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 whom prefer a revolver with a single action option. This is particularly true of those who that 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 shot shell 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.


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Comments (22)

  1. 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.

  2. 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 . .

  3. 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 ?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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