[Review] Smith & Wesson 642 Airweight: Go-To Snubbie?

In the world of revolvers, snub-nosed models are frequently suggested for concealed carry (especially if you’re a female).

But are snubbies really ideal?

Smith and Wesson 642 (6)
The Smith and Wesson Model 642 Airweight is a five-round revolver.

I have a Smith and Wesson Model 642 Airweight chambered in .38 Special I’ve been running intermittently for years and wanted to share my experiences with you guys.

Whether you’re snubby-curious or already a fan, this is for you.

Best Bang-For-Buck CCW Revolver

But first, a quick dive into the gun’s history.

Back Story

Smith and Wesson have been in the J-frame game for quite a while – almost seventy years – and the Model 642 is one of their more popular designs.

So, what’s so unique about J-frames?

The frame shape is named that as a tip of the hat to their old revolvers dating back to the late 1800s.

S&W Frames
S&W Frames Sizes

Back in 1894 Smith and Wesson had two frames available, I-Frame and K-Frame, only they weren’t called by those names.

At the time the guns had longer names but when company employees began calling them by their alphabetical designation rather than their official model name, Smith and Wesson gave in and followed suit.

It was 1950 when they first introduced the J-Frame and quickly took over the company’s line.

There are quite a few guns in the Smith and Wesson catalog referred to as J-Frames; at the time of this writing, there are four chamberings and four series models offered in this frame.

Caliber Comparison

In fact, if you add up all the possible options there are more than three dozen variations available. You could say it’s a popular design.

That Model 642, Tho…

The 642 is actually a modernized version of Smith and Wesson’s Model 42 Centennial Airweight.

Model 42 Airweight
Beautiful, and very rare, version of the Model 42 Airweight

It has an enclosed hammer which should not be confused with a shrouded hammer.

Enclosed hammers are inaccessible to the shooter meaning you are firing this gun double-action only, all day, every day; shrouded hammers give shooters access to the hammer, albeit it limited access, so single-action shots are possible.

Shrouded hammer Airweight
Shrouded hammer Airweight

A common complaint about shrouded hammers is lint and foreign objects getting into the shroud and mucking up the hammer. With an enclosed hammer that isn’t a concern but you’d better be capable of nailing those double-action-only shots.

This is a snubby, of course, so the stainless steel barrel is a scant 1 and 7/8 inches long. The cylinder and crane are also stainless steel which is good for durability and the frame is an aluminum alloy, making it lighter weight.

Smith and Wesson 642 (2)
The Smith and Wesson Model 642 Airweight is a five-round revolver.

Grips are the usual black synthetic and are panels rather than a sleeve. The Model 642 Airweight has an integral groove rear sight and integral front blade sight which has the benefit of not shifting if the gun is knocked around but the downside of being harder to acquire on targets.

It’s chambered in .38 Special, +P rated, and has a five-round capacity.

Pew Pew Time

The first thing you notice about the Smith and Wesson Model 642 Airweight is its diminutive size (obviously).

This is where hand size comes into play.

My hands are not small; my fingers are long and I like double-stacks quite a bit. This revolver, however, is small. It has an overall length of 6.3 inches and an empty weight of 14.6 ounces, making it easier to conceal but presenting a bit of a challenge when it comes to gripping it.

Smith and Wesson 642 (3)

With a thumbs-down grip the pinky of my strong hand is completely off the butt of the gun and my ring finger is barely holding on. As for my support hand only my index and middle finger make firm contact with my other hand.

Reach to the trigger is understandably abbreviated as well so prepare to need practice with this gun.

All that said, the gun is not difficult to grip firmly. This is not a case of a pistol recoiling enough to disturb your grasp but simply a case of it being small enough to require a bit more care.

gun recoiling into shooters face
This is uncomfortable recoil

Recoil and muzzle rise correlates to the ammo used: Inceptor .38 Special 77-grain ARX produces the lightest felt recoil, Hornady Critical Defense .38 Special 110-grain FTX has significantly more noticeable recoil, and Hornady Critical Defense .38 Special 110-grain FTX +P snaps the gun back quite a bit.

