In January of 2017, I will be entering my 37th year as a law enforcement officer. For 90% of those 37 years, I carried a snubnose .38 Special revolver for off-duty or backup carry while on duty. For much of that time, the snubnose .38 was a Smith and Wesson 5-shot J-frame of one form or another. There are a number of reasons why this, and not a high-capacity 9mm pistol, is still my most often carried concealment handgun.
By Scott W. Wagner
I started my career when the .38 Special revolver was found in 90% or more of American law enforcement officer’s holsters. There were 50 of us in my police academy class. Out of those 50 officers —representing law enforcement agencies across Ohio—only one carried a semi-auto. The rest of us, with one exception, carried .38 Special revolvers. The exception’s agency issued the .41 Magnum Smith and Wesson Model 58. We were all quite jealous of that.
When I hit the streets, the choice of comfortable concealment handguns were limited to mostly four or so choices—5-shot S&W Chief Specials or their variants, 6-shot snubnose Colt revolvers, 5-shot Charter Arms .38 (or .44 Special) revolvers, and the .380 Walther PPKs semi-automatic pistol. That was about it. There was no “shall issue” concealed carry permit systems in the U.S., and demand for developing more powerful concealment handguns just wasn’t there.
My first off-duty handgun was a 5-shot blued steel S&W Model 36—the original “Chiefs Special.” As its name implies, it was designed to be carried by police chiefs and administrators or detectives who didn’t need to or want to carry a full size handgun. It was, and is, a great little gun. Later, I moved up to the stainless steel S&W Model 60 snub for increased rust resistance—and because it looked cool.
Not long after that, I discovered the original S&W Bodyguard .38 Special snub, the Model 49. This all-steel variant of the J-frame theme featured a partially shrouded hammer, which had an access slot so that it could be cocked single action for longer-range single-action fire if needed. The shrouded hammer allowed one to fire right through a coat pocket in an emergency without drawing and without snagging on the pocket liner. The Model 49 I had was very sharp looking, as it was nickel-plated. Unfortunately, I traded this beauty away, but later ended up with the aluminum/stainless 638 Bodyguard, which I carried for a number of years before trading it.
The original Bodyguard series always had a somewhat ungainly “humpback” look to it. And while the single-action fire option was available, I never used it, and I doubt if very many folks who owned one did either. Further, the access slot was great for trapping lint and debris. Smith and Wesson discontinued production of the original Bodyguard not long ago.
I moved to a Smith and Wesson model that offered the advantages of the original Bodyguard in terms of a concealed hammer without the humpback shape—or the ability to fire it single action—the Model 642 “Centennial.”
Although it is no longer called the “Centennial,” the stainless steel, aluminum-framed 642 and its matte-black brother, the 442, feature a totally concealed hammer and more streamlined shape. I’ve carried my CTC Lasergrip equipped 642 for nearly a decade as my primary off-duty and backup handgun, and it has served me very well in those functions due to its light weight, adequate power, all day carryability and concealability. Besides familiarity, these are the reasons why the 5-shot .38 is still my fallback concealment gun.
If you haven’t noticed, Smith and Wesson has done some structural reorganization. According to Smith and Wesson’s website, today’s new M&P brand has a wider target market than just cops and soldiers.
“From pistols designed for concealed carry to modern sporting rifles, all M&P firearms are jam packed with power, performance, and protection. Delivering superior products with versatile, easy-to-customize features, M&P adds undeniable value to every shooting experience.”
This includes the subject of this article, the new M&P .38 Special Bodyguard Crimson Trace (Crimson Trace is now another S&W brand) snubnose revolver.
Rather than name this new .38 the Centennial, S&W decided on a name which gave better focus as to its mission—a revolver that would always be with you to protect you when needed the most—they decided to resurrect the old model name of Bodyguard. And after working with this new gun for several weeks, I can report that it is more than up to the bodyguarding task.
The .38 Bodyguard really is a 21st Century .38 snubbie in terms of execution, features, and refinement. There are two features that immediately jump at you when you pick it up. The first is the integral Crimson Trace Laser mounted on the upper right side of the frame behind the recoil shield. The activation button is located at the top of the unit and can be operated by the right or left thumb of the shooting hand, or by sweeping the thumb of the supporting hand across it while in a two-hand grip. Good news for lefties, this is one of the few apparently right-handed accessories that actually works just as well, if not slightly better, for you guys. Push the constant on/off button once for a solid dot, a second time for a pulsating dot, and a third for off.
The next most noticeable feature is the repositioning of the cylinder latch release from its traditional left side of the frame to the center of the upper frame just below the rear sight channel, thus making the latch release ambidextrous. I was a little worried about getting used to the position of the release—a worry which proved unfounded. I ran the M&P Bodyguard through our department’s 50-round qualification course without a hitch during the reloading segments of the course. My police chief, a long time revolver guy like me, remarked, “It’s about time!” when he saw the new latch position.
The front sight of the M&P Bodyguard is plain black and pinned in place on the barrel shroud so it can be changed. I would like to see an option of XS Big Dot sights being available for the Bodyguard. It would make the Bodyguard excel even further in the close range, low-light combat that this gun is designed for.
The frame and trigger design of the M&P Bodyguard has been updated for the 21st Century as well. The upper frame is constructed of traditional aluminum alloy while the lower frame and one-piece grip is made of high strength polymer. The grip can’t be changed out, but there is really no need. In size, the new grips are larger than the old wood grips that used to come with J-frame guns. The new grips are comfortable and fit the hand very well. The M&P Bodyguard Crimson Trace weighs in at 14.4 ounces, the same weight as the aluminum framed 642 without a laser sight. However, it’s the new trigger that is probably the best feature.
This is the lightest and smoothest J-frame trigger I have ever run—and I’ve run a lot. At the rear underside of the trigger is a new operating rod that runs into the frame. Smith and Wesson doesn’t make a big enough deal about the great trigger pull, but it should. It is the revolver I would recommend for anyone with hand strength issues. Not only is the trigger light, it’s smooth—which improves accuracy. I had no problem shooting a 100% on our department’s course.
Are there any downsides to the new M&P Bodyguard? Yes, a small one. An increased ledge at the base of the cylinder yoke won’t allow it to holster in the Blackhawk Serpa concealment holsters. The Bodyguard did fit (with a bit of stretching of the thumb breaks) in my Gould and Goodrich B809 belt holster and B816 ankle holster. It fit perfectly in my Crossbreed Kydex Holsters.
If you are looking for a close combat revolver with updated features, the new Smith and Wesson M&P Bodyguard might just be the ticket. The price at Cheaper Than Dirt! is excellent considering the laser sights from Crimson Trace will run you around $200 or more if purchased separately.