November 23, 2021
By Payton Miller
In 1952, Smith & Wesson introduced the Centennial, so named to commemorate the company’s 100th anniversary. This auspicious addition to the J-Frame line came two years after the Chiefs Special, which got the ball rolling for the company’s enormously successful line of five-shot, small-frame, snubnose revolvers. And a couple of ticks later, the steel-framed Bodyguard was introduced in 1955.
In 1957 S&W dispensed with those wonderfully evocative model names and went to numbering. Subsequently, the Centennial became the Model 40, the Chiefs Special became the Model 36, and the Bodyguard morphed into the Model 49. (The aluminum-framed Bodyguard that was introduced prior to the Model 49 became the Model 38.)
The Basic Rundown
Names and numbers aside, these basic models still constitute the three basic J-Frame templates. The Model 36 is a double-action/single-action revolver featuring a visible hammer with a conventionally accessible spur. The Model 49 is also DA/SA but features a recessed, or “shrouded,” hammer that’s kind of “thumb-cockable” but sporting a distinctive humpback. The Model 40 is double-action-only (DAO) and features a fully internal hammer—dispensing with any opening for lint, grit, or whatnot.
All three styles have undergone an almost infinite number of variations, each with its own model number. The originals were blued carbon-steel guns chambered in .38 Special. Now, of course, there are lightweight alloy versions (aluminum, Scandium, titanium) and variants capable of handling .357 Magnum as well as .38 Special +P ammunition. The Model 340PD, a Centennial-styled alloy/stainless hybrid is just such a beast and weighs 11.8 ounces. Internal safety locks and various grip styles (including lasergrips) and finishes are also included in the current mix.
By far the most popular barrel lengths are 2 inches (actually 1.875 inches for spec-sheet obsessives) in keeping with the snubnose classification, although longer-barreled models (up to 5 inches) have been intermittently available, many through the Performance Center.
Sleek, Slick & Snag-Free
To me, the most interesting style is the Model 40 “hammerless” family. I’d always paid lip service to shooting double-action revolvers in double-action mode. It made me feel good, like I was on the right side of history. But it wasn’t until I owned a couple of DAO snubbies that I was forced to do just that on a consistent basis. No cheating and resorting to thumb-cocking!
For this look at the Centennial template, I decided to compare an original 1971-vintage Model 40 with one of its most popular descendants introduced in the early 1990s and still currently offered— the Model 442 Airweight. The most obvious point of departure is the old Model 40’s grip safety, which was a resurrected feature of the old Safety Hammerless “Lemon Squeezers.”
The Model 442 lacks it, although mine has a key-actuated internal lock. Then, of course, there’s the issue of weight. The Model 40 is carbon steel all the way around and tips my scales at slightly over 20 ounces unloaded. The Model 442—an alloy/stainless/carbon steel marriage—weighs in at 14.7 ounces. Grips? Distinctive smooth walnut stocks for the old Model 40, black textured synthetic for the current Model 442.
As much as I love walnut, the synthetic option on the Model 442 worked better for me. I do confess to installing a Tyler T-Grip adapter on the Model 40—mainly because it makes for a more positive engagement of that cool retro grip safety.
But there’s no shortage of aftermarket/custom grip options for a J-Frame, so if you can’t find a set you like, you’re not really looking. You’ll have to split the difference between shooting comfort and concealability—as well as speedloader clearance if that’s an issue for you. Both the Model 40 and the Model 442 have DA trigger pulls that break at 10 pounds, but the older Model 40’s is noticeably smoother.
For me, the big plus in the Model 442’s favor are the sights. The front blade is 0.110 inch thick and paired with a rear notch that’s 0.134 inch wide. The older Model 40 Centennial’s front blade is 0.067 inch thick, and its rear notch is 0.078 inch wide.
I imagine you “real world” guys are going to question whether debating the relative merits of snubnose J-Frame sights means much. That’s what I thought, too, until I tried to check the zero and perhaps shoot semi-tight groups with both revolvers. In doing so, I found that thicker/wider is better. Whatever S&W tech decided to widen things up a touch knew what he was doing. A couple thousandths of an inch—particularly in front sight thickness—makes a very significant difference when your eyeballs are on the downhill slope after 50. Trust me.
Another item in favor of the current Model 442 is the wider, smooth trigger, which I much prefer over the slightly narrower grooved Model 40 trigger.
