Smith and Wesson 638 Airweight

[Review] Smith and Wesson 638 Airweight: The “Humpback Whale”

OK, so I make a little funny here – I figure it’s my gun so I can make fun of it a bit if I want. The thing that isn’t funny about this gun, though, is how it shoots – it does that job in a very serious manner. I like my little humpback whale – it fits in a pocket and is always ready for action.

The Famous J-Frame

The storied J-frame family of Smith and Wesson (S&W) revolvers got its start in 1950. S&W had ceased wartime production and was looking to expand its line of civilian/police revolvers. The company wanted to build a small-framed gun that could handle the .38 Special round. This cartridge was more powerful than the old .38 S&W round, and so it needed something a bit stronger than the I-frame guns that had been built for lesser-powerful rounds.

Enter the Chief’s Special.

chief's special

The gun was introduced at the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) convention in 1950. The Chief’s Special name was selected for this new gun after a contest was held to find a suitable name for it. Designed for undercover or other plain-clothes police officers, the small 5-shot quickly gained a following. The revolver was manufactured as the Chief’s Special until 1957, at which time it was designated the model 36. The Chief’s Special was kept in production as a variant of the model 36. A lightweight version called the Airweight Model 37 was brought out in 1951. It originally used an aluminum frame and cylinder, but the cylinder was replaced by a steel one when the aluminum one proved problematic. Many variations of the 36 have been brought out over the years, including 3-inch-barreled models, and at least one gun with an adjustable rear sight and a “LadySmith” model. The original blued 36 is available today in S&W’s Classic series and carries a $769 price tag. Another plus is that the 36 was the forerunner of many different 5-shot J-frame guns. A quick perusal of S&W’s website shows at least 24 variants.

The 638

The first S&W to bear a “38” in its model designation was the blued Bodyguard 38. This gun was the forerunner of the modern-day stainless 638. The model 38 designation has been re-assigned to the new Bodyguard .38, introduced in 2014.

S&W Bodyguard left
Old model 38, the original “Bodyguard”
S&W Bodyguard
New model 38 Bodyguard .38 Spl. +P.

The Bodyguard designation is also applied to the semiautomatic S&W M&P Bodyguard .380, as well. So, if you’re a revolver fan or a semiauto aficionado, you’re covered either way. Note the interesting ambidextrous cylinder latch and synthetic grips on the new Bodyguard above. The front sight is pinned for easy replacement.

The model 638 is a very good seller for S&W, no doubt due to the fact that you can fire the gun either single-action or double-action. Now, most trainers will teach you to never thumb-cock the hammer on a double-action revolver used for defense (most of them will not allow you to thumb-cock the gun), but sometimes a carefully-aimed shot with the lighter single-action trigger pull is warranted in non-self-defense situations, such as the one below…

I remember once upon a time when a wild turkey was hit by a passing semitruck’s mirror as it traveled the highway in front of our house. A state police cruiser happened along and saw the mortally-injured bird flapping beside the road. He pulled his S&W J-frame out to dispatch the bird. It took all 5 shots, shooting double action. This was truly a case for aimed, single-action shooting – the bird couldn’t shoot back, so the trooper was safe. He finally hit the poor bird with his last shot. He then gave the bird to us – it was delicious. True story!.

To Thumb-Cock Or Not To Thumb-Cock…

The tip of the hammer is available for cocking on the 638, which opens up possibilities.

Smith and Wesson 638 Airweight hammer cocked

The gun is basically a model 37 with a shortened, bobbed hammer that is enclosed by a frame extension – the “humpback.” Other models, notably the 442 or 642, do away entirely with the ability to thumb-cock the hammer. The entire hammer is enclosed in the frame. You can, however, stage the trigger so as to mimic somewhat the single-action pull of an exposed-hammer model. At least you might be able to… I have a bit of trouble gauging the pull in order to accomplish this mode of firing. With the 638, that is a moot point – just cock the hammer. But, as I just said, I don’t recommend trying to muck about cocking the gun’s hammer in a pressure-filled self-defense situation. Practice firing the gun double-action only for self-defense – that’s the recommended method of gun deployment. And at any rate, it’s hard getting hold of the tiny hammer spur tip exposed at the top of the hump. It will slip from your grasp if you don’t grip it firmly, trust me. You’ll only want to do that if you absolutely need a slow, deliberate single-action shot.

