S&W Model 638 Bodyguard

History

The venerable Smith & Wesson J-frame may well be the most prolific revolver ever made. The original J-frame was introduced at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in 1950. At the conference, the Smith & Wesson representatives asked the chiefs to vote to name the new little wheelgun. Based on the votes, Smith christened the new revolver as the Chiefs Special. From that simple beginning, the J-frame line has been expanded to over 31 models in four different calibers.

The Chiefs Special, later renamed the Model 36, was a traditional double-action revolver with an exposed hammer. In 1952, Smith introduced the Centennial model that featured a concealed hammer and a grip safety. The Centennial was a double-action only pistol that was ideal for pocket carry, a method that was very popular in the 1950s. Then, in 1955, Smith introduced the Bodyguard. The Bodyguard featured a distinctive humpback that shrouded the hammer spur. The design allowed the Bodyguard to be cocked for single-action fire while still being suitable for pocket carry. To some, it was the best of both worlds. Interestingly the first model of the Bodyguard series featured an alloy frame. In 1959, based on a request from the Massachusetts State Police, Smith introduced the all-steel Model 49.

The appearance of the humpback Bodyguard was never as sexy as the Centennial or as classic as the Model 36 Chiefs Special. In recent years, the 442/642 series of Centennials has become the star of the line. However, the Bodyguard still has a loyal following. While the Model 38 was discontinued in 1999, production of the Bodyguard continued with the Model 638 and the Model 649 that is now chambered in .357 Magnum. We recently received Model 638 for evaluation.

The current production 638 Bodyguard features an alloy frame with a stainless cylinder and barrel. Smith & Wesson Model 638

The Model 638-3

I recently requested a new production Model 638 for evaluation. While I have several older Bodyguards in my collection, this was my first opportunity to evaluate a new production Bodyguard. I was not disappointed.

Our test pistol was a Model 638-3 that features an alloy frame that has a satin finish with a clear, protective, coating. The barrel, cylinder, and latch are a matte stainless that closely matches the frame. The overall fit and finish on our pistol were clean and void of blemishes or machine marks. The internal parts of the Model 638 are a combination of steel, allow, and MIM parts. The Model 638 is distinguished from the discontinued Model 38 by the raised rib on the left side of the frame. This is the stouter magnum frame design that allows the 638 to be rated for .38+P ammunition.

The 638-3, like all current .38 Special J-frames, is rated for +P ammunition.
The internal design of the current 638-3 has changed very little since it was introduced in 1955.

Since 1989, the new J-frames have featured a wider, 1/8” front sight blade. This is a significant improvement over the earlier 1/10” blade. The rear sight aperture is a square notch. The double-action averaged 11 lbs. 9 oz. while the single action broke cleanly at 3 lbs. 6 oz. I found the double-action to be smooth with no grit or creep. The 638 comes standard with a set of synthetic “boot” style stocks that fill the gap behind the trigger guard.

The 1/8” front sight blade is a ramped design to prevent snagging. The author blacked out the ramp with a Sharpie to improve the sight picture.
Several years ago, Smith & Wesson redesigned the thumb latch to help prevent “thumb bite.”  All current 638s feature the key lock.

Range Time

For over 40 years, 38 of those years in law enforcement, I carried some model of J-frame as a back-up. I have yet to meet a J-frame I didn’t like and the 638 is no exception. The first thing I did was chronograph three of the most popular personal defense loads. The newest load is Federal’s +P 130 gr. Micro HST. This load is specifically designed for short barrel revolvers and features a uniquely designed, wadcutter like, projectile. The Micro HST averaged 798 fps and was very consistent with an extreme spread of 33 fps. I also tested Speer’s time-proven +P 135 gr. Gold Dot Short barrel load. The Speer load averaged 846 fps with an extreme spread of 55 fps. The final load was Hornady’s +P 110 gr. Critical Defense. This load features the FTX projectile with a polymer tip that prevents the hollow point from being clogged by clothing and other barriers. The Critical Defense averaged 855 fps with an extreme spread of 55 fps.

