Smith & Wesson rolls out the highly tuned and responsive Performance Center Model 442 snubbie.
How The Performance Center Model 442 Goes The Extra Mile:
- Features Crimson Trace laser grip.
- Grip not only activates laser sight, but also better fits the revolver to the hand and soaks up recoil.
- Laser is situated on the right side, out of the way of the hand and closer to the bore axis.
- Revolver is hand-assembled and inspected.
When the double-action revolver was perfected by Smith & Wesson more than a century ago, the idea of a short-barreled revolver wasn’t top on the list of must-haves. People still rode horses. Automobiles were rich men’s playthings. Walking to work was still a “thing.” And men wore actual suits.
No, it wasn’t until the 1920s, when Prohibition was in full swing, that the first snub-nosed revolver came about as a factory item.
S&W offered its own version of the snubbie. One that’s the “holy grail” of collectors—and was a grand carry revolver—was the Centennial, unveiled in 1952. It was a small-framed DA revolver with the hammer completely enclosed by the frame. Soon afterward, this became the Model 40, which also had a grip safety on the back of the grip portion of the frame because, well, I don’t know. Someone thought it was a good idea, but it did add cost.
That part of it got dropped, and S&W developed another shrouded-hammer design that still left part of the spur exposed. In the goodness of time, S&W added an airweight option, with an aluminum frame and steel barrel and cylinder. And then came a stainless steel version. The J-frame (the frame size these were built on) was always popular. Although it was all-steel construction, this light, handy five-shot revolver was an obvious choice for daily carry or as a backup gun if you packed something bigger.
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Fast forward to the 21st century, and lots and lots of people are carrying daily. And you know what? A lot of them find that a compact DA revolver—the grand, old snubbie—still works.
The J-frame has seen a lot of improvements (as well as options) in the metal used. One big change happened back in the Reagan era, when S&W started investing in CNC machinery in a big way. Yes, we all love, and loved, hand-built handguns, but the advantage of CNC machinery is that hand-building becomes less necessary. And, fine-tuning a CNC-made revolver produces an even more superior product.
Case in point: the Model 442 Performance Center revolver discussed in this article. The obvious change is the Crimson Trace laser grip, with its soft rubber construction, so we’ll cover this first.
The shape is what we used to call a “boot grip contour,” and it fits the hand (oh, does it fit the hand!). The rubber construction soaks up felt recoil, so even if you are using hot .38 Special loads, you won’t find it abusive to shoot.
There is a button In the middle of the front strap of the grip. When you press the button, as you would when holding the 442 in a firing grip, it turns on the laser. The emitter is located on the right-hand side, up above your hand. This both puts it out of the way of your hands and gets it closer to the bore axis without being awkward.
When you squeeze, the laser is on. Ease up on your grip, and the laser turns off. In checking the sights and the point of impact, I found the crossing point to be about 15 yards downrange. Crossing point? Yes. The laser starts, from your position, low and right of the bore axis. It is pointed very slightly up and left, so it will intersect the trajectory of the bullet. On this 442, that crossing is about 15 yards downrange. So, simple geometry tells us that at the muzzle, the laser is an inch or so low-right. It is dead-on at 15 yards, and then at 30 yards, it would be just a bit high-left.
“Within Spec” — Just The Start
Complicating all this is the trajectory of the bullet—a parabolic arc—and the shooting ability of the shooter. I mean, really, we’re worried about the precision of bore-laser alignment at 15 yards in fractions of an inch when we are likely going to be shooting 3- and 4-inch groups at best. Keep it simple: The bullet hits where the dot is at any distance you are going to be using a snub-nosed revolver.
However, the Performance Center makes that easier. Every S&W revolver gets hand-assembled, inspected and then test-fired before being shipped. I’ve walked through the assembly and test-fire areas, and they are staffed by hardworking people who are intent on making sure S&W only makes and ships top-notch products.
But the Performance Center goes a step—or three—further. Its gunsmiths receive parts for assembly and then pore over them. “Within spec” is just the start for them, and each PC 442 is handbuilt from parts that match the blueprints as closely as possible. These days, with CNC machining centers producing the parts, the dimensional variance that comes off the machines is a lot narrower than it was in the old days. As a result, the parts don’t need to be hand-fitted and matched to each other as they used to, so that just means the Performance Center ‘smiths have more time to fine-tune fit and function.
And so it was with this one. I learned to build S&W revolvers back in the old days when I was replacing worn or broken parts or overhauling high-mileage service revolvers. In checking out the PC 442, I just kept smiling as I measured cylinder gap, endshake and timing and felt the trigger weight.
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PC 442 Action
The action is smooth and relatively light. The geometry of the J-frame parts means that your five-shot S&W can’t be built to be as light as, say, a K-frame would be. But that is the price of getting a much smaller package.
Nevertheless, Performance Center has worked its magic, and the PC 442 has a lighter and a smoother action than I recall the factory K-frames of yore had. There is no stacking, the action locks up just before the hammer falls (there is a hammer in there, even though you can’t see it), and the rest is quick and crisp, not sluggish.
The S&W J-frame in the hammerless versions has always been a round-butt configuration. When we all went to DA shooting, most of us found that the round-butt contour was much more comfortable and controllable than the square-butt ones had been. And because there is no hammer to be thumb-cocked, all your shooting is DA only. You should keep that in mind when you look over the accuracy testing. Also, we’re talking about a handgun that weighs under a pound, rated for use with +P ammunition. Yes, the PC 442, like all 442s, is rated for use with .38 Special+P ammunition. It will probably stand up to it better than you will, because the additional pressure and velocity really add to felt recoil.
The laser, despite being spot-on out past where you’d be using a snubbie, is for use when you can’t readily get to the sights. In a darkened hallway, the red dot of a laser makes it clear where your muzzle is pointed. If you are in a struggle and can’t align the sights, you can count on one thing: The bullet will go where the laser dot is. Aim when you can, but if you can’t, the laser lets you know what the sights can’t.
I’m sure some will look at the PC 442 and think, “the perfect pocket pistol!” Don’t.
Learn from my experience back in the old days, when wheelguns were common carry guns: Pockets are not good carry options. It took me just a few times of putting a snubbie in a pocket as my carry option to find that it wasn’t pointed the way I expected. So, I changed my carry mode to a holster. The first time you go to draw your pocketed snubbie—only to find it upside down and pointing backward—you’ll get it … and be looking for a holster.
There’s also the matter of the durability of an airweight revolver. With an aluminum frame, how many rounds can it take? You’d be surprised.
I have steel revolvers that haven’t been hammered with heavy magnum loads that have seen tens of thousands of rounds. Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic here. Let’s assume your PC 442 will only last 10,000 rounds (I’d bet on a much higher figure) and that you shoot, without fail, a box of 50 rounds each week. That’s 2,600 rounds a year, and you will be two months short of four years reaching that 10,000 figure.
Oh, and if you do that—and practice properly—you will be an absolute monster with a revolver by the time you theoretically have to replace the PC 442. And even then, it will theoretically be in need of replacement. There will still be a lot of pistolsmiths who know how to rebuild a J-frame … and the Performance Center will be standing by, curious about what you did to wear one out so soon.
With the actual firing and practice schedule most of us have, your PC 442 is a lifetime gun. You’ll be leaving it to your heirs in your will (assuming that half a century from now, we don’t have phased plasma rifles but do have handguns). And with all the dry-firing you’ve been doing, it will be even slicker than when you started.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the 2019 Shooter's Guide issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.