Smith & Wesson 638 Bodyguard .38 Special +P
The object of lightweight snubbies is to afford an effective level of firepower in a package that is reliable, simple to operate, and easy to carry. The Bodyguard has been around for ages it would seem, and was one of the earliest successful attempts at taking the inevitable snagging of clothing by the hammer out of the equation.
In two past evaluations of ultra-lightweight snubbies, we recorded accuracy data from both 10 and 15 yards. Checking those results, it is apparent that 15 yards is much more challenging for these short guns. In our September 2000 test, nearly all five revolvers were able to record sub 1-inch groups with three different cartridges from ten yards. In March 1999, only the Smith & Wesson 342Ti managed a sub 1-inch group at 15 yards. This was accomplished with Federal’s 130-grain full metal jacketed round.
For our latest test we felt we should explore the viability of more unusual ammunition. This was spurred by the knowledge that titanium revolvers are recommended for use with jacketed rounds. In fact, the 342-series revolvers come with a printed warning saying not to use lead bullets. Although no reference to bullet weight is made with the current warning, we distinctly remember the manufacturer also recommending bullets weighing 125 grains or less.
Reason: A super-light revolver is prone to recoiling backward so quickly it may actually leave the bullet behind. If the bullet is too heavy and/or the crimp is trying to hold soft lead, the case may accelerate to the rear so fast that the slug pulls loose slightly, possibly protruding far enough to meet the forcing cone and jam the gun. Thus, the heaviest round we chose for this test was a classic 125-grain +P cartridge from Black Hills. We found 110-grain Silvertip Hollow Points from Winchester and quickly added them to our test roster. MagSafe produces a frangible hollow point that was designed for airweight revolvers called the Defender. These 52-grain cartridges produced 1,620 fps and 303 foot-pounds of muzzle energy from a 3-inch Ruger SP101.
The name Bodyguard has to be one of the all-time classic names for a self-defense gun. Certainly this Smith & Wesson design has been with us a long time, and in many ways it should be considered an unsung hero among the latest super-light firearms, mainly because it did so much so well.
The 638 Bodyguard was the happiest gun in this test. It didn’t seem to care about bullet weight or configuration, and firing DA or SA it was our accuracy winner. Results firing the frangible MagSafe were acceptable, but the Winchester Silvertips were better still. The top shooter was the Black Hills 125-grain JHP +P rounds, and we feel this old-fashioned gun style would really shine with a 158-grain round.
In our view, three key points made this revolver superior to the 342PD. Up front was a narrow front blade that takes full advantage of the limited sight channel dug into the top strap. This blade had a serrated ramp to kill glare, and a deeper-cut notch clearly defined its maximum sight radius.
The next element was a trigger that can be fired double or single action. The single-action trigger on this very small gun was better than what we typically find on most full-sized revolvers. The trigger face itself was properly radiused and a pleasure to touch. We had to check twice to make sure our measurements were correct, but both the 342PD and the Bodyguard offered 14-pound trigger pulls. The difference must be in the exposed hammer. Perhaps once you’ve got the hammer going, its momentum makes the trigger pull feel lighter. Ignition on this latest edition of the Bodyguard is by a flat-faced hammer striking an inertial firing pin riding spring-loaded inside the frame. The firing pin on the original model, often referred to as a nose-pin, rode on the hammer itself. We compared DA pull on the 638 to that of the Centennial 342, and it seems the final increment of the press has a slightly shorter movement. We feel this is critical, and it gave the Bodyguard a big leg up.
Another difference between the two Smith & Wesson snub-nosed revolvers were the supplied grips. While each was rubber and featured an exposed backstrap, we preferred the two-piece set found on the Bodyguard. They filled the palm and offered a profile that let the gun move just enough in the hand to bleed off recoil energy. In contrast, the Hogue Bantam grip on the PD demands the proper use of the finger grooves and does little to protect the hand from the exposed edges of the frame.
Elsewhere, the Bodyguard did not fully shroud the ejector rod. The ejector rod on the Smith & Wesson J frames is abbreviated, so speed and sureness of ejection varies with case pressure and cleanliness of the chambers. The top of the hammer appeared as a serrated slide peeking through the shroud. This is what some refer to as a “humpback” design. We thought the gun would be suitably snag free as a result, as long as the trigger wasn’t being depressed as the shooter brought it out of cover.
We enjoyed firing the Bodyguard, especially single action. While our smallest group double action was with the Black Hills round (2.0 inches), we did manage a 1.3-inch group firing the Winchester 110-grain Silvertip single action. Overall, the use of the single action trigger reduced groups from 0.4 to 1.1 inches on average.