I think it is fair to say that Smith & Wesson owns the largest share of the self-defense revolver market. The popularity of their J-frame revolvers continues to grow over the years and has resulted in an expansion of the number of models offered by the folks in Springfield. I have carried a J-frame for much of my 30-year career in law enforcement. My first back-up/off-duty pistol was a nickeled Model 36 that was my constant carry gun for over 15 years. Today, I tend to carry a Glock 26 in an ankle rig while on-duty, but my M642 with Crimson Trace Lasergrips, rides in my Maxpedition Operator’s attaché as a secondary back-up.
The first Centennial was introduced in 1952 to celebrate the 100th birthday of the company. In 1957, S&W began assigning model numbers to their firearms and the Centennial became the M40. It was a true pocket pistol with a concealed hammer, sleek silhouette, and a grip safety that protruded from the back strap of the frame. It was chambered in .38 Special which, at the time, was considered a “powerful” cartridge. The only drawback was the all steel revolver weighed a solid 21 ounces. The popularity of the M40, and the demand for a lighter revolver, resulted in the alloy framed M42.
Sadly, the M40 and M42 were discontinued in 1974 and, as with many things, they were not appreciated until after they were gone. After that, existing M40s and M42s were much sought after and brought premium prices. As a result, many who wanted a pocket pistol were forced to compromise and buy the M38 Airweight Bodyguard. The Bodyguard was functional but the hump-back design lacked that look of the Centennials. Still, they were popular in both the civilian and law enforcement markets and helped keep the pocket pistol alive.
In 1990, S&W reintroduced the Centennial in an all-stainless version identified as the M640. The first guns were in .38 Special but later guns were offered in .357 Mag. Then came Scandium and all the rules changed. The M340PD Scandium framed Centennial tips the scales at a mere 12 ounces and is chambered in .357 Mag. Shooting a Scandium magnum is a real treat for those young guys who feel they have something to prove. I remember being at a Firearms Instructors’ Conference and being offered a chance to shoot that potent little revolver. Two rounds were enough to cure me and convince me that .38 Special +P loads were enough for me!
At the 2007 SHOT Show, my first stop was the S&W booth. Much to my delight, there stood a display case that housed three Classic M40 Centennials in blue, case colored, and nickel. The new Classic Centennial was complete with the original style grip safety and lacked the current production key lock that some don’t care for. I must have carried ten or fifteen friends to the booth just to show them the new revolver.
When I received my nickeled Model 40-1, it was like a trip back in time. The nickeled finish reflects the attention to detail in metal preparation and polishing that S&W was famous for in past years.
The first day of the 2009 SHOT Show, I found my way through a very crowded S&W booth to the display case for the Classic revolvers. There, to my surprise, was a new production M42 Airweight Centennial. Once again, I made frequent trips to the booth with several friends. My first call when I returned home was to S&W for one of the new Centennials.
The M42 follows the same lines as the M40-1 with the exception of the aluminum alloy frame. The Model 42 weighs in at 14.4 ounces as opposed to 21 ounces of the M40. Unlike the three finish offerings for the M40, at the time of this writing, the M42 is only offered in a matte black finish. The finish is not only attractive but should be very durable and gives the little gun a very business like appearance.
As with the other Classic revolvers, the M42 is fitted with the ‘60s style cylinder release. The grip safety is identical to the original and is also matte black. The only external difference between the new model and the original is the reinforced frame as indicated by the rib on the left side in front of the cylinder release (thumb piece). As with the M40-1, “Made in U.S.A. Marcas Registradas Springfield, Mass.” markings are on the front right side of the frame. The Altamont composite stocks display attractive grain, clean checkering, with the traditional diamond. My only complaint regarding fit and finish was the top of the stocks did not lay flush with the frame.
Tyler-T’s go back further than I can remember. The T-Grip is a machined aluminum adaptor that fills the gap between the front strap and the rear of the triggerguard. While this gives the grip a larger circumference, the overall size of the pistol remains unchanged. The rear of the adaptor has two wings that fit between each stock and the frame, securing the adaptor in place without having to modify the pistol. T-Grips are available in polished or brushed aluminum and flat or gloss black. They are a great accessory on any J-frame and have the added benefit of giving a retro look on the Centennial. It is nice to see that a company that makes a great product has survived all of these years.
I won’t say that I’m an expert when it comes to carrying a J-frame but after 30 years, I can tell you what has worked for me. I generally don’t carry a J-frame in a position where I can carry a larger pistol. My two favorite locations for the Centennial are the pocket and ankle. For these positions, Galco offers two great rigs. The Front Pocket is very reminiscent of Chic Gaylord’s 8-Ball pocket holster. It has a rounded bottom and trailing edge to keep the pistol stable and vertical in the pocket. The leading edge is cut with a hook to catch on the pocket and retain the holster during the draw stroke. Cut from premium horsehide, the rough out design helps secure the holster in the pocket and allows for a smoother draw.
