December 27, 2012

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.

Gun Tests September 2010

We believe S&W is going to sell plenty of these revolvers. The easy double action (compared with the two older guns) and the small grip help make this a gun anyone can handle. We thought the laser added a great deal to the package. It makes night sights unnecessary, and can add a measure of tactical advantage to the holder of this handy revolver.

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.

Gun Tests September 2010

Note the clever frame-mounted "star" that engages the cylinder, and also has the lone locking point for the cylinder in the form of that hole in its center. This star engages the real star on the rear of the cylinder, and as the trigger is pulled this rotates the cylinder in the wrong direction, if you know Smiths. Also note the laser's front window in the upper left of the photo.

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.

Comments (35)

If you had a bad experience shopping online, I can see where it might color your desires to avoid such in the future. While I have have a few problems with online purchases, in all cases, the problems were rectified to my satisfaction......ergo, I continue to buy stuff that way. You might still want to look through the websites of such places as MidwayUSA, Natchez Shooters Supply, Brownell's, etc to see if you can find what you want, and then do a telephone order for it. Just a suggestion.....

Posted by: canovack | January 25, 2013 10:47 AM    Report this comment

p.s. i really do not like ordering on line if i can help it. almost got royally screwed once. so i am hesitant

Posted by: daniel boone | January 24, 2013 11:54 PM    Report this comment

j apparrently mis-wrote it is the Pachmayrs that are hard to find==all the stores--gunstores (all five or so) sell Houges. u can find some pachs for semi-autos=usually slide ons==just hard to find for revolvers. we have plenty of pawn shops though=in fact that is where i got my first Pachs some 30 years ago==don't know why i did not think looking there before. guess it is that disease we start getting around 50-55 yrs. old==CRS=can't remember shit(stuff?)

Posted by: daniel boone | January 24, 2013 11:49 PM    Report this comment

As you have probably noticed, by now, daniel boone, many of us.....myself included.....are prone to going off on tangents, so there's no need for any apologies. Since you said that Hogues might be hard to find, I'd suggest going to the Hogue website,, and you can purchase the grips you need directly from them.

Posted by: canovack | January 22, 2013 7:59 PM    Report this comment

thanks canovack== i will look around ==we are kind of short on gun shops here in Fayettnam==most places only carry Hogue. any vets out there that were here at Ft. Bragg during the wild days of the 500 block of Hay Street. they sold bricks from places that were torn down and put brass plate number on them==this was in 1984 when they tore down the whole block and sold the bricks to help pay for the new police station there. my dad waited in line for over 5 hours to get each of his kids one which was a feat in it self as he was very badly injured in a car accident in 1968, and needed to rest every few hours each day=my brick is #203. my wife and i are really stuggling financially right now and i have thought about selling it, but it would be VERY expensive considering what he went thru to get it and the sentimental value of it. saying fayettenam instead of Fayetteville made me think of that and the fact he has been with God for 22 years now. he was a great man and the epitomy of integrity. i really miss him=everyday=sorry guys did not mean to go off on a tangent

Posted by: daniel boone | January 22, 2013 6:18 PM    Report this comment

I also have a Ruger SP101, and the first set of grips I put on it were Pachmayr's. They were good, but I found them to be a bit short for my hands. When I tried the Hogues on it, the gun felt like it was a part of my hand. Anyway, Daniel boone, the short answer to your question is.....Yes! Pachmayr does make a grip for the SP101.

Posted by: canovack | January 18, 2013 5:46 PM    Report this comment

i have a ruger sp-101 original grips suck=put a set of Hogues, which were better but a little too slim. anyone know if Pachmayr makes grips for this gun. did not last time i checked. had Pachmayr "combat grips" on s&w model 66 with 2.5 inch barrel and they were perfect. got rid of the 66 though=that damn gun was haunted

Posted by: daniel boone | January 18, 2013 4:12 PM    Report this comment

Hi Canovack:
Thanks for your suggestions...I had already been thinking of Hogue Grips. They solved the same problem I had with my 1911. A friend recommended I start handloading so I could make up a reduced load myself. Wad cutters are also a possible solution. Thanks again, G.

