Monday, April 25, 2011

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.

Range Report

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.


At 2:17 PM, Blogger jcsd107 said...

Well thought out, well written review.

At 1:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for the post,helpful info,picking up one today.

At 8:07 AM, Anonymous turnlove1 said...

I've carried this gun for 5 yrs.It is the best pocket pistol I've ever had.

At 5:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My frail epileptic little sister has no problem shooting my 638 w/+p rounds.

At 8:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very well written and logical Review of the S&W 638. It helped solidify my decision to buy one!

At 2:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ordered mine today!

At 2:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a well written review. I already have a 642 and am getting a 638 very soon. I have a g 26 and a SP101 and carry my airtight. More than any handgun I own

At 5:55 PM, Blogger ski64 said...

I'm struggling pulling the trigger due to tiny hands and short fingers. Any advice?

At 11:56 AM, Blogger Mulliga said...

These J-Frames tend to have very heavy triggers. First tip is to always pull with the first joint of your index finger, not the pad. Grant Cunningham explains:

Second tip is to try a few different sets of stocks on the gun, other than the default boot grip - counter-intuitively, a larger grip might actually give you more leverage on the gun.

Third tip is to mess with the trigger itself. An Apex spring kit off of Midway is $25 - if you're handy with guns, you can modify it yourself, or you can take it to a competent gunsmith (my preference).

At 11:06 AM, Blogger Mick said...

I have been carrying the original Airweight Bodyguard for about 15 years, and have put 10-15,000 rounds through it, 99% light reloads with occasional use of full-power 125 gr. hollow point factory ammo to be sure of function and point-of-aim at 7-10 yards, about as far as I'd expect to use it. I carry it in a DeSantis Nemesis pocket holster. I do find the need to blow lint out of the hammer access, as it does accumulate about every week or so, but it's never stopped the gun. As to the trigger lock, I've had two "modern" revolvers lock up on me, a 657 and a 629, both hunting guns, locked with a single-action pull. Very disconcerting; maybe I'm the odd man out but I'll be glad when this nonsense ends.

At 7:09 PM, Blogger Mulliga said...

Thanks for the comment, Mick. I agree that the internal locks are a major drag - I only tolerate them on non self-defense guns. For something that you might need to save your life, I prefer either a lockless revolver (Smith still makes some) or one with the lock removed or disabled (which is admittedly easy enough to do).


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