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Old July 9, 2014, 02:52 AM   #1
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Difference between frames?

So I frequently see different models of revolvers denoted and categorized by their frame type. I never did quite understand how to distinguish each from each other. Just looking at them from a glance, most look extremely similar to me.

Among the numerous different types, what would you Revolver junkies say makes each frame stand out from each other?
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Old July 9, 2014, 06:57 AM   #2
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Smith and Wesson and Colt revolvers designate their frame sizes with letters. I don't know much about Colt, but I can tell you about Smith and Wesson frames. From smallest to biggest:

I/M- itty bitty frames, not in production anymore, most chambered in 32 S&W Long or similar.
J- Examples include the Model 36, 642, etc. Smallest S&W in current production, commonly chambered in 38 special, with some chambered in 357.
K- Examples include the Models 10, 19, 66, etc. Mid size revolver, often used as a duty weapon back in the revolver hay day. Typically chambered in 38 special or 357
L- Examples include the Models 586, 686. Mostly modern revolvers chambered in 357, with variations in autopistol calibers as well.
N- Examples include the Models 28, 29. Also used as duty revolvers, and typically chambered in 41 mag, 44 mag, or 45 ACP. These have a long history, and include some of the oldest cartridge revolvers.
X- Models 460 and 500-
Z- Governor
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Originally Posted by 45Gunner View Post
JimmyR nailed it.
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Old July 9, 2014, 10:00 AM   #3
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JimmyR seems to have S&W down

I can't add much. The primary difference is size and strength.
The K frames are a perfect size for .38/.357 calipers, but it has been found that steady diets of magnum loads caused premature wear on the guns. To address this issue the L frame was introduced.
I've never handled an X frame so I don't know what Smith has done(other than size and weight) to accommodate those chamberings.

Last edited by Colt46; July 9, 2014 at 05:02 PM.
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Old July 9, 2014, 01:42 PM   #4
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It's not always easy to pick out a K, L or N frame in the S&W line of revolvers...

The N frame is quite a bit bigger....and if you see 3 or 4 revolvers side by side, its pretty easy to see which one is the N frame...

On a lot of the L frames..../ but not all / they will have a full length lug under the barrel....( so if you see that...--- its often an L frame if it looks like its a medium sized gun ).../ but the 625 and 629 series of guns ( N frame ) have full length lugs too...
Best thing....make up a note card and put it in your wallet....( S&W now )

Blue and Nickel K frames ( models 10, 17, 18, 19 )
Stainless K frames ( models 617, 64,65, 66, ...)
( model 66 and 19 are basically the same gun in .357 Mag....) one is Nickel or blued ( mod 19) ...and model 66 is over time, you develop that knowledge...

Blue and Nickel L frames..( mod 581, 586...)
Stainless L frames...( mod 681, 686 ...)

Blue and Nickel N frames ( mod 25, 27, 28, 29)
Stainless N frames ( 624, 625, 627, 629..)
maybe make some notes on caliber....
.22 ....mod 17,18, 617....
.357 Mag...mod 19, 27, 28, 66, 686....
.44 Mag....mod 29, 629...

(and note the 6's all denote stainless models...).
The S&W standard catalog book ( 3rd rev ) has about 230 pages on revolvers...and tons of great general info if you get into S&W revolvers, consider buying a copy of the book...its really interesting / and valuable to learn from.
Probably pick one or two calibers....and focus your knowledge on just those for awhile....
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Old July 9, 2014, 01:54 PM   #5
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"Just looking at them from a glance, most look extremely similar to me."

Most companies keep the same basic look for all their sizes and models, just like car companies do. It tends to keep satisfied customers in "the family" and reduces the time and effort to work out new designs or make changes to the older ones.

And of course there is function. There are really only so many ways to make a revolver or an auto pistol so, again like cars, guns of one type all tend to look alike, regardless of maker. IMHO, revolvers by different makers tend to look less alike than do auto pistols, which now seem to be all black "plastic", and hard to tell one from another at any distance.

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Old July 9, 2014, 02:05 PM   #6
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It's tough to add to what's been said about Smith & Wesson frame sizes... But that won't stop me from trying!

I agree that learning the frames is somewhat difficult at first, but after a while, it grows on you and you absorb quite a bit. The perspective I'll share has been more about my journey through the frames mixed heavily with opinion.

My first S&W was a K-frame. More K-frames have been made than any other single handgun model in human history. The legendary Model 10 is the classic K-frame and this frame size has remained the same since the very early 1900's. (before?) There is a reason this particular gun has become so popular and legendary. You can hold and shoot J, K, L, N and X-frame Smith & Wesson revolvers... but on average, the K-frame is what's going to feel "right." It seems to be the perfect blend of everything. I'm sure there are some folks who'll say that they don't like a K-frame or it does nothing for them... but that's sacrilege!