Posted by: gunweaver | January 5, 2013 2:16 PM    Report this comment

Hi Graham.....Welcome to the forum. You may wish to purchase some Hogue grips for your BG38. They are relatively new on the market (I waited about 3 months to get mine from the Hogue website), but they make a huge difference in the handling characteristics of the gun. You may also want to use lighter loads of .38 Special in the gun. A lot of defense oriented people recommend the use of the comparatively mild recoiling .38 Special wad-cutter ammo. It doesn't beat up your hand, but being essentially a flying flat faced cylinder, it imparts some pretty good kinetic energy to the target. My wife has her BG38 loaded with them, and she likes it just fine.

Posted by: canovack | January 4, 2013 6:12 PM    Report this comment

This my first visit and I am enjoying it.
Recently, I purchased a BG. It is a good carry gun but the recoil is a bit heavy for a long session at the range. I am a bit spoiled by using comparable semi autos which absorb recoil better.


Posted by: gunweaver | January 4, 2013 5:11 PM    Report this comment

Agreed, Fletchman. I have a S&W 642 with a Lasermax high mount laser that's very much like the BG38, but the activation button is on the grip, making it very, very instinctive. Out of curiosity, I purchased a BG38, and with the addition of Hogue grips, it feels even better in my hand than the 642, since the Hogue grips fill my hand better than the grips that came with the Lasermax. With a little practice, I have perfected the draw stroke with thumb activating the top mounted switch, so that it has about the same degree of instinctive activation. By-the-way, my wife also has a BG38, and she likes it alot, with the stock grips that came on the piece.

Posted by: canovack | January 3, 2013 10:53 AM    Report this comment

A set of laser grips will give you an advantage in a gunfight in low light conditions. I will take any advantage I can. It doesn't mean you can abandon practice and marksmanship with sights however I would rather have them than not. I have a model 66-2 with a 2 1/2 inch barrel. It has good adjustable sights and crimson trace grips. I have handled the bodyguard and like the crimson trace laser much better as its instinctive.

Posted by: Fletchman | January 3, 2013 3:24 AM    Report this comment

thx quiet man. also found them on ten states that require declaration of ccw to le if stopped.

Posted by: cacti | December 30, 2012 11:40 AM    Report this comment

Cacti, There is an annual publication called Gun Laws By State, by Bryan Ciyou. If the info you want is not there, it is the only things that isn't. You can get it from Amazon.

RE Bodyguard. It has all the "looks" and "charm" of a black toad.

Posted by: quiet man | December 28, 2012 6:47 PM    Report this comment


Posted by: cacti | December 28, 2012 2:41 PM    Report this comment

I own and use the older S&W Bodyguard in stainless, the Airlite, The model 340, and all are CT'd. Excellent firearms with reasonable accuracy and comfortable carry. The plastic BG is no improvement and I have fired it. Its a very expensive plastic toy and I'm ashamed That S&W manufactures such a piece of junk

Posted by: NRA UR2 | December 28, 2012 3:35 AM    Report this comment

If you folks think this piece competes with a Centennial for looks and charm, you must be sniffing old type-writer ribbons. Money spent on adding a lazer to a belly gun would be better spent on developing a smooth, light trigger if it is possible.

Posted by: noone | December 27, 2012 11:13 PM    Report this comment

You should be able to find a Ruger LCR, S&W J-frame, Taurus M85, or Ruger SP101 at any gun show or dealer. If you are looking for the laser capability, Lasergrips can be had for any S&W J-frame, Ruger SP101, or Taurus M85. The Ruger LCR also has a capability for mounting a laser under the barrel.

Posted by: canovack | December 27, 2012 8:34 PM    Report this comment

My wife is looking for this model or the same type gun in Ruger anybody know where i can get it?

Posted by: P-mack | December 27, 2012 6:30 PM    Report this comment

I have one and like it a lot - I also have the Ruger LCR and the S$W 422 and 36 - so I get to compare. I like the 422 the best - but the BG is a close second. The laser is pretty worthless - but fun and gives inexperienced shooters (my wife) confidence which is worth it for that alone. The LCR is good - but the grips don't fit my hand (short fingers) as well ans S&W grips.

