Top 3 Concealable Wheelguns — Revolvers Reign Supreme

Ideally, to pick the best revolver for your daily carry or backup, you’d want to do a lot of shooting with everyone you could get your hands on. I mean thousands of rounds in all kinds of conditions. The downside to that is that it would take an L-O-N-G time! Turns out that getting old means that I’ve had a long time to do just that.

I’ve been a revolver guy for 50 years. I firmly believe in their superior reliability when it comes to life and death situations. To paraphrase FedEx, when it absolutely, positively has to go bang, go with a revolver. It’s easy to deny that when you’re considering what to carry in the abstract, but when you’re deep in the shit, it gets much simpler. In 50 years of shooting, hunting, and competing, I’ve had at least one malfunction with every semi-automatic pistol I’ve owned. Some a lot more than others. I’ve only had one malfunction out of all the revolvers I’ve owned. And that was in a gun that I intentionally tried to make malfunction by continuously firing it without cleaning just to see if I could. It took a lot of rounds, hundreds, but eventually, the cylinder had so much fouling in it that one round failed to seat all the way, locking up the cylinder. Other than that, a revolver has never let me down.

I carried my first revolver when I flew helicopter gunships in Vietnam: a Colt six-shooter. It was tolerant of the dusty conditions we worked in, simple to operate, and could easily be run with only one hand. (Remember, when you get in an escape and evade situation flying helicopters, it means you crashed! All your parts might not be working.) Of course, I always carried an M3A1 submachine gun, commonly called a Grease Gun, as my primary beat feet weapon. My sidearm was a last-ditch, gotta work backup. If you need more information about the benefits of carrying a revolver, check out Clay Martin’s video. It’s excellent information, and it’s from a pistol guy, believe it or not, who really knows what he’s talking about.

So let’s jump right into it. These are my three go-to revolvers for concealed carry:

Smith & Wesson model 649

This is the Model 638 that is a variation of the Model 38 Bodyguard. It weighs merely 14.4 ounces versus the Model 649 that weighs in at 22.2 ounces.

The S&W J-frame is the biggest selling small revolver for good reasons. Aside from the quality they put into every one, they got the size right for concealment, are sturdy and reliable, and surprisingly accurate for such a short barrel. They can handle across the room distances and more without breaking a sweat.  Oh, but it only carries 5 rounds. Yeah? Well that’s a trade-off for conceal-ability. If you’re in the military or law enforcement, that’s not enough for your primary weapon. But in civilian gun fights the average is 3 rounds in 3 seconds. So you’ve got two extra rounds just-in-case. Sweet.

Out of all the fine J-frames Smith offers, my favorite is the somewhat ugly Model 649. (I don’t think it’s ugly but some do.) The 649 started life as the original Bodyguard way back in the ’50s. It was designed with a lot of input from law enforcement and upgraded over the years to cater to the evolving needs of the police. The frame grew slightly in 1996 with the introduction of the .357 magnum version and all subsequent J-frames are built on the magnum frame.

First, the 649 is all stainless steel. A good option for a gun carried close to the body. Also, the added weight makes it softer shooting and maintenance is a breeze.

Here is the S&W Model 649. It features a stainless steel frame, barrel and cylinder. It also features an enclosed hammer that helps mitigate the concern of it getting snagged on the draw.

Second, it has a slightly longer barrel than other J-frames at 2 1/8 inches. Remember that revolver barrels are measured from in front of the cylinder and don’t include the chamber. To compare this to a pistol you have to add the length of the cylinder (chamber). In the 649, this makes the comparable barrel length the same as a 3 5/8-inch barreled pistol.

Third, the 649 has a full sized grip. You might prefer a smaller grip but my preference for a handle I can get three fingers around comes from the fact that I can shoot more accurately with a bigger grip. In my mind accuracy is second only to dependability. Remember, it’s your life on the line. I’m also less likely to drop it on the draw, a situation which rarely ends well. It also makes it easier to shoot magnum rounds should you decide to go that route.

Fourth, the 649 has that great S&W trigger: a smooth 11 pounds in double action. A crisp 3 pounds 1 ounce in a single action.

