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S&W Unleashes The Night Guards

S&W Unleashes The Night Guards

Smith & Wesson's new Night Guard series revolvers represent both a return to basics and a significant innovation in the world of personal-defense handguns.

S&W has returned to basics with the new Night Guard series of revolvers. Proof of that lies in the fact that short-barrel, compact, double-action revolvers have been a mainstay of the American firearms market for well over a century, long preceding the modern market focus on semiauto pistols. But at the same time, these new revolvers also incorporate significant innovation in that they embody a variety of advanced construction and design features, and they share a common configuration that encompasses three different frame sizes and five different chamberings.

The six individual members of the new Night Guard family are the Model 329NG .44 Magnum (N-Frame), the Model 325NG .45 ACP (N-Frame), the Model 327NG .357 Magnum (N-Frame), the Model 396NG .44 Special (L-Frame), the Model 386NG .357 Mag. (L-Frame), and the Model 315NG .38 Special (K-Frame). All six models feature matte-black scandium/aluminum-alloy ultralightweight frames; stainless-steel cylinders with matching matte-black Physical Vapor Deposit (PVD) finish; and 2.5-inch, sleeved, steel barrels with matte-black shrouds. All six models also employ Cylinder & Slide Extreme Duty fixed U-notch rear sights, XS Sights 24/7 tritium front night sights, and Pachmayr Compac grips.

They all look nearly identical, and to a remarkable degree, they all feel, handle, and balance alike--in spite of their different frame sizes and chamberings. One of the primary reasons for this commonality of feel is the fact that there is only 5.3 ounces of weight variation between the heaviest member of the family, the M329 .44 Mag. at 29.3 ounces, and the lightest member of the family, the M315 .38 Spl. at 24.0 ounces. Another reason is the common configuration of their Pachmayr Compac grips, which have very little difference in external dimensions whether for the N-Frame models or the L/K-Frame models.

Weighty Matters
The core element of the Night Guard concept, of course, is the revolvers' notably lighter weight compared to other similarly dimensioned revolvers in the same chamberings. This is made possible by S&W's exclusive use of scandium-alloy frame construction. The company originally pioneered the use of scandium alloy in 1999 with the introduction of its AirLite Sc L-Frame and J-Frame .357 Mag. revolvers with titanium cylinders, resulting in the lightest .357 Mag. revolver in existence, the J-Frame Model 360PD (12 ounces). The concept was also later adapted to titanium-cylinder N-Frame magnums as well, with the 4-inch Models 327PD .357 Mag., 357PD .41 Mag., and 329PD .44 Mag. weighing just 24.3, 27.5, and 26 ounces, respectively.

Some technical background:
Aluminum-frame revolvers for medium-pressure loads such as the .38 Spl. have been around for a long time, but typical firearms-grade aluminum-alloy frames absolutely cannot handle the pressures associated with magnum cartridges, which is why S&W never offered any of its previous Airweight aluminum-frame/steel-cylinder medium- and small-frame revolvers in magnum calibers. Even an all-titanium magnum revolver, which is certainly strong enough, cannot be as lightweight as a comparably sized aluminum-frame revolver with a titanium or steel cylinder because aluminum is two-thirds of the weight of titanium. So for a magnum revolver to match the weight of a medium-power Airweight revolver, something entirely different is needed: a frame material with the margin of strength necessary for safe magnum use at aluminum's weight.

Night Guard sights consist of XS Sight's 24/7 Big Dot tritium front and Cylinder & Slide's Extreme Duty fixed rear.

In previous firearms manufacture, no such material existed until S&W's engineers focused on scandium. Scandium is a metallic element, number 21 in the chemist's Periodic Table. That's just one atomic number below titanium (one less proton/electron per atom). Scandium shares many of titanium's unique elemental qualities plus one crucial additional aspect. Unlike titanium, scandium transmits a great deal of its remarkable strength and flexibility when alloyed in extremely small percentages with other metals. This is a very good thing, since while titanium is very common--the eighth most common element on earth, in fact--scandium is extremely rare and expensive, and all current sources for this metal are outside the Western Hemisphere--primarily from leftover military stockpiles of the former Soviet Union in the Ukraine, which were extracted from uranium tailings.


