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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.

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 decicions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (39)

  1. 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….


  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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