The smooth and contoured trigger improved the shooting experience.
The author’s target after firing his 5X5X5X2 drill.

For my range and accuracy testing, I swapped out the factory grips for a set of old Pachmayr Compacts. Most of my shooting was done from 10 yards and in. The point of impact with Federal and Speer was to the point of aim. The lighter, and faster, Hornady load printed approximately 7” high at seven yards. I ran several speed drills and shot a couple of Dot Torture targets from 3 and 5 yards. The 638 was well mannered, even with the +P loads. From 7 yards, most of my groups were around 2”.

One of my favorite drills is a modification of Ken Hackathorn’s 10-10-10 drill. Designed for semiautos, the drill consists of 10 rounds, shot from 10 yards, in 10 seconds. I modified the drill for J-frames where I shoot 5 rounds, front 5 yards, in 5 seconds. This is repeated twice for a total of 10 rounds. Only double-action is used. While the drill is normally shot on an NRA bullseye target, I used a reduced size “gangster” target from the I’m With Roscoe organization. As the photo shows on the target, I shot five rounds center of mass and five rounds to the cranial vault. Both strings were with the 5 second time limit. The 638 proved to be a tack driver.

A quick note about I’m with Roscoe. The organization is “noir-themed snub nose revolver association created to bring together; shooters, researchers, writers, and associated business, in order to enhance and extend the sport of short barrel revolver shooting.” The organization has over 1,000 paid members as well as an IWR Facebook group. Members receive regular newsletters and are entitled to group discounts from companies such as Super Vel, Galco, and other friends in the industry.

I will point out that the sights on the Bodyguard are probably the most difficult to use of any of the J-frames. The contour of the “hump” flows to the top strap with no delineation behind the rear sight. By contrast, on the 442/642, that gives a much clearer presentation of the rear sight aperture. In addition, the front sight ramp, being the same color as the rest of the gun, is difficult to see. Two minutes with a Sharpie, or fingernail polish, solves the front sight issue.

Daily Carry

The little 638 became part of my daily carry. I replaced the factory grips with a set of VZ 320 G-10 stocks. The 320 is very similar to Spegel Boot Grips and fills the gap behind the trigger guard and has a slight palm swell. The single finger groove assists in obtaining a positive purchase on the little J-frame. The 320s are ideal for pocket carry where rubber-type stocks can cause issues. They also work well with either speed strips or speed loaders. In addition, the 320s are available in 10 colors.

The author selected VZ 320 stocks for daily carry. Their shape is comfortable and functional.
The VZ 320s fill the space behind the trigger guard and offer a slight palm swell. VZ 320 Grips

For belt carry, I used Galco’s Hornet scabbard. The Hornet is an open-top design that is made from premium steer hide. The combination of a tunnel belt loop and a trailing belt loop pulls the pistol into the body. While designed for cross draw carry, the Hornet worked well for strong side and appendix carry. For pocket carry, I used Blue Force Gear’s UlTRAcomp.

The Galco Hornet is a very functional holster that works as a cross draw or a strong side carry rig. Galco Hornet
The Barranti Boot holster is a well-executed and versatile design. Barranti Boot

I also obtained one of Doc Barranti’s Boot holsters. The Boot is a square-shaped rig, rough out design, that is molded and stitched for the J-frame. The Boot can be clipped inside a boot, a pocket, or used as a tuckable IWB rig. It is also ideal for bag carry. It is a great design that I will be using in the future.

Conclusion

It has been 65 years since the Bodyguard was introduced. The fact that it is still in production is a credit to a design that has proven timeless. I have always had an affinity for the little J-frames and the 638 has found a home in my daily lifestyle. With an MSRP of $477.00 and a street price that is significantly less, it may be worth buying two!

