A few weeks ago we were talking about defensive handguns, and the subject of revolver frame sizes came up. Specifically, the lettering that Smith and Wesson uses to describe their various frames over the past 70 or so years.
There are five basic frames currently in production from S&W, the J, K, L, N, and X frames, ranked in order of size. There have been others, but since the original development of these classifications in the early 30's (prior models were mostly identified by caliber. For example the .38/44 was said to be on the "44 frame")the models outside of this canon have been mostly of limited production.
The K frame Smith and Wesson revolver in .38 spl is a true classic, and the oldest of the frames under discussion. It is one of the most shootable, controllable handguns every designed; and in the right hands and a 4" barrel, it is deadly accurate.
The K frame has been manufactured since 1902 (and in slightly earlier form since 1899, and before that 1892), beginning as the ".38 Hand Ejector", evolving through the "Military and Police" model, and still manufactured today (and since 1958) as the Model 10. The K frame .38 and it's variants were the dominant police issue weapon for something on the order of 60 years; from the late teens and early 1920s all the way to the early 1980s.
The majority of shooters alive in this country today grew up with, and have in their memories strong images of cops on TV with their .38's; and FBI agents with their very similar .357 magnums. Heck, some NYPD detectives are still carrying the .38 detective special (older detectives were allowed to continue using the weapons they qualified with, than switch to Glocks and Kahrs).
The first medium frame .357's were really just strengthened K frame .38s with longer cylinders, which is rather appropriate since the .357 is just a stretched and strengthened .38. These eventually evolved into the model 19 combat magnum in 1955, which was issued by many police agencies for over 30 years, and has only recently left production (under a different model number - actually several - in stainless).
Unfortunately, .38spl is a marginal defensive caliber in it's standard pressure loadings, even from a 4" barrel; and the 4" K frame isn't the most carryable gun in the world, with a length and height greater than a full size 1911.
.357 magnum on the other hand is a real handful of a round, pushing the same bullets as the .38spl up to 500fps faster for a given weight of bullet (for up to 3 times as much energy)
The original medium frame .357 magnum guns really weren't designed to shoot the heavy .357 loads all the time. They were meant to use practice loads, and hot .38spl most of their lives; so as to not put undue wear and tear on the frame. This isn't to say they couldn't do it, but there would be a lot of wear on the guns, and a lot of wear on the shooters. Metallurgy caught up during the model 19s production run, and later model 19s are up to the task, but it is still recommended they live mostly on .38s.
S&W specifically developed the later L frame models in the late 1970's to early '80s as guns that would be both comfortable for the shooter, and stand up to a lifetime of the heaviest standard .357 loads. If anything in fact the L frame models (the 386, 586, 596, 681, 686, and 696 - only the 386 and 686 are still in full standard production, but the others are sometimes made in limited runs) are somewhat OVERbuilt; but they are among the best shooting pistols ever made. The L frame is also a very flexible platform, and since it is a bit larger, it can accommodate a 7 shot cylinder with full power .357 magnum (and also a 5 shot .44spl, though production is very limited).
Above I said the 4" K frames weren't the most carryable pieces in the world. Really they aren't very concealable at all; and this was a competitive problem for S&W in the plainclothes police and personal protection market.
In 1927 Colt introduced a scaled down model of their "Police Positive" revolver, with a rounded butt and a bobbed 2" barrel as the "detective special". They manufactured it in this form until 1936 when they shifted production to arms for the upcoming war. After the war, in 1949, or 1950 they started production back up again, and they sold as many as they could make, up until they permanently discontinued the model in 1973 (though other variants such as the colt cobra remained in production sporadically through the '90s).
This pistol was a real problem for S&W, as they didn't have anything comparable in size. They DID make 2" bobbed models of their military and police pistols, and there was a thriving custom gunsmithing business chopping down K frames into custom carry pistols (we'll talk about Fitz specials at a later date); but nothing small and concealable was available from the factory.
In 1950, finally responding to the Detective Special, S&W decided to do Colt one better, and came out with a slightly smaller pistol they called the "Chiefs Special". It too had a 2" barrel, but it was considerably thinner and slightly lighter than the detective special, because it used a five shot cylinder in a smaller frame. Thus the J frame Smith was born.
