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[FIREARM REVIEW] Revolvers for Concealed Carry: The S&W Airweight

S&W Model 36 Chiefs Special

One point we have made here at Concealed Nation is that if you choose to carry, you should carry every day and everywhere (except for locations where carry is prohibited, of course). Our ability to abide by that rule depends somewhat on the size and weight of our chosen firearm. For any given choice of cartridge, a smaller and lighter firearm would appear to be preferable, up to a point. The lighter the gun, the more severe the recoil for any given load. Each person must seek their own balance between power, concealability, and confidence in use.

One classic gun which fits into the preference zone for many is the Smith & Wesson J-frame 5-shot revolver. The original Model 36 “Chief’s Special” was an all-steel, blued 5-shot revolver in .38 Special caliber, 1.875″ barrel. Weight was 19.5 oz. The grip frame was rather small, so many users installed aftermarket grips or adapters to improve handling. The Model 36 has been in continuous production by S&W since 1950. It is now cataloged as part of their “Classics” line. Essentially unchanged from the original, the current gun is rated for +P loads and has the internal lock.

Many variations of the Model 36 followed over the years. The “Airweight” version, introduced as the Model 37 in 1951, was made entirely of aluminum alloy. The aluminum cylinder would not stand up to the pressure of the .38 Special round, so the gun was discontinued. The current Airweights, typified by the Model 442 and 642, use a steel cylinder in an aluminum alloy frame. Both are rated for +P ammunition. While the 442 is all black, the 642 has a matte silver finish. Otherwise, the two guns are identical. Both may be had with Crimson Trace® laser grips. While the 442 and 642 have fully enclosed hammers and are meant to be fired double-action only, other models are available with either exposed or shrouded hammers. We feel that the enclosed hammer is the most useful for a concealment piece.

Also offered on the J-frame is the Model 640, an all stainless, 5-shot .357 Magnum with a 2.125″ barrel, weighing in at 23 oz. Needless to say, the recoil of a .357 in a 23 oz. gun can be anywhere from “spirited” to “punishing” depending upon your individual preference. In this review, we shall concentrate on the Model 642 in .38 Special.

S&W Model 642

S&W Model 642 Airweight

The S&W Model 642 Airweight is a compact, snag-free, lightweight package which will handle the hottest .38 Special +P loads commercially available. Although the cylinder is stainless steel and the frame is aluminum alloy, the match of finish and color is excellent. The gun comes from the factory with standard “Boot Grips” from Uncle Mike’s. These are made of a black elastomeric material which soaks up recoil fairly well. The grip design is hand-filling and comfortable. The ejector rod is exposed and the cylinder latch works smoothly. Sights are rudimentary. A groove milled into the top of the frame serves as a rear sight, while a very small ramp is located up front. Clearly, the 642 is not meant for carefully aimed fire, but rather for defense at ranges from contact distance to 10 or 15 feet.

The double-action only trigger pull is smooth without stacking, in about the 8 to 10 pound range. Although this can be lightened and slicked up by a competent gunsmith, the factory trigger pull is perfectly fine. Cylinder lockup is tight with no play. Gap between barrel and cylinder measured 0.003″ in my gun, which is excellent. Overall finish is very good to excellent, with no blemishes or tool marks, even on the inner surface of the crane and the frame where they come together.

I tend to prefer the lighter bullet weights in this gun as opposed to the heavier. The Federal 110 grain “Personal Defense” HydraShok® was very easy to control. The Remington Golden Saber® 125 gr .38 Special +P load had noticeably more recoil, but nothing excessive. The Speer Gold Dot® Short Barrel .38 Special +P, with a 135 gr bullet gave pretty stiff recoil, but was not difficult to shoot. Firing the Speer, which is intended for use in snubbies with short barrels, gave the impression that quite a bit of power was heading toward the target. If you don’t mind the recoil, this is the load I would recommend. For people who prefer a milder load, the Federal 110 gr HydraShok is the way to go. The standard 158 grain loads suffer a pretty significant loss in velocity coming out of the 2″ barrel as compared to a 4″ or 5″, and the recoil is still noticeable.

If you choose this gun as your carry piece, you will be in plenty of good company. Many uniformed officers carry a J-frame as a secondary backup or “hide-out” gun for those situations in which their primary weapon may be unavailable. S&W has marketed a variation of the J-frame as the “Ladysmith” to appeal to the feminine concealed carry market. The J-frame offers a proven history, solid performance, and light weight.

While some may choose to carry this gun loose in their pocket or purse, I prefer the use of a holster at all times. I do not necessarily mean a belt holster here. A so-called pocket holster will cover the trigger guard and hold the piece in a constant ready position in the pocket or purse. The pocket holster pictured below is intended for right hand use. A rectangular piece of Kydex® on the outer surface (not shown) breaks up the outline of the gun and makes it look like a wallet in a pants pocket.

Airweight Figure 3

S&W 642 with Hogue rubber grips for comfortable firing of +P ammo. The Kramer pocket holster is made of horsehide and backed with Kydex. Speed strip for extra rounds.

Also pictured is a “speed strip” which holds 6 rounds of spare ammunition. This can be tucked into a pocket anywhere on your person. It is always good to have a reload available along with your carry piece.

The S&W J-frame Airweight has passed the test of time. It is a reliable choice for anyone who desires a compact, lightweight carry package with the performance of modern +P ammunition. Stay safe.

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