Posted by: TOM M | December 27, 2012 6:16 PM    Report this comment

I recently purchased a set of Hogue grips for the BG38, and they have made a huge difference in the feel and function of the little revolver. With the large Hogue grips on the BG38, it is now much easier to draw the gun and depress the button on the laser sight in one smooth motion. If you have one of these little BG38s, I highly recommend purchase of a set of Hogue grips for it. It makes a day and night difference.

Posted by: canovack | December 27, 2012 1:55 PM    Report this comment

Without having had one of these in hand yet, I have doubts based on the review.
First, for the same reason that I carry a semi-auto hot, I don't want a laser sight that I have to turn on. I've been pretty satisfied with CT sights on revolvers and semi-autos alike. I've never had a battery go dead while carrying a properly holstered handgun. Grip activated sights are best, in my opinion.
Second, in S&W revolvers that I've owned I can feel the moment before the hammer falls when shooting DA. I like that and I shoot, at least as well, or better in DA with my S&W revolvers than I do with most semi-autos whether pin or hammer fired.
As for fixed sights, I've never had an issue. I paint the back sight bright green and the front sight bright orange. My wife can hold her own at ten yards with a S&W .38 Air Weight. At fifteen yards I wouldn't want to be standing near her target but I'd fear being her target much more. One should NEVER count on laser sights alone. Also, adjustable sights, if anything, are more likely to fail due to a loose or missing screw or dropping the weapon.
All in all, this seems like a pretty fair concealed carry revolver that I could get used to with one exception. The manually operated laser sight is a deal breaker.

Posted by: 357inblu | December 27, 2012 1:29 PM    Report this comment

Lasers are very difficult to see in bright light, especially red lasers. lasers which can be seen by the gun operator in darker conditions most definitely can be seen by the oncoming aggressor. Switching on a laser just makes you a target. The aggressor now only has to shoot at the laser point, which will put his point of aim somewhere in the vicinity of your dominant eye. At the ranges a snubby .38 generally is going to be used, simply pint shooting will be an option. Get a well-made metal (aluminum or Scandium, if you want really light weight)snubby and practice with it enough to be truly proficient in its use for defense and forget the laser. With proficient point shooting at close range, one does not have to worry abut becoming a red-light target, turning on a laser under stress conditions, inadvertent turning off of the laser, or any other jimcracks or geegaws. Additionally, to use a laser in the dark, you must see your target well enough to put the laser dot on it and if you can see it that well you can see it well enough to hit point shooting. By the way, many are not going to be intimidated by a red dot on their chest. When the laser fires at them, they see the light point in front of them; they will not be looking down in Hollywood fashion to see where the dot is landing. They also just might be moving rapidly and sighting in on the light point as they fire off a couple of rounds. They will have a nice target while yo will be trying to find your moving target with the small beam of red light. Good luck!

Posted by: JonSE | December 27, 2012 1:00 PM    Report this comment

Like handguns and rifles with handgun ammo.

Posted by: Jayell | January 14, 2012 8:11 PM    Report this comment

I'm not absolutely certain about this, but the experience of Stuart G's laser turning off on the BG 38, might be due to a built in feature of the laser. While I haven't checked this in actuality, the manual that comes with the gun states that the laser has a built in timer that shuts the unit off after five minutes. Of course, I don't know whether five minutes equates to the three or four shots that he mentioned.

Posted by: canovack | December 12, 2011 10:52 AM    Report this comment

Mine without the laser shoots left & low at 7 yds. After zero-ing it to the laser it was consistant. P shells OK for me but wife don't like the recoil.

