The Snub-Nosed Personal Defense Revolver

By Chuck Hawks

"Snubbies" (pistols with 3" or shorter barrels) have been made and used throughout almost the entire history of the handgun. A small, easily carried and easily concealed gun has great appeal to anyone who feels the need to be armed, but wishes to remain inconspicuous.

In many places, particularly urban areas, it is illegal or impractical to carry a large sidearm openly. Unfortunately, in those same urban areas rapes, muggings, robberies and murders happen on a daily basis. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that you may suddenly need a gun for protection. Since these are the very places where it is least acceptable to carry a firearm openly, some sort of concealed weapon is required.

The legal aspects of carrying a concealed weapon are too complex (and too nauseating) to explore here. Suffice to say that in some states a concealed carry permit can be obtained. If not, a person must decide which constitutes the greater threat, criminals or the police. Having to balance obeying the law against your personal safety seems like a heck of a decision to have to make in a supposedly free society, but there you are.

This article is about the snub-nosed revolver, one of the most popular weapons for serious self-defense. Service type handguns are excellent once the whistle blows, but they are big, heavy and usually impractical for daily concealed carry. Thus, we seek something smaller and easier to carry. After all, the easier it is to keep your defense gun handy, the more likely it is to be available when needed and this is the area where short barreled revolvers shine.

Exactly what constitutes adequate defensive capability is hotly debated. That subject is explored in detail in other Guns and Shooting Online articles, but suffice to say that increased power usually means increased size, so some sort of compromise must be reached.

At the lowest rung on the power ladder we see small frame revolvers chambered for the .22 Long Rifle (.22 LR) cartridge. The smallest and lightest of these are the single action mini-revolvers made by North American Arms, while larger (but still compact) double action .22 snubbies are available from Smith & Wesson and Taurus, among others.

The problem is that while a .22 might suffice in a defensive situation, and any gun is better than no gun at all, statistics show that the popular .22 LR hollow point (HP) cartridges only succeed in delivering a "one shot stop" about 29-34% of the time with a solid torso hit. This is not encouraging and most experts look for something more powerful than the .22 LR in a daily carry revolver.

The next rung up the power ladder is the .22 Magnum (.22 WMR) and revolvers for this cartridge are available from the same sources as .22 LR revolvers. This cartridge elevates the chances of a "one shot stop" to the 40-42% area, clearly an improvement, but your odds of success are still less than 50%.

The obsolescent .32 S&W Long and .38 S&W revolver cartridges can be lumped into the same general power class as the .22 WMR. Although few revolvers for these "short case" calibers are manufactured today, a considerable number have been offered in the past and some of these are still available on the used market.

A step up and far more powerful than the obsolescent .32's and .38's is the .32 H&R Magnum and the new .327 Federal Magnum. (Both actually use .312" diameter bullets.) These small bore magnum cartridges use longer cases that hold more powder than the old .32's and they operate at higher pressures; very high pressure in the case of the .327 Mag. The result is stopping power touted to be equal to standard .38 Special loads (or about 50% in the case of the .32 H&R) or superior (in the case of the .327 Federal) to the .38 Special +P.

Unfortunately, while the .32 H&R is a relatively mild cartridge to shoot in a snubby, the .327 Federal, a lengthened version of the .32 H&R, definitely is not. It has more recoil and muzzle blast than .38 Spec. +P loads, approaching .357 Magnum levels. .32 H&R cartridges can be fired in .327 Federal revolvers, but not the reverse. Neither .32 Magnum ammunition nor guns are widely available, the Ruger SP101 revolver being the most common vehicle for both calibers. .32 Magnum revolvers are about the same size as .38 Special revolvers.

By far the most popular cartridge for concealed carry revolvers is the .38 Special. These have been offered by a great many manufacturers, the best of the bunch being Colt. Unfortunately, Colt no longer manufactures snub-nosed revolvers (they can be had on the used market), but others do. Ruger, Smith & Wesson and Taurus are probably the best known brands, although there are others.

An all steel, small framed revolver from Colt (Detective Special) or Smith & Wesson (Chief's Special) weighs about 20 ounces, give or take. Aluminum framed versions of these guns (Colt Cobra and S&W Airweight) scale 14-16 ounces. Equivalent models from other manufacturers are similar in size and weight. Even lighter are small framed .38's made from exotic materials, but these are really too light for the power of the cartridge, which makes them very difficult to shoot accurately. Remember that in a life and death situation only hits count, so I would avoid ultra-light .38 Special revolvers.

.38 Special cartridges are available in a myriad of standard and +P loads, some of which are mediocre and some of which are effective man stoppers. Stopping power percentages run from about 49-77% from 2" barrels, so choose your ammunition wisely.

That brings us to the top rung of the snub-nosed revolver power ladder, which is occupied by big bore and Magnum guns. These include calibers .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, .44 Special, .44 Magnum and .45 Colt.

The .357 Magnum is the most effective of all personal defense handgun loads and the cartridge is thinner than the big bore numbers. This translates to a smaller diameter cylinder and a more compact (medium frame) revolver. Big bore revolvers (.41 caliber and up) require large frames, so regardless of barrel length, such guns are heavy, bulky and difficult to conceal.

Unfortunately, .357 loads are designed for barrels at least 4" long. A 2.5-3" barrel on a .357 produces truly spectacular muzzle blast and the sharp recoil is very unpleasant. One shot at night and you are likely to be blind and deaf, not to mention that .357 snubbies are difficult to shoot accurately. .41 and .44 Magnum snubbies are even worse and the bulky .44 Spec and .45 snubbies are inferior in stopping power to the smaller .357 revolvers. The bottom line is that magnum and big bore snubbies are impractical alternatives except under special circumstances and in expert hands.

The inevitable conclusion is that .38 Special snubbies are probably the optimum revolvers for daily concealed carry. In fact, recoil can become a definite problem when hot (+P) loads are fired in a lightweight .38 Special revolver, so it seems silly to look much beyond the great .38.

Whatever revolver and caliber is selected, proficiency must be acquired and maintained through regular practice. The gun should be routinely handled and dry fired at home (buy some snap caps) and plenty of live fire practice at a shooting range is required. The latter is best accomplished using standard or "mid-range" loads, not full power self-defense cartridges, as the latter are expensive and put considerable strain on lightweight guns. Sound advice would be to shoot many standard cartridges and just a few high velocity loads in practice.

Most handguns are quite sensitive to changes in ammunition and the point of impact will often shift dramatically with different loads. Experimentation may be required to (1) find full power loads that will shoot to the point of aim with a fixed sight gun and (2) find a lighter load that comes close to the same point of impact. The reloader has a big advantage here.

Last, a word about the accuracy of short barreled revolvers. Contrary to popular belief, many snubbies have very good intrinsic accuracy, similar to longer barreled revolvers and better than most service style semi-automatic pistols. This can be demonstrated by firing a quality snubby, such as a Colt Detective Special, from a machine rest or by fitting an optical or laser sight. It is usually the shooter, not the revolver, that is responsible for 10-gallon hat size groups at 25 yards. Short barreled guns are hard to shoot accurately because the sight radius (the distance between the front and rear sights) is short. The longer the sight radius, the more accurately a revolver can be aimed; this is just simple geometry. Nevertheless, a good snub-nosed revolver in trained hands can deliver a very high percentage of hits at 50 yards.

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Copyright 2009, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.