The L-frame was released in 1980 to respond to the beatings that light bullet .357 Magnum ammo had been subjecting to the classic K-frame. The difference in reach and feel of the L-frame is not at all much from the K-frame, and S&W even thought enough to make the new frame accept the same K-frame grip. By far, the biggest difference between K & L, to me, is the weight and balance. Most L-frame guns have a full barrel underlug and it makes for a much heavier revolver and more weight hanging out in front. While I do love my 686 (L-frame), it's a 6-inch and that huge slab of barrel feels muzzle heavy, especially when you go past 100 rounds of shooting in one short session.

The N-frame is S&W's large frame. Before/around the year 2000 when the monster magnum .500 S&W Mag (and later the .460 Mag) came out, the N-frame was the largest S&W you could get. Originally the frame size for the .44 Specials of the day, the N-frame was home to the .38-44, the first ever .357 Magnum guns and later, the .44 and then .41 Magnum revolvers. These are big, beefy guns with a longer reach, more comfortable in a larger hand. It's my own personal experience that the N-frame .357 Magnum guns simply handle recoil better (FAR better!) than all the other frame sizes. But there's no getting around it -- the guns are LARGE.

Of course, the X-frame guns (.460, .500 Mag) are odd devices that are unlike almost anything mainstream, and at no point will they ever feel "normal" in your hands, but they are specialty pieces for a distinct purpose. It's worth noting, however, that when S&W engineered them, they definitely took to heart what it was going to mean to handle the massive amount of recoil energy they would produce. To that end, they knew they had to design dimensions and a grip that would be most conducive to "comfortable" shooting. And it might be surprising that they elected to go with... the K-frame size grip! Now I've shot a decent pile of ammo from both .460s and .500's and it is quite an experience and beyond all the fireworks and horsepower, I am constantly amazed at just how well they engineered these beasts to be shooter-friendly. And that says a lot to me about the K-frame grip size.

Though I'm jumping around in frame size... the one I haven't addressed is the little J-frame. This is the little guy they use for snubbie revolvers. It's the smallest, I find it far too small and compact, I don't like it, I don't own any, I only ever owned one and I don't care to own any more. Great for concealment, not great for shooting. (in my opinion, of course) Also, the internal geometry is such that double-action trigger pulls just don't seem to have the trigger leverage I've come to expect from a S&W, and that adds to their extreme difficulty in shooting well.
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Old July 9, 2014, 02:36 PM   #7
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What? Y'all ignore Ruger Single Actions?

The first designation I learned was from my instruction manual/parts list that came with my first Ruger Blackhawk, ca.1958.

The Single Six was a .22 r.f. and the frame was designated R. Next up was the .357 Blackhawk designated MR, and the .44 Magnum designated MR-44. With the coming of the New Models, the MR frame was dropped and all centerfire made on the large frame. Then came the Fifty Anniversary models some of which were on the MR sized frame.

Somewhere along the way, I gave up.

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Old July 10, 2014, 01:40 AM   #8
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On S&W's the most distinguishable item is the cylinder. Look closely and you will be able to identify the frame designation by the cylinder size....

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Old July 10, 2014, 06:17 AM   #9
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One note about the S&W M frame, the original LadySmith revolvers...

They were only ever chambered in .22 Long (NOT Long Rifle), and were primarily intended for use with black powder ammunition.

Unfortunately, many have been damaged beyond repair over the years by shooting them with modern Long Rifle ammunition.

A good condition M frame can easily bring four figures, while a pristine target version with the correct box can push five figures.
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Old July 10, 2014, 11:25 AM   #10
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To muddy the waters a little, the 617 is built on a K frame but will actually weigh a little more than the L framed 686 (I found this out on the S&W forum). I use my 617 as a cheap target practicer for my N framed 629. With the full underlug barrel and larger grips, it handles very much like the 629 (less the nasty recoil and muzzle blast of course).
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Old July 10, 2014, 11:41 AM   #11
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Originally Posted by JimmyR
I/M- itty bitty frames, not in production anymore, most chambered in 32 S&W Long or similar.
J- Examples include the Model 36, 642, etc. Smallest S&W in current production, commonly chambered in 38 special, with some chambered in 357.
This really isn't quite comprehensive, so I feel obligated to fill in the blanks, since I tend to do that.

The M frame was only used for the .22 Hand Ejector aka Ladysmith, a truly diminutive revolver that is closer in size to today's NAA mini-revolvers than any currently produced Smith. The .22HE was offered only in a .22 Long (NOT Long Rifle!) 7-shot configuration and was only produced in the early 20th century.

The I frame is comparable in size to the current J frame. It exists in 3 major variations.

The first I frame variation was used solely for the .32 Hand Ejector 1st Model, produced in .32 S&W Long only from 1896 to 1902. This type has no front ejector rod alignment lug, the cylinder is opened by pulling the ejector rod forward, and the cylinder stop is located at the rear of the topstrap; the latter two features are unique to this model only. A leaf mainspring was used.

The second I frame variation added the familiar front ejector rod alignment lug and push-forward cylinder release latch, the cylinder stop was moved above the trigger guard, and most frame and cylinder dimensions were changed. The leaf mainspring was retained. This version was produced from 1903 to 1952 and was used for compact revolvers chambered in .22LR, .32 Long, and .38 S&W (but NOT .38 Special; that was the J frame).

The third I frame is widely known as the "Improved I" frame. This version was slightly enlarged in several dimensions, notably by lengthening the grip by 1/4" and enlarging the trigger guard. The leaf mainspring was replaced with a coil mainspring. The Improved I was produced from 1953 until 1960-1962, during which time all Improved I frame models were gradually replaced with an equivalent J frame model.

The J frame was originally introduced because the I frame's cylinder window was too short end-to-end to fit a .38 Special cylinder. The J frame also exists in 3 major variations.

The early version used from 1950 to 1952 had a smaller trigger guard and 1/4"-shorter grip frame- the same dimensions used for the original I frame, although the J frame has always used a coil mainspring, whereas the early I frame used a leaf mainspring like the larger frames did (and still do). The early J frame was only used for the spur-hammer Chief's Special (aka pre-Model 36), and collectors refer to this variant as the "Baby Chief" or "short-grip Chief".

In 1953, S&W enlarged the trigger guard and lengthened the grip frame, to correspond with similar dimensional changes that created the Improved I frame. This version of the J frame was subsequently used for the concealed-hammer "Centennial" and shrouded-hammer "Bodyguard" (NOT to be confused with the current polymer-frame all-caps "BODYGUARD 38") variants, along with the aforementioned I frame replacements.

In 1996, S&W introduced the J Magnum frame, which was lengthened yet again to allow a .357 Magnum cylinder to fit. S&W simultaneously introduced (the dreaded) MIM lockwork with a flat-faced hammer and full-floating firing pin on centerfire models. (This style of hammer and firing pin was actually used on all rimfire Smiths produced from mid-1935 onward, but the previous mechanism was slightly different.) The frame size was changed simultaneously across the entire J frame line.

Every I/J chambering has been offered in the larger K frame at some point, which causes confusion among S&W n00bs, although the I/J .38 S&W and .38 Special guns can be easily differentiated because the compact frame dimensions limit capacity to 5 shots, whereas all .38-caliber K's are 6-shot. (FWIW a 7-shot .32 S&W Long K frame was designed but never produced, and later .22LR K's are 10-shot; likewise, recent J frames are 8-shot in .22LR and 7-shot in .22WMR.)

The current polymer-frame BODYGUARD 38 (spelled in all caps in S&W literature) is similar in size to the J frame, but is substantially different in numerous respects, notably the absence of a front ejector rod alignment lug and the use of a polymer frame, a unique top-mounted cylinder release, and a totally new cylinder advance and lockup mechanism that does away with the external cylinder stop altogether. S&W has sometimes lumped this model together with the J frames in their catalog, presumably due to its size, but it's really a totally different design.
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Last edited by carguychris; July 10, 2014 at 11:55 AM. Reason: info added
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Old July 10, 2014, 11:45 AM   #12
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I for somehow reason had this on a flash-drive so I hope it is accurate.


P frame Single Action Army (cowboy gun)
G, K, and Q various models of the .22 LR in SAA style
F frame Blackpowder guns (this is a strange one, they call all of the guns an F frame even though there are some rather noticeable size differences)
D Frame Detective Special
E Frame Officer's Model Match, Official Police and Trooper (original version)
I Frame Python
J Frame Official Police Mk III, Trooper Mk III and V, King Cobra, various variants of these

O Frame 1911 pattern Colt Automatic

FWIW, Only I have one Colt, and that being a D frame, 1st gen, 1928/29 Colt DS.

Guilty of being as S&W person...
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Old July 10, 2014, 01:30 PM   #13
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.O Frame 1911 pattern Colt Automatic
Not to derail, but the Vest Pocket .25 was the N frame, and the "hammerless" Pocket .32 and .380 were M frame.

The Colt New Service, Shooting Master, M1909 and M1917 were built on Colt's largest frame, which didn't get a letter designation.
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Old July 10, 2014, 03:52 PM   #14
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When I first got interested in guns, the Colts were referred to as ".45 Frame" or ".41 Frame", don't recall what the smallest (D frame?) was called.

And Smiths were designated as frame size and bore diameter. The .44 Special was known as the "N-430" and for the target sighted one, "N-430-T". Model numbers were never advertised, only the model's name, such as "Model 1950 Military" or "Model 1950 Army" snd the "K-38 Masterpiece". Only in fairly recent (to me) times have they been the Model 10, etc.

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Old July 10, 2014, 10:33 PM   #15
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It would be nice if all manufacturers used the same size standards or photographed their guns along side something we all know the size of. I don't know that you could use a dollar bill, but you could use something the same size as a dollar bill.
As it is now, you just about have to see a gun in person to know it's size. As an example what size frame is a Taurus 405? Maybe it is a J+. Hard to say.
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Old July 11, 2014, 02:25 PM   #16
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You can generally make a pretty good determination of size, based on the bore size and capacity.
A six-shot .44 or .45 is going be a large gun, as large as the S&W N frame.
A five-shot .38 is going to have to be pretty small, like the Colt D or Smith J.
There are combinations of large frame and not-so-large bore, like Smith's N-frame .357s, but most revolvers are scaled to the size of the bore and capacity.
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