The J frame has remained in continuous production, in various materials (carbon steel, stainless, aluminum, titanium, and now an alloy of aluminum, titanium, and scandium) and at various lengths and weights, but otherwise mostly unchanged, for that entire 56 year period. While the detective special was in production it gee rally outsold the chiefs special, but Smith and Wesson J frame production has outstripped Detective Special production by more than 5 to one over the past 56 years.
In the mid 1990s, the Clinton administration managed to get bans passed on the production of new high capacity magazines for semi-automatic pistols and rifles. At the same time, laws allowing for more concealed carry were being passed around the nation, and with the lack of availability of higher capacity magazines; people interested in carrying concealed to protect themselves were more interested in very small guns, firing very powerful rounds like .45 acp and .357 magnum.
Smith and Wesson went back to the drawing board... or rather to their metallurgists... and they beefed up the J frame to handle .357 magnum loads.
Unfortunately, the laws of physics cannot be repealed. Loads that were damaging 4" K frame revolvers weighing 36 ounces in the 1950s do very unpleasant things in a 2" barreled gun that weighs less than a pound; even if the metal can take the stress. Realistically just as the earlier K frame .357's these guns are not designed to be fed a steady diet of .357 magnum loads. Instead they are PERFECT for the newer high intensity +p and +p+ .38 spl loadings, that can sometimes approach near .357 magnum performance without near the recoil or muzzle blast.
From smaller, we now jump to bigger. Specifically we go to 1908, and the Smith and Wesson "New Century hand ejector" revolver, which was originally called the "44 frame", after it's original chambering of .44 Smith and Wesson (which became .44spl). The gun was also called the "Triple Lock" after it's three part locking mechanism, which in part gave the gun it's exceptional strength and accuracy.
In 1915 S&W revised the ejection, the barrel, and the locking mechanism of the gun, removing the triple lock feature (because it saved about 10% of the cost of the gun). The frame then reached the form it would have until 1956.
In 1929, S&W uprated the pressure of some standard .38spl rounds, and called them variously the ".38 high velocity" or ".38 heavy duty", and produced a .38 caliber revolver built on the heavy frame called the .38/44 heavy duty. This led directly to the production of the .357 magnum round, and the first guns chambered for it. The original production .357s were called "Registered Magnums" and were developed in 1934 at the request of noted gun writers Phil Sharpe and Elmer Keith, the FBI, and various police agencies. The registered magnums were essentially hand built heavy barrel large framed .38s, much like the earlier .38/44s, with a lengthened cylinder, and revised heat treating.
In 1956 these "registered magnums" became the model 27, soon followed by the model 28; and still available on a limited production basis as the 627.
Let me tell you, .38spl out of a model 27 is about the smoothest shooting experience there is in the centerfire world. You haven't FELT a good trigger til you've stroked a pre 1969 (or even better pre-'56) S&W DA revolver; and the mass of the N frame soaks up what little recoil the .38 has like water to a sponge.
In the mean time, Elmer Keith had been messing around with the new guns, in their original chambering of .44 S&W special. See Elmer liked to shoot things at LOOOOOOONG range, and he liked to shoot things with big bullets, moving very fast, and hitting very hard.
It's just the kind of guy he was really.
Anyway, Elmer risked life and limb to really push the envelope with .44spl loadings, all the way out to around doubling (and sometimes more than doubling) the pressure and velocity of factory loadings.
He just couldn't break the damn guns. Pretty much no matter what he did, he ran out of room for powder before he blew up the guns. Not that he didn't shoot more than a few of them loose; and he really wanted a gun that would take his hot loads, 100% of the time, for a lifetime.
Elmer was already long famous for his long range shooting, and his hunting skills and activities; and he really wanted his hot .44s, so he pretty much ramrodded S&W into making a new .44 in the model of the .38/.357 magnum; the .44 magnum, introduced into full production in 1955-56, as the model 29 (and still available today as a 629).
