S&W Model 15, by Pat Cascio

We are continuing to followup on the many requests for more revolver articles from our readers, and we are more than happy to comply. As I pointed out in previous articles, there are some shooters who believe that the “old” revolver isn’t a viable option for self-defense work, and I couldn’t disagree more. Now, we aren’t necessarily talking about a SWAT team clearing a building of an active shooter or a terrorist. We are talking about everyday people who carry concealed or want a home defense handgun, and for whom the revolver might just be the perfect answer.

In 1980 or 1981, I traded a customer in my gun shop out of a S&W Model 15; it’s also called the K-38 Combat Masterpiece. This was my first exposure to this particular model in a full-sized service revolver, and the gun was for my own personal use. Over the years, I’ve owned quite a few revolvers, from S&W, Colt, Ruger, and other gun makers. Most were snubby revolvers, as I carried those guns doing Private Investigative work. The Model 15 that I traded into didn’t have the skimpy small wood grips that came on most models; instead, it had a nice pair of custom-made, hand-filling grips. I don’t know who made those grips, but they fit my hand perfectly.

A quick run down on the Model 15 is in order, before reporting any further. This model holds six rounds of .38 Spl in the cylinder, and it is usually found with a 4-inch barrel; however, there were some 2-inch barreled guns. You’ll usually encounter a Model 15 with a 4-inch barrel. Many police departments, back in the 1960s and into the 1970s, carried this model of gun. The gun comes with a fully adjustable rear sight, for windage and elevation, and early models had a plain black, ramped front sight. The frame is called the “K” frame and is a medium-sized frame. The “J” is a small frame, and the “L” and “N” frames are bigger. The Model 15 is a double-action/single-action revolver, and you can fire the gun by simply pulling the trigger or cocking the hammer for a crisp and lighter trigger pull. Many police departments removed the hammer spur, so the guns could only be fire in the double-action mode. There were liability concerns, ya know.

Weight on the Model 15, with the 4-inch barrel, is right around 34 oz, which is just about perfect, if you ask me. It’s not too heavy and not too light. The standard finish was a nice shinny blue, and the gun was right pretty if you ask me. The trigger is grooved, and I prefer a smooth faced trigger. It is easily corrected by any competent gunsmith. I never cared for the checkered walnut service stocks/grips; they were and are too skimpy for a good grip on the gun for the most accuracy you can wring out of it. The barrel is a medium thickness, and the entire gun just is about perfect in many respects.

I know, I know. I can hear the detractors already saying, “It only holds 6-rds.” That’s true; however, you can reload the gun in a few seconds, using speed loaders from HKS, and if you have expended 6-rds and there is still a threat, you should be behind cover and reload from there. We don’t stand toe-to-toe and keep firing. We should always seek cover whenever possible. So, remember to keep a spare speed loader or two on your person if carrying a revolver, or if this is a house gun, have at least one spare speed loader on hand. Let’s get back to my first full-sized Model 15. Hands down, it was without question the most accurate revolver I ever shot. It didn’t matter what kind of ammo I was using, the gun would easily shoot 2-inch groups at 25 yards, if I did my part. The custom-made, grooved wooden stocks really helped in the accuracy department. They were smooth, not checkered; however, it had finger grooves. To this day, I regret no longer having that gun. I must have sold or traded it, and I honestly don’t remember.

In 1974, I ran across a S&W Model 15 with a 2-inch barrel. It was nickel plated, and I carried it for the longest time in a Safariland upside down shoulder holster. It was a super-accurate revolver, considering it was a snubby model. I’m still trying to find one just like it. My local gun shop has standing orders, if they find one at a gun show to buy it for me. I understand that this model, with the 2-inch barrel and nickel finish, is extremely rare these days.

Over the years, I’ve owned and carried many different types of revolvers for duty work, either as a police officer or in private security. I’ve had S&W Model 19s – .357 Mag, Colt Python – .357 Mag, Colt Trooper MK3 – .357 Mag, and several different types of Rugers in .38 Spl and .357 Mag. However, none have proven as consistently accurate as the S&W Model 15 with a 4-inch barrel.

Some time back, my local gun shop had a used S&W Model 15 with a 4-inch barrel, and it was a little bit on the rough side. It had some holster wear and a little bit of pitting, and it was dirty inside and outside. I couldn’t pass on the price, which was $319. The one thing that detracted from the overall appearance of the gun was the barrel, which was plum colored. There were several reasons for this. Either the barrel wasn’t left in the bluing salts long enough or the bluing salts were starting to lose their potency. In any event, I didn’t really care about the plum colored barrel. I have seen it on a number of S&W revolvers over the years. I wanted the gun for a shooter, not a show piece!