Best .38 Spl Home/Self-Defense Ammo
23.50
at Lucky Gunner

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

This is just one of many reasons we always say to train with the ammunition you carry; the felt recoil and muzzle rise of the gun with good self-defense rounds is far more than what you get with a box of American Eagle .38 Special 130-grain FMJs.

Let’s move on to accuracy.

This is a .38 Special +P-rated snubby made to meet deep concealment needs. From its enclosed hammer to its short barrel it’s ideal for snag-free concealed carry.

That means it does suffer a bit for accuracy. At a distance of ten yards firing slow, deliberate shots my best five-shot group was around 2.5 inches.

Smith and Wesson 642 (5)
This is not a precise revolver but it does get the job done at closer distances. As with all guns it requires practice.

From five yards, doing a playing card drill, I did produce a group that stayed on the playing card and some shots landed neatly together but it was not as precise as I prefer my playing card groups to be.

Rapid-fire drills opened groups to eight inches and wider.

This is a reliable gun. I’ve had this Model 642 Airweight for years now and it’s been flawless.

However, do not assume a revolver cannot fail. They can. Although semi-autos may be more prone to failures it’s inaccurate to claim your revolver cannot fail.

Example of a revolver that failed.
Example of a revolver that failed.

Understanding they can fail and knowing what to do about it when they do is a vital part of your firearms education.

Devil’s in the Details

There are a few things to keep in mind with this gun. First, for revolvers across the board you will be gripping thumbs down. If you’re used to firing semi-autos with your thumbs forward alongside the slide this will be an adjustment for you.

Handgun Grip, Thumb Forward
If this is your standard grip, you’ll need some adjustment time.

You can use the thumbs-down grip with semi-autos, too, and I have found it works better for certain models than thumbs-forward. My thumb position always depends on the size and shape of the specific gun.

The gun is snappy. After all, it’s a snubby; this should come as no surprise to you. Felt recoil and muzzle rise are certainly controllable but you do notice and it does affect accuracy. Practice, practice, practice.

Smith and Wesson 642 (5)

Regarding the effective range of a short-barreled revolver such as this Model 642, here’s the thing: how’s your shot placement? The obvious answer is that smaller handguns like this one are meant for closer range use.

That doesn’t mean they cannot be used at longer distances but it does mean the further out you get the more difficult it will be to get shots on target (and you’ll be losing velocity and energy faster with the 1 7/8-inch barrel).

Consider utilizing a Model 642 as a BUG – BackUp Gun – or, if it’s your main carry, understand it is best used within approximately ten yards. Shot placement is king and the farther away you are trying to fire this gun the sloppier your hits will be.

As always, train hard and be familiar with the capabilities and limitations of your chosen firearm.

By the Numbers

Reliability: 5/5

There is no arguing the Model 642 is a reliable gun. It’s eaten every type of ammo I’ve thrown at it over the years and will likely continue to do so for years to come. Just remember, revolvers can fail (this one just hasn’t yet).

Ergonomics: 3/5

It’s a snubby .38 Special so I don’t expect a stellar fit to my hands. It’s a small gun with grips angled in such a way I find shooting Weaver actually suits it better than Isosceles. The grips do not fill my hands; my hands engulf the gun. As long as you go into this knowing it’s a small gun and concessions must be made you’ll be fine. If I were to rate this ergonomically compared to other similar-sized guns I would add a star because it is better-designed than many micro semi-autos I’ve run.

Accuracy: 3/5

Okay, so this is a tough one to rate. If you only use this gun at close ranges and spend time practicing with it, it’ll get the job done. Don’t expect it to be precise and don’t think it will perform well at longer distances, because it won’t. Consider this your BUG gun for use when your assailant is getting up-close-and-personal.

Customization: 3/5

You just cannot customize a small revolver like you can, say, a Glock. It’s possible to Cerakote your revolvers and swap out the grips but that’s about it. I’d go with even fewer points for customization but it seems unfair to expect a little revolver to be highly customizable so we’ll go with a three.

