Recently I postulated that we may be witnessing the birth of a “universal” sighting system for defensive firearms. As of this year, micro red-dot optic-ready rifles, pistols, combat shotguns and revolvers are now available. And for those who are willing to put in the effort, all four platforms can be fitted with the same model of optic so as to duplicate the sight picture for all four.
The last platforms to join the red-dot revolution were the small-frame revolvers intended for concealed carry. Taurus USA was the first company to break the ice with the release of the 3" barrel Defender versions of the Model 605, which is a 5-shot .357 Mag., and the 6-shot Model 856 .38 Spl. featuring the company's T.O.R.O. optics mounting system.
This version of the Taurus Defender 856 features all-stainless steel construction and a serrated ramp front sight
Over the years, I've worked with red dot optics mounted to most types of firearms but I had yet to work with one mounted to a concealed-carry revolver. Is a red dot a good fit for this type of handgun? I put this question to the test with a request for a stainless steel Defender 856 T.O.R.O. for evaluation.
The Small-Frame Revolver T.O.R.O. System
Taurus faced some unique mechanical challenges when figuring out how to mount a red-dot optic to a smaller revolver. Modern large-frame revolvers usually have fully adjustable rear sights. These sight assemblies can be removed so that a mounting system or plate can be installed in its place. But like most carry revolvers, the 605 and 856 have fixed sight systems with a blade sight up front and a groove along the top of the receiver with a milled-in square notch at the rear.
The top of the frame is drilled and tapped for a proprietary optics plate.
For semi-automatic pistols, the sight-mounting solution is to cut out a squared-off slab from the top of the slide. This slide cutout, or optics slot, is drilled and tapped for various sizes of mounting screws. The optic is then set into the slot and screwed into place either directly or using a mounting plate to provide a proper fit. But cutting pieces out of the top strap of a revolver frame is not a viable option since it can potentially weaken the revolver's frame to the point that it may not be safe to use.
The T.O.R.O. arrives with a plate and mounting screws in the box.
Taurus opted for a simple and rugged mounting system which is easy to install and allows for the use of the revolver's original factory iron sights when no optic is in place. The top of the receiver is not milled, but it has been drilled and tapped for two screws. The screw ports are found down inside the rear sight groove. Personally, I would like to have some sort of filler screws to put in these ports when there is no optic, much like those found set into the tops of drilled and tapped rifle receivers. But Taurus opted to just leave the ports open.
The T.O.R.O. (Taurus Optics Ready Option) revolvers arrive with a single unique mounting plate sized for smaller optics including those with Holosun K, Shield RMSc and J-Point footprints. The bottom of the plate is grooved and beveled to fit tightly to the top of the gun and is held in place using two provided screws. The trade-off with this version of the T.O.R.O. system is that the plate obscures the rear sight notch along with the serrated ramp sight at the front. This means that co-witnessing the iron sights with an optic is not an option.
The T.O.R.O. plate for this revolver is sized for smaller optics.
Attaching the optic to the plate requires second pair of screws. The Taurus revolvers arrive with two sets of different lengths. The optic is likely to come with one or more sets of mounting screws as well. In this case, the screws that turned out to be the best fit for the optic tested was the short set that arrived with the revolver.
Holosun EPS Carry MRS Optic
The selection of suitably small micro red-dot optics for concealed carry has grown significantly in the last few years and there are several models which would be a good fit for the T.O.R.O. revolvers. One type of red dot that’s gaining traction for defensive handguns is the enclosed emitter configuration.
The Holosun EPS Carry is an enclosed emitter design.
Open emitter handgun optics have polymer or aluminum housings that support just one piece of glass, the lens, with an LED or laser light emitter exposed to the open air. This configuration allows the optic to be lighter and less complex with the trade off that the emitter might possibly become obscured or plugged up by dirt, rain, grease or lint (I have yet to see this happen personally with a handgun optic).
