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?

Smith & Wesson 638 the last of the BUG

Luckily, the Airweight j-frame is here to stay, and the 638 is one of the best examples. It’s absolutely simple: fixed gutter sights, shrouded but not fully enclosed hammer, just meat and potatoes. The hammer is probably the most interesting feature, because it offers all the advantages of a DAO shrouded hammer gun, and yet retains the ability for single action fire. Regular readers know that I’m not really a huge advocate of SA on defensive revolvers, but in a lot of ways this kind of makes sense. I accept that while I, and others like me, regard J-frames as “expert’s guns,” the vast majority of the shooting public does not. So I actually think that retaining the SA function in a way that doesn’t impede the ability of the gun to be fired through a coat pocket or jacket pocket is actually a pretty good idea.

Smith & Wesson 638 muzzle

For carry and practice, I recommend loading the 638 with 148 grain full wadcutters. My preferred brand are the Federal Gold Medal Match, which is what this gun was tested with. The 148 grain Federal rounds shoot directly to the front sight at 15 yards, and will easily keep all five shots in a 3×5 card at the same distance. The reason I recommend this ammo is written out in detail in this post, but the short summary is that wadcutters are easier to get hits with, and only hits count. Remember that.

Smith & Wesson 638 right side detail

Once you get past the 638’s party trick of retaining SA fire, it becomes much like any other Airweight j-frame. It’s light, it is easy to carry, it is easy to conceal, and it is hard to shoot well. While this gun is completely stock, I always recommend the following modifications for any j-frame:

I’ll get around to dropping those mods into this gun sooner than later; I genuinely believe that the combo of a laser and slightly better trigger makes the j-frame a lot easier a gun to shoot for a newbie. Of course, you’ll get objections from people who don’t want to drop more than the gun’s retail price on aftermarket accessories, and I get that, I really do. But again, this is an expert’s gun. If you want to really maximize its potential, the laser is a must, and the Apex kit helps a lot as well.

Ultimately, the verdict on the Smith & Wesson 638 is simple. It is a no-nonsense carry gun, and if you buy one you’re not making a poor choice. Sadly, it’s largely outclassed by the current crop of pocket 9mm guns such as the M&P Shield or the Glock 43. The ready available of easier to shoot, easier to operate, and just as easy to carry pocket 9mms will probably what eventually kills the j-frame, if such a thing is possible. Until then, us revolver guys will keep holding on.


  1. The j frames have the virtue of actually being pocket guns. Do we know any one who actually pocket carries a Shield in wrangler’s or Dockers ? I work in a non permissive environment and my dress code makes a cover garment out of the question.

      1. Thanks for this info. I have tried to pocket carry the p11 but it printed worse then Gutenberg’s press.

    1. I’ve pocket toted a Shield lots, and it even uses the same basic pocket holster as my old J Frame.

    2. I probably would if I had a Shield. The Shield is essentially the same size as the Kel Tec PF9, which I have pocket carried. Heavier, but too much. As usual, IMHO, YMMV.

  2. Agreed. Small revolvers are bigger than micro 380s but are a pocket gun. I find that the small 9mms are NOT really a pocket option, at least for me. I also find that they are not that much easier for IWB than a full size auto. For me, I carry a double stack gun IWB most of the time, or I pocket a Ruger LCR (like the J Frame in dimensions). That is the role of the small revolver that I don’t think will ever be filled.

  3. When the incense clears, and the Kool Aid dries, IDPA may find they have made a mistake. NAH. I will cling to my S&W 642, as well as the Shield .40. Like em’ boff…

  4. The problem with the 638 is that when you do cock the hammer back, it is fairly difficult to de-cock. It also Isn’t easy to cock the hammer. For the role of the J Frame I think the 642 has a distinct advantage in to having the external hammer at all. It shields the inner workings and seems to eliminate a source of problems. The 638 seems to be a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

  5. My 638 is a fine snub-nose. I outshot a number a folks carrying compact 9mms pistols at cc. drill night at the range. I have an Apex spring kit and a Hogue 3 finger rubber grip. It is quite conceivable in my IWB holster with appendix carry or pocket carry. My favorite practice loads are 125gr Berry bullets over 231. The nice :b-c gap flash keeps me target focused. I’ve sold Ruger LCR .38 spl, but I ‘ l.p. keep my little humpback SW as long as I carry.

  6. S&W Airweights dominate LEO BUG use around here. No IDPA gaming…. serious “iron” for a serious job.

  7. CALEB-Please use your commercial influence to get Crimson Trace to release a set of hard plastic laser grips, like the LG-105’s, that are relieved for speedloaders, and without the, “bird’s head,” shape. My dream laser grip would be shaped like the Precision Gun Specialties Hideout grips. Those would be super. I like the 405’s, for AIWB, but for appendix and ankle carry, I like something with a smaller grip. I have big hands, and I can’t get my hand in my pocket and around the grip with the 405’s.

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