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, and it originally ran 11/26/2011.  Some additional observations at the end.


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.


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


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

Reprise: Is the Ruger LCR a perfect concealed carry revolver?

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, and it originally ran 5/3/2012.  Some additional observations at the end.


The Sturm, Ruger & Company line of LCR composite-frame revolvers have been available for a few years now (2009) and since expanded from the basic .38 Special that weighs 13.5 ounces, to a 17-ounce version that can handle full .357 magnum loads, and a slightly heavier one that shoots .22 Long Rifle.

Ruger makes excellent firearms and I have grown up with them, but I was more than a little skeptical at the prospect of a revolver with a composite frame when I first heard about it. And the initial images released of the gun didn’t belay my skepticism.

But then the first Ruger LCR revolvers were actually introduced and I found out more about them. The frame is actually only partly composite while the part that holds the barrel, cylinder, and receiver is all aluminum. The internal components like the springs, firing pin, trigger assembly, et cetera are all housed in the grip frame and are well supported and plenty robust. My skepticism turned to curiosity.

When I had a chance to actually handle and then shoot the LCR, my curiosity turned to enthusiasm. Since then, having shot several different guns of both the .38 Special and .357 LCR models, I have become even more impressed. Though I still think the LCR is somewhat lacking in the aesthetics department. But in the end it does what it is designed to do.

Like the S&W J-frame revolvers, the models it was meant to compete with, the LCR is an excellent self-defense tool. It’s virtually the same size as the J-frames and the weight is comparable (depending on which specific models you’re talking about). So it hides as well in a pocket or a purse because it has that same general ‘organic’ shape.

The difference is, the LCR is, if anything, even easier to shoot than your typical J-frame Double Action Only revolver (DAO, where the hammer is cocked and then fired in one pull of the trigger). I’m a big fan of the Smith & Wesson revolvers, and I like their triggers. But the LCR has a buttery smooth, easy-to-control trigger right out of the box, which is as good or better than any S&W. Good trigger control is critical with a small DAO gun and makes a world of difference for accuracy at longer distances. I would not have expected it, but the LCR is superior in this regard.

Like any snub-nosed revolver, the very short sight radius means that these guns can be difficult to shoot accurately at long distance (say out to 25 yards). But that’s not what they are designed for. They’re designed to be used at self-defense distances (say out to seven yards). And like the J-frame DAO models, even a new shooter can become proficient quickly.

I consider the .38 Special model sufficient for self defense. It will handle modern +P ammo, something quite adequate to stop a threat in the hands of a competent shooter. And the lighter weight is a bit of an advantage. But there’s a good argument to be made for having the capability to shoot either .38 Special or .357 magnum cartridges.

My only criticism of the LCR line is that they haven’t yet been around long enough to eliminate potential aging problems. All of the testing that has been done suggests that there won’t be a problem and I trust that, but only time will truly tell if they hold their value over the long haul.

So, there ya go. To paraphrase what I said about the S&W Centennial models: “Want the nearly perfect pocket gun? You’d be hard pressed to do better than a Ruger LCR.”


It’s been six years since I wrote this, which means the early versions of the LCR have now been around for almost a decade. And as far as I know, there hasn’t yet been a widespread problem with them holding up to normal, or even heavy, use. So much for that concern.

And Ruger has (wisely, I think) expanded the cartridge options for the LCR even further. You can still get the classic 5-shot .38 Special and .357 Magnum versions, as well as the 6-shot .22 Long Rifle one. But now you can also get 6-shot .22 Magnum or .327 Magnum versions, as well as a 5-shot offering in 9mm. Each cartridge offers pros and cons, of course, as well as plenty of opportunity for debate using data from BBTI. Just remember that the additional of the cylinder on a revolver effectively means you’re shooting a 3.5″ barrel gun in the snubbie model, according to our charts. Personally, I like this ammo out of a snub-nosed revolver, and have consistently chono’d it at 1050 f.p.s. (or 386 foot-pounds of energy) out of my gun.

For me, though, the most exciting addition has been the LCRx line, which offers an exposed hammer and SA/DA operation:

I like both the flexibility of operation and the aesthetics better than the original hammerless design. But that’s personal preference, nothing more.

The LCR line has also now been around long enough that there are a wide selection of accessories available, from grips to sights to holsters to whatever. Just check the Ruger Shop or your favorite firearm supply source.

So, a perfect pocket gun? Yeah, I think so. Also good for a holster, tool kit, or range gun.


Jim Downey


February 25, 2018 Posted by | .22, .22WMR, .327 Federal Magnum, .357 Magnum, .38 Special | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Reprise: The Dark Side of the Force? Black Guns vs. Classic Wood & Steel Models

Caution: this is somewhat political. Again.

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, and it originally ran 3/22/2012.  Some additional observations at the end.


I was having a Facebook chat with a non-shooter friend and at one point I mentioned something to her about firearms. The conversation that ensued got me thinking about the strange emotional divide that exists between “classic” guns made of wood & steel and “black guns” made of polymer, and then ultimately about how the aesthetic appeal of a weapon really influences the public perception of firearms (even helping to dictate public policy in the form of gun control).  Here is an excerpt from our chat that illustrates a bit better exactly what I’m talking about:

Me: I’ve doing the Ballistics by the Inch project for some time now but I’ve also been writing for

FB Friend: O yeah, I forgot you are a gun person. I think guns are lovely.

Yeah, that’s a big aspect of why I’m into them: an appreciation of the engineering and innovation that went into making them.