For more information visit Smith & Wesson

Specifications

SKU: 163070

Model: Model 638

Caliber: 38 S&W SPECIAL +P

Capacity: 5

Barrel Length: 1.875″ / 4.8 cm

Overall Length: 6.3″

Front Sight: Integral

Rear Sight: Fixed

Action: Single/Double Action

Grip: Synthetic

Weight: 14.6 oz / 413.9g

Cylinder Material: Stainless Steel

Barrel Material: Stainless Steel

Frame Material: Aluminum Alloy

Frame Finish: Matte Silver

MSRP: $477.00

Note: The historical information contained in this article came from History of Smith & Wesson by Roy Jinks and Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson by Jim Supica and Richard Nahas

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{ 14 comments… add one }
  • john hoglin March 5, 2020, 4:25 am

    My favorite J frame and carry gun for 8+ years, I have booth the 642 and 638 my 638 is very accurate and can even make single action shots. Those who whine about the Hillary hole there is an out fit that makes matching plugs pop out the lock and pop in the plug looks great, available for j/k/l/n frame models.

  • Matthew Dell March 3, 2020, 11:47 pm

    Was all eager to get one, but then I saw the Hillary hole…
    Oh well, S&W has lost yet another sale.

    • Norm Fishler March 4, 2020, 6:58 pm

      The presence of the Hillary hole is actually a plus. Check for yourself to see how those built pre HH are not rated for the +P and that those with it are. This is straight across the board in all J-frames.

  • Wallace March 2, 2020, 10:48 pm

    The 638 is dandy in a pocket, but beware of a dime falling into the space behind the hammer. Use a pocket holster and have nothing else in that pocket.

    • Norm Fishler March 4, 2020, 7:01 pm

      That’s why I got rid of mine and went to the Centennial. I had a dime fall into that slot and when I pulled it aout at the range to shoot it was a no-go. I sold it the next day.

    • Mike April 2, 2020, 1:50 pm

      I used to have a model 38. Airweight blue Bodyguard. That little gun went everywhere with me very handy and comforting. Don’t know how many tense conversations I had with individuals while that little 38 was in my pocket in my hand pointed at their groin. Comforting little friend.

  • WVirginian March 2, 2020, 4:31 pm

    Wait …what?… did I write this article? I have this same gun, same holster and VZ grips (although mine are the black/grey). I love this little gun …great for belt, pocket or glove box. The key lock hole is not an issue in the least … just “un-lock” it all the way and put the key back in the box…. never even noticed it after four years of EDC. I also have a matching 642 Performance Center Model. I’ve loved “snub nose” revolvers since I was a little kid watching detective movies and TV shows…. all the good guys had snubbies.

  • Gary giebels March 2, 2020, 12:59 pm

    Dan wesson looking for prices for 357 2in and 4in and 6 in and 8 in thank you

  • Charlie March 2, 2020, 12:34 pm

    The Clinton Hole is the only thing that keeps me from buying this model. Have owned other models and have been fortunate to get rid of them at a small loss. I do have one model in my safe that I would sell when the price is right.

    • srsquidizen March 3, 2020, 8:40 am

      Not sure about the 638 but the 642 (same with fully enclosed hammer) is available new without a hillary hole. What’s irritating is that the “no internal lock” version, at dealers that have them, will usually be priced higher.

  • Rich Adent March 2, 2020, 10:41 am

    My 638 is my daily carry gun with Crimson Trace LASER grips and an Uncle Mike’s shoulder holster. Love it!

  • Norm Fishler March 2, 2020, 9:56 am

    I have carried an S&W 642 since the early 90s and I would not be without one. I once won a a bet with a girl I was dating that I could hit a man sized silhouette 3 out of 5 times with it at 100 yds. I’ve had the Bodyguard also, but switched to the Centennial and never looked back.

  • Bob March 2, 2020, 9:32 am

    The 638-3 is also my EDC. I carry it with Hornady Critical Defense 110gr FTX rounds.
    It was my backup weapon when I was on the PD.
    Thanks for the article and I’ll have to check into those VZ grips!

  • SeaHunt March 2, 2020, 8:00 am

    have had a 442 since inception, it has NEVER not done what I have asked it to do and is a true “best friend” thru the good times and bad!!!

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