Back when we few, we happy few, were lawfully packing handguns, the manufacturers didn’t offer much. Oh, there were designs, but the market for concealed carry was much smaller than that for duty and home-defense guns.
Today, however, the number of citizens with a CCW in their wallet and a handgun somewhere about their person is much higher. In some locales, the number is more than 20 times as many. It recently occurred to me why the increase in CCW holders meant a huge increase in snubbies and pocket .380s being carried. It’s hot out there.
Back in 1980 there were just under 800,000 residents of Phoenix. Today the number is probably over a million and a half. Likewise for a lot of the metropolitan areas of other sunbelt states. A whole lot of people means a larger number of CCW holders. And in hot-weather areas, the attraction of a compact or ultra-compact gun is obvious; carrying a big gun is hassle enough, but doing so in hot weather is just misery.
The CCW market is white-hot, and any manufacturer who neglects the small guns does so at its economic peril. S&W does not neglect them. But the company’s two new Bodyguards–a revolver and a pistol–are not merely smaller versions of existing models, they are new from stem to stern and built for all-the-time carry.
The Bodyguard 38
The first package arrived at seven o’clock on a Monday morning. I sleepily signed for the box, and while I stood there staring at the label, I had a thought The box is too light. Frenzied thoughts of in-transit swaps and the paperwork required for a missing firearm drove me to tear the end off the box. There was a firearm in there, but the Bodyguard .38 revolver is so light (empty, it’s a smidge over 14 ounces) that the shipping box and padding weighed more.
Now, the old Bodyguards, with all their romance, were not all that great. They had the virtue of being small, but for that we gave up the ergonomics of the midsize K-frame six-shooters and still had the weight of steel to haul around. Well, that has changed. The new Bodyguard 38 is a combination of aluminum and polymer, with the working parts encased in the aluminum frame and the polymer rear enclosing the action spring and both providing a grasping location and, due to its flex, dampening felt recoil. The polymer is reinforced with steel, so don’t think you’re getting some piece of plastic that will melt in the sun.
The engineering changes make it easier to make, less expensive, more durable and reliable. What looks like the barrel is the frame; the barrel itself simply threads down into the front of the frame, supported on its entire length. Also, the rear of the cylinder is not rotated by a hand, rising up in a slot in the frame. Instead it’s driven by a “ratchet drive hub.” That star-shaped part is not prone to the ills that plague the hand of every prior revolver design. It is a bit odd looking and takes a moment to get used to, but it works.
The Bodyguard 38 also has a couple of other interesting aspects to it. One is the Insight laser module, secured to the frame behind the cylinder, but at the top of the frame. That puts it both closer to the line of the bore and away from your trigger finger. I have a problem with low-mounted lasers, with my trigger finger often blocking the beam.
The Insight module has an on/off button (which also selects pulse mode) that you can easily reach with the thumb of either hand. I found it easy to turn the laser on and off using the thumb of my shooting hand. The part that will require the most change for experienced users is the cylinder latch. Instead of being a tab on the left side of the frame, it is a larger sliding block on top of the frame, behind and below the rear sight. Move it forward to unlock, same as the old Bodyguard. It took a bit of practice, but I soon had the tab movement worked into my reload sequence.
For those of you who might not be grooved into the old method, from years or decades of practice, the change, if there is a change at all, will be easy.
Because of the polymer back end, S&W was able to reshape the grip area. The original Bodyguards had a frame shape dating from the end of the 19th century, which is why those of us who actually practiced with them back then delved deep into replacements boot grips and Tyler T- grip adapters. Well, the new Bodyguard doesn’t need them. The frontstrap of the frame does not rise up behind the triggerguard, so your second finger is now properly supported. While they were at it, the engineers at S&W also redesigned the trigger mechanism. The geometry is much improved, and a box-stock Bodyguard 38 has a trigger pull much more like that of a tuned and slicked-up J-frame.
The stainless five-shot cylinder is rated for +P. I’m sure there’s someone out there who will complain that it isn’t chambered in .357 Magnum. My only question there is, “Have you actually fired magnums through a 14-ounce gun?” I have, and unless I was getting paid to do it, I wouldn’t care to repeat the experience.
The Bodyguard 380
The Bodyguard 380–the 38’s stablemate–is also a neat bit of engineering. The slide and barrel are Melonite-hardened stainless steel. The frame is polymer, with a built-in Insight laser.
The safety works like that of a 1911, but the trigger mechanism is a double-action only, the spring driving a hammer, not a striker. When the safety is on, the trigger moves only a short distance and then stops cold. The message is clear Push the safety off if you expect to fire. The laser actuator button is ambidextrous, but the safety, slide stop and takedown levers are not, existing only on the left side of the frame. Left-handers will simply have to depend on the DA trigger and work around the safety.
While making the .380 as compact as possible, S&W still looked after the details. The sights, instead of being mere lumps on the slide, cast or machined in place, are actually real sights that are pressed into dovetails in the top of the slide. That means that if you have to or want to, you can get ones of different sizes to adjust point of impact.
The internals of the lower are steel, with the trigger sub-assembly pinned in place in the frame. The polymer portion of the frame is just a shell to hold the parts in place and give your hand a place to grab. I hesitate to call the scalloped back end of the frame the tang; it’s simply a sculpted portion of the polymer shell, one that protects your hand from the slide.
However small it may be, it does its job. I have large hands, and I really choke up on a handgun. There are some compact pistols I simply can’t shoot, at least not without risking getting cut by the slide on each shot. I have no such problems with the Bodyguard 380.
If you shoot with an IPSC-competition shooting grip (thumbs pointed forward at the target), your offhand thumb rides naturally over the laser button. You can easily switch it on, off or to the pulse mode, all without shifting your grip. In low ready, with your trigger finger out of the triggerguard (where it ought to be), you can use your trigger finger or your offhand thumb. I prefer to use the thumb, as I want my trigger finger to be accustomed to one purpose in life engaging the trigger when needed.
With a barrel only 2 3/4 inches long, you can’t expect the full .380 velocity, but my experience has been that it isn’t as much of a problem as other calibers pose. The ammo manufacturers realize that a lot of their ammo is going to be launched from such a stubby tube, and they load accordingly. As a result, you won’t see as much of a velocity drop-off in the .380 as you would, say, in a snubnose magnum. The magazine holds six rounds plus one in the chamber. So if you are secure enough in your choice of calibers, the Bodyguard 380 offers more shots in a smaller and lighter package than the Bodyguard 38.
The Melonite-treated stainless steel, polymer and aluminum construction of the two Bodyguards is all extremely resistant to the corrosive effects of sweat. I’d be tempted to say “impervious,” but I’ve had customers whose perspiration could tarnish or rust anything.
In shooting, they both performed as expected. The DAO trigger of each made precision target shooting more work than if I had a hammer to thumbcock, but that’s the way life is. The double action of the revolver has a noticeable travel after the cylinder locks up. That travel, however, isn’t heavier or lighter than the regular pull, just more of the same. As a result, the design and early lockup allow for trigger-cocking the cylinder, then bearing down on the sights to drop the hammer and finish the shot, thus allowing for better accuracy than you might otherwise expect. At least, that works for shooting groups.
In emergency situations, you’d just keep pulling straight through until there was a loud bang, then repeat as necessary. The synthetic grips on the .38 helped control recoil and twist and were soft enough to dampen .38 recoil. The grip is long enough that I can get my whole hand on the grips and not have my pinkie finger hanging out in space.
The .380 is soft to shoot, even though the initial impression is that it jumps around more than you’d like. That is not unique to the Bodyguard 380, as any ultra-compact lightweight .380 is going to act like it wants to be someplace else each time you touch off a round. Not that it is uncontrollable or obnoxious to shoot, just that it clearly demonstrates the realities of Newtonian physics Light guns with a small grip are going to move in your hands when you shoot them.
The .380 magazine has a baseplate on it with an extended lip at the front. Clearly, the plan is to provide additional contact surface with your shooting hand. What I ended up doing on each magazine was getting two fingers on the front of the frame and my little finger under the baseplate. I’m not sure it added anything to recoil control and speed of shooting, but it gave that finger something to do.
If you’re looking for a hot-weather carry gun in a reasonably serious defensive caliber, you’ll find the new S&Ws worthy successors to the Bodyguard name.