September 2010

38 Special S&W Snubnose Showdown: Who’s the Top Dog?

Can the companyís new plastic-and-metal Bodyguard 38 laser-equipped concealable wheelgun beat a Centennial Airweight and a Chiefs Special Model 36? We shoot them head to head.

The 38 snubnose revolver is a staple of murder mysteries, cop TV shows for many decades, and of real-life cops who need a good, light backup. Everyone over the age of, say, 40 has seen a snubby at one time or another. Todayís TV cops favor all manner of automatic pistols, so the snub 38 is not often seen. But that doesnít mean itís no good. The bottom line is, if all you have is a 38 Special snubnose with only five shots, you are a very long way from being unarmed. If you carry five more in a speed loader, well, what more could you want?

Itís clear that Smith & Wesson figures thereís still a viable market for the snubnose 38, because it has come out with a new revolver called the Bodyguard 38, usurping the name of the previous Bodyguard with shrouded hammer. The new Bodyguard 38 comes with an "integral" laser sight, and the gun vies with the Centennial Airweight for looks, charm, effectiveness, concealability, and price. We acquired a new Bodyguard 38 No. 103038, $625, with an eye toward pitting it against two good wheelguns already in the S&W arsenal, a used, older Centennial Airweight (street price around $400) and a Chiefs Special Model 36 with square butt (street price about $300) that had its hammer bobbed, so it was essentially a double-action-only gun like the other two, though it was still possible to cock the hammer. All the guns were S&W five-shot 38 Specials, and all had 1.9-inch barrels. Our prime interest was to see if the newer, more expensive Bodyguard was worth the money when proven, perfectly servicable older guns are readily available at gun stores, pawn shops, and gun shows.

The snubby has a lot of advantages and not many disadvantages. The snub 38 is not a target revolver, so donít expect it to make small groups for you, despite the fact that some have been fitted with adjustable sights. In this test, we looked at these guns as self-defense choices, and nothing else. We noted itís not particularly easy to conceal a snub 38. In fact, many 45 autos are slimmer, thus more easily hidden. But you can simply put the 38 revolver into your pocket, no holster, and no one will know what that odd bulge really is. The absence of a hammer on this trio of test guns makes them easy to get out of the pocket, too.

We tested the trio with four types of ammunition, and tried several more types of loads, which are unreported. Our official test loads were Winchester 130-grain flat-nose FMJ, PMCís 132-grain round-nose FMJ, and Blazer 125-grain +P JHP. We were unable to obtain any heavy-bullet factory loads, so we used a handload featuring a 158-grain cast SWC. Hereís what we found.

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