Monday, March 17, 2008
Sunday Smith #39: Model 646, 2003.
The sport of practical pistol (or "combat") shooting was formally organized under the International Practical Shooting Confederation in 1976 and grew rapidly in popularity; so much so that by the early 1990s it had become something of a victim of its own success. Some folks thought that it had lost its "tactical" roots and formed the International Defensive Pistol Association. Others felt that gamesmanship had triggered an equipment race that led to more complex and expensive pistols and tried to flatten the price curve with competitions that mandated classic single-stack 1911s or revolvers.
Of course, any competition involving equipment is going to provoke "improvements" in an attempt to gain an edge, and revolver competitions were no exception. Revolver shooters looked for ways to gain an edge and soon found one: Shaving fractions of a second during the reload. It didn't take long for Smith & Wesson's Model 625's to rule the roost, with the fast reloads made possible by their full moon clips, which held all six rounds and went into the gun along with the cartridges unlike a conventional revolver's speed loader.
In the late '90s the use of titanium was explored by S&W engineers, and someone figured out that the unique elastic properties of the metal would allow them to make an L-frame cylinder with six .40 caliber charge holes. The result was a medium-frame revolver that would be easier to handle than the full-size .45ACP Model 625, while still using cartridges that still met any "power threshold" demanded by various sanctioning bodies. Further, the stubby .40 S&W casings would be theoretically easier and quicker to load and eject than the long, skinny .357 Magnum rounds used by a standard L-frame 686.
Thus was born the Model 646 from the Performance Center; a space-age looking stainless steel revolver with a slab-sided heavy barrel and matte gray titanium cylinder. It was only produced for one year, and did not catch on quite as well as Smith had hoped. Unlike other moon clip revolvers such as the 610 and 625, the 646 generally wouldn't fire a cartridge without the clips. Dogged by persistent complaints of sticky extraction, ignition problems caused by varying rim thickness on factory .40 ammo, and a MSRP just shy of $850, it vanished without much comment after its short run.
In 2003, S&W had been bought by Saf-T-Hammer, purveyor of internal gun locks, and the frames and lockwork of their revolvers had been redesigned to accommodate a lock whose keyhole was just above the cylinder release. There were plenty of existing frames of the old style lying around, however, and some were used in a classic example of S&W parts bin engineering. By utilizing these remaining "no-lock" stainless L-frames, along with some L-frame titanium cylinders and 4" .40 caliber full-underlug barrels, Smith released some 300 new Model 646s into the wild. Easily distinguished from their Performance Center siblings by their rather more conventional underlug barrels, the non-PC 646's are also unusual in having a hammer that is clearly notched for the lock, but no provision for the locking mechanism on the frame. The guns shipped in locking aluminum cases, wore Hogue Bantam grips, and came with two thicknesses of full moon clips in order to compensate for varying rim thickness on factory ammo.
The Model 646 pictured above wearing a Hogue cocobolo monogrip was purchased new in 2003. Although the manufacturer's suggested retail was set at $575, street prices tended to run much lower, as the gun was marketed as a closeout from the get-go. Purchase price on the example in the photo was somewhere between $450 and $475, which was actually no more expensive than a regular Model 686 at the time. Today the gun would easily fetch back the original tariff and then some, provided it still had all its accoutrement. Especially the moon clips. Don't lose the moon clips.