S&W engineers arrived at a unique metal alloy, primarily involving trace amounts of scandium in a particular combination with aluminum (but much more complex than that simple description), which provided the necessary margin of strength for use in magnum revolver frames and a weight virtually identical to conventional aluminum-frame alloy alone. In fact, the only structural difference between a scandium-alloy frame and S&W's previous aluminum-alloy Airweight frames is the addition of a replaceable, thin, hardened-steel "blast shield" in the topstrap above the barrel/cylinder gap to eliminate gas-cutting erosion of the metal from the ignition of high-pressure magnum loads.

Fully assembled with titanium cylinder, composite-steel-sleeve/aluminum-shroud barrel, sights, and all working steel parts, S&W's first-stage prototype for a seven-shot L-Frame AirLite Sc .357 Mag. revolver weighed less than 18 ounces without grips. That's a half-pound lighter than a same-dimension all-titanium gun; more than a pound lighter than an all-steel model; and when driven down into the design of J-Frame guns, close to the level where a full load of ammo weighed more than the gun.

The market force behind all these things was customer-driven by law-enforcement officers always seeking less of a downward tug on their all-day-duty belts and increasing numbers of licensed-carry citizens seeking a personal-defense gun that's as convenient and easy to carry as a wallet. Of course, the lighter the weight of a magnum handgun, the more it slams your hand in recoil. In view of the fact that Smith & Wesson envisions the new Night Guard series primarily for the civilian personal-defense market, the company decided to design them with stainless-steel cylinders instead of titanium, thus bringing the weight back up a bit from the extremes of the original AirLite Sc concept. And that is why a new 2.5-inch M329 Night Guard weighs 3.2 ounces more than the bigger 4-inch M329PD.

I've used the 4-inch-barreled, titanium-cylinder Model 329PD .44 Mag. as a wilderness companion sidearm since it was introduced, and while it is almost effortless to carry, it is not a handgun you'll take out for a day of

fun shooting at the range. On the other hand, even with its shorter barrel, the new Model 329NG is noticeably more comfortable and controllable to shoot due to the forward balance of its heavier cylinder and the more cushioning wraparound Pachmayr grips as compared to the open-backstrap grips supplied on the M329PD. The same holds true for the other five Night Guard models.

The Full Picture
S&W's choice of sights for the Night Guard series is equally well thought out. The designers determined early to utilize fixed sights rather than adjustable sights for this new set of close-range personal-defense guns. At the same time, they realized that they needed something that provided a better and more quickly acquirable sight picture than S&W's traditional frame-groove rear notch. The selection was Cylinder & Slide's Extreme Duty fixed sight, which was designed as a "tactical" conversion for S&W adjustable-sight K-, L-, and N-Frame revolvers. It drops directly into the round-front sight-mount groove of current S&W frames and is secured by utilizing two of the existing topstrap drill holes for a rock-solid attachment.

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Smith & Wesson Model 327NG

Model:327 Night Guard
Purpose:Personal carry, duty
ManufacturerSmith & Wesson,
2100 Roosevelt Ave.
Springfield, MA 01104
Action Type:Double-action revolver
Cylinder Type:8 rounds
Frame Material:Scandium/aluminum alloy
Cylinder Material:Stainles steel
Caliber:.357 Magnum/ .38 Special
Barrel Length:2.5 inches
Rifling:6 grooves, 1:18.75 RH twist
Triggersingle/double action
Sights:Cylinder & Slide Extreme Duty fixed rear; XS Sight 24/7 Big Dot tritium front
Finish:Matte Black
Safeties:Internal self-engaging hammerblock, frame-mounted key lock
Trigger type:Double-action/ Single-action
Pull Weight:4 pounds, 7.5 ounces (SA)
Grip and material finish:Black rubber Pachmeyr
Overall Length:7.8 inches
Height:5.5 inches
Width:1.7 inches
Weight, empty:28.5 ounces (as tested)

The Night Guards come in three frame sizes and are chambered in .38, .357, .44, and .45 calibers.

This smoothly contoured and rugged design offers a sight picture that is as quick for the eye to pick up and align as a high-visibility adjust-able sight. But it is not as prone to snagging on clothing or being broken off--for example, when exiting a vehicle--as is the thin blade on the standard S&W adjustable rear sight. The only difference between the Extreme Duty sight used on the Night Guards and the sight sold by Cylinder & Slide as a drop-in accessory is that the Night Guard notch is slightly bigger and round-bottomed compared to the square-notch design of the standard Cylinder & Sight sight. And there is the added benefit that should a customer want an adjustable sight on any Night Guard revolver for use with varied ammunition or as a hunting backup sidearm all he has to do is drop in a standard S&W micrometer rear sight with the appropriate-height blade.

