Review: Smith and Wesson Model 649 — S&W’s Best Snubbie

Smith and Wesson 649 .357 Magnum revolver left profile

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.

Smith and Wesson 649 .357 Magnum right Smith and Wesson 649 left
The SW 649 is slightly larger than the SW 442, but much easier to use well and more accurate. There is a weight penalty, but the author finds it worthwhile.

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.

front sight on a revolver
The front sight is low profile but affords a good sight picture.

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 who prefer a revolver with a single action option. This is particularly true of those who 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 shotshell 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.

rear sight on the Smith and Wesson 649 .357 Magnum
The rear sight is snag-free but makes for a good sight picture.

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.

Hammer on the Smith and Wesson Model 649
While the hammer is nicely shrouded, the hammer may be cocked manually for precise single-action fire.

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.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (24)

  1. I have owned the 60’s kissing cousins, the 640 and 649. Stupidly sold them off. This class of stainless steel at 20+ ounces was the perfect mix of weight and comfort. Buying a Model 60 for my wife today. Taught her to shoot with a line of .22 and .38spl K frame revolvers. Staging trigger is a key to accuracy. A good Model 10 or 686 is a handy range companion for new shooters as well as bedside companion. Found all the J,K,L frames compliment each other in trigger control. Once comfortable, walk it down to a stainless Jframe or airweight. Shoot those K frames alot and found those j frame group will tighten up to fist size group or better at 10-15 yards.

  2. As of 2020, I’ve owned my slightly modified 649 for 9 years and it is one of my favorites, among a large number of handguns. I wound and heat treated my own slightly lighter hammer spring, to give a reliable but lighter and smoother trigger pull of just under two pounds single action, with a much improved DA pull, of course. I replaced the troublesome lock mechanism with a blank piece and installed very nice Pachmayr wood grips. For range play, the gun is accurate with standard service duplication .38 Spl. loads, and for carry I prefer high velocity 125 grain .357 loads using my own bullets. As a carry gun, the 649 leaves little to be desired, in my opinion. One of its strongest points is that it gives you all the recoil absorbing weight you can get in a compact .357 carry gun, and fast 125 grain bullets are very effective.

  3. I bought a 638 on impulse about ten years ago. I put a Barami grip on it and it’s been my standard carry for the past four years. My lifestyle and circumstances do not require major weaponry, so a “just in case” gun that is zero effort to carry and hides under a moderately snug T-shirt is perfect. I grew up with revolvers, so the DA trigger is what I’m used to.
    The tactical folks are scoffing now, so let me mention this — out of all my family and all my friends, over the ten years I’ve lived here, we have had ONE incident where self-defense was needed, and that was handled by brandishing a .380 Keltec and applying harsh language. I don’t consider myself under-armed with my 638.

  4. Mr Campbell , thanx for the article! So many articles overlook revolvers these days. I always felt the same about ” just a little bit longer’ snubbie barrels . But they are hard to find, & usually pricey . While I do have a Kahr 9 semi that holds 7 +1 for CC , i find myself using my Taurus Humpback ( S&W clones) . Of which I have the Airlite .38 – Model 851 ( which i find has the best “out of the box trigger” – for Taurus Snubbies . As well as the .357 model 651 , which is noticably heavier. I have found both of these snubbies very controlable. Which i attribute to the slightly older designed “boot-grip” Taurus used on their snubbies. it fills my large hand better than the very ergo but smaller S&W grips. They share the same speed loaders/strips which are all loaded with .38 +p for ease of grab-&-go. Hoslters interchangeable, etc . Now, mind you , I would Love to have the S&W versions , but everyone is so proud of them ( price wise ) . Yes , i know you get what you pay for , but I have never had a single problem with my Taurus’ . I can’t say the same for newer Charter Arms revolvers , the .380 Diamondback or the Gen 1 Ruger LCP ( which i personally witnessed 2 blow up next to me at the range) . In any case , statistically you don’t really need more than 5 shots for 90% of self defense situations . Simply put , Don’t miss . .

  5. Hi, my favourite would be a 940 but so rare & expensive ! Why doesn’t Smith and Wesson manufacture a 9 x 19mm “J” frame like an Airweight or Bodyguard, 1 7/8″ or 2 1/8″ barrel, 5 chamber & use quality moon clips ??It could be a Model 942 !! I would buy it instead of a LCR, Charter Arms or Taurus. In the words of top gear, “How hard can it Be”. I believe there is room in the market to be successful & profitable ! What do you think ?

