The Golden Age of the medium-frame .38 Special revolver as a primary law-enforcement sidearm ended several decades ago. However, small-frame snubbies (5-shot S&W J-Frames more often than not) are still enormously popular with CCW holders. In fact, even with the ascendancy of polymer-framed, striker-fired autos, more than a few LE types (and not necessarily old-timers) still employ these reliable little wheelguns, such as the S&W Model 40, in the role of a backup weapon.
Despite the fact they’re relatively difficult to shoot well with a high degree of control in rapid fire and offer a low on-board round count compared to compact 9mm or .380 autos, the 2-inch (Ok, 1 7/8-inch) Smith snubbie remains popular for several reasons. All of them are just as sensible now as when the groundbreaking Chiefs Special was unveiled in 1950.
They’re as compact a “round gun” as you’re going to find. The .38 Special, particularly with current defensive loads, is no slouch power-wise. There are no “carry conditions,” external safeties, magazine releases, slide stops, or malfunction drills that I’m aware of. Snubbies are either loaded or they’re not; they’re simple to operate—point, shoot, repeat as necessary.
The J Frames
In terms of type, Smith J-Frames can be broken down into three basic categories—external hammer (double-action/single action), shrouded hammer (DA/SA again), and internal hammer (“hammerless”). Whether the frame is alloy, stainless or carbon steel, the unloaded weight of most current models usually ranges (roughly) between 12 and 16 ounces.
I shoot J-Frames a lot and my favorite is a long out-of-print oldie — the blued, carbon-steel Model 40 (1952-1974), originally introduced as the Centennial in 1952, the name change came about around 1957 when Smith decided to start numbering models. It features an internal hammer and a grip safety.
Mine is an M40 “dash nothing” and features smooth walnut service-type stocks. The fact it’s “hammerless” rates as a good thing. It’s made me a better shooter once I resigned myself to the fact that I had no single-action option to tempt me from the path of DAO doctrinal righteousness. Empty, it weighs an old-school 21 ounces and is quite comfortable to shoot.
A word in passing about that “lemon squeezer” grip safety: I found that I could depress it more surely and more quickly once I installed a Tyler-T grip adapter on the gun. This is pretty much a personal preference, so I don’t claim it’s a desirable add-on for everybody. But one other thing in favor of the Tyler T is that it allows me to stick with those skimpy service stocks and not have to worry about whether a HKS speedloader is going to get hung up on beefy aftermarket stocks.
First thing I do with any fixed sight revolver regardless of frame size is to find out what super-duper premium hoo-hah stuff shoots best in it — “best” meaning the closest compromise between Point of Aim and Point of Impact. With a snubbie, my shooting distances are usually 25 and 50 feet. Then, I go buy bulk-pack cheapo stuff (usually 130-grain Winchester or Remington FMJ or Blazer 158-grain LRN or FMJ) to see where it prints in relation to the high-priced stuff.
The thing is, you need to shoot any J-Frame a lot to deal with that steep, short-barrel learning curve. Even if they’re all-steel specimens, mass amounts of Plus P and you’ll be running back to the gunsmith for a tune and tighten more often than you’d like. And, I really don’t want to stress this classic. Original old Smiths like this verge on the “Unobtainium” classification.
The trigger on this old Model 40 is a smooth, very manageable 10 pounds. So no, I never seriously flirted with the idea of installing a lighter trigger return spring. There’s a very slight tick about halfway through the pull—just enough to permit staging for deliberate shooting in the kinds of situations where you might normally resort to going single action, if you had an external hammer, that is!
After considerable experimentation, I was lucky enough to find the right high-performance load for the Model 40. It turned out to be Federal Premium Micro 130-grain HST JHP Plus-P. The load features a huge cavity, so much so that it almost resembles a flush-fit, upside-down wadcutter. At 50 feet, everything “hit the top of the front sight” and clocked a snubbily-impressive 870 fps. Evidently, the Federal engineers knew what they were doing in concocting a defensive load specifically for short barrels.
POI-wise, the closest cheap practice alternative turned out to be Remington/UMC 250-round bulk-pack 130-grain FMJ, a low-stress item that’s really fun to shoot. For pure photogenic “group-tightness,” the winner was Black Hills 148-grain target wadcutters (which, unfortunately, shaded a couple inches left).
The Model 40 is one cool vintage/retro item. I like it so much I may just get one of its enclosed-hammer successors (say a Model 442) so I don’t get tempted to work my original too hard.
I want it to outlast me.
Do you carry a S&W Model 40 or other snubbie as a backup or primary defensive handgun? Which load do you prefer for your snubbie? Share your answers in the comment section.
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