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.


  1. Whoopee!! Another Taurus hater… Have you owned one? I have had several and they have been flawless. I don’t know anyone personally who has had any trouble with them. The customer service is vastly improved in the last couple of years. And a lifetime warranty no matter who owns it and at reasonable prices. To each his own.

    Excellent choice you made by the way. I am seriously considering that model.

    1. Yes, in fact, I’ve owned one. I sold more during my brief stint behind a gun counter. They simply aren’t good. That whole “lifetime warranty” thing is quite recent, and isn’t so hot when you have to pay to ship the gun back to the factory and then wait several weeks for it to return only to find it still wasn’t fixed. Been there. Done that. Didn’t relish the sensation.

      1. 1) Nobody makes a “flawless” gun.
        2) If you are not seeing flaws, you’re not shooting enough.
        3) If you’re still not seeing flaws, you’re probably not documenting your shooting.

        1. Poor choice of words perhaps. I didn’t mean the guns were flawless only that they ran flawlessly.

      2. Obviously your experience is different. You didn’t mention in your column that you had owned one only about others that owned them. Also the lifetime warranty has been in effect for years now. Many years. Nice write up though. I liked it.

  2. Ruger LCR in 38 Special. Better trigger. Replaceable front sight. Equally priced. Equally concealable with boot grips.

  3. I carry a 642 w/ CT grips. I love the gun. I’ve been known to shoot it in Steel Challenge from an IWB holster with concealment. 🙂 I’d be first in line if they made the 642 (aluminum frame) with the pro sights.

  4. I always thought the size difference between j-frames and the LCR was inconsequential, especially if you replace the OEM LCR grips. For me, LCR wins due to the easily replaceable front sight and superior trigger.

  5. I own a S&W 649 (stainless version of 638) and a Ruger LCR .357. The Ruger, @ 17oz. vs. 22 for the 649, makes it much more comfortable to carry, and with boot grips equal in concealability to the Smith. Put a FO sight on the Ruger, and it’s perfect.

  6. I have a Taurus Titanium Model 85, with ported barrel. Had it for ten years, works flawlessly, handles .38 +P rounds no problem, easy to control, and — it is so light that when I put in 5 rounds, you can feel the weight increase. You can carry this baby around all day with no problem. The only thing that I have that is lighter is my Kel-Tec P3AT. I also have two Taurus semi-autos, millennium compacts, in .40 and .45. They function great, also. Now, I also have S&W autos and revolvers, Ruger autos and revolvers, 1911s, etc., and I like them all. I don’t think that you should disparage Taurus by singling them out as worthless.

  7. I happen to own a Cobra brand 38spl+p “shadow” I find just as reliable as more expensive or exotic models. It is also lightweight and easy to conceal. It is made in the USA .

  8. For me the S&W 36 in blue finish is the be-all and end-all in pocket revolvers, despite the heavy
    trigger pull. Mine goes to a trigger pull of about one pound in SA mode for some reason but it’s
    still a great gun.

  9. I’ve got a charter Arms “Off Duty” Weighs in @ 12 oz. unloaded. So light I forget it’s there. What I really like is the semi shrouded hammer. Small enough not to get hung up in a pocket yet still enables double action. Can’t hit the broad side of a barn with it but that’s not the guns fault. Not real sure of it’s quality but it does go bang when I want it to and with +P’s.

  10. I’ve got the LCR 357 magnum at 17 ozs, specifically for EASY SIDE POCKET CONCEAL CARRY – no strapping on a holster, OR inside or outside the waistband stuff. Bought a Quest holster & removed the metal belt clip. Gun in holster slips right into my SIDE POCKET – no hassle. I keep it loaded with lightweight factory 38 special OR 148 grain wadcutters only. Quick low recoil on-target defensive hits out of a 1.875″ barrel. The 357 magnum LCR is the only LCR with an additional 4 ozs. of stainless steel built in. Always also have a reload on my person. Oh, & the ULTRA RELIABLITY & EASE OF OPERATION works just fine for me.

      1. They are intentional, not “random”. It’s to give emphasis and make crystal clear my situational reasoning…..for my choice. Just trying to assist any potential “newbie” with my experience, who might be looking to make THEIR choice. Helpful clear comments by others are exactly what helped me when I was trying to make firearms decisions.

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