Smith & Wesson made their reputation on quality revolvers, and their smooth double-action trigger pulls are legendary. That’s why their various J-frame snubnose revolvers still dominate the wheelgun segment of the concealed carry market. And, with few exceptions, they command higher retail prices than competing brands. This is why the company’s revolvers, like the M&P Bodyguard 38 are always worth a look.
The Smith & Wesson M&P Bodyguard 38
S&W introduced the first new polymer, aluminum alloy, and stainless steel Bodyguard 38 in 2010 with its integral laser sight. At the time, the company also launched a completely new pistol design that maintained its famed shootability but greatly reduced production costs.
Laser sights have come down in price a lot since then, but they are still about a $100 upgrade. Realizing concealed carry consumers wanted a less-costly Bodyguard 38, Smith and Wesson began offering the pistol with iron sights. At $444 it’s MSRP is about $119 less than the laser-equipped model, but actual retail will be lower.
If you want a small-framed snubnose and haven’t shot a Bodyguard 38, you should. It offers some advantages over the traditional J-frame aside from costing less.
This new Bodyguard 38 offers five significant improvements over the aluminum alloy and steel Airweight J-frame snubnose. It’s a half-ounce lighter. It has an ambidextrous and easy-to-manipulate cylinder release latch positioned on the top of the frame.
The ejection rod is about 30% longer to better throw out the fired cases. Some still hang up from time to time, but usually only the one in front of your thumb, and a lot less than they do with the traditional J-frame stubby ejector.
A long overdue improvement is the Bodyguard’s slim, palm-swelled, polymer grip. It combines the best characteristics of an aftermarket rubber grip by protecting the web of the hand all the way to the top of the frame. But it is also as deeply relieved behind the triggerguard as the original J-frame factory wooden grips.
Those old wood grips were too small. The new grip has more—and more comfortable—gripping surface area without making the pistol any taller. The reason is because you can get your index finger farther up behind the triggerguard. This is a double-action-only revolver, and a good grip is key to accurate shooting. The Bodyguard’s grip manages to give you more to hold on to without giving up any concealability.
Finally, the front sight is pinned in place with two roll pins, making it a snap DIY project to change out. XS Sight Systems makes their excellent, day or night, high-visibility, big-dot tritium sight for the Bodyguard 38.
In addition, if you hate the internal locking mechanism that S&W standardized on their revolvers some years back, the Bodyguard doesn’t have it!
Concealed Carry Advantages of the Bodyguard 38
The main concealed carry advantages that the Bodyguard shares with its modern, enclosed-hammer J-frame cousins are the rugged, large, fixed, snag-free sights, including a serrated ramped front sight to reduce glare.
The five-shot cylinder gives it a compact profile while being rated for continuous use of +P ammo. The smooth exterior design is unlikely to catch your clothing when drawn. Likewise, it can even be shot repeatedly from within a pocket in a pinch.
It also has a pretty good trigger, but the pull has a different feel because the Bodyguard’s lockwork is different. More on that later.
The Bodyguard’s external appearance and dimensions are almost identical to the J-frame. Specifically to the extent it will fit many holsters for the latter. However, it’s a lot different inside.
Smith and Wesson’s Airweights combined steel barrels and cylinders with aluminum alloy frames for decades. However, the Bodyguard 38 is its first revolver to utilize a dual-material, two-part frame made from aluminum and steel-reinforced polymer.
The grip frame and separate trigger guard are polymer. A one-piece aluminum alloy forward frame and barrel shroud encloses the lockwork, and the stainless steel cylinder and supports the screw-in stainless steel rifled sleeve.
The shape of the polymer grip frame is unique, and standard J-frame grips won’t fit. The grip is held on with a single roll pin that is easily removed if you want to substitute one of several rubber overmold or wood finger-groove grips offered by Hogue. Currently, Hogue is the only aftermarket grip option.
Unlike traditional S&W lockworks, the Bodyguard 38 cylinder turns to the right and isn’t advanced by a hand. Instead, there’s a five-pointed star in the frame that mates with a matching pentagon in the center of the ejector rod. The system should be less susceptible to going out of time from wear because there is much more contact area.
It’s also more resistant to dirt and fluid penetration. The bolt is semi-circular instead of rectangular and much larger, with more contact area to secure the cylinder.
Instead of the front of the cylinder being locked in place by a pin through the front of the ejector rod, there’s a ball-detent-like pin in the crook of the frame that engages a hole in the crane. This spring-loaded pin isn’t as secure as the old method, but it’s simpler and probably secure enough. Remember, Colt never secured the front of their cylinders at all!
I’ve heard and read varying reports about the Bodyguard 38’s trigger pull. Mostly to the effect that it was equal to traditional lockwork models in smoothness but lighter. One reviewer stated his test gun’s trigger broke at only 9 pounds. I secured my test gun solidly and used a mechanical Timney High-Range Trigger Tension Scale for my tests and found the pull to be around 11.75 pounds.
