By Firearms Review Editor Bill H
In the gun world, like life, the simplest solution is usually best. For many years, the go-to gun for concealment, carry, and home defense has been the double action revolver chambered in .38 Special. Smith and Wesson is probably the best-known revolver maker and has set the standard to which others are compared. Their line of two inch barreled, five shot, “snub” .38s is still a solid seller many years after their introduction. Sometimes called the J-frame, Smith and Wesson’s designation for this size revolver, they are also available in other calibers like .22LR and with slightly longer barrels.
It can be easy to get confused between the models but there are three basic styles. The standard hammer version operates like most double action revolvers allowing the gun to be fired both single and double action. The shrouded hammer version is known as the Bodyguard, where the hammer is protected by wings, but otherwise able to be cocked. The last version is known as the Centennial and has a totally concealed hammer and humped appearance. Originally equipped with a grip safety, it had disappeared from the product line and was brought back in the late 1980’s. These are double action only with a smooth top covering the hammer.
To further add diversity to the line, all three versions are offered in blued or stainless steel. The nickel-plated finish has all but disappeared. There are also three different frame weights; steel, airweight and the Scandium airlite. Scandium is a newer light weight alloy. The airweight is the traditional aluminum alloy. There are still some steel parts such as the cylinder on the airweight.
Back when I worked at a gun store, over 20 years ago, we sold a lot of these to women who wanted a carry gun. Many times, a couple would buy the heavier version for better recoil management. Usually they were back in a couple months to get the lighter one. Almost always it was in response to the husband’s question of where is your gun? At home, in the car, anywhere but the purse that it was bought for. The next day, they made a return trip to trade it in for the lighter version. We began to tell this story to those debating the different weighted models after it happened several times, hoping to save them the same grief.
The 642 is the stainless airweight Centennial version. The 6 as the first number indicates that is stainless steel. It has been the most popular model for years and what I consider the best compromise between all of the available options. Lately I have seen it offered on sale, and should be available for around $400. Sometimes offered with laser grips, they are about as plain as you can get.
Most newer Smith and Wesson’s have written on the barrel that they accept the heavier +P loadings. Older ones may not be rated for that, but honestly, most people would not shoot a lot of them and your hand would let you know to stop. Many people would carry the +P as the defensive ammunition as it would only be shot in a life or death situation.
Operation is very straightforward. Push the cylinder latch forward to allow the cylinder to swing out to the left. To eject the rounds or empty casings in the cylinder, push the ejector rod toward yourself. On these short-barreled revolvers, the ejector rod is very short so ejecting empty casings that may have swelled upon firing may be difficult. The grips usually have an L-shaped cutout to allow a speedloader to be used. After reloading the cylinder, just push it toward the right back into place.
The trigger pull is long, stiff and stages a couple of times before it releases. That is pretty normal for these guns. It has been my experience that if you shoot one a good bit the trigger gets a little better. There are aftermarket spring kits available, but I have never personally used one. The sights are a fixed front ramp with a notch for the rear. No adjustment is needed or possible. This particular specimen has a built in lock located just above the cylinder latch that is operated by a key. I’m not a fan of such features; Smith and Wesson still makes some of these models without the key lock in certain runs.
Recoil is stout. Most of the grip designs set up for concealment have an open back exposing the frame to the shooter’s hand so that recoil is transferred directly into the palm of the hand. There are plenty of great grip designs but recoil reduction will have to add to the length of the gun. The rubber Uncle Mike’s boot grips that have been standard on these guns for 20 years do a decent job of allowing the shooter to control it but they are not target guns. Add in short barrels that make them louder than most and a short sight radius and you get a gun that is carried a lot and shot a little. Accuracy is ok. Usually you can get decent groups at about seven yards with just a little practice. My average is about 3-4 inches. Honestly, I think the bad rap these guns get concerning accuracy is due to the fact that many “non-gun” types buy one and after a couple of boxes of reloads think that they know all they need to know about it.
I have used two holsters extensively with these guns. A pocket holster such as the Desantis Nemesis works well with large front pant pockets. I carried a 640 (the stainless steel standard weight version) for years in a cheap clip holster in the appendix carry position. A t-shirt, along with some belly fat, covered it completely. One other frequent option is in a Ziploc type bag in a purse. It protects the gun from all sorts of gunk or other purse debris. Standard HKS speedloaders are a good accessory and available for about $10 or less. Bianchi offers a plastic item called a speed strip and it is a good way to carry spare ammo in a flat package, but requires a bit of practice.
Do I recommend it? Absolutely. I’ve owned several different versions of these revolvers over the years and the only one I still own is a 642. I don’t carry it so that’s not the real reason, mine is more of a trainer or just in case pistol. The hammered versions hang up when using a pocket holster and Scandium airlites are a good bit more expensive. Stainless steel makes sense for any kind of concealed carry due to sweat or other rust causing factors. It makes a great gun for those who carry infrequently or are new to concealed carry. Every gun is a compromise, as this one certainly is. However, I cannot think of many instances where this would be considered “not enough gun.”