S&W had developed the .38 S&W Special in 1902, and in 1949, company president Carl Hellstrom requested a new small-frame revolver to fire the more powerful cartridge. The result was the famous M36, or Chiefs Special. It was offered in square- and round-butt models, as well as an Airweight version with an aluminum frame. But the exposed hammer snagged on clothing and was less than optimum for pocket carry.
Thus, in response to requests from law enforcement agencies, S&W modified the J-frame by adding a small exposed tab to permit cocking the hammer and single-action shooting, if desired. S&W called this design the “concealed” hammer, as opposed to the truly enclosed hammer of the Centennial models of 1952.
The first of two new J-frames was the M38 Bodyguard Airweight (aluminum frame), which debuted in 1955. A steel-frame version (M49) was added in 1959.
This brings us to S&W’s new iteration of the concealed-hammer J-frame, the M638. It is a typical five-shot revolver that continues the Bodyguard tradition and is chambered for the highly effective .38 Special +P loads available today.
Guns & Ammo received two new M638s for testing, and a delight they are. While the M38s and M49s were offered with two- or (occasionally) three-inch barrels, the new M638 offers a choice of a 1⅞- or a 2½-inch barrel. The new guns feature lustrous matte-finished aluminum-alloy frames, brushed-satin stainless steel cylinders and barrels, and weigh a scant 14.6 (1⅞ inch) and 16.1 (2½ inch) ounces, empty. Capacity is five rounds, and the guns are capable of single- and double-action fire, thanks to the small but effective concealed hammer.
The front sights on the two guns differ slightly. The 1⅞-inch version has a fixed ramp with a 90-degree face that is integral with the barrel. The 2½-inch model features an angled black blade that is pinned to the shallow rib atop the barrel. (One would surmise that replacement sights of different heights could be substituted, if desired.) The rear sights are fixed square grooves in the topstrap, and overall, the sight picture is very good.
The frame contains the obligatory safety lock on its left side, just below the angled cylinder release. The barrel/cylinder gaps were .005-inch on the 1⅞-inch model and .006-inch on the 2½-inch gun.
The synthetic grips are just smooth enough to allow the gun to be withdrawn from a pocket without difficulty. The model is also available with Crimson Trace Lasergrips. With its light weight, one would expect the recoil of the M638—especially with +P loads—to be pretty grim. But the grips do a great job of attenuating recoil, and both guns are very pleasant to shoot. The single-action trigger pulls broke like an icicle at a flat three pounds each. The double-action pulls are very smooth, with no stacking, at approximately 12 pounds.
On a recent tour of the S&W plant, I saw frames being forged and machined, and cylinders transformed into finished parts on ultra-modern CNC machines that are a far cry from the tooling of old. Paul Pluff of S&W noted that in the old days, it took up to 12 machines to finish a cylinder. Now they do it on one computer-controlled, multi-head unit. The result is a much more precise cylinder. Skilled craftsmen meld the parts into the whole, and it shows. The overall fit and finish of these guns is excellent.
The testing protocol was to shoot three five-shot groups from a sandbag rest at 10 yards, a realistic distance considering the guns’ purpose. A representative complement of +P and standard loads was fired, and the results are consolidated into one load table to make comparison of the two guns easy. Good friend and police detective Jens Barclay, who teaches CCW classes and is attuned to the vagaries of concealed carry, was enlisted to conduct a portion of the range tests and help with the evaluation.
The average size of all groups from both guns was 1.84 inches. The longer barrel clocked slightly higher velocities and was slightly more accurate, but the differences were slight; prospective shooters should pick the one that just feels right.
Chronograph results are shown in the table, and the velocities discussed below are for both guns. The 1⅞-inch speed is listed first, followed by the 2½-inch velocity (i.e., 800/810 fps).
Speeds with the +P loads were quite respectable. The new Winchester 130-grain PDX1 Bonded JHP checked in at 784/887 fps, the Federal 129-grain Hydra-Shok JHP delivered 849/951 fps, and the Hornady Critical Defense load with the new 110-grain FTX bullet clocked 922/966 fps.
If recoil is a problem, most ammo companies also offer standard-pressure self-defense loads for the .38 Special. The current Federal 158-grain lead roundnose load was accurate at a sedate 693/719 fps, and makes a great low-recoil practice load. No .38 Special test is complete without including the accuracy “gold standard,” Federal’s No. 38A 148-grain Wadcutter Match. With it, groups a hair over an inch were produced with both guns.
After the formal range tests, I conducted a series of combat drills with the leftover ammo on IPSC targets at seven and 10 yards. At either distance, with either gun, a bad guy would be in big trouble. With double-action rapid fire, paper-plate-size groups were the rule. Just align the sights, roll back the trigger and follow through. There were no ammo or gun malfunctions.
The .38 Special remains one of the most popular handgun rounds of all time, and for good reason. It is adequately powerful, extremely accurate and available in a wide variety of loads.
The M638 is a worthy successor to the Bodyguard line, and it deserves a close look by anyone seeking a foolproof carry gun.