ode to the carry wheelgun.

I’ve carried handguns habitually for right around sixteen or seventeen years now. That’s a whole lot of time to try out different handguns and modes of carry, and to establish preferences based on what works and what doesn’t.

There is no “perfect carry gun”, of course, since we all have different lifestyles, body shapes, hand sizes, and personal preferences. Any time someone tells you that a handgun is “the best”, they are most likely talking about their pet brand and model. However, there is such a thing as “best for you”, and opinions based on that kind of reasoning are perfectly valid. You try twenty or thirty different carry guns, fifty or a hundred different holsters and carry modes, and eventually you end up with a platform and tool that feel “just right” to you.

For me, that platform is Smith & Wesson’s K-frame revolver with the three-inch heavy barrel.

Once upo a time, the three-inch Model 13 (blued) or Model 65 (stainless) were considered the ultimate and de rigeur carry gun for serious gun toters. The FBI issued the Model 13 in the 3″ HB configuration for several decades. Alas, time marches on–in the mid-Eighties, the mass migration to semi-autos started in the law enforcement community, and nowadays the carry wheelgun is considered archaic and obsolete by most police agencies. Thanks to its simplicity and relatively low price, the lightweight snubbie still soldiers on in large numbers as a popular CCW piece for Joe Citizen, but the mid-framed revolvers have fallen out of favor with many because the newer polymer pistols offer much higher capacities and less weight.

In my opinion, that trend is actually a regression in some ways. The mid-sized heavy-barreled 3″ K-frame still stands as an excellent package for personal defense. For me, there hasn’t been anything on the market since the introduction of the Models 13 and 65 that surpasses them in the areas of functional benefits.

The three-inch K-frame can best be described as the “everything you need, and nothing you don’t” gun. It has the most rugged set of fixed sights ever put on a handgun, so there’s nothing to break off or get knocked out of alignment, and they’re virtually snag-free, which means they won’t poke you in the side or slow you draw.

It’s an extremely size-efficient package. The smaller J-frame snubbies are slightly easier to conceal, but much harder to shoot and control well. The K-frame gives you just the right amount of gun to grab, while still being small enough to conceal well. The barrel is just long enough to allow for a full-length ejector rod, which makes clearing empties a lot easier and positive than the abbreviated ejector rod on the “true” two-inch snubbies. The result of the slender K-frame in combination with the 3″ heavy barrel is a wonderfully proportionate and well-balanced handgun that points like few others. IWhen you pick up a three-inch K-frame, it feels “just right”.

The trigger is a heavy, but smooth double-action pull that is pretty much the gold standard by which everything else is measured. Once you’ve pulled the trigger on a leaf-sprung K-frame that has been broken in by twenty years of dry-firing, everything else will feel inadequate to your trigger finger. You also get an optional single-action trigger that has a minimal amount of travel and pull weight.

The grip is wonderfully adaptable to just about any hand. Many modern polymer guns come with interchangeable backstraps, which is a great way to accomodate different hand sizes, but the ergonomic possibilities of the K-frame grip eclipse that of any bottomfeeder ever built by a wide margin. Your Walther P99 or Beretta PX4 will accomodate inserts for small, medium and large hands, but your K-frame Smith can be fitted with a grip that’s literally molded off your very own hand. It doesn’t get more ergonomic than that.

The reliability of the steel-framed Ks is beyond question or compare. The S&W Military and Police, a.k.a. the Model 10, is probably one of the most mechanically reliable handguns anyone’s ever tossed onto a drawing board. They’ve been around since 1899, the bugs have been worked out of the design when Roosevelt was in the White House (Teddy Roosevelt, that is), and the M&P is as dependable as a ball-peen hammer. All guns break on occasion, even K-frames, but the design has a proven track record of reliable operation under some of the worst conditions imaginable. There’s no other gun to me that makes me equally confident of its function if called upon.

I settled on the three-inch K-frame as a personal sidearm because there’s simply no other gun I’ve owned or carried that offers the same combination of size efficiency, power, reliabilty, simplicity and ruggedness in a well-balanced package that’s easy to shoot and conceal. For me, it’s simply the finest personal defense sidearm anyone’s ever brought to market, and if you see a used three-inch K-frame out there that’s been neglected by the tactical autochucker crowd, do yourself a favor and pick it up. You may discover that “newer” does not automatically mean “better”, and it may just change your way of thinking when it comes to carry guns.


