Monday, June 14, 2010

Smith & Wesson Model 642 “The Allure of the Little Revolver”


What is it with the allure of the little revolver?  I said I was done with them, finished, kaput.  When I sold my S&W 340 M&P (the second one I have owned) I vowed no more little revolvers but, as Michael Corleone said in Godfather III “every time I think I’m out; they pull me back in again”! 

Is it convenience?  Nowadays they are extremely lightweight and in their concealed hammer format  of the Centennial styled versions they are virtually snag-free gliding in and out of pocket holsters with extreme ease.

Is it the intimidation factor?  They are tough little brutes that look like they mean business.  If you are unfortunate enough to be facing the business end of a revolver your eyes will be drawn to the nasty gaping hollow point projectiles that are comfortably resting in the cylinder chambers waiting to launch.   And everyone instantly recognizes the revolver as a deadly weapon as opposed to the new fad of rainbow colored polymer pistols that look like they came from aisle 12 at Toys-R-Us and could cause a miscreant to continue an assault that might otherwise have been deterred if they thought you were holding a real firearm. 

However the J-framed revolver is really not a good choice for a practical self-preservation tool.  The fixed sights on most of them are not easy to see so unless you spring for laser grips or get one of the more expensive models with fiber optic or Big Dot night sights you are really going to be “pointing” rather than aiming.  With any type of decently powerful ammunition the recoil is going to be substantial and painful and the 5 round capacity is just a ridiculous limitation in today’s times.  The threat in our current urban environment could find you facing a determined active shooter (or two, or three) at your local shopping mall or multiple gang members on the streets of your city.  A five shot revolver no longer is an appropriate match for this threat.  However as the threat has escalated so has the self-defense technology and high capacity, small autoloaders abound.   For about the same size as the J-framed revolver you can get a semi-auto pistol holding between 7 to 12 rounds of 9mm, 40, or .45 caliber ammo.  And let’s face it, the revolving cylinder is a base technology that is about 160 years old; isn’t it time to retire it?

Maybe the allure is nostalgia.   I grew up on police dramas where every copper and private dick carried a snub nosed revolver.   From Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday to Kojak to Mannix, to Cannon, to Steve McGarret’s team on Hawaii 5-O, all of them carried small .38 Special revolvers with most of them being the Smith & Wesson’s J-frame model 36 in blue steel. 

This is why I excited strode into Schmaltz’s sporting goods store in Bloomington, Indiana on my 21st birthday and selected a square butt, nickel plated Smith & Wesson model 36 with a three inch heavy barrel as my first handgun.  Weeks later my neighbor took me to the range and I fired the box of 158 grain LSWC bullets that I purchased with the pistol.  I don’t remember the length of the one position indoor shooting range at the Bloomington Gun Club; I don’t think it was even 7 yards but I do remember that I did not make one single hole in the 8 X 10 inch target I was shooting at.  I experienced firsthand the reasons why the J-framed revolver is not for novice shooters; the skinny grips were difficult to hold onto, the front sight was almost impossible to see, and the recoil hurt.  My next door neighbor let me shoot his Colt Combat Commander and I liked it a lot better.  I quickly sold that revolver to my roommate’s father but about four years later purchased an S&W model 60 and was back in the J-frame business again.  My experiences were not much better this time around and the model 60 was soon sold to a co-worker.  About four years later I purchased a Smith & Wesson model 651; yet another J-frame with a three inch heavy barrel this time in .22 Magnum.  That was eventually sold but I picked up a new air weight model 360 with a three inch barrel, adjustable rear sights and red fiber optic rod up front.  It was a dud.  Heavy recoil and a trigger pull that went beyond the limits of the 14 pound pull of the gunsmith’s gauge.  It was summarily sold as well.  However, luck soon began to smile on me when I found a vintage S&W model 36 with a three inch “pencil” style barrel.  The trigger on this pistol had been worked over by someone who knew what they were doing and this one was a winner in the accuracy department.  Out to about 30 feet I could direct those bullets to go wherever I wanted them to go.  For reasons that I can’t remember I sold that one as well.  Fast forward and I have bought and sold four more light weight scandium J-framed revolvers and two in stainless steel, not to mention two Colt Detective Specials and one Colt Cobra.  14 snub nosed revolvers in 31 years, that’s about one revolver every 2.2 years.  I sold the last one about two years ago so this year’s J-frame is the model 642. 

For reasons that I cannot explain I found myself yearning for a small J-frame revolver once again.  I began looking at the newer Smith & Wesson models in display cases at various gun shops and was aghast that many of them were close to the same price as a premium quality 1911.  However, luck smiled at me one day when I spied a used S&W model 642 in one shop’s.  Upon further examination I could find no indication that the revolver had ever been fired.  No excess carbon residue on the front of the cylinder, inside of the cylinder frame, or around the firing pin chamber and virtually no drag marks on the breech face either.  Best of all, there was no hideous lock above the cylinder release.  I was quite surprised that the little handgun had not already been picked up for that reason alone.  So let’s dive in and take a closer look at the 642. 

Specifications
Caliber
Weight
Length
Barrel Length
Material
Capacity
Sights
.38 Special +P
15 oz.
6 5/16”
1.78 inches
Aluminum Alloy Frame Stainless Steel Cylinder
5
Fixed

The 642 is a value priced revolver and this used specimen was offered far enough below $400.00 to make it attractive.  While Smith & Wesson has made their mark on lightweight revolvers with their use of Scandium frames the 642 keeps the weight down with an aluminum frame and keeps the recoil manageable with a stainless steel cylinder and barrel.  The 642 weighs about 3 ounces more than S&W’s scandium models but who really can tell the difference.

At-A-Glance






Handling
Terrible
Poor
Acceptable
Good
Excellent
Fit & Finish
Terrible
Rough
Acceptable
Good
Excellent
Sights
None
Too Small
Useable
Good
Excellent
Trigger
Terrible
Poor
Acceptable
Good
Excellent
Power Scale
.22LR
.380 ACP
38 Special
.40 S&W
.45 ACCP
Carry/Concealment
Too Large
Compact
Ultra Compact
Micro Compact
Pocket Pistol
Reliability
Unreliable
Somewhat Reliable
Fair
OK
Completely Reliable
Accuracy
Poor
Fair
Acceptable
Combat
Bullseye

Let’s examine the individual characteristics of the 642:






Handling
Terrible
Poor
Acceptable
Good
Excellent

Obviously I am somewhat confused on what rating to give the handling feature of the 642.  The “Acceptable” rating is given just because the J frame revolvers are not easy to handle.  The “good” rating is give just because the 642 handles just as well as any other small revolver and quite frankly better than a good many. 

The 642 come with a set of synthetic grips, this particular one being an older model “Uncle Mike’s” rubber grip.  I thought I could probably find a grip that would provide both a better aesthetic appearance and squeeze a little more accuracy out of the little revolver.  So I tried the following:

Hogue Checkered Rosewood Boot Grip


Altamont Boot Grip


Altamont Standard Grip


Pachmayer Compact Professional Rubber Grip


Vintage Stag with a Tyler T-grip Adapter


However I found that the Uncle Mike’s worked better than anything else I had knocking around my grip drawer








Fit & Finish
Terrible
Rough
Acceptable
Good
Excellent

The fit and finish is very good.  No one can say that Smith & Wesson doesn’t know how to make revolvers and the matte silver finish on the aluminum frame melds nicely with the stainless steel of the cylinder.






Sights
None
Too Small
Useable
Good
Excellent

The 642 has the old S&W ramped front sight which is difficult to see in the indoor range environment but is useable in natural lighting.  Obviously there is no provision for enhanced sighting in low light conditions.






Trigger
Terrible
Poor
Acceptable
Good
Excellent

I have suffered through some terrible trigger pulls on S&W’s small frame revolvers but this one is actually quite good and was one of the selling points that made me decide to take a chance on this little revolver.






