Gun Review: A journey to find a carry gun leads to the Smith & Wesson 442

S&W 442 on a fence

My carry gun of choice,the S&W 442 (Photo by Jim Grant)

When the weather is warm, I carry one the most difficult guns to shoot. The recoil is painful, it’s difficult to aim and less effective than a standard 9mm. I carry a Smith & Wesson 442 .38 snubnosed revolver (I actually alternate between the Smith and a Boberg Arms XR9-S, but that’s a different story).

While I currently reside in sunny South Carolina and I can carry any pistol I can legally own and conceal, things weren’t always so bright. I bought the old faithful revolver while living under restrictions from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts.

Under the Massachusetts Attorney General’s rule only guns he deems “safe” are available to civilians — unless they were pre-ban and grandfathered in, meaning they existed in the state before Congress enacted the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. I originally purchased a Spanish Walther PPK knockoff in .380 ACP, intending to use it for concealed carry. However, I became concerned with its performance when the grip, rear sight and sear spring went airborne during a range visit.

I love my full-sized 1911 for winter concealment, but summertime is a whole different ball game. I needed something for when I wore shorts, a firearm that would fit in a pocket holster and not look suspicious. I tried several subcompact designs, but they printed too much. Then I went to the other end of the spectrum and checked out a couple of derringer style handguns. They were in anemic calibers, had terrible accuracy and ultra-limited capacity. I wanted a carry gun with infallible reliability and decent accuracy, for defensive use, in a caliber bigger than .32 ACP. Since I wasn’t a revolver guy I hadn’t considered a wheel-gun until a friend of mine suggested it. He had a Smith & Wesson 442’s stainless brother with an exposed hammer, the Smith & Wesson 637.

After getting some trigger time with the diminutive revolver I came to appreciate just how much recoil a .38 Special can generate when there is not enough gun to soak it up. The five-round capacity of the J-frame Smith didn’t bother me since it was so much more reliable than my old PPK wannabe. The sights are spartan but functional. Reloading the revolver is more time consuming than an automatic, but allows a user to store spare loose rounds in a pocket for emergencies.

I was all set to buy the matte black version of that very same gun until I did a little research on using revolvers for self defense. For serious shooting, where you might need to send another round quickly, you should never fire a revolver in single action. When humans become incredibly stressed, fine motor skills go to hell. Cocking the hammer on a small revolver in a defensive scenario is difficult and time consuming.

“It’s just a few seconds, how much could it really matter?”

Place bullets here, close cylinder, squeeze to dispense. (Photo by: Jim Grant)

Place bullets here, close cylinder, squeeze to dispense. (Photo by Jim Grant)

If you’ve ever heard of the Tueller Drill, you know that seconds can be vitally important. It takes an average assailant only 1 1/2 seconds to cover 21 feet. You can test this statement with an assistant at an outdoor range, bring an air horn, target, concealment holster and your CCW filled with ammo. At the firing line, draw a line 21 feet behind the shooter, and then place a target 21 feet down range. Stand back to back with your assistant on the firing line. The shooter should be facing down range with the CCW in the concealed holster. The assistant will be facing away from the range, armed with the air horn.

When you are ready to begin, have the assistant yell “Go!” and run as fast as they can towards the line. When they reach it, they will blow the air horn. Simultaneously, the shooter must draw the weapon, from concealment, and make a center mass hit on the target. If the shooter hears the air horn before they fire, they have just been stabbed. Still think seconds are not important? Assume that your pistol isn’t the magic golden gun or your assailant is hopped up on drugs and it takes two or three shots to down the attacker. Could you make that while cocking the hammer between every shot?  While Miculek could easily empty his revolvers cylinder in that time, most people aren’t Jerry Miculek.

This, combined with my budget, narrowed my selection to Smith & Wesson guns. Namely, the matte black 442 and the stainless 642. Since this was going to be a concealed weapon, I wanted something that was a dark color. Then if it accidentally poked out of my pocket it wouldn’t immediately scream “gun!” to everyone around.

The first time I hit the range with the 442, it kicked my ass. I managed a single box of ammo before calling it quits. I had no experience shooting double action and the round I chose wasn’t designed for such a short barrel. Therefore, the muzzle blast was painfully loud and the recoil beat my hands up terribly. I had the target at a very optimistic 25 yards and I only landed 12 out of 25 rounds on paper.

A couple weeks later I returned for round two. This time equipped with better ammo and a different grip installed. Wanting to be somewhat scientific I tried the stock hard-rubber grips and bigger boot-grips. The new ammo was much easier to shoot and while the bigger grips made shooting more comfortable, they also made the gun harder to conceal. For pocket carry, stick with the standard grips.

The 442’s ergonomics are good in the sense that all the controls are easily accessible, but the grip is tiny. I wear small Mechanix gloves and I still found the grips of the 442 too small. All you 6-foot guys should invest in bigger grips or graduate to the next frame size up.

S&W 442 compared to a full-sized K-frame model 10 (Photo by: Jim Grant)

S&W 442 compared to a full-sized K-frame model 10 (Photo by Jim Grant)

Accuracy is sobering with the 442, the barrel is fixed so the gun is plenty accurate, but the heavy double-action trigger means most shooters will be lucky to hit paper at 50 yards. If you’re not 100 percent certain of your shooting abilities with the gun, take center mass shots only.

With an MSRP of $459 the 442 is a solid bargain especially when Smith’s stellar customer service is considered. Word of note, few places actually charge MSRP, so if your dealer is charging above and there isn’t a gun buying frenzy going on, shop elsewhere.

Reliability on the 442 is what you’d expect from a revolver: perfect. I know many people are worried about carrying a gun with the internal lock mechanism built into the frame, but in my experience of carrying the 442 for 6 years, firing it over 4,000 times and running it hard through classes where it was dropped (while empty) during weapon retention drills, it has never locked itself.

Talk to anyone in the know, and they’ll tell you the worst first carry gun is a light-weight snub nosed revolver. Not because the gun doesn’t get the job done, but because it requires a ton of practice and skill to master. If you’re willing to invest time and practice, the Smith & Wesson 442 will outlast you and your grandson.

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revolver barrel loading graphic