Which brings us to that ugly hump on its back. For a strictly up close and personal self-defense gun, single action only (SAO) is fine. However, there are some instances when you might want to draw the hammer back manually to take advantage of the added accuracy of firing single action. The problem with an external hammer is that it can get snagged on the draw, or, if you’re shooting from inside a pocket, you might get material from your jacket between the hammer and firing pin, especially in a struggle. Smith & Wesson ingeniously solved both those problems by completely enclosing the hammer except for a groove presenting the very tip of the hammer spur. An added benefit of the “hump” is that it adds stability to the gun in your pocket.

This is a top view of the Model 649 with the hammer drawn back.

As far as your ammo choices, if you’re in law enforcement and may have to shoot through windshields and engine blocks, it handles .357 magnum all day long. However, for civilians, the .38+P has plenty of power. That’s what I carry when I’m in town. However, when I’m in the woods in bear country, I load up with a .357 magnum bear load like the 180 grain lead round nose flat points from Buffalo Bore and HSM. Best case, I’d rather be carrying a .44 mag for those situations, but when I’m traveling light, I’m comfortable with the .357 Mag. bear loads.

After lots of experimenting, I ended up with the configuration you see here. I replaced the front sight blade with a red light pipe for better visibility during the day. For low light situations I added the Crimson Trace laser grips . When you take your grip, your middle finger covers the on button and the laser comes on without even thinking about it. I’ve found the laser to provide greater accuracy indoors and at night. It’s also a terrific training aid.

At 22.2 ounces empty, the 649 is comfortable to shoot. If you want to go ultralight, Smith & Wesson also makes it with an aluminum alloy frame (14.6 ounces) in .38+P as a Model 638. MSRP is  $729 for the 649 and $469 for the 638. There’s also a good chance of picking up used models for a lot less.

Ruger Light Compact Revolver (LCR)

The LCR takes us from the old school Smith & Wesson Model 649 to the state-of-the art in modern snubbies. My gun is the Model 5456 in 9mm. I wanted a backup for when I was carrying a 9mm pistol. What I found was that this gun is a fine primary carry gun for normal everyday use. The 9mm is a great self-defense round in its own right. And I found I like the moon clips that came with the revolver. As you know, reloading a revolver is not as quick as switching magazines in a pistol. But carrying a loaded moon clip makes it almost as fast. It’s sure quicker than using a speed loader. By-the-way, you can always load rounds without the moon clip in a pinch since the 9mm headspaces on the case. The only problem would be ejecting the spent cases since the ejector star works on the moon clip.

Ruger combined a number of modern features to upgrade the typical snub nose revolver. The stainless steel cylinder is highly fluted to reduce weight. It also gives it an all business look. The cylinder and barrel are housed in a stainless steel frame, and the frame is mated to a polymer grip frame and trigger guard. Altogether this results in a lightweight gun, 17.2 ounces empty. Ruger also claims the polymer results in a softer shooting gun. It’s hard to judge that without having the same gun in all metal to compare it to. Makes sense though.

On the inside, Ruger employed a cammed action which works well to make the DAO trigger stroke smooth and non-stacking. It’s lighter than the 649 trigger at 9 pounds, 10 ounces, and feels even lighter.

The stock grip is a short Hogue Tamer Monogrip. It’s a perfectly workable grip but I replaced it with a longer Pachmayr Diamond Pro Grip for enhanced control and comfort. The only other change I made was to replace the front blade with an XS Sight Systems standard dot tritium night sight. They include everything you need to switch out the sights and it’s a nice bright sight. I tried a laser that fits in front of the trigger guard but ended up removing it. You had to manually turn it on, unlike the Crimson Trace on my 649, and I do fine just using the tritium sight. The MSRP is $669.

Kimber K6s

Kimber is known for building quality pistols so when they came out with their first revolver I had to give it a try. The drawing card was that it housed 6 rounds in a package about the same size as a J-frame. In fact, I use the same holsters for all three of these guns. While one more round might not sound like much of an advantage, frame it as a 20% increase in firepower and it sounds much more impressive. Either way, if you find yourself in a situation where you really need one more round, it’s priceless.

True to their reputation, the Kimber K6s is a quality product. It has a beautiful satin polished finish, replaceable front and rear sights, modern looking lines, and the rims of the cartridges are recessed flush with the back of the cylinder.

