There was a time when revolvers were the kings of daily carry, and for the real pros—those who packed day in and day out—a compact, six-shot revolver with a 3-inch barrel was the sine qua non of defensive tools. So much so that it was the standard issue of the FBI before 9 mm pistols took over, and for good reason: A 3-inch barrel was easy to carry, gave a good sight radius, produced useful velocity and was an extremely ergonomic tool to carry.
Those days are gone, but the need has not left us. Accordingly, Taurus has produced its 856 in the new Executive version, a modern .38 Spl. carry revolver.
The basic 856 is the Taurus evolution of the double-action (DA) revolver that it has been producing for decades. In that time, the company has refined the lines and action (the earliest guns were just a bit rough compared with today’s variants) and the end result is fully up to the demands of daily carry and use.
The frame, barrel and cylinder are made of stainless steel, matte finished and then hand-polished to make it a smoother finish without shine or glare. The result is a quite attractive finish. The polishing and assembly are done in a separate assembly area, where the top assemblers are left to craft the best revolvers they can—and boy, can they.
Taurus 856 Executive Features
The barrel is one-piece and screwed into the frame. The sighting system is basic, but entirely serviceable. The front sight is a blade pinned to the barrel and the barrel has a raised, solid rib on top to receive the front-sight blade as well as an underlug to help offset recoil. If you want something other than the blade provided by Taurus, it would not be too difficult for a skilled pistolsmith to make a replacement to your specifications. The rear sight is a notch in the upper rear corner of the frame. Yes, there’s enough metal there to install an adjustable sight, but adjustable assemblies have downsides. They are fragile, collect lint, tear clothing and you rarely, if ever, need to adjust them. So, Taurus wisely left them off.
The frame is engraved on the right side with the new Taurus logo and, for this model, “Executive Grade Taurus” in the banner circle. There is no mistaking this for another Taurus. The trigger face is wider than the trigger body, but not so wide as to be a full target trigger, and it is left smooth and polished. Back in the days of revolver carry, we argued about smooth versus grooved trigger faces. I was definitely in the camp of smooth, so I was pleased to see the polished trigger face on this one.
The folks at Taurus slicked up the action and, in the process, also left off the hammer spur and single-action option on the Execu- tive. This is meant to be a carry gun, and for that use the necessity of single-action shooting is going to be vanishingly small. The action on this particular one also locks up properly, with the cylinder lock dropping into the locking notch on the cylinder just before the hammer falls.
Tuneup, Load Up, Go To The Range
As part of the tuning process, the Taurus assemblers also tended to the chambers, and they have chamfered them so you will have an easier time during reloads. A quick tip here: When you go to reload using a speedloader, do not try to line up all six cartridges at the same time. Instead, tip the speedloader slightly and get two of the six lined up and partially inserted. Then, as you bring the speedloader into alignment with the cylinder, the other four will automatically find their intended chambers. As we found in PPC, it works like a champ with wadcutter ammunition, and is even faster with bullets with any kind of nose.
Rated for +P ammunition in the .38 Spl., you might think that at “only” 25 ounces, the 856 Executive would be tough to handle with +P loads. Here is where a DA revolver shines over a 9 mm pistol. The size and shape of the grip (which is not a problem to keep concealed, by the way) permits a better distribution of felt recoil into your hand or hands, compared with a similar-size semi-automatic. Being all-steel, the 856 is probably going to handle a steady diet of +P ammunition better than you will. The Altamont walnut grips are checkered on the sides, so your hand can stay in place during recoil, but the backstrap and frontstrap are both left smooth, so your hand can slide into position on the draw. The grips are sculpted at the top, both for good looks and symmetry, and also for clearance of a speedloader on the left-hand grip.
The 856 Executive comes in a top-end Pelican case, with a pressure vent and two reinforced lock points. You’ll need two locks (TSA insists on a lock at each provided locking point), but you won’t have your case bulging during a flight. And as an extra bonus, Taurus and Pelican provide the case without logos or markings. So, unless they are very much in the know, no one is likely to suspect that a firearm is inside (well, except the agent to whom you must declare the firearm).
The complete package has a list price of less than $700. This is well below the MSRP of competitive products, and those others do not include the Pelican case, the slicked action, nor the spurless hammer. You could go with another brand, but then you’d both start at a higher price and you’d have to have a gun shop provide a case (fit this other revolver to it yourself) and a gunsmith who can do a skillful action job and lop off the hammer spur. So, the 856 Executive is clearly a smoking-good deal. By the time you have an apples-to-apples comparison, you could have saved almost $400.
In use, the 856 Executive is like most other DA or double-action-only (DAO) revolvers. To open, press the cylinder latch on the left side forward, and swing the cylinder open. (Don’t wrist-snap; it looks “good” on TV, but risks damaging your revolver.) Insert your ammunition and close the cylinder. To fire, line up the sights and stroke through the trigger. Repeat as necessary.
When closed, the cylinder is held in place in the rear by the centerpin spring-loading into the axle hole for it on the breech of the frame. The front of the ejector rod is retained by a spring-loaded plunger. When you press the latch forward, you are pushing that centerpin forward, out of the frame axle hole and using it to push the front plunger out as well. That’s why it takes more than just a bit of pressure to move that latch.
Since the 856 Executive is meant to be a daily-carry revolver, I did not test it with any target ammunition. I suspect that with mild-recoiling wadcutter ammunition it would shoot even better groups, but there is nothing to fault its accuracy with defensive ammunition. I tested it with modern carry ammunition, but I also went back in time and tested it with the apex carry load of the revolver-carry period, the “FBI load.” This is a lead, semi-wadcutter hollowpoint of 158 grains, loaded to +P performance. When developed, it was the best to be had. It still is today, as long as you don’t need barrier-blind performance. In bare ballistic gelatin or through light or heavy clothing, it works just as it always has. It suffers in performance compared to modern loads only when you introduce a barrier. If you know this is likely going to be your situation, it might not be the best load for you, but otherwise it is a superb load, and it shoots accurately as well. (Buffalo Bore makes a hot version of this load with the added benefit of a gas check to prevent leading your bore.)
Shooting double-action only, it took a while to regain the old skills that have been buried since 9 mm pistols have taken over. But, once I had gotten a few boxes of ammo through the 856 Executive—in chronograph testing and working on falling plates—the DAO work from a sandbagged rest was like the good old days. As far as accuracy is concerned, how much is “enough” depends. From a target firearm, I want as much as can be had. For a carry gun, used with more powerful ammunition, as long as the worst group is still no larger than the apparent width of the front sight, that is plenty good enough. Firing .38 Spl. +P ammunition out of a carry gun, I do not expect to see one-hole groups. As long as I did my part, the 856 Executive kept all of its shots within the width of the front sight blade.
It is fashionable to dismiss the .38 Spl. as obsolete, and not performing to the level of the modern 9 mm. Well, yes and no. If you are going to measure a 3-inch-barrel .38 Spl. revolver against a full-size 9 mm semi-auto, it will indeed perform worse and of course lack the same capacity. But, you should be comparing your snubby (like this 856) to a similarly sized 9 mm pistol. The 9 mm is still going to have a capacity advantage, but velocity? Not so much, if any.
The “revolver versus semi-automatic” controversy is one that has been discussed many times in the past, and boils down to personal preference and familiarity. Obviously, those who prefer revolvers are still a significant market force. As proof, revolvers are still being sold in large numbers, and the Taurus 856 Executive is an exemplary sample of the daily-carry wheelgun.