S&W Model 438 Bodyguard 38 Special
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. Today’s TV cops favor all manner of automatic pistols, so the snub 38 is not often seen. But that doesn’t mean it’s 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?
It’s clear that Smith & Wesson figures there’s still a viable market for the snubnose 38, because it came out with a new revolver in 2010 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. The gun was a S&W five-shot 38 Special, and had a 1.9-inch barrel. 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 don’t 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 it’s 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 makes them easy to get out of the pocket, too.
We tested 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, PMC’s 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. Here’s what we found.
It’s light! It’s plastic! And it shoots real bullets. Those were our first impressions of the matte-black steel-polymer Bodyguard 38, and there were plenty more.
First, how do you open it? That was new. On top of the rear of the gun is a plastic shroud that you can shove forward easily with the thumb of either hand, though it’s easier with the right-hand thumb. In fact, we found it difficult to get the cylinder to swing out with the gun in the left hand, compared to the right thumb and forefinger getting it open very easily.
On the right rear of the frame is the laser, which is held on by a tiny Torx-head screw. To turn it on, press down very firmly on a small button on top of the unit. One press gets a steady light, the second press gets a pulsing light, and the third push turns it off.
The upper frame was aluminum, and the lower portion was steel-reinforced polymer. The grips were one-piece hard rubber. The factory claims the cylinder and barrel are stainless steel, though we found them to be a magnetic variety of stainless. The fronts of the cylinder were beveled much like early Colt SA revolvers, which we thought was a good thing.
Another good thing was we could really get a good hold on the grip of this revolver. We believe the grip will sell a lot of these to ladies or to anyone with smaller hands. Some of us would have liked them fatter like on the Centennial, but we found they worked very well.
Opening the cylinder revealed more new stuff. The latch consists of only a single pin contained within the star on the back of the cylinder, which is caught into a hole on the recoil shield that is in the center of a mating star that actually turns the cylinder. Gone are the typical hand of every other S&W in the world before this iteration. Also gone is the lockout of the action when the cylinder is open. The action cocks and drops the hammer any time you press the trigger.
At the front of the cylinder is more news, some of it good. The ejector has much greater travel, at least a quarter inch more, so getting empties out is not the chore it sometimes was with earlier models. The slim steel ejector rod is protected by a wrap-around shield under the barrel. However, there’s no lockup at the cylinder front, and the crane gapes quite a bit for a new gun. The cylinder is also not very tightly locked with the gun in the just-fired position. The chamber could move about 0.020 inch sideways, at least twice as much of the worst of the other two.
But on the range we found the looseness didn’t make a whole lot of difference to the gun’s accuracy. All in all, it turned in some of the best results, but not by much. Our first surprise came when we dropped in two FBI loads, closed the cylinder and tried a shot. The gun didn’t go off. We discovered the cylinder turns backwards from every other honest old S&W made in the last 100 years. The cylinder is rotated by a star-shaped device on the recoil shield that is spun internally as the trigger is pulled. It worked, but took some getting used to. The barrel had segmental rifling, with rounded corners. This is an excellent way to make a barrel, as Alexander Henry discovered well over a century ago.
The trigger pull was slick and smooth, but gave little clue when the gun would go off, and, surprisingly, we liked that. Shooting the gun as fast as we could, we noted it was a bit slower than the M36 because its light weight was noticeable, as the gun rose more than the heavier gun. We didn’t like the iron sights any more than those on the Centennial, but then, there was the laser.
Undoubtedly the laser is a psychological advantage for the shooter, especially at night. There’s no need for night sights. Just press the dot and light up your target. We found it unnatural to trust the laser during hip shooting, but it did work and we could see its advantages. We didn’t like the button that turned it on, but in fairness it was stiff enough that the laser wouldn’t be accidentally turned on in your pocket, burning the battery to zero. But the laser does shut itself off automatically after five minutes. We had no use for the second, pulsing presentation of the laser. If you’re shaking even slightly, it’s impossible to tell your laser from that of a second one, no matter that one is pulsing and one is steady. However, we guessed that if the pulsing laser were seen dancing on his chest by a felon, he might think of it as a ticking time bomb, drop his gun, and run.
Our Team Said: We liked the gun, despite construction methods and materials that are alien to lovers of classic S&Ws. For not too much money you get a light gun, easily carried, that can handle hot +P loads with ease, shoots well, and has the advantage of a laser. Earlier S&W snubbies can be fitted with Crimson Trace laser grips, but they are pretty costly. We thought this was a fine system, and the laser is of course easily adjustable to your point of impact. The iron sights here put most rounds about 8 to 9 inches high and 2 inches left, and for that we gave the minus sign on our grade. The pinned-in sight could be replaced with a higher one, but you ought not to have to do that.