Gun Review: Smith & Wesson BODYGUARD 38 and BODYGUARD 380

 

Thanks to the enormous surge in concealed carry weapon licenses, the Smith & Wesson BODYGUARD series is a major league hit. Springfield’s diminutive .38 caliber revolver and .380 semi-automatic pistol have been selling like ballistic hotcakes. With Smith’s factories running full out, supplies of both guns are finally easing. You can now head down to your local gun dealer confident that you can get a BODYGUARD faster than a freshly-minted Republican presidential candidate. Ah, but should you?

First Impressions

The .38 revolver fit is top notch, as you’d expect from a Smith & Wesson wheelgun. Everything’s buffed and smooth. Aesthetically, the Bodyguard .38 looks like a plastic water pistol from 1958. The revolver’s made of several materials including steel, aluminum and polymer. Yet every surface of the gun screams “plastic” (even if it isn’t). Compared to an all-metal or Airlight J-frame revolvers, the Bodyguard looks likes more like a Smith & Wesson knock off than a Smith & Wesson.

The BODYGUARD 38s thumb-operated ambidextrous cylinder release latch (atop the frame and the laser affixed to the right side) is especially disconcerting. The release latch is moderately flared on its top and left side, providing the shooter with an extra bit of purchase while unlatching the cylinder. The release is truncated on the right side and chopped on the right to accommodate the laser. In short, the design looks like an afterthought. It’s not pretty.

The BODYGUARD 380 is Kylie Minogue to the BODYGUARD 38′s Nikki Blonsky. The semi-automatic pistol’s small and [almost] perfectly formed, with superb fit and finish. The 380 balances well in the hand. The laser’s molded into the frame, sitting comfortably forward of the trigger guard and below the barrel My only kvetch: the left side of the pistol looks somewhat cluttered, with three levers trying to occupy barely two linear inches.

The BODYGUARD 38 weighs about 14 ounces. By way of comparison, a Model 442 Airweight, a similar internal-hammer variant of Smith & Wesson’s storied J-frame, tips the scales at 15 ounces without a laser. The 442 has an MSRP of $449. Fitting an aftermarket, side-mounted laser would cost around $100 and add about an ounce of weight. So, in a head-to-head comparison of the $509 msrp BODYGUARD 38 and a laser-equipped 442, the BODYGUARD works out to be two ounces lighter and $50 cheaper.

The BODYGUARD 380 is about 20 percent lighter than the BODYGUARD 38. The BODYGUARD 380 also compares favorably with competing .380 pocket pistols in terms of weight and price. The well-integrated laser positions the $399 msrp BODYGUARD 380 in the upper value echelon of major brand .380 mouse guns.

Shooting the BODYGUARD 38

I’ve been shooting snubbies for years. The traditional contours of the BODYGUARD 38’s handle accommodated my medium-size shooting hand well enough. The sights were atrocious. No surprise there. The BODYGUARD 38 is a pocket carry piece; useful sights might snag. Believe you me, nobody wants an unsightly trouser tear in the heat of a gunfight. It makes the after-action pictures look ridiculous.

While the BODYGUARD 38′s black finish aids concealment, I expected that the all-black color of the sights would make accurate shooting a challenge for even the experienced snubby shooter. Roger that.

There are top shots who could shoot a hummingbird off a sunflower at 100 yards with a Smith & Wesson snubby without ever touching a petal. Without using the BODYGUARD’s laser, four inch groups at five yards are about the best a man can get (women too). Anyone who has a BODYGUARD 38 in their future should consider high-contrast sight paint or learn to point shoot.

The BODYGUARD 38′s laser is supposed to be aligned when it leaves the factory, but there’s a how-to link on the product home page. ‘Nuff said? Our test sample’s laser was a good five degrees off. Not five MOA. Five degrees. Once the laser is properly set, shooters can expect the size of their groups to shrink by 25 percent. The average shooter may not be measuring many groups; shooting the BODYGUARD 38 is about as pleasant as high-fiving a grizzly.

I’m not recoil averse. I’ve never had a problem shooting Smith’s J-frame revolvers. But the BODYGUARD 38 was writing checks that my hand didn’t want to cash. Before a box of bullets went down the pipe, the BODYGUARD 38 began to sting the body electric. After running through a few boxes of standard .38Spl ammo, the web and pad between my thumb and forefinger told me too little mass behind too much power is too much.

The BODYGUARD 38 is rated for +P ammo. Ouch. Well, at least the BODYGUARD 38 will prove to be economical over time; owners won’t be spending a lot of time shooting it at the range.

I’ve never found that J-frames naturally return to the point of aim. It was no surprise that the BODYGUARD 38 was difficult to fire rapidly with accuracy; the revolver’s mini-muzzle wanted to climb like a spider monkey. In a shoot-out between the BODYGUARD 38 and a Smith & Wesson Model 442 or 638, none would be stellar pointers. But I’d put my faith in the 442 or 638 every time.

We have all heard the expression, “there’s a lawyer attached to every bullet.” Smith & Wesson must feel that there’s also a lawyer attached to every trigger; they make their revolver triggers heavy enough to hoist a n entire bench of lawyers with each pull. Clocking the BODYGUARD’s laser on target, I watched the little red dot jump by eight to ten inches with every trigger pull. To be evenhanded (if only), there there was no trigger grit or creep. And that’s that.

I don’t like lasers for self-defense pocket guns. At bad breath distances, I consider a laser is a needless, possibly dangerous affectation. That said, I appreciate Insight lasers for their cost and reliability. And operating the one on the BODYGUARD 38 required the deft touch of a London pickpocket.

The conventional three-way steady-flashy-off-and-on button for the 38 rests on top of the laser, which itself is positioned on the right side of the frame behind and on a higher plane than the cylinder. I found it impossible to operate the pushbutton with my strong hand holding the stock and difficult to work with the weak hand.

The difficulty was exacerbated by the tiny button, which provides no tactile feedback. In the event you might need to deploy the BODYGUARD 38 in a hurry, fumbling for the small button on the top of the laser, then trying to place the red dot on target in any kind of light, would be a major PITA. I could place two or three rounds into the center of mass faster that I could deploy this laser.

The BODYGUARD 38 is best described as a belly gun: extremely lethal at distances that are way too close for comfort.

Shooting the BODYGUARD 380

The BODYGUARD 380 has actual sights (as opposed to the shallow trough running along the top of the 38′s frame). There are no dots to aid alignment; once again, a touch of sight paint can make up for that sin of omission.

The three-way laser switch on the BODYGUARD 380’s nose-mounted internal laser is ambidextrous. The button is easier to find than the 38’s, but provides similar levels of tactile feedback (i.e. none). It was impossible to discern whether the laser was on, off or flashing without seeing the red dot. The switch works better than the one on the Bodyguard 38, but not enough better. The button can only be operated with the shooter’s weak hand. In the heat of “battle,” it’s almost guaranteed to be muzzled.

The 380 is a hammer-fired, DAO pistol with second strike capability. With so much work to do, the 380 go-pedal is long and heavy. But effective. And . . . that’s about it. Compared to a gun with a great trigger, the 380′s was mediocre at best. Compared to the BODYGUARD 38, it’s the best trigger in the history of the world ever. I know: it’s not fair to compare a pistol trigger to the trigger on a revolver. As a great man once said, “so sue me.”

With or without the laser, at five yards, palm-sized groups were the norm. I had no trouble putting two or three rounds into the same ragged hole, even with the BODYGUARD 380′s vestigial iron sights. Shooting rapid fire, groups opened up as expected, but rounds were still clustered around the center of the target rather than strung vertically. For such a small pistol, the 380 is damn accurat— at distances up to seven yards or more. Ten to fifteen yard shots could be made all day long, but tight groups at distance were more a matter of luck than skill.

Shooters sometimes refer to the recoil of the little .380 cartridge as “snappy.” That it may be true on blowback pistols, but the 380’s locked breach design soaked up recoil fairly well for a mouse gun. Small pistols might not be among the best choices for new or inexperienced shooters. But those who are unused to recoil or who are adversely affected by it will accommodate quickly to the BODYGUARD 380.

Back to the left side of the frame. There are three levers, the one closest the muzzle is for takedown, the one in the middle holds the slide open, and the one closest the butt is the safety. Yes, this little hammer-fired DAO pistol has an external safety that when pushed, locks the slide in the closed position by moving it up, where it engages a notch in the slide.

The safety lever is small and stiff. Because it’s small, it affords the shooter no leverage. Operating it isn’t easy or intuitive. For range use, the safety may be a plus. Fingernailing the little lever would be no big deal. In the event of a life or death situation, the odds are great that the coroner would find this gun in a shooter’s dead hand with the safety still enagaged.

Racking the BODYGUARD’s slide took just a bit more time that finding and snapping off the safety. I am not recommending carrying without one in the pipe. I am saying that in the heat of battle, there may not be a difference in lost time between racking and snapping. That’s not good. Maybe lots of practice operating the safety would make things better.

I won’t comment on the efficacy of the .380 round for self defense. Does it lack adequate power? I don’t know. II’ve examined all the ballistic charts available to mankind and have conclusively determined that there’s always a more powerful round out there somewhere. I’m one of those shot placement trumps caliber types. You know the old saw: a .380 hit is better than a .45 miss. As if hitting and missing were the only two options.

After sending hundreds of rounds down the tiny barrel of the BODYGUARD 380, I can say that it will consistently put rounds into a playing-card size target at relevant distances. If three in the t-box doesn’t stop a bad guy, I have four words: kiss your ass goodbye.

Shooting PPU ammo, I suffered misfire after misfire. Some 15% to 20% of the rounds failed to fire. The BODYGUARD 380 has second strike capability. I used it to good effect. What didn’t light on the first try, lit the second. Examining the primers on rounds that weren’t struck twice and thus remained unfired, it seemed that the strike was light. I was concerned that the gun was a dud or needed to have its firing pin adjusted. When I changed ammo and fired off a mixture of Fiocchi and Speer, the gun performed flawlessly, time after time, restoring my confidence.

