Every company makes mistakes. Firearms manufacturers are no stranger to this truth because shooters are arguably among the most vocal hobbiests when it comes to pointing out what they perceive to be mistakes made by the companies that feed their habit. And one of the biggest perceived “mistakes” in the firearms industry in recent memory was the addition of the internal lock on all Smith & Wesson revolvers.

Make Up Your Mind: Is the Smith & Wesson Internal Lock a Deal Breaker?

(Pro Tip: Every Lucky Gunner Lounge video has a closed captioning icon in the top left corner in case you don’t want to hear me yap through the whole thing.)


The much-maligned revolver lock appears to be fairly harmless on the surface. Lock-equipped revolvers feature a small key-hole just above the cylinder release latch. By using a key that’s included with the purchase of every new revolver, owners can lock the action of the revolver, supposedly making it “safe” from use by children or other unauthorized persons. The vast majority of S&W revolver owners completely ignore this lock. Many won’t ever know the lock exists unless it’s pointed out to them. That is, of course, unless the lock experiences a malfunction that prevents the revolver from working properly. But more on that later.

Smith & Wesson isn’t the only major gun company to add an internal locking device to their products. They’re not even the only gun company with internal locks known to occasionally fail. Nevertheless, S&W seems to get a lot more criticism for it than any of the other companies. That may have a lot to do with the circumstances under which the revolver lock was introduced.

“Daddy, Where to Revolver Locks Come From?”

Pre-lock S&W Model 36
A “pre-lock” S&W Model 36 with nickel finish. Note the lack of key-hole above the cylinder release latch.

 

The 1990s was an especially difficult decade for firearms makers. The Federal “assault weapons” ban in 1994 was a demoralizing hit to the whole industry, and the political outlook was generally bleak. On top of that, civilian firearms ownership was stagnant and hunting was on the decline. The lifelines keeping many of these companies alive were sales to miliary and law enforcement. S&W had come out on top as the favorite maker of police-issued revolvers in the 20th century, and enjoyed a strong reputation with decision-makers among the nation’s peace officers as a result. As the switch to semi-auto pistols became inevitable during the 1980s, S&W had plenty of 9mm and .45 ACP offerings for departments to choose from, and the reputation of their revolvers often made S&W pistols a shoe-in against the competition.

Then, along came Glock. The Austrian plastic fantastic hit the scene and crushed S&W’s market share in the law enforcement world. It didn’t help that S&W’s quality was also slipping at the time, making it almost impossible for them to regain the ground lost to their new competitor. Adding all of that to their political woes threatened to bring an end to the 150 year old company.

Now, I’m fully aware that any article about firearms that includes the words “the Clinton Administration” is going to seriously upset the calm of anyone who has bothered to read this far, so I’ll keep this part brief. S&W was against the wall and the White House offered a deal that looked like a way out. But S&W would have to “compromise”, and that involved, among some other ridiculous demands, pledging to include an internal lock in all of their new guns. The agreement was inked in March 2000, and and that’s how the internal revolver lock was born. Though today’s political situation is much different than it was 14 years ago, the S&W revolver locks remain. They never implemented similar devices on their semi-auto pistols or any other products, and the revolvers alone possess the unpopular feature.

I Heard it On The Internet, So…

To many gun owners, adapting the lock to avoid political trouble was perceived as S&W quite literally selling the soul of the company to the devil. A massive boycott made the situation even worse for S&W, and it took a change of ownership to eventually turn things around.

But in the middle of all of this mess, some civilians were still buying new S&W revolvers, and they found reasons to hate the internal lock that had nothing to do with politics. First, the general consensus is that it was hideous. The big gaping hole right on the side of the frame is not especially subtle. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the “L” with an arrow printed next to it indicating which direction to turn the lock. For a company whose revolvers are often thought of as quite attractive, this was like tattooing the face of the prom queen.

Of course, that’s just subjective. The revolver is made to shoot, not look at. But that’s why the poo really hit the fan. It wasn’t long before “unconfirmed internet rumors” began to surface about spontaneous malfunctions of the lock. Revolvers owners who had never even taken the key out of the box were having the locks spontaneously engage during routine range sessions. This being the early 2000s, the first online claims were not taken seriously. S&W ignored it, die-hard S&W fanboys ignored it, and even respected figures in the industry chalked it up to rumor-mongering from an already agitated customer-base.

As time wore on, however, it became clear that the rumors were not just rumors. The first clue was that many of the malfunction reports had a key trait in common. They almost all involved the lightweight aluminum alloy or “scandium” framed revolvers firing heavy recoiling ammo. Apparently loading up a 25 oz. snub nose with full house .44 magnums is not just a good way to sprain your wrist, it’s also an effective way of sending serious vibrations through the frame of the gun; enough to cause the little internal lock to shimmy its way into a position its owner did not intend.

Oftentimes, these revolvers weren’t just locking themselves in the sense that the internal lock was activated, they were locked in every sense of the word. No de-cocking the hammer. No opening the cylinder. The action completely frozen, sometimes even with the hammer cocked and live rounds in the chamber. These broken revolvers sometimes had to be unlocked by a gunsmith, or sent back to S&W.

Eventually, the problem was either witnessed or experienced by well-known “real world” industry professionals, proving that guys like “44GatLuvr” and “FMJ_Sniper” on your favorite gun forum aren’t always full of it. Despite that, S&W still has not officially acknowledged that there is any inherent design flaw with the locks. Rumors continue to fly that S&W plans to “phase out” the locks sometime soon. S&W has even released versions of some J-Frame models that are internal-lock free. Despite this, S&W denies rumors that the lock is being dropped in future revolvers, and as of today, the newest S&W revolver offerings do include the device.

Before You Polish Your Pitchfork

S&W 686 with lock
In addition to being completely unnecessary, the S&W internal lock adds an unsightly keyhole to the otherwise aesthetically pleasing wheel guns.

 

Despite all the damning evidence, the Smith & Wesson internal lock problem is likely not as bad as it appears. In truth, we only have anecdotal evidence that some S&W locks have malfunctioned. We have no real data that would indicate the prevalence of such problems. You can also find anecdotal evidence of exploding Glocks, slides flying off Berettas, and self-firing Remington 700s. Taken individually, none of these reports necessarily indicate any specific trend or “epidemic”. Guns are machines and all machines fail eventually. Some design weaknesses can make certain failures more likely, but it’s really tricky to determine just how likely.

Based on the sporadic reports that can be found online, we can infer a few things about the Smith & Wesson internal revolver locks:

  1. As mentioned above, they tend to involve light frames and large calibers. There are fewer claims of lock problems with steel-framed revolvers, and very few reported problems with low-pressure cartridges like .38 special and .22 LR.
  2. Since .38 Spl/.357 Mag revolvers are sold in much greater numbers than the lightweight, big bore revolvers, and the number of reported failures is much smaller, it is likely that the percentage of the popular self-defense revolvers with faulty locks is very small.
  3. The reported problems often involve revolvers that have had custom work performed on them, or were pre-owned. It’s also a safe assumption that many broken lock claims have come from S&W owners who tinkered with their revolvers but chose to leave that fact out of their “report”.
  4. S&W internal revolver locks are easy to disable. With simple tools and a little searching online, the lock can be removed (though the unsightly keyhole will remain). There may be liability problems with this for a self-defense revolver, but should be fine for a recreational/hunting/competition gun. Also, the fact that S&W now makes some revolvers without the lock might help mitigate the legal risk of disabling a lock yourself (but our lawyer says you shouldn’t take that as legal advice).
  5. Many of the so-called “internal lock failures” can actually be attributed to user error or some other problem not lock related. Of course, a broken gun is a broken gun, but not all supposed lock failures are genuinely what their owners initially assume they are.

If none of that sounds very reassuring, and you’re still concerned about trusting your life to a lock-equipped S&W revolver, then you have a few options:

  1. Try to track down one of the few current production S&W models that do not include the lock. The 642 CT and M&P340 CT are two of the best compact defensive revolvers on the market, and both are available lock-free.
  2. Buy an older “pre-lock” S&W revolver. Some of the most innovative S&W revolver designs were only first released after the lock was introduced, but many of the iconic classic S&W revolvers were produced in droves for years prior to that sans-lock.
  3. Buy a Ruger revolver. They are great, and none of them have an internal lock.
  4. Switch to a semi-auto. What kind of dinosaur carries a revolver these days, anyway?

Resources

S&W Revolver Lock Failure, Michael Bane. One of the most notable instances of a well-known industry professional “outing” the S&W lock problem. He later admits that having custom work done on the revolver does bring into question the origin of the malfunction.

Internal Gun Locks, Massad Ayoob. Another noted author and firearms instructor weighs in on the lock issue. Mas is not a fan, but admits he has carried a lock-equipped revolver, though only after extensive test-firing. He also includes some good thoughts regarding the wisdom of removing the lock on a self-defense revolver.

The S&W Lock Issue Just Won’t Go Away, Grant Cunningham. Grant is one of the most sought-after revolver-smiths in the country, and has a reputation as a solid shooting instructor as well. He doesn’t recommend his clients carry a lock-equipped gun, but won’t remove them from customer’s guns for liability reasons.

S&W on Wikipedia. The Wiki article has some good info about the corporate happenings of S&W around the time the lock was adopted. The article also mentions that as of 2009, S&W plans to phase out the lock, referencing a Mas Ayoob article from a 2009 issue of American Handgunner. However, the article in question does not exist in any issue of that, or any other publication. In fact, in the 2009 Ayoob blog post we just referenced above, he says just the opposite; that S&W has no plans to remove the lock despite objections from some folks high up in company the food chain. The Wiki reference appears to be a complete hoax.

What’s Your Lock Story?

Have you witnessed or experienced a malfunction related to a S&W revolver lock? Or maybe you carry a lock-equipped gun and have just decided not to worry about the lock. Either way, let us know in the comments below.


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30 Responses to “Make Up Your Mind Monday: The S&W Revolver Internal Lock”

  1. Tyler Bock

    The lock is dumb. I don't need any unnecessary extra parts on my gun.

    Reply
  2. Seth Mitchell

    It's an ugly feature on an other wise beautiful gun. It alone however is not enough to stop me from buying one, micro stamping on the other hand is another story….

    Reply
  3. Marvin Meyers

    I own lots of older revolvers and refuse to buy the new ones because of the lock and the quality. The old revolvers had great quality which has disappeared with the new cheap revolvers S&W now produces

    Reply
  4. Aaron Hancock

    I have never and will never buy a post-lock S&W of any type. These soured me on the company completely other than their older offerings. Sad, because I always liked their revolvers back in the 90's.

    Reply
  5. John C Sell Jr

    Sorry to burst your bubble but some of the M&P pistols DO have the internal lock! Mine does not but the place in the frame is there, just filled in with something. However, the L with the arrow is there!

    Reply
  6. John C Sell Jr

    The other thing that needs to be pointed out is that when the "deal" was reached, S&W was not owned in the U.S.A. It was owned by a British company who didn't want to make guns and would almost rather have shut the company down. If I am correct, the new owners were in fact the people who developed the lock and that is why most of the newer guns had the lock. In any event, the company is owned in the U.S.A. again and has really spent a fair amount of time and money to bring up the quality and to try and push forward!

    Reply
  7. Brent Wingett

    I'd prefer not to have the lock but after putting hundreds of rounds through my Model 360, Model 60, and two 686Ps, I've never had a problem.

    Reply
  8. Samuel Letherer

    I have a M&P340CT with the internal lock. I haven't had any problems with it. Something I would like to know about the revolver locks engaging after firing. How old or new were the revolvers? When was it made? As with most new things. It takes a few years to get it right. Just asking.

    Reply
  9. Chuck King

    Why?

    Reply
  10. Nathan Lewis

    If you have a bear right on you, last thing you want is the revolver locking shut. My 460 hasn't locked shut at the range, hope it wont when yogi the bear decides to have me for a picinic

    Reply
  11. Mike Cristia

    I don't like it…..My 686 is older and doesn't have it so I don't have to worry about it until my next revolver purchase and then I'll see where the locks stand at the time.

    Reply
  12. Ronald Harris

    what is micro stamping?

    Reply
  13. Seth Mitchell

    Something they're shoving down everyone's throats in California makes your gun stamp the shell casing with a number

    Reply
  14. Jamie Carney

    I'll stick to my Rossi revolvers.
    As good as a Smith, and no lock.

    Reply
  15. Patrick Lawrence

    I remember reading an article talking about the .357 cartridge, and how it had been toned down from it's original 1500fps. If this is true, and the .357 is no longer as powerful as it once was this could also account for the locking mechanism having fewer issues than the larger .44 mags. I do own a revolver with an internal locking mechanism made by Rossi. I've never had any issues with the internal lock; however, that particular weapon has been back to the manufacturer twice since I bought it, both times immediately after being taken out of the box and fired at the range. The second time around Rossi sent me a brand new revolver which has at least survived one trip to the range something it's predecessor couldn't do.

    Reply
  16. LG Chris

    That's right, John… Saf-T-Hammer developed the lock and then eventually bought S&W from their British owner (for about 10% of what he had bought the company for a decade earlier). Even though they may have come up with the lock originally, I'm not sure why they'd keep the lock around if it has been proven to be bad for business.

    Reply
  17. LG Chris

    I've seen that hole in the M&P frame too, but I've never seen an M&P that actually had the lock installed. I don't think most people would object to there being a provision for the lock for those customers who want it. The sticking point with the revolvers is that the lock is not optional.

    Reply
  18. LG Chris

    Nathan, if I were spending a lot time in a place where bear attacks were a legitimate and realistic threat, I'd most definitely look into removing the lock, or find a gunsmith to do it for me.

    Reply
  19. LG Chris

    That's a good question, Samuel. As far as I know, the lock design has not changed since they first came out. It's possible that S&W made a change along the way that would reduce the probability of lock failure, but they wouldn't have necessarily been public about it.

    Reply
  20. Sean Cronin

    The thing is, I have seen 3 S&W guns with locks fail. All J frames. All almost brand new. The gun most likely to be used in a self defence situation. I will not own a gun with these locks for that reason.

    Reply
  21. Jimmy Green

    I've had a mod 360pd for years with no problems. This is the first time I'm hearing about this.

    Reply
  22. Adam Cromer

    I will say that I thought "option 4" was kind of rude. Some of us like to carry revolvers because (well 99.99% of the time) there is no chance of a jammed round or a FTE, at worst you pull the trigger again if the first round is a dud LOL. I love semi-auto pistols but when it comes down to it my carry piece is usually a revolver. I just don't trust the mechanism of a spring loaded magazine and ejecting carts with my life.

    Reply
  23. LG Chris

    That's a lot of failures, Sean. What caliber were the j-frames? Were all the failures for sure related to the lock?

    Reply
  24. LG Chris

    No offense intended, Adam. It was a joke. I occasionally carry a revolver myself.

    Regarding the failure rate of revolvers, they may be more reliable on average, but malfunctions do occur (even in revolvers with no internal lock). Here are a couple of interesting posts on that topic:
    http://www.grantcunningham.com/blog_files/e4753006203cbed7f819165f57a40f1f-1037.html
    http://www.gunnuts.net/2013/12/26/new-series-revolvers-dont-jam-except-for-when-they-do/

    Reply
  25. Nathan Lewis

    LG Chris mountain lions are more common in my part( north Cali) of the country than bears actually

    Reply
  26. Pete Kneeland

    My wifes primary carry is a 442 which locked itself between range sessions. I cleaned it and KNOW that I didn't engage the lock as I dry fire on a casing after I clean it. She carries it in a holster so there is no way that it was compromised.

    Reply
  27. Rod De Leon

    LG Chris , the lock is good for business, but not because it's attractive (definitely not) or reliable (when does more small moving parts make a machine MORE reliable?). It's profitable for the parent company because they get to sell their locks in huge numbers and make their balance sheets look good for investors. Saf-T-Hammer got such a deal because no other corporation would touch S&W. The grass-roots boycott resulted in 40% lower sales for S&W. It was so bad, Clinton filed an antitrust lawsuit in S&W's behalf against distributors (If S&W went under, it would reflect badly on Clinton, "make a deal with us and you'll go bankrupt."). What corporation wants to buy a company in which the customers, not the owners or shareholders, can influence policy decisions?

    Reply
  28. Mainspring LOCKS

    […] Might be some useful info here, as far as the S & W 'Lock' anyway – http://www.luckygunner.com/lounge/sm…internal-lock/ […]

    Reply
  29. Bill Heup

    Just got a 460. Picked it up at my dealers, brought it home, and discovered that the mechanism is frozen. The keyhole is partially obscured by the cylinder release. Brand new gun…

    Reply

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