Smith & Wesson J-Frame Bodyguard


Being one of the millions of Americans who in recent years took advantage of liberalized carry laws to get a Concealed Carry permit, I had long identified the need for a dedicated concealment piece; my previous choice for concealed carry was a Glock 19 but I found myself going unarmed quite often, clothing and comfort combining to make the blocky pistol and its magazine holders impractical.

Eventually though opportunity struck, this time in the form of some chance surfing of Summit Gun Broker’s website.  I spotted a posting for used S&W 649s and although the price wasn’t necessarily cheap ($395), the value of older Smith revolvers is only going up, UP, UP.  I called and, after hearing that there were only two left, made my decision and placed my order then and there (The last one was purchased the next morning by a friend after I told him there was only one left).

A few days later and I had the gun in hand, the thing looking exactly like what it is: a small stainless steel revolver that’s spent years being carried in a jacket pocket.

649-both-sides-landscape

The history behind these small Smith revolvers is a bit involved and bears some explanation.  What’s known as the J-Frame was first launched in 1950 as the Chief’s Special (later designated Model 36) bearing a 2″ barrel, fixed sights, spur hammer and blued finish.  Gradually options like a square butt, 3″ barrel, adjustable sights and nickle-plate finish were offered, including an alloy-framed model called the Airweight (In an effort to avoid the inevitable typographical errors, I’m going to refrain from attempting to list the myriad numerical designations for all of the variants).

The first major modification of the type was a hammerless variant, produced in response to police requests for a back-up piece that could be carried in a pocket without snagging, launched in 1952 and called the Centennial in honor of the company’s 100th anniversary.  A model with an integrally shrouded hammer was launched in 1955 as the Bodyguard with stainless steel variants introduced in 1965.  Later years would see the J-Frame line further expanded with Ladysmith, Featherweight and Magnum variants (More details on the history of S&W revolvers in general and the J-Frame in particular are available here and here while this thread from a S&W forum has some excellent photos of all the various models).

Compact to carry, but expansive in the public consciousness

There are two notable historical uses of the Smith Bodyguard, and they’re both real beauties.  First, a Smith Bodyguard featured prominently in one of the most iconic pieces of photojournalism ever (not Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, Ruby used a Colt Cobra); it was a Smith Bodyguard Airweight that Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, Chief of the RVN’s National Police, used to execute Viet Cong assassin Nguyễn Văn Lém at the height of the 1968 Tet Offensive.

The story of how the event depicted in this film was distorted is actually quite sad, and its effect on Mr. Loan sadder yet.  The footage of the summary execution, coming as it did at the height of Tet, was exploited by anti-war partisans, the shooting unscrupulously spun as part of a wider ‘The war is out of control and lost!’ narrative. The truth of the matter was something quite different; Van Lem was a known VC operative, having personally murdered a police colonel and his family: captured close to a mass grave with a list of RVN officials marked for assassination on his person: out of uniform and thus outside the protection of the Geneva Convention.  Given all that as well as the immediate threat posed by the chaotic environment, Mr Loan was operating well within the prerogatives of his position when he executed the murdering terrorist.

Mr Loan would survive the war, although hardly unscathed, losing a leg a few months after Van Lem’s execution during the Battle for Hue City.  He left Vietnam for the US with his family, settling in Virginia and opening a pizzeria; after years of periodic harassment – including death threats – Mr Loan closed his business before dying of cancer in 1998.  “The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera,” Eddie Adams, the AP photojournalist who took the still picture said, “[Nguyễn Ngọc Loan] was a hero.”

The S&W Bodyguard, proven on some of the roughest streets the world has ever seen – Saigon during the Tet Offensive (left) and the pre-Guiliani era New York City subway (right).

The story of Bernard Goetz has been told many times over the succeeding decades – indeed, to the point where, in the manner illustrated by Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon, it’s become impossible to definitively separate the factual elements of his story from the fictional (The most complete and trustworthy summary I found researching this is available here).

In summary, on the afternoon of the Saturday before Christmas 1984, Mr Goetz was riding the NY subway when he was approached by four riders, all black juveniles, all with lengthy criminal records.  The four proceeded to surround him when one, Troy Canty, either demanded or asked for ‘Five dollars’.  Being the victim of a previous mugging/public beating, Goetz was armed with a S&W Bodyguard Airweight he had purchased in Florida.  Goetz asked Canty to repeat himself at which point, with the insolence common to such demographics, Canty echoed his request/demand.

Cornered by the pack of smirking juveniles, one of whom was reported to be brandishing a screwdriver, Goetz believed – quite reasonably, in my estimation – to be in danger of a beating or worse.  Drawing his Bodyguard from his jacket, Goetz swept from his arm from left to right, firing four shots in rapid succession, leaving his assailants sprawled about, bleeding from a variety of gunshot wounds.

His four assailants incapacitated, Goetz had the presence of mind to recall his revolver’s five-shot cylinder and, in recalling, reputedly took the step that would bear him into immortality.  Standing over Darrell Cabey – who appeared wounded but was actually uninjured and playing possum – Goetz looked down at the cowering mugger. “You seem to be all right, here’s another,” Goetz told Cabey, shooting him in the torso, his final bullet lodging in the thug’s spine. Later testimony and evidence would reveal this to be an exaggeration on Goetz’s part – and a foolish exaggeration at that, since it opened him to a civil liability suit from the paralyzed criminal – but the idea struck a chord in the popular consciousness; of such stuff are legends made.