Comparing the spent Fiocchi cases to the PPUs that didn’t light the first time, the strikes on the Fiocchis seemed much deeper. That can’t be, not if the all cartridges fit the chamber properly. Which they did. No pistol can selectively strike one brand’s primers better than another. What can be is that the PPU primers were too hard for this gun to handle.

Coincidentally, there was another shooter at the range shooting his brand-new BODYGUARD 380, using PPU ammo from the same case as mine. He also suffered multiple FTFs. When he switched brands, his problems ended too.

Conclusion

It seems to me that Smith & Wesson built the BODYGUARD 38 to a price point, with little thought as to whether or not it was good. A Smith & Wesson Airweight equipped with an aftermarket laser will shoot rings around and look better than the BODYGUARD 38 for a small premium. Better still, a shooter could buy a 442, forget the laser, save some money and shoot the hell out the gun. Pass.

The BODYGUARD 380 is a different matter. I liked this pistol. More than that, I understood it. Despite the two-handed laser deployment, the Bodyguard 380 is an accurate, easy to carry pistol that’s also a fun shooter that will be enjoyed at the range. A buyer who wants a .380 pistol would not go wrong with the BODYGUARD 380.

BODYGUARD 380 SPECIFICATIONS

Model: Smith & Wesson BODYGUARD® 380
Caliber: .380
Magazine capacity: 6 rounds
Materials: Polymer frame, stainless steel slide with Melonite® Finish
Weight empty: 11.85 ounces
Barrel Length: 2.75″
Overall length: 5.25″
Sights: Stainless steel front and drift adjustable rear, integrated Insight laser.
Action: Hammer fired, double action only
Finish: Matte black
Price: $399 msrp

BODYGUARD 380 RATINGS (out of five stars)

Style * * * *
Fit and finish are first-rate. Too much clutter on the left side, with the takedown lever, slide lock lever and safety packed into two inches of space. On such a svelte gun, the integrated laser looks a bit like a double-chin on a fashion model.

Ergonomics (carry) * * * * *
It’s tiny, light and fits easily in a pocket, purse, IWB holster, jock strap or garter belt. If it had a lanyard ring, it could be hung from a gold chain and worn like a necklace. The black color would harmonize well with pearls.

Ergonomics (firing) * * * *
The grip is comfortable and even has room for all three fingers including the pinkie. The gun points well for such a tiny pistol. The trigger is too heavy by 50%, but its smooth enough. It stacks noticeably just before the sear trips, a flaw that it seems to share with almost every other S&W pistol recently fired.

Reliability zero  – * * * * *
This pistol has second strike capability, and boy did I need it. I suffered an appalling 15% – 20% misfires with certain ammunition. With ammo that the gun liked, reliability was flawless.

Customize This
It is what it is. Take it or leave it.

OVERALL RATING * * * *
The BODYGUARD 380 plenty accurate despite vestigial iron sights. Accuracy improves but speed decreases when using the laser. The gun’s easy to carry, but it’s picky about ammo. With the wrong stuff, it’s too light to use as a club, and too unreliable to use as a gun. With the right ammo, I would be confident carrying this pistol.

BODYGUARD 38 SPECIFICATIONS

Model: Smith & Wesson Bodyguard® 38
Caliber: .38Spl +P
Cylinder capacity:  5 rounds
Materials: Stainless steel barrel and cylinder, one-piece aluminum alloy upper frame, steel-reinforced polymer lower frame, rubber grip.

Weight empty: 14.3 ounces
Barrel Length: 1.9″
Overall length: 6.6″
Sights: Black ramp front, integral rear, integrated Insight laser.
Action: Internal hammer, double action only
Finish: Matte black
Price: $509 msrp

BODYGUARD 38 RATINGS (out of five stars)

Style * *
My first thought on seeing it was, “was this gun made by Wham-O?” The whole revolver looks plasticky and the top-mounted ambidextrous cylinder release looks tacked-on.

Ergonomics (carry) * * * *
It carried like an Airweight, which was good. Tucked into a pocket or purse, it’s unobtrusive and handy.

Ergonomics (firing) * * *
Fired like an Airlight and made .38 Specials feel like.357 Magnums. The polymer lower frame did nothing to dampen felt recoil. The trigger was smooth but very heavy.

Reliability * * * * *
It’s a Smith & Wesson revolver. Five for sure, ‘nuff said. Durability, however, is unknown. A lifetime of use could be simulated with, say, ten thousand rounds, if TTAG would spring for all the ammo for the gun and an orthopedic hand surgeon for me.

Customize This *
The laser can be removed. Does that count?

OVERALL RATING * * *
Shooting the Bodyguard 38 was as much fun for me as shaving my eyeballs. Accuracy was mediocre, even compared to other snubbies. It’s a belly gun that does not compare favorably with Smith & Wesson’s classic J-frame revolvers, or the BODYGUARD 380.