For the Night Guard's front-sight blade, S&W selected the XS Sight Systems pinned-in 24/7 Big Dot tritium night sight. This highly visible design features a bold white ring surrounding a large Trijicon tritium capsule for immediate eye capture in both daylight and dim li

ght against darkened target backgrounds. The diameter of the Big Dot matches perfectly with the oversize round-bottom U-notch of the Cylinder & Slide rear sight for extremely fast target acquisition under virtually any shooting condition. All in all, the Night Guard setup is exceptionally functional for a defensive or duty revolver.

Other general features of the Night Guard series include a smooth-contour, combat-style trigger for easy slide-by of the trigger finger in rapid double-action shooting; wide, checkered hammerspur; contoured cylinder-release latch; frame-imbedded safety key lock; frame-mounted, floating firing pin with an internal self-engaging hammerblock; and S&W's traditional spring-loaded front ejector-rod latch in the barrel shroud. The steel barrel sleeve is externally shrouded, which allows indexing of the sights and proper setting of the barrel/cylinder gap in assembly without the stress on the frame that is typical of threaded, one-piece, crush-fit, all-steel barrel systems. And as befits their name, the overall matte-black finish of the Night Guard revolvers is subtle and utilitarian with a clean-finish sideplate and minimal external markings for caliber and manufacturer identification.

With six so-very-similar Night Guard models to choose from, their individual characteristics are as important to your selection as their commonalities. The top-power item on the menu, of course, is the Model 329NG .44 Mag., which offers large, N-Frame, six-round cylinder capacity and the capability to chamber .44 Spl. ammunition as well. If you are considering a Night Guard for both personal and household defense with milder all-family loads as well as carry for a wilderness-survival "bear gun" with maximum ammunition, it is the obvious choice. Should your only interest be personal/household defense with .44 Spl.-level ammunition, the slightly smaller L-Frame Model 396NG with a five-round capacity will undoubtedly catch your eye.

The inclusion of the large-frame six-shot Model 325NG in the series reflects the growing popularity of .45 ACP revolvers for personal defense and the continuing perception that no better cartridge has ever been developed for life-crisis situations. This model also has the benefit of allowing the use of .45 ACP ammunition with either half-moon or full-moon clips for case extraction or the use of .45 Auto Rim ammunition without the need for clips. For a long time, .45 AR ammo was very hard to come by at typical commercial outlets, but the increasing number of .45 ACP revolvers on the market have led CorBon and Double Tap Ammunition to introduce new defensive .45 AR loads.

Depending upon caliber, the Night Guards are available with six-, seven-, or eight-round cylinders.

Choosing between the two .357 Mag. members of the Night Guard series is a simple consideration of firepower needed and which feels better in your hand or fits you better for your mode of carry. The large-frame Model 327NG offers eight-round cylinder capacity. The medium-frame Model 386NG has seven-round capacity. Both, of course, will also chamber .38 Spl. ammunition as well.

Should .38 Spl. be all that you are interested in--not a bad choice for an all-family gun given the huge range of superb .38 Spl. defense loadings available these days--the most compact member of the Night Guard family, the six-shot K-Frame Model 315NG, is the obvious pick. Considering that S&W has essentially discontinued production of K-Frame centerfire revolvers except for a few basic models, I'm delighted to see the +P-rated M315 in the Night Guard lineup as the company's first scandium-alloy K-Frame gun.

Unsurpassed Performance
Shooting Times received an eight-shot Model 327NG .357 Mag. for review as a representative sample of the new Night Guard series. I fired it with a selection of personal-defense .357 Mag. and .38 Spl. loads at targets 50 feet distant. I consider 50 feet the maximum "personal defense" distance because it is about the width of an average city street. The results are listed in the chart. All loads came in with average full-cylinder groups (eight rounds) under 3 inches, and some individual groups from the better performing loads were just under 2 inches. This is typical of what I expect from any short-barrel Smith & Wesson .357 Mag., regardless of the material it's made from.

This is one gun I'll probably keep. Like all the Night Guards, it's surprisingly comfortable to shoot, comfortable to carry, and takes the entire concept of personal-defense revolvers to a new level.

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