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S&W 442 Airweight Review

by Robert Kolesar   |  February 2nd, 2010 2

Occasionally, I’ll see a gray-haired copper in L.A. or Chicago with one dangling on his hip. But mostly, everyone in blue has a plastic .40 now, riding in a plastic holster.

With the advent of enlightened CCW laws nationwide, the revolver (in its more compact versions) has hung on—and prospered. It is tailor-made for concealment and undercover work. Many police agencies realize this and continue to authorize the small revolver for backup, undercover and off-duty wear.

Smith & Wesson, no stranger to revolvers, has always catered to the undercover crowd with a superb line of five-shot .38s in both steel and aluminum. In my previous life as an LAPD cop, I carried a succession of Chief Specials (M36 and M60), Bodyguards (M649) and Airweights (M442). The 442 was the last I purchased before retirement, and it is easily the best. Lightweight (15 ounces empty), fast (double-action only with no exposed hammer) and utterly reliable, it’s the ultimate hideout gun. It packs a pretty good punch in .38 Special when teamed with a good +P hollowpoint load. No, it doesn’t have a 15-round capacity, but that’s not the purpose of a concealment revolver. It’s a last-ditch hideout gun or an easily concealed off-duty weapon that will always be at hand.

My revolver, a pre-lock model purchased by me from the LAPD Academy store in 2002, was the typical cop gun—carried much and shot little. So when I was asked to do an article on the little Smith, I decided to finally shoot mine extensively. I got a good representative supply of defensive-type ammo and some 148-grain wadcutters for testing. I included the current LAPD duty load, as well as the old 158-grain lead roundnose for comparison. I decided to do all shooting at 10 yards, with some close-in work at three yards. These little guns are inherently accurate, but the extremely short sight radius (barrels on the little Smiths are only 17/8 inches) and DAO feature become a problem when shooting at the usual 25 yards from a sandbag rest. I did shoot a couple of groups at 15 yards, but my primary focus was 10. And at these distances, the 442 is an awesome performer.

S&W produces two versions of this revolver, the 442 (blue) and the 642 (stainless). Both have aluminum frames for light weight (titanium J-frame .38s are also available). S&W is again selling these DAO revolvers without the internal lock. They are rated for +P ammunition, which makes for a handful when shooting more than a cylinderful or two. But there’s no reason to shoot lots of hot, duty-type ammo through these small revolvers. Besides accelerating wear, it’s a great way to develop a serious flinch. An occasional five or 10 shots of your favorite defensive load at close range to check function is more than adequate, and it saves wear and tear on you and the gun. For extended practice sessions, a full-size pistol or revolver is an easier gun to work with; lessons learned with the bigger guns transfer to the smaller ones.

One of the best features of the 442, besides its weight, is the completely enclosed lockwork. Small revolvers like this are usually carried in a pocket or pocket holster, where debris is easily picked up. Over time, if the revolver isn’t cleaned, crud can get into the moving parts. I’ve seen this more than once with police guns that spent their service lives in a back uniform pocket. The lockwork of the 442/642 series is safe from dirt or pocket lint. My favorite carry was the left front pocket of my jeans when I worked narcotics. Off-duty carry was usually in an inside-the-waistband holster on my strong (left) side, with an extra six rounds (in a Bianchi Speed-Strip) stasheds in the right front pocket. This setup was perfectly suited to Southern California weather, where jeans and T-shirts are the norm.

  • zenobia123

    Trust me you are not going to get into a self-preservation gunfight with someone 75 feet away. 10 feet is plenty accurate and anything over .25 caliber is fine. I’ve shot lots of men in Vietnam, head shots only. If you can’t hit that at 10 feet bring something lethal to throw at them!

  • CorruptionInColumbia

    It always irks me when I read a review about a handgun and the author only went to ten or fifteen yards with it, sometimes ten or fifteen FEET. This doesn’t really tell me squat about the gun’s potential. My last department required that we qualify to 25 yards with our off-duty guns, just as we had to with our duty weapons. If a gun is not accurate enough to hit the target at 25 yards, it is not going to see much carry by me, even now in retirement. FWIW, my 442 will keep all five in the torso of a B-27 target at 25 yds with two-hand hold.

    Heck, my NAA .22LR mini will keep four out of five in the torso at 25 yds. That is stretching it for that little gun, but makes me feel better about its capabilities.

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