At the time of it's manufacture, the .44 magnum really was the most powerful handgun in the world by most standards, but it didn't hold on to that title for long. It was certainly not true by the time the Dirty Harry movie was made, but "This is the fifth most powerful handgun in the world" doesn't sound very good; and besides, from the range he was shooting at it really would have blown the punks head clean off.
At any rate, a few years back S&W decided they really DID want to have the most powerful revolver in the world again, but the N frame (already pretty damned big) just wasn't quite big enough for what they were looking for. Their basic design parameter was "How big can we make this thing out to the point where a sportsman can still carry and shoot it, and the ATF doesn't classify it as a destructive device?".
It turns out how big is "pretty damned huge". The .500 Smith and Wesson is built on the new X frame; and even in it's lightest format, with a 4" barrel, it weighs in at a good 4lbs. The full on hunter 10" model weighs almost SIX lbs.
Unsatisfied with the biggest and most powerful production pistol, last year S&W decided that they were also going to make the FASTEST pistol caliber, the .46xvr (which stands for "eXtreme Velocity Revolver); and they've made a dedicated pistol round (though it'd make a damned nice carbine), that can launch a .45 caliber 200gr bullet into the 2700fps range (or a 300gr at 2000fps); with energies approaching that of a 7mm magnum rifle.
Which funny enough, the gun weighs about as much as...
Today, S&W's best selling models over all are the medium and small frame .357 magnums, the majority of which are most often fired with .38spl through them; though the single best selling model for the past three years has been the .500(which just goes to show how some folks think). Sensibly though, the second most popular is the little J frame .357 in it's various models and materials.
Originally, Smith and Wesson revolvers from the 'teens, up until recently had pinned barrels, and many models had recessed chambers. A pinned barrel secures the barrel against twisting out of true. Recessed chambers lay the rim of the cartridge semi-flush with the cylinder face, which looks neater and helps prevent the cylinder from binding in dirty conditions.
Unfortunately staring the in the 1970s S&W started economizing their production lines, and over time the pinned and recessed revolvers have disappeared from standard production models.
Also, S&W triggers, while still generally good, are just not up to the standards set in the '50s (in fact the same could be said of all their machine work). If you want to feel the best production trigger of just about any gun ever, pick up an original 1955-59 Model 29, or K22 masterpiece. There simply is no better.
You all can get someone else to go into the history of Colt revolver frames for you, it's a lot more convoluted, and to my mind less interesting. If I'mna have a wheel gun it's going to be a Smith, or MAYE a Taurus or Ruger. I can appreciate the fine weapon that is the Python, but Colts revolvers just hold little interest for me.
Oh and for you S&W maniacs out there (and lord I know there are a lot of you), yes there are details I glossed over, things I over simplified, and since I was working entirely from memory without my S&W bible (the Standard Catalog of Smith and Wesson by Jim Supica); I'm sure I got a bunch of stuff slightly wrong.
Feel free to correct as you see fit, and I'll update as necessary, but I think I did a good job for 3am on a Friday morning.
Oh and as to what revolver I choose?
Well that's a toughie.
I'm definitely a S&W lover. My like of Taurus and some Rugers notwithstanding ,my choice overall is a Smith. As to the model that's a bit harder.
My beside gun is a lightly customized 625 (n-frame .45acp with moon clips), with an action job, Hogues, and an SDM fibersight.
I love the gun, but it's not my ideal revolver choice.
A 4" model 29 is a serious temptation. I'm not a big .44magnum fan, but I really like .44spl; and I like the option of the more powerful round; PLUS there are some great companion carbines.
I'd also love a 2" scandium airweight J-frame .357. In my case I'd go for a 340pd. It's not quite as good a pocket pistol as my KelTec P3AT, but you can't deny the power of the .357. Even if it's going to mostly be loaded with +p+ .38 that's still a damn sight better than the hottest .380.
But really none of those is my ideal. Actually I can't pick one single ideal, I've got to have two.
First, a model 25-5 mountain gun in .45 colt. I just love that chambering, and I love the gun... the combo... can't beat it.
...but you CAN equal it, and doing the job for me is a 4" 686p, pp, or 386 mountain gun. I can't decide between them, and I'd take any on my hip any day... though the 386 would be the best to carry on a daily basis.