Power Scale
.22LR
.380 ACP
38 Special
.40 S&W
.45 ACP/GAP

The regular .38 Special ammunition does not provide much stopping power in its normal loadings.  However there are excellent .38 Special +P loads that do just fine.  The 1.8 inch barrel on the S&W J frame revolvers does not always provide sufficient enough velocity to guarantee expansion but some ammo makers are finding ways around it like Speer’s short barreled 135 grain +P Gold Dot hollowpoint ammunition and for my money I think it’s just hard to beat a 158 grain +P lead hollowpoint.  Call me old fashioned but this load has been putting bad guys to the ground for many years.






Carry/Concealment
Too Large
Compact
Ultra Compact
Micro Compact
Pocket Pistol

Although the J frame is easy to carry in a pocket holster I prefer the Clip Draw attachment that allows you to slide it inside your waistband.  It is easy to carry and easy to shift the revolver to your weak side to a cross draw position when you are driving. 






Reliability
Unreliable
Somewhat Reliable
Fair
OK
Completely Reliable

Revolvers are generally considered to be very reliable however the lighter weight handguns can pose a problem when excessive recoil loosens bullets from their casings and they extend beyond the cylinder.  Once this occurs they can jam up against the barrel’s forcing cone and stop the cylinder from revolving.  The most prominent culprit is usually improperly crimped handloads but this can also occur with factory ammo as well.  Just as semi-automatic pistols should be fired with several hundred rounds of your chosen ammunition to ensure that it functions properly you should do the same with the ammo you intend to use in any lightweight revolver.






Accuracy
Poor
Fair
Acceptable
Combat
Bullseye

The 642 provides good combat accuracy within the limitations of a snub nosed revolver.  I limited my shooting mostly to 21 feet but did fire the little revolver at 30 and 50 feet as well.  Alas, I cannot locate those targets so all I can show you are the 21 feet results.  Suffice it to say that that it was possible to hit person-sized silhouette targets at those ranges.  The groups were not pretty but the revolver hit the targets.

Remington 158 grain +P lead hollowpoint:


Speer 135 grain +P Gold Dot hollowpoint:


Magtech 158 grain Full Metal Jacket:


Winchester 125 grain +P jacketed hollowpoint:


Corbon 110 grain +P jacketed hollowpoint:


Winchester Bonded 130 grain +P hollowpoint:


Remington Golden Sabre 125 grain +P hollowpoint:


Combination of most of the above:


As I pointed out above the allure of the small revolver is great and sometimes can’t be resisted.  The J-frame in .38 Special or .357 Magnum is Smith & Wesson’s bread and butter and they make them in blue steel, stainless steel, aluminum alloy, and scandium.  They currently catalogue about 34 different models of the J-frame in .22LR, .22 Mag., 327 Mag., .38 Special +P, and .357 Mag.  The suggested retails on their website range from a low $616.00 to a high of $1272.00 with most of them in the $800 to $900 ballpark.  They are not inexpensive but just about any gun dealer should have one or two used ones in the shop.  As these little revolvers are not that easy to shoot and their recoil is oppressive for many of the people who bought them you can generally find that they have been very gently used and are in excellent condition.  There are bargains awaiting so if you must have one go shop wisely and spend the money you saved on practice ammo so that you attain the life-saving level of proficiency. 

11 comments:

J. Wilson said...

I myself am a big fan of the J frame guns and have owned many over the years. Currently a model 342PD riding in a Kramer pocket holster sees a lot of carry time (in the summer). As a big fan of the J frame I must also admit that they are most definitely not for the novice and require extra effort to become proficient with. Your story did a good job listing the pros and cons of the J frame and I thank you for a very well written review. Hope to see more in the future…

Average Joe said...

Mr. Wilson,

Thank you for the very kind words. I hope you will continue reading.

Alain said...

You did get a great deal!
I recently picked up a colt series 1972 cobra in beautiful condition can't fire +P but a tight little gun with close to 40 years of age to it. I do also agree it's more challenging to shot well especially compared to my semi auto's, great article back to work don't want to keep the pt's waiting too long!
AL

Average Joe said...

Alain,

Thanks for the kind words. I am glad you enjoyed the review. Stay tuned for an upcoming review of a stainless Colt DS II with a three inch barrel.

Anonymous said...

Very concise summary of a real American weapon and one that I suspect will be in the field for a long time to come. Nice that you went to the effort to get results with various grips as well. With all the talk of wonder nines, there is something basic and wholesome about these little weapons. Sure, they may not be in the hands of your city's swat team, but they have been providing a good balance of bulk, weight, and horsepower for more than a hundred years now in various configurations and calibers. Good job. I'm looking forward to that review of the Colt.

Lewis said...

I've always been a snubby fan, since way back in the day. It probably originated from reading too much Dashiell Hammett as a kid. My personal preference is for the Colt D-frames. For me, they seem to be just enough bigger than the J-frame S&Ws to be much, much easier for me to shoot well, and just enough smaller than the K-frame S&Ws to carry much, much easier. I'm also a fan of the Colt sights---my 1956 vintage Cobra has sights that are square, blocky and visible, and they're not nearly as good as my mid-60s Detective Special.

I can go back and forth on the merits of the snubby .38. I mean, why not a Glock sub-compact, or one of the other (nearly infinite) variety of subcompact autoloaders? In the end, though, I just like the snubby. I think that the snub-nose .38 is like the 1911 .45, and that for Americans of a certain age, it's impossible to be entirely objective about them.

Some guns come and go in my collection, but I'm pretty sure I'll always have a 1911, and pretty sure I'll always have a snub-nose .38. As Joe Friday never said, "That's just how I roll."

jonny said...

J-Frame fan here too. Just picked up a Model 36, made in the 70's for 200 bucks. I filed off the hammer spur(now all DA) and put on a Hogue Mono grip and it's a nice lil carry piece!

TConatser said...

Just bought a s&w 642 airweight for my first pistol and my ccw. At 25yds, I got all five in the head of a body target. With practice I'm sure my groups will tighten up.

Bryan Spencer said...

The J Frames take some getting used to and the S&W 642 adds the element of some trigger pull issues.
But after having said that I have to say that once you 'get it' the 642 is the best "Carry" guns I have ever owned.
"Snubbys" are designed for close range self-defense and that is what they excel at.
They ain't for deer hunting.
At distances up to 30 ft (10 yds) my 642 will put as many rounds in a 10" pie plate as I have time to shoot.
Quality is high and the finish on the alloy(silver)guns seems to be holding up fine.
I would buy another one in a heartbeat.
You can always regrip and get a trigger job (it won't be wasted money) but the gun, as it comes out of the box, is a hell of a value and a fine handgun.

sully v. said...

Average Joe--liked your review on the S&W 642...like you I have bought and sold a number of these, tried some of the smaller autos, but always transition back to the J-Frame. I carry a Gen4 Glock 26 for a EDC/Bug (work related), but really like the option of a J-frame in flip-flop/shorts weather. Like you I also like the old FBI load (158 gr. SWC +P), tghat's the biggest reason I'm not a fan of the .30acp--big bullet, little gun--still a great combination and choice, even for today.

Anonymous said...

This is timely (to read anyway). I've had a 442 for years and frankly hate(d) it. The recoil is ridiculous and I'm no panty waste. I always practice with rapid double taps for obvious reasons. The snubbie is brutal to keep in a silhouette within 7-10 yards rapidly. It's that the trigger pull is too long to the point you are going to wiggle before detonation.

Regardless, IEEE a new 642 on sale for $269......and then there was silence? I've tried three different grips on the 442 but only the uncle mikes makes sense. The pach was worse and the elongated hogue made it too big for pocket.

I think I'm going to buy it simply to get a more modern trigger and for that price I can sell it for that much. No risk. My 442 is over 20 years old and only 110's shoot well. Any 125+ gr produce too much recoil to include the white box 130 fmj's from wallymart.

158's? Fogeddabbout it eh? The 110's from. Hornady make sense. The design is timeless as is the reliability and weight but shooing them is literally a pain....

I think I'll buy it anyway.....sound familiar?