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Smith & Wesson J-Frame Revolvers

Smith and Wesson Airweight revolver right profile

Many years ago, the first swing-out-cylinder double-action revolvers from Smith & Wesson began leaving the factory. The unicycle was in production, and the Wright Flyer was yet to come. The I-frame was a six-shot .32 and the K-frame a six-shot .38. These revolvers were immensely popular and set the pace for police and civilian revolvers for many years to come. The I-frame was later offered in .38 Smith & Wesson with a five-shot cylinder. When the .38-caliber version was supplied with a 2-inch barrel, it was known as the Terrier. While a 146-grain bullet at 650 feet per second is not powerhouse, the Terrier offered more power than the .32 Smith & Wesson Long.

Smith and Wesson J-frame snubnose revolver left profile
This classic J-frame is ideal for concealed carry.

In 1949 at a police chief’s conference, the president of Smith & Wesson, Carl Hellstrom, introduced a new revolver. The revolver was a J-frame, in simple terms an I-frame with the frame window extended to allow a longer cylinder. This cylinder chambered the .38 Special cartridge, which had been developed by Smith & Wesson in 1899.

The mainspring was changed from a flat spring to a more durable coil spring. The chiefs of police voted on a name for the new revolver. The Chief’s Special began to leave the factory in 1950. After its first exposure to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACOP), the Chief’s Special became one of the most popular police revolvers of all time.

The typical Chief’s Special was supplied with a round butt, 2-inch barrel, and blue finish. The round butt and walnut grips fit small to medium hands well and offer excellent control for those who practice.

Smith & Wesson J-frame revolver with police uniform
The author often carried a J-frame during his time in uniform.

At a later date, a square-butt frame was offered. The square-butt grips sacrifice some concealment but offer good control. Today, all Chief’s Special revolvers are round butt.

The J-frame was also offered with a 3-inch barrel. These revolvers are well balanced and offer a good personal defense option. Over the years, Smith & Wesson has offered the Chief’s Special with adjustable sights, but these revolvers are not common.

An important variation is the Airweight. With an aluminum frame, this revolver tips the scales at a feathery 11 ounces. It later became the Model 37 and the steel-frame revolver the Model 36 when numbered designations were put in place in 1957.

Bob Campbell shooting the Smith & Wesson J-frame revolver from coat pocket
A concealed-hammer J-frame is easily fired from a coat pocket.

Another important variation is the Bodyguard. The Bodyguard features a shrouded hammer that makes the revolver practically snag free. Centennial-type revolvers completely enclose the hammer. The modern Model 442 is arguably among the finest of the concealed-hammer J-frame revolvers.

Among the most famous J-frame revolvers is the Model 60, the first stainless steel revolver. There have been .32-caliber J-frame revolvers and of the .22-caliber Kit Guns. The .32 H & R Magnum versions are no longer in production.

Today, you may obtain a Model 60 or a Model 649 in .357 Magnum. I have always thought the .357 Magnum is a stretch for the J-frame, but with moderate use they seem to hold up well. With proper recoil-absorbing grips, the .357 J-frame is useful and bearable to fire, but it is no picnic to master. Most shooters would be well advised to consider the Magnum J-frame as a nice, heavy-barrel .38 Special revolver.

Smith & Wesson Airweight revolver right profile
This well-used Airweight features a clip draw for deep concealment.

The original Airweight and standard Chief’s Special revolvers are seldom seen in the used rack at gun shops. They are in service in home defense, personal protection, and as backups to the primary handgun. The Chief’s Special is a popular primary handgun as well. Perhaps the best modern rendition and development of the J-frame revolver is the 442, a concealed-hammer revolver with an aluminum frame.

All J-frame revolvers have certain traits in common. The shooter must learn the revolver and properly master the handgun. This isn’t the easiest revolver to shoot well, as it has a short sight radius and may exhibit sharp recoil. The action is smooth, and this means a lot in short-range personal defense.

The basics are simple enough. Get the front sight on the target, and press the trigger straight to the rear. The action is smooth, reliable, and offers high hit probability at moderate range for those who practice.

Galco Combat Master brown leather holster
The Galco Combat Master offers an excellent balance of speed and retention.

I have seen practiced shots connect on man-size targets at 25 yards on the pistol range. They used good technique, controlled the trigger, and kept the sights properly aligned. They are exceptional shots, but you need not be helpless with the snubnose .38. For close range use, even in situations in which the handgun must be pressed against an opponent’s body and fired, the snubnose .38 is a good choice.

Ammunition Selection

Federal Cartridge Company offers a number of good .38 Special loads. Among my favorites for use in the short-barrel .38 is the 129-grain Hydra-Shok +P. This load develops 900 fps even in short barrels and expands reliably. The balance of expansion and penetration is good.

