A couple of weeks ago I talked a bit about the ubiquity and utility of the small revolver and mentioned that I’d purchased one for myself. Today I want to talk about the options on the market and why I made the selection that I did. First, my requirements: A durable, reliable revolver in a minimum chambering of .38 SPL (rated to handle +P ammunition) that is small and light enough to carry in the pocket of a pair of gym shorts.
If you look on gunstore shelves you will see a number of different options for small revolvers. The cheapest are typically the revolvers made by Taurus and Rossi…and I find neither brand appealing. Because I’m a shameless brand snob? No, because Taurus has a pretty dreadful track record for quality control and reliability of their products and their customer support has been pretty horrible, too. I have not personally encountered a single happy long term Taurus owner who bought a gun from them manufactured after the early 1990’s. I’ve seen scores of guns sent back and I know of some stores who outright refuse to carry Taurus products because of angry customers bringing back broken guns. There are other options on the market that don’t come with all that baggage, so I’d rather just buy one of those.
That pretty much leaves Smith & Wesson and Ruger. This isn’t a bad thing as both manufacturers make a pretty good range of revolvers intended for concealed carry. Ruger’s flagship snubby has been the SP101, a very durable revolver. Unfortunately the bit of extra heft and size that makes it pleasant to shoot with hot loads also makes it difficult to fit inside a pants pocket, so I had to rule it out. The Ruger LCR seems like a decent little revolver with a nice trigger, but unfortunately it’s also just a tad bulkier than what I’m looking for in a small revolver. That left me looking at Smith & Wesson revolvers.
This doesn’t really narrow things down too much as Smith & Wesson makes quite a few small revolvers. They’ve been making J frames for a long time and over the years they’ve offered so many different configurations I couldn’t even begin to list them all. The most recent innovation in small revolvers from Smith & Wesson is their “Bodyguard” series of revolvers. When those were introduced I was quite excited because the J frame, as good as they are at what they do, could definitely stand to be improved. The triggers on them are quite heavy and the deplorable gutter sights are difficult to use even under ideal range conditions…much more so on moving targets in low light. The prospect of a modernized J frame with a replaceable front sight, a better trigger, and a more ambidextrous cylinder latch had me out hunting for one to handle in person. When I did finally get to touch one, my enthusiasm drained almost immediately. The internal lock work of the “Bodyguard” revolvers is completely different than that of a traditional J frame. The trigger may have been a tad lighter, but it was worlds rougher. I was also completely underwhelmed with the laser they included on the revolvers. The original lasers that came on the guns were made by Insight, and they were awful. The laser itself was weak, and the controls were so awkwardly placed I wondered aloud if anyone who designed that thing had ever actually tried to draw this revolver from a holster, activate the laser, and then fire an accurate shot with it under any form of stress. I’m betting they didn’t. The newer production guns are apparently shipping with laser modules from Crimson Trace which probably offer a much brighter and more visible laser, but from the looks of things they still have the same useless controls.
Handling “Bodyguard” revolvers again before my latest purchase, all the same drawbacks were immediately apparent. I stood there with one of the “Bodyguard” revolvers in one hand and the S&W 638 I eventually bought in the other hand and thought “Why couldn’t they just put a replaceable front sight and a decent rear sight on the 638?” The “Bodyguard” is not, in my opinion, the way forward for the small revolver. The S&W model 640 “Pro” is much closer to what I think an improved J frame should be thanks to the better sights and improved trigger pull with the reliable and proven J frame internals. Sadly it’s also rather heavy and rather rare, so it wasn’t a realistic option for my needs.
I ended up purchasing the S&W 638. For most of my years on the planet a J frame with a shrouded hammer was referred to as the “Bodyguard.” If you asked a gun nerd what revolver Ricardo Tubbs was packing in Miami Vice, he/she would tell you that Rico packed a S&W Bodyguard. Why S&W decided to name their new gun “Bodyguard” despite having nothing in common with the original, I’ll never know. To me the appeal of the original Bodyguard was having a useful hammer that wouldn’t snag in the pocket. Generally speaking one shouldn’t depend on the single-action function of a small revolver but a part of me has always liked the idea of having the ability to use it should I want to. With the shrouded hammer you can get that without any worries that the revolver will hang up in your pocket as you attempt to draw. I’ve also owned “Centennial” style revolvers like the S&W 442 and had good service from them, but the original Bodyguard has been on my brain for a long time and it was actually cheaper on the shelf than the “Centennial” revolvers…so I went with it.
It’s not a perfect handgun, certainly, but the 638 fills my requirements for a small revolver better than just about anything else at the pricepoint where I snagged it. The store I bought it from actually had the gun on sale, discounted from the already reasonable price S&W’s Airweight revolvers sell for anyway. When I did the Hi-Point test a while back I mentioned that if I had a bare minimum of cash to spend on a handgun for personal defense that the Hi-Point would be my absolute last choice. One of S&W’s Airweight revolvers, on the other hand, would be among my first. The compact size, relatively light weight, and reasonable price point make them a very attractive option for concealed carry. There’s a pretty sizeable aftermarket for these little revolvers, too, so some of the imperfections can be ameliorated somewhat with intelligent modifications…which we will get into later.