Even given his imprudent boasts, Goetz was eventually found Not Guilty of all but the gun charge, the jury apparently unswayed by the background and demeanor of the so-called ‘victims’, one of whom – James Ramseur – was awaiting his own trial on charges of robbing, raping and sodomizing a pregnant woman when he appeared as a witness against Goetz (his thuggish preening and belligerent proclamations on the stand eventually earning him a citation for Contempt of Court).

Goetz – widely known by the moniker ‘The Subway Vigilante’ – served his time and has spent his remaining days as a sort of minor celebrity, running for various NYC political offices, filming shooting demonstrations recreating his incident and, of all things, working for a squirrel rescue organization (something that my mother would be partial to, also having an affection for the mischief-making rodents).

As far as motion picture usage, the Model 36 has a quite storied history.  It was used prominently in The Godfather, being the gun Clemenza specially prepared for Michael Corleone to shoot Sollozo and Chief McCluskey.  A nickle-plated example was also featured in Taxi Driver, being the gun Travis used to gut-shoot Harvey Keitel’s loathsome pimp, Sport.  Martin Scorsese would return to the Model 36, Henry Hill using one to pistol-whip Karen’s Corvette-driving, would-be rapist in Goodfellas.  And the Model 36 featured in perhaps the most noteworthy shooting in The Sopranos, being the gun a deranged Junior Sorpano used to shoot his nephew Tony (the shooting set quite memorably to Artie Shaw and Helen Forrest’s Comes Love).

The specific use of the 649 somewhat rarer, although the example I found was a good one; Vic Mackey carried one as his backup piece in The Shield.

CCWing the Bodyguard

Like Vic Mackey’s fictional example, my 649 started its life as a cop’s backup, in this case a former Michigan State Police sidearm.  I called S&W customer service (1-800-331-0852), gave them my Serial Number – unlike Browning, S&W’s numbering system is too complicated to do a simple prefix check – mine was built in January 1990, old enough that it doesn’t have the cheaper pinned barrel.

One change I made immediately was to replace the grips.  The factory wood grips caused the gun to ride too low in the hand leading to an extremely awkward placement of the trigger finger on the trigger, hardly desirable in double-action fire; indeed, I didn’t even bother to shoot it with the factory grips, the trigger pull was so sub-optimal (S&W themselves make an insert to shift the grip and make the trigger pull more manageable).  I ended up selecting the Pachmayr Diamond Pro Grips from Midway – for about $25 shipped, they gave an infinitely more comfortable grip, at the expense of only the slightest bit more bulk.

 

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Gun with Pachmayr Diamond Pros installed.

 

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Before (left) and after (right) photos, illustrating more ergonomically correct grip.

 

Next step was to get a holster.  Initially I bought a Desantis IWB leather holster at the same time as the grips, a purchase I immediately regretted; the clip was of an incredibly poor design, too small and tight to put on easily while having about a quarter inch of up and down play, leading to a disconcerting movement while drawing.  Luckily Midway’s return policies are reasonable and, after a bit more shopping, I settled on a Bladetech Klipt, a Kydex rig that had the added benefit of being cheaper than the Desantis ($25 v. $33).  The Bladetech fits fine and secured the gun well, with no issues after months of near-daily use.

From left: Ill-fitting, cheaply engineered Desantis holster, Bladetech Klipt in package, revolver in holster.

 

Ammunition can be an issue with these guns, the short barrel not really suited to lighter bullet, high velocity rounds.  I settled on a Winchester 130 gr SXT which is well regarded (Good summary of available loads from the 2″ barrel here).  Once I start reloading again I plan on playing with some 158 gr loads (And it’s a shame that the 38 v. 9mm difference comes into play here, because a 147 gr hollow point in the high subsonic range would be ideal for this package).

As far as how it shoots, it’s a double-action Smith revolver so it is what it is.  Until about twenty years ago revolvers of this configuration were the choice for carry (either the J-Frames for concealed carry or the larger M&P and later L-Frame for duty).  To contemporary shooter, accustomed as they are to autopistols, they seem somewhat archaic with their low capacity and slow reloading, but they definitely have their appeal, especially the J-Frames; nothing else quite combines their hefty feeling of all-steel quality with their practical handiness (As Mr Loan’s video so concisely demonstrates).

In practice, the trigger is the biggest thing to get used to.  After decades of shooting mainly Glocks and Browning High Powers – I had an L-Frame for a while but stupidly sold it after going years on end without shooting it – the double-action revolver trigger takes some getting used to; longer and heavier than the BHP and without the distinct two-stage take-up of the factory Glock, it demands more concentration.  While some people attempt to compensate by shooting these single-action, I don’t recommend it; if you’re only doing it at the range, you’re cheating yourself out of useful practice while using a cocked revolver in actual defensive use seems like an invitation to a negligent discharge (the few people I’ve seen who have been of the cock-it-all-the-time school have not been what I would characterize as reliable hands).

The next accessory I need to look into are speedloaders.  Although there are few forms of competitive shooting friendly to shooting a snubnose revolver, my club does run bowling pin matches in the summer which should be excellent practice, the five pin stages punishing any misses.  I’m also going to look into better holsters, although I really do like the fit and convenience of the Bladetech.

As it is now, I’m just using the gun as it was meant to be used, carrying the hell out of it.  Typically I wear it strong side, just behind the hip but, in situations where I find myself driving through a more urban and diverse cultural milieu, I can slip the piece out of its holster and rest it beneath my leg as I drive.  Thankfully I have not yet needed to brandish it at anyone but should it arise in many areas the sight of a middle-age white male carrying a snubnose revolver carries immediate connotations of a police detective, a useful deterrent.