The gun is small enough to fit in a pocket holster. I always recommend a pocket holster – don’t just stick the gun in your pocket. There are many types and brands that will work. Just make sure to get one that is stiff enough to protect the gun in your pocket, will hold your gun upright and will cover its trigger. The holster shown in the photo above is the Relentless Tactical – you can read my review of that and similar holsters here. Some folks carry the little 5-shooters on a belt, in a purse, or other location. You have to do what works for you. For me, pocket carry is the method of choice but I wouldn’t rule out carrying the gun on my belt. Different holsters apply under different conditions. The minimal weight of this Airweight even lends itself to ankle carry – you probably will forget it’s there.

Speaking of weight, let’s take a quick look at the gun’s specifications…

Specs

Caliber:.38 Special +P
Length:6.3 in.
Capacity:5
Barrel:1.875 in., stainless steel
Weight:14.6 oz. empty; 16.0 oz., loaded (my digital scale)
Frame:Aluminum alloy
Cylinder:Stainless Steel
Trigger Pulls:Double Action: 7 ibs. 13 oz. Single Action: 1 lb., 12 oz. as measured, my Lyman trigger pull gauge
Grips:Synthetic boot-style. Hogue grips shown on test example
Sights:Notch rear, serrated ramp front

With these specifications, we see that this gun is easily carried and brought into action. But…

Is The .38 Enough For Daily Carry?

One purpose that the 638 is used to fulfill is that of a concealed carry gun. What about the old .38? Is it enough to carry? In a word, yes. Based on the old black powder load introduced in 1899, the modern-day .38 Spl. +P load is enough to settle most arguments. Older loadings from decades ago used a 158-grain lead bullet at about 800 f.p.s. This was not really enough for reliable stops, especially if the bad guy was in a car. The inability of the .38 to penetrate car doors was one of the driving forces behind the development of the .357 Magnum. In the heyday of gangsters, gun molls and bathtub gin, the gangsters were sometimes better-armed than the police. This slowly changed with the advent of the .357 and other cartridges but the .38 was carried by many civilians and continues to be to this day. For an interesting take on the history of the .38 Special, go here.

Modern JHP bullets and propellants tend to even the playing field more in terms of effectiveness. Newer bullets expand more reliably and penetrate deeper than those of yesteryear. Self-defense loads such as Hornady’s Critical Defense, Speer’s Gold Dot and similar loads are really pretty effective in terms of penetration and expansion. I just shot some Fiocchi ammo through my Taurus model 85 .38 snub-nose and was impressed with the expansion shown in their 158-grain JHP defense loading.

expanded 158-gr Fiocchi HP

Speaking of the Fiocchi 158-grain hollowpoint, here’s one I shot into one of my favorite test media – dirt. This was shot from my Taurus 85’s 2-inch barrel. It did expand a bit, even at the low velocities that these short-barreled wheelguns produce. Of course, this was strictly for fun. If you want actual statistics on how well the .38 Spl. expands in test media such as gel, there are many such articles and videos online. I was just playing around, but I was impressed that the bullet expanded like it did, even in plain dirt. The 125-grain +P load would, no doubt, show even more expansion. If you are looking for a decent .38 carry load, check out Fiocchi – I reviewed it and liked what I saw. Read my Fiocchi review here.

So, I do believe that the old .38 (in modern form) is one to consider when you are looking at self-defense calibers. The fact that it is shot out of revolvers and not semi-autos make it either more or less attractive in shooters’ minds – you’ll have to figure that one out for yourself. I like and shoot both wheelguns and semi-autos.

Pictures

Now… let’s look at some photos of the gun.

