The Other New S&W Bodyguard

As I reported in my October column, Smith & Wesson announced their two new Bodyguard handguns at their Media Day event on the day before the SHOT Show opened in Las Vegas, in January 2010. Because I covered the Bodyguard 380 pistol in my last column, it seems logical to me to cover the Bodyguard 38 revolver this month.

The Bodyguard name was first used by Smith & Wesson to describe one of their small J-frame, 5-shot revolvers. It was a variation of the original Chiefs Special, which had been introduced to the law enforcement world in 1950, at the annual International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Colorado Springs, CO. The Bodyguard model, which had the humpback frame that served as a hammer shroud, came along about five years later. It provided a snag-free revolver that still allowed access to the hammer, so the gun could be fired in single-action mode. The original Bodyguard design is still with us, as the 438, 638 and 640 models. Actually, the new Bodyguard 38 bears more of a resemblance to the Centennial J-frame model, originally designed in 1952, in that the hammer is completely enclosed in the frame and it is strictly a double-action only gun. In any case, it seems only natural to ask if the Bodyguard 38, with a retail price of $625.00, measures up to its venerable name. Here are my thoughts.

All New, Except For The Name

When the folks from Smith & Wesson were giving the media briefing in Las Vegas, they were quick to emphasize that the Bodyguard 38 is a completely new revolver. Other than its size and some outward appearances, it does not share any parts or design features with their J-frame guns. In fact, it seems to be a response to the polymer, aluminum and stainless steel Ruger LCR, which was introduced a year earlier and has gained ground in the small revolver market ever since. The BG 38 uses steel reinforced polymer for the lower part of the frame, which includes the grip, with the rest of the upper frame being aluminum alloy.

According to their spec sheet, both the cylinder and the 1.9 inch barrel are stainless steel. It looks to me like the stainless part of the barrel is really a liner, however, as the exterior of the barrel is actually part of the frame. Only the interior portion can be removed, using a special tool, so that seems like a liner to me. Regardless, this design works well in other guns, and helps keep the overall weight down. Obviously, weight reduction is the name of the game here and the BG 38 weighs in at 14.3 ounces. That puts it in between the S&W AirLite and Airweight models and slightly heavier than the basic Ruger LCR, which weighs 13.5 ounces. Aside from the construction materials, the Bodyguard has a completely new trigger system, a new design for rotating and locking up the cylinder, and a new top-mounted, ambidextrous cylinder release. As they said: an all new design.

I have not dissected the gun, so I will leave the internal workings for others to explain. Although the gun seems to be the same size at the J-frames, it is not identical. I found that some, but not all, of my leather J-holsters might work with the Bodyguard 38, but none of my kydex holsters fit the BG 38. Happily, I did discover that both my HKS and Safariland speed loaders will work with the new gun.

Let There Be Lasers

As I mentioned in my column about the Bodyguard 380, S&W announced that both of the Bodyguard models would only be available with built-in laser sights. The laser unit on the BG 38 is also made by Insight Technology and it is basically screwed onto the upper right side of the frame, just behind the cylinder. The beam is projected along the right side of the gun, above the cylinder and relatively close to the bore axis. It is activated by a single button, located on the top of the unit. Like the BG 380, the laser has both steady and pulsing settings, chosen by how many times the button is pushed. It will also time out after five minutes, following a blinking warning signal, in order to save battery power. Turning it on is a bit simpler than on the BG 380, as you can easily push the button with the thumb of your support hand as you bring the gun into use, without compromising your shooting grip in the process.

One thing that I did notice about the lasers on both of the Bodyguard guns is that they are not quite as bright as my Crimson Trace lasers. In low light this is not a big deal, but the laser is useless in bright sunlight, even at close ranges. This is not a good thing, as you will see, as this gun is way more accurate with the laser than with its open sights. The laser module is screwed to the side of the frame and must be removed to change the batteries. I suppose that also means that you could just leave it off of the gun, if you didn't want it, but I think that would be a mistake based on my shooting experience.

