April 14, 2020
By Brad Fitzpatrick
The first handgun I ever fired was a Smith & Wesson K-22 Masterpiece, an unblemished walnut and blued steel beauty that resided in a Hoppe’s-scented box on a top shelf in my father’s closet. That gun set the bar pretty high for a kid who had never fired anything more potent than a water pistol, and I still remember the heft of it in my hand and the sleek, precise movement when I cocked the hammer.
Though that particular gun was 40 years old when I first fired it, the K-22 Masterpiece was hardly the first of the Smith & Wesson hand-ejector K frames, which date back to 1899. Those early Smith & Wesson double-action revolvers were known for their robust build quality and outstanding accuracy, and in the early 20th century, the K frame was the premier target pistol in the world.
Much has changed on the handgun landscape since those early K frames were breaking accuracy records, but Smith & Wesson is still making K-frame guns. One of its newest additions is the reintroduced Model 648, a stainless steel revolver with a full underlug and a cylinder that holds eight rounds of .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire ammo.
The Model 648 traces its lineage back to the original Model 48 that debuted in the late 1950s, and it was one of the first wheelguns capable of firing the then-new .22 WMR. The Model 48 enjoyed a long production life, with a number of minor tweaks and upgrades along the way, but in 1989 Smith & Wesson dropped the gun from its catalog.
The K-frame .22 WMR reappeared in 1989—this time as the 648. It featured stainless steel construction and the same full-length underlug that appeared on other Smith & Wesson guns, including the 686 and the 629. The gun disappeared in 1994 and was rereleased in 2003 as the 648-2, complete with an internal lock system. More than a decade later, it’s back.
We live in an age where most new guns seek to qualify their existence by promising to fulfill a lofty purpose. There are concealable pistols designed to ward off evildoers, guns for winning competitions and revolvers for harvesting big game, but there’s a shortage of guns for fun. The 648 is one of those.
Smith & Wesson offers its old/new rimfire revolver in a single configuration: six-inch barrel, full underlug and an eight-round cylinder. It features a fully adjustable black notch rear sight and a Patridge-style rectangular front post that’s 1/8 inch wide and black. The eight-shot cylinder is fluted and turns counterclockwise, and large molded black rubber grips are included. The one-piece barrel and frame are machined from stainless steel.
This construction doesn’t make the 648 a particularly light gun. Overall weight is just a bit over 46 ounces, which makes it heavier than your average full-sized 1911 .45 semiauto, and the 648 measures a bit over 11 inches long. From the top of the sights to the bottom of the grip, the 648 measures 5.5 inches, and the cylinder is just under 1.5 inches wide. A concealed-carry gun it is not.
What it is, though, is a target-grade pistol, made for punching paper and ringing steel. A fun gun, through and through—and that’s enough.
Just like the first K-22 Masterpiece I fired, the 648’s smooth action impressed me. It isn’t one of Smith & Wesson’s tuned-up Performance Center offerings, but it feels almost that good. Lockup is smooth and consistent, and modern precision machining keep tolerances tight. There’s no slop, no visible gap between the forcing cone and the cylinder.
As with most Smith & Wesson double-action revolvers, the learning curve when mastering the fundamental operation of this gun is not very steep. Press the cylinder release forward and the cylinder swings out of the left side of the revolver. When the ejector rod is pressed, cases are lifted from the cylinder. Cock the hammer to fire in single-action mode or pull the trigger for double action.
There are a lot of shooter-friendly design features on this gun. The half-inch-wide hammer spur features diamond checkering, and the shallow angle makes it easy and manageable to cock the 648 without removing your hands from the grip.
The grip is made from molded synthetic material, and it features a scale pattern on the sides that helps the soft rubber stick in the hand. Finger grooves at the front of the grip help increase security while shooting, and the grip surface is slightly wider in the center when viewed in cross-section.
Smith & Wesson has had plenty of time to perfect its rubber grips on hard-recoiling revolvers, so the 648’s grips are among the most comfortable you’ll find. They’ll also accommodate those with really large hands, and there’s enough of an undercut behind the trigger guard so the shooter’s hand rests high on the pistol for maximum control and improved balance.
Good trigger pull is important for optimum revolver performance, and the 648’s trigger is well designed, with a wide, smooth face that’s comfortable and easy to control when target shooting. The test revolver’s trigger broke at a hair over four pounds in single-action mode and just over 10 pounds in double-action mode. There’s no perceptible creep in single action, and double-action shooting is smooth and predictable.
That’s one feature that helps make the 648 so accurate. Oftentimes, those “higher purpose” guns—subcompact semiauto carry guns in particular—get something of a pass with regards to accuracy since, after all, those guns are made for defensive shooting at very close ranges. But the 648 is a target gun, and as such it has no excuse not to be very accurate.
Nor does it need one. With all the loads tested this revolver turned out at least one group under two inches at 25 yards, and with the loads it favored, it would squeeze five shots into clusters that measured around 1.25 inches. If that’s not good enough, you could probably have the gun tuned and squeeze out slightly smaller groups with factory rimfire ammo, but the 648 will outshoot most rimfires right out of the box.
In addition to the bench test, I also fired a number of rounds offhand at 20 feet in double action, and the 648 put eight shots in a group the size of a tennis ball. The underlug gives this revolver exceptional balance. When you raise it and align the sights, the 648 stays planted. The underlug also helps with recoil, I suppose, but between the gun’s all-steel heft and the large, accommodating grip recoil simply isn’t an issue.
When I was shooting from the bench, the muzzle didn’t rise enough to cloud my view of the target, and anyone, even the most recoil-sensitive rookie shooter, can easily manage recoil. But, like other .22 magnums, the 648 is loud. Those 40- to 50-grain projectiles are buzzing along at about 1,200 fps from the barrel, and that makes quite a pop. It’s not as pronounced as with the ultra-compact single-action .22 WMR revolvers, but don’t leave your hearing protection behind.
The 648 was hitting high and to the left for me, but thanks to the adjustable sights, that was an easy fix requiring nothing more than a small flathead screwdriver. The screw on the right side of the rear sight allows you to drift for windage, and the front screw controls elevation.
The long, thin .22 WMR cases tend to swell in revolver cylinders, and that can make extraction sticky, which was the case with the 648. Still, the 648’s ejector rod did an admirable job pitching the empties. Hornady’s nickel-cased Critical Defense ammunition was the least likely to offend.
It’s also a good idea to tip the revovler’s cylinder so it’s pointed down when extracting the empties since an errant case that slips under the extractor is a hassle to remove.
Those were the only issues that I encountered with the 648, and they have as much to do with the caliber as they do with the gun. But those minor issues weren’t enough to make shooting this gun any less enjoyable. The mild-mannered 648 shoots relatively inexpensive ammunition (compared to centerfire rounds), and it’s so accurate it will keep prompting you to shoot tighter and tighter groups.
I went from paper to balloons to spinners and continued to put .22 WMR projectiles downrange as long as my supply of ammo held. Plus, when the sun set and the last of the .22 WMR ammo was gone, there was none of the fatigue that accompanies a long day at the range with the more powerful centerfire wheelguns. Neither had I spent a small fortune in ammo.
I believe the kind of fun that the 648 generates at the shooting range—or while plinking in the backyard—is merit enough to buy this gun, but if you (or your spouse) demands a more lofty purpose to purchase this $749 revolver, here are a few.
First, it’s a good buy from a gun collection standpoint. Smith & Wesson guns hold their value, and who knows how long it will be before this latest iteration of the 648 vanishes from the pages of the catalog.
Also, it has merit as a varmint and a small game gun, producing considerably more punch than a .22 LR, and the 648 is accurate enough for small game out to moderate ranges. It’ll help sort out the groundhog that’s excavating the underside of your garage and the raccoon that rifles through your trash every week.
In Texas a few years ago, we were calling gray fox in thick mesquite brush. Those foxes came to the call at a run, bursting out of the brush close by and giving us less than a second to fire. Most of those shots were around 25 yards. The mild-mannered 648 would have worked well there.
And if you hunt big game with a big Smith & Wesson double-action revolver, the modest 648 rimfire offers a low-cost, low-recoil training option.
There is a contingent of people who believe the .22 WMR is a worthy defensive round, and while I won’t delve into the qualifications of a rimfire for personal protection, I will say that an accurate, double-action revolver like the 648 is a better alternative to the mini revolvers in that it offers velocities—and, subsequently, energies—that are 150 to 200 fps faster than those short-barreled wheelguns. Plus, it offers eight shots, which is about the same capacity you’ll get with many single-stack .380s.
But the most compelling reason to buy this gun remains the fact that it’s so much fun to shoot. I’m glad the 648 is back, and I hope it stays around forever, but in case it doesn’t, now may be the time to pull the trigger on a purchase. The K frame has been around for generations, and it’s time a new generation of shooters gets to experience just how much fun these guns can be.
Smith & Wesson Model 648
- TYPE: single-action/double-action rimfire revolver
- CALIBER: .22 WMR
- CAPACITY: 8
- BARREL: 6 in.
- OAL: 11.1 in.
- WEIGHT: 46.1 oz.
- CONSTRUCTION: polished stainless steel frame and cylinder
- GRIPS: black synthetic
- TRIGGER: 4.1 lb. SA pull, 10.3 lb. DA pull (measured)
- SIGHTS: fully adjustable rear, Patridge front
- PRICE: $749
- MANUFACTURER: Smith & Wesson, smith-wesson.com