Launched a half-century after Smith & Wesson introduced the .38 Special cartridge, the company’s J-frame-built Model 36 was originally called the “Chief’s Special.” That was in 1950. Proving that change is a gradual affair around Springfield, Massachusetts, some variants still use this moniker today (ah, heritage!).
Some argue that, back in the 50s, Smith and Wesson was distracted with the demand for service guns for police and military units and so neglected keeping up with Colt in the concealed carry handgun market. Colt’s Detective Special in .38 Special was a big hit and Smith and Wesson’s best answer, at the time, was their little I frame revolvers in .32 S&W Long and .38 Special rounds were just too powerful for these little guns. So Smith beefed up their I frame and came up with a revolver, only slightly larger, that could handle the harder-hitting .38 round to finally gave Colt meaningful competition in the CCW arena. The gun was unveiled at the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 1950 and the name, “Chief’s Special,” stuck. In 1957, Smith and Wesson’s new J-frame wheel gun was renamed the Model 36, but I’ll just stick with calling it the Chief’s Special for this review. The world of concealed handguns has not been the same since The Chief’s Special, and its many descendants and copies continue to be sold and carried today.
In 1948, S&W President C.R. Hellstrom realized his company was losing ground to the Detective Special. The only thing S&W had that even came close was its five-shot Terrier, which was built on a .32-cal. frame and fired the anemic .38 S&W, a cartridge that dated from 1877 and the days of the top-breaks. Hellstrom instructed his engineers to turn the Terrier into something that could handle the more potent .38 Spl.