Hammer Or… “-Less?”

Debate rages over which is better: “hammerless” or “thumb-cocking” S&W J-frame models.

Along about 1950, S&W introduced what would become the most popular concealment revolver in the world in the J-frame .38 Special. The original Chiefs Special had a conventional external hammer and could be fired double or single action. In 1952, firearms authority Rex Applegate convinced S&W to make the same gun with the sleek internal hammer design of the old top-break New Departure Safety Hammerless revolver of 1887. Since it was introduced in the year Smith & Wesson was celebrating its 100th anniversary format, this “hammerless Chief Special” was dubbed the Centennial. In 1955 came a third variation, the Bodyguard. This was the company’s answer to the removable hammer shroud that had grown in popularity since their archrival Colt introduced it for their small-frame snubs in 1950. On the Bodyguard, the shroud was integral to the frame and looked sleeker, but still left a nub of hammer spur exposed for single-action cocking.

We all have our preferences. For my needs, I’m inclined toward the Centennial hammerless. Here’s why.

Handguns 2

Note the higher hold afforded by Centennial (right), which lowers the
bore axis more than the Chief (left).

The “hammerless” model’s most obvious advantage is its snag-free profile. The great police weapons authority of the past, Paul B. Weston, described the conventional hammer spur as found on the Chief Special as a “fish-hook” that tended to snag on clothing and stall a fast draw. Even so, bobbing the Chief’s hammer can eliminate the snags, or choose the Bodyguard which has a smooth-drawing shape fans affectionately call “the hump-back.”

One thing the Centennial offers that its siblings can’t is a higher grasp. The shape of its frame allows the shooter’s hand to get all the way up that high “horn” of its backstrap. This puts the bore axis proportionally lower to the wrist than either of the other styles, and affords significant leverage to the shooter. Muzzle rise is less, allowing a faster rate of accurate rapid fire. This is a very significant advantage to the Centennial, and is the main reason I so often carry one while my Chiefs and my Bodyguard lie neglected in the gun safe.

The rationale of the dual single-action/double-action capability is the option of cocking the hammer for an easy single-action trigger pull, “for a precision shot.” The thing of it is, “precision shots” are rarely taken with these pocket-sized guns, which are generally seen as reactive close-quarters weapons. Double action is faster. If you do need a precision shot, a slightly slower roll of the double-action trigger will get you there. Double action also gives a shorter hammer fall, improving lock time, and probably more important, doesn’t require you to break your hold and thumb your hammer back.

There’s also the matter of cases where the cocked revolver went off unintentionally, with fatal results (New York vs. Frank Magliato, for example) or when it was falsely alleged that this had happened, to create an element of negligence after a justified shooting (Florida vs. Luis Alvarez, to name one). Both avenues of legal attack against you are road blocked with a gun that can only be fired double action. And that’s before we get into de-cocking a revolver that has been cocked by sweaty, trembling human hands in a high-stress situation.

My friend Grant Cunningham, master wheelgun-smith and author of the excellent Gun Digest Book of the Revolver, writes the following at his blog at www.grantcunningham.com: “… the Centennial models simply have better actions! The enclosed hammer Centennial models have slightly different sear geometry than do the exposed hammer models, which gives them a pull that is more even—more linear—than the models with hammer spurs. For the savvy shooter it’s a noticeable difference, making the Centennial a bit easier to shoot well.”

Grant continues, “The Centennials also have one less part than the other models: since they have no exposed hammer, they don’t have (nor do they need) the hammer-block safety common to all other ‘J’ frames. That part, which is quite long and rides in a close-fitting slot machined into the sideplate, is difficult to make perfectly smooth. Even in the best-case scenario, it will always add just a bit of friction to the action. Not having the part to begin with gives the Centennial a ‘leg up’ in action feel. (In fact, at one point in time a common part of an ‘action job’ was to remove this safety, in the same way that some ‘gunsmiths’ would remove the firing-pin block on a Colt Series 80 auto pistol. Today we know better!) So, if your criterion is action quality, the choice is clear: the enclosed hammer Centennial series is your best bet!”
By Massad Ayoob

Handguns 3

Grant Cunningham with the J-frame he feels is
the smoothest, the Centennial.


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3 thoughts on “Hammer Or… “-Less?”

  1. Rusty

    Actually, the top picture is a photo of two revolvers. In the middle photo, with the muzzles pointed in a safe direction, using firearms that have no doubt been safety checked, he has his fingers on the triggers to show the relative bore axis grip, which he can certainly do safer than anyone. Don’t be an idiot, if you can help it.

  2. Jim22


    I think the image was made to show the difference in grips of the two guns under actual shooting conditions. Today an image of a person holding a gun with his finger on the trigger is shocking. But, for training purposes where the guns are unloaded and pointed in a safe direction, as are the case here, there is an allowable exception, I think.


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