Far Beyond the Wheel: A close look at the Classic J-frame

j frame trio

 

A trio of J frames…all housed in Tucker Gunleather Cover Up’s for the J frame, which is my favorite J frame AIWB rig.

 

Although small, the venerable J-frame has been a fixture of American gun culture since the 1950’s.  Smaller than the Colt Detective Special that preceded it, the, “Chief’s Special,” became an iconic concealed carry piece.  And, for good reason…portability.  A small, compact, five-shot, respectably powered .38 Special handgun, could now be packed away in a holster, desk drawer, glove box or pocket, with a good degree of ease and power than anything that came before it.

One of my favorite characters as a kid growing up was Detective Rico Tubbs, on Michael Mann’s excellent, “Miami Vice.”  He was armed with a J frame revolver (a Bodyguard or a Model 36 Chief’s Special) and a sawed off shotgun.  I thought that was the coolest pair of guns you could carry!  I purchased my first J frame, a Model 649 Bodyguard, in the Spring of 1996, to be used as a back up gun while I worked in the armored truck service…the rest is history.

I originally picked the J-frame revolver strictly for ankle back-up-gun use.  I thought about my friends that worked in LE, and I couldn’t think of any other ankle gun to use.  There was one guy that used an AMT Backup in .380 ACP, but he was the statistical oddity.  EVERYONE else that ankle-bugged, carried a J frame.  So I bought the 649, ammunition, Speed Strips, and a Galco Ankle Glove (which I later upgraded to an Alessi Ankle Rig) and headed to the range.

The first thing I noticed (the range I used permitted drawing from the holster) that when you are 6’4″ tall, it’s a LONG reach from when the whistle blows until your hand EVER gets onto the gun.  I like to be able to draw and hit a target, at 10 yards, in less than 2.5 seconds.  With an ankle rig, it is tough to hitch up your cuff, get a grip on the gun, fire it and get a hit in 5 seconds!  Sure, practice helps, but it becomes a core exercise routine.  Keep that in mind if you are thinking of rocking the ankle rig!  From the kneeling position, there is less upper body movement, but it is still a different set of skills than just clearing a cover garment…cover garments generally, “cover,” and don’t wrap around your holster and gun.  Your pants are fabric tubes that cover the gun, and depending on your level of fashion and maybe weather, the diameter of said tubes can vary.  But, for me, where the ankle gun REALLY shined, and where I think it was worthy of consideration, even to people that aren’t in the armored truck industry, is how it works when you are sitting…

I put a plastic chair on the range, with my hands on the counter, and my gun exposed.  I don’t know about you, but when I sit, my 36″ inseam pants cuffs ride up and expose my ankle gun, damn near everytime.  For concealed carry, this is something to consider.  But since I was working in uniform, and essentially already open carrying a pistol (and sometimes a shotgun or rifle) this wasn’t a big deal.  With my hands on the counter (or on the steering wheel) my revolver was simply accessed off my ankle.  Nobody noticed.  The design of the armored trucks around the seats obscured any observer’s view of what why hands were doing, below shoulder level.  Thus, I could easily draw the revolver, and have it in hand surreptitiously, ready to go.  I think that for concealed carry, in areas where you might NEED to have a carry piece VERY accessible in your car, the ankle gun is a contender.  It is easy to put on and take off (velcro) and it isn’t visible to anyone driving by like a shoulder rig or seatbelt cross draw rig is.  You can discreetly put your gun in your hand if you need it.

These days (June 2014) there are other, others guns for ankle carry, but the J frame can still be a good choice.

649

ABOVE, My old 649, .357 Magnum Bodyguard.  I had this on my ankle through just about every major life event I’ve experienced.  It wears the original Uncle Mike’s Craig Spegel Boot grips that, at one time, were OEM equipment.  Now, this same gun ships with an injection molded, proprietary texture grip that is similar in silhouette to the Spegel version, but the feel is different.  These grips are good…not my first choice now, but at the time, they weren’t overly adhesive to the pant leg, and when worn in the appendix carry position, they don’t grab shirts.  They can still be found on Ebay, for fair prices.  About the only other modification I did to this gun was add a longer firing pin from Apex, to ensure ignition reliability with hard primer ammo, like the Magtech .38 that was, for a time in the Middle Tennessee area, the only .38 Special I could find.  I also added a stripe of whiteout to the serrations on the front sight, to make easier to pick up in various lighting conditions.  If you carry an openback, concealed hammer revolver like the Bodyguard, I’d recommend blasting out the space at the back of the frame every couple weeks with compressed air, because it picks up a ton of dead skin, and lint from your socks and clothing.

