AN ULTIMATE J-FRAME

Gemini Customs Raises The Bar
45

I was at Gunsite with the crew from S&W not long ago for a specific reason — to explore capabilities of S&W’s small J-frame revolvers. We had over 25 variants, virtually all shapes and sizes, from short barrels to their longest, but all built on the J-frame chassis. Our goal was to simply find out the dynamic range of these classic, handy guns. What we learned stunned some of us, wasn’t surprising to many — but the experience left lasting impressions on us all.

We came away knowing that a steady hand with a J-frame,regardless of barrel length, can hit a man-sized target at 100 yards, can defend themselves if needed and can rely on these little guns to deliver when called upon. The specifics of what we learned will be covered in a later article, but some points need to be explained.

The little Smiths are interesting in that most handgunners own one, or something like them, but don’t like to actually admit it’s more than likely their daily carry gun. I asked for the attendees to show, with a raise of their hands, if they had a J-frame in their pocket somewhere right then. The majority of those in attendance (mostly cops and gun-industry people) admitted they had one tucked away. From ankle rigs to pocket holsters to “bags” of all sorts, there was a passel of .38s in the room.

Then I asked the important question: “And when was the last time you shot it?” There was silence, dead silence. Some even admitted they shot theirs a cylinder-full or two when they bought it and hadn’t fired it since — I won’t name any names. But before you judge here, honestly, when was the last time you fired yours, much less actually trained with it? See.

So we learned we needed to train with them more. We also learned the tiny 2″ (more like 17/8″) barrel can be challenging at times. They are, admittedly hard to hold steady, hard to hit with and sort of “fumbly” as one fellow said. They are plenty accurate, and most would easily keep head shots at 25 if you took your time, but that short sight radius works against you unless you are steely-nerved when it comes to trigger control. The idea then? Go to a 2.25″ or even 3″ barrel, keeping the round butt in place.

No sharp edges — anywhere.

It Works

So we did — and it worked. The 3″ guns were markedly easier to hit with and one 2.5″ version on-hand was about as good. But, I found the 3″ guns a bit “un-handy” in a pocket holster or ankle rig. I had to keep that in mind later. This led me on a quest for an “ultimate” J-frame. Nothing can be “the ultimate,” but I would be happy to settle for something somewhere in the “ultimate” category at least. I’d want it accurate, reliable, easy to conceal, easy to train with, a “real” fighting gun — as opposed to something simply easy to carry. As Clint Smith says, “a handgun should be comforting, not necessarily comfortable.”

Which led me to the American Pistolsmith’s Guild, that august group of talented pistolsmiths, and to select members therein. When the dust settled, Marc Morganti, owner, operator and sole-pistolsmith at his shop Gemini Customs, took on the task to build this gun, with other Guild members lending able hands. But it gets easier, because, you see, Marc was way ahead of me it seems. He already knew what needed to be done — and was already doing it on J-frames.

A few goodies help to make loading and unloading the clips easier — “mooning” and “de-mooning” as they say.

The Raw Goods

Since this gun was going to get shot lots, we started with a S&W Model 640, the all-steel, hammerless model. Then the magic really started. Marc agreed we wanted to end up with a smooth, reliable premium revolver, a carry piece, but something you would be proud to own. And the funny thing is if something looks like it works, it generally does. And Marc’s stuff looks like it works. I pointed him in that direction and said, “go please?”

The barrel had to be a bit longer for sure, and Marc had that answer already. He used a custom barrel blank produced by William Jarvis, of Jarvis, Inc., and CNC-machined to spec and to profile by Jack Weigand of Weigand Combat Handguns. Nothing like getting the best.
Then Marc went to work. He custom-machined it, including Hybraport Porting in a V-8 configuration, keeping the barrel at the “stock” length, or a bit longer. A longer barrel allows that better handling, and also allows the ports to have the leverage to do their job better. Marc de-horned, fine-tuned it and eventually fitted it to the action.

As Marc said to me, “This is lots more work to do it this way, but if you want a top-notch, premium result, you have to take the time and use quality parts to get that finished product meeting your expectations.” And he’s right. That 640 was beginning to become something special, and my mind’s eye started to see something in steel — always a delight.

Being “born” in Marc’s shop.

The Touches

Marc worked the DA into agreement and left me with a sound, reliable trigger pull, but not something too light or iffy. Many people equate “light” with “good” in an action. In reality, a genuinely smooth trigger can be several pounds more than a light one, and not only be more reliable, but feel better and offer some authority and controllability to it when pulled.

The barrel ended-up at about 2.25″ and I found it to be a good compromise. While giving up some of the shootability of a 3″ or 2.5″ version, the all-steel build, slightly longer length and porting changed the dynamics of the handling and it felt like it was a bigger gun. Which, later on, proved the case at the range (or in my back “yard” now-days).

The barrel didn’t allow for the S&W style forward cylinder-locking plunger so Marc did some Gemini-Magic. He machined for, and installed, a single crane-locking ball set-up. It’s precisely as you might see on K, L and N-frames but scaled down beautifully to fit this smaller gun. It works slick, locks up tight and unlike some I’ve felt, is not “grabby” when you unlock the cylinder to open it. Well done, if you ask me.