So, How Does It Shoot?

Well, the truth is, I'm not nearly as impressed with this gun as I am the BG 380. However, for a lightweight revolver, rated for .38 Special +P ammunition, it is not as punishing to shoot as some of the other revolvers in the same weight class. At first, the grip felt a bit awkward, with the middle knuckle of the middle finger of my grip hand pressing right up against the back of the trigger guard. Shooting it, however, did not cause any sore spots on my average sized, aging and somewhat arthritic paws. Recoil is stout, but manageable and running 50 rounds through the gun is not a masochistic exercise. The trigger, however, is a disappointment. Pull weight is not bad, probably in the 12 to 14 pound range, and trigger reach is no problem. What bothers me is that the relatively long travel of the trigger has a couple of spots where it feels stagey and you can literally stop and hold the trigger as if they are rest areas. If you pull the trigger relatively quickly and smoothly, it is not as noticeable, but if you are trying for a slow, smooth stroke for maximum accuracy it is a bit of a nuisance. I can stage the trigger every time, predictably and in exactly the same spot on each pull.

Unfortunately, staging the trigger is not a good technique for combat shooting, despite what you may have been told by some instructors. It encourages unintended discharges and can lead to yanking shots low when you reflexively anticipate the recoil. A nice smooth roll of the trigger, in one continuous movement from start to trigger break, will give the best results. That isn't easy with this gun. All of my colleagues who have tried the gun have said the same thing: The trigger needs work... or worse.

Nonetheless, I felt I had the hang of the trigger enough to try some accuracy tests. As you can see from the photos, this revolver is capable of decent accuracy at typical gunfight distances. At seven yards I could manage five shot groups that measured 2.5 inches or less, using the Speer 135 grain Gold Dot +P ammo that I consider that to be the current carry standard for short-barreled revolvers. I had the best results with Federal 125 grain Nyclad hollow point ammo, which ATK recently returned to their Federal catalog. It is a good choice for recoil-sensitive shooters as it expands fairly well for a standard pressure load. My best group with the open sights was with the Nyclad. It measured 2 inches for five shots, with the best three measuring 1.25 inches.

The problem is, all of the groups that I fired using the fixed, open sights were high and left. How high and left depended on how hot the ammo was. One group of the Gold Dots was centered 3 inches high and 2.5 inches left of the point of aim. Remember, this was at 7 yards! The Nyclad centered about 1.5 inches high and 1 inch left. Unfortunately, this was the same experience as several of my colleagues who have also tested these revolvers. The prototype that I shot in Las Vegas was also shooting high. Unfortunately, the sights are not adjustable for windage. The front sight is pinned on, so changing to a higher front sight would be a fix for the elevation problem, but I have not heard that S&W is planning on doing this asyet.

That is why I say that having and using the laser sight on the BG 38 is a really good idea. The laser, of course, can be adjusted for windage and elevation. In fact, the group shown in the accompanying photo was shot with the laser sight, without the sight being really fine tuned. That group measures 1.15 inches, with the best 3 shots being right at .5 of an inch. That group was shot at 5 yards instead of 7, because I could not see the laser any farther away in the sunlight. The bottom line here is that the open sights are too inaccurate to use at more than about 5 yards. Using the laser does allow you to take advantage of the guns inherent accuracy, but you might not be able to see the laser much farther away.

Overall, I think the Bodyguard 38 has a great deal of potential, but it needs more work. For now, I'll stick with my trusty J-frames for backup carry. As the four days of the SHOT Show went by, it was common to cross paths with my colleagues who had been at the S&W Media Day. When asked what they thought of the new S&W Bodyguards, they all mentioned how impressed they were with the Bodyguard 380, commenting about its features and its accuracy. No one even mentioned the Bodyguard 38, unless I asked specifically about it. I think that says it all. This Bodyguard does not seem to be quite ready to bear the responsibility that the name implies.