  6. Years ago in the 70s, we called it “staging” the trigger. It works well with S&W wheelguns.

    I own a 649 and it’s one of my favorite carry guns. With 125 gr. 357 loads it’s on the brisk side, especially with boot grips. 158 grain 357s get mighty sporty, sting the hand, yank at the wrist and are ferociously LOUD.

    Living in an urban zone, I think the 38+P will do for 99% of encounters. Speer 135 gr 357 Short Barrel loads chrono’ed at 1024 out if my 649 with good accuracy. I carry those for a reload. Recoil isn’t bad. The gun carries securely with an IWB holster and doesn’t try to wiggle out. Cheers.

    1. Yes, “staging” is what it was called back in the good old days. And, yes, .38 Special +P is quite effective and yet quite easily managed when needed for defense up close and personal in these little revolvers, at least that’s been my experience. Actually had to use my backup piece (a Model 60 Smith) in the line of duty, and it saved my bacon. These little revolvers will never replace a good .45 or 10mm (or a 12 gauge) of course, but they certainly have their place and can be quite useful.

  7. Mr. Campbell, what’s your opinion of .38 Special wadcutters as self-defense ammunition for snubbies? I’ve recently read several articles extolling the virtues of this ammo for that purpose, particularly the Federal Gold Medal 148gr. version.

    1. Sir,
      Thanks for reading. In my opinion the .38 Wadcutter has much merit.
      It cuts a full caliber hole and it is easy to control. I would prefer it to the .32 Magnum or .380 ACP. Don’t get me wrong the .38 Special +P hollowpoint is superior, however, if you cannot control the .38 +P the wadcutter makes a good choice. Double Tap offers a full wadcutter that is loaded a bit hotter than most. A bullet that penetrates and cuts flesh rather than pushing it aside has much merit. The primary advantage is low recoil.

  8. I wish they would bring back the original .38 special body guard. It was smaller than the .357 bodyguard now being produced and lighter in weight especially the rare one made with an aluminum frame.

  9. I have been carrying the S&W 940 for years. I had it as a back-up when I was working because my duty weapon was a 9mm, so I always had ammunition available. Great little weapon for concealed carry even today.

  10. I like my 442 a lot, put old magna grips with the tyler t on it, its a handful to shoot though. It sees a lot less carry now then the shield and the cm9, but is still the go too pocket carry piece.
    Nice article, thanks.

  11. I have a Ruger LCR 327 magnum 6 shot revolver with laser sights. I’m impressed with the smooth trigger pull of this pistol, and love the caliber.I am a 21 year police veteran and have owned numerous S&W revolvers, but I still favor the Ruger LCR over the Smiths.

  12. I always worried about the .357 or .38+P loads coming out of a 2″ barrel not burning all their powder, not getting the full fps, not penetrating fully and lastly not fully expanding.

  13. I have this snub nose SW model 19, 2&half inches
    Barrel. My wife use it for home defense loaded with Hornady 38+p 125gr.XTP. Bought around 1975 brand new. I take of it very gentle rarely used 357 AMMO for target shooting due strong kick or recoil. I believe 38+p AMMO is good enough for my wife bedside home defense. What’s your opinion sir? Is model 19 is the same as model 60?.first & foremost I enjoy reading your article every opportunity I got. Thank you sir. God bless you & keep up those excellent informative articles.

    1. Sir,
      Thanks for reading. Your comments mean a lot to me.

      The Model 19 is a six shot medium frame, the Model 60, a five shot small frame. .38 Special +P is a formidable load. This is an excellent revolver.
      Take care
      Bob Campbell

  14. I have a 442, it has a tough trigger pull, has good accuracy close in but the S & W service has turned me off their products.

    Their doing unauthorized work on my weapon and then failing to disclose what they and why smacks of a problem in their smith department or whatever fancy PC name thay give it today.

    Ruger, ladies and gentlemen, I have three, two purchased after the S & W debacle. Wonderful weapons, function great and service unequaled except maybe by Lexus. Sorry I digress there.


    1. Alan, sadly, like many other places and things, Smith and Wesson’s QC and/or Customer Service has been dumbed down to the point of ridiculousness. I have owned and carried J-frame revolvers for over forty years. In the 1970’s, I shot some well out to fifty yards and beyond. These days, if a revolver hits the target at ten yards (seriously!?!?!???), S&W deems it to have met their “standard” and absolutely will not do anything to correct sighting issues with a defective gun. I find this shameful and disappointing in that I now have a practically new 442 that I am not confident with out to 25 yards. I have another, purchased in 2013, that is accurate to 25 yards and beyond. It is sad that this once-great gun maker’s “standards” have fallen so low.

    2. Ah, Smith & Wesson. . . . They aren’t what they used to be, that’s for certain. Their new pistols, whether the cheaper SD series or the M&Ps, are poorly designed and they don’t regulate the sights well before they go out the door. The SD40-VE I have shot 3″ to the left at 30′. I drifted the sight with a punch and fixed that. All of their current pistols have lousy triggers and when buying one, most people at the gun shops will recommend that you replace them with an Apex or other trigger. The feedramps also are not polished and will accumulate a good deal of lead or jacket metal over a good session at the range. The biggest gripe that I have with all of them, the M&P/Shields included, is that they seemed to have not wanted to spend a few extra cents on each gun and mill the all-important recoil spring retention recess into the face of the barrels’ recoil lug. This allows the spring to “go on a walkabout” and get out of alignment. This has tied the gun up (locked up solid) TWICE in the past year and when I disassembled it this past week, it was almost slid off to the right. I am VERY careful about its’ alignment when I put the gun back together! WILL NOT carry it for any life-saving purposes! It is going away.

      I was going to go back to Glock, but once I picked up a Springfield XD series they became my new go-to guns. I have two; an XD9 Mod 2 /4.0 in 9mm and an XDs 3.3″ in .45 ACP. great sights (fiber optic fronts), wonderful triggers, hit where you aim them and that very thoughtful addition of the grip safety – a great idea for when you’re re-holstering; just shift your grip back on the butt. I carry the 9mm with any of the following: Speer Gold Dot 124gr. +P, MagTech Guardian Gold 115gr. +P OR 124gr., or Federal 124gr. HST. The Federal Hydra-Shok 135gr. Low Recoil load is also good from a 4″ barrel, but be aware that current Hydra-Shok loadings are very much hit-and-miss performance-wise. Sad; 25 years ago or so they were outstanding. In the .45 I carry either Winchester Silvertip 185gr., MagTech Guardian Gold 185gr. +P or the Federal HST.

      I have done pretty extensive testing of defensive handgun ammo in .380, 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP over the past 10 months and have found many absolutely worthless loads (Browning BXP, some Hydra-Shoks, Hornady Critical Duty and some others) and some VERY good ones. Send an email address (anybody reading this) and I will send what I have observed and learned. My email:

  15. Personally, I much prefer my 4″ and 6″ Smith 586’s. I shot my son-in -law’s lightweight hammerless S&W snub nosed 38cal. once — no thanks is all I can say. Anyway, here in NJ with our gun laws those type small guns do not make much sense.

  16. I have several S&W short-barrel revolvers (and a few long-barrel revolvers as well), and am quite experienced shooting them. I especially like my Model 60 and my Model 66. My Model 60 was my on-duty backup piece, which I carried in my weak-side pocket. But my favorite short-barrel revolver these days is my Kimber K6s .357 magnum, which I now carry as my backup piece. I have found Buffalo Bore ammo (in .357 mag & .38 Special +P) to be some of the most potent ammo available for use in these relatively small revolvers. Shooting double-action only is no problem if you know (and practice) the right shooting technique, known today as “stacking.” I was taught this trigger control technique many years ago when the big-city P.D. I was on at the time “fixed” all their issued revolvers (Model 15 Smiths) to only function DA, as a result of a shooting incident were an officer accidentally discharged his cocked revolver. The way I was taught “stacking” was to extend your finger through the trigger guard a bit more than usual so when depressing the trigger the tip of your finger hitting the trigger guard acts as sort of a trigger stop, just before you follow through to the discharge point. Sounds complicated but it’s not. After you acquire the “feel” of it, and with practice, it’s quite easy to be quick and accurate when wanting to shoot double-action. And works quite well with small DA-only revolvers which are designed for close-in defense, rather than being just target shooters.

    1. Interestingly, my relatively new DA-only Smith M&P .40 has this trigger control “feel” built-in, so you know when it is about to discharge. Handy to know when target shooting, but probably moot when shooting in an emergency defensive situation.

  17. Love my S&W Model 60 (no dash/no number) .38Spl.

    Friends say it is underpowered. They are wrong. The majority of shooting are close range (3-7′ with a max of around 10′) Within that range, a .38Spl will do what it is intended to do. (Even a .380 will work within those ranges.)

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