My wife struggles to just rack the slide on most semi-auto pistols. Since she can hardly operate them, it’s hopeless to train her to recover from the standard malfunctions. I wanted to find a foolproof, easy-to-use, easy-to-carry gun that she would feel confident to train with and carry for self-defense. I believe that gun is the five-shot, .38-special +P Smith & Wesson 642 revolver with Crimson Trace laser-sight grips. S&W sells the gun as a package with the CT grips (model #163811), which my dealer brought in new for $455.
Double-action revolvers are foolproof. Pull the trigger and, if the cylinder can rotate onto a live round, it will fire. As a pure concealment gun the 642 shoots double-action only and has no exposed hammer to snag on anything.
This gun is light — under one pound empty. You really can’t go any lighter and still get enjoyment out of shooting .38sp +P ammunition. (S&W sells 13oz. “Airweight” revolvers that can shoot .357 magnum, but I have never heard anyone say shooting those was a pleasant experience.) So I think the 642 hits a sweet spot balancing weight and size (for ease of carry/concealment) with the ability to fire a proven defensive round.
I wouldn’t get this gun without the laser sights, which are bright enough to use in sunlight. To aim conventional (barrel-mounted) sights you are supposed to focus on the front sight post, which means you’re not focusing on the threat … which is not a good idea when you have to make a split-second decision to use lethal force. Furthermore, as with any small, concealable gun, the sight radius is so small that conventional sights would have very limited accuracy anyway. The laser lets you focus on the target and point-shoot accurately. It probably also adds an intimidation factor on top of the deterrant value of the gun itself.
It is important to note that the laser sight is offset 1.2″ down and .5″ laterally from the bore. If this offset is maintained when the pistol is boresighted (i.e., so the laser shoots parallel to the bore) then the sights will be accurate for any distance, but will always shoot a little high and left (though certainly within the range of accuracy of a gun with a 1 7/8″ barrel). If the sight is zeroed for a specific distance then the laser will intersect the bore line and the pistol will not be accurate for any other distance.
When I was first considering this class of gun, I was somewhat concerned about ammunition capacity. Unless you really practice for it, you’re not going to be able to reload a revolver in an emergency. After training with high-capacity semi-autos, where people talk about whether it’s reasonable to carry just one spare magazine (only 35 rounds?!), it’s disconcerting to think of a defensive weapon where after five shots all you have left to throw at assailants is the gun itself.
But when it comes down to it, five rounds are reasonably sufficient for both a civilian looking for a convenient carry pistol, and for a gun-fighter’s backup gun. Neither individual is relying on this gun to win a gun battle. The argument for concealed carry is that 99% of the time just brandishing a pistol will send bad guys in the other direction. If you actually have to start shooting, and both you and your assailants are locked in the fight after you’ve sent five bullets in their direction, then something is seriously wrong and it probably doesn’t matter how many extra shots you might have had after that point.
My only complaint about this particular gun is the trigger: It has a very long, heavy, non-linear (sort of two-stage) pull and reset. It takes a lot of practice and attention to control it to get good groups and to avoid yanking the barrel off target. Fortunately, the laser sight makes it easy — even fun — to dry practice the trigger pull: Just hold it on a point across the room (with a reliable backstop, please!) and try to keep the laser as steady as possible.