Value: 5/5

Yes, this gun is a good value. It’s well-made, durable, and highly concealable. For its close-range purpose, it is quite well-suited and fits the bill for many shooters. It does the job it was intended to do and won’t break the bank.

Overall: 3/5

Parting Shots

There are a lot of micros on the market (and a fair number of snubbies as well). If you want a gun suitable for deep concealment there is nothing wrong with a Model 642 Airweight.

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However, the barrel length is detrimental to accuracy and has a negative effect on follow-up shot placement. It would not be my first choice for self-defense use. Of course, if you just want a good BUG or a fun little shooter, go for it.

Smith and Wesson does good work on their guns and the Model 642 Airweight is no different, just not my personal shot of whiskey.

Do you carry a J-Frame? How do you like it? Let us know in the comments! If you want more awesome .38 Spl options, check out the Best .38 Spl Revolvers and Best .38 Spl Ammo.

26 Leave a Reply

  • Murph

    And if you don't care for the shiny 642, the 442 is the same revolver with a dark finish, about the color of a Cerakote job.

    2 months ago
  • PAUL Hokinson

    I carry a S&W air lite Ti 3" daily loaded with Liberty Civil defense ammo

    2 months ago
  • Art out West

    I get frequently carry my 642, and like it a ton. Were I only allowed to keep one of my handguns, it would be hard to choose between the Glock 19 and the 642 (yes, I know they are very different guns). I pocket carry. Snubby's and micro .380s (like LCP) work great for pocket carry. I have both the LCP and the AirWeight. I prefer the revolver. It seems more like a real gun.

    3 months ago
  • Tig

    Thanks for the article, it's a good one! My Dad, at age 92, just passed and I came into possession of the S&W 042 he purchased in the early 90's. Aside from his use of primer fired snap caps, and very few of them, the pistol has never been fired with full loads. It's a blued model and the model # 642 is clearly over-stamped in white with 042. There is a very faint cylinder scar from his use of the snap caps. It's an absolutely gorgeous revolver. I'm hesitant to shoot it, although quite tempted! Dad kept it in his little hidey hole by his recliner for all these years and every so often I'd take it and make sure it was clean and wiped down before handing it back. I purchased a box of Winchester Silver Tips for him to use if needed. I always recommended he go with me to the range and become better familiar with it, but he was quite used to firing other revolvers and declined. He said he wanted to keep it nice for me... So now I've got a beautiful momento of him and quite a collectors piece in this condition. On top of that, I've got the original box, paperwork, even the wax wrappers it came in. I'm leaning toward it being a safe queen, but am always a step away from taking it to the range. What say you fellow shooters? I would enjoy hearing your thoughts.

    4 months ago
  • Michael Williams

    Not going to buy a Smith & Wesson product anymore for I own a 1911 but once I saw how Smith & Wesson treated a customer who had a complaint about a revolver he bought I said never again ❌

    4 months ago
  • Don McD

    Our County Sheriff wants two shots center mass at 50 feet for a CCW. I appreciate the article, would it be possible for you to do a grouping at 10 meters?

    4 months ago
    • David, PPT Editor

      50-feet is doable, but it takes a lot of trigger control with the long DAO pull of the 642. I would highly recommend a LOT of dry fire time before the CCW test.

      4 months ago
  • Gunny B

    Many people note that the J-frame is frequently questionable in the power dept. I solved this issue by choosing a 640 in .357 mag. It is a handful to shoot with full-power loads, for sure, but I will never feel under-protected, even with only 5 shots, when I have it in hand. It is a BUG, btw, but on infrequent occasions, it has been my only gun and I have still felt pretty secure overall.

    4 months ago
    • Michael Williams

      I am a ( Gun Nut ) and love to say to my friends I have high capacity magazines with my model 41 Glock in 45 caliber but in reality of a shooting if one goes pass three rounds and able to talk to the Police surely ( God ) helped you We regular citizens are arriving on a scene to confront bank robbers and then get into this massive shooting situation ❗ However , anything is possible but when it comes down to it one must practice which most gun owners don't do enough

      4 months ago
  • Sam

    This is my EDC and since I live in a warm climate, it spends its time in my pocket. A DeSantis pocket holster keeps it from printing. It is not ideal for long range target shooting, but from across a room, I feel confident it will find its target. Zero problems and legendary S&W reliability. Easy to practice with and easy to conceal.

    4 months ago
    • Michael Williams

      I carry a much larger semiautomatic and you could check the rig called " Urban Carry " That holster is designed to take any size firearm but you might start carrying a larger frame once you check out the " Urban Carry Holster

      4 months ago
  • Jmz

    I carry the model 640 which has slightly longer barrel and longer handle for that pinky finger. Yes the price is a bit more. This article is correct on many points. The shrouded hammer versions do get clogged with lint though has not caused any jams (yet). While you can pull back the hammer to single action, it probably isn't gonna happen with one hand. So the enclosed hammer is the way to go. I have switched to enclosed hammer for everyday carry. Doesnt seem the 642 is available in .357. I wouldn't settle for anything less. Recoil is painful in .357. Not like gun flying out of your hand. More like someone stabbing a knife into your wrist. Not fun at the range but in life or death situation i'm sure this will not be a priority. Also Virginia has stupid "reasonable force" law which defines ammo with magnum or +P as "excessive". So i pack .38's until this stupid law is repealed. Anyone who carries a revolver must understand escape is the only priority, not being the hero. Still you better get some Speedloaders and practice the art of reloading under pressure, just in case.

    4 months ago
  • Nez

    I own a 642 and an LCR. I've tried several different grips on each. My preference is the LCR, which I frequently carry. I never carry the 642. The LCR has a much smoother action. I Even with an Apex trigger kit on the 642, the LCR's trigger is still better. The LCR is carried with a boot grip and clipdraw, inside the waistband without a holster in the appendix position.

    4 months ago
  • Hammer

    Honestly, I'd rather carry an SP101 than a J-frame any day. Yes, they are a bit heavier, but that additional weight (which isn't unreasonable at all) does a much better job of mitigating recoil with stout +P loads. And if you're going to opt to carry a .38 for self defense, I think it's smart to carry the most ballistically effective options available - most .38 rounds have mediocre to terrible penetration and expansion. If the SP101 is too heavy for you for some reason, then the LCR is still a better choice to the J-Frame, imo. Another upside to the Ruger? No stupid frame lock.

    4 months ago
  • Jimbo

    When I was going through Enhanced Carry certification training, there was an older lady in the group who had a 642. She couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with it. She let me cycle a few rounds through it and I actually liked it and hit pretty well. It just seems like a great backup, as the article states, but I hope those who rely on it put in quite a bit of time at the range with it.

    4 months ago
  • David

    My wife carries a 642 and loves it. She had issues initially with using the machined sights on the weapon when she first got it. After some training, she was grouping her five rounds into a sub 3" group at 7 yards and just over 3" at ten yards. When she complained about the trigger being too stiff, I replaced the springs and stoned (polished) the contact parts. (Please do not try any gun smithing work unless you are trained. I was a certified armorer for our police department and apprenticed under a master gun smith). This lowered the trigger pull weight by nearly 3 lbs. We also added the Crimson Trace laser grip that allows her to wrap all three fingers around the grip. This closed her groups to 2" at 7 yards and sub 3" groups at ten yards consistently. Bottom line, I enjoyed her revolver so much after the trigger job and the larger grip that I bought one for myself. The only thing that is different with mine is that I did not install the Crimson Trace, I installed a Pachmayr diamond pattern grip since I am comfortable with the factory sights.

    4 months ago
  • Rich

    Try the Miculek grip for snubbies. “The j-frame revolver is different because of the size limitations of the stock. So what we do to correct that is we’re going to change the placement of the thumb on the non-firing hand. We’re going to come up and grab the backstrap of the firing hand. Notice that these two fingers are pinching the revolver down into the grip of the firing hand and it gives a lot better consistency from shot-to-shot this way.”

    4 months ago
  • Damien

    I have a no-lock, 642 Performance Center; trigger action is really nice. However, the light weight and my long skinny hands make the grip/recoil pretty nasty. I read up on the "John Wick pistol grip", raised my hand on the grip, and found I have much better control over the gun. Absent that, the recoil was snapping hell out on my trigger finger. This grip requires a little more downward cant to hit the target, but it is much more comfortable shooting. As to carrying, I have a couple of pocket holsters from Robert Mika: They're worth every penny. Square and round bottom to fit different pockets. Very comfortable and do a creditable job in masking the arm.

    4 months ago
  • Doug Gracey

    I have been carrying a 642 since 05 and I would not be with out! Perfect for running to the convenience store, walking the dog or changing a flat tire! This revolver can be fired with a less than conventional grip if in a struggle and shoots through jacket pockets. I sacrificed an old charthart , a denim jacket and a cotton hoodie it works and accracey was great at 3 feet. I recommend a trigger job from the start OR check out the 642 performance center sku #10186 I bought one for my father and not only does it look a little fancy with the cylinder flutes and release plate polished but the enhanced trigger is most exellent! While it is not my edc it more than fits the purpose of up close and ugly

    4 months ago
  • Mark

    I’ve had the 642 for 6 years, inheriting from my wife because it was too snappy for her. I use it in my truck for emergency prep and take it hiking as it is easy to carry in my pocket holster. I carry it hiking and hunting with CCI snakeshot in 2 cylinders it and it works fine. I put a Pachmayr grip and it helps with the recoil but this compromises the concealability to the size of the grip. For a defense load I use a Buffalo Bore 130 grain for short barrels. It takes awhile to get used to it. I didn’t know ARX was out yet in .38 spl and I may try that. I can put them in an 8” circle at 7 yards as long as I practice.

    4 months ago
  • J Stachura

    Not all S&W j frames are +P rated. I have seen the neck of the mod 36 to crack and the barrel gets loose.

    4 months ago
  • Jack Alfred Rassi

    I prefer the exposed hammer, I have a model 36, model 37, and model 60. The model 36 was tuned by Frank Pachmeyer himself, it is very smooth. I prefer the two steel framed guns because they can handle full power 38 special, while the aluminum framed gun is restricted to standard velocity such as the Federal 125 grain nyclad (no longer available, but I still have some.)

    4 months ago
  • Fred McMurray

    If your skills are sound, a 642 doing a 50 yard qual course is easy. Since good guys don't start gun fights, the 642 makes an excellent, small hand, bellygun, purse gun, or ankle gun. Only recommendation is, immediately upon opening the box, get a trigger/action job done. 642 is not enough for any critter bigger than a 4 legged coyote. Questionable against p-coats/ heavy leatherjackets in the winter.

    4 months ago
    • Pogo

      What??? Ummm sorry but I call B.S. Shooting a double action only snub nose revolver at 50 yards and hitting a human size target consistently is not realistic for even an expert. Annie Oakley would even call B.S. unless your qualifications target is the broad side of a barn. And 38 special has been a reliable defense round for over a century used extensively by the military and police as well as the civilian market. And coats and leather jackets unless lined with kevlar easily get ventilated with 38spl rounds. "Good guys don't start gun fights"......Really? That's an excellent philosophy if you want the good guy to end up dead. If a lethal threat is encountered people with brains shoot first they don't wait to be shot or stabbed by the "bad" guy. But please post a link with a video of your snubby skills at 50 yards and test that bullet resistant coat/jacket theory. If you have time I'd love to see some coyote hunting with a snub nose too. Your comment was actually funnier than those humor articles Pew Pew came up with....congratulations on that. Wait.....is that what this was?

      4 months ago
    • David, PPT Editor

      Apex kit in a 642 is nice!

      4 months ago
      • Pogo

        Wilson Combat has a good kit and Brownells sells a J Frame DIY kit that contains Clip Draw, Pro Spring Kit, Hogue Monogrip, Magna-Tip driver with 3 bits, S&W Rebound Slide Tool, and instructions for under $100. The article was great but I don't really agree with the opinion that revolvers aren't very customizable. Companies offering parts to customize are getting rarer though. Back in the day the S&W revolver line was the Glock of it's time and people and shops often tweaked them.

        4 months ago
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