August 19, 2016
By Peter G. Kokalis
Double-action revolvers are a long way from moribund. They still have their aficionados and lethal applications. I still frequently carry a Smith & Wesson J-frame revolver in one variant or another as backup to a larger pistol, or sometimes only that with speedloaders.
They have several advantages. In the incredibly rare instance that a round fails to fire, just pulling the trigger will rotate another round into the firing position. Ammunition can be stored for a long, long time in a revolver's cylinder.
A semiautomatic pistol's magazine follower spring will take a set if not periodically relieved of its ammunition load. For the novice, a revolver remains by far the best choice as there is never a chance of a round being left in the chamber after a magazine has been removed.
And there are usually no manual safety mechanisms that must be manipulated. Revolvers are less ammunition-sensitive than semiautomatics. Revolvers can be had in very small, compact envelopes. And, for those who care (such as government-sanctioned covert operators), no brass is left on the ground to tell any tales.
Admittedly there are disadvantages to wheelguns. For concealment purposes, they are not as flat as semiautomatic pistols. Their capacity is almost always less than a semiautomatic pistol. Revolvers are more difficult to reload than magazine-fed pistols. This later deficiency can potentially loom with great importance in a gunfight.
The spate of concealed carry legislation throughout the country in recent years has increased the demand for reliable, small, lightweight, easily concealed revolvers. Today, among armed professionals they most often see service as backups to heavier, large-caliber pistols or as so-called "kit guns" to backpackers, fishermen and campers.
So-called snubnose revolvers, most often with 2-inch (or something close to that) barrels, dominated the pistols carried by law enforcement "plainclothes dicks" for a quarter century from 1930 to 1955. Colt introduced the Banker's Special Model Revolver with 2-inch barrel, a version of the Police Positive 38 series, in 1928. It was advertised as "for easy carrying and quick access – especially adapted for use by bank employees, and others whose primary requirement is for a Revolver of small size, all around dependability and absolute safety.
It was chambered for both .22 Long Rifle rimfire and the rather anemic .38 Police Positive (New Police) and .38 S&W cartridges. In the .38 centerfire cartridges its cylinder length is 1¼ inches. It was used primarily by the railway mail clerks of the U.S. Post Office and a few police departments. It was available with nickel plating. Production was ceased in 1943 with a total production in excess of 35,000.
Today, because of its cartridges, it has value only to collectors. The first production series Banker's Special Models had square butts through 1933 with round butts starting in 1933. The standard grips were checkered walnut with the Colt medallion. Ivory and pearl grips were optional. A very small number, no more than 25 to 50, were manufactured in the Fitz-Gerald Special configuration, with cut-off hammer spurs, skeletonized trigger guards, and without ejector rod heads.
All of these Colt revolvers have six-shot cylinders, which rotate clockwise. The cylinder latch must be pulled back for the cylinder to be swung open for loading and unloading. In the early years the ejector rod was un-shrouded and completely exposed. As we shall see, Smith & Wesson J-frame revolvers are quite different in several regards.
A year later, in 1929, Colt made a truly historic move in the area of snubnose revolvers and introduced what was to become the justifiably famous Detective Special. It was available in a incredible number of calibers, including .32 New Police, .32 Colt, .32 S&W Short and Long (identical to the .32 New Police), .32 Police Positive, (also identical to the .32 New Police), .38 Long and Short Colt, .38 S&W, .38-44 S&W Special, and most important of all .38 Spl., the caliber for which the majority of Colt's Detective Special revolvers were made.
My example, serial number 911664, which was made in 1966, was purchased by me in May of 1976, unfired in the factory box and with instructions for $140. By 1970, an amazing 350,000 had been produced, the majority with 2-inch barrels, although 3-inch barrels were also available. A hammer shroud was available as an option, beginning in 1950.
But 1950 saw another significant development in the history of Colt's snubnose revolvers. The Cobra was the first Colt Snubnose with an alloy frame. In essence, an alloy-framed version of the Detective Special, when equipped with a 2-inch barrel it weighed about 15 ounces. I first saw one in the cadre room of a barracks in Fort Monmouth, N.J., in 1955. An Sp3 showed me one and I knew that someday I would have to own one. My specimen, serial number 198891LW, was manufactured in 1952 and is still unfired. The Cobra's cylinder remained steel, although the government opted for the Aircrewman with both an alloy frame and cylinder.
