Gun Review: 5-Shot Snub-Nosed Revolver

There is one basic, solid fact that explains why more than six decades after its introduction, the modern 5-shot snubnosed revolver still flies off the shelf: Its simple and effective, and it works.

 

» THERE ARE MORE OUTSTANDING CONCEALED CARRY HANDGUNS on the market today than at any time in history. This means that the hardest part of carrying a concealed defensive handgun is deciding on the one that will work best for you. Gun store shelves are full of used handguns that ended up as trade-ins for other types or styles that the owners felt worked better for them.

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While I’ve carried many different types of off-duty guns through the years and test different handguns on an almost weekly basis for articles, my gun of choice for the majority of my off-duty time is a snubnosed revolver — specifically the Smith & Wesson Model 642 Airweight .38 Special Revolver.

Why? The snubnosed revolver has a lot to offer, and its positive attributes can often be overlooked these days when semi-automatics are so popular. Let’s take a look at what a snubnosed revolver has to offer:

  • Nearly any quality revolver is as reliable as any machine made by man can be. I have never had one fail when fed proper ammo in the correct caliber.
  • On all but very few exceptions, there is no manually operated safety to overcome before the trigger can be pulled. It is always ready to go as long as there is ammo available in the cylinder.
  • I have never had any snubnosed revolver accidentally lose access to its ammo source. The cylinder latch release is nearly impossible to activate inadvertently. I can’t say the same for semi-automatics.
  • Snubnosed revolvers are available in some very solid, proven defensive calibers such as the .38 Special, .44 Special and .357 Magnum, all of which provide significant power in a small package.
  • Any revolver, snub or otherwise, will be inherently more accurate than nearly any semi-automatic pistol of comparable size due to the fact that a revolver barrel is fixed to the frame, while the barrels of most semi-autos move as part of the firing sequence.
  • A concealed hammer revolver, like my Smith & Wesson 642, is the only repeating firearm that one can fire from inside a coat pocket without it snagging or jamming.
  • The variety of bullet styles for any revolver caliber is almost limitless in comparison to a semi-auto. From wadcutters to semi-wadcutters, hollow-points, round nose or shot cartridges, they all work.

Since there is no perfect machine, there are some potentially negative snubnose traits:

  • Ammunition capacity is lacking. Most centerfire snubs are five-shooters. However, even in the law enforcement world, the average number of rounds exchanged is low. In New York City, the average number of rounds fired per officer was only 5.2 per incident as of the year 2000, so a five-shot capacity might not be as huge a disadvantage as it appears at first glance.
  • The snubnosed revolver is slower to reload unless you practice extensively using proper technique.
  • The short sight radius might make precision sighting difficult.
  • The 12-pound double-action trigger pull might be too much for people with hand strength issues. However, if the snub has an exposed hammer, rapid single-action fire (which lowers trigger pull weight down to about 4 pounds) can be achieved.
The snubnosed revolver is the oldest surviving concealed carry handgun ever designed.

The snubnosed revolver is the oldest surviving concealed carry handgun ever designed.

The Guns

I contacted Charter Arms and Sturm, Ruger for some extra examples of American-made snubbies to supplement my 642 to give you an idea of the different types of five-shot snubs that are available. There truly is something here for everyone.

Charter Arms

Charter Arms manufactures an extensive line of defensive revolvers, cataloging 57 variants. Their revolvers are innovative, sturdy and reliable. I requested a sample of what I consider their penultimate model, the Standard Blue .44 Special Bulldog.

If you select a five-round firearm, it might as well chamber big rounds. Introduced in 1907 by Smith & Wesson, the .44 Special launched a 246-grain lead round nose bullet at 755 feet per second. (The vaunted .45 ACP’s original military load delivered a 230-grain bullet at 830 feet per second.) Considering the .44 Special used a soft lead bullet rather than a fully-jacketed one, I give the edge to the .44 Special in terms of stopping power.

The .44 Bulldog weighs in at 21 ounces in the Blue Standard version and has a 2.5-inch barrel. Construction is stainless-steel-finished in matte blue. The sights are fixed, the rear sight is a groove in the topstrap and the hammer is exposed. Charter equips their revolvers with recoil-absorbing rubber grips. I carried an original Bulldog .44 in the 1980s as an off-duty gun. Back then, Charter’s triggers left a lot to be desired, and my Bulldog’s trigger pull was heavy with hitches in it. It took a lot of concentration to shoot it with precision, but I loved the caliber and figured the big hole in the end of the barrel would have a strong deterrent effect when viewed from the unfriendly end.

 

The Remora can also be shoved in a pants or coat pocket without any modification or adjustment. It is an excellent defensive choice.

 

I am happy to report that the trigger pull on the current .44 Bulldog has been greatly improved. The pull weight is still around 12 pounds, but is smooth throughout.

I took the Bulldog to the range with two different loads along with Tuff Products QuickStrips for speed-reloading of the five-shot cylinder. QuickStrips compactly hold five rounds in a row and allow for loading one or two rounds at a time.

The two .44 Special loads tested were the aluminum-cased Blazer 200-grain Gold Dot hollow-points — rated at 920 feet per second and 376 foot-pounds of energy from a 5.15-inch barrel. For a more sedate yet still effective self-defense load, I also tested the 240-grain lead flat-point Winchester Cowboy Load. It is rated at 750 feet per second and 300 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle.

The Charter Bulldog performed flawlessly with both loads, loading and ejecting smoothly. Both rounds were more than accurate enough for any reasonable purpose. Recoil with Blazer ammo was significant but not punishing. The Cowboy loads were pleasant to shoot, and easier to control in rapid fire. Big, slow-moving soft lead loads have been effective threat stoppers ever since the days of the Old West and will work just as well today. They are also a very good choice if you live in a locale where hollow-point bullets are banned.

