Smith & Wesson was formed in 1856, and the company's first model was a revolver. Today, S&W has expanded to include a wide range of pistols and rifles but remains a leader in the world of wheelguns.
When it comes to the company's modern revolvers, designed in the age of smokeless powder, most can be categorized into the small frame (I and J), medium frame (K and L), large frame (S and N), extra-large frame (X) and .410/.45 caliber (Z frame) models. With that being said, well over 200 S&W revolver variants and subvariants have hit the market with several never catching on or leading to eventual dead ends. We're here to cover the more popular models both in current production and those passed on to the realm of collectors.
These small round-butt revolvers grew from Smith's old Model 1903 Hand Ejector design and, passing through the Regulation Police models, was later primarily manufactured in the 1950s and 60s. They included the six-shot Model 30 in .32 S&W Long, the five-shot Model 32, and the .22 LR Model 34 Kit Gun. Long discontinued, these are often very collectible if found in good condition.
Smith & Wesson's classic five-shot "snub nose" revolvers are optimized for carry and span numerous models, almost exclusively with fixed sights. Heralded by the I-frame S&W Model 32 Terrier – chambered in .38 S&W – the first .38 Special snubs were seen in the 1940s with the exposed hammer Chief's Special. They later evolved into the "hammerless" Centennial – which actually still has a hidden, internal hammer – and the Bodyguard line which has the same profile as the Chief's Special but incorporates a shroud over the sides hammer.
These five-shot J-frames include the standard steel-framed Model 36 in .38 Special, the stainless Model 60 which was later offered in .357 Magnum, the alloy-framed Model 37 and 437, the alloy-framed/stainless barreled Airweight Model 637, and the top-of-the-line Models 337 and 360 (.357 Mag) which use Scandium alloy frames (along with a Titanium cylinder on the 337) and have adjustable rear sights.
J-frames with a more "snagless" profile lacking an exposed hammer, include the standard steel-framed Model 40 in .38 Special, the stainless Model 640, the alloy-framed Airweight Model 42 and 442, the alloy/stainless Model 642, and the Models 342 and 340 (.357 Mag) which use Scandium alloy frames (with a Titanium cylinder on the 342) and have adjustable rear sights. As the hammer cannot be cocked, these revolvers are double action only. The "Centennial" name for the series comes from the fact that the Model 40 was released on S&W's 100th anniversary as a company.
With slightly fewer models offered when compared to the Chief’s Specials and Centennials, the Bodyguard J-frames use a "humpback" shrouded hammer design. The standard-bearer for the type is the .38 Special-chambered steel-framed Model 49, and its stainless-steel brother, the Model 649 (which is offered now in .357 Magnum). Going lighter is the alloy-framed Model 38 and 438, while the stainless/alloy Airweight Model 638 is the best of both worlds. Due to the shroud, the Bodyguards don't have an adjustable sight option. As the shroud still allows access to the hammer knurl so that the user can cock it if desired, these models are SA/DA.
Smith & Wesson's medium revolver series has been the company's workhorses for over a century. Dating back to the early side-ejector designs of the 1900s, these six-shooters were reliable for both military and police work – which led to the model's early designation. Over 6 million K-frames have been produced.
Most commonly seen with 4-inch barrels, these were the iconic "service revolvers" for generations. Today there are at least four different centerfire subvariants of the K-frame, the M&P, the Target Masterpiece, the Combat Masterpiece, and the Combat Magnum. The rimfire K-frame, or K-22, is also in this family.
Standardized with fixed sights, the steel-framed S&W Military & Police series of K-framed wheelguns evolved into the Model 10, which is possibly the most basic .38 Special revolver ever made, its stainless steel brother the Model 64, and the .357 Magnum caliber Models 13 and 65, with the latter being stainless.
Inhabited by the S&W Model 14, this K-frame category revolver is a six-shot .38 Special that runs a 6-inch barrel in most formats and carries adjustable sights.