For comparison, the pull on my old Model 649 was 12.75 pounds and 11 pounds on my old Chief’s Special. My test Bodyguard had what I would describe as a fairly typical double-action pull weight. However, it is subtly different in feel from the traditional lockwork and, though fine by me, it’s not quite as smooth as my old guns. Here’s why.
On my traditional J-frames, the trigger doesn’t seem to budge until the pull gets up to the full weight, and then they go all at once. Comparatively, the Bodyguard 38’s trigger starts to move rearward with less than full pull weight, stacks a bit, and then slides the rest of the way through. It feels like the trigger pull has a slight bump in the middle of it.
The Bodyguard’s cylinder rotation is stopped and locked in by the bolt earlier than that of a traditional J-frame lockwork where the hand is turning the cylinder almost up to the point of hammer fall.
As another reviewer noted, it does make the Bodyguard easier to stage. I don’t advocate staging a double action, but many people do it. I think it’s better, and safer, just to learn to shoot double action correctly. In any case, this is a perfectly decent double-action trigger, if not quite the equal of the old style.
Testing the Bodyguard 38 at 7 yards with a standing, two-hand hold, I found it shot at least as well, if not better, than my old Model 649 and 36. Of the three distinctly different +P defensive loads for snubnoses I tested, all of them seemed to hit about an inch low and 1.5 inches to the left of my perceived point-of-aim.
It’s tough to judge if it’s you or the gun when you’re shooting double action only. At least we were consistent; and I beam with pride to say that all the loads shot very well.
The most accurate and softest shooting was Federal Premium’s 130-grain HST JHP. This round recoiled noticeably less than the others with no muzzle flash and allowed me to get on target faster between shots. The average of my five-shot groups was only 1.97 inches. Though at 783 feet-per-second, this bullet isn’t exactly screaming out of the snubby’s 1.9-inch barrel. It has excellent expansion in ballistic gelatin, petaling back to almost twice its original diameter.
In the .38 Special revolver’s heyday, it wasn’t uncommon to load hollow-base wadcutters backward for self-defense loads. The HST reminds me of this, but it works much better being jacketed and purpose-engineered to expand. This is an ideal round where over-penetration is a major concern.
The solid copper, Philips screwdriver-like tip Black Hills Ammunition 100-grain HoneyBadger +P averaged 1,005 feet-per-second. Despite the light bullet, it had the type of recoil and muzzle flash you would expect from a snubnose shooting +P ammo.
This load was also quite accurate, averaging 2.44 inches for a five-shot group. The bullet doesn’t expand at all, but its unique tip design and velocity produce extremely disruptive hydrostatic effects in gelatin that got my attention. It also offers excellent penetration and the ability to maintain its fluid-diverting tip shape after passing through barriers where standard hollowpoints would clog up and fail to expand.
The last round tested was a conventional snubnose load from Winchester Super X. Their 125-grain JHP had the recoil, but not the muzzle flash, of the HoneyBadger. The average velocity was 863 feet-per-second and averaged a group size of 2.81 inches.
The Bodyguard 38’s shootablity, light weight, and low price make it a solid choice for a daily carry gun, especially if you use an ankle holster. At around a pound loaded, it’s easy to forget you have it on.
In fact, I misplaced the pistol for 30 minutes after my wife called me away from the range for a chore before finally finding it in my back pocket where it had been all along.
Holsters & More
I test-carried the BodyGuard 38 in a DeSantis Apache Ankle Rig for a few days and found it unnoticeable. The holster is heavy elastic and securely holds a wide variety of snubnose revolvers. It has a Velcro security strap, but because of the way the elastic wraps over the rear of the triggerguard, the strap seems superfluous.
The holster stays in position on your ankle with a fleece-backed, Velcro-secured, wide band of elastic and is adjustable over a fairly wide range of leg sizes. I didn’t have a problem with it sliding down my ankle during the day, but not everyone’s leg geometry is identical.
With boots, the holster sits right on top of the shaft. However, with dress shoes or if you hem your pants to keep them dry in a flood, it might be advisable to use an elastic garter to anchor the holster to your upper calf, so it won’t slide far enough to be exposed.
It’s the most comfortable and secure ankle rig I’ve tried for light snubnoses and the holster type I prefer if I’m spending a lot of time in a vehicle.
My overall impression of the Bodyguard 38 is that it could be the harbinger of revolvers to come, just as the polymer frame changed the paradigm for self-loaders. A well-shooting new gun is not a bad thing. It just takes a little getting used to.
For more information, please visit Smith-Wesson.com.
Smith & Wesson M&P Bodyguard 38 – No Laser Specs
Caliber: .38 Special +P
Barrel: 1.88 inches
Overall Length: 6.6 inches
Weight: 14.4 ounces (empty)
Sights: Square notch rear, serrated front ramp
Finish: Black anodize, black PVD coated cylinder
This article was originally published in the Personal Defense World April/May 2022 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions at OutdoorGroupStore.com. Or call 1-800-284-5668, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.