Gun Review: Smith and Wesson Model 64 (DAO)

“A Revolver? Really?” Yeah, I’ve heard that a time or two over the past years. Now I don’t hate automatic pistols. Really, I don’t. I own a very nice Glock that serves as my primary CCW weapon. But as I’ve said here before, an automatic pistol is a machine. A fine revolver, on the other hand, is a work of art.

Not only that, revolvers (like lever action rifles) are indefinably and unabashedly American. Oh, sure, there were German RGs and British Webleys, as well as a sprinkling of other revolving cylinder guns made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe, but revolvers persisted here in American long after the Euros and Asians had switched to semi autos. While French Gendarmes were equipped with Brownings and German Polezei were carrying Walther P1s or HK P7s, American cops were still packing their reliable Double Action wheelguns in the land of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

My very first handgun was a revolver, a Colt Trooper Mk III. I’ve always had a weakness for a good revolver, and revolvers don’t get much better than the mid 50’s to Mid-80’s double-action K-frame Smith and Wessons.

For those shooters under 40 who may not be familiar with S&W products, they group their Double Action (DA) revolvers into categories based on frame sizes indicated by a letter of the alphabet. The smallest are the J-frames which are available in calibers up to .357 and are most popularly known as the type of snub-nosed pocket gun favored by TV detectives of the 60’s and 70’s.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the terrifying X-frame, home to the massive .500 S&W. Next down is the large N frame, which carried both the legendary Model 29 in .44 Magnum of Dirty Harry fame (“feel lucky, punk?”), as well as the very first .357 Magnum cartridges (the Highway Patrol and similar types, later designated as the Model 27 and 28.) Slightly smaller is the large-but-not-gigantic L frame, which introduced the full-underlug 586 and 686 revolvers in the 1980s as a kind of “poor man’s Colt Python.”

And finally, continuing down we come to the medium K Frame. From roughly 1899 when it was introduced as the “Third Model Hand Ejector” until the late 1980’s when police departments began trading their revolvers for automatics, the K-frame was the most commonly used police and private security firearm, by a wide margin. Made in a variety of calibers from .22 through .357, the K-frame was the “standard” by which other revolvers were judged. Even Colt, with its legendary history of revolver making, never had more than a fraction of the K-frame’s market.

I’ve owned at least one K frame revolver since I was 22, and have a real affection for them. The size is big enough to feel stout and sturdy, but not so big as to be oversized or bulky. The factory grip frame (in either square or round butt configuration) is small enough to fit most hands and because of the K-frame’s near-century as top dog, aftermarket grip choices are virtually unlimited.

So it seems police departments and security firms are “modernizing” their arsenals and putting their old revolvers out to pasture. Which is good for people like me who love these old K-frame guns.

Initially, I thought a J-frame 642 would be the perfect home defense gun for my wife and I, so I bought one, new, at a local Big Box store. But a few sessions at the range disabused us of that notion. As Ralph points out in his review of the 642, it’s not a tool for a beginner. The small size of the 642, while making it very concealable, also makes it harder to control. For that reason, I put the 642 up for sale and started shopping for a K Frame. An old Army buddy put me on to J&G sales of Prescott, AZ. Apparently J&G has been buying up surplused-out guns for a while and selling them on-line.

Among their large S&W offerings were a dizzying variety of Model 64s. In S&W parlance, a “6” at the beginning of a model number denotes a stainless steel gun. The Model 64, then, is the stainless steel version of the blued Model 10: .38 Special caliber, fixed sights, 4” barrel.

Aesthetically, I have a preference for blue steel, and I live far enough from the coast for salt air to be a non-issue, but it’s hard to argue with the utility of a stainless finish. Besides which, the price was right: For a “Very good condition” 64, $289.00 + shipping was just too good a deal to pass up (go shopping for a new Smith and Wesson K-frame revolver and you’ll appreciate just what a deal that is.) $20 to my local FFL dealer later and I was the proud owner of one of Smith and Wesson’s finest.

These particular 64’s must have belonged to a nervous police department or risk-averse private security company, as all of them had been converted to Double Action Only (DAO), that is, it is not possible to manually cock the hammer. In fact, most of them have ‘bobbed’ hammers (with no hammer spur.) This is fine for me as DA is the only way such a revolver should be used for self defense anyway. The bobbed hammer also makes it easier to draw from concealment.

As for the caliber, some shooters turn their nose up at the “anemic” .38 Special, but as far as I’m concerned, it was good enough for the cops for the better part of the 20th century, so it’s good enough for me. I’m not looking to “blow [someone’s] head clean off” (in Dirty Harry parlance), I just want to be able to defend myself and my family. Given that .38 is more or less ballistically similar to 9mm, modern .38 Special HP rounds in +P configuration should be more than adequate for the task.

