Along about 1950, Smith & Wesson realized that its archrival Colt had held the small-frame .38 Special market all to itself since 1927 with the introduction of the Colt Detective Special. It was outselling S&W’s own two-inch .38 Special, the K-frame Military & Police, which was seen correctly by the gun buying public as a sawed-off standard-size service revolver too big to comfortably fit in the pocket of pants or coat. S&W’s pocket-size .38 had long been the five-shot Terrier, on a smaller I-frame, but it was chambered for the feeble .38 S&W cartridge that had long since given way in popularity to the .38 Special.
S&W’s 1950 breakthrough was the J-frame, simply the .32-size I-frame extended to take a longer .38 Special cylinder. To keep the gun small, the five-shot cylinder of the I-frame was retained. This new little .38 Special was visibly and palpably a little smaller than the six-shot Colt Detective Special, and a couple of ounces lighter.
Soon, very soon, it would be apparent that Smith & Wesson had scored one of their greatest all-time hits. Today, most years, the J-frame is Smith & Wesson’s most popular revolver…and the D-frame Colt Detective Special and its siblings did not survive into the 21st century.
The J-frame’s mid-20th century debut took the form of the Chiefs Special, so named because it was introduced at the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. It was a standard configuration, like every swing-out cylinder double-action revolver the company had offered since the 1890s. Its spurred hammer allowed easy thumb-cocking to single action mode, which was still a standard element of police “combat shooting” training at the time. The double action trigger pull was short but hard: the J-frame was equipped with a coil mainspring instead of the traditional leaf style, a radical departure for the period. The gun was offered in one caliber: .38 Special.
The first shape-changing of the J-frame occurred in 1952. Colonel Rex Applegate, a giant in the world of the handgun since WWII, had in the early post-war years been attacked by a machete-wielder in Mexico. At the time Rex had been carrying an old top-break S&W New Departure Safety Hammerless revolver under his shirt, and had to empty all five of its stubby little .38 S&W cartridges into his attacker to stop him. He contacted S&W, urging that their more powerful .38 Special J-frame be manufactured in the same configuration as his old Safety Hammerless, to allow a snag-free quick draw from concealment.
It seemed like a good idea to S&W, and the firm introduced it as the Centennial — so called because that year, 1952, marked the company’s 100th anniversary. With smooth stocks that swept up strikingly toward the high “horn” at the back of the streamlined frame that concealed the internal hammer, the Centennial design also encompassed the grip safety of the old Safety Hammerless. For those who didn’t care for that feature, the company included a pin (stored inside the grip-frame) that could lock the backstrap lever into the “fire” position.
Finally, in 1955, S&W added its third J-frame configuration, the Bodyguard. This was a direct riposte to Colt’s hammer shroud accessory, introduced a few years earlier. With the Colt revolver’s frame drilled and tapped with three holes, this ingenious little device shielded the hammer spur to prevent snag in pocket or coat lining during a fast draw, yet left the very tip of the hammer exposed to allow thumb cocking. In the S&W interpretation, the shroud was built in instead of bolted on: the frame of the Bodyguard revolver rose on both sides, and it had its own proprietary hammer to shield, shaped so that it left sort of a “cocking button” exposed in the open slot between upper rear of grip-frame, and rear sight. This was a much handsomer, sleeker “look” than the obvious afterthought of a bolted-on accessory like the Colt hammer shroud, and proved much more popular. Esthetics are subjective, though: while a Bodyguard was sleeker than a shroud-equipped Colt, it was still “funny looking” compared to the conventionally shaped Chiefs Special, and the Bodyguard would soon earn the nickname “humpback” among S&W aficionados.
In half a decade, the J-frame had taken three distinctly different configura-tions, all in .38 Special. Each, it would turn out, would have a separate set of advantages and disadvantages.
Produced uninterrupted from 1950 to now in various iterations, the Chiefs Special is distinguished by its exposed hammer and double-action/single-action modality. Because small frame revolvers give little to the hand to hang onto, and have double-action trigger pulls that can be ten times the weight of the gun itself, many users found they could shoot more accurately by cocking to the easy-pulling single-action mode. If the given shooter considers this to be an important attribute, the Chiefs Special configuration deserves strong consideration, since its completely exposed hammer spur allows this manipulation to be most swiftly and positively accomplished. An important safety concern is that it also allows the most positive and certain lowering of the hammer on a live round if the shooter decides not to fire the cocked revolver after all.
Desirable for the above needs, that standard-shape hammer proved undesirable for another purpose. By the 1950s, NYPD firearms authority Paul B. Weston had noted that these hammers were shaped like fishhooks, and when they came out of a pants pocket or an ankle holster, there was a possibility of a disastrous snag. It had long since become popular among serious gunmen to “dehorn” or “bob” the hammer, removing the spur entirely. This made cocking to single-action quite difficult (one had to start the hammer back with the trigger finger, and catch the nub of the hammer with a thumb to bring it the rest of the way back), and flat dangerous to un-cock with a live round under the hammer. Those same serious gunmen had figured out that they’d be firing double-action anyway for “serious business,” and simply went into the gun and removed the single-action cocking notch, curing the problem.
At its introduction, the Centennial was appreciated for its smooth lines and streamlined shape, but was seen as a bit of an anomaly by shooters of the time, a time before serious combat-type competition and training were available to the general public. Why, many asked, would anyone want that heavy, double-action “emergency” trigger pull for every shot? And who needed a grip safety, anyway? Sales lagged. People who wanted snag-free draw bought S&W’s Bodyguard instead, keeping the easy single-action trigger pull as an option and doing away with what was seen as an unnecessary grip safety. Sales faded, and in the early mid-1970s, Smith & Wesson discontinued the Centennial.
It wasn’t the best timing. Just about the time of its discontinuance, more people were beginning to discover that the hammerless was a pretty cool gun. With its hammer area completely enclosed, dust didn’t build up there as it did in the channel of the Bodyguard’s integral hammer shroud. Word got out that it was at least theoretically possible for a small coin or some sort of debris to get into that integral hammer shroud’s channel and block the hammer, preventing the Bodyguard from firing. Not so with the Centennial. Influential authors and teachers of the time—Walt Rauch, Clint Smith, Wiley Clapp, and more—sang the praises of the Centennial, and soon it became something of a “cult gun.”
Along about 1990, influenced in large part by Wiley Clapp’s campaign to get his readers to write S&W requesting it, the Centennial was re-introduced, this time without the extraneous grip safety. Sales were huge. Soon, the Centennial was the best-selling J-frame. Most years, it remains so in current times. The “ugly duckling” had come into its own at last.
The big, obvious advantages of the Centennial are that it’s as snag-resistant as you can get, and you’ll never have to worry about a nervous amateur fumbling and accidentally discharging a round while attempting to lower a cocked hammer. The big, under-recognized and under-appreciated advantage is that because the rear of the grip-frame rises higher to accommodatethe enclosed hammer, the shooter’s hand can get higher on the backstrap. This proportionally lowers the bore in relation to the axis of the wrist, giving the shooter more leverage and resulting in less muzzle rise. This means that the shooter as a rule can get double-action hits faster than with either of the other two J-frame configurations.
Downsides? We who practice exclu-sively double-action anyway don’t see it as a downside, but some folks are greatly comforted by a single-action trigger pull option if they need a precise shot, and single-action is, by definition, off the table in the double-action-only Centennial. Even for us double-action-only types, however, one thing we lose with the Centennial is the ability to perform a safe cylinder rotation check. We of the “belt and suspenders” tribe have seen the rare cartridge with the high primer, which will allow the cylinder to close but then bind so tightly against the rear face of the frame’s cylinder window that the cylinder can’t rotate, and therefore, the gun will lock up and fail to fire. With the other two types of J-frame, the hammer can be brought back just far enough to drop the bolt, freeing up the cylinder for the free hand to gently turn the cylinder one full revolution, and assure the user that his gun is ready to ride.
With no external hammer, the only way to do a cylinder rotation check on the Centennial is to start the trigger back enough to drop the bolt and free up the cylinder. This, of course, is manifestly unsafe with a loaded revolver, and should not be done. Accordingly, we Centennial fans learn to inspect our guns and ammo otherwise to insure that they’ll be working when we need them.
Smith & Wesson terminology can get confusing, so it should be borne in mind here that the Bodyguard under discussion is the J-frame style with integral hammer shroud that’s been around since 1955, not the rather recently introduced plastic n’ laser revolver of the same name.
Good news? For those who insist on the single-action option, the Bodyguard gives them the best of both worlds: the easy trigger pull when they gotta have it, and a profile virtually as snag-free as the Centennial. With powerful loads, slim grips, and anything less than a truly crushing grasp, the Chiefs Special tended to roll upward in the shooter’s hand upon recoil. After a shot or three, the Chiefs’ hammer spur would hit the web of the hand and block the hammer’s stroke, preventing the gun from firing. This blocking effect couldn’t happen with the shrouded hammer of the Bodyguard, and indeed, the gun couldn’t rise in the
hand as much because the shape of the shroud caught the web of the hand and helped keep the gun in position.
Bad news has already been noted. It’s harder to lower the cocked hammer of a Bodyguard than that of a Chiefs, and there’s the matter of keeping dust and such out of the hammer slot.
One point against both the Chiefs and the Bodyguard is that the ability to cock the gun at all has, historically, been associated with allegations of negligent discharge. Sometimes, the now ultra-light trigger actually did go off by accident. Sometimes, the other side fabricated a case in which it did, and the mere possibility that the gun could have been cocked lent credibility to the false accusation. Why make such a false allegation at all? For a politically motivated anti-gun or anti-cop prose-cutor, a negligence theory leading to a manslaughter conviction is much easier to sell to a jury than a malice theory leading to a murder conviction. For an unscrupulous plaintiff’s lawyer seeking money, a negligence theory gets into the deep pockets of the defendant’s liability insurance company, and a malice theory—which alleges an un-indemnified willful tort—does not. This is one reason why the writer has gone primarily to the hammerless Centennial style for his J-frame needs, and why the one Chiefs and the one Bodyguard remaining in his “carry rotation” have both been rendered double-action-only.
