Smith & Wesson Centennial .38 Special
By
SDH


I had wanted a Centennial ever since I fell in love with Safety Hammerless revolvers back in the 1980s. To quote the factory letter: “We have researched your Smith & Wesson .38 Centennial Pre-Model 40, caliber .38 Special, in company records which indicate that your handgun, with serial number 171, was shipped from our factory on July 17, 1953, and delivered to Union Hardware Co., Los Angeles, CA. the records indicate that this handgun was shipped with a 2 inch barrel, blue finish, smooth walnut high horn grips.”
On CAtalog 2- copy


Right Side+-
The first of the Centennial Models were alloy frames beginning in November 1952, with steel frame revolvers beginning a month later. Centennial revolvers were assigned their own serial numbers started at 104 and continuing to 30160 when the L prefix serial numbers began. In 1957 Smith and Wesson began Model numbers and the Centennial was called the Model 40 with steel frame and Model 42 with alloy frame.
Serial number-
The Centennial has some unique features not found on any other modern S&W revolver including the true hammerless design. It also incorporates the first grip safety since the Safety hammerless models completely discontinued in the late 1940s. Although difficult to see, on the upper outside of the grip safety is a small white dot that can only be seen when the safety is not depressed.
Safety Spot Close-up-
Arrow points to safety white spot.
Safety Depressed closeup-
When safety is depressed, the white spot is concealed.

The factory included a tiny pin, hidden underneath the grips so the safety could be disabled by inserting the pin and locking it. The pins are often lost.
Grip Off pin out, close up-
The safety lock pin shown next to the hole in the frame (below the mainspring seat) where it is stashed from the factory.

Grip Off pin locked close up-
A pin punch points at the safety locking pin shown in place to lock the safety.

Sideplate Off 2-
While called a hammerless, the revolver has a concealed hammer that cannot be cocked or accessed in any way from the outside. Because of this concealed hammer and grip safety, the Centennial is the only modern S&W revolver without a hammer block safety. I assume partially because of the lack of a friction causing hammer block, the “double action only” Centennial has the smoothest double action pull of any revolver I own. It is quite possible to squeeze the trigger and stop with the tip of the trigger finger against the guard, then fire in almost a single action mode. The target below was fired on Christmas Day 2010, at ten paces, with five shot rapid fire and five shots in slow deliberate double action mode. The revolver proved quite accurate with wadcutter ammo.
In my experience, J frame revolves tend to shoot a bit low unless equipped with a T-Tyler grip filler. At this range it really doesn’t matter and I would rather stick to the minimalist theme of the Centennial.
Centennial Target -

The Centennial grips are know as “high-horn” grips because they are enlarged at the top and cover more of the frame. As noted in the factory letter, they came in smooth walnut and are thinner besides taller than normal J frame grips. They have a very small blued washer on the back and silver medallions. They are the only correct grips for this model and only fit correctly on this model.


Four J Grips-
The four grips shown are all early J-frames and include, clockwise from bottom right: Centennial high-horn (1953) un-checkered; early (1965) M-49 Steel frame Bodyguard with checkered round butt, semi high-horn grips: early (1955) Chief Special 3”, Baby-frame, checkered round butt; and early (1955) Chief special 2” checkered square butt. Note the space between the checkering and the lower border, this gives a visual clue to frame size and era.