A good friend of mine once opined, “American shooters talk .45 ACPs, shoot 9mms and carry .38 Specials.” I had to admit that he was correct for the most part. No, that statement doesn’t cover everyone; so don’t get your hackles up, if you can find your hackles.
The simple truth when it comes to concealed carry is that the .38 Special, most often chambered in a Smith & Wesson J-frame is one of the most carried calibers of handgun out there. I’m not talking about the hypothetical gun shop talk about the “perfect carry gun.” I’m talking about what real people are actually carrying on their person day in and day out.
It’s no secret that I like to do the occasional project gun write-up. I will normally take a used or plain-Jane factory gun and do a “practical/tactical” upgrade on it. Several months ago I started looking for a used S&W J-frame to use as a project gun. Specifically I wanted a .38 Special chambered gun with a blue finish and stock wooden grips, absolutely nothing fancy.
Folks, I combed gun shops, pawn shops, and strolled up and down the aisles of gun shows looking for a good candidate and came up empty. I even went online and tried to get one from gunbroker.com. I ended up in a bidding war for a well-worn blue steel snub-nose. When the auction surpassed $250, I bowed out.
I was expressing my frustration to another gunwriter friend and we both agreed that people simply don’t part with their J-frames. Our supposition was that there are thousands upon thousands of S&W compact revolvers in sock drawers and on nightstands across the country.
Despite my frustration over not finding a suitable project piece, at the last gun show I attended, I did find a gun with a price tag that caught my eye. On one of the vendor’s tables was a S&W Model 637. The S&W Airweight is a tremendously popular pocket pistol for obvious reasons and has a number of attributes that make it a solid choice for concealed carry.
First and foremost, the gun is compact and lightweight. It doesn’t matter how cool and deadly your favorite handgun is, if it is bulky and heavy, you won’t carry it often or at all. The whole point of a defensive handgun is to have it when trouble arrives, not just when it’s convenient.
Without any ammunition chambered the gun weighs less than a pound at 15 ounces. Even stoked with five rounds using 158-grain bullets, you are still talking about a total weight of a pound plus an ounce or two. Like all standard J-frames, the barrel length is just shy of two inches at 1.88. Overall length is 6.38 inches.
The 637 has a matte stainless finish, which is always a good thing for a gun that will be carried in close proximity to the body. Another item for you gun traders to keep in mind is that stainless/silver finish guns, especially revolvers, almost always fetch a better price in trade than the standard blue steel guns.
As for action, the Model 637 is a standard double-action revolver with an exposed hammer. Yes, I know there are a lot of folks that like the bobbed or concealed hammer option but for every one of those there is another person that favors the traditional style. Neither side is right or wrong. The cylinder will hold five rounds of .38 Special ammunition and yes, the gun is rated for “+P” ammo.
Sights are rudimentary with a square notch cut into the top of the frame and a large blade up front. The front sight blade has the same metal finish as the rest of the gun and is one area I would address, but we’ll save the wish list for later.
The stocks on this compact little wheelgun are black rubber with finger grooves. These are often referred to as “boot grips.” They are flush with the bottom of the frame and yes, your pinky will dangle off the bottom. Larger, more hand-filling grips feel better when you wrap your mitts around them but they don’t help in the concealment area.
For my range testing I would use a few different loads from Black Hills, CorBon, and PMC. I didn’t expect any big surprises, as the gun had a very consistent and smooth double-action trigger pull and short, crisp single-action press.
A compact revolver is not a match or competition gun by any stretch of the imagination, but we should expect some reasonable accuracy out of it. I sat down at the bench and pressed off five single-action shots with each of the three loads to see what kind of precision I could get. The results were indeed impressive. I had no difficulty keeping five rounds under 3 inches.
J-frames are fighting guns and so the vast majority of my testing would be practical shooting positions. I fired double-handed and single, both strong and weak from ten yards to contact distance.
After about fifty rounds of the solid lead wadcutter ammunition the action started to get a bit sluggish from the carbon buildup but that is to be expected. Lead and carbon fouling are the nature of the beast where revolvers are concerned. The +P loads from CorBon and PMC were stout and certainly provided ample kick, but they were not painful or difficult to shoot.
The great irony of the J-frame is that while it is one of the most favored carry guns, it is also one of the more difficult to master. With a barrel just shy of two inches and double-action trigger pull, you don’t have a lot of room for error in the sight picture/trigger control area.
Don’t delude yourself thinking that you will “thumb-cock” the gun for every shot. First of all, that’s impractical and dangerous. Reaching up to thumb-cock a DA revolver in the middle of an attack is an invitation to disaster. Number one, you probably won’t have the digital dexterity to cock it and get on target rapidly and, secondly, you are begging for a negligent discharge. Discipline yourself and work on the double-action trigger press.
Mastering the DA trigger on a J-frame is not easy; nothing valuable ever is. How valuable is your life? Is it precious enough to warrant a few hours of deliberate training? Only you can answer that question.
A big draw for the Airweight J-frame is that it slips into the front pocket easily and rides comfortably there. For belt carry I worked with the Speed Classic holster from BlackHawk. The leather is deliberately kept thin and the holster rides close to the body.
The Speed Classic holster has no straps or snaps. The molded leather hugs the weapon and an elastic strap keeps it tight until you decide to draw.
I said I would keep my wish list for later, well this is later. The only thing I might do to improve this little wheel gun is change the sight system. At the very least the front sight blade needs to stand out from the rest of the gun. Given my druthers I’d probably have it replaced completely with something faster to acquire like the XS Big Dot. Another option would be to mount a set of Crimson Trace Lasergrips on the M637. They are ideal for close-in shooting from awkward positions.
The first rule of a gun fight is to have a gun. For many, the “have a gun” part of the equation is filled by the S&W J-frame compact revolver. As for the Model 637, this diminutive wheelgun possesses all the features that shooters have looked for in a concealed carry piece for decades. It’s lightweight, compact, and carries the Smith & Wesson quality stamp. Keep shooting straight and shooting safe.
A good friend of mine once opined, “American shooters talk .45 ACPs, shoot 9mms…
by Chuck Taylor / Sep 7, 2009