For a lighter-kicking load that offers excellent expansion, the Federal HST 130-grain .38 is an excellent all-around choice. The Speer 135-grain Gold Dot is a proven load that has a good balance of expansion and penetration while offering the typical Gold Dot performance against intervening cover and barriers.

Are you a Smith & Wesson J-frame fan? Share your J-frame story in the comment section.

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Comments (40)

  1. I inherited the aluminum frame Airweight from my father. I understand that there are problems with the frame. What ammo should I use in it? I’m thinking about just mounting it in a frame and hanging it up.

  2. For those of you who carry the j-frame, author Stephen CAMP has publisheda book in 2010 on S & W J-frames. Mr CAMP has done extensive research on these weapons and the different types of loads he carries with them.

    Personally I have used 146 all lead “CPD: rounds made by both Winchester and Remington. An alternative – which I haven’t seen since 2011 – is the Nyclad hollowpoint round which comes in a
    non-+P configuration and is safe for the Model 37 alloy frame.

    Stay safe!

    1. I bought a new Model 60 Stainless 2″ in the early ’70’s, no pinned barrel. It is my favorite carry handgun & I only had to use it twice to protect myself without actually having to fire the gun! It is very accurate & is in mint condition…never having used any ammo other than factory recommended .38 Special standard loads, no +P. I recently purchased a new Model 60 .357 with the internal lock, but will continue to carry my old .38 Special. S&W’s are the best! I own a Glock, several Rugers, a Colt Trooper, & several 1911 Springfields and enjoy them all.

  3. “I have seen practiced shots connect on man-size targets at 25 yards on the pistol range. They used good technique, controlled the trigger, and kept the sights properly aligned.” Sadly I’ve noticed that this is rare… and isn’t particularly worth bragging about as man-sized targets are big targets.

    Rather than blast away at steel or silhouette targets shooters would do better to spend lots of time shooting small round bullseyes and learn sight alignment, sight picture, trigger control, and breathe control. This while working with someone who can read the target and diagnose problems along the way. Once the shooter is proficient with those skills then move on to developing deployment techniques and speed… then that man-sized target will look huge.

  4. When I bacame a cop in 1979 we were told to order and purchase a 4 inch model 66 .357 magnum, and a 2 inch model 60 S&W. It took over 2 years to get the model 60, and it was literally rough as a cob. A good friend gunsmith took it and polished it inside and out, making it look like nickle. The horrendous trigger was smoothed beyond imagination.
    I still have both of the revolvers and will eventually pass them along to my two sons along with the other two safes full of firearms.

  5. A 638 is my standard carry gun. I bought it on impulse about 11 years ago because the snub revolver has sort of a Raymond Chandler image to it. I now see no reason to carry a bigger gun unless you live a much more dangerous life than the typical American. Whenever someone comments disparagingly on my “un-tactical” weapon, I tell them that I carry a small gun because I’m compensating for my freakishly oversized manhood. Always gets a laugh. 🙂

  6. A S&W 642 with Crimson Trace grips and Federal Hydra-Shocks is the perfect pocket backup weapon for CC. Hides easily in your fron pants pocket to go everywhere unnoticed. The best insurance policy you can buy!

  7. My wife carries a model 60 with hornaday 90 gr FTX. I bought this in 1980 glad to see they are still popular. With practice the chiefs can shoot 6″ groups at 20ft.

  8. Was lucky to find a 632 w/ ported 3″ barrel in 327 Federal, a few years ago…
    Has become one of my favorites….
    Only thing I do not care for is the dang key lock…

  9. Have an early three inch model 60 in 38+P with adjustable sights. Shoots Remington 158gr LSW-HP ammo into small 25yd groups. A great all around revolver. Lucked out and bought a five inch model 60 in 357. Hoping it shoots as good as my three inch version. The S&W model 60 is a classic….

  10. I BOUGHT A NEW SS MODEL 60 .38 SPECIAL WITH THE 2″ BARREL IN THE EARLY 70’S. MINE SHOWS “MODEL 60” INSIDE THE FRAME IN FRONT OF THE CYLINDER. I’VE ONLY SHOT STANDARD .38 SPECIAL
    LOADS WITH THIS REVOLVER & NEVER THE +P ROUNDS. I’VE SEEN THE NEWER VERSIONS OF THIS MODEL RATED FOR +P LOADS ALTHOUGH I CAN’T SEE ANY CHANGES IN THE FRAME OR CYLINDER. DOES ANYONE KNOW IF MY OLDER MODEL 60 COULD HANDLE +P LOADS? THANKS.

