March 04, 2020
I grew up in an era when many people considered semiautomatic handguns unreliable for personal defense. Revolvers ruled.
One of my uncles was a county sheriff, and because he spent most of his duty time behind a desk and in meetings, he often carried a small Smith & Wesson revolver in .38 Special with a 2-inch barrel. Designed specifically for plainclothes detectives and off-duty police officers, the five-shot revolver was introduced at the Conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Colorado in 1950. During that meeting, the chiefs were asked to suggest an appropriate name for the new revolver, and “Chiefs Special” received the most votes. A square-butt version and an Airweight model with an aluminum frame were introduced in 1952. If your revolver is not stamped “Model 36,” it was made prior to 1958.
The Chiefs Special became a huge hit among law enforcement, but policemen then often carried small back-up revolvers in a coat or pants pocket, and the spur of its hammer would snag on clothing during the draw. In response to demand for an improved pocket pistol, Smith & Wesson introduced an enclosed-hammer, double-action-only variation in 1952. And since the company was celebrating its 100th birthday, the new variant was given the name Centennial Model 40. The Model 42 Centennial Airweight with aluminum frame weighing 13 ounces was introduced in 1953. The few built with an aluminum cylinder weighed only 11.25 ounces.
The Centennial is easily recognizable by a safety that is automatically disengaged for firing when its grip is firmly grasped by the hand. And for those who saw no need for a safety on a pocket pistol, it was easily locked in the disengaged position by the installation of a small pin included with the gun.
The Chiefs Special could be fired single action or double action, and the Centennial was double-action-only, so to ensure happiness throughout the entire law enforcement community, in 1955 Smith & Wesson introduced the Bodyguard Airweight with an aluminum frame (Model 38) or with a steel frame (Model 49). It also is a double-action gun with a shrouded hammer, but exposure of the tip of the hammerspur in a slot at the top of the shroud allows single-action firing. The Bodyguard series is represented today by the Model 638.
The J-Frame on which those guns were built was designed specifically for the .38 Special, which was more cartridge than guns built on the earlier and slightly smaller I-Frame were designed to handle. During the past 69 years, untold numbers of J-Frame revolvers have departed the Springfield, Massachusetts, factory. And for the benefit of those who think easily concealed wheelguns are a thing of the past, I will mention that Smith & Wesson continues to sell them as fast as production capabilities allow. Want variety? I know of no other revolver on the planet that is offered in so many different options. While writing this, I visited the Smith & Wesson website, clicked on “Small-Frame Revolvers,” and counted a whopping 111 choices.
Round- and square-butt frames are there, and frame materials include blued carbon steel, stainless steel, aluminum, and scandium alloy. Grip panels are offered in numerous styles and colors, in wood as well as synthetic. You can also choose between fully adjustable open sights, fixed sights, or either of those along with a laser sight. Old names like Ladysmith and Kit Gun are still very much alive.
I still have a 1950s-vintage Model 22/32 Kit Gun in .22 Rimfire with adjustable sights and square butt. A bit unusual, it departed the factory with interchangeable 2-inch and 4-inch barrels. Other chamberings have been available, but today’s J-Frame revolvers are limited to .22 LR, .22 WMR, .38 Special, and .357 Magnum. As Smith & Wesson puts it, those in .38 Special are “rated for continuous +P use.” That information is also engraved on the side of the barrel. All Smith & Wesson handguns are backed by the company’s Lifetime Service Policy.
The Performance Center Model 442
While browsing the Smith & Wesson website, I spotted 18 J-Frames from the Smith & Wesson Performance Center. The Model 442-1 in .38 Special featured in this report was not among them, so the list obviously needs updating. Like the standard-production Model 442, it has an enclosed hammer, a stainless-steel barrel, and an aluminum frame. The barrel and frame have a black nitride coating with a dull surface finish. The cylinder of the standard 442 is carbon steel, but it is stainless steel on the Performance Center version. With the exception of its highly polished flutes, the cylinder has a dull surface finish. The frame screws, the cylinder release, and the trigger are also stainless steel. Whereas the sides of the trigger are dull, its front is polished slick as a whistle, and that makes it very kind to the finger during double-action shooting. The sides of the cylinder release and the exposed heads of the frame screws also have a polished finish. It does not have the internal trigger lock of other Smith & Wesson revolvers.
