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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Model: Model 638
Caliber: 38 S&W SPECIAL +P
Barrel Length: 1.875″ / 4.8 cm
Overall Length: 6.3″
Front Sight: Integral
Rear Sight: Fixed
Action: Single/Double Action
Weight: 14.6 oz / 413.9g
Cylinder Material: Stainless Steel
Barrel Material: Stainless Steel
Frame Material: Aluminum Alloy
Frame Finish: Matte Silver
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