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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.