(A note on caliber: Some might say that you shouldn’t shoot +P rounds in a gun not specifically rated for them. If this were a pre-WWII M&P, or an extremely lightweight alloy gun like an older Airweight, I might agree. However, this is a stainless steel K-Frame revolver made some time in the 1970’s or 80’s. It has virtually the same frame as the Model 65 and 66, which will shoot full-power .357 Magnum loads. I also know that the +P round itself was specifically developed as a round for medium-frame police revolvers like this one. Based on that, I have no concerns about using +P rounds in this revolver.)

Upon inspection, it was obvious that this was a used gun. Not abused, but definitely not coddled, either. Scratches and small nicks abound, especially on the side of the (heavy) barrel. Of course, I knew I was getting a used gun and certainly didn’t expect a museum piece for under three hundred bucks. The good news was that the lockup was tight, there was no excessive play in the crane or in the cylinder, and the mechanism seemed to function properly.

The Naked Gun:  Stripped of its Hogue grip, you can see the leaf spring that makes the K-frame such a smooth shooter

Taking it to the range, we found the trigger pull to be pleasantly smooth. Heavy, yes, long, yes, but smoooooooth like butter, just as a good K frame should be. We didn’t have time to do long range testing (and really, that would be like evaluating the trailer-pulling capability of a Miata) but for 7 yards, I’d have to say minute-of-bad-guy was as accurate as it needs to be. This one came with a finger-grooved Hogue Monogrip identical to the one I put on my Model 19. Not nearly as pretty as the gorgeous Goncalo Alves wood grip (that came on the 19 from the factory,) but much more comfortable and practical.

This one seemed to consistently group slightly to the left.  All shots were offhand, rapid fire, from 7 yards, using a mix of handloaded 158gr Wadcutters and factory 158gr RN jacketed bullets.  (disregard the “keyholes” at 6 and 9 o’clock on the above target, those were from a Taurus .22 that is having problems.)

Operation was flawless and there was no excessive “shaving” of rounds (and indication that a revolver is “out of time”, i.e., the cylinder is not lining up correctly with the bore.) The fixed sights, of course, are less than stellar, but adequate for self-defense, and unlike adjustable sights, these won’t snag on a pocket or shirt tail.

Overall it’s hard to beat this one for value. You can spend three hundred big boys on a POS High Point or a Spanish knockoff of a 1911, or you can spend it on a slightly used example of one of the finest defensive handguns ever made.  Your choice.

SPECIFICATIONS

Model: Smith & Wesson Model 64
Caliber: .38 Special +P
Cylinder capacity: 6 rounds
Materials: Stainless Steel
Weight empty: 36 ounces (2.25 lb)
Barrel Length: 4″
Overall length: 9″
Sights: Integral front, fixed rear
Action: Double action only
Finish: Stainless
Price: $289 (used, Very Good condition from J&G Sales in Prescott, AZ) http://www.jgsales.com

RATINGS (out of five stars)

Style * * * * *
What can you say about the most classic DA revolver design of the (20th) century? This one is right up there with the M1911 and the Colt SAA as one of the most iconic and influential gun designs in history.

Ergonomics (carry) * * *
Not the greatest for concealed carry, though far from the worst. With the right kind of holster and a smooth grip (easily changed with a screwdriver) you can conceal one of these pretty easy beneath street clothes.

Ergonomics (firing) * * * * *
Large grip means easy to control. Heavy enough to absorb recoil but light enough not to fatigue even a novice shooter. Balance and handling are exquisite.  This is an excellent beginner gun and much more “newbie friendly” than an automatic.

Reliability * * * * *
Pretty much every cop in the US carried some variation of this on his or her hip from the 1900’s all the way into the 1980s. It wouldn’t have lasted that long if not for its legendary reliability. No safety levers to fiddle with, no pesky locks, no loaded-chamber-indicator needed. There’s a reason Smith and Wesson has been called the world’s first “point and shoot” interface.

Customize This * * *
Depends on what you mean by “customize.” K-frame grips are probably the most commonly available revolver grips on the market, even two decades after its heyday. Laser grips are even available.  And of course, for reloading, speedloaders are available. 

Now, if you’re the sort of shooter who needs an ACOG, a ballistic computer, or a cup holder for your latte, well, never mind because you probably aren’t even reading this review.

OVERALL RATING * * * * *
As an unabashed revolver lover and an admitted Smith and Wesson bigot, my rating should be taken with a grain of salt. Put another way, I can’t recommend this pistol highly enough. Sure, It’s not as sexy as the latest plastic fantastic automatic but it will still be shooting when those polymer pistols have been relegated to the recycle bin.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  It’s gratifying to me to see all my fellow revolver lovers coming out of the closet in the comments below.  For a while I was afraid this site was too 1911/Springfield/Glock-centric to welcome those of us who regard revolving cylinder guns as anything other than an anachronism.