Guns: The Best of Both Worlds? S&W 638 revolver review
Introduction: Evolution of the Snag-free Snubbie
When people started carrying snubnose revolvers in jacket pockets and ankle holsters, a problem emerged - the hammer spur of a traditional double-action revolver has a tendency to snag on clothing. In the old days, there were only a few solutions: some altered their draw to put their thumb on top of the hammer, some cut or bobbed their hammer spurs, and some chose grips that shrouded the hammer:
All these approaches had drawbacks of their own. Placing your thumb on the hammer as you draw means you can't get a full-firing grip on the initial draw stroke. Bobbing your hammer can lead to light primer strikes (there's less mass driving the firing pin into the primer). Hammer shroud grips tend to be bulky, which negatively affects both concealability and speedloader access.
After Smith & Wesson introduced the Centennial internal hammer design (a logical extension of its old top-break "Safety Hammerless" line of revolvers), it seemed like the problem was solved once and for all - a full-power .38 Special snub with no exposed hammer and no snagging:
Even after the Centennial line was produced, however, there remained some who missed having the ability to manually control the hammer. For these shooters, Smith conceived the "Bodyguard Airweight," now known as the S&W 438/638.
S&W 638 Bodyguard Pros and Cons
Compared to the Centennial, S&W's most popular snubnose revolver design, the Bodyguards have a number of inherent advantages:
1. You can control the hammer during the reholstering process. After a lawful defensive shoot, you'll need to reholster, lest you get mistaken for the violent criminal you just took down. The 638 allows you to put your thumb on the humpback and behind the exposed hammer nub, so if something gets in the trigger guard, you can stop the gun from discharging. This is not a theoretical concern.
2. You can thumb the hammer back to fire single-action. For most people, single-action will be impractical in a gunfight - it takes time, and time is one thing you probably won't have when you need to defend yourself or your loved ones. Still, the 638 Bodyguard gives you that option, while the 642 Centennial does not.
3. You can check for high primers. I don't use this particular technique, but it's still something to note.
There are also some intrinsic disadvantages to the Bodyguard variants:
1. Worse sight radius compared to the Centennials. Not by much, but it is worse:
2. Slightly lower backstrap. The internal hammer frame allows you to get a very high grip, which lowers the bore of the revolver relative to your hand and improves recoil control. Because my hands are small, I don't shoot with this high of a grip, but it is a consideration:
3. Exposed action. There is a very, very tiny possibility that dirt or debris could find its way into the shroud to jam the hammer. If you use a holster, this is a vanishingly small theoretical possibility rather than an actual problem. Personally, I wouldn't worry about it.
At the range, there weren't any surprises with the 638 Bodyguard. Like all of S&W's Airweight revolvers, the 638 was tolerable with light .38 Special target loads, a bit snappy with regular-pressure .38s, and somewhat hard to control with .38 +P defensive ammunition.
There are some simple things you can do to make these snubs more shootable. First, I like to paint the front sight ramp, otherwise the sight picture is a dark grey-on- light grey that is almost impossible to see in low-light environments. I use white Testor's as a base coat, and then follow with a couple coats of bright orange, all carefully applied with a toothpick:
The next change is to find a good set of grips. S&W puts decent boot grips on their new production snubs; there's no reason to change them if you like them. Depending on your hand size and concealment needs, though,you might be better served with a pair of classic walnut stocks that leave both the frontstrap and backstrap exposed.
Despite what the gun store guy tells you, this is a hard gun to shoot, and not something I'd recommend for a new shooter or someone who won't practice constantly. That said, this is about as small a firearm can be while still maintaining reliability and durability (for every instance of internal lock failure in a new Smith Airweight, there are about a gazillion instances of a P3AT failing to extract or an LCP straight up breaking). I've searched long and hard for pocket autos that can replace a J-frame snubbie - and I haven't found any yet that are quite up to the task.