Smith & Wesson Model 38A friend of mine and I have an ongoing debate about which snubby is uglier, the Centennial or the Bodyguard. The camel hump hammer shroud on the back of the Bodyguard’s frame, while eminently sensible, has never appealed to my eye. However, it is completely functional. The hammer shrouded Bodyguard, unlike the Centennial, remains snag-free for pocket carry while allowing for single-action fire. The hump also helps the Bodyguard to stay in position when carried in a pocket holster.

The Bodyguard is unusual in one way, in that it was introduced first in the Airweight version as the Bodyguard Airweight in 1955. It later became the Model 38 in 1957. The steel frame Bodyguard was introduced as the Model 49 Bodyguard in 1959. The original Bodyguard “Pre-Model 38” was built in the “four screw” configuration.

Smith & Wesson BodyguardIn 1985, the Model 649 was introduced. It was a stainless steel version of the Model 49, and it was built until 1996. In 1997 the Model 49 was discontinued in favor of the stainless Model 649 in .357 Magnum.

In 1989, The Model 638 Bodyguard Airweight Stainless was introduced. This was an aluminum alloy and stainless steel version of the original Model 38. Also in 1989, the Model 638-1 was produced. It is distinguished from the Model 638 because it as a 1/8″ sight width.

In 1996, the 638-2 was reintroduced on the “J-Magnum” frame. The J-Magnum frame is identical to the original J-frame except for the fact that it is 1/10″ longer, to accept the .357 Magnum cartridge. Even the .38 Special guns produced from this time forward are built on the J-Magnum frame.

In 1997, the Model 649-3 was introduced. This was a stainless steel Bodyguard chambered in .357 Magnum built on the J-Magnum frame.

From Xavier we hear:

“…The Smith & Wesson Model 38 is a superb carry gun. In my opinion, it is one of the best defensive carry guns, period.

My first Model 38 was a Michigan police supply gun, easily recognizable by the blued frame and stainless cylinder. It is not a pretty gun, it is entirely functional, with a custom grip given to me by a retired State Trooper. It has ridden in my pants pocket for several years.

There is a decided advantage to a J-frame in a pants pocket. You can have your hand on your weapon, in a firing grip, before your adversary even knows it is there. The snubby revolver will fire time and again with the muzzle pressed into a rib cage. If a fight goes to the ground (as most end up doing) this little lightweight power house is the gun to have.

The Model 38 has an aluminum frame, making it substantially lighter than it’s steel framed brethren, the Model 49 and 649. The humpback configuration of the Bodyguard frame assists the revolver in staying positioned in a front pants pocket. The exposed nubbin of the hammer allows a single action shot if desired, while the concealed hammer prevents snagging on the draw.

Thus, when I found a pristine nickel Model 38 in a pawn shop, I jumped on it immediately. For $225, it was a steal. Along with the nickel finish, it has a smooth trigger face. Five years ago, there was a line drawn between pinned and unpinned revolvers among collectors. This revolver does not have a pinned barrel. Now, though it seems the dividing line is drawn between Smith & Wesson revolvers with and without locks. This revolver is a lock free dedicated carry gun. That it is a Model 38 is just gravy on the cake.” – Xavier,

Notpurfect says:

“Despite its antiquated basic design, limited capacity, and unimpressive power, this might be among the most politically incorrect of all firearms. At least it would be, if more people were aware of its design, and mission. To the uninitiated, this is simply an oddly shaped, sort of freakish revolver. The hump backed model 49 fires the .38 Special cartridge from a 2” barrel, and has a capacity of only 5 rounds. It is really too expensive, and well made to qualify as a Saturday Night Special (whatever meaning that phrase may happen to have at the moment). Like most specialized devices, the strange appearance of the Model 49 is a reflection of being narrowly designed for a particular function. In the case of the model 49, the gun has been designed to be carried, and even fired, from inside of a pocket.”

Vietnam BodyguardPerhaps the most infamous photograph of a pistol from the Twentieth Century involves the Smith & Wesson Bodyguard. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1969. It is the picture of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Viet Cong captain named Bay Lop in the head. I hesitate to bring up this incident, but at the same time, it is impossible for me to chart the history of this hand gun without acknowledging this moment in history.

At the height of the Tet Offensive, the general executed Bay Lop who had been responsible for the deaths of many American and Vietnamese personnel. Photographer Eddie Adams snapped the picture at the moment that the bullet crashed through the prisoner’s brain. It should be noted that the photographer later became friends with the general and had great regret over the effect of the photo on the general’s life. Adams sent an apology to the general’s family at his death. His statement was “The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera.”

“Adams frequently offered a qualified defense of Loan’s infamous act. Within context, and given the inevitable fog of war, he would say, the killing was understandable, if not excusable. As historian Robert D. Schulzinger points out in A Time for War, the executed VC fighter “had killed some Saigon civilians, many of them relatives of police in the capital.” – Duncan Currie, “Photographs Do Lie

Regardless of this tragic episode, the Smith & Wesson Bodyguard has rendered exemplary service for fifty years and remains a favorite to many in the pocket gun/backup class of self-defense weapons.


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