reader request week: carrying the mighty j-frame.


From reader Ernie comes the following:

I just bought my first J frame revolver, a model 642 hammerless. I have previously only carried autos. I was hoping to get some suggestions from you on holsters. I know I want to pocket carry, but what about ankle holsters? OWB? Perhaps a blog post on this?

First off, let me congratulate you on a fine choice.  I personally consider the air weight J-frames and their equivalents to be the proverbial berries when it comes to civilian CCW.  They’re light, very reliable, easy to carry, reliable, simple to operate under stress, reasonably powerful, and reliable.  (I mention “reliable” three times because it’s the most important criteria in a defensive firearm.  The gun must go bang without fail when called upon–everything else is icing on the CCW cake.)

Due to its small size and light weight, the J-frame is also very flexible when it comes to carry options.  Its shape and weight do make some of those options more suitable than others.  Let’s go through the list of suitable carry modes one by one.

Belt holster

This is my preferred carry mode for full-sized carry guns, but it’s not the optimal location to tote the little J-frame.  You can carry it in a good inside-the-waistband holster, but the short barrel and the girth of the cylinder mean that it either rides too high for a secure and comfortable fit, or it rides too low to afford a good firing grip on the gun.  When you carry the J-frame outside the waistband, you put up with the main compromise of the gun (its smallish grip and low capacity) without making use of the trade-off (better concealability than a belt gun.)

If I were to carry a J-frame on my belt, I’d stick it into a secure, high-quality leather holster with pronounced forward cant, probably a Milt Sparks OWB.

Pocket carry

This is where the J-frames really shine, especially the Airweight frames like the 642.  They’re just the right size and weight to ride in a pocket, as long as you use a quality pocket holster.  The bulge of the cylinder paradoxically helps to break up the shape of the gun in your pocket.  Put a 642 or equivalent in your dominant-hand side pocket, drop a speed strip or two in the other pocket, and you’re not only more than adequately armed for any self-defense scenario a civilian with good street smarts can find themselves, but your gun is also optimally concealed for most climates.  Access is a bit slower than from a belt holster, but that’s more than negated by the fact that you can get a hold of your gun in a very inconspicuous manner if and when you see trouble coming.  The fastest draw is the one where you have your gun in hand already.

The tiny .32s and .380s beat the J-frame for low profile and offer one to three more rounds, but the J-frame is easier to shoot well, and beats the pocket autos for power slightly (when loaded with .38 +P), or substantially (if you’re nuts enough to carry one of those lightweight .357 Magnum snubbies.)

For pocket carry, I’d be quite content with a J-frame in a Galco or similar pocket holster.  I like the kind that has a leather flap in front of the gun to break up its outline and make it look just like a wallet in your pocket.

Ankle carry

This is one carry method that usually gets you snarky comments at the gun shop.  They call it “Dead Man’s Carry” in some circles.  While it’s true that the draw from an ankle rig is very slow—you have to bend or kneel down, and then hike up your pant leg before you can even get a hold of your gun to begin the draw—this carry method has some overlooked advantages.

First of all, it’s a great way to tote a gun if your day-to-day activities involve sitting down a lot.  If you spend most of your time at a desk or behind the wheel of a vehicle, for example, you don’t give up much speed to belt carry.  (This is especially true if you’re buckled into a car seat, where fast access isn’t in the cards if you carry inside the waistband.)

Secondly, ankle carry is as deep-cover concealment as it gets.  Nobody looks at someone else’s lower legs and feet with any sort of scrutiny.

A caveat: the bottom of an ankle rig will show if you wear loose slacks or khakis, and sit in a way that will hike up your pants leg even a little.  A good way to avoid unintentional flashing of the ankle rig is to pull the top of the sock over the bottom of the holster, so it looks like a sport bandage, and not the very obvious form-fitted leather of an ankle rig.

For ankle carry, I have used, and highly recommend, the Galco Ankle Glove.  The back of it has sheepskin lining, and it’s a very comfortable way to carry a backup or deep-cover primary gun.  I’ve carried a J-frame and a Glock 26 in one of those in a “business casual” work environment for months without problems.

Belly band

The J-frame is a decent candidate for a belly band holster.  It will disappear under a buttoned shirt, yet it’s easily accessible via what I call the “Clark Kent draw.”  Just make sure you get a belly band that uses a retention strap.  Presentation will be a bit slower, but the short little J-frame can ride out of the shallow pocket of a belly band with vigorous movement, and end up in your shirt at waist level (or worse, fall out of your shirt.)  Belly band carry is also a little harder on the gun, since it’s so close to the skin without any protective leather around it.

