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.


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.

Revolver Tour #14: Colt Cobra

Colt Cobra

Today’s revolver tour is the only gun in the safe that isn’t actually mine, it belongs to Shelley Rae. It’s actually been in her family for three generations now, and that makes it special. It would be special anyway, because it’s a Colt, and I have a soft spot for Colt revolvers.

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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.

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A revolver tour: Ruger GP100 4.2

Ruger GP100 4.2 Hogue stocks

During this week, I’m going to be taking you guys through a tour of some of the various wheelguns I own. This started from a photo I posted on my fan page, which turned into a short post here on Gun Nuts simply titled “I like wheelguns.” We’ll start this series of posts with one of the guns that I’m most often associated with, the Ruger GP100.

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Ruger Introduces LCRx with 3-Inch Barrel

Ruger Expands the Popular Line of Lightweight Compact Revolvers with the Addition of the LCRx with 3-inch barrel

Ruger LCRx 3-inch 2

Sturm, Ruger & Company, Inc. (NYSE-RGR) announces the introduction of the LCRx™ with a 3-inch barrel, the newest variation of the revolutionary Lightweight Compact Revolver (LCR®). Chambered in .38 Special +P, this LCRx features an exposed hammer that allows it to be fired in either double-action or single-action mode.
“The newest LCRx is the perfect revolver for backpacking, concealed carry, home defense, or just plinking,” said Chris Killoy, Ruger President and Chief Operating Officer. “The 3-inch barrel, adjustable sight and modest weight create a great all-around gun.”

This latest addition to the LCR line maintains all the features of the original LCR, including a uniquely engineered double-action trigger pull and patented Ruger friction-reducing cam fire control system. The double-action trigger pull force on the LCR builds gradually and peaks later in the trigger stroke, resulting in better control and a trigger pull that feels much lighter than it actually is. The LCRx also incorporates crisp single-action functionality for precise shooting.

Ruger LCRx 3-inch

The LCRx rear sight is fully adjustable for both windage and elevation, and the full-length Hogue® Tamer™ Grip without finger grooves makes for comfortable shooting. The LCR chambered in .38 Special +P has three main components: a polymer fire control housing, an aerospace grade aluminum monolithic frame, and an extensively fluted stainless steel cylinder. When it was originally introduced, the Ruger LCR revolver was one of the most significant new revolver designs in over a century, and it has since been awarded three patents.

In addition to the recently introduced 9mm model, the Ruger LCR is available in .38 Spl +P, .357 Mag., .22 WMR and .22 LR double-action-only models. The exposed hammer LCRx is available in .38 Spl +P. All LCR models feature replaceable ramp front sights with white bar and some models feature a laser-sighting system from Crimson Trace®.

Celebrate diversity


Top row, left to right: two Magtech .38 Special 158 grain LSWC; two DoubleTap .38 Special +P 158 grain hardcast LSWC; two Federal .357 Magnum 158 grain JSP.

Bottom row, left to right: two Federal .38 Special 158 grain LRN, two Federal Gold Medal 148 grain full WC.

All of these rounds could be fired from one gun; while revolvers may be old, their ability to perform many roles from self defense, hunting, and target shooting, is hard to match in a semi-auto pistol.

Classic Colts

Colt Cobra and Pocket 9

Top: Colt Cobra .38 Special
The Cobra is an aluminum framed revolver on Colt’s D-frame that was produced until 1981. Unlike its competitors from S&W, the Corbra (and Detective Special) are unique because of their six-shot capacity. Also, the cylinder rotates clockwise from the shooter’s perspective, unlike S&W and Ruger DA revos.

Bottom: Colt Pocket 9
The Pocket 9 was a single-stack 9mm before it was cool, and an early attempt from Colt to get back into the CCW game. The gun was eventually discontinued allegedly due to a patent infringement lawsuit from Kahr, and was never heavily produced. Today used models will fetch a hefty price as the gun has a cult following both with hipster CCW dudes and (of course) Colt collectors.

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.

Ammo review: Federal American Eagle .38 Special 130 grain FMJ

This is the perfect round for IDPA SSR. I know that’s a bold statement, but if you’re not going to handload for IDPA SSR, you need a bullet that does three things: works with a lightened action, is easy to reload, and makes power factor. The 130 grain FMJ load from Federal does all three of those things.

Photo by Ammo Supply Warehouse
Photo by Ammo Supply Warehouse

Let’s start with the most important thing your IDPA Stock Service Revolver ammo should do: make power factor. In IDPA, the PF for SSR is set at 105,000, which we’ll shorten to just 105. For those not familiar with the shooting sports, the formula for power factor is bullet weight times velocity, then divided by 1000 to make a three digit number. So for example, a bullet that weighs 130 grains would need to be going at least 807.7 FPS to make power factor. Weather affects bullet velocity, on a cold day the air is more dense making your rounds slower. Hot days are good for chrono checks; unfortunately when my rounds were chrono’d at the IDPA Nationals, it was about 40 degrees. Three rounds are shot over the chrono, and the American Eagle produced an 820, 820, and 817. That’s…pretty consistent, actually. And what I’ve come to expect from Federal’s products. That put my power factor at a comfortable 106.5, giving me plenty of confidence in using these rounds again.

The next thing that your rounds need to do, and honestly it could be argued that this should have been the first thing, is work. Revolver shooters love to lighten the trigger pulls on their guns. Most wheelguns come with barely shootable 334 pound trigger pulls from the factory, but some judicious tuning can get a good wheelgun like a S&W or Ruger down to the 8 pound range easily. A really good gunsmith can get S&W wheelguns lower than that, even. But all this lightening comes at a cost, and that cost is reliability. A lighter trigger pull transfers less energy to the primer, which means your chances of a click instead of a bang go up. There are some gear solutions, like using extending firing pins on S&W revolvers, but the most common solution is “use federal primers.” Federal primers are the softest on the market, meaning they require the least amount of energy to detonate. Hey, guess what primers this ammo has in it?

Finally, there’s ease of reloading. No joke, reloading one of these ancient spinny-middle guns isn’t easy. It’s not like reloading a semi-auto pistol, where you only have to stick one thing in one hole (hur hur). No, reloading a wheelgun means you have to simultaneously stick it in six holes. If you’re off by a little bit, you crash into the metal inbetween the charge holes, and can really hang up your load. That’s where two things are important: chamfered cylinders and round bullet profile. Chamfered charge holes mean there’s a slight bevel on the edge of the cylinder’s holes to help catch the tip of the round and guide it in. Bullet profile is important because the perfectly round nose of the Federal 130s is going to be less likely to catch on anything. Unlike flat nose or JHP rounds, it just slides right in. It’s also better than lead because I’ve seen soft lead bullets catch and leave wee little bits of themselves on the shoulder of the charge hole if it’s sharp enough.

So there you have it. If you’re looking to shoot IDPA SSR and you need off the shelf ammo, get Federal American Eagle 130 grain FMJ. The product code is AE38K.

Slow motion recoil comparison: .38 Special vs. .357 Magnum

Slow motion video is interesting. The .38 recoils in slow motion exactly how I imagined it would, which is to say not very much at all. The magnum on the other hand appears to be way more violent in slow-motion than it did when shooting it. In fact, in the slow mo video you can see my grip comes apart at the end of the magnum relay, which is something I didn’t really notice when shooting it live.