Along about 1950, Smith & Wesson realized that its archrival Colt had held the small-frame .38 Special market all to itself since 1927 with the introduction of the Colt Detective Special. It was outselling S&W’s own two-inch .38 Special, the K-frame Military & Police, which was seen correctly by the gun buying public as a sawed-off standard-size service revolver too big to comfortably fit in the pocket of pants or coat. S&W’s pocket-size .38 had long been the five-shot Terrier, on a smaller I-frame, but it was chambered for the feeble .38 S&W cartridge that had long since given way in popularity to the .38 Special.

S&W’s 1950 breakthrough was the J-frame, simply the .32-size I-frame extended to take a longer .38 Special cylinder. To keep the gun small, the five-shot cylinder of the I-frame was retained. This new little .38 Special was visibly and palpably a little smaller than the six-shot Colt Detective Special, and a couple of ounces lighter.

Soon, very soon, it would be apparent that Smith & Wesson had scored one of their greatest all-time hits. Today, most years, the J-frame is Smith & Wesson’s most popular revolver…and the D-frame Colt Detective Special and its siblings did not survive into the 21st century.

Configuration

The J-frame’s mid-20th century debut took the form of the Chiefs Special, so named because it was introduced at the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. It was a standard configuration, like every swing-out cylinder double-action revolver the company had offered since the 1890s. Its spurred hammer allowed easy thumb-cocking to single action mode, which was still a standard element of police “combat shooting” training at the time. The double action trigger pull was short but hard: the J-frame was equipped with a coil mainspring instead of the traditional leaf style, a radical departure for the period. The gun was offered in one caliber: .38 Special.

The first shape-changing of the J-frame occurred in 1952. Colonel Rex Applegate, a giant in the world of the handgun since WWII, had in the early post-war years been attacked by a machete-wielder in Mexico. At the time Rex had been carrying an old top-break S&W New Departure Safety Hammerless revolver under his shirt, and had to empty all five of its stubby little .38 S&W cartridges into his attacker to stop him. He contacted S&W, urging that their more powerful .38 Special J-frame be manufactured in the same configuration as his old Safety Hammerless, to allow a snag-free quick draw from concealment.

It seemed like a good idea to S&W, and the firm introduced it as the Centennial — so called because that year, 1952, marked the company’s 100th anniversary. With smooth stocks that swept up strikingly toward the high “horn” at the back of the streamlined frame that concealed the internal hammer, the Centennial design also encompassed the grip safety of the old Safety Hammerless. For those who didn’t care for that feature, the company included a pin (stored inside the grip-frame) that could lock the backstrap lever into the “fire” position.

Finally, in 1955, S&W added its third J-frame configuration, the Bodyguard. This was a direct riposte to Colt’s hammer shroud accessory, introduced a few years earlier. With the Colt revolver’s frame drilled and tapped with three holes, this ingenious little device shielded the hammer spur to prevent snag in pocket or coat lining during a fast draw, yet left the very tip of the hammer exposed to allow thumb cocking. In the S&W interpretation, the shroud was built in instead of bolted on: the frame of the Bodyguard revolver rose on both sides, and it had its own proprietary hammer to shield, shaped so that it left sort of a “cocking button” exposed in the open slot between upper rear of grip-frame, and rear sight. This was a much handsomer, sleeker “look” than the obvious afterthought of a bolted-on accessory like the Colt hammer shroud, and proved much more popular. Esthetics are subjective, though: while a Bodyguard was sleeker than a shroud-equipped Colt, it was still “funny looking” compared to the conventionally shaped Chiefs Special, and the Bodyguard would soon earn the nickname “humpback” among S&W aficionados.

In half a decade, the J-frame had taken three distinctly different configura-tions, all in .38 Special. Each, it would turn out, would have a separate set of advantages and disadvantages.

Chiefs Special

Produced uninterrupted from 1950 to now in various iterations, the Chiefs Special is distinguished by its exposed hammer and double-action/single-action modality. Because small frame revolvers give little to the hand to hang onto, and have double-action trigger pulls that can be ten times the weight of the gun itself, many users found they could shoot more accurately by cocking to the easy-pulling single-action mode. If the given shooter considers this to be an important attribute, the Chiefs Special configuration deserves strong consideration, since its completely exposed hammer spur allows this manipulation to be most swiftly and positively accomplished. An important safety concern is that it also allows the most positive and certain lowering of the hammer on a live round if the shooter decides not to fire the cocked revolver after all.

Desirable for the above needs, that standard-shape hammer proved undesirable for another purpose. By the 1950s, NYPD firearms authority Paul B. Weston had noted that these hammers were shaped like fishhooks, and when they came out of a pants pocket or an ankle holster, there was a possibility of a disastrous snag. It had long since become popular among serious gunmen to “dehorn” or “bob” the hammer, removing the spur entirely. This made cocking to single-action quite difficult (one had to start the hammer back with the trigger finger, and catch the nub of the hammer with a thumb to bring it the rest of the way back), and flat dangerous to un-cock with a live round under the hammer. Those same serious gunmen had figured out that they’d be firing double-action anyway for “serious business,” and simply went into the gun and removed the single-action cocking notch, curing the problem.

Centennial

At its introduction, the Centennial was appreciated for its smooth lines and streamlined shape, but was seen as a bit of an anomaly by shooters of the time, a time before serious combat-type competition and training were available to the general public. Why, many asked, would anyone want that heavy, double-action “emergency” trigger pull for every shot? And who needed a grip safety, anyway? Sales lagged. People who wanted snag-free draw bought S&W’s Bodyguard instead, keeping the easy single-action trigger pull as an option and doing away with what was seen as an unnecessary grip safety. Sales faded, and in the early mid-1970s, Smith & Wesson discontinued the Centennial.

It wasn’t the best timing. Just about the time of its discontinuance, more people were beginning to discover that the hammerless was a pretty cool gun. With its hammer area completely enclosed, dust didn’t build up there as it did in the channel of the Bodyguard’s integral hammer shroud. Word got out that it was at least theoretically possible for a small coin or some sort of debris to get into that integral hammer shroud’s channel and block the hammer, preventing the Bodyguard from firing. Not so with the Centennial. Influential authors and teachers of the time—Walt Rauch, Clint Smith, Wiley Clapp, and more—sang the praises of the Centennial, and soon it became something of a “cult gun.”

Along about 1990, influenced in large part by Wiley Clapp’s campaign to get his readers to write S&W requesting it, the Centennial was re-introduced, this time without the extraneous grip safety. Sales were huge. Soon, the Centennial was the best-selling J-frame. Most years, it remains so in current times. The “ugly duckling” had come into its own at last.

The big, obvious advantages of the Centennial are that it’s as snag-resistant as you can get, and you’ll never have to worry about a nervous amateur fumbling and accidentally discharging a round while attempting to lower a cocked hammer. The big, under-recognized and under-appreciated advantage is that because the rear of the grip-frame rises higher to accommodatethe enclosed hammer, the shooter’s hand can get higher on the backstrap. This proportionally lowers the bore in relation to the axis of the wrist, giving the shooter more leverage and resulting in less muzzle rise. This means that the shooter as a rule can get double-action hits faster than with either of the other two J-frame configurations.

Downsides? We who practice exclu-sively double-action anyway don’t see it as a downside, but some folks are greatly comforted by a single-action trigger pull option if they need a precise shot, and single-action is, by definition, off the table in the double-action-only Centennial. Even for us double-action-only types, however, one thing we lose with the Centennial is the ability to perform a safe cylinder rotation check. We of the “belt and suspenders” tribe have seen the rare cartridge with the high primer, which will allow the cylinder to close but then bind so tightly against the rear face of the frame’s cylinder window that the cylinder can’t rotate, and therefore, the gun will lock up and fail to fire. With the other two types of J-frame, the hammer can be brought back just far enough to drop the bolt, freeing up the cylinder for the free hand to gently turn the cylinder one full revolution, and assure the user that his gun is ready to ride.

With no external hammer, the only way to do a cylinder rotation check on the Centennial is to start the trigger back enough to drop the bolt and free up the cylinder. This, of course, is manifestly unsafe with a loaded revolver, and should not be done. Accordingly, we Centennial fans learn to inspect our guns and ammo otherwise to insure that they’ll be working when we need them.

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