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.

In many ways, it’s the opposite end of the j-frame spectrum from the 640 Pro Series, which is made out of steel, has good sights, and is relative easy (for a j-frame) to shoot well. Where the Pro Series focuses on shootability, the 638 focuses on the first rule of a gunfight: have a gun.

Smith & Wesson 638-3

What I like most about the little 638 is that there’s no pretentiousness about it. It is exactly what it appears to be. It’s not trying to be a great shooting death ray, it’s not trying to be an unobtanium magnum snub-nosed flamethrower, it’s just a light, easy to conceal j-frame in .38 Special. The same kind of gun that has ridden in ankle holsters and jacket pockets for literally generations, and has done a lot of good work in that time. In the modern age, there are probably better choices for concealed carry than a 5 shot aluminum j-frame. This little guy has been my primary carry gun more times than I’d like to admit, because it’s so easy to drop in a pocket. But if you have this on your person, at least you won’t be lying if you ever say “don’t come any closer! I have a gun!”


  1. Those’s things are too darn light. Yes they need to be light, and easy to carry. Having picked them up, I can’t see myself shooting it well, and handling it well. Something with a little weight to it will help control recoil.,

    1. I run mine with 148 grain wadcutters. They’re easier to shoot for extended periods of time than other things.

  2. I had one and liked to carry it but quickly sold it because it was so unpleasant to shoot. Mine also would not reset the trigger reliably when I first got it, although a gunsmith sorted it out quickly. I went with it over a 632 because I wanted to be able to shoot it single action, but now I think I would just go for a 642. Lint and dust would collect in the hammer channel and although it never caused a malfunction, it seems like an unnecessary risk. Also once the gun was cocked it was nearly impossible to safely decock, and as you have pointed out, single action isn’t the right way to shoot defensive revolvers anyways.

  3. The first step is to shooting a snub nose effectively is to buy better grips. The Hogue J-Frame round-butt nylon monogrip allows you to get all the fingers on your right hand securely on the gun. This grip absorbs recoil and makes it far easier to shoot accurately. The slightly larger grip doesn’t affect most folk’s ability to conceal the gun in an IWB holster or a good pocket holster. Second, install the Apex Tactical Trigger kit which reduces the double-action pull from 12-14 lbs down to about 9 lbs. It makes a big difference. Put some flourescent green or red paint on the front sight.

    The Hogue grip described above makes my 638 much easier to practice with. I sold my Ruger LCR .38 spec with a small Crimson Trace grip because it became unpleasant to shoot and difficult to shoot accurately.

    De-cocking a 638 is not a big deal. Place your thumb on the little rectangular tab on top of the hammer, point the gun in a safe direction, and slowly squeeze the trigger, As soon as the sear breaks and the hammer begins to come forward, let the trigger come fully forward. The hammer block will rise as the trigger comes forward and will not allow the hammer to strike the firing pin.

    Most of your practice with a snub-nose should be double action anyway. However, at the end of a practice session I sometimes take single action shots at a 6″ plate from 25 yards in single-action.

  4. Mine pocket wheelgun is a 442. Kind of an apples to oranges comparison, but I think close enough.

    I’ll have to hunt up some 148 grain wadcutters to try in it. Thanks for the hint.

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