Guide to Smith and Wesson Revolvers

Guide to Smith and Wesson Revolvers

Smith & Wesson is one of the most well-known firearms manufacturers in the world. The company was founded in Connecticut in 1852, and the partners first made revolvers in 1856. S&W’s double-action revolvers are often considered the gold standard for quality, reliability, appearance, accuracy, and value by handgun aficionados, and their designs have been copied (both legally and illegally) all over the world over the past 170 years.

There are some other high-quality revolver manufacturers today, such as Colt, Kimber, Ruger, Manurhin, and Korth, but for the quality you get for the price, S&W is hard to beat.

We will review the basics of the S&W revolver models that have historically been offered, the five basic frame sizes, and some of the more popular models available today.

Video: Top 6 Best Smith and Wesson Revolvers

Types and sizes of Smith and Wesson revolver frames

Before discussing the particulars of the many different S&W revolver models, it’s useful to understand the 5+ different sizes of S&W revolver frames. This is similar to understanding a car manufacturer’s product lineup by subcategorizing it into compact, mid-size, full-size, and so on. Smith & Wesson revolvers are currently manufactured in 5 main sizes: small, medium, medium-large, large, and extra-large. Let’s briefly go over them in turn.

J-frame (small) revolvers

Smith and Wesson Model 36 J Frame

Image: Smith and Wesson Model 36 J-Frame

Historically, there was a smaller S&W revolver size (the I-frame) for .22 and .32 calibers, they were discontinued in 1961, and the models transitioned to the slightly longer, improved J-frame. The J-frame is the smallest revolver made by Smith & Wesson, and these small, slim, lightweight guns are very popular for defensive concealed carry today. The Model 36 Chiefs Special of 1950 was the first J-frame S&W revolver, and most of the company’s concealed-carry revolver models are still built on the J-frame. For a size reference, a J-frame .38 Special or .357 Magnum revolver has enough room for 5 cartridges in its cylinder.

K-frame (medium) revolvers

Smith and Wesson Model 10 K Frame

Image: Smith and Wesson Model 10 K-Frame

Smith & Wesson first introduced its K-frame .38 Military & Police (M&P) revolver in 1899, and it’s still being manufactured today as the Model 10. This was the standard police revolver size for many decades of the 20th century, and this type strikes a good balance between concealability and shootability. A .38 Special or .357 Magnum K-frame revolver holds 6 shots in its cylinder.

L-frame (medium-large) revolvers

Smith and Wesson Model 686 L Frame

Image: Smith and Wesson Model 686 L-Frame

Comedian Steven Wright might call this size extra-medium. The L-frame size is visually and dimensionally similar to the venerable K-frame. Still, key areas of the steel frame are beefed up for added durability when shooting magnums, and the cylinder is a little larger in diameter, allowing for up to 7 shots in .38/.357 Magnum models. The L-frame was introduced in 1980 in the Distinguished Combat Magnum models 586 and 686, in blue and stainless finishes, respectively.

N-frame (large) revolvers

Smith and Wesson Model 29 N-Frame

Image: Smith and Wesson Model 29 N-Frame

The first modern-era large frame (later termed the N-frame) S&W revolver was the .44 Hand Ejector model introduced in 1907. Still likely the most iconic revolver of all time, Dirty Harry’s Model 29 .44 Magnum is also an N-Frame. In .38 Special or .357 magnum, an N-frame cylinder can hold up to 8 shots, though Harry’s .44 famously holds just 6 rounds.

X-frame (extra-large) revolvers

Smith and Wesson Model 500 X-Frame

Image: Smith and Wesson Model 500 X-Frame

The cartoonishly large X-frame was introduced in 2003 in the new .500 S&W Magnum caliber, which pretty much ended the arguments about what was the most powerful production handgun in the world. The X-frame is strengthened and enlarged everywhere it needs to be to handle the ridiculously high pressures (up to 65,000 psi in the .460 S&W cartridge) of these monster magnums. The enormous cylinder holds 5 rounds in the .460 and .500 magnums, but the new 350 Legend X-Frame holds 7 shots.

Models of Smith and Wesson revolvers

The earliest models of Smith & Wesson were known as the Model 1, Model 1 ½, Model 2, Model 3, and then the Fourth and Fifth models. By that time (late 19th century), revolvers such as the Safety Hammerless were also given names. For a few decades, the company stopped using model numbers entirely and instead gave their revolvers names such as the New Army & Navy, Hand Ejector, Heavy Duty, or Centennial. A notable example is the Registered Magnum from 1935.

Smith & Wesson Model 27

Image: Smith & Wesson Registered Magnum

However, starting in 1957, S&W gave Model numbers to all of its revolvers to help differentiate among variations in caliber, frame size, sight configuration, trigger, and other factors. For a while, you could guess what size an S&W revolver was by the model number: Models 10-19 were K-frame revolvers, Models 20-29 were N-frame revolvers, Models 30-40 were small I or J-frame revolvers (except for the semi-automatic Model 39). All of these models were sold in either blued or nickel finishes.

After that, things start to get messy, but many people want to know what caliber and configuration the various historical S&W revolver model numbers came in (even though several of these models are still being made in various versions), so let’s list them quickly.

Historical Smith & Wesson revolver model numbers and descriptions

  • Model 10: The Military & Police .38 Special revolver was renamed the Model 10 in 1957. Fixed sights.
  • Model 11: Identical to the Model 10 but chambered in .38 S&W caliber.
  • Model 12: Aluminum-alloy framed variant of the Model 10. Early versions had aluminum cylinders as well.
  • Model 13: .357 Magnum version of the Model 10.
  • Model 14: .38 Special K-38 Target Masterpiece with adjustable target sights, trigger, and hammer.
  • Model 15: .38 Special K-38 Combat Masterpiece. Essentially a Model 14 with a 4-inch (or 2-inch) barrel and a ramped front sight.
  • Model 16: .32 S&W Long caliber K-32 Target Masterpiece. Essentially a Model 14 chambered in .32 S&W (later briefly reintroduced in .32 H&R Magnum).
  • Model 17: K-22 Masterpiece, essentially a Model 14 chambered in .22 Long Rifle.
  • Model 18: K-22 Combat Masterpiece, essentially a Model 15 chambered in .22 Long Rifle.
  • Model 19: .357 Magnum version of the Model 15, with the addition of a shrouded ejector rod.
  • Model 20: .38-44 Heavy Duty, fixed sights.
  • Model 21: .44 Special, fixed sights.
  • Model 22: .45 ACP, fixed sights.
  • Model 23: A Model 20 with adjustable target sights.
  • Model 24: A Model 21 with adjustable target sights.
  • Model 25: .45 Colt, adjustable combat sights (there have been other variants over the years).
  • Model 26: Essentially a Model 25 with adjustable target sights. Very rare.
  • Model 27: The Registered Magnum, .357 Magnum with adjustable sights.
  • Model 28: The Highway Patrolman, essentially a budget version of the Model 27, with a less premium finish and basic adjustable combat sights.
  • Model 29: Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum with adjustable combat sights.
  • Model 30: Began as a 6-shot I-framed revolver in .32 Long, later transitioned to the J-frame. Fixed sights, round butt.
  • Model 31: Essentially a Model 30 with a square butt.
  • Model 32: The Terrier model in .38 S&W. I or J-frame, fixed sights, round butt.
  • Model 33: Similar to the Terrier, also chambered in .38 S&W, but with a longer barrel and square butt.
  • Model 34: The famous S&W Kit Gun chambered in a .22 Long Rifle, but on the smaller I or J-frame. 6 shots, adjustable sights.
  • Model 35: Target version of the Model 34 with a longer barrel and target sights.
  • Model 36: The groundbreaking Chief’s Special J-frame in .38 Special caliber, introduced in 1950. Typically configured with a short barrel, round butt, and fixed sights.
  • Model 37: Identical to Model 36, but with a lightweight aluminum alloy frame rather than steel.
  • Model 38: Similar to the Model 36 but with a distinctive humpback frame that shrouds the hammer spur.
  • Model 39: A semi-automatic pistol developed for the United States Army service pistol trials of 1954. 9mm Parabellum caliber.
  • Model 40: .38 Special, originally named the Centennial in 1952, was renamed in 1957. Fully enclosed hammer (double action only). Original versions had a grip safety at the back of the frame that needed to be squeezed for the revolver to fire.
  • Model 41: A high-quality .22LR semi-automatic target pistol.
  • Model 42: A Model 40 with a lightweight aluminum alloy frame.
  • Model 43: A kit gun similar to Model 34 but with an aluminum frame.
  • Model 48: K-framed 6-shot .22 WMR with target sights.
  • Model 49: A Model 38 with a steel frame rather than aluminum.
  • Model 51: Essentially a Model 43 chambered in .22 WMR.
  • Model 53: Essentially a Model 17 chambered in .22 Remington Jet caliber.
  • Model 56: Rare Air Force variant of Model 15, with a 2-inch barrel and non-grooved, adjustable sights.
  • Model 57: Essentially a Model 27 but in .41 Magnum caliber. Large frame, adjustable combat sights.
  • Model 58: Intended for the police market, this is a large-framed .41 Magnum revolver with fixed sights and no ejector shroud.
  • Model 60: Introduced in 1965, the Model 60 was the world’s first stainless-steel revolver. It was originally chambered in .38 Special and was identical to the Model 36 Chief’s Special other than the finish. Today’s Model 60s come in .357 Magnum caliber and have a fully shrouded ejector.
  • Model 63: A stainless-steel .22LR kit gun sibling to the Model 34.
  • Model 64: A stainless version of the Model 10.
  • Model 65: A stainless version of the .357 Magnum Model 13.
  • Model 66: A stainless version of the Model 19.
  • Model 67: A stainless version of the Model 15.
  • Model 68: Rare California Highway Patrol variant of the Model 66, but chambered to fire the .38 Special +P+ Treasury Load.

The gaps in the numerical system above typically have to do with trying to avoid caliber confusion (there are no S&W Model 44 or 45 revolvers, for example) or model competition with other popular firearms of the time (Winchester made a Model 54 and Model 61).

Modern Smith & Wesson revolvers and model numbers

After the Model 68, S&W revolver model names and numbers kind of get muddled and messy. Today, S&W follows its original naming conventions but with many variations. For example, the S&W Model 69, introduced at the 2014 SHOT Show, follows the spiritual lineage of yesteryear's 65/66/67/68 combat-style revolvers. Still, instead, it’s a 5-shot, L-framed stainless revolver chambered in the mighty .44 Remington Magnum.

Smith and Wesson Model 69

Image: Smith and Wesson Model 69

A 3 prefix to the typical S&W numerical revolver-naming convention indicates that it is a scandium-alloy variant, such as the Model 340 (a scandium-alloy version of the Model 40 J-Frame Centennial) or the Model 327 (a scandium-framed, 8-shot version of the Model 27 .357 Magnum).

Smith and Wesson Model 327

Image: Smith and Wesson Model 327

A 6 prefix indicates a stainless-finish variant of the legacy numerical system, such as this Model 637 (a Model 37 .38 Special with a stainless cylinder and barrel and a stainless-looking aluminum alloy frame).

Smith and Wesson Model 637

Image: Smith and Wesson Model 637

By the late 20th century, many of yesteryear's classic and well-loved S&W revolvers had been discontinued due to poor sales in the era of cheap, reliable, durable semi-automatic handguns such as the Glock. However, as the marketplace evolved and customers grew older, there began to be increased demand for the beautifully finished, blue-and-walnut revolvers that made Smith & Wesson a household name over the past 150+ years.

In light of this, S&W has reintroduced 15 models of their beloved, bright-blue-finished revolvers under their classic line, including Models 10, 17, 19, 21, 22, 24, 25, 27, 29, 36, 57, and 586.

Smith and Wesson Model 29 Classic

Image: Smith and Wesson Model 29 Classic

Another relative newcomer to the S&W revolver family is the polymer-grip-framed M&P Bodyguard 38 series, which features a recoil-absorbing grip and an innovative ambidextrous cylinder latch, optionally with a Crimson Trace laser-aiming system integrated into the right side of the frame. This can be an excellent choice for concealed carry.

Smith and Wesson M&P Bodyguard

Image: Smith and Wesson M&P Bodyguard

Over the past several decades, the revolver product line and models offered have been streamlined. However, there are still various modern S&W revolvers available in multiple finishes, calibers, and frame sizes from J to K to L, whether you’re looking for a CCW handgun, a competition revolver, a home-defense gun, a range toy, or just the most versatile firearm in the world. But if you’re a go-big-or-go-home kind of guy or gal, you’ll likely want to look at one of the X-frame revolvers, such as the Performance Center Model 460XVR, which weighs over 5 pounds loaded and comes with a 14-inch barrel and a bipod. And possibly its own moon.

Smith and Wesson Model 460XVR X-Frame

Image: Smith and Wesson Model 460XVR X-Frame

Where are Smith and Wesson guns made?

All current-production Smith & Wesson firearms are made in the USA, in three different facilities in Deep River, Connecticut (all injection-molded polymer frames and components), Houlton, Maine (S&W/Walther PPK, .22 caliber firearms and some others), and Springfield, Massachusetts (all other S&W firearms and corporate headquarters). Currently, S&W has its primary distribution center in Columbia, Missouri. (Smith & Wesson airguns and airsoft guns are manufactured in partnership with Umarex in Germany. Some small-caliber firearms have been made by the Umarex/S&W partnership over the years.)

Smith & Wesson’s business headquarters and primary manufacturing facility have been in Springfield, MA, since the 1850s. However, in September 2021, the company announced that proposed anti-gun legislation in Massachusetts is forcing the company to transition its corporate headquarters and much of its manufacturing to Maryville, Tennessee, though S&W will retain 1,000 jobs and its metal cutting and precision manufacturing operations at its 2100 Roosevelt Ave. plant in Springfield. All forging, machining, metal finishing, and assembly of S&W revolvers will remain at the Springfield facility.

As part of this transition, the Columbia and Deep River facilities will be shut down, and those functions and jobs moved to Maryville. The Houlton, Maine, facility will be unaffected by this change. S&W plans to complete the transition to Tennessee by the end of 2023.

Store your firearms in a Liberty Safe

When you buy a quality firearm like a Smith & Wesson, you also need to think about how to keep it safe and secure from unauthorized access, theft, and fire. One of the best ways is with a high-quality gun safe or handgun vault from Liberty. Check out our complete lineup in our online catalog, or visit a Liberty showroom close to you.

*Made in the U.S.A. from U.S. and Global Parts.


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