638 barrel engraving left

Smith and Wesson 638 Airweight frame engravement right

638 airweight in relentless tac-holster
The Relentless Tactical rough-side-out suede IWB holster

Smith and Wesson 638 Airweight profile left

This is my personal gun and as such shows a bit of wear, here and there…

Smith and Wesson 638 Airweight profile right

The grips shown are Hogues replacement grips. The stock grips allow 2-and-a-half fingers on them – the Hogues give you more controllability and are an inexpensive addition. They really don’t take away from the gun’s concealability – the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, in my opinion.

Shooting The 638

I tried a few loads when I tested the gun. As I have stated in my recent reviews, ammo is extremely hard to find right now. I was grateful to have some left over from my Fiocchi ammo review, so I at least had more than one bullet weight and loading to try. I also tried my tried-and-true .38 handload, a powder-coated Lee 158-grain cast semi-wadcutter over 3.5 grains of Tite Group. This reload is usually accurate in the .38 and .357 guns I’ve tried it in, but with my 638, it delivered a shotgun-style pattern, not a group. So, I didn’t photograph those targets. It’s interesting that that reload is usually very accurate in my Taurus 85 snubbie but not in the S&W – go figure…

I tried two .38 Special Fiocchi loads: their 158-grain JHP and 125-grain JHP +P. I didn’t chronograph the loads – I’ve never really been impressed with standard-weight bullets out of the short snubbie’s barrel – but the expansion shown in the bullet photo above proves that Fiocchi has figured out a way to get that standard-weight (albeit a bit heavy for self-defense ammo) bullet up to a speed that provides expansion. It seems that, in a snubbie, the lighter 110-grain bullet weight works the best in terms of velocity but may not be the overall best for self-defense. I did try, a while back, some NovX ammo in 9mm. That company loads very light, specialty bullets that step out around 1300 fps. They did not have .38 ammo ready yet when I originally reviewed them, but I can only imagine the velocities that the old .38 would provide with that company’s bullet and load. You can read that review here.

Here are the targets, which I shot standing at 10 yards…

target 158 shot with 638
158-grain.

Another bullet hole is hidden under the revolver. This group was alright and would suffice for very close range defense, but the 125-grain +P load was a bit better:

target 125 shot with 638

These are just a couple representative targets I shot – if you can find a decent defense load that will hit close to the fixed sights and show any decent type of group, you have a winner. This is not a benchrest, target-type of gun so I shot it double-action offhand at a fairly close range, conditions similar to how the gun and its ammo were designed to be used originally. I was going to include a link to Lucky Gunner’s .38 Special ammo page, where they include ballistics gel tests of the loads they sell but they have non in stock right now. If you have questions about a certain .38 load’s penetration and expansion characteristics, keep checking back with them. This supply situation can’t last forever.

Also, if you are curious about the targets I use, there is a link on this site that will allow you to download them, free. I made them up many years ago, to fulfill specific target functions – some are handgun, others are rifle. Anyway, they’re yours for the download.

Shooting the 638 double-action with +P ammo is a bit of an attention-getter, but not as much of one as when I shot, three days ago, a friend’s S&W model 60 three-inch .357 Magnum with magnum loads. I had done that before – shot a .357 snub-nose with full loads – and equated it to having the open palm of your hand whacked with a 2×4. It wasn’t painful, but more than a few cylinders’ full and I would be ready to retire from the range and wrap my hand around a cold beverage in order to get the blood flowing again… At least the .38 isn’t that bad. It was controllable, and lent itself to decently-fast follow up shots. But – how would it compare to a semi-auto? Could I get my Taurus G3c 9mm, for instance, back on target quickly for follow-up shots? I don’t honestly know. I would have to shoot both against a timer in order to find that out. I guess my point is, that you will need to practice a lot with whatever gun or style of gun you choose to carry. One you are “in the groove”, it really shouldn’t matter which type of gun you shoot – just get good with it. The J-frame is enough gun for most uses, with enough practice and the right ammo.