Speaking of the cylinder, to get 6 rounds into a cylinder not much bigger than a J-frame, they put the rounds closer together. To preserve the strength of the cylinder, they weren’t able to use flutes like the S&W and Ruger. Instead they used flats between the chambers. But, because there is an even number of chambers in the Kimber, when the cylinder is in battery, there’s a flat on each side. That means that the narrowest dimension of the cylinder is presented side-to-side. With five round cylinders, when the gun’s in battery, the widest parts of the cylinder are exposed on both sides. So although the cylinder is slightly bigger than a J-frame, when carrying, it feels about the same.

Weight wise, the Kimber is also only slightly more than the S&W 649: 23 ounces empty versus 22.2 for the Smith. Eight-tenths of an ounce is a small price to pay for 20% more firepower (even if it is only one more round). Like with the Model 649, the weight makes for a softer shooting gun and it’s still a good weight for all day carry. Unfortunately, if you want a lighter revolver, this is all Kimber has. On the other hand, you won’t find a lighter six-round revolver from anyone else.

The K6s has the shorter two finger grip. So far I haven’t had a problem with control or accuracy despite my preference for full-sized grips. Firing .357 Magnum rounds is a little more challenging though. I haven’t found longer grips for it although I’m sure the major grip manufacturers will step up when there are enough K6s sold to warrant the tooling.

The trigger is similar to the S&W 649 trigger. It’s actually slightly lighter than the S&W although objectively it doesn’t feel lighter (10 pounds, 10 ounces, versus 11 pounds). You aren’t usually concerned with staging your trigger when you need to present from the holster, but the Kimber trigger is easier to stage should that be of interest to you.

The only drawback I’ve found is that the all black sights are hard to pick out from a dark background. I have an early example and Kimber has since addressed this issue. The guns shipping now come with a three dot sight system. They’ve also switched from the blue grip panels to black although that’s purely cosmetic.

MSRP is $899 with street prices slightly less. Although that’s more than the two guns above, I think it’s still a good value. Especially considering the extra round of ammunition. Crimson Trace recently came out with the LG-950 Master Series Lasergrips for the Kimber. They’re already on my wish list.

Summary

Like you I love to shoot and I’m always trying new guns looking for that perfect travel companion. Every once in a while I have to sell some of them to buy more. But I can tell you with certainty that I have no intention of selling the three pictured here. They are all durable, easy to carry concealed, accurate, and with sufficient firepower to get me out of most binds. I don’t go looking for trouble and if I can avoid a gunfight by running, better not get in my way. But if I get backed into a corner, I’ll be very happy to have any one of these with me.

For more information about the Kimber K6s, click here.

For more information about the Ruger LCR, click here.

For more information about Smith & Wesson Model 649, click here.

To purchase a revolver on GunsAmerica, click here.

{ 37 comments… add one }
  • John November 17, 2017, 1:48 am

    I love revolvers too, but here\’s the thing. You said it was great that the Kimber has an extra round, because that\’s a 20% increase in ammo capacity. There are not a few semiautomatic handguns in which an extra round would constitute a mere 5% increase in ammunition capacity. That\’s a significant advantage in semiautos.

  • W.P. Zeller November 16, 2017, 3:02 pm

    There’s a few points to bring up.
    We run a lot of classes and get to see a lot of guns being used. The lightweight 9mm snub concept is just not working out. Indeed, some big-time instructors won’t let students bring them to long classes. The guns pull the bullets out of the cases of 9mm ammunition, which was never designed for being fired in 14oz revos. One lady had several bullets pulled entirely: loose propellant fell out of the gun when she opened it. And we’ve seen this issue enough times that we don’t want to see these guns, either. Not all ammunition will do this but it’s enough of a problem to put the kibosh on it.
    I like the 638 and 649 well enough, but the 640 and 642 are better choices in nearly all cases. The enclosed action is preferable to the open hammer slot for the reasons the other commenter noted: stuff will get in there in a carry situation. I used to use hammer shrouds on my Colts until I had a similar thing happen with a DS-II. Removing the spur is the correct solution, and all my snubs that came with hammers are so modified.
    I must strongly disagree with the concept of the “pocket” revolver ever being fired single-action. One of the worst things to do with self-defense revolvers is to complicate the manual of arms and add choices that will bring failure under stress. I used to do quite a bit of action pistol match shooting with revos. More than a few times, watching otherwise good shooters stall out trying to change to single-action for moderate distance shots, sometimes even failing to get a thumbcock cleanly executed, showed me that thumbcocking has no place on a gun that might need to be operated in split-seconds.
    We don’t even let our students thumbcock their guns; yes, I know they go back to doing it later in too many cases, but we still feel it’s necessary to get them away from single-action firing. Worse than being slow, it’s unpredictable and unreliable, and adds confusion. Watch someone’s thumb flapping away indecisively under pressure. It’s all you’ll need to see.
    A revolver shooter who plans to use one for self-defense must accept the negatives of the platform, and the hard work of learning to shoot it double-action is part of the deal. We’ve been able to teach even more-mature women with less-than-perfect hands to hit a piece of copy paper at ten yards with snubs, with a modicum of speed. That’s about all you can realistically hope for anyway out of the general population.
    To the general concept of reliability of revos versus autos, that will never be settled. But while I would take a 642 inside of three feet over an auto, beyond arms’ reach, a good modern semi is every bit as reliable in good hands. Shields don’t light-strike, skip a ratchet tooth at full speed, suffer failure to reset on the trigger, pull bullets, or get clogged up with detritus from under-clothing or pocket carry like revos do. And, they can’t be rendered useless at close range by grabbing the cylinder, which is the first thing I’d do if confronted with a revo at short range with no escape option. Knocking an auto out of battery is much harder- try it.
    Revolvers are fun and I own more than I do semis, but they have some serious disadvantages.

  • javadog November 15, 2017, 10:07 am

    I also like the 640 Pro Series with the night sights (22.4 ounces) in a J frame as well as the 66 in a K frame (33.5 ounces) .
    The 66 is getting big, though. You gain a 6 round cylinder, a better trigger and a hammer. Hammers don’t bother me I can deal with it. )

  • Carl Yarbrough November 14, 2017, 1:11 am

    I’ve own two S & W’s both had serious problems. The latest was a 686+ out of the box it would lock up after two rounds of 357 and would get out of time. I sent it back to S&W and it took three months to get it back, I sold it as soon as I could and will never buy another S&W product. My cheap Taurus is much better.

  • Andy Casella November 13, 2017, 5:13 pm

    I am a firm believer is small revolvers. I have been carrying either a Torus 85 in .38Spl shroud hammer or an old Charter Bulldog is .44Spl. for blah blah years. The Three wheel guns you showed are great But for cost of the Smith or the Kimber I will stick with myold guns.

  • Norm Fishler November 13, 2017, 2:06 pm

    I said 30+ years . . . Scratch that; more like about 25.

  • Norm Fishler November 13, 2017, 1:59 pm

    My Dad had a blued S&W M38 that I carried for a few days. I took it to the range to shoot and was SHOCKED outta my shoes when I pulled the trigger and it refused to fire. A quick examination showed that a dime had found its way into the hammer slot and jammed the whole works up. I sold it the next day. Remember that if you’re going to carry one make sure that there is absolutely nothing else in that same pocket. Ever since (30+ years now) the S&W 642 has been my constant companion. YMMV

  • Charlie November 13, 2017, 1:42 pm

    They missed one of the best the Smith-Wesson model 40 . Safety grip and smooth action makes for a very good small wheel gun.find one and try it you may like it over these others.I did. Most important what ever you prefer . Practice makes perfect.

  • Railway Man November 13, 2017, 1:39 pm

    Ruger SP 101 DAO should have made the list. Reliable, “court-proof”, and well-made in USA.

    • Curt November 13, 2017, 7:52 pm

      SP101 4”barrel… the best of the bunch… accurate… reliable …easy conceal …durable!

  • EJ Smith November 13, 2017, 12:55 pm

    Good article except a good many people want the accuracy of being able to cock the gun. As a firearm instructor I show and let students shoot both ways and the overall consensus is by far most prefer cocking the firearm and the added accuracy it provides. Unfortunately it is becoming a hammerless world. Also, I too liked the .327 Magnum that was in the Ruger SP101 with the 3 inch bbl. and am saddened by it’s discontinuation, I think a lot of ladies out there really liked it too, it gave them great power without the massive recoil of the .357 magnum. I certainly don’t know everything but I wish more of the new revolvers had hammers, they will never get me to go with a hammerless, I guess I’m just old school and set in my ways. One last parting thought, the Colt someone earlier mentioned, it more than makes the cut then and now. EJ Smith

    • BR549 November 13, 2017, 7:53 pm

      I agree with your stance on having a hammer, but being able to cock that hammer might become a moot point in some situations. Personally, I think having the choice, and the experience practicing with both, just expands anyone’s solution set.

    • Steve Warren November 14, 2017, 1:35 pm

      Never cock a revolver. That is what double action is for. Back in the day we were even encouraged to bob the hammer. The hammer spur is only there to hold the gun in the holster or for novices to cock it with.

  • Robert November 13, 2017, 12:46 pm

    Carried all kinds of revolvers in the past. D and C specials etc etc. Carry an old Charter Arms Target Bulldog 44 Sp at times now days. not heavy but a bit too large for summer carry. My carry stuff if we had to ditch in the jungle in SEA was a couple of 45 autos and a suppressed Swedish K. But I also had a Model 36 most of the time. Reliable was it’s first name.

  • M. Johnson November 13, 2017, 10:54 am

    To JLA: What is wrong with the S&W Model 632, other than it was made for a couple years only? .327 Federal Magnum, J-Frame, 25 ounces. It was steel framed and had a 3-inch barrel, so not exactly your classic lightweight snubbie. But close. The 632-2 “Pro Series” was similar but 2-inch barrel. Sadly, sales numbers were low.

  • nate November 13, 2017, 10:54 am

    Your comment “Which brings us to that ugly hump on its back. For a strictly up close and personal self-defense gun, single action only (SAO) is fine.” confuses me. Shouldn’t you have actually been referring to double action only (DAO ) as compared to the option to cock the hammer?

  • Michael P November 13, 2017, 10:42 am

    I love the J frame and own several.In light of the recent unpleasantness we have seen I\’ve revised my EDC options.Digging through the safe past the heavy 1911\’s and even heavier Ruger Super Redhawks /Blackhawks -I rediscovered an old friend. I bought her about 6 years ago but never carried it much.I call her the \”Wicked Bitch\”.An S&W Performance Center 327 PC. 8 rounds of moon clipped .357 happiness in a 21 ounce package.Should do just fine for any Alhau Boo Boo ,car ramming,knife slitting, church shooting crackpots our society is producing.

  • James G. November 13, 2017, 10:13 am

    To leave out the Charter Arms products is just dumb. The UC light at 12 oz. with its 8 land grooves outshoots most anything else on the market. It handles all the rounds tested here well. It is a full ten ounces lighter than the S$W here. Charter arms sell for a great price because they do not advertise.

  • Dan November 13, 2017, 10:12 am

    The Ruger Stainless SP101 with a 3″ barrel in .327 Federal Magnum held six rounds, and was more affordable (and I think better looking) than the Kimber – too bad Ruger discontinued it!

  • Dan November 13, 2017, 10:07 am

    Great article! Few men can claim that they flew a helicopter gunship in Vietnam and survived – glad you did! I have several concealed carry pistols , and like the ease of concealing and reloading, but one of the things I don’t think you mentioned in your article is that if you have a gun in a drawer, safe, or vehicle that’s left loaded for a long time, there is a slight disadvantage with a pistol compared to a revolver because of the magazine springs taking a set. I was also going to mention your comment about the Kimber being the only concealed carry pistol that holds 6 rounds, but I see that others have already mentioned the LCR in .327 Federal Magnum.

  • LG November 13, 2017, 9:43 am

    Thanks for the great article. It would be complete and more informative if the (new) Colt Cobra had been mentioned. But, perhaps the honorable author had judged that the Colt did not measure up.

