Smith & Wesson revolvers are revered as some of the very finest in the world, and no other manufacturer’s wheelgun offerings come close to the sheer number of theirs that have served military and police units around the world, and defended the lives of citizens against attack.
Smith & Wesson’s long line of guns have had a profound impact on revolver design, and many of their innovations set high watermarks in performance that stand and are emulated to this very day.
One of their most loved and used revolver lineups in their catalog are the J-frames: compact, small frame revolvers, completely at home as dedicated concealed carry or backup guns for protection, icons in this class being the Model 36, the legendary Chief’s Special, the all-arounder 642 and the flyweight 342 made from advanced alloys.
The history of the J-frame revolvers could fill a volume in and of itself, but one of special note is the .22 caliber Model 63, better known as the kit gun.
This all-steel .22 is a favorite among fans of rimfire revolvers in particular, and .22 handgun fans in general, but this petite wheelgun is of special notice for preppers and other proponents of self-sufficiency due to its ideal combination of qualities.
In this article, we will be taking a look at this favorite S&W rimfire and I’ll be offering up my opinion on its suitability as a survival and self-defense gun.
Table of Contents
A Brief History of the Model 63 J-Frame
The Model 63, as mentioned above, is a small-frame revolver, what Smith & Wesson denotes as a J-frame.
Without going too far into the minutiae of S&W’s model codes and naming conventions, all Smith & Wesson revolver models fit into a size class based on the dimensions of the frame (not the caliber!) and were sorted, internally, by a single letter code.
In the case of our subject today and all other models with the same frame dimensions they were denoted by the letter ‘J’.
Other, larger revolvers would get different codes, common and popular ones being the quintessential K-frame, or medium frame revolvers to which such vaunted guns as the Model 10 and all its successors belong. Going a little larger you have the L-frame, which is a little longer and significantly stronger.
The 686 is a modern and popular .357 Magnum in this class. Even larger calibers are usually contained in the mighty N-frame class, ones like the Model 29 in .44 Magnum.
At the very top of the heap you have the behemoth X-frames, the sole occupants here being the models firing the humongous .460 and .500 Magnums.
For a long time previously these frame designators were only internal product codes at Smith & Wesson and were not used in any advertising or in commercial vernacular.
But as is often the case such internal company lingo has a way of making its way into the minds and lexicons of fans and enthusiasts and it did not take long for such descriptors to pop up in discussions at gun shops and shooting ranges, and today S&W uses them publicly in the same way that they used to in private company business.
The J-frame guns are notable for their typically small overall size and small grips, making them ideal guns for concealed carry, either as primary or backup guns, or in any other situation where space and weight allowance is at a premium.
First appearing in the S&W catalog in 1950 and replacing the earlier, smaller line of I-frames the initial offering in this class, the Model 36 Chief’s Special in .38 Special, was received with great fanfare and enthusiasm since it was so small and easy to carry, while maintaining all the hallmarks of S&W design and construction.
The popularity of small-frame revolvers was already well ingrained into the shooting populace and in S&W fans in particular, though it would be some years after the introduction of the J-frame line before we would see a J-frame .22 LR in the form of our Model 63 Kit Gun.
The “kit gun” concept was actually around for some time prior in the form of the I-frame Model of 1953, later dubbed the Model 34 after Smith & Wesson updated their naming conventions.
The Model of 1953/Pre-34 was a 6-shot .22 LR designed to ride in the pack and satchel of a fisherman, hunter, hiker or some other outdoorsman as an essential part of his equipment, or kit, though not necessarily as a primary firearm.
This intended use has lent the name “Kit Gun” to whole generations of revolvers and guns intended for similar purposes.
Later on in the late 1970’s, the Kit Gun concept was released in with full stainless, as opposed to carbon, steel production, and the Model 63 was born. Descendants include the Model 651 in .22 Magnum, and an ultralight alloy version, the Model 317.
No matter what new and improved versions are produced, it is the Model 63 which is often seen as the ideal melding of better characteristics: a good trigger, ample capacity, efficient sights and a just-right heft make the Model 63 extremely easy to shoot and no trouble to carry, even on extended forays.
In the next section, we’ll dive into the specifics of this cherished rimfire.
Model 63 Features
The Model 63 is instantly and unmistakably recognizable as a double-action Smith & Wesson. The trigger, exposed hammer, and sideplate arrangement are all standard S&W, as is the cylinder release and crane arrangement.
Construction is entirely of stainless steel, and in current production models grips are low-profile and shallowly grooved rubber.
A 3” barrel is the ideal length for a handgun of this type, and is crowned by an excellent fiber optic front sight, one that has the fiber rod shrouded by a transparent plastic cover to help secure and protect it from inclement weather and impact, a noticeable upgrade over other sights of this type. The rear sight is a standard adjustable blade.
Weighing approximately 24 ½ oz. empty and scarcely more than that loaded with eight shots of .22 LR, as far as all-stainless guns go the Model 63 is a cinch to carry concealed on your person or in a bag or pack. Stem to stern it measures just a scootch over 7”. This is not a gun that gobbles up real estate.
There are no surprises waiting for you with the Model 63 if you are used to operating any DA revolver. Pressing the cylinder release latch forward with the shooting thumb will allow the cylinder to rotate outboard to the left, where a brisk stroke on the ejector rod will send the little .22’s or their cases contained therein tumbling out.
Ejection is very positive since the Model 63’s ejector is long enough to completely extract empty cases or live rounds from the cylinder.
Reloading is accomplished via manual insertion of single rounds or with the loading device of your choice. Do take care to ensure any larger devices like speedloaders will clear the cylinder release latch and grips since, as with all J-frames, there is not much margin for extra bulk when trying to maneuver rounds into the chambers.
