Have you heard of J-frame, Chief’s Special, or the Model 36? All those refer to the classic S&W Model 36 Chief’s Special revolver.
Some argue that, back in the 50s, Smith and Wesson was distracted with the demand for service guns for police and military units and so neglected keeping up with Colt in the concealed carry handgun market. Colt’s Detective Special in .38 Special was a big hit and Smith and Wesson’s best answer, at the time, was their little I frame revolvers in .32 S&W Long and .38 Special rounds were just too powerful for these little guns. So Smith beefed up their I frame and came up with a revolver, only slightly larger, that could handle the harder-hitting .38 round to finally gave Colt meaningful competition in the CCW arena. The gun was unveiled at the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 1950 and the name, “Chief’s Special,” stuck. In 1957, Smith and Wesson’s new J-frame wheel gun was renamed the Model 36, but I’ll just stick with calling it the Chief’s Special for this review. The world of concealed handguns has not been the same since The Chief’s Special, and its many descendants and copies continue to be sold and carried today.
The Chief’s Special is a conventional double action revolver with an exposed hammer that allows for both single action (cocking the hammer and pulling the trigger) and double action (pulling the trigger without cocking the hammer). Its also features S&W’s conventional swing-out cylinder that holds five .38 Special rounds. Finishes and grips have varied over the years, but the traditional model featuers walnut grips and a blued finish. New production models run about $700 but a good vintage model can be had for as little as $300.
As a concealed carry gun, the Chief’s Special was designed to save lives. Its small frame and approximate 20 ounce weight is easy to tote around. The walnut grips make for a snag-free draw and fire. The grips may look small to some, but my large hands can manage a full grip—although some later J frames leave the pinky hanging, which often translates into degraded accuracy and recoil management. The weight of the all-steel firearm (21.4oz for the model featured in this review) and its three inch tapered barrel helps keep recoil of my favorite 150 grain wad cutter carry loads down for quick follow up shots.
The Chief’s Special’s sights feature a front ramped sight and a rear sight milled into the frame. These low profile, non-adjustable sights may not inspire Olympic accuracy with ease, but they are right on using 158 grain loads—lighter rounds strike lower and heavier rounds hit higher. Regardless of load, putting five rounds into a six inch pattern at both seven and twenty five yards is not hard, even when pulling that weighty double action trigger.
It can be hard to find a concealable revolver that one shoots, but I’ve found the good old Chief’s Special fits the bill very well. The design has served well enough that S&W continues producing them today. The original Model 36 design has spawned many lightweight descendants and copies from companies around the world—a lasting testament to a design to which people continue to trust their lives. The very firearm in my possession has already successfully deescalated a dangerous situation in its service as one of my concealed carry options. Accurate, lightweight, and proven concealed carry effective, the Chief’s Special design hasn’t aged a day.
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.