The J-Frame Solution

By Ralph Mroz 

A Story

I have a little story for you that illustrates the entire point of this article.  At the last SHOT show (the firearms industry trade show), I’m sitting in on a presentation by Chuck Buis, the industry veteran and former big-city cop, and he’s introducing the new line of CQC holsters from Blackhawk Industries.  This line is Chuck’s baby, and he pretty much had carte blanche to put whatever he felt was right into the product lineup.  The last thing he shows us is an updated, but faithful to the original, version of the famous Berns-Martin speed holster, which was designed…well, decades ago when Chuck and I were still learning the alphabet.  Holsters do not get better with age, but some holster designs are indeed timeless.  The Blackhawk Berns-Martin version is available only for Smith & Wesson J-Frame snub-nose revolvers.

As he holds up the holster, a big smile comes over Chuck’s face.  “Who’s old enough to remember this?” he asks.  I raise my hand, along with a few others.  “And what’s the point of this holster?” Chuck again asks.  Some of us recall that it was intended as a speed scabbard of minimalist design for small, hide-away handguns. 

“Yeah!” Chuck exclaims, “And we make it only for J-Frames.  Because no matter what we say people should carry, and no matter what we write and tell them to carry, everyone really carries a J-Frame.  Right?” 

We all agreed, and smiled.  Chuck then went on to tell a story on a big-name writer in the industry who is very fond of big-bore handguns, and promulgates them tirelessly in his writing.  He, it turns out, understood and smiled at Chuck’s remark too…because a J-Frame is what he really carries.

It’s a specific tool

A handgun is a tool.  It was developed by its inventors as for a specific purpose, and the practitioners who carried and used this tool—before handgunning became a sport—understood its delineated purpose and used it for that.  A handgun is a tool designed for close quarter interpersonal combat.  It was meant to be carried on one’s person for extended periods of time for emergency self-defense purposes, for use against men who attacked you at close range. 

The guns and calibers of these self defense weapons were never intended to be hunting implements, nor were they meant to engage enemies at anything approaching 25 yards.  People understood that that’s why they had rifles.  Likewise, personal defense handguns were not considered items of sport.  Sure there were some fancy carnival shooters who could push the handgun beyond it’s limit, but the purpose and basic capabilities of the handgun remained close quarter self defense.

And so it is today still.  The tool hasn’t changed all that much.  What people do with it, though, has.  There is a basic drive in men, given license by the decadent leisure of our times, that takes simple things and items and turn them from their fundamental purpose and into items of artificial competition.  Balls are no longer simple play toys but are now at the center of hyper-competitive professional sports for over-paid aging adolescents.  Handguns have morphed into space-age frankenguns that are used in games of pin ball with bullets.  And in these peaceful, artificial times, too many people thus think that what they need to accomplish the actual purpose of a handgun — close quarter self defense —are these big, tack-driving, hair-trigger, tricked-out items of sports gear. But what most people really need is no more than a simple 2-inch revolver.

The J-Frame Solution

A lot of people have already come to that conclusion; hence the evergreen popularity of the Smith & Wesson J-frame line of 5-shot revolvers.  Introduced at the 1950 International Association of Chiefs of Police convention (where the attending chiefs named it the “Chief’s Special”), the 2- and 3-inch J-frame 5-shot revolvers were a replacement for the earlier I-frame revolvers chambered for the less powerful .38 S&W cartridge.  These new guns were designed for plain clothes police officers and they have gone through many iterations since that original all-steel model. 

In 1952 lighter frame compositions were introduced in the form of the Airweight aluminum-framed models, differing from the standard Chiefs Special revolver by having an aluminum alloy frame (while the cylinder and barrel remained of steel).   In the 1998 S&W introduced its AirLite Ti series of the guns, which featured Aluminum alloy frames, cylinder yokes and barrel shrouds. AirLite Ti model’s cylinders are made from Titanium and the barrel liners from stainless steel. In 2000, S&W announced it line of AirLite Sc revolvers, which used a scandium alloy for frame, yoke and barrel shroud (the cylinder in these guns is titanium and barrel liner is steel). 

Body-style wise, in 1955, S&W introduced a different frame, the Centennial, its first compact revolver with a DAO trigger.  The original Centennial model was dropped in 1974, but latter reintroduced as the all-stainless Model 640 (without the original grip safety.)  A Centennial Airweight with aluminum frame and stainless steel cylinder and barrel came next, and in 1993 it was joined by the Model 442 revolver, which has aluminum alloy frame and carbon steel cylinder and barrel. Recently S&W has introduced some more Centennial configuration guns in Airlite Sc and Airlite Ti frames.   Another frame variation, the Bodyguard AirWeight model 38 revolver came out in 1957. This gun was a basic Chiefs Special but with a shrouded hammer. It soon was followed by other variations in the Bodyguard configuration.