With that done, the cylinder is swung back into the frame and rotated until it locks positively at which point the gun is ready to fire upon pulling the trigger.
Single-action shots may be taken by manually cocking the hammer to the rear, a nice perk for a gun of this type since the greater precision usually achieved by this mode of fire is highly useful when hunting or firing from a rest.
As with all newer generation S&W’s, even ones in the “Classic” line as this one is, assume that these guns will feature the greatly despised and hated internal locking device.
While I never advocate for the deactivation of factory safety systems, the proclivity of these locks to self arm has led to considerable gnashing of teeth and a few near tragedies. You might consider a permanent solution to the matter after consultation with a gunsmith.
The Kit Gun for Preppers
A small, easy to carry and easy to stash handgun has many applications for preppers. In the case of our Kit Gun, this can make an ideal BOB gun, one kept packed at all times with a healthy supply of ammo in your pack waiting for you to grab it and go.
A Model 63 with 250 rounds of ammo will cost little in terms of weight or space compared to most other handguns available, and the ones that are lighter lack the exquisite shooting characteristics of this favorite.
While a .22 LR might not seem like the best choice for a defensive or SHTF-duty gun, you should not discount it out of hand just on account of its miniscule caliber.
No, the .22 is not the most lethal pistol cartridge to be had and it should be no one’s first choice if you know you are heading into a gun fight, or are in the business of gunfighting. But the .22, as a cartridge, brings with it a lot of perks as a survival gun. Considered as part of a system it makes great sense.
A .22 LR handgun as mentioned above allows one to carry drastically more ammo in the same space and weight allotment that you’d spend on anything larger, even a 9mm.
Since both are premium commodities in BOB’s and in other survival-centric gear stashes, this can afford you significantly more shots for the same weight and space. This is doubly important if you are moving on foot.
A .22 LR is not ideal for defense against humans, but is more than capable of inflicting lethal wounds in a defensive capacity and is a great way to force an attacker to consider something else besides what he is planning on doing to you.
The terrific shooting and handling characteristics of the .22 LR make quick and accurate shots very achievable, even in the stress of a fight, and plowing a handful of .22’s into a scumbag’s face or sternum will likely produce positive effect.
Many .22 LR revolvers, especially small frame revolvers, are notorious for heavy, stacky triggers. The Model 63’s trigger does not live up to the excellence of their larger offerings, but it is a good trigger and entirely manageable in DA mode for fast shooting on the defense.
The extremely well executed fiber optic sight is a great aid in this capacity, and S&W’s attention to detail regarding the placement and securing of the fiber rod means this is one FO sight that still allows a nice, crisp, distinct sight picture.
Its small size means it can be easily carried on the belt or in a pocket with not much trouble, and concealing it is a snap even when dressed lightly. The gun is not too heavy or so light that holding it on target through the heavy double-action trigger pull required is unduly difficult.
The Model 63 is famous for its superb balance and light and lively feeling in the hands. A naturally great shooting wheelgun if there ever was one.
The 63 is completely at home as a game-getting gun, and will easily claim small mammals, birds, and even larger game with an excellently placed shot to the cranium.
The ammo-insensitive nature of a revolver means that all sorts of optimized ammunition can be utilized, from snake-shot loads and quiet CB cap rounds to hopped-up hypervelocity hollowpoints.
Semi-autos, even the most reliable, cannot hope to match the level of reliability that a revolver offers when using specialty rounds. Single-action capability is a welcome addition here.
Whether hunting or shooting to live against an attacker, it is easy to see how a gun that is not terribly obnoxious when it comes to blast and report can be a boon when trying to stay off the radars of other people in the area, especially those of unknown intent when the rule of law has given way to the law of the jungle.
Rifles, and many handguns, sound like howitzers compared to a .22 and the sound of their firing will carry for a long, long way. In otherwise normal times, there is little disadvantage to being heard shooting. In a serious and indefinite term crisis, you may need to shoot and not attract undue attention. Something to consider.
The nature of a revolver combined with typical Smith & Wesson excellence in engineering means the Kit Gun is a low maintenance option that can be kept at the ready in a bag for a long time with no special care.
A small cleaning kit or oil bottle stowed with it will mean you can bring it up to full operability in short order. While no gun will tolerate utter neglect for long, revolvers are a little more forgiving than semi-autos in this regard.
The all-stainless steel nature of the Model 63 also affords you much leeway in bucking the elements. Exposure to water, dirt and grit will do little to corrode or foul this gun, and a wipe down with an oily rag is all that is needed to protect the gun from any exposure.
The Model 63 is an excellent gun for preppers if chosen as a specific problem solving or contingency gun, not necessarily for raw killing power, rate of fire, or any other “traditional” metrics one sometimes considers for the task.
A Model 63 and a brick of .22 ammo costs little in terms of weight and size, but will keep you shooting for quite some time, and is more than capable of taking game to supplement your calorie intake, or disabling or driving off would-be attackers who seek to prey on you or yours.
Considering too that it is insensitive to ammo and neglect, and capable of being used effectively by just about anyone with the strength to hold it up means that it will work well as a supplementary gun for someone else in your party who may need to be armed, though they may not have much in the way of experience or training.
I am an advocate of .22 handguns specifically for the role of dedicated bug-out bag guns since they furnish so much capability for so little weight and room that not outfitting your bag with one (even as a supplement to your daily carry piece) seems a mistake. No other gun and ammo combo can do what they can in the same envelope.
As a generalist survival tool, the Kit Gun fulfills the same role today that it always has in the past, that of an indispensable part of deep-country survival gear where there is no help coming and no second chances. In its weight class, the Model 63 provides nearly unbeatable performance and assurance.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.