Smith and Wesson has earned an enviable reputation for quality revolvers well suited to personal defense. The small five-shot revolver is among its most popular handguns, with the Model 649 carrying honors as the best of Smith and Wesson’s snubbie lineup.
The Smith and Wesson Chief’s Special was its first, compact, .38 Special five shooter. There had been small .32 and .38 short revolvers, but the Chief’s Special became a baseline for personal defense revolvers for many years. This makes more than 70 years of continuous production, including steel frame and aluminum frame variations, and in recent years revolvers in .357 Magnum.
A popular idiom, introduced a few decades ago, is a 3-inch barrel variant of the Chief’s Special .38. With more weight and balance than the typical 2-inch barrel snub nose revolver, this revolver points well and is easier to use well because of its longer sight radius. The 3-inch barrel has been offered in both square and round butt configurations. Modern J frame revolvers are manufactured with a round butt grip.
When Smith and Wesson introduced the Model 60 .357 Magnum revolver on the J frame, I was surprised. I did not think the revolver would be controllable. After firing the type extensively, I found the steel frame Model 60 a handful, but the overall geometry and grip design made for better control that I imagined.
The revolver isn’t for the slightly interested but it is viable. With dedication and practice, the revolver is suitable for concealed carry. The overwhelming advantage is the power of the .357 Magnum cartridge. Many concealed carry permit holders load their .357 Magnum revolvers with .38 Special ammunition. This allows for a heavier revolver that offers better balance and less recoil than the typical lightweight .38 Special revolver. This isn’t a bad program with modern .38 Special +P loads. However, if you are willing to master the formidable .357 Magnum cartridge you will be as well armed as possible with a handgun.
The revolver is often carried in a pocket or as a backup revolver concealed on the body. The concealed hammer Smith and Wesson revolvers have the advantage of a snag-free design. As an added advantage, the humpback frame seems to help control recoil in a superior manner. Still, there are some of us whom prefer a revolver with a single action option. This is particularly true of those who that use the revolver as a field and trail gun.
The 3-inch barrel .357 Mangum is well suited to field and trail use for defense against reptiles or feral dogs. The .38 Special shot shell is one load that is useful for dusting off reptiles, but heavy JHP loads delivered in the coils are effective as well. The single action option, offering precise fire, is desirable when the threat is beyond the usual conversational range.
In the late 1950s, Smith and Wesson introduced the Smith and Wesson BodyGuard. This is a variation on the concealed hammer revolver with an opening in the shroud to allow cocking the hammer for single-action fire. While manipulation isn’t difficult, lowering the hammer if you have not fired requires concentration. Be certain to practice this manipulation with an unloaded firearm.
The Smith and Wesson J frame Model 649 .357 Magnum is a .357 Magnum BodyGuard type revolver. The revolver weighs about 24 ounces loaded, so it is a little heavier than most .38 Special revolvers. The barrel is 2.125 inches long. This is slightly longer than the typical 1.9-inch Chief’s Special barrel, but it offers a little extra weight.
The revolver features a smooth action. The Smith and Wesson action allows the technique known as stacking. The trigger is pressed to the rear smoothly, and the hammer is held momentarily while the sight picture is affirmed and the trigger is then pressed through, making for good accuracy.
A trained shooter will be able to hit a threat in the chest well past 20 yards. The grips absorb recoil well. Overall, the revolver is user friendly.
I began my evaluation with the Federal 129-grain Hydra-Shok. At about 1,000 fps this is a strong load with a good balance of expansion and penetration. This is a controllable load, well suited to personal defense. Firing in the single-action mode, I was able to strike small targets well past 20 yards. This is a pleasant revolver to fire with .38 Special loads.
.357 Magnum loads are more interesting to say the least. The Federal 125-grain jacketed hollow point will break 1,220 fps from the Model 649—down considerably from its 1,420 fps in a4- inch barrel revolver, but much stronger than the .38 Special +P. When you fire this load a strong hold-the Gorilla grip-is demanded. The barrel bolts into the air with each shot. It requires consistent practice with the correct technique to master this revolver. The payoff is excellent wound ballistics.
The exposed lead nose of the Federal hollowpoint expands well and in some cases spins off fragments. The Smith and Wesson 649 .357 Magnum fills my needs well. I often carry it in a Lobo Gun Leather rear clip IWB holster in good comfort.
The balance of this revolver is excellent, and the revolver is very fast into action. Shoot the elbow to the rear, come up from under the revolver, scoop the revolver out of the holster and drive it toward the target. Get the front sight on target, press the trigger, and you have a hit. The Smith and Wesson 649 is a formidable revolver will worth its price.
Do you have a favorite snubnose revolver? Is it the Smith and Wesson 649? Share your pick in the comment section.
Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooters Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.
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