(This is a reader-submitted review as part of our gun review contest. See details here.)
By Brandon S.
As we enter the early 21st century, the question may be asked whether the revolver has any relevance anymore in an era of increasingly lighter and smaller polymer-framed pistols with capacities nearly double and triple that of the revolver. Let’s face it, the revolver is old; it is the gun of the frontier and the wild west, of Wyatt Earp, of Yosemite Sam, and in the modern context of the crusty old police officer, the Harry Callahans and the Roger Murtaughs.
1987’s Lethal Weapon truly captured this dynamic best with Mel Gibson’s brash, cocky and young Detective Martin Riggs toting a then-newish Beretta 92FS, while his old, creaky, “too-old-for-this-shit” partner , Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh, plodded around with his 4-inch Model 19 Smith & Wesson .357 revolver. It was the classic embodiment of old meets new, and the carry revolver was clearly meant to symbolize Murtaugh as old and out of touch. Thirty years later, even the Beretta might be considered old and stodgy, replaced by the Glocks of the concealed-carry world, and possibly on its way out as the military’s sidearm of choice.
Enter Smith & Wesson’s latest spin on a classic, the Performance Center Model 442, a dressed-up version of the iconic manufacturer’s internal-hammer design J-frame revolver. For approaching 60 years, the J-frame line of pistols have been the “Old Faithful” of concealed-carry pistols, even if time has begun relegating them to the status of back-up gun for an ankle holster in the event of a SHTF moment. With the “442 PC,” however, a change in thinking may be warranted.
The model comes from the Performance Center, Smith & Wesson’s custom shop staffed by master gunsmiths who both produce the Performance Center models and provide in-house services for restoration and upgrade services on the company’s 150 year line of guns. This version of the 442 is fundamentally the same, with a few key upgrades that improve the shooting experience without the corresponding hit to your gun budget. As an aside, it’s important to note that this version of the 442 does not have the sometimes-maligned internal lock S&W began using in the early 2000s. So, for those of you who have no lock as a checkbox on their J-frame wishlist, as I did, read on.
First, is the use of the stainless-steel cylinder, as used in the 642 model, whereas the standard 442 uses a carbon-steel cylinder. To some degree this is a matter of cosmetic choice, as some people prefer the stainless-look (to be sure, the 642 is still an aluminum-alloy frame as well), while others prefer the blued look of the original 442. The use of the stainless-steel cylinder, however, does have the additional advantage of being far less prone to rusting than carbon and depending on your perspective may be easier to clean.
For a difference in street price of about $350 for a standard 442 or 642, the Performance Center’s cylinder may represent value alone when it can be had for just $50 more. Particularly when that cylinder now comes with high-polished fluting and a glass bead finish, services that standing alone would run between $100-200 through the Performance Center. The polishing extends to the screws and thumbpiece, which make for a visually appealing package at marginal cost.
A second feature that bears mentioning is instead of the standard rubber boot grip, this 442 comes with the DeSantis Clip Grip, polymer grips designed to allow for holstering in a belt or waistband without having to use a holster. These grips initially feel somewhat cheesy in that they’re plastic, however, they do have an added advantage for those with large hands in providing a little more space in which to allow those large paws to perfectly lay on the trigger. (Editor’s Note: According to the smith-wesson.com, the 2019 version of the Performance Center Model 442 includes “a sleek two-tone finish and a Crimson Trace LG-105 laser grip with red laser. a stainless-steel cylinder with high-polished cylinder flutes; a high-polished thumbpiece, plate screws, and trigger; and a Performance Center tuned action for a smoother, lighter trigger pull.”)
That said, anyone considering a J-frame snub probably already has a preferred set of aftermarket grips in mind, but if not these are worth a shot. I’ll likely replace them in short order with some wood from Altamont as is my wont, but some may find this to be a nice addition.
