The Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 38 represents another example of how modern companies continue to come up with new ideas or improve old ones.
S&W’s Bodyguard 38 chambered in .38 Special +P is a short-barreled revolver, commonly referred to as a snubnose, but it is similar to the traditional J-frame S&W snubbie in appearance and little else. It’s built on a new design and not one single part is interchangeable with any other S&W J-frame part. Because it was such a departure from S&W tradition and sported an integral laser-aiming device, it generated at lot of interest when it was introduced. Another reason for the interest is the huge demand for small concealable carry guns that are so common these days for personal protection.
The gun’s upper frame is made from aluminum and the lower grip portion is manufactured from steel-reinforced polymer. The aluminum helps keep weight down, as does the polymer, which also tends to attenuate recoil. The grip itself, roll-pinned to the frame, is made of a semi-rigid rubber that adds to the recoil absorbing properties of the gun and provides a slip-resistant surface. While these features make the gun a bit friendlier for recoil-sensitive shooters, it still is not comfortable to shoot for long periods, especially with +P ammunition.
Another problem that S&W addressed is the short sight radius. With the laser, iron sights are less critical to accurate shooting because in many cases, they are not needed. That’s not to say they aren’t important though. Sometimes lasers cannot be seen because ambient light is too bright, and being mechanical devices, they sometimes cease to operate. When these things happen the operator must be able to use the iron sights, so lasers are useful but not a replacement for them.
There are other features of this gun that are not traditional to the S&W J-frame. For example, the stainless steel barrel is encased by a barrel shroud that is part of the aluminum frame. During the manufacturing process, the barrel is screwed into the front of the shroud and torqued into place with a special tool.
In another departure from the traditional J-frame, the release for the five-round stainless steel cylinder, finished in matte black PVD, is located at the top rear of the frame, just behind the rear sight, where it can be activated with the firing hand thumb, making it ambidextrous. Just push the release forward and swing the cylinder out to the left. Pushing the release causes a star-shaped piece, which mates with a matching recess in the rear of the cylinder, to withdraw, allowing the cylinder to swing free. This star-shaped piece turns when the trigger is pulled and rotates the cylinder, eliminating the need for a window in the recoil shield through which the hand of a traditional revolver protrudes. The bolt or cylinder stop looks like the one on a J-frame, although I’m sure the part that is hidden from view inside the frame is not the same. A close examination of the cylinder reveals that the bolt cuts are also different because the cylinder rotates clockwise—the opposite direction of other S&W revolvers.
The Bodyguard 38 has iron sights, which consist of a pinned and serrated front ramp and a notch rear that is integral to the topstrap. These sights are not adjustable, so you will have to live with the sight alignment if it is not perfect. For this reason, the owner should become familiar with where the gun shoots using the iron sights in case the point of impact is not perfectly aligned with the point of aim, as was the case with the sample gun—which printed about 2 inches to the left at 7 yards.
A common problem with snubbies is that the ejector rod is not long enough to fully extract empty cartridges from the cylinder. The Bodyguard 38’s ejector rod is about 0.38 inches longer than the rod on an S&W 340PD, so although it does not push empty brass completely clear, it pushes them far enough that with a solid rap, they drop free most of the time. Of the many rounds fired during testing, only three or four failed to completely eject. The ejector rod is fully shrouded beneath the barrel when the cylinder is closed, but it does not serve as a locking point for the cylinder like the one on a J-frame does. The only locking point is at the rear of the cylinder where it meets the rotating ratchet.
Purists will be pleased that the gun has no internal lock, something that has been common on S&W revolvers for some time now and has irritated many by its very presence. The trigger is protected by a polymer guard, and the internal hammer cannot be cocked by hand, making this a double-action-only (DAO) gun. The redesigned trigger mechanism reportedly has a much smoother trigger pull than the old standard S&W trigger, but I found the difference to be subtle.
The gun is very similar in size and appearance to a standard J-frame snubbie. Fit and finish is what one expects from S&W, although there were a couple of places where polymer parts did not align smoothly with metal parts, leaving uneven transitions. None were of any consequence though. The gun comes with two hex wrenches for the laser module, a soft carrying case with an internal holster, a cable lock and owner’s manual.
Integral Laser Advantage
The integrated laser is made especially for the Bodyguard 38 by Insight Technology. To activate the laser, a grey button on top is pushed once for a steady beam, twice for a pulsating beam and a third time to turn it off. After running for five minutes, the laser will begin to pulsate at a different rate, indicating it is about to automatically shut off to preserve the 3-hour life of the two 375 silver oxide batteries, but pressing the button again keeps it running in the original mode. The laser is mounted via one screw on the top right of the frame, just behind the cylinder, in a location that allows the shooter to activate it with their firing-hand thumb. Caution must be exercised when doing so—the trigger finger should be kept outside the triggerguard until you’re ready to shoot because, under stress, your trigger finger might stroke the trigger in a sympathetic response when your thumb pushes the button.
When it is time to replace the batteries, the unit can be removed by unscrewing the single hex screw with the wrench provided. Once the batteries are replaced, the stamped sheet metal contact cover is put back, hooked beneath the edge of the laser’s case, and the unit is reinstalled on the gun. Incidentally, the removable feature of the laser means that if it ever needs repair, it can be sent to Insight Technology without the gun.
The laser is adjustable for windage and elevation by using a supplied hex wrench to adjust two screws. This wrench and the one for removing the laser are very small and not easily found at the local hardware store, so don’t lose them. A very small turn of the elevation or windage screws moves the laser quite a bit, so take it easy when zeroing the gun. I found that just an eighth of a turn moved the laser a few inches at 25 yards.
Despite the polymer construction and rubber grips, the gun produced noticeable recoil. Although it was not uncontrollable, it is not a gun that most people would want to shoot for long periods without a break. This is not an indictment of the gun—it’s just the way it is with small, lightweight revolvers of this nature. The owner’s manual cautions—and this is common for all lightweight revolvers—to test each load to confirm that bullets do not unseat during recoil. This is done by loading the cylinder, firing all but one round, and then inspecting the last round to see if it has begun to unseat. If it has, that load should not be used in the gun. Some experts suggest that the test should be performed twice using the same round to see if it begins to unseat the second time it has taken a ride around the cylinder.
The sample gun performed without any malfunctions, and even though the manual said the laser should be close to zero out of the box, it was not. After obtaining a set of the proper size hex wrenches to adjust the laser (they were missing) the gun was successfully zeroed. So much for the myth that gunwriters get specially prepared guns.
Accuracy using the laser was impressive at 25 yards. Small guns with short barrels are more difficult to shoot than larger guns with bigger handles and longer sight radii, but that’s not because they are inherently inaccurate, it’s just because they are harder for a human to shoot. With the laser sight, if the shooter can hold the gun steady, the short sight radius variable is eliminated. To prove it, this gun delivered a couple of 1.3-inch five-shot groups at 25 yards. I could not achieve that with the iron sights.
It is interesting to watch the evolution of firearms, especially now when materials and manufacturing methods that were not available 100 years ago, or even 20 years ago, are so common. Companies are also stepping away from traditional thought and designs and coming up with new ones. The Bodyguard 38 is an example, and if some traditionalists don’t like it, they are entitled; but if the gun functions as advertised, is reliable and durable, then I think it advances the art and science of gun making. It looks like this gun does all of that.