442
ABOVE, This was my, “moving to Nashville BUG.”  A Smith & Wesson Model 442 NO LOCK.  This revolver was carried almost exclusively in the appendix carry position, and also in the pocket carry role.  This is the SMALLEST, lightest gun that I feel confident about using for serious self defense.  Although I do have a Ruger LCP, which is smaller, flatter and holds more ammo, I’m not completely invested in it, as I just don’t have the time behind it that I do behind this 442.  Everything you’ve read about Airweights is true…they KICK, they are abusive to shoot and they can be picky with what they will shoot to POA.  I’ve always had good luck with this gun, and it’s served me well.  It wears the excellent Precision Gun Specialties Hideout Grips, available at Brownells.  They are smooth, hard plastic, and they are a good balance between filling the backstrap area on the revolver, but not having too much bulk elsewhere.  I added the Apex J frame spring and firing pin kit to this revolver, and it altered a 100% ignition reliability gun with a 12 pound trigger pull, to a 100% ignition reliability gun with a 8 pound trigger pull.  And the modifications are cheap and easy to do…Apex even has a video on their website that will show you, step by step, how to do it.  I’ve read about THE TACTICAL PROFESSOR having good success with the Wolff and other spring kits available, to reduce the trigger pull, as well.  I also added some red nail polish to the serrations on the front site of this revolver, with good effect.  The red color gives decent contrast in many lighting conditions.

640 left side     640 right side

ABOVE…The S&W 640 Pro Series.  Frankly, I bought this gun because the Franklin Gun Shop had it in stock, and Caleb Giddings of Gun Nuts Media had one and I thought it looked amazing.  It has a fluted barrel, no lock, and most significantly, VERY usable Novak style sights, with tritium inserts shot into them.  It gives a crisp, clean sight picture, that is usable in all lighting conditions, OR complete darkness.  It comes out of the box with a great DAO trigger.  I swapped the grips for this picture to show my third type of preferred grip, which is the Ahrends boot grip.  They are made of durable cocobolo wood, they fit snugly without any palpable seams, and they have enough width and frame take up that they give good recoil management and recovery.  I would recommend that anyone who uses this gun for carry get a holster that covers the body side of the sight, because it is sharp and will gnaw a hole in your sock, or belly, pretty quickly.  With .38 wadcutters, this gun is a 10 yard, one hole wonder.  I’m going to use it in a charity NRA Bullseye Match, just for fun, to see what it can really do at 25 yards.

NEW TO GUNS?  YOU NEED A J FRAME FOR SELF DEFENSE!

Uh, no.  Two guns that are regularly recommended to novice shooters for self/home defense are the J frame revolver, and the 12 gauge pump action shotgun.  When I hear people make that recommendation to a new shooter, the first thing I think is, “WHY don’t they want this person to have a good time practicing?”  Handing a newbie an alloy framed (or God forbid, an unobtainium framed) revolver and letting them blast away, usually leads to a frowny face and hand wringing.  My dear friend, the late Paul Gomez, used to say, “Revolvers and tube fed shotguns are expert weapons…any gun that requires extreme dexterity to manage its ammunition supply is an expert’s weapon!”  I find this to be true as well.  Even under the artificial pressure of competition, fumbling speedloaders, speed strips, or loose rounds HAPPENS with regularity.  Even the GREAT JERRY MICULEK himself would be hard pressed to jam a moon clip of hardball into his 625 while he’s getting beat on by an angry bad guy.  ALL OF THIS aside from the fact that a revolver is very vulnerable to damage when the cylinder is open (things can get bent, easier than you can imagine).

Summing up…in 1996, the j frame as a uniform BUG was a good choice.  It would still work today, 18 years later.  But honestly, there are better choices.  Need a gun for your non-shooter or novice wife, or girlfriend/boyfriend?  Would they be better suited with a five shot, difficult to shoot well .38, or an easier to shoot, ergonomic, 8 shot 9mm self-loader?  These are rhetorical questions, of course.  You’ll need to examine your needs and determine what best works for you, or your loved one, in this VERY significant self defense role.

shield

FOR ME, nearly every role that was previously occupied by a J frame (except for the rare occasion requiring pocket carry) has been filled by the S&W Shield 9mm.  The gun is accurate, suitably powerful, compact, flat and easily manipulated (unlike some other, smaller guns like the Kahr PM9…I have LARGE hands) with high visibility sights and a 7 shot magazine.

Thanks for reading!

 

4 thoughts on “Far Beyond the Wheel: A close look at the Classic J-frame

  1. Thanks for this. While I can fire revolvers, I have yet to learn how to really SHOOT them. I agree that pump shottys and snubbies are poor choices for the tyro and the fact that these guns are pushed on the new shooter annoys me greatly.

    Please keep up the good writing.

    -Herk

  2. I have a S&W shield and a small .380 (Taurus TCP). I want a small frame DAO revolver for a different reason. I want one as a training tool. I feel that if I can master the DAO trigger in a small revolver and can control the gun’s recoil impulse it will make me a all around better shooter. I also want something size wise and power wise between my .380 and my 9mm. I feel a .38 special +p revolver fills this void nicely.

    Good writing, I love the collection of J-Frames.

  3. I agree there are better “tactical” choices but I’ve yet to find a semi-auto that I can carry AIWB as easily as my 442.

  4. How can you not like a 5 shot wheel gun? Easy to conceal. Adequate power for it’s small size. Reliability. Love my Js, would never be without one, or two. Did I mention reliability.

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