The alloy parts were anodized and the steel parts were blued, with nickel being optional. The walnut grip panels were checkered with a silver Colt's medallion on each panel. While a round butt was standard, early on a square butt was also available. Hammer shrouds were common accessories. The ejector rod remained unshrouded.
While 2-inch barrels were far and away the most popular, 3-, 4- and 5-inch barrels were also offered. While .38 Spl. was certainly the most popular caliber, the Cobra was also available in .22 Long Rifle, .32 Colt New Police, and .38 Colt New Police. By 1970, more than 230,000 had been produced.
In 1955, Colt introduced what was to become the flagship of its revolver line, the .357 Mag. Python. Its ventilated rib and shrouded barrel, together with its special finish and mechanical perfection, turned it into an instant classic. It was available with a 6-, 4- or 2½-inch snubnose barrel. The Colt's Diamondback, a combination of the Detective Special and Python (with a ventilated rib, ramp front sight, ejector rod housing, wide spur target hammer and adjustable rear sight) in caliber .38 Spl. was also available with a 2½-inch barrel starting in 1966. This was to be the first model in the D-frame series to feature a shortened butt and overlapping grip panels.
By the 1980s law enforcement snubnose revolvers were on their way out, and in the process of being temporarily replaced by large, service-size, high-capacity 9x19mm semiautomatic pistols. Prior to that, in 1972, Colt's revamped the snubnose revolvers most noticeably with shrouded ejector rods (i.e., the Second Model Cobra), and introduced a new product line, such as the Lightweight Agent.
Designed to be a relatively inexpensive version of the famous Detective Special, its instantly distinctive feature was the ejector rod shroud that now covered and protected the ejector rod. Many of the final Colt's snubnose revolvers had a less expensive Parkerized (phosphate) finish, the grips were uncheckered and the general fit and finish was of noticeably lower quality. Colt's famous line of snubnose revolvers was on its way out. My specimen, serial number AB07065, clearly exhibits this decline.
In 1986, Colt introduced the King Cobra, a .357 Mag. revolver with a six-round cylinder and barrel lengths ranging from 2.5 inches to 8 inches. Built on Colt's medium-size "V" frame, it had a heavy-duty barrel, ejection rod shroud and a thick solid rib on top of the barrel.
This beefed-up version of the Colt Trooper had a fully adjustable open-square, target-type rear sight, a variety of oversize grips, enlarged target-type hammer and finishes from Colt's highly-polished, deep royal blue to stainless steel.
As the revolver was clearly moribund in law enforcement circles, sales were poor and it was discontinued in 1992. For reasons unknown to me, series production commenced once again in 1994, but then Colt's dropped it finally and forever in 1998.
After that, the only revolvers Colt's ever produced were the Single Action Army series. Adding insult to injury, Colt's took the name "Agent" and applied it to their M1911 "New Agent" with a 3-inch barrel.
The Chiefs Special
C.R. Hellstrom, the head of Smith & Wesson, instructed the Engineering Department in 1949 to commence design of a small-frame, double-action revolver that would have a slightly larger frame than the I frame in production at that time and that could accommodate the ever more popular .38 Spl. cartridge. It was to be designated as the J-frame.
The emphasis was to be on reducing the size and weight, and it was to have a 2-inch barrel. To reduce the cost, a coil mainspring instead of the previously conventional flat mainspring was used. The first J-frame revolver, serial No. 1, rolled off the assembly line on 24 October 1950. It was exhibited publicly at the Conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which was held in Colorado Springs, Colo., in the fall of 1950.
A vote held at that conference ended up naming it as the .38 Chiefs Special. By the end of the year, a 3-inch model was added to the S&W catalog. As this very small revolver is difficult to grasp with a large hand, a square butt model was added in the fall of 1952.
Over time, four changes were made to the classic J-frame S&W, which in 1957 was designated as the Model 36. The first design change was the deletion of the cylinder stop plunger, spring, and screw that were located in front of the trigger guard. Next the large sideplate screw was eliminated. These changes occurred in the 1950s. Then the ball-end mainspring stirrup was changed to a fork-type. This happened in 1962.