  11. Bought a Model 36-2 from a fellow Deputy Sheriff in 1992. He had the hammer bobbed for easier concealed draw. Have qualified with that gem ever since. Transitioned to semi-autos in 1995, but was grandfathered to carry a wheel gun off duty.

  12. I have a S&W .38 snub nose that I got from my mother in law years age. She was a bailiff. It doesn’t have a model number stamped on it. How do I know if it’s K or J frame? It has a 2in barrel. I love it and sometimes carry it. I shoot Federal 129 grain +p.

  13. I apparently have a rather old stainless, I-frame .32, that was my Grandfather’s service piece. Still fires like a champ. Even got the original widow maker holster, with his initials and badge number. Made me appreciate this article even more. Wife carries a bodyguard, and I owned a 642 previously.

  14. I bought the J Frame .38 for an off duty carry in 1973 as a,Virginia State Trooper in 1973. It still is in excellent condition, even though it has not been fired that much. However, after retirement, I decided to take it to the range for an ananual certification and still scored 98.3%. I will pass it on down to a grandson who loves shooting it.

  15. Wish S&W still made the 431 or better yet the 432 in 32H&R mag. My wife carries a 432 that we’re both confident in when loaded with Critical Defense or Buffalo Bore defensive ammo.

  16. I haven’t done this for a couple of years but my shooting partners and I used to shoot at a 15″ gong at 110 yards with J frame .38s. Our rate of hits was about 3 or 4 out of 10. It’s great practice and a real challenge.

  17. As a Special Agent with the USAF Office of Special Investigation I was issued a 3 in J frame stamped “AFOSI,” The pistols didn’t hold up well in routine training and were replaced by the service issued Beretta M9

    I routinely carry an 11/2 in mdl 36 I bought in 1972 for $79.00. With my arthritic wrists its a good carry and I’ve been shooting it and it’s 3 in “uncle” since 1971. I like your Galco holster. I just use an inside the pants holster now.

  18. my preference is stainless steel and concealed hammer……works well in any place except over 50 yards shooting.. less chance of hang up.

    Why S and W Colt let their quality control go to blazes during VN era…and never did anything to modernizethe 1911 ….so Colt lost by their own actions and failure to act.

  19. I absolutely LOVE my S&W 642 Airweight (.38 SPL)
    It is exactly what it is supposed to be! Challenging, but
    rewarding and fun to shoot. I agree with those who say
    practice on this snub nose DAO trigger helps improve
    one’s semi- auto accuracy. If you don’t own a shot timer,
    buy one, see where you’re at, and set some goals!

  20. You missed a great addition to the S&W J- frames. I have a Centennial 940 , hammerless 5 shot 9mm. Only made for about 8 years. Bought because I just didn’t trust the M9 in the sand. The moon-clips are great for fast reloads. It conforted my mind.

  21. Well, I can’t believe the author shows a gun in 2 different pictures with some kind of clip on the right side and DOES NOT say what it is for! I have never seen one on a revolver before and I have seen a lot of revolvers!

  22. 649-3, Stainless, .357 mag, 2 1/8″ barrel, gen 3 I suppose as S&W came out with a progression of internal safeties that are somewhat controversial. Bought it new approx. 25 yrs ago. I consider it a quick point and shoot gun so I put on a Crimson Trace green laser grip sight – I like it. If in use during duress/defense, and with the tough recoil, I thought the green dot would help get hits over pointing or spraying. Although given time you can go single action or double action and aim using the front ramp in the notch in the strap sights, or the dot. I’ve been carrying with .357 mag Rem UMC 125gr JSP which is a jacketed bullet finishing off with a little bit of a flat nose. Personal protection use, and I know I’m under gunned but sometimes in griz country in MT. It’s just too easy to carrying and I think that this load would expand just enough and then bounce around enough inside a bear to do serious damage. I use an IWB holster at 4 to 5 oclock which is invisible to most with a fleece or other shirt hanging over it, or holstered to a backpack waist strap. Never selling that gun.

  23. I have a S&W 38 Bodyguard, loaded with Federal 130-grain HST rounds. Swapped out the stock grips with one of Hogue’s offerings. It stays in my car as my emergency handgun.

  24. Great Blog!! I bought .38 S&W wood grain blued finish in great condition in 2004. I in Grants for Guns in So. Cal. When a lady approached me to ask about buying a shotgun for home defense. After telling her about the “Lady Winchester 20 gauge. She mentioned her father had been in law enforcement w/LAPD and had passed after his retirement in the 80s. She would bring his 38 six shot and S&W 9mm in to get cleaned every 3 years. Long story short I bought both kept in a small canon safe for $200. I got the deal of my life as these guns where immaculately kept. Since then I bought a aluminum frame 5 shot S&W and a hammer less 5 shot 38 small frame for my wife. I own other S&W fire arms like the Governor 45/410 and so on but the 38’s are truly are great firearms that I will always cherish!