14 thoughts on “ode to the carry wheelgun.

  1. Les Jones says:

    You and Tam convinced me. I traded a CZ clone for a 3″ S&W 64-5 that I picked up tonight. Shot great, and it does handle wonderfully.

  2. Jay G says:

    Is it a sign of a gun nut that the first thing I noticed were the Pachmayr “Presentation” grips???

    Good post. It’s good to see that there are still fans of wheelguns out there…

  3. Chris says:

    A 3″ 13 is on my short list of guns if I get another .35 caliber revolver (I have 3 currently and should really branch out). I picked up a near NIB M10-7 last fall for $200 (original owner put fewer than 100rnds through it). The only way I could’ve done better is if it had the factory grips and box.

  4. George says:

    I am a S&W revolver bigot. My K-frame was a Model 66 with the round grips. As everyone who tried liked it, I considered switching my Model 686 for it. (The L-frame fits my hand better, I feel.)

    Having said that, the smaller Model 66 is much more concealable. It was really out of tune when I bought it … and I thought I had really goofed. However, a two hour session with a Smith gunsmith showed me everything that was wrong, what had to be done to correct them and test firing at the end. It became marvellously smooooth.

    Ah … fond memories.


  5. Oleg Volk says:

    I’d like to carry my SW686 (4″) but the belt holster isn’t all that great. Who makes worthwhile IWB holsters for L frames?

  6. Marko says:

    All the premium makers (Mitch Rosen, Milt Sparks etc.) can make most of their IWB rigs for L frames.

    There aren’t too many off-the-rack IWB rigs for 4″ L-frames (Bianchi, Galco etc.), because relatively few people tote a wheelgun of that size IWB these days.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one. I carry a 3″ Model 65 in a Alessi Talon IWB holster.

    I gotta thank the guys and gals at THR. I think they first clued me in to the 3″ Smiths as carry guns. I agree with the “everything you need and nothing you don’t” comment. I switched from an EG Mak about a year ago and haven’t looked back.


  8. Anonymous says:


    If a k frame does malfunction you still have a hefty defensive hammer (butt) or eye-poker (barrel). Heck, you can even snap the hammer on the bad guy’s nose!!

    Polymer semi-autos can’t compete in the malfunctioned-weapon weapon contest.


  9. les says:

    The Thomas Perfectionist IWB holster from kramer gun leather is nothing short of FANTASTIC!

    A 4″ 686 melts away to nothing…

    Thanks for this great post!

    I think that only thing that can be done to make a 3″ wheelgun better are fullmoonclips for a faster reload if necessary… I’m no Jerry Miculek, but with a little practice you can get pretty fast…


  10. rayman says:

    Anybody into model 58’s ?

  11. Bill Koch says:

    I purchased a used S&W Model 13-4 with a 3-inch barrel in May of 2006 as my first, and so far only, carry gun. It was apparently made in the US, exported to a foreign country’s law enforcement group, and then imported back. I’d only handled and shot a couple of other revolvers in my life beforehand, but the M13 just seems to “feel” right. Smooth DA trigger pull, light but crisp SA pull, and the perfect size to be concealed well on my frame. It will probably remain as my only carry gun for the foreseeable future. Unless, of course, I got a Model 65 with a 3-inch barrel…

  12. bart hightower says:

    I agree in whole and in part. I carry a m66 3-inch in Don Hume leather. I also carry a m19 2.5-inch in concealco leather. These guns have performed flawlessly as CCW weapons. I am removing the BHP from the permit as I never carry it these days. A Colt Agent for pocket carry will replace in and my revolver triumverat will be complete!

  13. Rio Arriba says:

    Talk about late responses!

    But I just discovered this article, so…

    I too love K-frames and have a bunch of them. But in the general category of revolver you examine here my favorite is my stainless Ruger Speed-Six with 2-3/4″ barrel. The hammer is bobbed and with the super-slick action job there is no need whatsoever for single-action.

    This is a compact, super-strong, ultra reliable revolver.

    Here’s a little piece about it on my blog…


    Thanks for your article. I enjoyed it much!

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