Today there are many alternatives in materials and body style of the basic J-frame.  From the lightest 10 ounce model to the all-steel versions, these little snubbies make a comforting—and comfortable—pocket package.  Nothing’s free, of course, and the lightest numbers are the devil to shoot, but at close range and in fear of your life, you’ll probably not fret too much about the recoil.

Brent Purucker, former Michigan state trooper and long-running member of the Smith & Wesson Academy staff, has won several IDPA national revolver titles, with some of those matches including snubbie stages.  Brent says that the accuracy of the little J-frame is nothing to sneeze at. 

“I’ve easily gotten 2 to 3 inch groups at 15 yards,” he says, a feat echoed in many articles over the years in this magazine. 

Not surprisingly, Brent favors the 640-1 all steel model for its extra controllability, while other authorities, such as Wiley Clapp in his book Concealed Carry, published by Paladin Press, come out in favor of the very light models.  My own choice is the 342PD, the lightest J-frame of them all. 

“The biggest mistake that people make,” says Brent, “is loading these little guns with .38+P or, God forbid, .357 magnum ammunition.”  I concur.  Mine is loaded with Glaser Safety Slugs from CorBon, with standard load .38 Federal Nyclads in a Bianchi Speed Strip for a second load.  That’s not powerful enough for you?  Well, you do have five shots — keep shooting.

I chose the light 342PD because it’s a pocket gun for me; on my waist, I can comfortably carry a larger gun.  However, many people aren’t as weight sensitive as I am.  I know people who carry even larger all steel revolvers in their pants pocket all day, every day, and they see no need to go to a lighter unit.  Also, as a revolver, the S&W J-frames have all the advantages of one.  They are instinctive and simple to shoot, easy to maintain, and can be easily fit to any hand by simply changing out the grips.  In fact, a little while ago I wrote an article for Combat Handguns on the two dozen reasons that instructor Michael DeBethencourt favors a revolver over a self-loader, and they are indeed compelling.

When you can, take the sage advice to “carry the largest gun you can shoot well.”  When you can’t, or doing so is so uncomfortable that you’re tempted to go unarmed, do what all of us in the industry do: slip a S&W J-frame snubbie into your pocket.


More Information

Smith & Wesson
2100 Roosevelt Avenue
Springfield, MA 01104
(800) 331-0852

A book on the history of S&W, including the J-frame line, titled “The History of Smith & Wesson” by Roy Jenks, is available through the company.

Crimson Trace Corporation
8089 SW Cirrus Dr.
Beaverton, OR 97008

BlackHawk Products Group
4850 Brookside Ct
Norfolk, VA 23502
(800) 694.5263

Paladin Press
Gunbarrel Tech Center
7077 Winchester Circle
Boulder, Colorado 80301
(800) 392-2400
Sidebar to: The J-Frame Solution

The Laser Solution to the J-Frame Solution

Brent Purucker of the Smith & Wesson Academy and I prefer different J-Frame models, but we do agree on the fact that the Crimson Trace Lasergrip provides a huge advantage as far as self-defense sights for the J-frame are concerned.  Not only does the laser compensate for the small sights and short-sight-radius on the little guns, but in the situations in which the handgun—and the J-frame specifically—is likely to be used: close quarter, high-stress self defense—the laser allows not only target-focused shooting, but shooting from non-traditional positions.  The former is a necessity in those circumstances, while the latter is a distinct possibility.

Lasers were dismissed by many people when they first came out as toys, and worse, actually dangerous additions to your handgun.  Why the specialized teams who train full-time and who actually go into harms way on a regular basis used them was never adequately addressed by these early nay-sayers.  And indeed, the enlightened world has come around to the laser over the last decade.  Virtually every single competent trainer — famous and otherwise — who has actually given them an honest try has come to advocate them.  If lasers aren’t such a big advantage, why are they not allowed at so many competitive events?  And finally, there is no, even potential, disadvantage of a laser that can’t be countered by “Use your iron sights—they’re still there!”

I have made the same journey, too.  I just shot my state’s handgun qualification course with my featherweight 342PD J-frame.  On this 15 yard and in course I managed to keep all my shots in the area of a pie plate, despite the little gun’s diminutive mass.  From 10 yards and in I didn’t even use the gun’s sights — I just looked at the red dot on the target and controlled my trigger press.

The rightfully dominant force in the handgun laser business, and the manufacturer of the unquestionably highest quality and reliability, is Crimson Trace.  Their units are also the most user-friendly, to boot.  Crimson Trace executive Clyde Caseres — himself a trainer of no small repute — came to CT several years ago as a doubter…and he’s now the most articulate advocate of the laser’s advantages.  Two were mentioned above, but many more are not only explained, but demonstrated in Clyde’s excellent video, Shots in the Dark, by Paladin Press.  I highly recommend this video.  A lot of books and videos come across my desk as a writer and trainer, and this is one that I kept. Copyright 2004


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