What’s the link between Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Theo Kojak and Charlie’s Angels? OK, sure, they’re fictional detectives, but the weapon used by all of them is the short-barreled revolver, better known as the snubby. We see Sherlock Holmes with his trusty Webley Bulldog, stalking his adversary Professor Moriarty through the foggy streets of Victorian London. We watch Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, putting on his snap-brim fedora, reaching into his desk for a Detective Special before accompanying a beautiful (but never to be trusted) blonde on a case.
On TV, we’ve seen re-runs of Theo Kojak in New York covering the bad guy with his Chief’s Special. Out in California, Charlie’s Angels were busy doing exactly the same thing, although they were a lot better looking and had more hair!
Hollywood has always considered snubbies to have a ‘sexy’ image, and we could all name a whole galaxy of stars who have used them in movies. This image has also been very useful in selling short-barreled revolvers too, as sales have shown.
Let’s first define the term ‘Snubby.’ This is the usual description of a revolver having a barrel no more than 3” in length, which is designed to be carried in the pocket or in a concealment holster.
Ranging in size from the Smith & Wesson and Taurus 5-shot .38 Specials to the massive ‘N’ frame .44 Magnums, there’s a snubby for every sized hand. It should be pointed out however, that the larger calibers are extremely difficult to control, even to the experienced shooter, and their recoil can at times be punishing to the hand. The Titanium models from Smith & Wesson and Taurus are great for concealed carry, as their negligible weight makes pocket or purse carry easy.
We’ll first examine the snubby from a historical viewpoint. The ancestry of the snubby dates back to the ‘Bulldog’ era of the late 19th Century. Colt was selling their 1871 ‘Cloverleaf ’ 4-shot .41 rim fire revolver, together with a variation on the Single Action Army .45, the ‘Sheriff ’s Model’, which was originally called the Storekeeper’s Model. This had a 3” barrel, but lacked the usual ejector rod, so fired cases had to be punched out by means of a pencil or a stick. The name change was obviously dreamed up by Colt’s advertising department, as what red-blooded American looking to buy a belly gun would think of himself as a Storekeeper? Even then, advertisers knew that self-image was a potent marketing tool.
Snubbies are great fun to shoot, and becoming proficient in their use is quite an achievement. This takes a lot of practice though, and many shooters expect miraculous results within the first few rounds.
Over at Smith & Wesson, their New Departure revolver was first introduced in 1887. This was popularly known as the ‘Lemon Squeezer,’ because of its grip safety, which was located in the grip’s backstrap. The New Departure had a concealed hammer, rendering it impossible to fire in single action mode. The grip safety also prevented the gun from being fired unless the grip safety was depressed, a feature that was resurrected in 1957, when the 5-shot Centennial model was unveiled. The snubby really came of age in the ‘Roaring 20’s.’ Prohibition’s ban on the sale of alcoholic drinks led to a crime wave of epidemic proportions. Speakeasies blossomed all over, with criminals battling to carve business empires founded on bootleg booze.
Names like Al Capone, ‘Dutch’ Schultz (whose real name was the much less glamorous Arthur Flegenheimer), John Dillinger, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and ‘Baby Face’ Nelson regularly appeared in newspaper headlines. These criminals could easily defy the police forces by either outgunning them, or more regularly, by taking them ‘on the book’ and giving them regular payments to look the other way.
The standard police and FBI issue handgun of that time was a .38 or smaller caliber revolver, with either a 4” or a 6” barrel. Additional armament would consist of assorted hunting rifles and shotguns, to be issued as necessary, with only the FBI or large cities like New York and Chicago having the financial means to provide automatic weapons. The crime wave of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ soon led to loud calls, from both the public and the police, for a vastly expanded detective force. These detectives and their FBI counterparts demanded a short-barreled revolver that could be easily carried in the pocket of a civilian suit or in a concealment holster.
Colt, answering this demand, put a 2” barrel on their Police Positive revolver, and then, by a brilliant marketing inspiration, called it the Detective Special. Introduced in 1926, the ‘Dick Special’ was an immediate hit and remained in production for over 70 years, apart from a couple of years in the early 1990’s.
Smith & Wesson unveiled their revolutionary Chief’s Special in 1950. This stainless steel 5-shot revolver was designed specifically to compete with the Detective Special, which had dominated the market for many years. This was an immediate success, and was followed in 1955 by the Bodyguard, which also utilized the ‘J’ frame of the Chief’s Special.
