Taurus upgraded its long-serving Model 85 small frame .38 Special revolver in 2018, most notably by expanding the cylinder diameter slightly and increasing its capacity to six rounds. Dubbed the 856, it was a no-frills snubby constructed of carbon or stainless steel with a two-inch barrel. The upgrade promoted the 856 into the exceedingly handy niche that was for years held by Colt’s Detective Special. Taurus released an aluminum framed version, the “Ultra Lite,” in 2019. It filled the void left when Colt discontinued the alloy-framed original Cobra and Agent. Taurus added a three-inch barreled variant (the Defender) in 2020 with both steel and aluminum frames. The Ultra Lite Defender stands in a class by itself as a small carry gun; a six-shot, 17.5-ounce +P rated .38 with a three-inch barrel.
Function & Design
The 856 operates like an S&W revolver and uses similar terminology. Its cylinder rotates counterclockwise, and the thumb piece (cylinder release) actuates with forward pressure. It’s ergonomically shaped and doesn’t abrade a shooter’s thumb in recoil. The brands differ somewhat internally, but the biggest external difference is Taurus’ front latch. It’s a spring-loaded latch on the yoke that locks into a milled detent in the frame. The front of the extractor rod has no part in the lock-up. The rod’s tip is slightly enlarged and smoothly rounded. It’s more comfortable to operate (and less likely to cause injury) when striking it with a palm to eject casings. The trigger face is smooth, and its width is just right. The hammer spur is compact with radiused edges; the top surface is checkered. The 856 is equipped with a transfer bar safety.
The two-inch 856 Ultra Lite picks up where the old Colt Agent left off.
All 856 Models have a fixed rear sight milled into the top of the frame. The notch is square with depth and width scaled for a small carry revolver. Most 856 front sights are roll-pinned into the barrel. This is an exceptionally useful feature, making them easy to change. The Defenders come standard with an AmeriGlo front sight post; the face is painted orange with a tritium vial in the center.
I contacted Taurus’ Media Director, Caleb Giddings, and requested a sample Ultra Lite. I asked for a two-inch barreled gun with a concealed (bobbed) hammer and pinned front sight. Giddings sent what he had available – an Ultra Lite with a conventional hammer and a front sight integral with the barrel. I wanted a pinned sight because it seemed like a perfect candidate for the recently introduced XS Standard Dot tritium sight. That said, the little gun quickly grew on me. It was attractively finished with a matte gray frame and barrel; the cylinder and hardware were black. The action was smooth, and the cylinder locked up tight. The standard rubber grips are small enough to conceal but provide some recoil cushioning. My scale weighed the snubby at 15.9 ounces.
The 17.5-ounce 856 Defender Ultra Lite is a serious all-day carry revolver.
Shooting the 2” UL was straightforward. The sights were well regulated for windage and sent heavier bullets (135-158 grain) to the point of aim at 3-20 yards. The grips helped with recoil management; the gun weighed just enough to make most +P loads tolerable. For practice ammo, both 148 gr. wadcutters and 158 gr. cast bullets hit to the sights. The extractor rod throw was long enough to clear empties reliably if you use good technique.
If you need a smaller carry gun you can count on but don’t feel comfortable with a five-shot snub, give the 856 Ultra Lites a serious look.
The dark gray sights were a little hard to pick up for fast work. A coat of white fingernail polish followed by orange on the front sight drastically improved this. The 2” gun sailed through 140 rounds with no drama on its first day out.
The two-inch UL impressed me enough that I ordered a UL Defender from my local shop. The action was a little rough, and the thumb piece was stiff when I took delivery. It had the pinned AmeriGlo front sight and Hogue grips that were slightly longer than the factory-branded grips. The Defender shot well despite the trigger and sent 125-grain bullets to the vertical point of aim. The gun printed slightly right for me. The longer extractor rod made clearing empties easy, even when I got sloppy.
The Three-Inch Defender UL was a blast with wadcutters. Note the front latch on top of the yoke, the long extractor rod, and the well-shaped thumb piece.
I tapped out the factory front sight and installed the standard dot sight that XS Sights had graciously sent for testing. The dimensions of the pinhole and sight body allowed a perfect drop-in fit. I thought that I might struggle with the rounded post in the square notch for precision, but it delivered good body hits at 25 yards and beyond. Up close, it was intuitive and fast. The XS sight seemed to be regulated for heavy bullets, too – sending both 148-158 gr. bullets to the point of aim. The XS sight is an excellent choice for the 856. I shot 200 rounds of various wadcutters through it strictly for the fun of it. I’m pleased to report that the thumb piece has broken in, and the trigger pull continues to improve with live and dry fire.
I settled on two carry loads that worked well in both guns. The Underwood standard velocity, coated hard cast wadcutter hits like a .35 caliber oil drum, giving deep full-value penetration. The 135 gr +P GDHP was accurate and quicker to load from some sources with its rounded ogive. Both rounds gave great results in the Taurus revolvers.
|Underwood 150 gr. coated hardcast WC
|Speer 135 gr +P GDHP Short Barrel
|2” 856 UL
|883 FPS average
|829 FPS average
|3” 856 UL
|933 FPS average
|895 FPS average
The Underwood Hard Cast Wadcutter and Speer’s proven 135 gr Gold Dot hit to the sights in the 856’s and would be excellent choices for carry.
A six-shot .38 that will fit in the J frame box is kind of a big deal. The Defender adds sight radius and extra velocity in a package that is still very comfortable to conceal. These guns offer great features at exceptional prices- you can carry them all day, every day. If you default to a five-shot snub when your full-size blaster gets too big and heavy, give these 856 ULs a look.
The 856’s popularity has earned it good support accessories like the factory-branded Viridian Laser Grips and the excellent XS tritium front sight.