When mention is made of a small, short-barreled snub-nose revolver, the image that comes to mind for many gun-toting Americans is that of a Smith & Wesson. This makes sense: S&W started out in the mid-1800s making small, concealable revolvers like the Model 1 and Model 1½ in .22 and .32 rimfire. Later, the company produced a line of compact, hinged-frame revolvers in .32 and .38 S&W centerfire. At the close of the 19th century, S&W perfected its swing-out-cylinder revolver, and many I- and K-Frame models would be made with short barrels in calibers like .32 S&W Long and .38 S&W Special. A need for an ultra-concealable .38 Special revolver was recognized, and in 1950 S&W introduced a new and slightly larger J-Frame with a five-shot cylinder in .38 Special. The new five-shooter debuted at the International Association of Chiefs of Police convention, where it was given the moniker “Chief’s Special.” It could be had with a 2- or 3-inch barrel, a blued or nickel finish, and, a bit later, an aluminum alloy, “Airweight” frame. In 1957 the Chief’s Specials were designated the Model 36 and Model 37. Then in 1965 a stainless steel model was introduced as the Model 60.

S&W’s Venerable Revolver
Today there are some 32 variations of S&W J-Frame revolvers chambered for centerfire cartridges. There are also models in rimfire calibers too, but for this review we will stick with the bigger bores, which are more suitable for self-defense and law enforcement use. The original J-Frames in .38 Special had traditional double-action/single-action (DA/SA) mechanisms with an exposed hammer, but S&W later offered versions with concealed and shrouded hammers. There were also round- and square-butt grip frames, and on a few models the fixed sights were replaced with an adjustable rear sight and higher front sight. As revolvers evolved and safety became more of a concern, the firing pin was moved from the hammer nose to the frame, and some subtle changes were made in the design to include a key-activated internal locking system. The lightweight aluminum alloy was augmented with even lighter materials like scandium and titanium, and the tiny wooden “sliver” grips were replaced with more-hand-filling designs made of rubber and wood. In the last several years, factory-installed Lasergrips from Crimson Trace have become an option on some J-Frame models or as a separate component. These small concealment handguns have been strengthened to handle .327 Mag, .357 Mag (including .38 Special +P) and .38 Special +P only.

The only Chief’s Special that resembles the original is in the S&W Classic line, and it retains the Model 36 designation along with the blued carbon steel frame, 1.87-inch barrel, round-butt configuration, exposed hammer, and checkered walnut “sliver” grips. These Classic revolvers have much of the original look but have a more modern design with a frame-mounted firing pin, integral cylinder stop on the frame, internal locking system, and universal round-butt grip frame. The Classic Model 36 chambers the .38 Special cartridge, but the five-shooter has been beefed up to accept +P cartridges…

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