I was quite pleased to see the Performance Center Model 442-1 wearing a grip-activated Crimson Trace Lasergrip, the same as on the two handguns I carry most often. Statistics tell us that most crimes take place during poor ambient light conditions, and there is nothing better for that than a laser. The sights on a handgun should be used whenever possible, but when an awkward position prevents that, the gun can still be fired accurately. Simply place the laser dot where the bullet should go and squeeze the trigger. The shape of the Crimson Trace grip makes the Model 442-1 quite comfortable to shoot with +P loads, and its lightly textured surface prevents it from squirming around in the hand.
I accuracy-tested the gun on a bright sunny day and used the open sights on the revolver when punching holes in Precision Square Targets from Birchwood-Casey. The sights consist of a 0.130-inch-wide pinched groove in the topstrap of the frame and a 0.115-inch-thick black blade up front. The sights are less than ideal for squeezing off small groups, but I kept reminding myself that the Model 442-1 is not a target gun, and the sights proved to be quite adequate for delivering the accuracy needed at typical self-defense distances.
When shot over an MTM pistol rest, the 442-1 stayed inside 2.0 inches at 10 yards with eight different factory loads. When shooting rapid-fire with a two-hand hold from the standing position, I managed to keep all bullets inside the 6.0-inch A-zone of an IPSC target. As to be expected from a top-quality revolver, there were no misfires or malfunctions.
The Performance Center promises 20 percent improvement in the trigger quality compared to standard-production revolvers. I did not have another current J-Frame to compare, but I can tell you that the trigger on the Model 442-1 was as smooth as my 1950s Chiefs Special and Kit Gun, and their triggers have been smoothed by a lot of shooting through the decades. The trigger was a bit smoother than on my 20-year-old Model 342 AirLight Ti, and at 10.25 pounds on a Lyman digital scale, it was about 20 ounces lighter.
Ammunition for .38 Special Snubbies
When it comes to .38 Special ammunition loaded with bullets that will expand when fired from short barrels, we now have many more options than in years past. Back when revolvers were standard issue, the FBI load, as it was called, was used by many federal agents and other law enforcement officers. It was a +P loading pushing a 158-grain lead semiwadcutter hollowpoint (SWCHP) along at 900 fps from a 4.0-inch barrel. The bullet expanded nicely because it was pure lead with a BHN hardness of 5. The loading is still available from Remington, Federal, Buffalo Bore, and Winchester. The HSM cowboy load should also be excellent for personal defense. Due to the extremely large meplat on its round nose, it is close to being a wadcutter bullet.
Moving to the opposite extreme, we have .38 Special ammo loaded with lightweight jacketed bullets designed to expand when fired from a 2.0-inch barrel. The idea was introduced back in 1963 with the formation of the Super Vel Cartridge Co. by Lee Jurras. Bigger companies had some catching up to do, and it was not long before they were offering ammunition loaded with bullets that would reliably expand from short barrels. Today’s examples include the Speer Gold Dot, the FTX and XTP from Hornady, and the HST and Hydra-Shok from Federal. Most have conventional shapes, but visualize a jacketed wadcutter seated backward with its hollow base flush with the mouth of the case and you have the HST from Federal. If that bullet does not expand when fired from a 2.0-inch barrel, no bullet will. The latest option in .38 Special ammo is the Black Hills HoneyBadger +P load with a 100-grain solid-copper bullet with nose flutes. Its velocity and energy from a snubnose revolver are quite impressive.
While many experienced shooters continue to carry Smith & Wesson J-Frame revolvers, their simplicity makes them the ideal first-gun choice for inexperienced shooters who are willing to take the time to learn how to shoot them accurately. A Chiefs Special was my very first carry gun, and when I married, it became my new wife’s first carry gun, and we still have it. Like many others, I have long had a soft spot in my heart for J-Frame revolvers and have several favorites. One of them, given to me by a good friend, is a Model 442-2 Airweight, and each time I pick it up, I am reminded of when it became mine. Smith & Wesson was celebrating its 150th anniversary, and a laser-engraved banner on its frame reads “1852–2002 An American Tradition.” Only 22 of those guns with the special marking were made, or so I was told.
Performance Center Model 442 SpecsManufacturer:
Smith & Wesson; smith-wesson.comType:
.38 SpecialCylinder Capacity:
1.86 in.Overall Length:
4.25 in.Weight, Empty:
Crimson Trace LasergripFinish:
Black nitride/matte stainlessSights:
Pinched topstrap groove rear, serrated black blade frontTrigger:
10.25-lb. pull (as tested)MSRP: