The Smith & Wesson J-Frame has become the most popular small frame personal defense revolver on the market. With decades of reliable performance to its credit, the J-frame line offers models capable of firing .22 LR, .22 Magnum®, .38 S&W Special and the more powerful .357 Magnum® loads. Smith & Wesson offers these revolvers from our production, M&P, Pro Series, and Classics lines in three diverse hammer designs; internal, exposed and shrouded.
It was the best selling firearm offered by Smith & Wesson in 2006. Tradition holds that the original design emerged from the creative mind of Col. Rex Applegate. Among the small revolvers, it has been called a personal favorite by Walt Rausch, Massad Ayoob, Jim Wilson, Stephen Camp, Ken Hackathorn and many others. Jim Supica, author of The Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson, said that it was possibly the finest pocket revolver ever made. It is the Smith & Wesson Model 642 Airweight Centennial.
There are three basic form factors for the J-frame Smith & Wesson snubnoses. First, there is the standard exposed hammer Chiefs Special such as the Model 36. Second, there is the Bodyguard which has a shrouded hammer, but it can still be thumb cocked and fired single action. Third, there is the Centennial which is often called hammerless a misnomer because it actually has a hammer which is completely enclosed in the frame. Since the hammer is completely enclosed in the frame, the Centennial is double action only.
The Model 642 is the stainless Airweight version of the Centennial. In the early 1950s, Centennial models were originally introduced as the Model 40, a blued steel hammerless .38 Special, and the Model 42, a blued aluminum alloy framed version of the Model 40. The Models 40 and 42 had grip safeties. (For more on the history and development of the Centennial series, click here.) The modern Airweights are produced in both blued and stainless steel finishes, but the stainless version is far more popular. They have aluminum alloy frames with stainless steel cylinders and barrels. Unloaded, the Airweight revolvers weigh about 15 ounces. The Airweights are still chambered in .38 Special rather than .357 Magnum, and they are rated for +p ammunition. The original model 42 was not rated for +p and +p is not recommended for them, although I have heard of a number of people using +p in the Model 42 without negative effects. The Airweight Models 442 (blued) and 642 (stainless) were brought to market in 1990, discontinued in 1993 and reintroduced in 1996 as the 642-1. As noted earlier, the Model 642 has been enormously successful.