S&W Model 642, by Pat Cascio

As many long-time SurvivalBlog readers will recall, I worked for the late Col. Rex Applegate from 1990 to 1993 as his assistant. It was one of the greatest honors that I ever had. The good Colonel taught me a lot over those three years. A small trip, back in time is in order: My wife was offered a teaching position, at a very rural two-room school in a place called Ash Valley, Oregon – at one time it was a large rural community, that stretched about 14 miles down a winding road, about 25 miles outside of Reedsport, Oregon. It certainly was a beautiful area, and very remote. And it had one of the few remaining two-room schools in all of Oregon – she and another teacher worked the school. It would have been a nice place to live – we lived across the road from the school, in the teacherage house. However, the valley was full of two types of people, the great, hard-working types, and the low-life scum druggies. And, that is a story unto itself…

The Applegates were very early settlers in Oregon, and one of the pioneer trails is named after them. When we moved to Ash Valley, I realized that Colonel Applegate lived in the area, and I found his address. I sent him a short note, telling him I was probably his biggest fan, and several days later, he called me and invited me to come for a visit. Applegate lived in a very large log home, with his wife Carole, a retired school teacher from my old home town of Chicago. He referred to her as the “Cat Lady” because she raised and showed exotic cats. She lived upstairs and the Colonel lived downstairs in his private bedroom/office. After several hours of visiting, Applegate invited me to the “Annex” – it was a log building next to his house.

Little did I realize that, the Annex contained his gun and knife collections. I was interested in seeing his prototype Applegate/Fairbairn (A/F) double-edged fighting knife. I hadn’t heard that he had a massive gun collection – at that time, there were more than 850 guns in his collection. I was blown away, especially with the many prototype firearms he owned. I had to keep wiping the drool off my face, while looking at all his guns. Upon leaving after my visit, Applegate gave me some books and videos to read and watch, and told me to call him when I was done with them. When I returned the material, Applegate offered me a position as his assistant, based on my knowledge of firearms and cutlery. What started out as a part-time job, turned into a full-time one, and over the years, I learned so much about Applegate that others didn’t know. One interesting fact was that, when he worked for Remington Arms in Mexico, as their sales rep down there, he was also working for the CIA doing undercover work. Additionally, at some point, he worked closely with the Mexican military and was appointed the rank of General. He had completely forgotten about that, until I found his commissioning papers in a box in the Annex.

I read through every piece of paper in the many boxes of material in his Annex, and was amazed at his lifetime of accomplishments. After his death, his papers were donated to the University of Oregon, in Eugene, Oregon, where he attended college. I fear that all those boxes of important papers are probably buried away in some basement on campus there – never to see the light of day ever again. Hos sad!

Model 42 and 642

One interest thing I learned is that, Applegate had a very close working relationship with Smith & Wesson firearms.  I won’t get into the long story on this, however, due to a near failure to stop a bad guy down in Mexico, Applegate pleaded with Smith & Wesson to come out with the Model 42 hammerless .38 Special 5-shot revolver, the precursor to the Model 642 revolver that I’m reviewing today in this article. It was in the early 1950s, when S&W came out with what became known as the Model 42. And today there are several variations of this model, because of Rex Applegate.

The Model 642 is a lightweight 2 inch barrel .38 Special revolver that has a hidden hammer enclosed inside the Aluminum frame, so there is no hammer to snag on when drawing from a pocket. The 642 has both a stainless steel cylinder and barrel, but the frame is made out of anodized silver aluminum alloy, to keep the weight down to only 14.4-ounces. Yet the gun is rated for +P ammo – and to be sure, you know you have some power when the trigger is pulled, there is a lot of recoil. The 642 holds  five rounds of ammo, and the front sight is integral with the barrel and the rear sight is fixed. Obviously, this gun is meant for very close up self-defense. And, it is double action only – DAO! The trigger pull is pretty decent – however, it is long and it takes some serious practice to get the hang of the trigger pull. The entire gun has a nice subdued silver finish – very nicely done!

