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Old 01-14-2008, 21:31   #5
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The first small frame double action Smith & Wesson, a .38, was built in 1880. This was not the famous .38 Special which would come later, but the less powerful .38 S&W. The first .38 DA weighed 18 ounces and would go through five design changes, thirty-one years of production, and number more than one-half million examples of top-break design. These were followed by the Perfected Model .38 with a solid frame/trigger guard combination , but still of the top break design, that led the way for the solid frame, swing out cylinder revolvers to come.

At the same time that the top-break .38's were being made, the same basic design was offered in .32 S&W caliber with nearly 300,000 of the smaller caliber being made. Shortly after production began on the .38 and .32 Smith & Wesson Double Action Models, D.B. Wesson worked with son Joseph to develop a completely different style of revolver. Lucian Cary, a well known gunwriter of forty years ago relates the following legend.

"When Daniel Wesson read a newspaper story about a child who had shot himself with the family revolver, his conscience hurt. He told his wife that he would make a revolver that could be safely kept in the bureau drawer. It was his custom to receive his grandchildren every Sunday. No doubt it was tough on the grandchildren. Daniel Wesson must have been a fearsome man, with his thick body, his great beard, and his virtue (Cary obviously did not understand grandfathers and grand children and the bond between them!) But on one occasion it was his young grandchild who put it over.

Daniel Wesson made a revolver he thought no child could fire. He gave it to his grandson, Harold Wesson, now president of Smith & Wesson (this was in the 1950's) and challenged him to fire it. Harold was only eight years old but he knew that his grandfather expected him to fail. Maybe that gave him a shot in the arm. Harold tugged at the trigger with all his strength and fired the gun. His grandfather went sadly back to his shop--not that day, of course, which was Sunday, but on the following Monday. Some weeks later he again presented a revolver to Harold and asked him to pull the trigger. Harold did his best. But he failed.

The gun the boy couldn't fire was the New Departure, also known as the safety hammerless. It had a bar in the back of the grip supported by a spring. You had to squeeze the grip hard enough to depress the spring and pull the double action trigger at the same time in order to fire the gun. No child of eight had the strength to do both at once. The New Departure was an uncommonly safe bureau drawer revolver."

The Safety Hammerless, so designated by the fact that the hammer was completely enclosed by the revolver frame, became the first really practical pocket gun. Five hundred thousand of these were made in .32 and .38 caliber from 1886 until 1940.

With the advent of the I-frame Smith & Wessons in 1894, the basic design was changed from top break to a solid frame, swing-out cylinder style of revolver. Over the years from before the turn of the Century until 1960, the I-frame was offered in .32 Hand Ejector, .22/32 Hand Ejector, which became the .22 Kit Gun, .32 Regulation Police, .38 Regulation Police, and .38 Terrier.

In 1950, one of the most famous of the Smith & Wesson revolvers arrived. A five-shot, compact revolver to fire the more powerful .38 Special instead of the .38 S&W was introduced at the Conference of the International Association of Chief's of Police in Colorado Springs, Colorado and has been officially and lovingly known as the Chief's Special ever since. This was the first J-frame revolver and was larger than the I-frames and chambered in .22, .32 S&W Long, and .38 S&W. In 1960, all I-frames became J-frames.

The Chief's Special has been offered in a number of versions along the way: the standard Model 36 in both round and square butt versions, the Airweight Model 37, the Model 38 Bodyguard which had an extended frame that protected the hammer and exposed only enough of the tip to allow for cocking. The Number "39" was used for Smith's new double action 9MM Semi-automatic in the 1950's, but the J-frames resumed with the Model 40 Centennial, a J-frame "Safety Hammerless".

In 1965, a most significant J-frame variation appeared. One that was to have far reaching consequences throughout the firearms industry as the Model 36 Chief's Special was offered as the Stainless Steel Model 60. Instantly popular with peace officers and outdoorsman alike, the first stainless steel revolver revolutionized firearms and stainless steel revolvers are now a major part of the handgun industry. Stainless is so much a part of the handgun market, and especially with the small frame concealable firearms that are carried closest to the body, that of the five J-frames I have been testing, four are stainless, and the fifth has been custom finished to look like stainless.

Metalife was applied to a Smith & Wesson Chief's Special, a two-inch Model 36 .38 Special. Depending upon the weather, it has been carried in an inside the pants holster, in an ankle holster, in a boot top, and in the pocket of insulated coveralls. This particular revolver has been further customized by sending it to Teddy Jacobsen. Jacobsen is an ex-cop now in the gunsmithing business and he did one of his famous action jobs on the little Chief's Special along with polishing the trigger smooth, de-horning the hammer spur, and also jeweling both hammer and trigger. When combined with the Metalife finish, these modifications make the Model 36 into a near-perfect pocket pistol.