Finally in 1966, the cylinder latch's thumbpiece was changed from flat to contoured. Remember, on Smith & Wesson revolvers, the cylinder rotates counterclockwise and the cylinder latch must be pressed forward to open the cylinder. Who cares? You had better care. In a gunfight, five rounds may not be enough and you may have time to load only another one or two rounds. You must know precisely where to align the cylinder so that after you close it, pulling the trigger will rotate a live round into the firing position.
Smith & Wesson should have learned a lesson about aluminum alloy cylinders and too-light revolvers in the 1950s. In 1952 they introduced the .38 Chiefs Special Airweight with an aluminum alloy frame and cylinder. The only steel parts were the barrel, yoke and lockwork. It weighed only 10¾ ounces.
Samples were sent to the U.S. Air Force, but in the end they adopted the larger Military and Police Airweight as it proved easier to shoot with a higher hit potential.
The original Chiefs Special Airweight was intended only for standard velocity .38 Spl. ammunition. The recoil impulse was so violent, even with standard velocity ammunition, that all too often the bullets in unfired cases in the cylinder would unseat and propel forward to prevent the cylinder from rotating.
The front diameter of each charge hole was reduced to help secure the projectile in the case. But by 1954 the complaints continued and increased, and the aluminum alloy cylinder was replaced by one of steel. This improved Chiefs Special Airweight weighs 12½ ounces and was designated as the Model 37.
And to this day, that's about as light as I can recommend for a snubnose revolver chambered for .38 Spl. high velocity ammunition, and I most emphatically do not mean .38 Spl. +P ammunition, or even worse .357 Mag. ammunition.
The Bodyguard series of J-frame .38 Spl. 2-inch snubnose revolvers was introduced in 1955. They were intended to appeal to law enforcement personnel who carried in deep concealment and needed protection against the hammer snagging on clothing during the draw stroke.
As stated above, Colt's response to this dilemma was an accessory hammer shroud that could be installed by any competent gunsmith. The S&W Bodyguard J-frame revolvers with a built up frame and the Colt's hammer shroud permitted the revolver to be cocked and fired single-action, if so desired.
The first Bodyguard S&W was the Model 38 Airweight with an aluminum alloy frame with a steel barrel, cylinder, yoke and lockwork. By 1959, after inquiries from the Massachusetts State Police, the all-steel Model 49 Bodyguard was introduced.
These are really great concealment snubnose revolvers and I have both a Model 49 in blue with the original Bangor Punta factory box, bronze brush and literature, which indicates manufacture circa 1977 and a Model 38 Airweight with a factory satin nickel finish.
Twenty years ago I paid no more than $300 for the Model 38 brand new in the factory box. At about the same time, I added a Model 649 stainless steel Bodyguard, serial number SBNE8375, which I still carry frequently.
To both the Model 38 and Model 649 I eventually added a pair of Craig Spegel "Boot Grips." Because the J-frame is small in the grip area of the frame, custom or aftermarket grip panels can be especially important for improving proficiency with a Chiefs Special. Accessory grips that have demonstrated great merit, at least to me, have been those of Craig Spegel; Herrett's Stocks, Inc.; and Hogue, Inc.
Smith & Wesson's safety hammerless revolvers had been around since 1887. I have a .38 Safety Hammerless Fifth Model that was introduced in 1907 and stayed in production until 1940. Chambered for the .38 S&W cartridge my specimen (serial number 256620), complete with the original gutta percha grip panels, was made sometime in the 1930s. These are top-break types.
In 1952, Smith & Wesson's centennial year, it introduced a revolver that incorporated the best features of the original Safety Hammerless Model into the new J-frame envelope. Finally, a compact Chiefs Special with a concealed hammer was available.
Like the Safety Hammerless Models, there was a grip safety at the back of the grip frame that had to be compressed before the revolver could be fired. Not unexpectedly, the new hammerless Chiefs Special was called the Centennial.
Once again, the aluminum-framed version, called the Model 42 or Centennial Airweight, debuted first. I purchased my specimen, serial number L3385, in 1973 and it came from the factory with a very rare black anodized frame and nickel cylinder and barrel. I paid $107.64 for it.
Two weeks earlier, I purchased an all-steel Model 40 Centennial, serial No. L2968, with an unusual factory rosewood grips for $119.60. Smith & Wesson installed .312", unserrated triggers in each for $54.07 apiece. As I've not just fallen off a turnip truck, both of these Centennials have remained new and unfired.
