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”

Revolver Tour #13: Smith & Wesson 638-3

Smith & Wesson 638

You know what I think are just great? 5 shot revolvers for carry. You know what are really hard to shoot well? 5 shot revolvers for carry. This Smith & Wesson 638 Airweight is about the perfect example of the pocket j-frame; it has an alloy frame and shrouded hammer, gutter sights, but a pretty good trigger. It’s hard to shoot well. But it’s easy to carry and conceal.

Continue reading “Revolver Tour #13: Smith & Wesson 638-3”

A revolver tour #7: Smith & Wesson 640 Pro Series

Smith & Wesson 640 Pro Series cylinder open

I have talked about this gun a lot on the blog, and there’s a good reason for that. It’s a really good gun. It’s probably one of the best examples of a carry revolver that you can buy right now; although it is too heavy for pocket carry. But it’s great too shoot, and so long as you have a quality holster, you’re in good shape. Of course, the best thing about this gun? No lock.

Continue reading “A revolver tour #7: Smith & Wesson 640 Pro Series”

Little revolvers for big things

small revolvers for big things

“Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? And well you should not.” From top to bottom: Ruger LCR-22 with Crimson Trace grips, used mostly for NPE and as a kit gun; Smith & Wesson 640 Pro Series .357 Magnum with Ergo Deltagrip, used as EDC pretty regularly; Smith & Wesson 638 Airweight .38 Special, just purchased and will likely be used as a BUG and for NPE; Ruger SP101 .357 Magnum Wiley Clapp, EDC; and last but not least a genuine Colt Cobra .38 Special, used for when I want to feel like Bud White.

Improving the J Frame – Sights…sorta.

For reasons that are probably not entirely rational, I find that I’m extremely fond of my little Smith & Wesson 638. It’s become my little buddy…we’re going everywhere together these days. The other day I even packed it as my only firearm on a trip to the gym. If generic apocalyptic event had transpired on my way to, time in, or return from the gym I would certainly have been in quite a pickle armed with just a 5 shot J frame, but thankfully the world as we know it did not decide to end at an inconvenient time for me. Good job, world. Now about this ebola thing…

There are, of course, some things I’m not terribly fond of on my little 638. Chief among them is the sights. The J frame still uses the same sort of gutter-style sights that you could find on a S&W revolver manufactured before the turn of the last century. Seriously. Go over to The Arms Room and take a gander at this hand-ejector model manufactured in 1896 and note the similarity in the sights between that gun and my model 638 manufactured well over a century later. If anything, the sights on that old hand-ejector might be a skosh more high profile than the ones found on the modern J.jframe

Under ideal conditions it’s possible to wring some surprising accuracy out of the sights as they sit on the revolver. While at a friend’s place function testing another gun some weeks ago, I pulled out the 638 and fired the first 5 rounds out of it. To my great delight, all 5 shots were essentially touching the 1″ square pictured to the right. A 1″ square is an exceptionally tiny target but I frequently use a target that small to work on accuracy fundamentals because it leaves zero room for error. (You can download another similarly useful target with a 1″ square here.)

As soon as the conditions aren’t ideal it becomes much more difficult to use the sights with that sort of precision. A few smiths out there will actually mill a J frame for more modern sights like small Novak sights or even these purpose built J frame sights from D&L. While there is a demand for such products and services, it doesn’t seem like it’s enough for someone to make a living doing just that modification. The cost is pretty high and the wait times can be substantial…and the service isn’t always available for the Airweight revolvers.

To improve the sights on my J, I used some old school trickery and some new age stuff: A Sharpie and some new grips from Crimson Trace.

One of the things you can do to improve the existing sights on a J frame is to add some contrast. I started using the brightest flourescent yellow paint I could find on black sights years ago to try and make at least the front sight easier to find in a hurry. On the 638 we already have a light colored front sight, so I added some contrast by blacking the rear sight notch out with a Sharpie. It’s not as good as a proper set of sights, but I find that it does help me get a quicker read on the sights. Enough so that I haven’t yet found the need to paint the front sight a loud color…the silver front seems to stand out plenty well on its own in combination with the blacked out rear.

