Ballistics by the inch

Reprise: the *other* perfect concealed carry revolver(s).

Prompted by my friends over at the Liberal Gun Club, this is another in an occasional series of revisiting some of my old articles which had been published elsewhere over the years, perhaps lightly edited or updated with my current thoughts on the topic discussed. This is an article I wrote for Guns.com, and it originally ran 11/26/2011.  Some additional observations at the end.

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The Smith & Wesson models 442 and 642 revolvers have their roots back more than 60 years ago. Needless to say there have been any number of variations on the J-frame theme over time (there are currently 49 versions offered on the S&W website), but perhaps the most popular has been the Airweight 642 (in stainless steel or brushed aluminum, and a variety of grips). The 642 certainly has been a very good seller, and has been at or near the top of S&W’s sales for most of the last decade. The 442 and 642 models are identical in every way except finish (the 442 is blued), but the 642 is more popular.

Why is this gun so popular? Well, it does everything right, at least as far as being a self-defense tool. It’s small, lightweight, hides well in a pocket or purse, is intuitively easy to shoot, and it handles the dependably potent .38 Special cartridge.

But let me expand on those points.

The first three are all tied together. For anyone who is looking for a gun to carry concealed, the J-frame size has a lot going for it. The 642’s barrel is one- and 7/8-inches. Overall length is just a bit more than six inches. Though the cylinder is wider than most semi-autos, the overall organic shape of the gun seems to make it hide better in a pocket or behind clothing. The Airweight 642 weighs just 15 ounces unloaded, and not a lot more loaded. For most people, this is lightweight enough to carry in a pocket or purse without really noticing it. Put it in a belt holster and you’ll not even know it is there.

Easy to shoot? Well, yeah, though it takes a lot of work to be really accurate with one at more than close self-defense distances. The 642 is Double Action Only (DAO), which means that the hammer is cocked and then fired all with one pull of the trigger – nothing else needs to be done. There’s no safety to fumble with. Just point and click. Almost anyone can be taught to use it with adequate accuracy at self-defense distances (say seven yards) in a single trip to the range.

The modern .38 Special +P cartridge is more than adequate for “social work”. From my 642 we tested five different premium defensive loads and four of the five were between 900 and 1000 fps. Tests from Brassfetcher have shown that these cartridges both penetrate and expand well, too.

One more thing – the design of the Centennial models, with the internal hammer, means that they are snag-free. You don’t have to worry about some part of the gun catching on clothing or other items when drawing it from concealment. This can save your life.

With all the good being said, I do have two criticisms. The first one is minor, and easily fixed: the trigger. Oh, it’s good, but it could be a little bit smoother right out of the box (like Ruger’s LCR). The good news is that this can usually be worked out with just some dry-firing exercises.

The second is the front site. S&W is still offering the guns with just a simple ramp sight. They should switch over to some variety of tritium sight or fiber-optic (or combination), as they have done with many of their other J-frame models. This is one change which would help in low-light conditions.

So, there ya go. Want the nearly perfect pocket pistol? You’d be hard pressed to do better than a 642 or 442.

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There’s not a lot I would change in the seven years since I first wrote this, which in itself says a hell of a lot about the popularity of the 442/642 models. They’re still ubiquitous, high quality, and effective self-defense guns.

After that was written we did another large BBTI test which included the .38 Special cartridge, which confirmed what I already knew: that while there are indeed some better and some worse performing brands of ammo available for the snubbie, for the most part all decent ‘self-defense’ ammo performs adequately. While my friend Grant Cunningham recommends the Speer 135gr JHP Short-barrel ammo (which I used to carry and still like), I now prefer Buffalo Bore’s 158gr LSWCHP +P for my M&P 360 — I’ve repeatedly tested that ammo at 1050fps out of my gun, which gives me a muzzle energy of 386 ft-lbs. But it’s not for the recoil-shy, particularly out of a 11.4oz gun. As always, YMMV.

While S&W hasn’t changed the sight offerings on the 442/642, there are lasers available for the guns, which some people like. Personally, at the range which these guns are likely to be used, I don’t see the benefit. But if you like a laser, go for it.

Bottom line, the 442/642, like the Ruger LCR, are nearly perfect revolvers for concealed carry in either a pocket or a belt holster.

 

Jim Downey

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March 11, 2018 Posted by | .38 Special | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An absurd comparison. Or is it?

We had another of those wonderful & rare mid-50s January days here today, so I decided to get out for a little range time.

In addition to the other shooting I did (basically, practice with some of my preferred CCW guns), I also did a little head-to-head comparison between a Smith & Wesson M&P 360 J-frame in .38 Special and a Colt Anaconda in .44 Magnum.

Wait … what? Why on Earth would anyone even consider trying to do such an absurd comparison? The S&W is a very small gun, and weighs just 13.3 ounces. The Anaconda is a monster, weighing in at 53 ounces (with the 6″ barrel that mine has), and is literally twice as long and high as the J-frame. The .38 Special is generally considered a sufficient but low-power cartridge for self defense, while the .44 Magnum still holds a place in the popular mind as ‘the most powerful handgun in the world‘ (even though it isn’t).

Well, I was curious about the perceived recoil between the two, shooting my preferred loads for each. The topic had come up in chatting with a friend recently, and I thought I would do a little informal test, just to see what I thought.

So for the M&P 360 I shot the Buffalo Bore .38 special +P, 158 gr. LSWHC-GC which I have chrono’d out of this gun at 1050 fps, with a ME of 386 ft-lbs.

And for the Anaconda I shot Hornady .44 Remington Magnum 240gr XTP JHP, which I have chrono’d at 1376 fps, with a ME of 1009 ft-lbs. (Actually, I don’t have a ‘preferred carry ammo’ for this gun, but this is typical of what I shoot out of it. Were I going to use it as a bear-defense gun, I’d load it with this.)

My conclusion? That the M&P 360 was worse, in terms of perceived recoil. In fact, I’d say that it was *much* worse.

It’s completely subjective, but it does make sense, for a couple of reasons.

First, look at the weight of each gun, compared to the ME of the bullets shot. The J-frame is 13.3 ounces, or about 25% of the 53 ounce weight of the Anaconda. But the ME of 386 ft-lbs of the .38 Special bullet is 38.25% of the ME of the .44 Mag at 1009 ft-lbs. Put another way, the J-frame has to deal with 29 ft-lbs of energy per ounce of the gun, where the Anaconda has just 19 ft-lbs of energy per ounce of the gun. That’s a big difference.

Also, all that recoil of the J-frame is concentrated into a much smaller grip, when compared to the relatively large grip of the Anaconda. Simply, it the difference between being smacked with a hammer and a bag of sand, in terms of how it feels to your (or at least, my) hand.

Thoughts?

 

Jim Downey

January 31, 2016 Posted by | .38 Special, .44 Magnum, Anecdotes, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments