Smith and Wesson revolvers have been a part of American history for more than 150 years. These remarkable handguns offer real utility in hunting, personal defense, and target shooting. One of my friends refers to his tuned J frame .38 as a ‘little piece of heaven.’ I feel much the same away concerning my modest battery of Smith and Wesson revolvers.
Among new shooters, and even those with some experience, the different frame sizes of various Smith and Wesson revolvers can be confusing. This is especially true since there is some overlap in calibers. As an example, all frame sizes—J, K, L, and N frames—are available chambered for the .357 Magnum cartridge. Which one is the best for the .357 Magnum? That is a question only the end user may answer. I enjoy firing the N frame, the largest of the revolvers, much more with the .357 Magnum, but then again, the J frame fits easily into a pocket.
The first Smith and Wesson swing-out cylinder, double action revolvers were called the Hand Ejector. These were chambered for the .32 Smith and Wesson Long. These were I frame revolvers. They have been out of production for some time as of this date but are still found in gun shops on occasion.
A five-shot version chambered in .38 Smith and Wesson was called the Terrier. In 1899, Smith and Wesson introduced the Military and Police revolver. These were chambered initially for the .38 Long Colt, and then the .38 Smith and Wesson Special. This is the single most successful revolver in history.
Smith and Wesson offered hinged break, big bore revolvers in both single- and double action types, but in 1907 introduced the big frame, double action, swing-out cylinder revolver. The cylinder is locked by a rod that is part of the cartridge ejector system. The rod locks into the breech or recoil shield while another lock is secured under the barrel.
This is the basic design for all Smith and Wesson double action revolvers. The K frame is still produced and so is the N frame. The I frame fell by the wayside after the introduction of the J frame revolver. The J frame is simply a strengthened I frame with a large frame window to accommodate a long cylinder chambering the .38 Special cartridge.
By 1950, Smith and Wesson had the J, K, and N frame revolvers in production. All were available in fixed sight versions and also in target grade examples. The J frame was offered in .22, .32, and .38, and the K frame in .22 and .38. (Previously, the .32-20 and .38 S&W were offered.) The N frame was available in .357, .44 Special, and .45 Colt as well as .45 Auto Rim. Then, Smith and Wesson began shoe horning magnums into revolvers.
Smith and Wesson lengthened the cylinder of the Smith and Wesson Combat Masterpiece revolver and created the .357 Combat Magnum. This revolver was among the most popular service revolvers ever built. However, the Combat Magnum was intended to be used with a ratio of 20 .38 Special loads for every magnum, and most training to be conducted with magnum loads.
When agencies were deemed negligent in several lawsuits, in which it was found the majority of firing was done with .38 Special loads and the revolvers deployed and used with magnum loads two things happened. Agencies trained with full-power loads or adopted the .38 Special +P. The 125-grain .357 Magnum load generated as much as 1,450 fps from a four-inch barrel service revolver. This resulted in a lot of wear on small parts. Smith and Wesson improved the gas ring and made other modifications. Smith and Wesson also chambered the .44 Magnum in what was basically a .44 Special N frame.
This handgun wasn’t shot as much as the .357 Magnum and did not suffer as much. When pressed into silhouette shooting, there were some problems with the action taking a beating, but changes to the action and the new 629 series alleviated this concern. Along the way, beginning in 1957, Smith and Wesson gave the revolvers model numbers they began to be known by. The Military and Police .38 Special became known as the Model Ten, the Combat Magnum as the Model 19, and the .44 Magnum was the Model 29.
The Model 19 offered a portable revolver with plenty of power. To address the problems in longevity, Smith and Wesson introduced a new frame size. The L frame Magnum is a beefed up revolver that is still light enough for constant carry. The L frame features a heavy, under-lug barrel, and smooth trigger action that makes for superior accuracy. This revolver is among the best service guns ever manufactured.
Now, the question becomes, which one do you need among the Smith and Wesson frame sizes? The J frame is usually a five-shot .38 or .357. This revolver is concealable and offers a smooth action powered by a coil spring. It isn’t the easiest revolver to fire accurately, but it is the easiest to conceal. At typical personal defense range, this is a lifesaver.
The K frame has many advantages. This is a well-balanced revolver that is easy to use well with a minimum of training. With the proper grip size, it is manageable by practically any shooter. I find it isn’t difficult to conceal a four-inch barrel K frame revolver. The L frame revolver offers excellent control. It is heavier than the K frame, and while it dampens recoil, the handle is the same size as the K frame.
The K frame is a very good shooter and a fine outdoors revolver. It has been offered in several alternate calibers including a five shot .44 Special and recently a five-shot .44 Magnum revolver. I fitted Hogue grips to the .44 Magnum and find recoil bearable. There is also a 7-shot .357 Magnum revolver. With a proper holster, the 7-shot 686 Plus concealed as well as the K frame in my opinion.
The N frame revolvers are field guns and home defenders for most of us. Few indeed will be willing to pack this type of weight around. Yet, in .357 Magnum, this revolver changes the character of recoil. This is a pleasant handgun to fire and use, and quite accurate. However, it is slower from the holster than the K frame or the L frame and slower to transverse between targets for most of us. The N frame might be too heavy as the J frame is too light for easy shooting. The K and L frame revolvers are well-balanced and excellent shooters. In the end, it is your choice. These are excellent revolvers well worth their price.
Which Smith and Wesson revolver is heaven to you? Make the case for your favorite Smith and Wesson in the comment section.
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