I tend to be a jacket collector and have been recently wearing EOTAC’s Field Jacket. EOTAC’s Operator Grade line of clothing has been specifically designed for armed professional. The Field Jacket is reminiscent of a European 1950s military jacket and is cut from heavy cotton twill that is treated with DuPont Teflon to repel water. The four bellows cargo pockets have snap closures and the upper breast pockets conceal a zippered security pocket that is ideal for the M42 in the pocket holster. The jacket features a 2/3 length zippered front that allows rapid access the waist band. It is a well thought out design that has become my favorite medium weight jacket.
My J-frames have probably logged more hours in an ankle holster than any other rig. Over the years, I have tried a lot of different ankle rigs and found that Galco’s Ankle Glove is by far the most comfortable. The Ankle Glove has a wide neoprene cuff with Velcro closure and a sheepskin pad. During hot summer days in South Georgia, the neoprene wicks moisture away from the leg and also stretches slightly for a more comfortable fit. Galco offers two versions for the J-frame, an open top version with a tension screw and a model with a traditional thumb-break. I have used the open top model for over 15 years without any weapon security issues.
For those who decide to carry a J-frame on the waist, Galco offers the Royal Guard and Side Snap Scabbard. Both reflect the quality that Galco is known for and are excellent choices for the Centennial. The Royal Guard is an IWB rig made from premium horsehide and features rough-out construction, snap-on belt loops, and a reinforced mouth that prevents the holster from collapsing when the pistol is drawn. The Side Snap Scabbard is an open top design that utilizes snapping belt loops that allow the holster to be mounted and removed without removing the belt. It is constructed from premium saddle leather and is detail molded for a perfect fit. The Royal Guard works well in both a standard hip position and appendix position.
On the range I spared the M42 from any +P+ loads and stuck to 148-grain wadcutters, 125-grain +P JHPs, and a box of the venerable 158-grain semi-wadcutter lead hollow point. The action was stiff but smooth and got better as the round count increased. The Wilson aftermarket spring kit would be a good investment to lighten the action. Anyone who has spent any serious time with a J-frame knows the pistol is capable of much greater accuracy than the shooter.
Not having access to a Ransom Rest, we kept most of our shooting at 10 yards and in. Five-shot groups from 21-feet with 148-grain wadcutters measure 1.5 inches. While the matte black sights were great for daylight shooting, the little gun is begging for gold bead insert or a tritium insert.
Ammo in “belly-guns” has come a long way since the ’60s. For many years, the 158-grain, lead semi-wadcutter hollow point was the benchmark by which all other loads were judged and was the standard duty load for many police departments. Handloaders were also known to seat a 148-grain hollow base wadcutter backwards behind a stout load of powder. Super Vel came along and the age of hot jacketed hollow points was born but these loads were tough on the little J-frames.
To the best of my memory, S&W was the first company to build a load specifically for short barreled revolvers. The Nyclad Chief’s load was nylon coated, 125-grain, hollow point that offered both excellent expansion and penetration out of a 2-inch barrel. It was extremely popular at the time as were other Nyclad loadings. Federal Cartridge later purchased the rights to the Nyclad bullet and still offers a .38 Special Nyclad load marketed under their Personal Defense handgun line.
Speer has also developed a load specially designed for use in short-barreled revolvers. The 135-grain +P Gold Dot Short Barrel Hollow Point is designed to meet the FBI specifications out of a 2-inch barrel. A couple of years ago, my department was looking for a new duty load and the ATK Speer representative conducted an ammo demonstration on our range. After seeing the performance of this load, it became my choice of ammo in all of my snubs. The Bianchi Speed Strip is perfect for carrying a reload in either a pocket or a drop pouch and the flat profile is easier to carry than a traditional speed loader.
When I ran my department’s training division, I would encourage our officers to always carry a flashlight. As the old-timers used to say, if you carry a gun, carry a light. Last year, SureFire’s new E1B Backup replaced the E1E model as my constant carry light. Both the older E1E and the new E1B are powered by a single 123A Lithium battery. The new Backup replaces the incandescent lamp with a dual output LED lamp with a high output of 80 lumens and a low output of 5 lumens. Weighing less than 3 ounces and being only 4 inches in length, it is ideal for everyday pocket carry. The first versions were finished in a black anodizing but SureFire recently announced a new version that is finished in handsome silver. Like my credit card, I don’t leave home without it!
In a risk avoidance business environment, Smith & Wesson have pushed through another winner. I know that interest at the SHOT Show was strong in the entire line of Classics. S&W listened to their customer base and stepped out to offer the Classic line of revolvers to the market place. It is nice to see that their customers have rewarded the folks in Springfield by supporting the line. Like its heavier brother, the M42 is already causing a stir on the websites even before it has hit the dealer shelves. If you are an old revolver guy, like me, you will want to reserve one with your local dealer as soon as you can. Then again, make it two.
I think it is fair to say that Smith & Wesson owns the largest share…
by Massad Ayoob / Aug 4, 2009