I have three other "modern" S&W Centennials that I shoot and carry. Interest in the hammerless J-frame diminished substantially after S&W introduced the Bodyguard series, as the Centennials can be fired double-action only. As a result, in 1974 Smith & Wesson dropped the Centennial J-frame revolvers from its catalog.
S&W reintroduced the Centennial snubnose revolver in 1990 in a stainless steel model designated as the 640 (the numeral "6" as a prefix in S&W model designations always indicates stainless steel), with a stainless steel cylinder, barrel and frame.
A lightweight Centennial, called the Model 642, with a stainless steel cylinder and barrel and aluminum alloy frame was introduced shortly thereafter. Both are significantly different from the original Models 40 and 42. The grip safety at the rear of the frame was completely deleted. The factory trigger pull weights on my Model 640 and Model 642 Centennial revolvers are 6.0 and 6.5 pounds, respectively. The Model 649 is a Bodyguard type in stainless steel.
The recoil impulse on the Model 642 is unpleasant, but has been substantially mitigated by the addition of a pair of Herrett's extended pistol grips. The trade-off is a very slight diminishment of the revolver's concealability. But then, there's always a trade-off, isn't there?
But, the final decline and fall of the great Centennial series, in my opinion, was yet to come. After more than a year of development, the startling AirLite Model 317 was introduced in 1997. Chambered for the .22 Long Rifle cartridge, this eight-shot, J-frame, short-barreled revolver has an aluminum frame, cylinder and barrel shroud with a stainless steel barrel and other weight-reducing features. It weighs, empty, less than 10 ounces.
While this is astounding, the caliber has little appeal to those who carry concealed handguns for self-defense. Just short of a decade ago, Smith & Wesson introduced the Model 340 Centennial .357 Mag. revolver, which contains both scandium and titanium. The Model 340 AirLite Ti weighs only 12 ounces (achieved by the addition of scandium to the aluminum alloy used in the fabrication of these revolvers), empty.
The most important and obvious titanium component is the cylinder, which is machined from bar stock. Both the firing pin bushing and the center pin bushing on the bolster face are made of titanium, principally because of the material's resiliency. Because of its toughness, all of the frame studs (for the hammer, trigger, rebound slide and cylinder stop) are also made of titanium.
Let me repeat from the above description the two single most salient facts. The S&W Model 340 Centennial revolver weighs only 12 ounces and is chambered for the powerful .357 Mag. cartridge. This has taken us from the sublime to the ridiculous.
When the cylinder is actually loaded with .357 Mag. ammunition, the recoil impulse is horrendous and unbearable. Further translation? It will be carried frequently, but fired for practice almost never. Add to that the following: featuring coil-spring ignition with a floating firing pin, the double-action trigger pull weight on my specimen is 10.5 pounds. The end result? Hit probability at anything greater than body contact distances will be woeful.
Far better, except for those firing from a bunker in La La Land, would be to pack an all-steel J-frame loaded with .38 Spl. high velocity 158-grain hollow-points. The original Model 36 weighs only 19.5 ounces with a 2-inch (actually 1.875 inches) barrel.
Do you mean to actually tell me that an extra 7.5 ounces is unbearable and that you need what was originally intended to be a hunting cartridge until Dick Tracy starting using it in a comic strip?
Let's go back to a time when common sense prevailed. Without doubt, for many others, and me, the most famous J-frame of all was the Model 60.
I purchased mine through the mail from Gil Hebard in Knoxville, IL, in 1966, as soon as they were available to the public (That's right, we used to buy firearms through the mail until a few years after Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy with a mail order Carcano on 22 November 1963. Ironically, Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby with a Colt Cobra that sold at auction for $220,000 in 1991).
The Model 60 propelled Smith & Wesson into the stainless steel era. William G. Gunn, appointed president, after Hellstrom's untimely death in April of 1963, directed the engineering staff to commence development of a stainless steel Chiefs Special in 1964.
It was to be identical to the original Model 36, with the exception that all the components were to be of stainless steel. As the original Chiefs Special had been announced at a conference of the International Chiefs of Police, so at the same conference in October of 1965 the new Model 60 was introduced.