External controls include an exposed hammer, a Smith & Wesson style cylinder release and a double-action trigger.
Enclosed emitter red dots have an extended housing fitted with two pieces of glass to form a protective box around the emitter in order to better protect it from environmental factors. At one point in time, these optics were relatively bulky and heavy but, like all things related to red dots, newer models are slimmer, lighter and more feature-rich than the models that came before.
The Defender 856 holds 6 rounds of .38 Spl. ammunition.
For this review, the revolver was topped with the recently released K-footprint Holosun EPS Carry. The version used provides a brightness-adjustable green MRS sighting reticle. Other features include a solar failsafe, shake-awake technology and up to a 50,000 hour battery life. But depending on the ammunition used, revolvers can sometimes throw out a good deal of fowling around the cylinder gap (between the front of the cylinder and the barrel's forcing cone) which could potentially soil the emitter. This made the enclosed EPS an ideal fit for this gun. As it turned out, a practice-grade .38 Special load fired at the range left a greasy black residue along the bottom and sides of the EPS, but it had no effect on the optic's reliability. The green MRS reticle proved to be just as useful for forming a quick to aquire and easy to see sight picture in this optic as it has in other Holosun models.
At the Range
For the time at the range, I opted to work with an all-stainless steel Model 856 which ships with a comfortable compact textured rubber grip. Since defensive revolvers in this class are often carried around town stoked with more manageable standard pressure or +P .38 Spl. ammunition, it makes sense to take advantage of a 6th round in the chamber instead of 5 rounds of more potent .357 Mag. ammunition. If the T.O.R.O. is going to serve as a trail-to-town gun, then the 5-shot Model 605 would be the better choice.
The .38 Spl. test ammunition included hotter +P loads.
The Model 856 proved to be a smooth operator with no mechanical, ammunition or optic related issues throughout the course of testing. It's important to keep an eye on optic mounting screw and grip screw tightness when testing a factory-fresh rig. In this case, all of the screws remained properly tightened. The double-action trigger pull weighed in at 10 lbs. 1 oz. with the single-action trigger pull dropping to a relatively light 4 lbs. 12 oz.
The .38 Spl. ammunition tested included loads ranging from practice-grade to +P rated premium defensive rounds. The three loads use for formal accuracy testing included a hard hitting soft lead hollow point from Buffalo Bore Ammunition, a sintered no lead frangible practice load from Geco and a low-recoil FTX round from Hornady. With all three loads the EPS optic contributed to tighter group sizes fired from a bench rest at 7 yards:
What are the trade-offs that come with mounting a micro red-dot optic to a small-frame revolver? Let's knock out the cons first. The price of the optic itself, along with that of an optic-compatible holster, will increase the cost of your daily carry rig. The Holosun EPS Carry has a listed retail price of $505.87, which is about $45 more than that of the revolver itself. The optic does not add much weight but it does change the gun's height and footprint. It may not be the best fit for those who like to slip a small revolver into a jacket pocket when going for a walk. It also adds another layer of maintenance (cleaning, batteries, sighting in) to a relatively low maintenance platform.
This revolver and optic combo proved to be sturdy and reliable at the shooting range.
However, I found the pros of this gun and optic combination to be rather compelling. The fixed sight system common to smaller revolvers can be challenging to master for anyone, let alone self-defenders with aging eyes or those who use corrective lenses. Mounting a red-dot optic brings all the same benefits to wheelguns that they provide with semi-automatic pistols. The illuminated aiming points are quick to acquire, easy to see under most lighting conditions, and they can be easily used with both eyes open, which is important in a defensive situation.
Will optics-ready carry revolvers become a new industry standard like concealable semi-auto pistols with optics-ready slides? Time will tell. But based on this evaluation, it's safe to say that the simplicity and reliability of a revolver combined with the benefits of a micro red dot optic is a combination that works well. For more information about the Taurus Defender series of revolvers, visit taurususa.com.