I can say that it didn’t affect use with a pocket holster at all, so for those who find the spacing advantageous, they may decide to keep them on. Similarly, the DeSantis grips have decent relief to allow for use of a speedloader. I found it had better clearance than the stock grips working with a Safariland Comploader I, which was a nice plus considering that this has been an issue since the Uncle Mike’s rubber boot grip was removed from the line several years ago.
Third, and most importantly, is that for the small price difference, you are the beneficiary of a full Performance Center tuned action, what would otherwise be a $165 trigger job through the Performance Center. It is here where your $50 is well spent.
Conventional wisdom on a Smith & Wesson J-frame is that you dry fire it 10 times more than you actually shoot it, and that one day you will wake up and find you have the smoothest firing double-action revolver on the planet. Conventional wisdom is actually correct in this regard, BUT, that doesn’t mean that paying for a trigger job isn’t worthwhile sometimes. For essentially $50, this one certainly fits that bill.
Immediately upon dry-firing my newly acquired 442, it was obviously a cut above the standard DAO trigger on the J-frame line. The normally 14- to 15-pound trigger pull was by my estimate, and ultimately confirmed, in the 12- to 13-pound range solely due to the smoothness and lack of grit in the action. There was a pleasant crispness to it, the complete lack of any creep, the ease with which it hit its break, snapped, and then reset with minimal effort. Mind you, the trigger was firm, but in a way that made you confident that it would fulfill its role as a DAO trigger for concealed carry that would fire reliably when you needed it, and not at all when you carried it.
Feel of a trigger is clearly wholly subjective, so rather than just compare the new performance center model to my existing revolvers, I called up a friend who had recently purchased a standard 642 on a whim. Knowing him as I do, I knew that even though he had purchased it about three months ago, it had yet to even be fired let alone cycled regularly. Side-by-side, the brand new and recently produced 642’s action just lacked refinement. It was a good trigger, sure, far better than say a stock Ruger LCR, but where the 442 came out of the box ready for a Mika pocket holster and some 135-grain Gold Dots, the 642 clearly would need some time to work out the grit on the internals and to loosen the springs. It was simply way too heavy, and comparatively it kills accuracy until it’s worked in when you’re basically forced into only using your distal joint for the trigger pull.
And how does the 442 PC do on the range? Pick whatever metaphor you like, smooth as a knife through butter, silk, Ivanka Trump, whatever, the 442 delivered. A J-frame is seldom fun to shoot beyond the amount required to remain proficient and prepared, but this one was different. The apple-crisp action actually makes shooting fun, as the ease of the trigger pull makes shooting strings enjoyable. Double and triple-taps become a game since the lighter pull combined with the snappy reset make follow-up shots on the range feel closer to sport than practice.
I test-fired the 442 offhand to replicate the common uses of it, from five and seven yards with regular old 158-grain American Eagle .38 lead flat nose in strings of five. I was fairly pleased with the 442’s accuracy at five yards even without using pricier defense ammo. I’d certainly consider that string sufficient enough to serve my purposes.
At seven yards, equally good, although I did lose a bit of focus on one flier. That said, from seven yards I’d consider that well within one minute of bad guy accuracy, especially considering the plain-Jane sights.
The bottom line is that at its core, the Performance Center 442 is a J-frame on steroids and well worth the extra money. Don’t believe me? Buy a standard 642 or 442 and send it to the Performance Center for the same features you could have bought out of the box. What you’ll end up with is waiting six to eight weeks to realize you spent nearly $700 on a gun you could have had for $400. That’s some serious value.
Yet, it bears mentioning, that it’s not all of the value it could be. First, I know some may consider the clip grip an upgrade since technically it’s an aftermarket grip, but it is plastic and not only detracts aesthetically, but some may find it annoying if they prefer the standard rubber boot grip that now they have to pay for. Given the likely cost, it would seem like a premier-line move to include the stock rubber grips as well at what costs probably pennies.
Then there’s the issue of the sights. There’s no question they are not a strong suit, and for some people it may have them looking at other options like the LCR, which has a replaceable pinned front sight. But, they are classic, they are snag-free and they are wholly in fitting with what the J-frames are all about, which is pure straight utility and concealability.