Fundamentally, this short subset of the K-frame is near identical to the M&P line but, in lieu of rugged fixed sights, these six-shot .38 Specials use adjustable target-style sights. They include the Model 15 along with the stainless-steel Model 67.
Essentially a Combat Masterpiece but in .357 Magnum rather than .38 Special, this K-frame arrived on hand with the Model 19 while its stainless steel brother is the Model 66, a gun that many feel is the ultimate K-frame.
Introduced in 1986 to finally phase out the I-framed Model 34 Kit Gun with something more contemporary, the S&W Model 17 was introduced as the K-22 Masterpiece. A stainless variant of the Model 17, the Model 617, has been around since 1990 and is usually seen with a full-lug barrel, giving it a very L-frame appearance.
As the tried-and-true S&W K-frame was initially introduced in 1899, Smith moved to add some more beef to their medium-sized wheelguns to better handle extended abuse from full-house .357 Magnum loads. This led to the L-frame in 1980. A hallmark of the "medium-large" L-frame is their full underbarrel lug, typically seen on most models in the family. As with the J- and K-frames, there are a few different subfamilies in the L-frame tribe including the Distinguished Service Magnum, Distinguished Combat Magnum, the Service Magnum, and the Target Magnum lines.
Distinguished Service Magnum
The most common early L-frames are in this branch from the family tree, containing the carbon steel-framed Model 581 and stainless steel Model 681, both six-shot .357s with fixed sights.
Distinguished Combat Magnum
Arriving on the scene in the mid-1980s, the carbon steel Model 586 and stainless steel Model 686 took the previous L-frame designs and improved upon them, with the biggest change being to added adjustable sights and expanded barrel length options. S&W continues to carry these guns in their catalog today, and it has grown them, literally, to the 586 Plus and 686 Plus, which have seven-round cylinders.
In a league all its own among the L-frames are the S&W Performance Center 986 Pro models, which have been made in small runs off and on since 2014. These seven-shot 9mm revolvers (hence the "9" in the model) have cylinders that are cut for moon clips.
Dating back almost as far as the K-frame series, the Smith & Wesson S-frame models came about with the New Century in 1908, which was the first revolver chambered in .44 Special. By 1917, it had evolved into the Model 1917, the first revolver chambered in .45 ACP.
Around the 1950s, the old S-frame became the N-frame with the Registered Magnum (later christened the Model 27), the first revolver to use the .357 Magnum. Do you see the pattern here?
Continuing down the same road, the N-framed Model 29 was the first .44 Magnum (to the joy of "Dirty Harry"), just as the Model 57 was the first .41 Magnum, the Model 610 in 10mm/.40 S&W, and so on.
The N-frame continues today with the additions to the line such as the Model 629 and Model 329PD. Giving .45 Long Colt fans a modern double-action revolver variant is the Model 25.
Termed at introduction in 2003, the Smith & Wesson Model 500 launched the company's 21st Century X-frame series guns. Earning its name from its commanding 500 S&W Magnum caliber, this five-shot revolver has been manufactured with 4-, 6.5- and 8.4-inch barrels.
Smith's only other X-frame is the Model 460, introduced in 2005. Offered over the years in .460 S&W Magnum, .454 Casull, and .45 Colt, the Model 460 is a serious handgun. Today it is just offered in its signature .460 Mag chambering in both a standard and as the X-treme Velocity Revolver or XVR model.
Smith & Wesson's answer to the Taurus Judge and the even earlier MIL Thunder 5, the Governor series launched the American revolver maker's Z-frame wheelguns. Capable of using either .45 Colt or .410 shotshells (or .45 ACP/.410 in some models) the Governor has appeared dressed in both a Scandium alloy frame with stainless steel PVD cylinder and barrel or in all-stainless variants.
Regardless of which model you pick, it is hard to make a bad revolver choice when going with a Smith. They certainly have the market covered in terms of variety and scope while earning a well-deserved reputation for reliability gained over the past 165 years.