Improving the J frame – Wilson Combat Custom Tune Spring Kit

Handguns are, by a wide margin, the most difficult firearms to shoot accurately due in part to their relatively small size and the inability to stabilize them against larger structures of the body. They become more difficult to shoot as they get smaller and the trigger pull gets heavier. The typical J frame has a trigger pull that is several times the weight of the revolver itself and is usually carried with a very small “boot” style grip. This translates to the application of comparatively enormous levels of torque on a handgun with very little room for a grip that will resist that torque.

Making the trigger pull lighter helps ameliorate this somewhat, but unfortunately there is no free lunch. The J frame requires a pretty stiff hammer spring to achieve reliable ignition since the hammer itself has such little mass. Due to this I never really bothered trying to do any trigger work on my J frames before, but with the purchase of the 638 I decided I would try out the Wilson Combat Custom Tune spring kit. The Wilson kit seems to be well regarded by folks who know the J frame well and I’ve yet to hear a report of unreliable ignition with the Wilson kit.

The kit includes 4 springs, a hammer spring and 3 different weight trigger return springs you can use to get the trigger feel you want.
The kit includes 4 springs, a hammer spring and 3 different weight trigger return springs you can use to get the trigger feel you want.

The Wilson Custom Tune spring kit comes with 4 springs, a single hammer spring that is lighter than the stock spring and three trigger return springs. The idea is you select the trigger return spring that gives you the trigger feel you prefer. (I used the lightest one) When you pull the trigger on a J frame you are working against the pressure of both of these springs, so by making them lighter you can reduce the weight of the trigger pull. Replacing two little springs sure sounds simple enough, right?

It is…mostly. Even a simple job on a very well documented gun can turn into a soul-crushing experience if you don’t do the research and gather the right tools. One of the “right tools” I’ve been too lazy to acquire for myself before now is a good set of gunsmith’s screwdrivers or screw-driver bits. Contrary to popular belief, all screwdrivers are not created equal and use of the usual sort of tapered screwdrivers on guns often results in damaging screws or even damaging the finish of the weapon itself. Keep in mind that with the Airweight revolvers you are working on a frame that is made of a metal which is considerably softer than that of the screwdriver you’re using, and so if your taper-ground driver slips out of the screw slot you’ve just dug a nice trench in your new gun’s finish.

While I was buying the spring kit I also bought the Brownells rebound slide tool pictured. The rebound slide spring bumps up against a stud made into the frame that’s aluminum on the Airweight revolvers. I hoped that using the proper tool would reduce the chances of snapping that little stud off…which could be a pretty expensive mistake. Unfortunately either Brownells got the spec on the tools wrong or S&W changed the dimensions on the studs on some of their revolvers because the opening in the tool was too narrow to fit around the stud properly. I put the 13 pound return spring in the rebound side and with careful finagling and holding my mouth just right I managed to use the tool to get the rebound slide back into place without incident.

The J frame's internals are actually pretty simple to work on if you have a little bit of knowledge, the right tools, and some patience.
The J frame’s internals are actually pretty simple to work on if you have a little bit of knowledge, the right tools, and some patience.

The hammer spring/main spring is considerably easier to deal with…you just need a paperclip or a very small punch to capture the spring in a compressed state so you can remove the end cap that holds it into the frame. Getting the spring cap back on with the new spring is a little bit more tricky. If you are going to do a job like this I’d suggest doing so in a place where you have plenty of room and with no nooks and crannies that a little black piece of plastic can disappear into after it’s been unexpectedly sent on a ballistic trajectory by a spring.

While I had the little revolver’s guts exposed I figured I’d perform an additional task unrelated to the spring changes: Removing the lawyer lock.

When you bring up the topic of S&W revolvers you will hear folks speak about “pre-lock” guns quite frequently. In the early days of our new millennium S&W decided to integrate a locking mechanism into their revolvers which would prevent the revolver from being fired when engaged. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth has happened over this decision partially because it was the result of some Clinton-era political pressure (S&W has new owners now who had nothing to do with that nonsense, by the way) and partially because it’s not aesthetically pleasing to see that lock zit sitting on the sideplate of the revolver.

I have a different reason for loathing the lock, though: Under the right circumstances the lock can spontaneously engage. Initially it was thought to be something that could primarily happen with the extremely light titanium and scandium frame revolvers in heavy calibers, but over time credible reports have accumulated on good old fashioned steel-framed guns in common calibers as well. This assertion is highly controversial because most people have never actually seen it happen. I have, though. I’ve experienced a partial lock engagement on another S&W revolver I own and as a result I get rid of them on guns I carry. Opinions vary on how one should go about getting rid of the lock, but I’m content to simply remove the bit that actually prevents the hammer from moving when engaged. The other pieces stay put nicely, in my experience.

I hate you. So. Very. Much.
I hate you. So. Very. Much.

I know why S&W started including the locks on their revolvers, but I’d absolutely love to see them be rid of the bloody things. They made revolvers for almost a century and a half without any silly locks and you can still buy some of their revolvers without locks…so why not just ditch it altogether, Smith?

After putting everything back together and doing some quick function checks, I found a noticeably improved trigger pull with a slightly slower trigger return speed…which is to be expected when you reduce the power of the trigger return spring. I didn’t hear angels singing or anything, but I didn’t go in expecting a miracle. I just wanted to make the trigger pull a little bit lighter. The difference is most noticeable when dry-firing with just the left hand, as I tend to need to apply less torque and as a result I don’t get as much lateral movement during the trigger pull. When it comes to shooting a handgun little things make a big difference and that goes double for little handguns like the J.

Given the price of the Wilson spring kit and the ease of installation, I’m pretty pleased with the purchase. I’m confident Wilson has done enough homework on the J frame to put together a spring kit that will function reliably. I’m sure it’s possible to go a bit lighter than the Wilson kit with some other option but I’m certain that the Wilson kit will work when I need it to…and that’s critical for a revolver like this one. If you have to pull a revolver like this you are already having a bad day and you need it to do its job properly.

 

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.