You can always add an XS sight with a trip to your gunsmith, but why waste your money. Just grab some Testors paint, and DIY it if you want some contrast. So, I understand this may be a negative for some, but it’s just part and parcel of a point and shoot gun.
Lastly in the features lacking department, there’s no excuse for why Smith & Wesson doesn’t include the cuts for moon clips, which are included in the Pro Series 442 that they claim sits in between the stock and 442 Performance Center models. It would seem that the highest-end model should build on the middle-tier model’s features, not exist as a standalone. This is doubly true when the 642 Talo PC model comes with the cuts as well even if it does typically sell for $70-100 more.
In the big scheme of things, I prefer speed strips on a J-Frame anyway because they’re easier to carry, but not including them on your highest-end model seems like cutting corners. I also wouldn’t have paid $100 more for them. For those who prefer moon clips though, there’s no question that this alone could be a deal breaker, no matter the action quality.
That said, if it’s not a deal breaker for you, then I think the 442 PC is $400 well spent, particularly if you already have an EDC firearm. I don’t view the 442 as only a backup gun. It’s proven itself particularly useful during these summer months when I don’t always want to dress around carrying my preferred Springfield XD.
Big guys like me, particularly those who live in sweltering heat and humidity, may prefer having something easy to throw in a pocket for running to the grocery store in a t-shirt and cargo shorts when their pregnant wife realizes she’s run out of milk at 11 p.m.. Anyone who’s been there knows that the last thing they need on top of the guilt trip is having to scramble together your EDC rig for a 10-minute jaunt to the store.
Lo and behold, my 442 has been a champ on these ever-more-frequent runs where I’m consistently amazed by its concealability, and am increasingly more confident that its enough firepower on short notice standing by itself. It’s even found its way into my formal wear during this wedding season as a useful addition to my rotation for those situations where concealing a full-size gun is simply not totally feasible. With a DeSantis Nemesis pocket holster, it’s a neat and tidy package in a pinch.
If that’s you, then skip another polymer framed gun that has a barrel half-an-inch shorter than something you already have. Round out your EDC selections and go a little old school by channeling your inner Murtaugh. Because whether you are too old for this shit or not, the Performance Center 442 is the 21st Century spin on a classic that at this price should be in every concealed carrier’s safe.
Specifications: Smith & Wesson Performance Center 442
Construction: Aluminum Alloy Frame, Stainless Steel Cylinder
Caliber: .38 S&W Special +P
Barrel Length: 1.875 inches
Weight: 15 oz.
Overall Length: 6.31 inches
Trigger: Double Action Only (DAO)
Sights: Fixed Front Sight, Integral Rear Sight
Magazines: 5-round capacity
Street Price: about $399
Ratings (out of five stars):
Style: * * * * *
Classic 20th century J-frame look with nice 21st Century refinements
Ergonomics: * * * *
The stock DeSantis clip grips may not be for everyone, and polymer alone loses a star, but for large hands they may be as perfect as you can get in a J-frame.
Reliability: * * * * *
It’s a S&W revolver, only an act of God will make it misfire, and even then…
Accuracy: * * * *
For a sub-two-inch barrel and its intended purpose of repeatedly hitting center mass of someone intent on harming you, it’s fantastic.
Concealability: * * * * *
This is an excellent personal-protection firearm. The hammerless J-frame has snag-free rounding to being with, and in a good pocket holster (Mika or DeSantis preferred) looks like you’ve got a large smart phone.
Customize This: * * *
An overwhelming number of options for new grips to fit any possible hand are a huge plus. The only other thing you might want to customize is the front sight, which can be a DIY paint job, easy and useful, or a gunsmith-milled job, which is overkill on a pistol designed for close encounters. That said, it’s basically grips or nothing.
Overall: * * * * 1/2
The S&W J-frames are iconic for their reliability and concealability, and the Performance Center 442 builds on both with significant value-added features without breaking firearm owners’ budget.