaviest hard-cast round I can find. If I anticipate a greater threat from humans than animals, I swap out the rounds for jacketed hollow points—usually Federal Hydra-Shoks. To carry extra ammo, I prefer speed strips and routinely practice loading and unloading with them, as well as with snap caps. Depending on my mood, I will either practice a full reload or “shoot two, reload two” to always have rounds available on demand. I also carry speedloaders when space isn’t an issue.
Rounding out the accoutrements for the Smith & Wesson Model 66 are a Bianchi duty holster and a Surefire E2D LED flashlight. Carrying a revolver—or any firearm, for that matter—without a light is based on the assumption you will only need your firearm in daylight hours. If you can carry a firearm, you can carry a light; and you should carry one. Just because a firearm is equipped with night sites doesn’t mean I will trust them or rely on them for threat discrimination. At a minimum, I will carry a light capable of 100 focused lumens to see objects at 25 meters and discern whether or not they are friendly.
Simple Is Best
There are many firearms that steal the spotlight from time-tested revolvers. Look at the cover of most gun magazines, and you’ll see an assortment of Picatinny rail accessories, “blacktical” rifles, high-capacity handguns, and high-tech polymers where steel and aluminum were once favored.
For a woods gun, simple is usually best. According to gunsmith John Napierski, “We (John and Jody of JoJo’s) knew this was going to be a working gun and not a competition gun.” Therefore, they kept it simple.
My Smith & Wesson is a proven, simple and supremely reliable firearm to operate. The refinements were selected carefully, and style and flair took a back seat to substance and purpose. The .357 may be a bit much for some smaller-framed shooters, but if you are capable of using it, you should seriously consider this firearm.
One of the most convenient and comfortable methods of carrying a firearm into the backcountry is a chestpack holster. Worn in conjunction with a large-volume backpack, a chestpack (such as the Koala and Koala Lite from Kifaru) moves the firearm from the waist to the center of the torso for unrestricted access. With a single pull of a tab with one hand, the panel of the chestpack is peeled from the main body, where the pistol or revolver is carried, and it is drawn with the other. Reloads, a high-intensity handheld flashlight or essential cleaning supplies can be carried in the central pouch, as well, rounding out the carry package.
A chestpack works well while hammock camping. Since most hammocks prevent any sleeping positions except on one’s back, a chestpack will always be positioned where it won’t slip under a sleeping pad or where it can’t be accessed. An outdoorsman need not unholster and, depending on how the firearm is carried, two deliberate steps (draw and chamber) can separate him from having his firearm ready in an altered state of consciousness and sleep. A chestpack is also handy while driving or in seated positions for extended periods of time. It flies under the radar in public places where conventional belt carry is not practical. Paired with a camera or fishing pole, a chestpack blends into the gear carried and does not appear to be a pouch containing a firearm. When not worn with crisscrossed straps around the back, both straps can be doubled over to make the chestpack into a shoulder bag.
Just as with any specialized carry system, one must practice holstering and unholstering with a chestpack and an unloaded firearm. However, once trained and practiced, accessing a firearm contained within becomes easy.
Next time you reach for your pack to take a walk through the woods, pair it with a concealed-carry chestpack and ensure your defensive handgun is close at hand.
Revolver reloading with speed strips is a lost art. Perhaps this is attributable to the growing popularity of autoloading “bottom-feeding” pistols, the widespread use of speed loaders or just lack of practice.
Whatever the case may be, the speed strip is a viable way of carrying various loads for your revolver in a convenient package that lays flat for carry and is ideal for the space-conscious outdoorsman.
Speed strips were designed to help police officers and those who carry revolvers for self-defense manage their ammunition. Rather than loose rounds in a pouch or pocket, the speed strip holds the ammunition by the rim on the case and allows the user to load two rounds at once. The speed loader can be very effective in scenarios in which the user “shoots two, reloads two” while behind cover. For the outdoorsman who concerns himself with dealing with threats other than law enforcement (i.e., dangerous game, snakes, etc.), a speed strip can be loaded with different rounds for different scenarios.
On a single speed strip, hollow point, hard-cast and snake shot rounds can be carried 2x2x2. If a new scenario presents itself, the standard carry rounds may not be suitable, and loading a specialized round from the speed strip is the best option. Rather than using—or “wasting,” as some would call it—ammunition meant for one application on any application, the right tool is used for the job. Instead of carrying a separate derringer loaded with snake shot (because it might not be affordable or practical) or alternating rounds in a chamber (a practice I advise against), the required snake shot load can be swapped in, if necessary, in a relatively short amount of time.
Speed strips are inexpensive and durable for repeated use. A package of Bianchi speed strips will cost less than most spare magazines for autoloading pistols. All that is left is to practice loading and unloading with dummy rounds or snap caps.
Next time you strap your revolver to your side, tuck a specialized speed strip in your pocket to make yourself ready for just about anything you encounter
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the December 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.