The Smith & Wesson J-Frame is in all in all likelihood the single most-popular concealed-carry handgun type in history. It is the smallest class of the current S&W revolvers, and is the gun most people think of when they hear the term “snub-nosed revolver.”
Why the guns are called “J-Frames” is a story in itself. When Smith and Wesson designed the side swing (referring to the swing-out cylinders) line of revolvers in 1894, there were two frame sizes. The small frame size was called the I-Frame; the larger was the K-Frame. These designations were not used for sales or in advertising; they were just an internal way to identify the frame sizes. But the employees of S&W started referring to the guns by their frame size rather than using the cumbersome proper names, such as “The Smith & Wesson .32 Hand Ejector Model of 1903.” It’s easy to see why the workers felt the need to develop shorthand.
The employees carried over this slang in discussions with gun writers, and the gun writers picked up on the terms and started using them. Before long, the public was using the references. Their frame letter identifies S&W revolvers even today, but none of them have enjoyed the fame and recognition of the J-Frame.
The J-Frame was introduced in 1950. Ten years later, the smaller I-Frame was discontinued, so all small frame guns made since on the J-Frame. The term J-Frame over the years collectively covers a very wide range of different handguns, all based on the single, basic frame size.
The current J-Frame line comprises models chambered for .22 LR, .22 Magnum, .38 S&W Special, and .357 Magnum. Smith & Wesson offers these revolvers in the Production, M&P, Pro Series, and Classics series of revolvers.
There are three hammer styles. The exposed hammer is probably the best known and most popular. This traditional style hammer has a spur so that the gun can be cocked and fired in single action mode. This provides the best trigger pull for precision shooting. The gun is also a double-action, so that with the hammer down in safe “carry” mode, the shooter only has to pull the longer and harder double-action trigger to fire the gun. While not as easy to shoot accurately, this double-action mode is the fastest way to fire the gun.
The next hammer style is the Centennial design enclosed hammer, double-action only. It’s considered a better option for deep-cover carry guns because it eliminates the possibility of the hammer spur catching on your clothing during the draw.
The third hammer option is the shrouded hammer. This is similar to the double-action only, except the hammer shroud is open, exposing a small ridge that enables the shooter to cock the gun for single-action use as well as double-action. While not as convenient or easy to use as a hammer spur, this does allow both single-action and double-action use without a spur to tangle in your clothing.
Beyond the hammer and cartridge options, the J-Frame overs a wide selection of materials, barrel lengths, sight options, and grip designs.
I bought my first J-Frame in the early seventies, a Model 36 Chief’s Special in .38 Special. This steel frame gun has probably been the most popular of the J-Frame concealed-carry guns. I’ve owned several other J-Frames over the years, including a lightweight alloy frame model in .22 Long Rifle with a 3-inch barrel. Weighing just 10.9 ounces, the gun is a delight to carry when hunting or hiking. But for self-defense guns, the .38 Special is by far the most popular, although the .357 Magnum provides the most options because it can be used with .38 Special, .38 Special +P, and .357 Magnum ammo.
Smith & Wesson currently offers 39 different J-Frame handguns. It’s difficult to say exactly which one is the “entry level,” but the basic Model 36 could qualify. There are less expensive J-Frame guns, but this is the original design and the grandfather of all the others.
At the other end of the spectrum are the M&P models with a lightweight, Scandium alloy frame, XS Sights 24/7 Tritium Night Sight front bead, and a Crimson Trace laser grip. The double-action, M&P 340 CT in this configuration could be the ultimate concealed carry revolver.
For a new shooter, it’s the simplicity and ease of carry that makes these guns attractive, and the J-Frame is a perpetual recommendation for a first carry gun. But that hardly means this is a beginner’s gun. Many hardcore shooters carry a J-Frame concealed. I do.
The J-Frame may be considered “old school” by those who advocate high-capacity, plastic, semi-auto handguns, but the J-Frame has been protecting people for 65 years, and with the continuing evolution of the design, it just keeps doing it better and better.