Posted by: RUAD137 | December 12, 2011 9:10 AM    Report this comment

Recently purchased a NIB S&W Bodyguard with built in laser for my wife. I was a little disappointed due to the laser turning off after 3 or 4 shots without touching the button. Also the on/off button is too small and too close to an adjustment screw for the laser that it is very difficult to turn on/off swiftly. As for recoil, as previously mentioned in other comments is manageable, however made for a small hand. If a grip slightly larger with finger groves similar to the Ruger SLP was available or supplied, the feel of the gun wanting to jump out of your hand would be greatly reduced. In closing, a fine weapon if used as designed, strictly conceal carry and only fired when necessary, but a bear to practice with for a large person.

Posted by: SnoozeMyster | November 11, 2011 7:33 AM    Report this comment

not all self defence is agianst humans. Small aggressive anamals like the local rash of rabid skunks should be shot in the chest so the brain can be tested for rabies. Are those lasers accurate enough for snakes. Perhaps you can add skunk at night and snake loads to your snubby evaluations. I test my snake loads at 10 FEET. Those little shot can ricochet strait back at you. You do have some country boys among your adoring public. I think my 3" s&w 317 is the best gun for packing on a riding lawn mower. Mice and rats are nigh on impossible to hit with the wheel or blade and it can leave funny patterns in the lawn. I feel that riding around on a lawn mower deters some nefarious charactors. Of course, I live out of the city limits.

Posted by: olafhardtB | May 23, 2011 8:28 PM    Report this comment

As regards John R's comment, it seems that virtually all red lasers may suffer the same difficulty in visibility due to bright sunlight. One possible remedy may be found in the use of a green laser. Of course the Bodyguard .38 doesn't come with a green laser, so those who own this piece will just have to live with the limitation, or just do some good, old-fashioned sighted shooting if the gun is required in bright sunlight.

As concerns the use of .38+P ammo in a lightweight revolver, if one is particularly sensitive to recoil, an acceptable alternative my be found in the use of wad-cutter ammunition. At the close ranges at which this revolver is likely to be employed, wad-cutter bullets provide a broad frontal area that tends to dissipate all of the kinetic energy in the target. Recoil using wad-cutter ammo is very manageable.

Posted by: canovack | May 11, 2011 11:57 AM    Report this comment

Got a chance to try a friend's the other day. I just happened to have some +P .38's with me. Recoil wasn't too bad- stout but manageable as they say. I had trouble seeing the laser dot on a sunny day.

Posted by: JEAN F R | May 10, 2011 8:28 PM    Report this comment

Interestingly enough, the grip shape and size of the Bodyguard make it pretty easy for my wife to handle.

Posted by: canovack | May 6, 2011 8:53 AM    Report this comment

how was the recoil? I had a Ruger LCR and it was bad with 38special ammo.

Posted by: mel zwirn | May 6, 2011 8:17 AM    Report this comment

As some might recall from the threads in the story concerning a Rise In Firearms Use by Women, at the request of another reader, I posted a discussion concerning my daily wear of devices on my belt, and how it changes with the hours of each day. My evening relaxing attire included the use of a S&W Airweight M642 fitted with a LaserMax high mounted laser sight. My rationale was that in the event of a home invasion attack (which are prevalent in our area) a laser could make the difference in time between a sighted shot and/or a point shot. I have found that the laser speeds up the response time to the extent sighted and/or point shooting was significantly slower than a laser sighted shot. When my wife saw the new S&W Bodyguard model with the laser, she fell in love with it, and I purchased it for her. Interestingly it fit her small hand just fine, and while she owns a number of other handguns, she feels most confident with the Bodyguard.

Posted by: canovack | May 5, 2011 8:42 PM    Report this comment

Useful review - thanks.

Stephen Power
Vacaville, CA

Posted by: steviedavie | May 5, 2011 12:39 PM    Report this comment

Then again, the attacking felon might be a drug-crazed lunatic, and the laser dot won't phase him at all, Learn to shoot a short-ranged gun like pointing your finger, and you'll win your fight. You can buy a lot of practice ammo for the price of a laser, and the battery won't die on you at the wrong time. Gismos! Here's a question: How many will trust their laser to shoot around a hostage?

Posted by: Mister E | May 5, 2011 12:27 PM    Report this comment

Add your comments ...

New to Gun Tests? Register for Free!

Already Registered? Log In