I carried the Bulldog in a Remora inside-the-waistband/pocket holster and in a fanny pack as my off-duty carry piece while on vacation in the woods of northern Michigan. The Remora is a unique design with a tacky outer skin that stays in place inside the waistband without clips, hooks or loops. You can shove it in a pants or coat pocket without any modification or adjustment. The .44 Special Bulldog served comfortably as a defensive gun on the trail and for carry in town. It is an excellent defensive choice.

Related: Gun Review: Charter Arms Pathfinder Snub-Nosed Revolver

Ruger

From Ruger, I requested two samples that are basically at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of snubnose design and concept — a stainless .357 Magnum SP101 with a 2-inch barrel and an LCR chambered for .38 Special +P, a modern melding of polymer and metal for lighter weight and lower cost.

The five-shot SP101 was introduced in 1989 in .38 Special caliber. The SP101 can be field stripped down into the upper frame and barrel, cylinder and yoke, and lower frame action assembly for easy cleaning.

The SP101 was one of the first smallframe revolvers to chamber .357 Magnum ammo. The 2.25-inch barreled version I tested has fixed sights. The front sight is blued steel and stands out in the rear sight groove in the topstrap. Unloaded weight is a solid 26 ounces.

I tested the SP101 over a chronograph with two .357 Magnum loads from Ted Nugent ammunition and a Speer Gold Dot .38 Special load. The .357 loads were the 125-grain Defender and the 158-grain hunting load. Both rounds used Speer Gold Dot hollow-points.

Testing revealed two pleasant surprises. First, the loads maintained a high velocity from the short barrel. Average velocity for the 125-grain Defender load was 1,263 feet per second, while the velocity for the 158-grain load was 1,220 feet per second. Both of these rounds readily exceeded the velocity of the 125-grain +P Speer Gold Dot .38 Special loads by a wide margin — average velocity for the .38 was 919 fps, respectable but not up to the .357 Magnum levels. Kinetic energy at the muzzle for all three rounds worked out to be 443, 522 and 234 foot-pounds of energy, respectively. In short, the .357 Magnum has a definite ballistic advantage over the .38 Special when fired from short-barreled revolvers.

 

The trigger of the LCR is nothing short of superb. The length of travel is shorter than most snubs and is as smooth as glass.

 

The second surprise was that shooting the SP101 didn’t hurt. It’s nothing to fear because of the 26-ounce weight and the cushioned rubber grips. While significant, the SP101’s recoil was controllable, making it capable at any reasonable combat distance. Loaded with .357 Magnum rounds, it would also make a great trail companion.

The LCR represents a 25-year technological leap ahead of the SP101. I received a sample with an exposed hammer spur, which allows this version to be fired single action. The standard LCR configuration is hammerless.

Important features of the LCR are the polymer fire control housing, monolithic aluminum upper frame, blackened stainless steel cylinder and interchangeable front sights. The disassembly sequence for the LCR is more complex than the procedure for the SP101. Weight for the .38 +P version is 13.5 ounces.

The front sight features a white strip insert for excellent contrast with the rear groove. Firing the same .38 Special +P Gold Dot loads that I used in the SP101 proved the LCR is a competent defensive snubnosed revolver. Recoil was more than the SP101 loaded with the same rounds but still controllable. The trigger of the LCR is nothing short of superb. The length of travel is shorter than most snubs and is as smooth as glass, while still weighing in at around 12 pounds.

MSRP of the SP101 is $659. MSRP of the LCR is $529.

Smith & Wesson

The S&W 642 in .38 Special is a classic Airweight revolver. The term “Airweight” means that the frame is aluminum, as opposed to steel, stainless steel, Scandium or polymer. It affords good balance of light weight and durability. At 15 ounces, the 642 can handle any .38 Special round on the market — standard, +P or +P+ loads; however, I would take it easy on the +P+ stuff.

What makes the 642 unique in the test group is that it follows the old “Centennial” Smith & Wesson pattern of enclosing the hammer in the frame. This makes the Centennial about as ideal a deep concealed carry firearm as anything on the market. The 642 is one of the few handguns that can be fired until empty from within a coat pocket.

 

I switched my grips out for a set from Crimson Trace because there is one thing lacking with the sights: the front is matte stainless while the rear groove is natural aluminum.

 

The 642 has been a constant companion of mine while off-duty for at least 10 years. It features a standard-weight barrel and comes with rubber grips, and I have run a wide variety of .38 Special loads through it over the years. Most often, the preferred load was the Winchester 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter hollow-point +P load. Today I prefer the 200-grain “Super Police” rounds that I had custom loaded due to their light recoil and tendency to yaw in target. I switched my grips out for a set from Crimson Trace because there is one thing lacking with the sights: the front is matte stainless while the rear groove is natural aluminum. They don’t pick up as nicely as the LCR.

Recoil for the 642 is about the same as the Ruger LCR. With an MSRP of only $469, it’s proven over time to be a good value.

Still Strong

The snubnosed revolver is the oldest surviving concealed carry handgun ever designed. It’s one of the best types, and I carried it as an off-duty handgun the most in my career. Other designs come and go, but the snubnosed revolver will be riding with me in some form for a while.

Related: Don’t make these concealed carry mistakes: Learn your rights to defend and keep yourself out of jail…

On the Web

Charter Arms: charterfirearms.com

Ruger Firearms: ruger.com

Smith & Wesson: smith-wesson.com

Remora Holsters: remoraholsterstore.com

Tuff Products: tuffproducts.com

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