There are those among us who would suggest that the Smith & Wesson Model 40 Centennial revolver is the best all-around hideaway revolver–not only that S&W ever made but that anyone ever made. Although I wouldn’t be tempted to lay quite so lavish praise onto this petite, five-shot, double-action-only five-shooter, I must admit that I’d be hard pressed to argue the point either. It certainly is a world-class snubby by any measure. And it is a model that any well-acquitted gun guy should consider to be a mandatory must-have.
The Model 40 came on the scene in 1953 and was discontinued in 1974. It is chambered for the .38 Special and features a two-inch barrel, fully concealed hammer, grip safety and smooth wood grips. It was available in blue or nickel finish (by far, most are blued steel).
My particular Model 40 is a pre-1968 specimen (after 1968, the serial numbers began with an “L” prefix, and this one has no prefix at all). There was another “Centennial” from S&W, the Model 42 Centennial Airweight that differed primarily in that it was an aluminum gun, rather than steel as is the Model 40 (see sidebar).
Several factors made the Model 40 Centennial such a preferred revolver for concealed carry. First, it doesn’t weigh much (even being made all of steel). On the postal scale, my specimen weighs in at only 1.3 pounds.
And because the cylinder holds five rather than six rounds, as do many revolvers, the cylinder is a slim 1.3 inches wide (the widest part of the entire gun). That’s pretty skinny and not a whole lot wider than some of the more modern, boxy autos.
Back in the days when snubbies ruled the concealed carry world, the real sales shootout was between S&W’s Model 40 Centennial and Colt’s Detective Special.
The Colt Detective Special, chambered also in .38 Special, is ever so slightly larger and heavier, weighing in at 1.35 pounds. The cylinder on the Colt is also the widest part of the gun, and it is 1.4 inches wide. Granted, a tenth of an inch isn’t much, but it is something. Of course, the Colt’s cylinder holds six rounds, compared to the Centennial’s five, but who’s counting?
Frankly, it was the slightly larger configuration of the Colt Detective Special that made it my favorite of the two back in the days when both were readily available on the market. My hand is rather large, and the Centennial is really petite in the grip department. But I’m not saying it is too small. In fact, my Centennial is still technically on duty at all times. Although I rarely carry it concealed anymore, it is always around the house somewhere with five .38 Specials in the chambers, ready to be picked up, pointed and shot–repeatedly and quickly.
The Centennial does have sights, although they are the most basic available on a revolver. The front sight is a rather substantial blade, while the rear sight is the typical squared cut in the top of the rear of the top strap.
As is typical, when one uses anything close to regular .38 Special ammo in this revolver, it puts the bullets pretty much on target out to five yards (I have not bothered to shoot it at targets beyond that range, only because it’s designed to be used close-up and personal.
The Centennial picked up a nickname along the way. It is variously referred to as the “lemon squeezer,” because of the grip safety. To my way of thinking, a grip safety on a double-action-only revolver is akin to mammaries on a bull. After all, one has to pull the trigger through the entire double-action distance for the thing to go bang. But the grip safety on the Centennial doesn’t get in the way; when you hold the Centennial in firing mode, the grip safety is automatically depressed and becomes a non-factor. And the double-action trigger pull is superb on my specimen and on every other Centennial I ever met.
Combine the size and geometry of the Centennial and you have a package that can be pointed and shot with adequate accuracy. For example, if the shot is to be quickly, the revolver clears clothing without a snag–no exposed hammer spur or anything else to catch. As it is being brought to bear on target, the long trigger pull can begin so it goes “bang” at the precise instant the arm is extended properly.
Or, if there’s a chance to aim the shot, there are two really distinctive stages to the smooth double-action trigger. The long trigger take-up can be done and the trigger held in place at a spot in the pull where there is not much spring pressure back onto the trigger finger; just a bit more pressure and slight trigger movement will set it off. It is easier to do than to describe.
Normally when I practice with the Centennial, I quickly point and shoot, emptying the revolver as fast as it will go off. Such sessions usually result in “groups” ranging from around six to eight inches when the distances are a couple of feet to about 10 or 15 feet.
When I was shooting the revolver for this writing, however, I also tried a cylinderful of 158-grain semi-wadcutters at five yards. Outside to outside, the holes stretched a non-impressive 2.74 inches. What was rather notable, however, was that three of the five shots went through an oblong, single hole a mere 0.6-inch to the left of the 10 in the 10 ring. Hmmm.
One could suggest that the revolver itself is probably inherently quite accurate and that any noticeable variation in bullet placement is shooter error. That’s fine with me. That level of performance is more than required for this handgun’s role in life. But it does point out that short-barrels are not necessarily inaccurate.
The walnut stocks that come standard on the Centennial always seemed to me to be somewhat of an afterthought, or at least a study in minimalization—whether one is talking about physical size or visual impact. But they are totally functional and proper for this specific handgun.
Although the trigger itself is serrated vertically on the Centennial, I have often wondered casually whether I might not like it a bit better if it were smooth on its face.
The Centennial was introduced in the early 1950s, but it was an established icon during the ’60s. That was a more naïve period before shooters were terribly interested in the firepower of double-stack magazines or the power of potent magnums for law enforcement and/or personal defense applications.
Of all the J-frame variants, the Centennial is among the quickest, slickest models to put into action, and one of the simplest to use. Those are two qualities that made it the choice of many of its owners through the years.
Significant numbers of the Centennial were used as issue arms for plainclothes detectives, who typically carried them either in a handy shoulder rig, or on the belt just far enough back not to be readily seen when the jacket was worn unbuttoned in front.
I have always preferred to carry my Centennial as a pocket pistol in the rear pocket and held in an open-top, soft holster that removes some of the “print” of the handgun but which remains in the pocket when the revolver is drawn. At home, it rests in the proverbial dresser drawer.
It is interesting in this day of more legalized concealed carry around most of the country that small revolvers are enjoying a bit of a renaissance, finding their way into fanny packs or pockets of jogging sweats.
Perhaps we’ve come full circle. And why not? Handy is handy, and performance is performance. Today, many S&W’s snub-bies guns are made with scandium and are even lighter than the lightest oldies.
The steel Centennial, when loaded with full-power ammunition, is a bit “snappy” when shot. That’s because of its light weight combined with the tiny grip area. It is not uncomfortable—but it does jump.
For me, though, that snappiness is a boon because it affords a rather natural form of multi-tapping. There exists with double-action revolvers a phenomenon that becomes apparent in relatively few models that happen to be chambered for cartridges that offer a relatively brisk response when fired. Unconsciously, the shooter’s finger movement, combined with the recoil movement, becomes somewhat symphonic in nature, and the result is something akin to a revolving automatic.
Again, it is easier to show than to explain, but another example I have experienced that has done this kind of thing has been the S&W Model 500 in .500 S&W. This phenomenon is controllable, and for me a potential plus in the overall equation. I have often thought that legendary quickshooters like Ed McGivern must have figured out how to harness this phenomenon and tap into it on demand. For me, it is a factor in very few models, but the Centennial is one of them. That’s nice.
Although the S&W Model 40 Centennial is a classic, it remains as valid today as it was when it left the factory decades ago.