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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…

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