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.