For belly band carry, there are a few virtually identical ones from companies like Galco and ActionDirect.

Off-body carry

I do not recommend off-body carry, especially (and this may read like a paradox) for small, lightweight guns like the J-frame.  They’re very easy to hide inside a day planner or purse, but their light weight also can make you forget that you’re actually carrying a gun in there.  Also, you don’t want to leave an unsecured, loaded weapon out of your control for even a moment, and people set aside their day planners or purses all the time.  As a last caveat—if you get into a situation where you may have to defend yourself, your off-body item is the very first thing a mugger will target. 

If off-body carry is your cup of tea, you could do worse than buy yourself a Wilderness Safepacker.  It looks like an innocent PDA or map case on your belt, and comes with a variety of carry options—as a clutch, as an urban flap holster of sorts for belt carry, or buckled into your seat belt strap for vehicle access.

Shoulder holster

The shoulder rig has its uses.  However, if you strap a harness to your body, you limit your concealment options.  If you have to wear a covering garment at all times, why not make use of all that cover and carry something slightly bigger?  On the plus side, shoulder rigs make the gun very easy to access while seated, and an Airweight J-frame will be very comfortable to carry that way.

For shoulder rigs, I like the Galco “Jackass” and “Miami Classic” lines.  The Bianchi suede-type shoulder rig is also nice for a lightweight gun like a J-frame.  Just do yourself a favor and get a decent one made of leather, not a $25 nylon gun show special.

And there you have the most common carry methods for the J-frame, and my recommendations. 

For the rest of the week, I’ll take reader requests.  I already have one reader mail queued up that has been sitting on my desk and waiting for a response for a while now, so that one will follow shortly.  If you have any questions for me that you’d like to see answered in this spot, send me an email at marko dot kloos at gmail dot com, and give me an obvious indicator in the subject line.  You can ask about guns, politics, personal stuff (but not too personal; some things I’ll not address on my blog), writing, or anything else that comes to mind.


32 thoughts on “reader request week: carrying the mighty j-frame.

  1. Chang says:

    How the hell does that work without a hammer?

    • Marko Kloos says:

      The term “hammerless” is a bit of a misnomer. It has a hammer, but it’s internal. It’s underneath the “hump” of the rear frame. Having an enclosed hammer seals the lockwork against pocket lint and such.

  2. SgtRed says:

    Also check out the Barami Hip Grip. My second favorite way to carry a snubbie after pocket carry.

  3. Jay G. says:

    if you’re nuts enough to carry one of those lightweight .357 Magnum snubbies

    You called? 🙂

    I’m a huge fan of the DeSantis Nemesis holster for pocket carry – I have one for my J-frames and also for my P3AT (and also for the Kahr PM9 I hope to get someday…)

    Another benefit of ankle carry is when the gun is being used as a back-up gun – it’s well-hidden, and if you find yourself needed a second gun, well, drawing it is really the least of your worries…

  4. divemedic says:

    Thanks, exactly what I was looking for. Here is my post about the recent purchase:

  5. George says:

    Your commentary is right on! I carry my 442 (electroless nickel) in a Kramer pocket holster, and have for 14 years. The one thing you didn’t mention was reloading. I carry at least 1 Bianchi Speed Strip,
    in my offhand pocket.

    • Will says:

      George, I see two of them in the photo. I cut off the grab strap on my Speed Strips, and just use an empty slot instead. All my snubbies are 5-shot, and making the Strip shorter really helps fit them in various pockets better than an unmodified one does. In fact, I’m considering just cutting off the empty slot, to make them smaller yet. The only pocket that having a grab point helps is the 5th (watch) pocket of jeans, and the ones I currently wear don’t even have it.
      I much prefer to carry the Safariland MKII speedloader as primary reload, and the Strips as backup ammo. No worries about the cartridges dumping in your pocket with that design, plus the really small nubbin of a knob helps with pocket carry. I just wish they could make it for the 5-shot .44spl guns. That HKS speedloader for the .44’s really sucks.

  6. Al Terego says:

    That is one comprehensive and knowledgeable reply to that reader’s request (although for my taste you coulda stopped after the belt and pocket blurbs).

    And as to reader requests, thanks ever so for the new header 🙂


  7. Travis Beck says:

    Not much to add to that essay, Marko! Ammunition performance with .38 Special 125-grain and lighter hollowpoints has been a problem, both with penetration and reliable expansion. The 158-grain +P lead semiwadcutter hollowpoint works well but at the cost of significant recoil in the lighter guns. Hornady and Cor-Bon now offer ammuntion that uses mechanical as opposed to hydrostatic force to expand the bullet. J-frames are difficult to shoot well and I cringe whenever a counter-commando suggests one as a first gun for a new shooter. Anyone who carries one needs to practice, practice, practice!