  25. I have the 3” model 60 … I actually use it as an outdoor carry gun for fishing,or as a sidearm when hunting. I’ve even taken a whitetail doe at 35 yds with it. Great gun… nice balance with a little extra weight. Wish I could find a nice leather holster to fit it….

  26. When I bought my S&W AirLite PD I took it to the range and loaded it with .357. Fired two rounds, and—even though I was in the black both times—suddenly had a David Byrne moment: My God, what have I done? Took out the remaining rounds of.357, reloaded with .38 special, and set down a very nice (and comfortable) 3-inch group. I still carry the AirLite today, five years later.

  27. This is the first and only pistol I shot growing up until I was about 28 years old. I remember being at the Tampa Police Pistol range shooting a standard B-3 target at 25 yards. I always hit the target and about 60% in the black. An much older gentleman watched me and seemed to be quite impressed with my shooting. I didn’t understand why at the time as he was tearing up the bullseye on his target shooting a S&W Mod 66 with a 4 inch barrel. It wasn’t until I was a bit older and shooting other pistols that I understood. I guess learning to shoot with this little pistol served me well.

    BareShooter, Shootin’Bare.

  28. My Model 60 has been a constant companion for over 30 years. I have changed the grips at least a dozen times. Tyler T, Spegel, Pachmayr, Hogue, Uncle Mike, Barami, S&W Combat. Always the same performance. Few things in my life have been as solidly reliable.

  29. I love every S&W J frame I’ve ever owned. I originally found a vintage model 36, and later traded that for a newer Model 60-14 in .357 stainless steel, which now is my nightstand weapon. Because of the added weight it is a breeze to shoot .38 Special and even Plus P ammo through it. No pain, and very accurate. I did try .357 once, but that was enough. I believe that round does better with a larger frame gun. The current Concealed Carry magazine is dedicated to revolvers, and in detail about S&W Guns. One model I own is the 432PD in .32 H&R Magnum, a discontinued J frame that looks like a 442. That round is very comparable to .38 Special in specs, feels like butter and the gun holds six rounds instead of five. If you see one, buy it…a real sleeper in my opinion that should not have been let go. That’s it, thanks.

  30. “ may exhibit sharp recoil“ Yeah. I fired exactly 1 .357 round out of my 360pd and 5 38+p rounds. Hornady makes a fairly heavy, slow 38 round that’s nice and controllable, and I practice with Magtech 38 rounds. They still bark a bit, but don’t actually bruise my hand.

    If I could find a way to carry my 4” 686 concealed I would, but it’s usually too warm for a heavy long jacket.

  31. Friend of my Dad gave me his model 36 in 1974. It was manufactured in 1968. I still occasionally pocket carry it. Take it to range maybe once a month to surprise owners of “plastic” wonder 9s how accurate the little son of a gun can be.

  32. My wife’s grandfather began his police career in 1922 carrying a S & W modeI I in 32-20 Winchester. He retired in the 59, worked part time for the Sheriff’s Dept. (Was even Acting Sheriff for a couple of years, when the elected was jailed for corruption) and retired again in 1971. Her oldest brother has his gun (did not carry it as by that time in the late 70’s 32-20 no longer met the Sept. Armorer’s minimum caliber for officers) and was a police officer until 2006. Ill Health forced an early retirement for him. I purchased my wife’s model 60 in 1983 for her in .38 Special. She still has that gun, although now it’s been fitted with Crimson Trace Laser grips.

  33. I have owned several over the past 40 years. Seems like even when I sold/traded one, in a year or two I was picking up another. I have one now. But, I always preferred the Colt Detective Special in the ultra small snubby 38 revolver. Colt had that ultra small size but still held six rounds!

  34. I have used J-frames for 45 years as a back-up and off-duty carry. I love the undeniable reliability and safety they offer, especially now that I am retired and tend to appendix carry a lot. I found a lightly used S&W Model 342 at my local gun shop at a ridiculously low price and snapped it up. The 10-ounce weight is a joy to carry, even though I shoot my old Model 60 a touch better. Thanks for the article on my favorite handgun.

  35. Bought a model 36 for my wife probably 30 years ago. Recoil was a little too sharp for her, So I bought a model 19. She didn’t care for that so I bought a model 686. She decided she didn’t want any of them. So I bought a model 29-2 with 8 3/8”barrel. That was a really good trait.

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