Weight, Recoil & Comfort
Before I get to the details of how the Model 40 and Model 442 performed during a recent shooting session, let’s look at the ammunition my shooting partner Thomas Mackie and I used. We did a bit of chronographing with a trio of high-performance .38 Special +P loads using the Model 442—specifically, Federal Micro 130-grain HST JHP, Super-Vel Super Snub 90-grain JHP, and Speer 135-grain Gold Dot JHP—all tailored for short-barreled snubnose revolvers. The results are listed in the accompanying chart. The most radical looking of the three is the Federal 130-grain HST, which resembles an upside-down, flush-fit wadcutter featuring a huge cavity. It achieved an impressive muzzle velocity of 787 fps.
The ultra-lightweight Super Vel offering was naturally faster, coming in at a smoking 1,320 fps. This load was loud and punishing—and 50-foot rested groups measured a bit over 4.0 inches. Not surprisingly, it impacted considerably lower than the heavier-bullet ammo. The Speer Gold Dot was the heaviest of the lot, but it nevertheless registered an impressive 840 fps. Accuracy-wise, the tightest groups from the Model 442 were with the Federal HST, although speedloader use is problematic with this one, so your “Backup 5” should probably be more conventional JHPs or SWCs.
Since few of us can afford to shoot super-premium defensive ammo on a regular basis, I also ran some Winchester “White Box” 130-grain FMJ ammo through both guns, having found that their point of impact at 50 feet from snubnose revolvers is pretty close to that of 125-grain +P JHPs. With both guns this practice standby averaged around 3.0 inches or so for the accuracy and averaged around 750 fps for the velocity.
The real eye-opener from the vintage Model 40 was the Black Hills 148-grain Match Wadcutter, rating as “Best of Show” (four of five rounds consistently were just under 2.0 inches) for our range session. We were so gratified we really didn’t care if those target WCs were loafing along at around 640 fps out of that 1.88- inch barrel. Some elderly 158-grain RN reloads were sacrificed to the cause by a buddy, Nils Grevillius, and they were nearly as accurate and about 70 fps faster. Because I don’t have the specific recipe for those handloads, I did not list the results in the accuracy chart.
It’s fun to get excited over group size, but at snubbie yardages, a close relationship between point of aim and point of impact is, I think, the determining factor in selecting a load for your particular gun.
All of our paper punching was done at 50 feet, although we did have a bit of fun lobbing those 158-grain handloads at clay birds on a berm 60-yards away using both revolvers. We managed to hit a few and scare a few more.
Most of my J-Frame shooting for the past several years has been with carbon-steel and stainless-steel guns, generally of vintage, pinned-barrel persuasion. So the alloy-frame Model 442 was a bit of an eye-opener. Some may consider a near- 6-ounce weight reduction to be a minor consideration in a larger-frame handgun, but it’s substantial in a five-shot snubnose and immediately will bring to mind the “carry a lot, shoot a little” concept. But if you’re looking for a pocket gun with a serious weight-to-power ratio, this one’s for you.
One way to make recoil and controllability less of an issue with an alloy frame/+P ammo combination is to install a longer “three finger” set of grips, which we eventually did with the Model 442 at the behest of Mackie. The difference, particularly with the more “energetic” +P ammunition, was significant— and most welcome. There’s a slight penalty in concealability, particularly when using a pocket holster, but I certainly can live with that.
The current MSRP on a Model 442 is $497. (For a bit more you can have a Performance Center version cut for moon clips.) A vintage Model 40? Well, let’s just say that if you can find one for under twice the price of a new Model 442, you should consider reaching for your wallet. That’s a pretty good bump from the gun’s 1969 $82.50 list price. Smith & Wesson reintroduced the Model 40 Centennial—grip safety and all—in 2007 on a limited basis. Maybe the company will do it again sometime. Let’s hope so. But for now, the company’s lineup includes plenty of the Centennial’s offspring.
S&W Model 442 Airweight Specifications
- Manufacturer: Smith & Wesson; smith-wesson.com
- Type: Double-action-only revolver
- Caliber: .38 Special +P
- Cylinder capacity: 5 rounds
- Barrel: 1.88 in.
- Overall length: 6.3 in.
- Width: 1.31 in.
- Height: 4.19 in.
- Weight, empty: 14.7 oz.
- Grips: Black polymer
- Finish: Matte blue
- Sights: Fixed-groove rear, ramp front
- Trigger: 10-lb. double-action pull (as tested)
- MSRP: $497