FB: lol. I meant more than that. But sure.  I think guns bring something gratifying to the table, and I don’t mean in some lame Freudian way. They feel good in the hand, like their heft is sensual almost. They look pretty.  Even the way they come apart and reassemble is also pleasing in a way that’s not only aesthetic, it’s almost physically gratifying.

Me: All true. I think that may be one of the reasons that some people don’t like the so called ‘plastic’ guns. Hmm. Food for thought.

Yeah, metal and wood feels much better than plastic.

There was a time not that long ago when all guns were pretty much one-of-a-kind works of art, created by highly skilled craftsmen for clients willing to pay for their quality.  That is to say, at one time guns were really tools or toys for those Americans with substantial means. In the US, these cottage gunmakers were often located in Pennsylvania or Kentucky, hence the name Kentucky or Pennsylvania long rifle.

File:John Spitzer - Kentucky Rifle - Walters 511434 - Side B.jpg

This price point exclusivity changed drastically though when the confluence of two major events—the settlement of North America and advent of industrialization—presented a blossoming firearms industry with both the demand for affordable and functional small arms and the means to lower costs and increase production rates.  The resulting market surge flooded the United States with firearms (and gun tycoons’ bank accounts with profits).  It also made American makers like Colt, Winchester, Browning, and Smith & Wesson household names and perhaps represents the genesis of when firearms and American culture and iconography first became enmeshed in the imaginations of so many around the world.

However, not withstanding these historical factors, I think one reason why guns were so readily accepted (and remain largely accepted) by the public, was because, even though 19th and early 20th gun manufacturers experimented widely with design, they still incorporated the older cottage industry thinking when it came to both the level of craftsmanship and the material selection.  After generations of watching small arms “evolve” into something personalized and beautifully crafted, the average person expected guns to have a look that complemented the deadly seriousness of what the weapon was capable of (i.e. killing people) and this meant finer materials and engineering.

Consider this: even the mass-produced Colt Peacekeepers had an elegance and beauty about them with their rounded edges, high quality ornaments and ergonomic versatility. Today revolvers have been generally relegated to role of concealed carry guns and become plainer and more utilitarian—designed for specific function rather than general use by the shooter that owns it.

S&W29 gravé.JPG

It also seems to me that our emotional attachment to wood and steel charts much of our basic firearms vocabulary.  For example, if I say “Dirty Harry” or even just “.44 Magnum” most people will envision something like the S&W Model 29 with a long barrel.  If I say “Tommy Gun,” almost anybody would be able to conjure up an image of a classic Thompson submachine gun.  Even if you say something a little more vague like “hunting rifle,” chances are folks will picture a bolt-action gun, something along the lines of a Remington Model 700.

All of these iconic guns have classic lines and wood stocks. And I would bet most anybody would be able to recognize them to some degree.  This familiarity works to make them “warm,” almost “friendly” in people’s minds.


Now, say “black rifle” and what mental image do you think most people have? Rarely a comforting one.  It’s usually a generic AR-15 or M16, and associated with military weapons (though the term “modern sporting rifle” is how many gun owners refer to them). How about the name “Glock”—which has almost become a generic term for ‘any plastic gun’?  I can tell you with all the bad press Glocks get, the homely little gun doesn’t generate much warmth on looks alone.

Don’t think it’s only people who don’t shoot who are susceptible to these aesthetic judgments. Hell, most gun writers and even owners call Glocks “ugly” – as in “ugly as sin, but very functional.” I’ve done that (see just above) and I’ve even taken the position many times before that I dislike polymer stocks of almost any sort, while I have gone out of my way to praise wood stocks on many guns.

And why not?  If you were planning on buying supposedly a high-end gun, wouldn’t you expect that it would have a nice wood stock? I do. In fact, many premier gun manufacturers offer different quality levels for their wood stocks, with fancy or exotic wood commanding a higher price. And there’s a huge number of after-market manufacturers of grips for all manner of revolvers, not to mention 1911s.

As my Facebook friend said: “Metal and wood feels much better than plastic.”

Overall, this thinking is pretty harmless; most people are smart enough to recognize their aesthetic bias and not import it to other areas of their life. However, in the case of firearms the bias has been, well, weaponized.

One excellent example of this is the absurdity of the Assault Weapons Ban in the early ’90s.  To the thinking of many gun owners, this ban effectively criminalized a certain aesthetic – polymer functionality – while ignoring the more genteel “steel and wood” guns that were no different in terms of firepower or effectiveness.  People who actually understand guns were appalled by the ridiculousness of the AWB’s emphasis on superficial features, but it was passed because of how easy it was to garner support “against these evil (looking) weapons.” Another example was the bullshit stories about a “ceramic Glock” which didn’t contain enough steel parts to be detectable by X-ray machine or metal-detectors.

I’m not saying that firearms manufacturers should get away from the use of polymers. I own a number of guns with polymer stocks, and think that it is decidedly superior for many applications, not the least of which is helping to keep the cost down on many firearms. But I still love the warmth and familiarity of wood stocks, and I think that it is understandable that many people who don’t understand guns, who don’t own them, feel the same way. Historically, that’s what they’re used to.


I’m not going to step any further into the political debate about guns here, and I’m turning comments off for this post.

But I thought that it was important to point out that some of that debate is driven by the aesthetics of guns, and our aesthetic bias is rooted in history and class perceptions. Perceptions that people may not even realize that they hold.


Jim Downey


February 18, 2018 Posted by | .44 Magnum, Revolver | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment