Belly gun. Pocket gun. Backup gun.
These are all terms I have heard for the Smith & Wesson Centennial revolvers, and all can be accurate. The Centennials are the small revolvers made by S&W with internal hammers, giving them a smooth appearance and double-action-only firing.
There are a range of Centennials that have graced the Smith & Wesson catalog through the years. Probably one of the most popular has been the Airweight model 642 introduced in 1990. After a couple of years of production, the 642 was pulled and then reintroduced in 1996 on a new frame designed for +P pressures. The newer 642, also referred to as a 642-1, is what I own and rely on.
I’ve carried a 642 since 1996. At that time I needed a backup gun for uniform carry and the revolver was recommended to me by a firearms instructor. I purchased the gun new at Adventure Outdoors in Smyrna, GA (the same one wrongfully targeted by Mayor Bloomberg) and have never regretted the decision.
The 642 is an aluminum-framed version of the Centennial guns with a cylinder and barrel made from stainless steel. The frame is finished in a matte silver color that looks like the bead blasted finishes found on other guns and knives.
The aluminum frame gives the gun a light weight: only 15 ounces (unloaded). Lightweight is good for carrying, but can mean stiffer felt recoil. Both are true for the 642.
The barrel length is a mere 1.875” long with a fixed front ramp sight and a groove/notch for a rear sight. The 642 is chambered for the .38 Special, and all guns made since 1996 are +P rated. The cylinder holds five rounds.
As I mentioned, the Centennial revolvers feature an internal hammer. There is no way to “cock” the guns, so they are all double-action-only revolvers. The triggers are a little heavy when new, but after firing several hundred times, they lighten and smooth out very nicely.
I typically carry the 642 off-duty in a pocket holster made by RKBA Holsters. The RKBA pocket holster is a well made, yet inexpensive leather scabbard that has served me well for more than three years now. I’ve also found the DeSantis Nemesis works very well with this gun.
On-duty, I carry the revolver in an Uncle Mike’s ankle holster strapped to my boot. I’ve used several different ankle holsters, but determined that the Uncle Mike’s works best for my needs because it is very secure, is machine washable and is cheap enough that I can throw it away and buy another if it is damaged or exposed to hazardous fluids.
Shooting the 642 is not the world’s most pleasurable experience, but the gun can be mastered if you put forth a little effort. The key to shooting this gun well is trigger control. Dry firing an unloaded 642 is an exceptional way to improve your accuracy with this little gun. If you are concerned with damaging your gun, pick up some snap caps. However, I’ve dry fired my revolver for years without snap caps, and I never managed to harm it.
The sights on the 642 can be hard to pick up with older eyes and in low light conditions. This is probably the revolver’s only real weakness. You cannot easily replace the front sight. By “easily” I mean “without taking a wheel grinder to the front of your gun.”
However, you can slightly improve the front sight through the use of fingernail polish to give you a sight that is similar, though not as large, to the red ramp inserts on the classic S&W revolvers. I have had good success with laying down a white base layer, and then two coats of bright red, orange or green. The key for male shooters is looking perfectly normal while shopping for fingernail polish in the drug store. Telling the cashier “It’s for my gun” doesn’t sound terribly convincing either.
While this gun is best for close-in work, it is remarkably accurate in the hands of an experienced shooter. I can place all rounds on a man-sized silhouette target at 25 yards, but real pros can do much better. I’ve seen guys put solid sub-3” groups on paper at 25 yards, and others ring 8” gongs at 50 or more yards. The farther the distance, the more important that trigger pull becomes, but it can be done with practice.
My biggest gripe with the 642 is the placement of the cylinder release. For some reason the release digs into the thumb of my shooting hand with each shot. The similarly sized Charter Arms Off Duty revolver does not do that. A few shots with the 642 is no problem. But when I am at the range putting several hundred rounds through the gun, I will have to apply a bandage to the thumb around shot #100 to staunch the bleeding.
Recoil can be significant, especially for the new shooter. I used to carry the old FBI load: 158 grain LSWC-HP +P. The recoil from them was, well, noticeable. I would practice with my own hand-loaded cast 158 grain LSWC cartridges loaded to a similar power. I can’t even guess at how many thousands of rounds have been through this aluminum-frame revolver, and there are no signs of failure.
Now, I carry the Speer Gold Dot 135 grain +P load developed for short barrel revolvers. Recoil seems to be a little less than the old FBI load, and many people seem satisfied with the round’s performance on the street. Less recoil AND good performance in the field? Works for me.
The finish of on the gun has deteriorated over the last 16 years, but I have been hard on the gun. It has been dragged through mud and rain, dropped on gravel ranges, ridden next to my sweaty body and generally been banged up. I would be a picky son-of-a-gun if I expected a showroom finish to still be on this gun. Even though the gun has character, I still think about sending it back to the factory for refinishing.
One thing to keep in mind when shopping for a 642 is the internal lock. Many people strongly dislike the internal locks that have been standard on the 642 since 2002. Some folks assert that under certain conditions, the internal lock may engage while shooting, causing the gun to stop working. Clearly this would be extremely bad in a self-defense situation.
I would encourage finding a new 642 without the internal lock. Believe it or not, they do exist. S&W made a few limited runs of them in recent years. If I could not find a new gun without the internal lock, I’d buy a good used gun instead of a new one.
MSRP on the 642 is only $449, and I have seen them going for less than $400 at some stores. Revolvers, especially quality ones, tend to be more expensive than the current polymer pistols due to the increased manufacturing costs. So, finding a quality S&W revolver for around $400 is a bargain indeed.
My Smith & Wesson 642 has served me very well over the years, and I expect to get a lot more use out of it. It has been my tried and true companion on patrol and out with my family, and I literally trust my life with it. I don’t know of any higher praise I could give this gun.