  8. Gladring says:

    Get a case of 38 130fmj for practice and shoot 15 or 20 rounds per trip to the range. That plus weekly dryfire will get you a good start with jframe.

    I strongly urge crimson trace grip, it really makes up for the short sight radius & makes dryfire more productive.

  9. The Other Jay says:

    While I understand the flyweights, I still love my Ruger SP101.

    Even after it’s empty, it’s still an excellent hand-to-hand weapon.

  10. A good, economical option for OWB carry is the Don Hume “JIT slide”, #3 for the J-frame. Rides high & tight; works great for my steel model 36.

    • Chris says:

      I second the JIT Slide suggestion. I used one for years till I picked up a nice holster from a local maker in NC. I still have the JIT “just in case”. 😀

  11. Kristopher says:

    Ankle carry is the second fastest position while driving, just behind lower thigh holsters.

    • Tam says:


      The proliferation of holsters on tac vests is entirely caused by the the difficulty of pulling a pistol out of a drop-thigh rig while seated in a Humvee.

      • aczarnowski says:

        difficulty of pulling a pistol out of a drop-thigh rig

        I think you could end the sentence right there. 😉

      • Kristopher says:

        Hadn’t considered attaching a holster to a tac vest.

        Good idea.

        I just can’t see wearing one in public. Although Gecko_45 might.

  12. john m says:

    Bob Mika makes outstanding pocket holsters.

    • DAL357 says:

      That he does. In fact, I’m carrying MY 642 in one of his creations right now. He’s gotten very popular over the last 2-3 years and it took about six weeks to get my last holster from him, whereas the first one I ordered about 4 years ago for my now-gone SP101 took only a couple of weeks to get. Mika’s holster is MUCH better than the DeSantis Nemesis it replaced.

  13. Homer says:

    One thing to bear in mind RE: the lightweight guns – proper cleaning technique. It is specifically recommended that brass or bronze brushes NOT be used to clean the cylinders on S&W Scandium or Airweight (titanium) revolvers. It seems there’s an applied coating on the chambers that contributes to the strength of the chambers and cylinder, and it can be removed with enough brass brush scrubbing. Stick with nylon and you’ll be fine.

    And, I’ve never seen a J-Frame that couldn’t benefit from a good action job and re-profiling the trigger (slight rounding and polishing of the forward face); the little revolvers are hard enough to shoot well that making the trigger better really helps.

    • Tam says:


      It is specifically recommended that brass or bronze brushes NOT be used to clean the cylinders on S&W Scandium or Airweight (titanium)…

      As a Smith stickler, I should point out that Airweight revolvers have steel cylinders, while AirLite revolvers have titanium ones. Abrasives are only contraindicated on the latter; you can scrub the former ’til your heart’s content.

  14. Atom Smasher says:

    Airweight .38 with shrouded hammer, pocket holster. I really like the combination, although I keep telling myself I need a shoulder rig for when I’m out on the bike. I started with +Ps but now I’m on simple JHPs.
    I also like the heavy trigger for safety reasons.

  15. Lyle says:

    “Criteria” is the plural of “criterion”. “Reliability is the most important criterion…”

  16. Al T. says:

    One other thing that revolvers gives the owner is a choice of grips. While new autochuckers are getting better, the ability to trade grips is, IMHO, a very good thing.

    • aczarnowski says:

      Once place where the SP101 falls down hard. There are very few grip options for the SP, mostly consisting of panel inserts for the stock grips.

      I wish a set of ivories existed for the SP like my brother lucked into for his stainless service six. That’s a beautiful pistol. Eventually I’ll solve this problem by trading the SP around on a Six.

  17. Anon R.D. says:

    I think one form of belt carry deserves separate discussion, as it may play more to the J’s strength: appendix carry (sometimes abbreviated AIWB). Short barrel of the J makes sitting more feasible/comfortable.

    I am actively searching for a good high-ride AIWB holster for my 442, preferably leather.

  18. Homer says:

    Thanks, Tam. I appreciate the correction. I won’t forget the difference.

  19. Trek says:

    I read this subject the other day and thought, “that’s one clean looking 642”. I quickly noticed that it was a pre-lock version, which I have as well, but something else still made me continue to look at the picture. I couldn’t figure out what it was. I went back later and still had the same thoughts. It wasn’t until I looked at my 642 to find the difference. It was the lack of the S&W trademark logo under the cylinder latch in your picture. I’m assuming it’s an older model since all the ones I see now have the logo but please confirm. It looks brand new. Nice!

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