The Bodyguard has a distinct ‘hunch-back’ look, as the frame almost completely shrouds the hammer at the sides. This was designed to allow the gun to be drawn easily from the pocket. The hammer can still be cocked for single action shooting via a slot in the top of the frame.
In 1957, a ‘hammerless’ revolver, which was called the Centennial, was introduced to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Smith & Wesson. The Centennial had no single action mode, as the hammer was totally enclosed. An unusual feature was the grip safety, which required a lever on the backstrap to be depressed before the gun could be fired. After a hiatus of some years, the Centennial is back in production, minus the grip safety, as the Model 640.
Right now, with more and more States passing concealed carry laws, snubbies are going through a renaissance, with all of the revolver manufacturers listing them in their catalogs. Smith & Wesson, for instance, has over 30 different models in various finishes, in calibers ranging from .22 to .44 Magnum.
Despite reports to the contrary, mainly from people who have never shot a snubby, they are no less accurate than their longer-barreled cousins. The main drawback of them is the short sight radius, which can tend to magnify sighting errors. When this happens, a fractional misalignment of the sights at the firing point results in either a miss or a marginal hit on the target.
Shooting a snubby is no different from shooting any other revolver; all the basic rules of marksmanship still apply. However, when the firing pin hits the primer, the difference between snubbies and full sized revolvers becomes immediately apparent. Muzzle flash is far more noticeable, especially in calibers like .357 or .44 Magnum. Recoil, even from a .38 Special, can feel surprisingly heavy. With the bigger calibers, recoil can at times be painful, especially when shooting full-house loads, and even the most experienced shooter can have difficulty in recovering from recoil fast enough for a follow-up shot. The solution to the problems of excess recoil can be dealt with in two ways. The first, and simplest is not to use the hottest loads you can find!
The second is to replace the factory grips. In most cases, the grips supplied are totally unsuited for the purpose. By replacing them with the right set of Hogue, Uncle Mike’s or Pachmayr rubber grips, a remarkable transformation takes place—the gun is suddenly a pleasure to shoot! Except, of course, in the case of the Titanium models. Although they are exquisitely engineered, and are so light you can forget you are carrying one, it’s a sad fact that shooting a standard high-speed hollow point from a Titanium snubby is somewhat like having a firecracker go off in your hand.
Despite all the advances in firearms design, manufacturers have still not managed to get round Newton’s Second Law of Motion: for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. So, with no real mass in a Titanium revolver to soak up recoil, it all goes straight back into your hand. This can be a little off-putting, especially for female shooters. The only way around this is to use lighter-weight bullets, or, if you have a large enough bank account, use Glaser Safety Slugs, or any of the other frangible-bulleted cartridges, which are light enough not to generate too much recoil.
Ballistically speaking, snubbies are not the most efficient type of firearm. Their barrels are too short to allow all the powder charge to burn efficiently, unless very light loads are used. Excess muzzle flash is a certain indicator that powder is still being burned after the bullet has left the barrel. This is very impressive to the spectator, but achieves nothing, and merely proves that you are wasting powder.
Muzzle velocities from short barrels are also much less than the same load fired from a standard length barrel; in some cases by up to 100 fps. Of course, loads like the Glaser Safety Slug, or other rounds utilizing a very light bullet can produce good results. These are however, very expensive, but if you look at them as a very cheap form of life insurance, the pain in your billfold soon goes away.
A popular option that is being seen more often is the ‘bobbed’ hammer. Smith & Wesson, Taurus and Ruger all offer this option. With a bobbed hammer, the shooter is forced into using double action mode, which is how the gun ought to be fired anyway.
Snubbies are great fun to shoot, and becoming proficient in their use is quite an achievement. This takes a lot of practice though, and many shooters expect miraculous results within the first few rounds. Remember, you’re not shooting a target gun; the snubby is designed as a defensive weapon. The sights on most of them are fixed, and with few exceptions, are not high-visibility types. Don’t set the target at 25 yards; remember, most gunfights take place between 6 – 10 feet! Practice your shooting at 5 yards. Once the groups start to shrink, don’t move the target further away – shoot faster! Your groups will open up again, then get smaller as your skills improve.
[ Tony Walker is President of SAS Training, Inc., in Arizona. He teaches regular defensive handgunning classes with his wife, Vannessa, who can shoot better than him, and he is the author of numerous magazine articles. He has also just published his first action/adventure novel, ‘Snides’, and the sequel, ‘Pilgrim’s Banner’ will be appearing next year. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on his web site at johnpilgrimbooks.com to learn about his series of books, all of which feature characters John and Sally Pilgrim. ]
Photography by Pat McGrane.