Rex Applegate kept his Model 42 in his desk drawer when working. When he would go out, he stuck that 42 in his right front coat or jacket pocket, and I never knew him to not wear a coat or jacket in the three years I worked for him. As an aside he walked with a limp. This was a constant reminder of parachute drop into France while working with the WW2 French underground, as a member of the OSS – precursor to today’s CIA. He injured his knee in the jump into France and walked with a limp, and he carried a cane to assist in his walking all teh rest of his life. But needless to say, it was a sword cane. He told me a number of times, he was going to get that knee operated on – when he could find the time. He never did…

S&W J Frame

The Model 642 is built on the S&W famous “J” frame, the best-selling small frame revolver on the market. There are many variations of “J” frame revolvers on the market, and many other firearms makers have attempted to copy the “J” frame, some with success, others not so much so. For many years, doing PI work back in the Chicago, IL area, I carried either a S&W Model 36 or a Colt Detective Special, in an ankle holster – as a back-up to my sidearm I carried as my main gun.

My 642 sample was well done, and fitted nicely. As this is an up-close and dirty self-defense handgun, I limited my shooting to just 10-yards for my accuracy testing, and that was stretching it quite a bit…normally, I’d say 15-20 feet would be a more practical distance for accuracy testing, and I did shoot a few rounds at that distance. I had a box of “range” ammo, given to me by my local FFL dealer, a real mix of all kinds of ammo, all of it dirty and tarnished but the 642 ate it all up.

For my serious testing, I used the Black Hills Ammunition 100-gr .38 Special HoneyBadger ammo that is rated +P so you know it was more than a little hot, in that light little gun. I also replaced the factory skimpy grips that came on the gun, with a pair of Hogue combat grips. Those gave me more to hold on to and helped reduce the felt recoil. Shooting +P ammo wasn’t all that much fun, and I stopped my testing after a little more than 200 rounds. I was on my own, with no volunteer helpers this time. Targets of opportunity, out to 50-yards were fun to shoot at – after adjusting my aim, I was hitting big rocks about half the time with that little gun.

Accuracy proved a little difficult with the small fixed sights and the distance I was shooting at. I got some 5-inch groups if I really hunkered down – nothing to brag about – and the gun was rested on a rolled-up sleeping bag during my accuracy testing. As already mentioned I did some shooting at 15 feet, and without any trouble, I could get every round in the large kill zone on the target, proving once again, this is an up-close  gun for self-defense. Stick it in their ear and pull the trigger if you can. Still, it is quite capable of most self-defense needs. Most gun fights actually take place at 21-feet or less. And the 642 is about as easy to operated as can be – draw the gun, aim and pull the double action only trigger – no levers or buttons to press. Just aim and shoot. Easy enough!

I first carried the 642 in an inside the waistband holster from Blackhawk Products of Montana. This was one of their newest leather holsters, made for them in Italy. The gun rode nicely in the holster. However, I’m not a fan (at all) of inside the waistband holsters, and only carried the gun for a few days in the holster. I then switched to a Blackhawk ankle holster and loved it. With my cargo pants covering the gun, no one could spot it on my left ankle – right hand draw, so the gun is carried on the inside of the left ankle.

I couldn’t find anything to fault with this little 642, it’s a proven design. Price-wise, it is running around the $500 mark – some costing more, some costing less, so shop around before you lay down your hard-earned money. And, I’m betting a lot of you will swap-out those small factory grips, for a larger pair of Hogue grips. They will improve comfort as well as your accuracy. Check one out.




15 Comments

  1. What a story! I have read the Applegate diary published as a Lakeside Classic. That Rex Applegate had that sort of story from WW2 just adds to it all. Wish I could know more.

  2. A lot at has been written about the pros and cons of small framed revolvers. Since I have nothing new to add, I’m just going to steal something written by Jason (of Armed Culture) in response to “A Snubby For The Pretty Lady?” at https://thebredafallacy.blogspot.com/2011/03/snubby-for-pretty-lady.html way back in 2011 (9 years ago):

    Snubbies have a U-shaped utility curve.

    At zero experience the utility is high compared to other guns. You’re not going to be all that accurate with anything you shoot. At least you have a gun if you need it, and can reliably get 5 shots off at contact distances. There’s no safety to forget. It’s unlikely to malfunction unless it breaks, and it probably won’t break because you don’t shoot it enough to put any wear on it. And since you don’t shoot it, you never notice that it’s painful.