 

The LG-105 for the J frame revolvers are the most economical , most concealable, and, at least in my experience, the most durable.
The LG-105 for the J frame revolvers are the most economical , most concealable, and, at least in my experience, the most durable.

The Sharpie/contrast trick does very little to aid you in low light. As it comes from the box, the little revolver is next to useless (from an accuracy perspective) in conditions of low light. You are limited to point shooting and hoping that’s good enough to get the job done. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I’m not a fan of relying exclusively on point shooting.

I’m generally a fan of Crimson Trace’s products but I think their offerings for the J frame and similar small handguns make the biggest difference in, for lack of a better term, “shootability.” I can make shots with a laser-equipped J frame that I would have absolutely no hope of making otherwise. Crimson Trace has a couple of different models for the J frame with each having their place. The LG-305 grips are fairly large and are ideal if you’re looking to make the tiny J frame grip more substantial. A larger grip on the J frame, believe it or not, often makes it easier to shoot. If you are belt carrying the little revolver then the larger grip might well be the best option for you.

I often carry the revolver in a pocket, so the 305’s are out. That leaves the LG-105 and LG-405. The 405’s have some really nice features and actually do make the little revolvers a bit more comfortable to shoot, but I’ve always gone with the LG-105 grips because A. they’re cheaper, and B. being made of hard plastic they’ve proven to withstand the abuse of daily carry extremely well.

It does add somewhere between $150-$185 bucks (depending on your luck in finding deals) to the cost of the revolver, but I think it’s still a bargain. You can literally put these grips on, adjust the laser to match your sights (if your revolver shoots as well as mine does!) and you’ve just made the little weapon much easier to hit with in most conditions…and let’s face facts: When you’re using a 5 shot .38 revolver with a sub 2″ barrel on it, hitting is of primary importance. Anything you can do to make hitting easier with a handgun like this is a wise investment because low capacity and on-the-bubble terminal ballistics performance makes getting the maximum effect from each shot that much more critical.

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.

 

I always come back around to the wheel

One of the perks of my job is I get to shoot and carry a lot of different guns. In the past month I’ve shot some guns that aren’t even on the market yet; I’ve carried all kinds of guns, I have the HK VP9 on my desk. And yet when I’m not carrying something specifically to write about it, I always seem to end up right back here:

640 pro delta

With a J-frame, in this case the excellent 640 Pro Series. I will add the caveat that I also tend to carry my M&P Shield a lot, it’s a true statement that Smith & Wesson guns get carried a lot around this house. But for whatever reason, I usually end up carrying the j-frame, and I think I’ve finally figured out what it is.

I don’t think I’m going to get into a gunfight. That’s really what it is. But I do think I might need to project force to defend my life, and a j-frame quite likely projects enough force to deter a crackhead from slicing me. Plus, I actually really like shooting this gun. It’s easy to run a box of 158 grain LSWC through it whenever I go to the range, the sights are good and the Delta grip is actually pretty nifty. I know that I’ll probably get killed by ninjas or something for not carrying a full size service pistol and three reloads, but whatever. If ninjas are going to punch my ticket, it’s going to happen.

This actually brings me around to something that’s interesting to me – a side effect of the growth in serious shooting culture. The internet has allowed people who are fundamentally serious about being good shooters to get together and talk about that, which is good. That means we can share ideas, techniques, and learn from each other. The side effect of that is I’ve noticed the growth of an idea that unless you’re carrying at least a Glock 19 with a spare mag, you’re not serious about CCW. I can even understand the idea behind it, because at its core it’s a sensible idea. You carry the most capable gun possible, because you don’t know what kind of fight you might end up it. I could conceal a Glock 19 all day if I wanted to…but I want to wear shorts and a t-shirt and not have to dress around the gun.

So I carry a j-frame. But I shoot this gun, a lot. I’ve even competed with it, and did pretty well at the IDPA BUG Match. Maybe I’m not serious about my self defense because I do carry a j-frame. Or maybe, the longer I do this for a living, the less I worry about what other people think of my carry rig.

brb, gonna go get killed by ninjas.