S&W Model 442 Centennial Airweight 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?

Gun Tests Magazine recently tested a S&W Model 442 Centennial Airweight 38 Special. Here’s what they had to say:

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 the gun as a self-defense choice, 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 on this test gun 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.

S&W offers a machine-engraved version of the 442 for just over $900 MSRP, but it lacks the barrel rib of our test gun, the S&W Model 442 Centennial Airweight 38 Special, $400 (used). Also, SKU #178041 is the newly made Centennial Airweight, unadorned and matte black with stainless cylinder, which lists for $640. Or you can buy our matte-black test gun—No. 162810 with a carbon-steel cylinder—for $616 new.

This mostly matte-black revolver had hard-rubber grips with a finger groove that most of us liked. The grip was comfortable in the hand, and although we could get only two fingers onto it securely, we had no trouble controlling the gun. The DA trigger was case colored, and had no serrations so the trigger finger could slide sideways during shooting, though we did not find that necessary nor desirable. Although the frame was aluminum and the cylinder and barrel were steel, the finish was extremely uniform all over. The right side of the frame had the Airweight name laser-etched into it along with the S&W logo, and all filled with white paint.

The gun opened by the usual S&W latch, which we found did not cut our fingers nor get in the way to any extent during our shooting tests. As with all older S&W snubbies, the empties were lifted only 0.625 inch out of the chambers, but if you had a clean chamber, the empties could generally be thrown out of the gun by working the ejector briskly. The ejector rod was steel, and formed the forward latch for the cylinder. The rear of the cylinder had the usual spring-loaded pin fitting into a hole in the rear of the frame for the latch.

The fronts of the cylinder were relatively sharp, though they could have been rounded to avoid cutting fabric or holster. The sights were bold and wide, but there was not enough room on the sides of the front sight blade, and it got lost easily during our fast shooting sessions.

On the range we found the Centennial shot close to its sights for elevation with all the test loads, and grouped about 2 inches to the left at 15 yards. With a few trial FBI loads from Buffalo Bore, the shots struck somewhat higher, but still on the paper. The Centennial Airweight did best with our handload, giving round groups that averaged 2.4 inches. The trigger of this gun was the best of the trio for deliberate slow fire. The trigger stacked to the letoff point, and we could then fine-tune our sight picture and finish the press. Still, our groups averaged around 4 inches at 15 yards.

Gun Tests Said: Overall, this revolver felt the best to our group, in part because it had the best DA trigger for precision slow shooting. The gun performed better in slow DA shooting. All rounds struck slightly left of center, but the Centennial was well regulated for elevation with everything but a few FBI loads, which struck high. All loads struck about 2 inches left of center, which we considered acceptable for this type gun.

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