    At moderate experience, it’s a horrible firearm. It’s painful to practice with, the short sight radius and long trigger are difficult and frustrating. It makes a horrible and discouraging range gun. It’s only a matter of time until it breaks, or you give up. Hopefully you don’t give up shooting entirely, and just buy a proper range gun for range use, while keeping the snubby, because…

    At high experience, the snubby becomes a great firearm again. The trigger and sights are no longer an issue, you’ve learned to deal with them. You’ve lost your flinch and your hands have callouses. You own more than one gun, including all-steel revolvers that are functionally similar, but better for high-round-count range sessions. Having tried to conceal many different firearms, you deeply appreciate a handgun you can easily carry everywhere, and that has very few failure modes as long as you treat it with a little care.

    It’s really not about male vs. female shooters, it’s about whether or not they’re going to enter the middle of the ‘U’ at all, and if you do, whether or not you intend to move to the other side.

    I’ve seen good firearm trainers escort women who’d never touched a gun from one side of the ‘U’ to the other in about 2 days. There was crying and bandaged fingers at the bottom of the ‘U’, and I did not blame them in the least. But by day two, it looked like Linda Hamilton out there. Ever since watching that, I have felt that telling women that the .38 is not for them is almost a bit condescending.

    1. @anonymous, excellent comments regarding small framed revolvers. I’ve carried versions of this weapon for many years, currently a S&W M&P340. You nailed it with “You’re not going to be all that accurate…..at least you have a gun if you need it”! As you say, “no safety to forget and it’s unlikely to malfunction”….Over the years I’ve found that the best gun is the one you have with you, and this weapon is most certainly one of the best for ease of carry and reliability, easily slips into the pocket, no doubt my EDC choice!

  3. “Shooting +P ammo wasn’t all that much fun, and I stopped my testing after a little more than 200 rounds.”

    I’ve heard that using 148 grain target wadcutters makes shooting these guns much more pleasant – both in the gun press and from people I know.

    Unfortunately, I’ve never seen such rounds available in stock. I gave up looking a long a time ago. So as much as I would like to test that theory for myself, I have never been able to.

    Instead, the gun industry keeps marketing high velocity hollow points, which I think is a disservice for gun owners; especially new ones.

  4. That 642 is a nice example of a no lock J frame.
    I have a 442 which is the blue version of the same revolver.
    They are snappy with +P ammo but the recoil is definitely manageable.
    My wife really likes that she doesn’t have to operate a slide and it is concealable.
    S&W J frame revolvers are very easy to safety check.

    Thanks for the review.

  5. I got to meet the Col. at a 3 gun match in the early 90’s when I was on the Al Mar Knives shooting team. I still have some material he wrote along with an autographed photo of the Col.
    He and Al seemed to know each other quite well.
    I remember the Col. as being a super nice guy. I was in awe.

  6. I have a 342, the evil twin to the 642 only with a titanium cylinder and bore liner. The barrel shroud is aluminum alloy. 11 oz empty. Wonderful to carry in a Thunderwear holster or jacket pocket, or even in a front trouser pocket if you take out ALL of the other stuff. Change mars the gun.
    Standard fodder for it was Speer’s +P 135 grain Gold Dot, since I bought a 250 round box of it.
    I never replaced the grips because it would be harder to hide in the crotch holster and slow the presentation. i carried this piece in a non-permissive environment for periods of uncertainty. Five violent .38s were better than a green umbrella.
    At an advanced course, I could put all rounds onto the target (silhouette) at 50 yards, but it took intense focus and discipline to ignore the vicious recoil and blast. I’d have to choose between deafness and a liver transplant before I’d shoot this little gun without hearing protection.
    I have a Model 60 Chief’s Special that belonged to my dad. During a battlefield pickup drill in a class, the lock work inside failed. Yeah, revolvers can break. A trip to Smith and Wesson that lasted 6 months repaired the 60. They must be very busy there.
    Women, as Anonymous pointed out, are not very happy with this little gun! It takes a special girl to tough it out long enough to master it. Most become terrified of it in about 10 rounds. Muzzle shakes wildly by round 5.
    Current carry round is Federal’s Micro HST 130 grain +P, but I wonder about the + designation as it is a lot more pleasant than the Speer load. Lucky Gunner’s Handgun Ammo Test suggests that this unconventional load (bullet is seated flush with the case mouth) expands in gel to .72 caliber nearly every single time and penetrates to 13 inches out of a 2″ tube. Owww!
    On the J frames, a little trick to enhance accuracy is to rub the trigger fingertip on the frame just before the shot breaks to eliminate trigger over travel. Gives you a lot more control of the trigger. YMMV.
    Great writeup Pat!