I completely stripped the gun down to the bare frame, removed the inner workings, and gave it all a good cleaning, and lubed it with some Italian Gun Grease , which is my favorite firearms lube bar none. I used some extra-fine steel wool to clean up the minor pitting on the frame and touched-up some of the wear spots on the end of the barrel, where the bluing had worn off. I painted the front sight with some bright orange paint for my aged eyes, and the gun was ready for some shooting. The gun came with a well-used pair of Hogue grips, rubber grips, that didn’t fit the gun any longer, and I swapped them out for a new pair. What a difference in how the gun felt, and it looked much better, too.

I also found some HKS #10 speedloaders in my “everything else” box and an HKS ballistic nylon double speedloader case to carry the speedloaders in. And, in the bottom of one of my holster drawers, there was an old generic ballistic nylon holster that fit the gun nicely. We are talking about a really nice “trail gun” setup, if you are out hiking in the wilderness, just a perfect setup!

From Buffalo Bore Ammunition, I had their 158-gr Hard Cast +P Outdoorsman load, 158-gr Lead Semi Wad Cutter Hollow Point +P, 125-gr Low Velocity JHP, and their 110-gr Barnes TAC-XP all-copper hollow point +P load, which is designed for short barreled revolvers. From the folks at Black Hills Ammunition, I had their brand new 100-gr Honey Badger +P load (see pic of this one) and their 125-gr JHP +P load. Plus, the guys at the local gun shop gave me a partial box of .38 Spl. Reloads.

All shooting was done at 25 yards, over the hood of my pickup truck, resting the gun on a jacket. In single action, the trigger pull was crisp and right at 3 lbs; in the double-action mode, it was super-slick and about 10-lbs with a very, very smooth trigger pull. In the single action mode, I could keep my groups down to two inches or slightly over with all loads tested. Some loads shot spot on; some a bit lower. The lighter weight bullets shot a little lower. The 158-gr Outdoorsman +P load from Buffalo Bore was stout. Everything else ran just fine. I’d restrict my shooting of the +P loads for self defense against two or four legged critters. While the gun was tight, a steady diet of +P will loosen-up the gun, and we don’t want that. The overall winner in the accuracy department was the Black Hills 125-gr JHP load, and right on the heels was the Buffalo Bore low velocity JHP load. Both loads, when firing from the single action, was dead-on at 2-inches if I was doing my part.

Firing double-action, I could still keep all the groups down there around three inches, and many were well under three inches, which is outstanding accuracy. This particular Model 15 was made in the mid 1960s, too. I don’t know what I didn’t like about this particular used revolver. If I were still doing PI work back in Chicago and we were restricted to using a 4-inch Bbl .38 Spl revolver, this would be a top choice for daily carry. For many years, the law in Illinois read that PIs and security officers could only carry a 4-inch Bbl revolver. If you carried a .357 Mag, you were restricted to loading it with .38 Spl ammo. Everyone ignored this for many years, but the state came down hard and mandated that everyone in security carry only what the state said you could carry. I’m not sure of the regulations these days, but if restricted to a 4-inch Bbl revolver for duty use, I’d have no problem carrying this Model 15 with a good JHP load.

So, if you’re in the market for a really nice .38 Spl revolver with a 4-inch Bbl, check out the S&W Model 15. Just don’t expect to find one as inexpensive as I did.

– Senior Product Review Editor, Pat Cascio


  1. Thank you for a great review on a older but still very serviceable weapon. I have my father’s S&W model 15 that he carried for over thirty years as a L.A. County Deputy Sheriff. He only had to pull it one time in the line of duty but he knew it would go bang and hit the intended target. It is my go-to weapon when family or friends want to learn how to shoot a handgun. It’s simple in operation and with some low power reloads a joy to shoot.
    Once again thank you Mr. Casio for your great reviews.

  2. I started carrying a .357 revolver in 1975. I still carry .357s “most” of the time. For open carry mine is a S&W model 19 six shooter. For concealed carry mine is a Taurus model 605 five shooter. My revolvers have never misfired and never jammed–and THAT is the reason I carry a revolver (with speed loaders). I always enjoy your reviews Sir.. thank you.

  3. Many thanks, to all our readers, for keeping me in their prayers during my surgery…hip replacement. All went well, but I have one more week, before I’m out of the woods…but I’m doing fantastic….keep the prayers coming.

    I worked overtime, on my weekly articles, so there shouldn’t be any interruptions…thanks again, for the prayers…

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