The past several years, Smith & Wesson has created a lot of industry excitement by introducing or, in some cases, reintroducing new wheelguns. That’s right, round guns are making a big comeback. Part of the new wave started when Clint Smith urged the good folks in Springfield to bring out the Model 21 .44 Special in a Thunder Ranch Edition, followed by the Model 22 TR in .45ACP. Both were popular enough that once the run of Thunder Ranch Editions were completed, they were made a standard production revolver. Clint then redefined the defensive revolver with the introduction of the Model 325 Thunder Ranch. The M325 .45ACP features a detachable accessory rail that allows one to attach a light or laser under the barrel. With the popularity of these and other models on the rise, don’t let anyone tell you the wheelgun is dead.

sw3.gifThe buzz started around the end of 2007 when there were rumors that S&W was going to introduce a new line of revolvers. No one was saying much more than that but some subtle inquires found that the folks in S&W was going to introduce a series of scandium-framed revolvers based on the L-frame, N-frame, and to everyone’s surprise, the K-frame. They would be designed for personal defense and concealed carry and would feature Cylinder & Slide’s popular Extreme Duty rear sight with an XS front sight.

Being a big bore fan, the model that excited me the most was the Model 396. The ideal of a .44 Special cartridge in a medium-sized L-frame seemed to be an ideal match. The .44 Special is over 100 years old but during the last half of the 20th century, it was overshadowed by the .44 Mag. However, real pistoleros keep coming back to the .44 Special for serious social occasions. Folks like Elmer Keith and Skeeter Skelton recognized that while the Mag was great for hunting, it was a little much for a defensive or duty carry. Classic .44 Special platforms included the Colt Model P and S&W’s Triple Lock.

Today, the .44 Special has become “special” again with bullet weights from 135 grains to 250 grains being available in a variety of loads. I placed my request for a M396, and it finally arrived.

Gun Details
The M396 Night Guard is based on the L-frame that has proven very durable in the M686 series of .357 Mag revolvers. However, the M396 frame is constructed from a scandium alloy frame allowing a significant reduction in weight. The cylinder is stainless steel while the 2.5-inch barrel is stainless steel with a scandium sleeve that acts as a base for the front sight and shrouds the ejection rod. The finish is matte black that gives the M396 a serious business look.

Much to S&W’s credit, the M396 is void of any sharp edges. The trigger and all edges on the frame have been rounded. Five large chambers hold an equal number of .44 Special rounds. The frame is a round butt configuration with Pachmayr Compac stocks. It was here that we ran into the only issue with the M396. The factory Pachmayr stocks are extremely large, even for those with oversized hands. While the cushioned back strap made the M396 more enjoyable to shoot, the overall size of the stocks made obtaining a proper grip difficult. With the factory stocks, the M396 weighs in at a mere 24.2 ounces. 

The selection of sights for the new series of pistols is, in itself, a story. Several years ago a gunsmith, who was working for Bill Laughridge at Cylinder & Slide, came up with the idea of a fixed blade sight that could be retrofitted on any adjustable sight S&W revolver. Bill saw the possibility and the C&S Extreme Duty Sight was born. It is a one-piece casting that replaces the Micro Meter adjustable rear sight and provides a tough and streamlined rear sight with a profile and sight picture similar to a Lo Mount Novak. The original Extreme Duty Sight features a square-shaped notch. Once production started, Bill took the sight to S&W but, at the time, their attention was not focused on wheelguns. 

Then came the Night Guard proposal and the Extreme Duty Sight seemed a perfect match for a fighting revolver. For the front sight, S&W wanted to use the XS 24/7 Standard Size Tritium dot. The XS 24/7 has a large white bead with a small tritium insert in the center. It is both fast and accurate, and was ideal for the Night Guards. S&W asked if C&S could provide an Extreme Duty Sight with a “U” notch instead of a square notch. Laughridge’s answer was absolutely. A new mold was made and the “U” notch Extreme Duty is now on every Night Guard revolver.

Range Time
On the range the M396 was well behaved. Not surprisingly, “cowboy” loads were the most enjoyable to shoot. Speer’s 200-grain Gold Dot was a little stiffer but well within controllable limits and would be my first choice in a self-defense load. I can tell you that this “ol’ timer” wants no part of any scandium frame .44 Mags. The double-action (DA), while somewhat heavy, was smooth and consistent. Quarter-size DA groups from 7 yards were easy. The combination of the XS front sight and Extreme Duty rear sight make alignment quick and easy. The Night Guard series are not Performance Center products, so it is not fair to compare my test M325 TR revolver to the M396. However, when shooting them side-by-side, it makes me want to drop an aftermarket spring kit in the M396. 

As much as I liked the stock Night Guard, it was simply begging for a set of Crimson Trace Lasergrips. After all, it is a serious self-defense revolver and with “night” in the title, this was a no-brainer. I ordered the LG-306 grips for the round butt frame. The LG-306 is a very compact design that has an open back strap and fits almost flush with the bottom of the frame. As with all CTC products, the laser is activated by simply holding the revolver in a firing grip. The beam is adjustable for both windage and elevation. 

During range time with the CTC Lasergrips, recoil was manageable and follow-up shots proved to be relatively easy with both the laser and iron sights. I would like to see Crimson Trace develop a K/L-frame stock that follows the lines of the LG-405 for the J-frame. The LG-405 features a back strap pad that reduces felt recoil by 30 percent or more.

Carry Options
I definitely wanted to carry the M396 to see how well it would fit into a daily carry routine. When looking for a holster, I found that several of my favorite custom holster shops did not have a mold for the new model. The good news that Galco already produces an inside-the-waistband (IWB) holster for an L-frame, 3-inch barrel revolver. The Summer Comfort is a close cousin to the Milt Spark’s Summer Special. The Summer Comfort features a reinforced mouth that prevents the holster from collapsing when the pistol is drawn. The double belt loops are equipped with one-way snaps that allow the holster to be put on or taken off without removing the pant’s belt. 

As with all of Galco holsters, it is cut from premium saddle leather and detail molded for the specific pistol. The Summer Comfort lived up to its name and allowed the M396 to be effectively concealed and comfortably carried. A drop pouch for six extra rounds completed the Galco set.

Final Notes
I feel that it is fair to say the S&W owns the revolver market. From .22LR to the .500S&W Mag, S&W has something for everyone. The Night Guards represent a renewed commitment to the popularity of revolvers for personal defense and the concealed carry market. S&W recognizes that autos are not for everyone. In a .44 Special, the M396 is perhaps the perfect platform for self-defense. I think that Elmer and Skeeter would approve.

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