The .38 Special has been by far the most popular choice in all three calibers over the more than half-a-century that the J-frame has been available to us. The Chiefs, the Bodyguard, and the Centennial are all currently offered in .357 Mag as well. Even in the all-steel models, recoil of the Magnum rounds is unpleasantly sharp. It approaches torture in the eleven-ounce Model 340 PD.
The .32 H&R Mag and .327 Federal cartridges have also been offered as J-frames. The .32 Mag, despite ample opportunity, has not amassed any sort of “stopping power record” on the street. The author is as yet unable to find a case of a .327 Mag shooting. Both of these amped-up .32s come with six-shot cylinders in a J-frame, instead of the usual five cartridge chambers.
S&W briefly offered the Model 940, a stainless steel Centennial, in 9mm. It used moon clips, as did the even shorter-lived Performance Center version in .356 TSW, a now moribund 9×21.5mm round that was proprietary to S&W and duplicated .357 SIG ballistics. Neither are now produced, nor is the 9mm Federal cartridge, created by the eponymous ammo-maker to be a 115-grain standard pressure 9×19 jacketed hollow point with a rimmed case for use in revolvers without moon clips.
Smith & Wesson had produced small frame .22 LR revolvers, the .22/32 series, long before the coming of the J-frame. They were made on the old I-frame, a practice that continued for some years after the introduction of the Chiefs until the manufacturer decided to simplify things by building all their small frame guns with the slightly longer “J” configuration. For many years, the little .22 LR Kit Gun was the ideal “understudy” practice revolver for the person who carried a five-shot S&W .38 Special, and when built with the same six-round capacity in .22 WMR (Winchester Magnum Rimfire) was thought by some experts to be adequate for self-defense. Those six-shot Kit Guns are long gone, replaced by the Chiefs-style Model 317 super-light eight-shot .22 LR and Model 351PD seven-shot .22 Mag. Introduced a few years ago, and finally now available in the production pipeline, we at last have the hammerless Centennial in .22 rimfire, too…ideal practice guns to duplicate the grip angle of the more powerful Centennials.
The 2-inch barrel of the original Chiefs Special (a nominal term, since it’s actually 1.88 inches) was soon supplemented by a 3-inch tube. This made for a very well-balanced and graceful revolver, though the extra inch added just enough to make it almost incompatible with an ankle holster or pocket holster. There are reports of 4-inch barrel Chiefs Specials—3.5- to 4-inch was always the most popular length for the old .22 Kit Gun—and a few years ago S&W brought out a stainless Chiefs with adjustable sights and a 5-inch barrel. More recently, a 2.5-inch barrel was offered as a compromise that could still fit ankle and pocket holsters,
but allow the more positive ejection of a full length ejector rod, one thing the 3-inch barrel always had going for it.
The first Chiefs Special was all chrome-molybdenum ordnance steel, most commonly finished in blue but also available nickel plated, just like every other revolver of its time.
However, the Chiefs came in simultaneous with a new advent in handgun metallurgy, the aluminum frame. S&W and Colt had both been working on it between WWII and 1950 for the military, and when the military didn’t adopt, Colt got to market first. Their lightened, slightly shortened 1911, the Colt Commander, hit the gun shops about 1950…and, more to the point for our discussion here, so did their Colt Cobra, an aluminum-frame Detective Special. Weighing 15.5 ounces to the all steel S&W Chiefs’ 19.5, the Cobra stole some of the new little Smith’s thunder. S&W retaliated with their own aluminum frame guns, beginning with the Airweight Chiefs Special circa 1952, originally with aluminum frame and aluminum cylinder, bringing weight down to 12.5 ounces.
The gun was a hit, but that cylinder proved awfully fragile, and soon Airweight S&Ws had steel cylinders in aluminum frames,
which added a couple of ounces. The first Centennials and the first Bodyguards appear to have been introduced in Airweight.
Time went on. In the late 1950s, S&W went to numerical model designations. The Chiefs Special became the Model 36 in blue or nickel, and the Model 37 in Airweight. The Bodyguard was dubbed Model 38 in Airweight, Model 49 in chrome-moly. The all-steel Centennial was now the Model 40, and the Airweight version, the Model 42. In the 1960s, Smith & Wesson chose to build the world’s first all stainless steel revolver on the Chiefs Special platform, and named it the Model 60. Subsequently rendered in stainless also were the Model 649 Bodyguard and, much later when the Centennial was reintroduced, the Model 640. The late 1990s saw the introduction of Titanium to J-frame S&Ws (usually with a “3” prefix on the model number, as on the Model 342 .38 Special AirLite), and then Scandium.
Today we have a dizzying array of J-frame variations, too many too list in the space remaining here, but if you don’t have your S&W decoder ring you need only surf your computer over to their website to see what’s available. Friends at S&W say that the aluminum/stainless Centennial, the Model 642 .38 Special Airweight, may be their single bestseller in the line.
The choice is yours. So is the effort of the selection process, but you’ll be rewarded with what the decades have shown us is an extremely versatile, extremely functional choice in a con-cealable defensive revolver. For more information visit smith-wesson.com
or call 800-331-0852.