The Wonderful S&W K-Frames
One year shy of the twentieth century’s debut, Smith & Wesson unleashed one of the most prolifically-produced foundations of revolver design extant, the M&P (Military & Police) double-action revolver. It was built on a medium-size frame, one that S&W designated with the letter “K”. It would see bloodlettings from the Philippines to back alleys in Chicago and other cities and do Uncle Sam’s bidding in the Second World War as well. Though many of its users spoke different languages, the M&P spoke only one, but did so “fluently” for both evil and good masters alike. Simply a tool, it was no better or worse than its user as is always the case, whether the anti-gunners have enough sense to realize it or not.
The K-frame M&P would eventually morph into various models based such as the Model 10, 12, 14, 15 and their stainless counterparts in .38 Special as well as .357’s via Models 13,19, 65 and 66! These service-size holster guns were rarely seen in snub form until after WWII, circa 1946, but based on production runs; it would appear that the 4” K-frames were popular from the beginning. I know that they were in the early 1970’s when I entered the ranks of law enforcement. My first service revolver was an S&W Model 10 Heavy Barrel. They were popular with private citizens as well. There is literally no telling how many K’s have graced sock drawers, generation after generation...and still do!
This square butt Model 10 snub sports the more concealable magna grips and a Tyler grip-adapter. The hammer spur has been removed. This was typical of the duty guns I observed used by detectives at the law enforcement agency where I worked. I saw more square butt snubs than round. I asked a couple of detectives why and they said that their “four-inch” had a square butt and they wanted their snub to have “the same feel”.
Decades passed and handgunning trends lead us to the “high-capacity” wondernines (a term coined by the late Jeff Cooper) and beyond, but for many, the K-frame remains a most popular member of their firearm family. Some shooters’ familiarity with the K is based on a lifetime of exposure while newer “converts” are just now discovering their magic. I have known devoted “automatic men” who frequently just happen to own a K-frame round gun or two.
Why is this so? Though no longer filling today’s law enforcers’ holsters as was true for most of the 20th century, for many shooters, it still hangs in as tight as the proverbial tick. What does the K-frame have that endears it such a large number of shooters, past and present? What is its magic?
For me, the things just “fit”. They have that special something, a melding of size, weight and feel that apparently resonates for a great number of shooters. This successful blending of characteristics is seeing it well into its second century of service and is no accident; K-frame popularity is no “flash in the pan” phenomena.
Decade after decade, the K-frame’s handling characteristics and “medium frame-size” proved popular in the extreme. Model 10 revolvers in either standard or heavy barrel configurations were a police standard. I believe them capable of both fun at the range and first-rate personal protection today.
Most have been chambered in .38 Special and if steel-framed with a numerical designation, S&W declares them fit for use with +P ammunition. 38 Special loads that border on painful in lighter, smaller revolvers are easily managed in the all-steel medium-frame S&W. Most of us perform better with a revolver we’re neither afraid of nor loath to shoot because of too much recoil. In .38 Special, the K-frame’s ability to manage recoil has earned it legions of devotees.
Smith & Wesson’s Model 19 “Combat Magnum” was one of the most popular K-frame revolvers ever made. Model 19’s with 4” barrels graced more than a few police holsters and the 2 ½” snub version was popular with detectives. When I attended police academy in the early ‘70’s, two guest FBI instructors were both wearing concealed 4” Model 19’s but with smaller stocks than the target stocks shown on the 4” gun above. I have carried both versions of the Combat Magnum during my career. A 4” M19 saved a brother officer’s life one night when he used one to dispatch his would-be murderer.
K-frame .38 Specials have proven very long-lasting in my experience. I have not yet been able to wear one out, though one or two have needed a small part replaced on rare occasions, usually separated by one or more decades! (Maybe I can try harder over the next 40 years and “succeed” in producing some sort of catastrophic failure!) During my early police career, I knew a few truly fine shots that competed up to and including national level. One used a Colt Python but the rest used various S&W K-frame revolvers. These guys would shoot tens of thousands of shots, albeit low-pressure target rounds, but other than the very infrequent replacement of a small part or two during the annual “tune up”, the guns just kept running. Keep in mind that these officers ran more rounds through their revolvers in a year than most of us will in nine lifetimes!
I was never all that interested in shooting really light target ammunition; I could do that with a .22 rimfire. Instead, I preferred shooting loads combining both intrinsic accuracy with enough power for both small to medium game shooting or self-protection. For several years, I experimented with various calibers and loads but never abandoned using .38 Specials while doing so. My 38 Special K’s never got loads lighter than a 158-grains at about 850 ft/sec and many a bit warmer and though they were fed thousands of them, they just continued to function flawlessly. This is not unusual and is undoubtedly a major factor in the design’s continuing use and popularity.
The guns are accurate. Their size and handling characteristics promote practical accuracy. In other words, the K’s make it easier for shooters to perform well than do some smaller revolvers having both decreased sight-radius coupled with increased felt-recoil and muzzle-flip. Larger frame revolvers might have too much trigger-reach for many of us to do our best double-action work, but the K-frame almost never does. Over the years as both a police and private firearm instructor, it has been my consistent, long-term observation that a majority of shooters find the K-frame more comfortable to use than other frame sizes.
Though each firearm is a law unto itself with respect to intrinsic accuracy, K-frames are almost always seem to have it to spare! Fired from various mechanical rests, it is not uncommon to see off-of-the-shelf production guns drop 5 bullets into sub-2” groups at 25 yards and under 3” at 50 yards, though some experimenting to find loads the gun “likes” is necessary. With match barrels and fine-tuning by revolver specialists, the S&W K-frame was capable of extreme accuracy.
These shots were fired double-action with my wrists braced. The Model 64 shown is capable of greater accuracy but my human error precludes it. Even though I was firing from a braced position and in slow-fire, there is no doubt that this gun and cartridge combination is mechanically capable of better accuracy. This revolver has not been accurized. It is as it left the factory.
On the uniformed officer’s issued Sam Browne duty belt, the K was openly carried with ease. At the same time, it could be concealed with little effort under the suit coat by plainclothes personnel, though usually with an abbreviated barrel.
Though not completely successful to be sure, the K-frame came closer than many handguns to being “all things to all people”. Law enforcement used them in 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6” barrel lengths in both .38 Special and .357 Magnum for years. Though seldom seen in law enforcement holsters today, I personally believe that some might be very pleasantly surprised at what can be effectively accomplished with them in competent hands should push come to very hard shove.
Like a moth to a flame, the .38 Special K-frames attract me to this day and as with the Browning Hi Power, I will never willingly be without at least one!