SMITH & WESSON MODEL 36 CHIEF’S SPECIAL - 50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)

50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)


The Model 60 is the stainless steel version of the Model 36 and makes a perfect personal-defense or backup revolver.

Aside from Nancy Reagan’s memorable description of the “cute little gun” President Reagan had given her for protection, few people refer to handguns as “cute.” Yet “cute” is exactly the descriptive adjective that comes to mind, when viewing the Smith & Wesson Model 36 (although this was probably not the specific handgun to which the former First Lady was referring).

With its stubby 178-inch barrel, compact five-shot cylinder, and rounded butt, this little pocket pistol tips the scales right around 20 ounces. Even so, I doubt the tens of thousands of law enforcement officers and civilians who have packed this diminutive but rugged revolver would call it “cute.” Certainly not Jack Webb, who, as Sergeant Joe Friday, flashed his Chief’s Special with authority on the old Dragnet television series. Or Gene Hackman, as Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, who swapped his Colt Detective Special in the French Connection for an S&W Model 36 in the French Connection II sequel. In real life, this little Smith & Wesson is a lawman’s handgun, and rightfully so, for it was named by a room full of police chiefs.

In 1948, Smith & Wesson president C.R. Hellstrom realized there was a need for a snub-nosed revolver, similar in size to S&W’s Terrier, but revamped to handle the more powerful .38 Special. The Terrier was built on a .32-caliber frame, but was chambered for the .38 S&W cartridge, a short-range, relatively anemic round that originated with S&W’s top-breaks, in 1877. The new revolver Hellstrom envisioned would have to retain the Terrier’s compactness, but be able to handle the more popular .38 Special, a favorite with lawmen of that era. In fact, it was the rival Colt Detective Special, specifically in its .38 Special chambering, that was the impetus for Hellstrom’s new revolver.

Smith & Wesson’s engineers went to work, using the Terrier as a jumping-off point, but beefing up the gun by lengthening and strengthening the cylinder and frame (thus making it a true .38 in size), while still retaining the smaller cylinder’s five-shot capacity. In addition, the Terrier’s flat mainspring was replaced with a sturdier coil spring. As the Terrier was built on the slightly smaller “I” frame, this newer revolver became the first of the “J” frame series and carried its own set of serial numbers. But, as part of a very clever marketing plan, the gun was not given a name designation.

Having created the new .38 Special to appeal to off-duty policemen and plainclothes detectives, it was decided to let the decision makers among these potential purchasers select a name. The first gun, completed on October 24, 1950, was unveiled that same month at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. There, Smith & Wesson invited the assembled chiefs of police to suggest a name for the new revolver. Perhaps inspired by the already well-established Colt Detective Special, the overriding choice from the attendees was to call it the Chief’s Special.

The guns were blued with case hardened hammer and trigger, or nickeled, and came with rounded, two-piece checkered walnut grips. The front sight was a fixed, no-snag serrated ramp that extended the length of the barrel, while the rear sight was simply a groove milled into the topstrap. After all, this was a close-range weapon meant for fast offensive or defensive shooting. Nonetheless, due to numerous requests, by the end of the first year, the factory was also producing a version with a three-inch barrel.

There were enough complaints from those with beefier hands, as a slightly less concealable square-butt version was introduced in 1952, starting with serial No. 21,342. In 1957 Smith & Wesson switched to a numerical system of identification, and the Chief’s Special became the Model 36, starting with serial No. 125,000.

Numerous minor external and internal changes have been made to the Chief’s Special over the years, including the elimination of the front trigger guard screw in 1953, and changing the cylinder-unlocking thumbpiece from a flat to a more contoured style in 1966. But perhaps the most dramatic change occurred, in 1965, when a stainless steel version of the Model 36 was introduced, thus becoming the world’s first stainless revolver. To differentiate it, the stainless gun became the Model 60.

Another notable variation of the Model 36 was a heavy-barreled three-inch version, available in 1967. And, beginning in 1955, there were limited runs of two- and three-inch barreled guns with adjustable target sights. (To make things confusing, from 1965 through 1975, these rarities, of which approximately 1,740 were made, were listed as the Model 50.) Other versions include the .38 Chief’s Special Airweight with an aluminum alloy cylinder and frame (do not shoot these guns without having them factory-checked for safety beforehand), and the highly popular stainless steel Lady Smith. Other offshoots of the basic Model 36 include the shrouded-hammer Model 49 Bodyguard and the hammerless Model 40 Centennial, with its squeeze-to-fire grip safety.

Years ago, I purchased a blued Model 36 for my wife. It easily fit her hand and, after some extended time at the range shooting Glaser self-defense loads and standard factory ammo (+P ammo should be avoided with these snubbies), she became uncannily proficient with it. In the meantime, I had fallen under the spell of that “cute little gun,” so I went out and bought a Model 60 for myself.

The Model 60 and its variations have remained in the line, and though the original Model 36 was discontinued in 1999, it was brought back in 2008, as part of Smith & Wesson’s Classic Series. It was a fitting return for a snub-nosed .38 that had won the praise of law enforcement veterans from its very first day on the job and, as such, deserves to be on my bucket list.

The Model 36 owes its small size, in part, to the fact that it chambers only five rounds.

The rear sight is rudimentary and is all that is needed on a close-range self-defense gun, such as the Model 36.