  • Mike November 13, 2017, 9:34 am

    I noticed you like the hammerless version. Any particular reasoning other than snagging? By the way thank you for your service. I am glad you made it home safe. God bless

  • TOM BROLLINI November 13, 2017, 8:25 am

    I carry a variety of autos & revolvers, depending on clothes. My favorite revolver is the S&W 325PD 45ACP. It’s relatively light, fits tight in a Galco Combat Master & with moon clips quick to reload. PLUS it’s a 45!

  • Mike November 13, 2017, 8:04 am

    I’ve been carrying a PC Model 60 with Pach grips, for about a year now. A 3in, 357 Magnum, J-Frame… Couldn’t be happier!

    • DaveW November 13, 2017, 5:04 pm

      I favor my S&W Mod 60 .38Spl. Originally it had a hammer spur, but now sports a hammer with the spur cut down.
      The majority of shootings happen in close quarters (3-15 feet). The .38Spl is sufficient for that distance, and I’m in real trouble if I can’t do what I need to do with 5 shots.

      • Mike November 13, 2017, 9:10 pm

        I have an early 80’s model 60 as well… also a great revolver!

  • Wendell Ison November 13, 2017, 7:23 am

    What about the new Colt Cobra? It’s a six-shooter +P .38 lightweight.

    • Walleye November 14, 2017, 10:22 am

      What about a new Colt Cobra?
      Because it’s a .38+P, and has half the muzzle energy of a .357 mag.
      That’s why.

  • roger November 13, 2017, 5:44 am

    Actually the Taurus wheel guns out sell nationally the newly released over priced Kimber.

    • LG November 13, 2017, 9:44 am

      Toyota outsell overpriced Ferrari

  • REM1875 November 13, 2017, 5:14 am

    JLA
    Good choice -the 327 Fed Mag…..wish I had waited till Ruger put out the hammer model but I am still happy with my LCR.

  • REM1875 November 13, 2017, 5:10 am

    Nice But……
    There are several 327 Federal magnums that are small 6 shooter revolvers and it’s a hell of a round and hell of a gun that also fires 32 ACP, 32 S&W -short and long, 32 H&R Mag along with the 327 Federal Magnum — what’s not to like ?

  • TJ November 13, 2017, 4:31 am

    I think you must have meant to say Double Action Only (DAO) on the Model 649. I’m inclined to agree overall, I’ve carried a Model 638 for a number of years and loved it for its compactness and reliability. Never had any issues with J-frames, though I’m still tempted to pick up the Ruger LCR in .327 Federal Magnum.

  • JLA November 13, 2017, 3:15 am

    Good article! My personal preference is the Ruger LCR chambered for the .327 Federal Magnum. Why it took Ruger so friken’ long to make that revolver is mind boggling. Federal introduces a cartridge specifically designed to be the ideal self-defense round for ultra-light, J-frame sized concealed carry revolvers and what do Ruger and Smith & Wesson do? Why they chamber it in everything but an ultra-light, J-frame sized, concealed carry revolver of course, and then they wonder why it doesn’t sell. Ridiculous. Thankfully Ruger finally got the message and is now making the revolver that so many of us have been asking for for years, and I’ve finally got my perfected pocket revolver!

    • Brandon November 13, 2017, 10:13 am

      Real question – what’s so good about the .327 Magnum? Why it over the 38sp? I’m guessing one would choose it over the 357 Magnum because it’s easier to shoot, but other than that? Why not the 9mm being the huge variety of offerings? I’m strictly trying to learn here. I had never even heard of .327 Magnum until I saw the LCR offering on Ruger’s site a while ago while looking for something light and easy to conceal for those times when I’m “not allowed” to carry. Everyone knows it’s in those places that the bad guys tend to shoot up.

      • M. Johnson November 13, 2017, 11:10 am

        Brandon, does 1360 feet/second muzzle velocity mean anything to you? This is the test results out of the original 3-inch barrel from the S&W Model 632. With an 85 grain bullet, I tell myself this is 70% of a .357.

        • Brandon November 13, 2017, 4:50 pm

          M. Johnson, but we are talking about less than a 2″ barrel for most of these, not a 3″. At 70% of a 357, would something like a hot LeHigh 9mm variant not be preferable, especially out of a 3″+ pistol barrel?

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