In 1966, when the hammers and triggers were case-hardened, as these parts had proven to be insufficiently hardened, the pistol's bright polished finish was changed to a satin finish. The original high polish finish was both difficult to produce and somewhat objectionable to law enforcement agencies.
After heat treating, the hammer and trigger were given a flash chrome-plating process. My current specimen (serial number R118106), which appears to have a high polish finish, was actually manufactured in mid-1974. The Model 60 is one of the most popular Chiefs Special revolvers ever manufactured and remains quite popular to this day.
Early pinned-barrel Model 60 revolvers, without a dash and numeral after the "60" (indicating a model variation) sell for $600 to $1,000. Prior to 1982, Smith & Wesson revolvers had a visible crosspin with a round head at each end through the front of the frame and rear end of the barrel.
I was told many years ago by an S&W engineer that it was decided this was unnecessary and not cost effective. However, rightly or wrongly, collectors feel that "pinned barrel" S&W revolvers were built during an era of real craftsmanship. As a result, they are much sought after by collectors and worth slightly more, all other factors considered.
In 1953, Smith & Wesson introduced an I-frame revolver, called the "Model of 1953" and with a cylinder holding six rounds of .22 Long Rifle ammunition.
Prior to this timeframe, hunters, hikers and fishermen frequently carried so-called kit bags carrying basic survival items, most often including a small handgun. In the 1930s, S&W came out with their .22/.32 Target I-frame revolvers, including the .22/.32 Kit Gun, which was intended to be carried in a wilderness survival kit bag. In 1958, it was re-designated as the Model 34. In the 1960s, this popular revolver was redesigned using the slightly larger J-frame and was then designated as the Model 34-1.
I purchased my Model 34-1 (serial number M21784) more than 45 years ago with the more common 4-inch barrel and a wide, serrated target S&W trigger. Several years later I obtained a Model 34-1 with a snubnose barrel (serial number M96918) and factory-installed "banana"-shaped, finger-groove, black rubber grips. Both of these revolvers were manufactured in the early 1970s.
A salient feature of the S&W J-frame Kit Gun is the rear sight, which in all cases is a micrometer-type, open square notch fully adjustable for both windage and elevation.
My last Chiefs Special is a Model 37 Airweight (serial number J357244) with an aluminum alloy frame and steel cylinder and barrel. It has an unusual square-butt frame, making it ideal for those with large hands. It was manufactured in the mid-1970s.
Let's briefly discuss snubnose barrel lengths. Most would agree that any revolver with a barrel length of 3 inches or less could be classified as a "snubnose." That would theoretically leave us with a majority of so-called snubnose revolvers with barrel lengths of 2 inches. If it were only that easy.
What about the Ruger SP-101 series and their barrel lengths of 2.25 and 3.06 inches? Then there's the Charter Arms Bulldog with a 2½-inch barrel. Smith & Wesson's snubnose revolvers are even more confusing. Starting with 2-inch barrels, they went up to 2⅛ inches, then back down to 1⅞ inches. You call them whatever you like; to me they're all just snubnose revolvers.
The J-frame envelope is not for everyone. Without special grips, it doesn't work for those with large hands. Then there were police departments that continued to cling to probably the greatest S&W revolver of all, the .38 Military and Police model that was introduced in 1899. An entire book could be written on just the .38 M&P revolver.
For our purposes, suffice to say that it was originally offered with barrel lengths of 4, 5, and 6 inches and Smith & Wesson designated it as the Model 10. Eventually, a round butt version was developed, and in 1952 the Model 12 Military and Police Airweight first went into series production. With an aluminum frame and cylinder, it weighs only 14⅜ ounces. It was the lightest six-shot revolver ever produced.
The United States Air Force purchased a substantial quantity of these revolvers in 1953 for flight crews. The aluminum cylinder proved to be insubstantial and the Air Force scrapped all of them. In 1954, S&W replaced the aluminum cylinder with one of steel that brought the overall weight up to 18 ounces. Those with aluminum cylinders are quite rare and I was very lucky to locate a commercial version of the Model 12 (serial number C237618) at a local gun show 12 years ago.
Far more common are all-steel Model 10 round butts with 2-inch barrels. I have one in unissued condition that carries the Peruvian crest on the right side of the frame that reads, "POLICIA DE INVESTIGACIONES DEL PERU". I purchased it 25 years ago for only $356.
Model M&P revolvers with adjustable target sights were also introduced in 1899 and eventually designated as the K frame. The Combat Masterpiece with target sights and a 4-inch barrel became a popular law enforcement revolver.
By 1974, this frame size went into series production as the stainless steel Model 66 in .357 Mag. with 4-inch square butt and 2½-inch round butt versions. Unfortunately, it was another serious mistake, as when fired extensively with high-velocity, lightweight .357 Mag. ammunition, it all too quickly results in severe flame cutting above the gap between the cylinder and the barrel shank and also quite literally stretches the frame and self-destructs the revolver in very short order.
I have a Model 66 with a 2½-inch barrel (serial number 6K65056) made in the late 1970s with a pinned barrel. It's unfired and will remain so.
Ruger's End Run
Ruger introduced the Security Six and its variants, the Service Six and the Speed Six, in 1972. These double-action revolvers were available in three barrel lengths: 2.74, 4 and 6 inches, and in the following calibers .38 S&W (popular mostly in Britain), .38 Spl., .357 Mag. and 9x19mm Parabellum.
This series was replaced in 1985 by the Ruger GP100, which chambered for the .357 Mag./.38 Spl. or .327 Federal Mag. A large-frame double-action revolver, the shortest barrel length offered was 3 inches. Like the Ruger Redhawk, it incorporated a locking mechanism with a lever on the crane instead of the conventional end of the ejector rod.
The small-frame version, the Ruger SP-101, was introduced in 1988. Those chambered for .38 Spl., .357 Mag. and 9x19mm Parabellum have five-shot cylinders, while those chambered for .327 Federal Mag. and .32 H&R Mag. have six-shot cylinders and those in .22 Long Rifle have eight-shot cylinders.
The SP-101 is available in three barrel lengths: 2.25, 3.06 and 4.2 inches, all with distinctive full-length barrel shrouds. All models are made of stainless steel.
My specimen, serial No. 570-00898, was purchased during the first year of series production. It has a 3.06-inch barrel and this barrel length has been advocated by several law enforcement revolver authorities.
Their argument was, back in the day when it was relevant, that with a properly designed belt holster, a 3-inch barrel was every bit as concealable as the far more common 2-inch snubnose. And, in addition, it offered a longer sight radius with better hit probability and slightly better wound ballistic potential. Unfortunately, before the argument could be settled, everyone was carrying Glocks.
That's a shame, as my Ruger SP-101, chambered for the superior .38 Spl., was custom built for gunfighting, with muzzle compensation ports, a bobbed hammer, polished trigger face and action job (with a glassy smooth double-action trigger pull weight of 6¼ pounds). What a pity that everything keeps evolving and it's been decided that snubnose revolvers are dead, dead, dead.
What can we conclude from all of this? The best calibers for a snubnose revolver remain the .38 Spl. or .44 Spl. Those cartridges possess excellent wound ballistics potential when effective hollow-point bullets, either lead or jacketed, are used and propelled at modest velocities. There's no need for +P loads. I still carry a snubnose revolver two or three days a week. Which one?
Possessing such a cornucopia of snubnose revolvers, that presents quite a conundrum. But there are four that I am most inclined toward: my highly customized Ruger SP-101 with 3.06-inch barrel, the Colt Cobra, the S&W Model 640 and my S&W Model 60, the latter a replacement for the one I originally purchased in 1966 from Gil Hebard and stupidly sold.
But, are five or six rounds enough? Well that all depends. Don't forget speedloaders. I carry two. If you have only one assailant at the most common contact range of 7 yards or less, then five rounds in the hands of an experienced shooter is probably sufficient.
If there are multiple assailants and you're relatively untrained, then you should probably be toting a Glock 17 and trying to fight your way to an assault rifle.
The Book of Colt Firearms by R.L. Sutherland and R.L. Wilson. Published by Robert Q. Sutherland, 4000 Main Street, Kansas City, MO 64111. Copyright 1971. 604 pages, profusely color and black & white illustrated. Out of print. $125.
History of Smith & Wesson by Roy G. Jinks. Published by Beinfeld Publishing, Inc., North Hollywood, CA Copyright 1977. ISBN 0-917714-14-8. 290 pages, numerous black & white illustrations. Out of print. $80.