Rule One Gun Roundup: S&W 638

In the original picture for the Rule One Gun Roundup you’ll note that the picture includes a gun I haven’t written a Roundup post on yet: My J S&W 638. I’ve written about my acquisition and modification of the 638 previously, but the circumstances that brought me to the Roundup presented an opportunity to consider the J in context with the competition. By this point I’ve tried most of the Rule One Gun options on the market, so why do I still find myself carrying the J frame so often?

The Good

Smith & Wesson 638-3Power. The .38 special +P loaded with the right jacketed hollowpoint round gives terminal ballistic performance that none of the smaller calibers can hope to replicate. I’m personally fond of the Speer “BUG” load (Back Up Gun) with a 135 grain Gold Dot JHP, as it was developed specifically to meet FBI requirements from the J frame revolvers. While it’s possible to get .357 magnum J frames these days, I do not buy them. They tend to be considerably more expensive than the .38 revolvers rated for +P ammo. Stuffing actual .357 magnum ammunition in the little J frames just gives you a boat-load more recoil and blast without any significant increase in terminal effectiveness on the other end…and I can assure you that an airweight with .38 +P ammunition and concealment-friendly grips is already no picnic to shoot. Full .357 loads in a revolver as big as an N frame are pretty zippy…you do not want to try shooting them in a J frame sized revolver that weighs under a pound equipped with typically used concealment-friendly grips. If I found a .357 J at an attractive price with desirable features like significantly improved sights, I’d happily buy one but it would only be fired with .38 special ammunition.

The function of a double action revolver relies primarily upon your trigger finger. If your finger can pull the trigger, the cylinder will turn and the weapon will fire. Small semi-autos require enough clear space and grip for the slide to move freely for reliable function. I want to pause here and remind everyone how easy it is to stop the slide of a semi-auto from working:

 

While the demonstration was done with a Glock 17, smaller semi-autos are even more vulnerable to being choked than a reliable service pistol like the G17. One a typical range day this really doesn’t matter, but in a defensive scenario where you may be required to literally shoot someone off of you it can make a considerable difference. The J frame can be repeatedly fired through a pocket. It won’t go out of battery if pressed up against the anatomy of an assailant. If you’re fighting for control of the gun the cylinder will likely still turn if the person you’re fighting with isn’t able to apply sufficient pressure to the cylinder to prevent movement. These are all reasons why the J frame has been a popular backup gun in law enforcement for decades. I trained with an officer from a large metropolitan area who was attacked by a 300 pound former college football player turned drug dealer. During a traffic stop the guy literally picked the officer up and power-slammed him into the pavement.

It’s impossible for the English language to adequately convey just how much force you are dealing with from that type of assault. A hit like that can break ribs, collapse lungs, crack vertebrae, or kill outright. The officer was dazed and barely conscious, but he did realize that the violent felon was trying to get his sidearm out of his security holster. The officer took advantage of the bad guy’s tool fixation to draw the J frame he kept as a backup gun. He grabbed the guy by his hair and to borrow the officer’s exact phrasing “screwed the barrel into his head” and pulled the trigger multiple times, stopping the assault.

The Not-So-Good:

As I’ve written before, the J is probably the most difficult handgun on the market to shoot well and this, in my mind at least, is the primary strike against it. A very heavy trigger relative to the size of the gun and tiny sights does not make the gun easy to shoot well at speed. There’s no such thing as a free lunch: the things that make the J frame safe and convenient to carry also make it difficult to shoot well. The power (again relative to size) of the revolver makes it challenging and frankly fatiguing to perform serious live fire practice with, especially if you’re using an Airweight or lighter revolver.

The Tactical Professor in his "Secrets of the Snubby" DVD discusses trigger control with a snub revolver
The Tactical Professor’s DVDs on the snub revolver are a worthwhile investment for those curious about snubs.

To have any hope of using the little revolver effectively you will have to make a pretty serious commitment to train with it…but how? Thankfully there are still some folks out there like Claude Werner, The Tactical Professor, to give useful guidance on that. Claude has a couple of DVD’s that cover most of what you need to know to use a J frame effectively as a defensive implement that I would recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about the J frame. I have to depart from Claude’s advised practices on a few things (I use a different trigger finger placement than he advises because of the size of my hands, for example) but the discs are solid content that will steer you in the right direction.

Capacity is often mentioned as a limitation on the J frame, but in the context of other Rule One Guns the 5 shot capacity of the typical small revolver isn’t too bad. Just to give you a ballpark, the Glock 42 holds two more shots (6 in the magazine plus one in the chamber) than my 638. Reloads with the Glock are certainly easier for most, but none of the Rule One Guns are going to be reloaded at the speeds you see with the larger pistols like the Glock 19, S&W M&P, Sig, Beretta, etc. With the right equipment and some training, reloads of the J frame can be accomplished more quickly than you might think. I like the Safariland loaders for the J frame as I’ve found them to be a good blend of size, simplicity of use, and durability in daily carry. Claude’s DVDs cover other worthwhile options for carrying extra ammunition that might suit your needs better.

Overall:

I find that the J frame is extremely easy to carry. It can be carried unobtrusively in a small holster just about anywhere on the waistline in perfect comfort, but is equally happy in a good pocket holster like the Desantis Nemesis. I’ve spent years carrying a J frame either as a backup or a low profile primary gun, and even though I have other Rule One Guns readily available I still find that I’m sliding the 638 in my pocket most days. Perhaps it’s just habit…do something long enough and you’ll keep doing it even if it doesn’t make sense. I’m by no means an expert marksman with a J frame even though I’ve trained with one quite a bit over the years. Nevertheless, I know I can use it well enough to get the hits I’m most likely to need.

It’s by no means my ideal handgun, and yet it fits a niche for me so nicely with a blend of desirable features that I don’t really feel any need to replace it. It is kind of weird to have so many issues with a gun and yet when it comes down to it to really like it so much.

I don’t really recommend the J frame to many people. There is a pretty steep learning curve involved in using the little revolver well and I don’t think most are willing to put in the work to really get the benefit out of the little revolver…but for those that do the J seems to develop quite a hold on them.

Gun Nuts Review: Smith & Wesson 638 .38 Special

Smith & Wesson 638 two page right side

2014 was the last year that the humble j-frame was a legitimate contender at the IDPA BUG Nationals. In early 2015, the rules were changed in order to make Back Up Gun a full on division, and to do that meant making it a mandatory six shot division. The justification for this was that classifying with a five shooter would have been a nightmare, and while that’s true, it’s sad that IDPA killed the only place where the old-school king of carry guns could play. With the rise of the 9mm pocket gun, what is to become of the humble Airweight?

Continue reading “Gun Nuts Review: Smith & Wesson 638 .38 Special”

Choosing the right revolver for concealed carry

After looking at several options, I selected the S&W 638 as my new small revolver.
After looking at several options, I selected the S&W 638 as my new small revolver.

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.

Tubbs' signature sidearm in Miami Vice was the original S&W Bodyguard
Tubbs’ signature sidearm in Miami Vice was the original S&W Bodyguard

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.