  7. Being a firm believer in major caliber, I prefer a snubby in 44 spec to the 38. I had a Taurus 5 shot snubby and it was reliable, surprisingly comfortable, and still had the oomph I was looking for that you just can’t get out of a 38.

    They say anything inside 21 feet is melee range, meaning even if you can get a shot off, you’re probably going to end up grappling or striking before the fight is done. If your opponent is armed with a knife, you are going to get stabbed and/or cut, maybe several times, before the fight is over. Being able to draw and shoot while evading contact your opponent is an important aspect of self defense with a snubby given their effective range. But there’s a reason why 38 cal was abandoned over a century ago and replaced with major caliber (44/45). 38’s simply weren’t stopping opponents with anything less than a head shot.

    Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

    1. “But there’s a reason why 38 cal was abandoned over a century ago and replaced with major caliber (44/45).”

      You do realize that the 38 cal ammo that was abandoned over a century ago was NOT by ANY stretch the 38 cal ammo that is available today. Apples and oranges (or maybe watermelons) benjammin.

      I too prefer a 44 special, but would not feel terribly disadvantaged having to use a 38 with what I can get for it these days.

  8. “38’s simply weren’t stopping opponents with anything less than a head shot. ”

    ???? You speak as if that is a bad thing. At 21 feet, what is wrong with head shots –esp given the spread of body armor? The brain is as big as the heart. Well, in most people. Lungs are bigger but unlikely to deflate in the second it take to reach you.

    1) at close range under intense stress, trying to evade and shoot may lead to tripping and falling — esp if you are trying to backpedal. Although it might make sense at longer ranges. I myself don’t think I would be able to move very far skipping to the side or backwards but I am not very fleet of foot.

    I am not an expert. But FBI stats indicate a lot of shootings are at less than 21 feet. Their handgun qualification course of fire has 36 out of 50 shots being fired from 21 feet or less with fairly tight time limits. 18 are within 15 feet or less.

    https://www.usacarry.com/2019-fbi-handgun-qualification/

    2) However, they still shoot to center of mass but in 3 to 6 round bursts with their hi-mag Glock. Maybe with the idea that the impact from that many 9 mm rds will slow down even someone with level IIIA body armor and the 9mm will penetrate level II armor. Or that a speed rock draw at 6 feet is no time to get fancy.

    A video I’ve seen of their training indicates they do a sidestep if they fire in darkness to avoid an enemy firing back at their muzzle flash

    3) Department of Homeland Security qual test has 30 out of 46 rds fired at 21 feet or less — 6 at 4 1/2 feet. Most still center of mass but 2 to the head at 18 feet.

    https://www.range365.com/shoot-dhs-qualification-test/

    Again, no backpedaling.

  9. I have carried a variant of the “J” frame as a back up or off duty firearm for over46 years and have never had a failure to fire incident. As a firearms instructor for over 30 of those years I have had the opportunity to carry or shoot almost anything on the market and I choose the “J” frame model 340 PD in .357. That’s a handful but a real solid main stopper. I don’t shoot a major amount of .357 but put at least 10 rounds a month and replace with 158 grain hollow points. I’ve attended numerous off duty/backup handgun classes and at each one at least one of the smaller autos have malfunctioned but not a revolver! As I got older and retired I have replaced the grips with a set of Crimson Trace laser grips and feel very comfortable with it as a defensive firearm, additionally I carry a speed strip in my pocket with 6 extra rounds.
    Overall it does exactly what it was designed for and I go nowhere without it!

  10. Pat,
    Did Rex talk to you about the guns he owned that were still in Mexico? Every time we talked that would come up. We first met at the Soldier Of Fortune convention in Charlotte, NC. He was sharing a booth with Al Mar. When he heard I lived in Roseburg he opened up and shared some good tales with me. I had a gun shop and he visited me there several times.
    If you have the time, please email me a short note.

  11. I own a 442. Interestingly after the first 20 rounds it would not fire any more. Ship back to S&W for repair. Surprisingly only took 3 weeks to get back. Seems a sliver of metal prevented the internal hammer from fully striking the firing pin. So yes revolvers do malfunction. Been fine since. New grips on for more effective control with hit loads and decent EDC gun. Because it is pocket carry easy I do have it on me probably way more than any of my other handguns. Is it recoil heavy with hot loads, yes. But not unmanageable by any means. Not my number one handgun choice but as so often said something is better than nothing.

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