The only thing left to do to finish off the round butt Chief's Special was to fit it with custom grips. I just happened to be carrying this little gun when I visited Herrett's. I soon had a pair of Detective stocks for the Chief's!

The modification makes the little Chief's into a beautiful close range double action defensive pistol and the hammer can still be cocked for a longer deliberate single action shot by starting the trigger back and catching the hammer with the thumb to finish the cocking procedure.

As a companion piece to the 20 ounce Chief's Special, I have been testing the same basic gun, in this case a Model 60 Stainless Steel "Chief's Special". Friend and gunwriter Terry Murbach certainly deserves at least some of the credit for suggesting the .38 Special Stainless Steel that Murbach feels should be known as "The Trail Masterpiece". This little 23 ounce, round butted .38 sports a three inch full underlug barrel and fully adjustable sights. The sights are exactly the way they should be, black both fore and aft. Yes, even though the newest Model 60 is stainless, the rear sight assembly is black and the front sight blade is quick draw style, plain black and pinned to the stainless steel ramp.

Anyone who has read many of my articles know that my usual forte is the big and bold, the Magnum and beyond sixguns and the big bore semi-automatics. But I have definitely found a place in my collection for this little five-shooter. A Plus P five shooter I might add as Smith & Wesson does classify this little .38 as one that is able to handle the hotter loads. No little strength certainly comes from the fact that the Model 60 carries a full length cylinder with very little barrel protruding through the frame unsupported. The cylinder also, being a five shot, has the bolt cuts between chambers rather than under them.

When the J-frame Smith & Wessons came in, I went to the local gunshop, Shapel & Son's, and found three dusty old boxes down behind the counter containing long-out-of-production Jay Scott Gunfighter J-frame stocks. At the present time they ride unaltered on three J-frames but all will receive extensive customizing in the future which will see the removal of the finger grooves and the checkering that adorns two pair.

The firing tests of the Model 60 .38 Special Trail Masterpiece gave quite pleasant results. Considering the short sight radius the three-inch barrel affords, and also considering that the test groups were fired at 25 yards, and especially when one considers that the groups were fired by my hand and eye combination, some groups border on the phenomenal. The two-inch .38 Special Chief's Special was fired double action only on combat targets and not for group size. It proved to be quite capable as a defensive revolver.




MODEL 060 3" HB MODEL 36 2"
RCBS #35-150 /6.0 UNIQUE 975 2 1/2" 961
LYMAN #358156GC /5.0 UNIQUE 716 3" 691
LYMAN #358429 /5.0 UNIQUE 758 1 5/8" 720
158 SPEER SWC /5.0 UNIQUE 750 2 5/8" 735
BULL-X 158 SWC /5.0 UNIQUE 782 3 1/2" 708
LYMAN #358429 /6.6 AA#5 890 3 1/8" 815
158 SPEER SWC /6.6 AA#5 830 3 1/2" 795
BULL-X 158 SWC /6.6 AA#5 821 3" 785
BULL-X 148 WC /6.0 AA#5 861 2 3/8" 841
SIERRA 110 JHP /8.8 AA#5 1067 2 3/4" 1017
SPEER 140 JHP /6.0 UNIQUE 934 1 5/8" 913
CCI LAWMAN 125 JHP +P 1019 2 1/2" 932
BLACK HILLS 125 JHP 864 3 1/4" 792

To go along with the J-frames, I requested samples of the wares of

Feminine Protection by Sarah. Sarah uses a very catchy name to offer a serious product, namely purses and belt bags that double as holsters. The handbags and J-frame guns are naturals together and both the Patriot and Classic leather bags supplied accept readily accessible J-frame Smith & Wesson revolvers, and still leave room for all the other stuff that women seem to carry in their handbags.

Both bags open on the front edge to allow instant access to the concealed weapon that many women are going to legally as more and more states are providing licensing systems. The closure system consists of both snaps and velcro, but they do open instantly when the two halves are parted.

Along with the leatherbags came two belt bags or fanny packs. I'm not quite sure I'm ready for a fanny pack but I also remember how difficult it was to carry a concealed weapon last summer during our heat wave. Both belt bags supplied easily carry two- or three-inch .38 Special J-frames. I'm sure my wife and daughter will have something to say about whether these test bags are returned or purchased.

After thirty-five plus years of shooting N- and K-frame revolvers, it is quite enjoyable to add J-frames to my shooting battery. The .38 Special three-inch Trail Masterpiece and the four-inch .22 WMR Kit Gun are destined to experience a lot of use in the future and my wife already has her eye on the .32 Centennial. Oh, well we can get ahead next month.

Last edited by Glockanatorrrrr; 01-14-2008 at 22:01..
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