Welcome to another Wheel Gun Wednesday! I’ve devoted a lot of time in this series to covering mid-size S&W revolvers and Ruger’s small-frame snub nose offerings, but I haven’t forgotten about the most popular concealed carry revolvers of all time: the Smith & Wesson J-frames.
In Smith’s current catalog, there are nearly 40 variants of the J-frame, and that’s just a fraction of the hundreds of different J-frame models that have been offered over the years. As part of my quest for the ideal carry revolver, I had my eyes on one of the current .357 magnum models, which S&W was kind enough to loan me for review: the Model 640 Pro Series.
Back to the Beginning
I started 2015 with the intention to expand my knowledge and skill with self-defense revolvers. I’m out to find the best gear and the best techniques and run them through their paces. One of the reasons I didn’t get to the J-frames earlier in this project is that they represent previously charted territory for me.
The first gun I ever carried was a J-frame — a nickel plated Model 36 that had belonged to my grandfather. It was a less than ideal gun for a relative novice, a fact that became apparent to me pretty quickly. But a few years after moving on from the Model 36, I tried carrying a 442 — an alloy framed hammerless model that was much lighter than the all-steel 36, but no easier to handle at the range. It was eventually set aside for a compact 9mm.
I’ve since had the chance to try out a handful of other J-frames at the range, but when I’ve actually carried a small revolver, it’s been a Ruger LCR 357. But in the intervening years, I’ve also had the benefit of putting several thousand rounds down range with various revolvers and gained a much better understanding of how to work with a double action trigger. The time seemed right to give the J-frame another chance, so I combed through S&W’s current offerings looking for J-frames with the right features.
The lightweight alloy J-frame is the ubiquitous “token” carry gun — the revolver people buy and stick in a pocket or purse so that they can say to themselves “There, I have a gun. I must be safe now.” However, despite their popularity, they are notoriously difficult to shoot well — a fact that can be attributed primarily to four factors; heavy trigger, stiff recoil, low visibility sights, and ill-fitting grips. I picked the model 640 Pro because it has features that showed promise to mitigate three of these four issues.
S&W 640 Pro Features
The first thing the fully stainless steel model 640 Pro has going for it is weight. At 22 ounces unloaded, it’s almost twice the weight of some of its scandium-alloy framed counterparts, but I consider this heft an asset in a J-frame. For revolvers, felt recoil is directly proportional to the weight of the gun. Shooting an aluminum or scandium J-frame with anything but the most mild .38 special wadcutter loads can range anywhere from slightly uncomfortable to cripplingly painful. Careful selection of grips can mitigate this effect somewhat, but switching to a steel revolver makes a more meaningful difference.
You can’t completely forget that you’re wearing a 22-ounce handgun the way you can a revolver that weighs half that, but the 640 is still very compact and not at all uncomfortable to carry all day with a halfway decent holster. That extra weight will make range visits a far more enjoyable endeavor, and that means you’re more likely to actually get in some trigger time with the 640 versus the featherweight alloy gun you’re afraid to shoot (Don’t worry, that can be our secret).
Adding to the shootability of the 640 Pro are the excellent sights. There are plenty of other steel J-frames in the S&W lineup, but the unique sights on the 640 are really what makes it stand out above the rest — it’s currently the only S&W revolver that’s cut for dovetail style drift-adjustable pistol sights. A few models have a fiber optic or tritium front sight and adjustable rear, but most J-frames use the small ramp front sight with a rear sight in the form of a shallow gutter machined into the top strap.
The 640 Pro sights, on the other hand, are the kind you would find on a full size duty semi-auto: a three-dot Trijicon tritium night sight setup with white outlines around each dot. I’m actually not a fan of three dot sights like this in their factory configuration, because there’s no contrast between the front and rear. So if I were to carry this revolver regularly, I’d dim the rear sights with a Sharpie so the white ring on the front sight would stand out — an easy fix, and the tritium vials will still glow in low light.
Why don’t more small revolvers have usable sights like these? Probably because of the myth that it’s impossible to use your sights in a self-defense encounter. Or maybe it’s because of the even more popular myth that a snubby wheel gun can’t be fired accurately beyond contact range. Both of these misconceptions are self-perpetuating. Amazingly enough, it turns out that people who buy revolvers with crappy sights and don’t practice with them because they don’t think they’ll have time to actually use the sights are the same people who don’t think to look at their sights in a real world defensive shooting. On the other hand, interviews with gunfight survivors have shown that when your gun has a decent set of sights with highly visible contrasting colors, and you practice with that gun fairly regularly, you’ll probably end up using those sights in an emergency, and you’ll probably hit what you’re aiming at. That doesn’t mean the three-dot night sights like the ones on the 640 Pro are the only type of usable sights for a snub nose, but they’re definitely a strong place to start.
The third disadvantage of many other small revolvers that S&W attempted to address with the 640 Pro is the grips (or stocks, if you want to get technical). There is no set of revolver grips in existence that will work for every shooter, but many of the snub nose revolvers on the market come equipped with grips that seem to be designed for someone who never actually plans to fire the gun. This trend has gotten somewhat better in recent years, but it’s still common for the factory grips on a concealed carry revolver to be virtually unusable.
The grips that ship with the 640 Pro are far from perfect, but they’re better than a lot of others out there. I could do without the finger grooves, and the overall length of the grips is on the long side, making the gun less concealable than it could be. I have relatively average sized hands, and I could stand for the grip to be about a half inch shorter and still have plenty of room for my pinky. The backstrap is covered without adding excessive girth to the grips, so they cut down on felt recoil without making the trigger reach too long. Unfortunately, the last bit at the top of the backstrap is uncovered. Considering that’s where the soft, fleshy, vulnerable web of my hand is supposed to sit when gripping the revolver properly, this seems like a pretty major oversight.
Another key feature of the 640 Pro is the face of the cylinder that has been machined to allow for the use of moon clips. This is another feature not typically found on small revolvers, and especially not ones chambered in a traditional rimmed revolver cartridge like .38 special and .357 magnum. Usually, moon clips are found on competition revolvers or revolvers that fire semi-auto cartridges, like the Ruger LCR 9mm I reviewed a few weeks ago. If you want to use moon clips on your .38/.357 snub, you’re typically looking at an expensive custom job from a gunsmith who specializes in that kind of work.
Moon clips allow for quicker and more positive extraction of spent cartridges, and loading becomes faster than what can be achieved with any speed loader. But not everyone is a fan of moon clips. It can be a royal pain to get the cartridges in and out of the clips, and if they become warped and bent from use, they can even cause a cylinder to bind. Fortunately, use of moon clips is optional in the 640 Pro. You can completely ignore them and the gun will load and unload like any other non-moon clip J-frame.
A final feature of the 640 Pro (and one you won’t find S&W bringing much attention to) is the lack of an internal lock. Over the past few years, S&W has quietly released versions of some of their double action only J-frames without the lock, but they’ve kept it limited to only a few models. I’ve already given my two cents on that topic, so I won’t elaborate much except to say that the lack of an internal lock on the 640 Pro is a huge selling point for some shooters.
Shooting the S&W 640 Pro
I initially had high expectations for the 640 Pro, but the minute I got it out of the box, I knew it would be no picnic to shoot. Dry firing the trigger a couple of times told me everything I needed to know. “Oh right, that’s why I don’t carry a J-frame,” I thought to myself. The trigger was actually pretty smooth compared to some, but heavy. Very, very heavy. My trigger pull scale tops out at 12 pounds, so I don’t know exactly how heavy, but I’d estimate it at no less than 15 pounds. I don’t care how experienced a shooter you are, holding the sights still on a 1.5 pound gun while you apply 15 pounds of pressure with your trigger finger is no easy task.
Fortunately, I knew where to find some help. I popped over to Apex Tactical’s site and ordered one of their J-frame Duty/Carry Spring Kits which is, without question, the very best thing to happen to J-frame owners this century. Once the kit arrived, the install took about 20 minutes, and now the 640 Pro trigger is down to a much more manageable 9.5 pounds.
I’ve brought the 640 Pro out for a few range trips, firing mostly American Eagle .38 spl 130 gr FMJ and Magtech .38 spl +P 158 gr SJHP. The recoil with both loads was pretty mild by snub nose standards, but would take some getting used to for anyone not accustomed to shooting double action revolvers. The most ammo I ran through the gun in a single range session was 150 rounds but I felt I could have fired another 100 without much discomfort. On rapid fire drills at ranges from 1-7 yards, I was able to keep hits on target with times close to what I’ve been able to pull off with my larger K-frame revolvers. This became more difficult to pull off at longer distances, but the recoil with .38 load didn’t prevent me from adequately controlling 640 at closer range.
Despite the barrel of the 640 Pro being marked with a very clear “.357 MAG”, I would not say this is a .357 magnum revolver. It is a .38 special +P revolver that can, in theory, fire .357 magnum ammo without breaking into pieces. I’m sure you’ve heard (or possibly experienced) the extreme pain that results from attempting to fire magnum ammo through one of the S&W featherweight alloy revolvers. Well, just because the 640 weighs twice as much as the scandium models doesn’t mean shooting magnums hurts half as much. It’s still no picnic. And even if you can fight through the pain, rapid follow-up shots are just not going to happen. The magnum ammo performs poorly out of short barrels anyway, so just stick with the .38 +P for carry ammo.
In addition to the American Eagle and Magtech, I ran a couple of .38 +P self-defense loads through the 640 Pro: Speer Gold Dot 135 gr Short Barrel and Hornady 110 gr Critical Defense. Recoil with the Gold Dot ammo was barely distinguishable from the mild American Eagle range ammo, and the Hornady was even lighter.
Slow fire accuracy, on the other hand, was a bit of a challenge. Standing at 15 yards, I was able to get a five shot group under 2 inches with the Magtech ammo, but the Speer and Hornady came in at 4 inches and 3.5 inches respectively. Not terrible, but I know that in theory, a J-frame should be capable of better accuracy than that. Whether the less than impressive accuracy was due to the shooter, the ammo, or the gun, I can’t really say, but I found center-torso hits to still be quite doable at that distance, even on timed drills.
In any case, the sights needed some tweaking. All of the groups I fired were about 2 inches to the right of the point of aim, and the Speer and Hornady were 3-4 inches low as well. I was able to drift the rear sights over with a punch to compensate for windage, but not much can be done about the elevation issue. I guess whoever was in charge of setting up the sights for the 640 Pro didn’t get the memo that it’s been a while since the 158 +P lead hollow point was the most popular expanding .38 load on the block.
Despite some of these shortcomings, the 640 Pro really is configured better than any other J-frame that Smith is producing right now. It’s a serious self-defense revolver built with serious shooters in mind. The price tag is relatively high, but it’s much less than you’d pay for customizing a standard J-frame with similar features. The Ruger SP101 Wiley Clapp I reviewed a while back is similar in many ways, but the 640 Pro is less bulky, and has no exposed hammer (as should be the case with all carry revolvers). I’m not ready to give up my Ruger LCR 357, and I think that design is superior to the classic J-frame in many ways. But the 640 Pro represents some of the best of what a J-frame can be, and that’s saying a lot for a design with such an enduring history as a reliable self-defense tool.
||1.38 lbs (22.1 oz)|
|Sights||dovetail 3-dot tritium night sights|
|trigger pull weight||~15 lbs (9.5 lbs with Apex Carry/Duty Spring Kit Installed)|
|Included Accessories||Three Moon Clips|