So, In The End…

So – are you ready to go out and buy a 638 (or 642, 637, etc.)? Alright, I’m kidding of course. But, I hope I did throw some light on one of the most popular families of revolvers (and one in particular) used for concealed carry (check out our insurance comparison). There are many good snub-nose .38s out there – I mentioned my Taurus 85, and of course there are others, in all price ranges. You have many great examples of the snub-nosed .38 to choose from. Let’s face it – there are many younger shooters who have never even shot a revolver, much less bought one. That could translate into gun dealers’ revolver display cases not being picked as clean by customers as many semi-auto cases have been. In this current state of gun buying frenzy, you might want to consider a J-frame…they are simple to operate, fairly inexpensive and shoot an effective cartridge. Not a bad deal, in my opinion. If you’ve had experience with a snubbie, let us hear from you below. As always, keep ‘em in the black and stay safe!

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13 comments
  1. A great Sunday read as usual, Mike!

    I carry my model 85 more often than not, and I’m pretty comfortable with it. At 35, I still consider myself pretty young for sure, but I shoot the 2-inch snubbie a lot better than I do most my semiautos, so that’s it for me.

    Thanks for the article!

  2. I’ve been carrying a 638 for a half dozen years. Got spoiled by older model Smiths that used to be polished and hand fitted at the factory. Once I did a trigger job on this pistol I went from liking it to loving it.

  3. That trooper with the turkey needs to go to the range, I’ve been carrying a 638 for twenty years, off and on and I can hit a two inch circle at fifty yards consistently enough to kill an attacker, I suspect he never practiced with that S&W and/or was a little shook up by the wounded turkey !!!

    1. Doug, yeah, could be that he was rattled – it was right on the highway. You sound very accurate with yours! Thanks for writing.

  4. Excellent review as usual Mike. Having shot both I much prefer the Ruger LCR to any of the S&W snubbies these days. Ruger engineers created a unique linkage that gives an even, steady DA trigger pull. In my experience S&W snubbies really stack up towards the end of the DA stroke which may cause some shooters (like me) to pull the sights off target just before the hammer breaks. I don’t experience this issue with the little Ruger. I carry my LCR in a DeSantis synthetic pocket holster and it just disappears into my right front pocket. Yeah, its “only” a .38 but its always with me and rule #1 for self-protection with a gun is have a gun.

    1. Kaniksu, those Rugers are very nice, to be sure. The trigger is what sells them. I’m glad you found something that works for you – thanks for writing!

  5. This is interesting because I owned the very similar Model .442 for years. I didn’t shoot it very well because I hated to practice with it. I consider it the single most unpleasant firearm I’ve ever owned. I ended up trading it off for for a steel 2 inch Model 60-9 in .357. I’d much rather shoot full house .357 through the 60-9 than 38 Special +P through the 442. I won’t say the 60-9 is soft shooter, it’s not, it’ll wake you up. But to me it’s a lot more pleasant than that Airweight 442. Just goes to show, your mileage may vary.

    1. Matt, that’s why they make so many different types of guns – everybody likes something different. The right gun for you is the one that works well for you and that you can shoot easily. If it’s a snubbie .357, so much the better. Thanks for writing!

  6. Mike I have carried a 642 for 16+ years. The reason these are fantastic firearms they are what I call a belly gun, used in real world situations like late nite visits to a convenient store, changing a flat tire ect. 10 ft or less . Accuracy is not a factor due to the real world scenario of distance. Plus as you talked about pocket carry In a pocket holster , I could carry a 686 or a 1911 or as I do 40% a sw shield which I trust, But time and time the 642 is with me, because it is easy to carry I said easy to carry which you tend to pocket instead of rigging up a holster to go out. Ease of carry translates to carried more often repeat last sentence.

    1. Douglas, you are right. If it’s easy to carry, you’ll carry it. As the saying goes, the “little pistol” in your pocket is better than the .45 on your nightstand. The “little” .38 can be a comfort, for sure. Thanks for writing!

  7. Mike…enjoyed your discussion on the Mossberg, I just bought one and was happy…was…my range work showed the gun running about 2-2.5 inches low with 115 grain range ammo. I wonder if going to the SIG #8 rear sight available at Brownells would bring point of impact up. I like the gun but don’t care to live with the “low” impact. My shots were all at defensive ranges of 7-1o yards. Even tried a resting two hand hold on a padded gun case, still low!!

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