They only carry five rounds of .38 Spl +P ammunition and, at 15 ounces, they weigh about the same as some autoloaders that hold more rounds. At first blush, it might seem that Smith & Wesson’s little J-frame revolvers have outlived their usefulness.
So the question is, are these diminutive hideout guns still relevant?
If sales mean anything, then the answer is an unqualified “yes.” Smith & Wesson’s J-frame revolvers remain huge sellers. But why? There are a lot of good reasons to own a J-frame, because the advantages that small revolvers offer to CCW holders outweigh the disadvantages inherent in the platform.
Did you know that:
- Revolvers don’t fail to feed or fail to eject. Phrases like “won’t return to battery,” “stovepipe jam” and “this POS sucks” are from an alien language not spoken in Revolverland.
- A revolver is a superior weapon for close contact. Shoved into the ribs of a bad guy, the little J-frame conveys its message of peace, love and understanding with surprising eloquence.
- Loading a revolver is simple. Reloads are reasonably quick with speed loaders, and at least one J-frame model comes from the factory already cut for moon clips.
- People with a “dead fish” handshake may lack the grip strength to rack a slide, but they can easily press a crane latch and swing open a cylinder.
- A snubby is as easy to clean as a Rachael Ray Hard Anodized Sauté Pan. When the work is done, just wipe it down and put away. The gun, I mean. The pan could use a bit of a wash.
- J-frames aren’t picky about ammo, either, and they’ll digest whatever they’re fed. Compare that to a pistol that can jam like the Grateful Dead when it’s fed cheap ammo. Load any .38 Special cartridges, from the priciest to the cheapest, and the J-frame revolver will shoot them all.
- Revolvers aren’t sneaky. When there’s a round in the cylinder, it’s obvious.
- Staring down the muzzle of a J-frame is very intimidating. Even though the revolver is small, it doesn’t look like a toy.
- Snubbies are inexpensive to buy.
- The gun hasn’t been invented that can be deployed more swiftly, or from more places, than a lightweight snub-nosed revolver. From pocket, purse or holster, ankle or waistband, stuffed into a small-of-the-back or shoulder holster, wherever it’s carried, the snubby can be presented with incredible rapidity. In fact, it needn’t be presented at all. In a pinch, it will shoot through a coat pocket, holster or carry bag with great speed and precision, ruining both the garment and the bad guy’s whole day.
- Finally, snubbies look cool in a retro kind of way. Gee, I wish I could say the same about myself.
Okay, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the snub-nosed holster hornet I’m currently beholding is the Smith & Wesson 642 Airweight. Airweight is what S&W calls its old school lightweight pocket revolvers with aluminum frames and stainless steel cylinders, cranes and barrels – and that’s the entire barrel, not just a sleeve. Smith & Wesson also makes heavier small revolvers all in steel and lighter “Airlight” models in exotic metals. The Airweight revolvers fall somewhere in the middle in terms of weight, and represent a good balance between low3 and slick handling.
There are three major Airweight variants.
All sold under the forgettable and confusing model numbering system foisted upon the public by Smith & Wesson in 1957. The internal hammer DAO variant of the J-frame that's now called the Model 642 was originally released in time for S&Ws centennial in 1952. The internal hammer revolver is still referred to as the “Centennial” model, which isn’t a sexy name but still packs more marketing punch than “642.”
Smith & Wesson’s J-frame revolvers remain among the best pocket rockets ever made; the Model 642 is perhaps the best of the best. The Centennial J-frame conceals well and won’t hang up or snag in a pocket or holster. It shoots very straight notwithstanding its tiny 1.875” barrel. I like the fact that it’s not made of plastic. The all-metal 642 sports a silver and gray finish; the 442 is the same revolver, but with a handsome blued finish. Internally, they are twins and they are the archetypes of the genre.
Small snubbies are pop icons in the gun world. Bad guys and good guys, off-duty cops and on-duty thieves, detectives and detectees, hit men, hit shows and hot chicks have all featured the Centennial as their quintessential concealed carry piece. Maestro, cue the Henry Mancini Peter Gunn Theme Music.
Should everyone follow suit and pack Gunn’s gun?
No, because there are disadvantages to carrying any small revolver.
When looking at the disadvantages, we need look no further than the 642’s trigger. Sure, it has a smooth surface and a sinuous curve that begs to be pressed. But once pressed, the shooter will know why the little gun’s trigger isn’t knurled. It would leave a permanent, pressed-in tattoo.
Frankly, the trigger of any new Airweight is as stiff as a dead carp and cries out for a power assist. Or at least a windlass. Measuring the pull weight is tough since it exceeds the limit of most truck scales, but 200 kilos sounds about right. That’s a total exaggeration of course. Would you believe more than 12 pounds?
The upside of the heavy trigger is that it’s very safe and the gun is unlikely to go off accidentally. In fact, during the first range session, a new shooter may begin to wonder if it will go off intentionally. Not to worry. The revolver will fire every time.
There are two “cures” for what ails the trigger.
A lot of dry fire will break in the revolver and soften the springs substantially, although even a well-used 642 trigger will never rival that of a top-notch DA pistol. Until the trigger is well broken in, use the crease of the distal joint, called the “power crease” of the trigger finger. It will save a lot of unnecessary wear and tear on tendons and ligaments.
The second cure, and one that requires no surgery except upon the gun, is a good trigger job from a competent gunsmith. The price is usually very reasonable and elevates the trigger from ridiculous to nearly sublime, enhancing accuracy and comfort without sacrificing function or safety. Some owners have swapped out the springs for something softer. I haven’t tried doing so, preferring to let a ‘smith have at it with his collection of little files.
Then there are the sights. Successfully using these snag-free pimples requires a bit of practice. Okay, a lot of practice. The two stunted organelles consist of a ramped front sight that’s fairly conventional in appearance but small.
The vestigial rear sight is an abortion. The rear sight seems like an afterthought; it’s as if one of the engineers suddenly smacked himself on the forehead one day because he forgot to sketch a rear sight onto the shop drawings.
The working part of the rear sight is squared-off U-notch that resides at the end of a trough running the length of the top strap. We all know what a good sight picture should look like, with the front sight in crystal clarity and the rear sight and target blurred. We all know the mantra “equal height, equal light.” We all know these things, but the rear sight on the 642 does us in when we try to apply them.
A dab of sight paint on the sights fore and aft can make them marginally more useful, but that’s as far as it goes. And if the rear sights don’t get the sight picture all flummoxed up, the short 4 5/8 inch sight radius will.
As to the recoil, .38 Specials don’t typically kick hard, even in +P.
Loaded into a full-sized revolver with a four or six-inch barrel, .38s will have average shooters punctuating targets with the lethal efficiency of Jesse James or Annie Oakley. Accurate double-taps will be banged out faster than Tommy Lee paradiddles.
Loading the same rounds into a J-frame changes everything. With its two-finger stock and light weight, every press of a 642’s switch will make the gun jump like a frog with a hot poker up its heinie. Fortunately, while the recoil takes the gun off-target right away, the snubby comes back to point naturally and effortlessly in the blink of an eye. Although the J-frame is the definitive last ditch contact weapon, it was born to rapid fire.
Shooting standard pressure or +P ammo, the J-frame’s comfort isn’t compromised by its low mass. The Uncle Mike’s boot grips that are standard on the 642 insulate the shooter’s hand from any harshness. Even after a long range session, a shooter’s palm will be none the worse for wear. There are grips that look better or cost more, but none that I’ve tried work better than the 642’s standard grips. Kudos to Smith & Wesson for an inspired choice.
Kudos also to Smith for wringing the last bit of accuracy from this peashooter. Pictured is a two inch, five-shot group that I rapid-fired offhand at 5 yards with Fiocchi range ammo.
Results were similar with Hornady Critical Defense, Remington, Winchester White Box, Brown Bear and everything else I fed the 642. Groups opened up to about four inches at ten yards. At 25 yards, still shooting offhand, I was on paper but would hardly refer to the shotgun clusters I was shooting as “groups.”
Given my “ancient eye syndrome,” I was pleased with minute of bad guy accuracy at 25 yards, which is well past legitimate self-defense distance in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Really good shooters with their original eyes untouched by cataracts, astigmatism or farsightedness can replicate my 10-yard results at 25 yards all day long, without sandbags or other rests. The 642 is just as accurate as it needs to be, and maybe a little bit more.
This particular 642 came with the controversial internal lock that most serious shooters despise.
Rumors about guns jamming because of these “lawyer locks” have proven to be absolutely true. Shooters are all individualists and may choose their own path when dealing with the lock. I note only that removing the lock mechanism does not leave a hole in the frame, because only the guts need to be removed. It’s a DIY job, or can be performed in ten minutes by a gunsmith when he does the obligatory trigger job on this revolver. I’d put up a video, but then you’d blame me.
The main argument against any snubby is its five-round capacity.
Some people are uncomfortable with the notion of resolving serious self-defense issues with so few shots before needing a reload. Personally, I’m not planning on needing more than one shot delivered with pinpoint accuracy to the right spot. Thus, one bad guy versus five rounds of FU seems like an overlay to me. However, it’s the things that aren’t planned that get people killed. Like a second bad guy. And if I’m ever attacked by angry triplets, five rounds aren’t going to cut it.
So I adore snubbies, but not as my EDC if I’m only carrying one. In Massachusetts, we are limited to ten round magazines by virtue of an “assault weapons” ban that’s among the stupidest laws ever written. Since even a ten-round mag offers twice the ammo of my snubby, I tend to carry a pistol more often than the J-frame. There are situations, though, where the J-frame revolver is my best or only option. A gun is only a tool, after all, and using the right tool for the job is critical.
When I ride my bicycle or wear dress clothes, for example, the 642 carries and hides much better and more comfortably than any pistol that I’ve tried. That includes some diminutive .380s and 9mms. I carry my 642 around my home, too, where I have fast access to other guns to finish the fight if my snubby doesn’t. I never saw a reason for carrying a back-up gun, but if I did, the 642 would be my first and only choice. It’s the definitive BUG. And try carrying a Beretta 96 or a 1911 in an ankle rig.
Another word of warning to those who may be considering the purchase of a J-frame for a new shooter: don’t.
A J-frame would not be a proper choice for noobs, especially women. Just ask Alicia Keyes.
Yes, it‘s cute. Yes, it fits small hands. Yes, it’s light. I’m referring to the gun, not Ms. Keyes, although I’m sure that she’s all of the above. That doesn’t mean it’s the “right” gun for everyone. The snub nosed Airweight is most suitable for experienced and enthusiastic shooters, not for people still searching for their handgun métier or a new Safe Queen. On the other hand, no experienced shooter should be without a J-frame, and my pick of the litter is the Model 642. Not only is it a great little belly gun, but the color goes well with any ensemble.
Model: Smith & Wesson Model 642
Caliber: .38 Special +P
Cylinder capacity: 5 rounds
Materials: Aluminum frame, stainless steel cylinder, crane and barrel
Weight empty: 15 ounces
Barrel Length: 1.875″
Overall length: 6.31″
Sights: Integral front, fixed rear
Action: Double action only
Finish: Matte silver
Price: $449 MSRP
RATINGS (out of five stars)
Style * * * * *
A style icon for sixty years, carried by every hard-boiled TV cop and few crooks, too. Revolver purists may think that the Chief’s Special looks better than the Centennial or the ugly-duckling Bodyguard. Maybe, but a hammer spur will hang on fabric or leather, precluding pocket carry.
Ergonomics (carry) * * * * *
Fits in your pocket like small change. To protect the trigger (to say nothing of the owner’s privates), all pocket pieces should be holstered. Lots of good pocket holsters are available for J-frames, and they all work just fine.
Ergonomics (firing) * * * 1/2
Barely a two-finger grip, but that’s all anyone should need. Aftermarket grips are available for an all-finger grip. The recoil may scare newbies but is easily mastered through practice. The front sight is okay; the rear sight sucks like gravity.
Reliability * * * * *
There will be peace in the Middle East before this revolver has a misfire. Expect “five for sure” for another sixty years or more.
Customize This * * *
There’s a vibrant aftermarket for grips, including longer ones that enable a full handhold at the expense of concealment. Crimson Trace, LaserMax, LaserLyte, Laser Schmayzer (I made that up) and others provide enough laser choices to keep Goldfinger happy. There’s no rails on this revolver, so that’s it.
OVERALL RATING * * * * 1/2
With a high “power to weight” ratio and a street price well under $400, snubbies are deadly accurate, effective and supremely “carryable” self-defense revolvers. New shooters should avoid them. These are expert guns that shine in the hands of experienced pistoleros.