Marc also used a slightly longer ejector rod to help clear that beastly .357 Magnum-length trash out of the cylinder. That was one of our complaints about standard-length J-frame ejectors while at Gunsite — they often didn’t punch the empty .38s clear, much less the longer .357s.

The moon-clip conversion was by choice, as I’ve always thought they were the fastest way to load and unload a revolver — and in Marc’s version, the rule still applies. The beauty of using rimmed cartridges (unlike .45 ACP revolvers), is the fact you can use standard ammo flawlessly too. So, you can opt for moonclips, or not. Since the gun ejects so well, I’ve taken to carrying it loaded with loose rounds, with a clip of five as a reload. If you load and unload loaded clips often you can risk tweaking or bending them, especially the smaller, more fragile ones on the J-frame. By the way, the clips we used are crafted by Tom Kilhoffer at TK Customs, and he seems to understand the beasts.

And yet another reason for the clip conversion is the lovely belt holder Matt DelFatti crafted to match his holster. Reminding me of a single “speedloader” pouch from the old days, his has a central rubberized post that nestles the loaded clip, holding it neatly, but allowing it to go free with a tug of your fingers. Very clever, Mr. DelFatti. The holster is classic for the genre, and goes with the theme of the package: simple is always best.

Marc did his soft bead blast and a Cobrachrome hard chrome from Virgil Tripp at Tripp Research, Inc. on the 640, which only adds to the subtly appealing package if you ask me. Oh, and it won’t rust — or anything — pretty much forever now. And that’s a good thing for something bound to be sweated-upon, shot lots, carried about, tossed in the box on the ATV and generally knocked about.

The porting helped tame muzzle flip. Here is the “before” and “after” of
the shot using a full-bore 158-gr. .357 Magnum load and one hand.
Very controllable. Photo: Roy Huntington

Photo: Roy Huntington

Matt DelFatti’s moon-clip holder is elegant simplicity and works great.

Does It Work?

In a word: Yes. Having carried a Scanium J-frame for years, the weight of the Gemini Customs gun took getting used to. It mostly rides in a Renegade ankle holster or a pocket holster, but Matt’s sterling leather gets a workout when I “go to town” as it were. I found after a short time, the extra weight isn’t noticed, and when I pick-up my Scandium gun, it feels toy-like now.

I think if you’re just going to buy one and stick it in your pocket and won’t practice or shoot it much, it doesn’t matter which you buy, so the light gun means you’ll at least carry it.

If it’s your second gun, chances are you’re a shooter since you’re smart enough to have a second gun, so lightweight is important. You’re probably spending time shooting your all-steel J-frame anyway. A double standard, yes, but true nonetheless. You know who you are in this.

The sights were a struggle, but simple won over. A black, serrated dove-tailed front means I can change ’em if I want. The rugged fixed rear and front combo seems to shoot up to the gun’s ability (look at the target) so what more could you ask for? I called upon another magician, that grip-maker extraordinaire, Esmeralda, of Grips by Esmeralda, for some handsome Cocobolo “boot” type grips and they are both lovely and functional. I put the genuine white plastic ones back on for some shooting and a few pics since I didn’t want to knock Esmeralda’s around, but they are back on the gun as we speak.

I was honestly hesitant about the ports. I think you don’t need them, but they can be nice — and they can be nasty — so you have to keep your wits about you. They certainly keep the muzzle flip down when using hot loads — and just as certainly produce “port-blast” which could, in some cases, get in your face, as it were. Shooting .357 Magnums in this gun is something you can actually do, unlike most non-ported J-frames. Being steel makes a big difference too. A .357 in a Scandium gun equals curse words, stinging hands and “hell, I won’t do that again” comments. But still, a shot from close to your body, where the blast from the ports may strike your face might confuse an already confusing situation. Keep that in mind when you train.

Having said that, I don’t carry .357 loads in this gun. There’s simply no need to with today’s high-performance ammunition. With a good quality +P 125- to 158-grain load, it offers all the protection you can get from a package this small. And the combination of porting and weight makes it a real fighting pistol. The port-blast is tamed somewhat too. The 640 is fast, sure, easy to shoot and control and very, very accurate.

It feels like a real gun, not a plastic toy, and that translates into confidence, the ability to hit the target and a reload that is within the realm of possibility — and reality. A fumbly reload with a speed strip is something you should only imagine you can do, rather than think you actually can. Try it.

DelFatti’s elegant holster went hand-in-hand with Marc’s work and
Esmeralda’s incomparable grips.

Here it is, an honest 1" at 15 yards with Federal’s 129-grain Hydra-Shok .38 Special +P. And, it shot like this with most ammo.

An Ultimate?

Did we accomplish a goal here? I think so. An ultimate version of an idea is certainly here in wood and steel. It performs as advertised, I do rely on it to protect my skin and I do recommend it to others. If it was lacking in one of the triad of my points there, you wouldn’t be reading about it now. Honest.

For more info:
www.geminicustoms.com
www.delfatti.com

Subscribe To American Handgunner

Get More Revolver Content Every Week!

Sign up for the Wheelgun Wednesday newsletter here: