The Drawbacks of the Snub-Nose Revolver
By David Tong
While many people carry a revolver for personal protection, primarily a .38 Special snub-nose sporting a two inch barrel, both legal concealed carry civilians and police should understand that these firearms are limited in scope of use. These limitations, both ergonomic and technical, are the subject of this article. You may not have to pick-up your brass at the gun range with a revolver, but you will pay the price of shooting one in other ways.
The semi-automatic pistol has become the dominant player in self-defense and overall market share today. I believe the reasons are their flatness (for concealed carry) and sometimes lighter weight. These are attributes difficult to overcome.
Typically, sub-compact revolvers hold five or six shots in calibers .22 LR, .22 WMR, .32 Long, .32 Magnum, .38 S&W, .38 Special, .357 Magnum and .44 Special. Of these, the .38 Special is probably the most practical and certainly the most popular chambering.
These .38 snubby revolvers range in length between 5.5 and 6.5 inches and weigh between about 13 to 23 ounces. Their purpose is to be carried concealed and usually sport rather small grips to aid this.
Reloading a DA revolver requires opening the cylinder, pointing the muzzle up, slapping the too short ejector rod (if the barrel is only two inches long there is not room for a full length .38 Spec. ejector rod), ensuring that all empties have been thrown clear, turning the revolver muzzle down while the support hand reaches for the reload and then loading the cylinder, preferably with a speed loader. Reloading quickly with a speed loader is something that needs some concentrated practice to accomplish and requires reasonable motor skills to do well.
(However, cartridges can be loaded directly into the cylinder of a revolver from a box of ammo. Although considerably slower than using a prepared speed loader, this is a huge advantage over an autoloader with an empty magazine in an extended shoot-out, such as a riot, insurrection, etc. In normal civilian shooting situations reloading is unnecessary, as most gunfights end with the first two or three shots. -Chuck Hawks, Editor.)
Snubby trigger pulls in trigger-cocking mode (commonly known as "double action" [DA] as it is both drawing the hammer back and releasing it with a single press) range from about 11 to 17 pounds, while those capable of single action (SA) operation after cocking an exposed hammer run between 2.5 to 6.0 pounds. (Averaging about three pounds, which is much better than typical sub-compact autoloaders of similar size and weight. -Chuck Hawks, Editor.)
The act of firing a loaded DA revolver is as simple as firing a DA autoloader, because all the operator need do is pull the trigger of either to get off a close range shot. If accuracy at a greater distance is required, it is wise to cock the gun's hammer to take advantage of the shorter, lighter and consequently more accurate SA trigger pull. However, some .38 snubs are double action only, a serious limitation. The snub's light weight and heavy DA trigger pull, along with the short sight radius (usually less than five inches), coupled with small grips not offering much surface area to spread recoil forces, means that shooting even standard pressure .38s in an aluminum-framed snub is not very comfortable.
Controlling heavy service loads under rapid fire is another matter with which the shooter must contend. Recoil can become a serious issue with powerful loads. With a revolver, one's hands absorb peak recoil forces instantly. This is one reason why the .38 Special makes more sense in a snubby than more powerful cartridges, such as the .357 Magnum.
(A 16 ounce .38 Special shooting a typical 125 grain cartridge delivers about 5.6 ft. lbs. of recoil energy and 18.5 fps recoil velocity; a 16 ounce 9x19mm sub-compact pistol shooting a typical 115 grain cartridge delivers about 7.4 ft. lbs. and 21.8 fps. A 16 ounce .380 pistol delivers somewhat less recoil than either. See the Handgun Recoil Table for details. -Chuck Hawks, Editor.)
Of course, one can fit larger grips to a snubby revolver to ameliorate recoil, or choose a revolver that is larger and heavier, made of steel and sporting at least a three inch tube. Controllability is dramatically improved as is practical accuracy, but then the revolver becomes as large and heavy as a compact autoloader (G19 or Commander size) and one still has to contend with the fine motor skills reloading issue described above.
Consider also that snubby revolvers typically hold only five or six cartridges. Five or six is fine if you know that you will be facing only one perpetrator intending to do you harm, but what if that presumption goes sideways? (The magazines of single stack sub-compact .380 and 9x19mm autoloaders also typically hold six cartridges, but double stack sub-compacts, such as the G26, hold up to 10 rounds. -Chuck Hawks, Editor.)
Then there is the question of intrinsic versus practical accuracy. While a rigidly mounted barrel threaded into a frame is surely a recipe for superior intrinsic accuracy, how well the human being holding it, under stress and fairly rapid fire, is the true test of how it will work. I have written an article about this, Intrinsic vs. the Practical Accuracy of Handguns.
My point here is that while a full size service revolver with a four inch barrel is indeed a fine shooting machine, it is not what most people are carrying concealed. For the same weight, I'd guess more people are carrying a full sized 1911 .45 with its seven or eight shot magazine.
I also would guess, given my own lack of success in shooting them, that a two inch .38 snub is among the most difficult sidearms to shoot well at any distance beyond 10 yards. This is not from lack of trying on my part. I have owned three S&W J-frames, ranging from a 1959 Chief Special to a late 1980s M649 stainless Bodyguard, as well as two third-generation Colt Detective Specials.
Even on a well-lit range, shooting slow fire standing, single action with quality ammo, I doubt that I was capable of consistently holding 10 inch groups at 25 yards. Conversely, the Colt Lightweight Officer's Model .45ACP, SIG-Sauer P238 .380, S&W M&P Shield 9x19mm, Taurus PT-709 Slim 9x19 and the Walther PPK .380 are all easier for me to shoot accurately and control than any snub-nose revolver.
(As David notes, this is his personal experience. I might add that my personal experience is the exact opposite. At present I own two Colt Cobra .38 snubs, which I can shoot more accurately at 25 yards than any of the many sub-compact autoloaders I have owned or reviewed. -Chuck Hawks, Editor.)
Finally, another point where Guns and Shooting Online Owner/Managing Editor Chuck Hawks and I slightly disagree is on the care and reliability of revolvers. In my view, I completely clean my handguns after every use. If it is in regular use, I detail strip a handgun annually to ensure that the internal parts are sound and adequately lubricated. (This is, of course, required with most autoloading pistols, the type David favors. -Chuck Hawks, Editor.)
Chuck's view is that it is usually only necessary to clean the cylinder and barrel of a revolver when the chambers get too dirty to easily load new rounds and it is almost never necessary to open a revolver's innards for detail cleaning. In my experience the former comes within 150-200 rounds fired. Witness the number of top quality autos that have been known to run 2,000+ rounds of ammo without fail, including most Glocks, SIGs, Berettas and some 1911s.
Chuck does have a point regarding the springs of a revolver, which are not compressed when the gun is at rest, so it can be left in a drawer for years without issue. That is true enough, but why is one not removing it, practicing with it and doing the things that one should be doing with a primary house gun? (Unfortunately, the fact is that many people simply don't do the things they should. -Chuck Hawks, Editor.) I will not argue the spring issue, other than to mention that I have left (top quality) auto pistol magazines loaded for years without issue and typically wear a 1911 cocked and locked.
I will also not argue that light and small is easier to carry than heavy and big. The snub has its place, certainly, but in my world it is best as a short range back-up to a bigger and more capable auto pistol when the latter runs out of ammo. Also, perhaps, when one's clothing is inappropriate to cover something larger and harder hitting.
ADDENDUM: A LETTER FROM (CONTRIBUTING EDITOR) JIM CLARY TO (CONTRIBUTING EDITOR) DAVID TONG
Interesting article on the snub-nose revolvers. I guess I have to put in my two cents, for what little it may be worth.
I carried a Colt snub-nose .38 Special for six years as a deputy sheriff here in New Mexico. It was during that period that officers were beginning to transition to semi-automatics. The Colt was my regular duty weapon, as I could not afford to buy a four inch barreled gun, given the low pay in our department.
Each year, we had to qualify on the regular range, as well as the police combat course (out to 25 yards and run through obstacles, reload, fire, etc). I managed every year to qualify expert and always out shot the guys with their semi-autos.
As a humorous point, there was an old guy (a former Texas ranger) who used to come out and shoot with us. He carried a Colt Peacemaker that he would draw and fire with one hand. Damn, he was good. He made the rest of us look like children. After unloading his six rounds, he would just turn and smile. You could cover his rounds with a coffee cup.
However, that was a long time ago, when we didn't have vests and didn't face gang bangers with AKs. I can still shoot a revolver more accurately than most folks with a semi-automatic. The autoloaders will throw a lot of lead, but it still only takes one well placed shot to take out a perp. That was what we were trained to do: aim well, squeeze, and put them down.
I have long since (regrettably) sold my Colt, but Mary kept her S&W Model 19 (.357 mag) and she also used to qualify expert twice each year. We both "hung it up" when our daughter Susannah was born in 1991. It was fun while it lasted, but now our badges hang on the wall in the den.
In addition, as a side note, our revolvers never, ever failed to fire. We witnessed a lot of officer's semi-autos jam on the range, because they weren't properly cleaned or didn't like the ammo with which the department provided us. Just a couple of thoughts from an old guy.
Copyright 2015 by David Tong and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.