Beneath every handgun-lover’s skin, down through the lethal layers of big Colt 1911 sand high-capacity Glocks, beats a heart that still warms to the sight of a small-frame Smith& Wesson .38 Special revolver with a snubby two-inch barrel. We’re all human, after all, and even today’s post-modern pistolero is capable of a little romance.
Not that the curvaceously compact snub-nosed revolver is a thing of the past. A well-placed 158-grain bullet at 755 fps, or maybe a 110-grain bullet at 1000 fps can protect you quite well from most any of life’s dangers for which you routinely carry a gun, and the shapely little .38 is easier and friendlier to live with than most.
Smith & Wesson was founded on small revolvers. From about 1880, when Colt was filling Western holster rigs with big single-action 44s and 45s, S&W was turning out double-action 32s and 38s for the pockets of city folk. In 1950, Smith introduced a new gun especially for discreet carry by plainclothes law enforcement officers. Today it would be called a concealed carry gun.
The revolver was built on the new J-frame, slightly larger than the firm’s smallest I-frame, and its cylinder chambered five rounds of S&W’s .38 Special, more powerful than the 19th century .38 S&W cartridge which was the maximum the I-frame could handle. The J-frame Smith was also noticeably smaller than the original “belly gun,” the Colt Detective Special, also in .38 Special, which was the standard six-shot Colt Police Positive duty gun with its barrel shortened to two inches. The new breakthrough Smith & Wesson was introduced at the 1950 Conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and was known thereafter as the Chief’s Special.
That first Chief’s Special, later catalogued as the Model 36, without losing any of its pioneering more-power-in-a-smaller-package character, spawned variations which are still multiplying to this day. Introduced as an all-steel gun, it was soon followed by “Airweight” aircraft aluminum alloy-framed models, later by stainless steel, finally by a super-lightweight scandium alloy frame with a titanium cylinder. You could have a round or square butt frame, fixed or adjustable sights, metal finished in blue, chrome, anodized aluminum, or polished stainless.
Calibers available included .22 rimfire, .32 S&W, .38 S&W, .38 Special at standard and +P pressures, 9mm with a full-moon clip, and today even .357 Magnum. You could have the conventional double-action/single-action exposed hammer model, or the shrouded-hammer “Bodyguard” which still permitted single-action cocking, or the enclosed-hammer double-action-only “Centennial.” Typically unsatisfactory double-action revolver grips were standard at first, followed by even thinner grips on the “Lady Smith” models and finally, thankfully, by hand-filling “boot grips.”
For daily concealed carry by most people, an Airweight loaded with standard-velocity .38 Specials offers a beautifully balanced power-to-weight ratio in a small gun that’s a delight to carry and very easy to conceal. For pocket or purse carry, the slick Bodyguard and Centennial models prevent snagging the hammer on the draw. Boot grips, in rubber or wood, either as furnished from the factory or as a custom item, make this little gun eminently controllable.
Of course, it’s also possible to take the gun to extremes. A good friend of mine up in Idaho, Chad Hyslop, recently bought a S&W model 340PD. That’s the concealed-hammer model with a scandium alloy frame and titanium cylinder, barrel under two inches, weight under 12 ounces, chambered and rated for full-house .357 Magnum ammo. Chad is a thoroughly experienced handgunner who usually carries a .45 auto, but is attracted to the concealability of the snubby revolver and the proven stopping power of hot .357 Magnum loads.
“Despite a pouring rainstorm we took the gun to the range Saturday. At eight yards I had no trouble keeping five shots in a neat palm-sized group on a four-by-four wood post. The gun swings into position naturally, and the sights track well for me. The 125-grain Federal Personal Protection .357 Magnum Jacketed Hollowpoint loads went right through the four-by-four, penetrated the thick chipboard backstop, and left a big hole.
All the .357 Magnum loads hurt to shoot, especially when I tried some CorBon and some 145-grain Federal hunting loads at something like 1480 feet-per-second. Nine shots of .357 was enough for my first day, and left my wrist feeling a little abused and the beginnings of a blister on my hand and trigger finger. The .38 Special Winchester target loads were very comfortable to shoot, however. No more recoil than my Kimber .45 or 9mm Glock. Really mild. I could’ve shot those all day if it hadn’t been raining so hard.
The gun is phenomenally light. Every time I pick it up I still can’t believe it, and my hand jerks up with the gun because I’m expecting more weight. It’s incredibly concealable, too. I forget I’m even wearing it, which is a first.”
You’ll hear arguments for and against every single defining feature of the snubby.
Many will say that, in an age of more powerful high-capacity semiautomatics, the little five-shot revolver is hopelessly outclassed, underpowered and obsolete. The fact is, unless you are planning to lay siege to a crack-house or break your bad-seed cousin out of a maximum security facility, five shots is more than you will ever need in almost any imaginable kind of realistic defensive confrontation. And a little practice with a speed loader will allow you to recharge your revolver almost as fast as an automatic.
Conventional wisdom in law enforcement has it that high-capacity autos just give the poorly trained officer more rounds to miss with. Random flying bullets do not make up for a well-placed shot, and relying on the seemingly bottomless pit of a big fat magazine can reduce an undisciplined shooter to the reckless spray-and-pray mode. As in all forms of dangerous-game hunting, bullet placement—that means accurate shooting—most especially first bullet placement, is more important than anything else, including the caliber of the bullet being placed. Make the first shot count and you will probably not need a second, much less a third, fourth or fifth, though an insurance shot or two is always a good idea.
As far as power goes, a standard velocity .38 Special loaded with a good modern hollow point bullet is equally as effective as .45 ACP hardball, according to the people who document such things, and the hyper-velocity .357 Magnum still has a significantly better record of one-shot stops on the street than any semi-auto cartridge.
You may feel more confident with two hands full of .45 cartridges than a small handful of .38s, but that is more in the nature of your own psychological insecurities than anything else. The gun is as good as it has always been, and that has been good enough to save the lives of more cops over its 55-year history than probably all other concealable police weapons combined.
Accuracy? At combat distances you can shoot the buttons off the shirt of the bad guy with a little practice, and I have never fired a snubby that was not capable of grouping all five rounds on a heart-size target at 50 yards. The only potential problem of shooting the short-barreled revolver accurately is the extremely short sighting plane, the distance between front and rear sights being only about 3 1/2 inches, which means that any lack of precision in your sight alignment will be multiplied greatly as the range increases.
The solution is therefore to work on maintaining a perfectly aligned sight picture. As most snubbies tend to be carried a lot and shot very little, most people simply do not practice enough with the little gun. There was the case of the off-duty cop whose wife was being held as a shield by an armed robber in a convenience store. The cop, armed with his backup two-inch, decided to go for the head shot, missed, shot and killed his wife instead. This was a case, not of an inaccurate gun, but an inaccurate shooter.
The smoothness and consistency of the Smith & Wesson double-action trigger pull is usually excellent, even straight from the factory, and some judicious work by a competent gunsmith can make it smooth and consistent almost beyond belief. This is why virtually all shooters in revolver competition use Smith & Wesson handguns. Accuracy potential in double-action mode is impressive indeed, but accuracy potential in single-action mode with its short, crisp trigger pull is ever better. Shooting one-handed and cocking your revolver with your shooting-hand thumb is painfully slow and awkward but, given a proper two-handed grip, using your weak-hand thumb to cock your hammer between shots is both fast and secure.
We all know that the most important quality of a concealed carry gun is reliability. No shooter with any experience will argue that a semi-auto is more reliable than a revolver, but there are plenty who will argue that it is equally so. They will point out that a revolver is more complex and fragile than a semi-auto, has more moving parts that can break or get clogged up with dust and dirt or frozen with corrosion, cylinders whose rotation can get out-of-time, chambers that are open to the elements. These arguments are technically true, but almost wholly irrelevant in the context of the real world. In reality, semi-autos sometimes fail, revolvers almost never.
I’ve been shooting pistols and revolvers for something like half a century, and could not begin to count the number of times a semi-auto has failed to extract a spent cartridge from the chamber, failed to eject it properly, failed to pick up a fresh round from the magazine, things that are impossible with a revolver, which will fire pretty much anything you can stuff into the cylinder without regard for bullet shape, velocity, pressure or even dented cases. I can recall only one time when a revolver failed to fire, the result of a too-light hammer fall from a competition-tuned gun on a too-hard primer. The solution was simply to pull the trigger again, serving up a fresh cartridge that fired with no problem, something that is impossible with a semi-auto.
The revolver may be a more complex mechanism than a semi-auto, but the actual dynamics of its firing is considerably less complex and therefore less likely to fail. It’s that simple, all falsely stretched arguments to the contrary notwithstanding. As the primary concealed carry weapon for civilians, an emergency backup for heavily armed professionals, an extra bit of insurance that rests in the nightstand or desk drawer, the snub-nosed .38 Special revolver is without peer.
In the end, the deadliest enemy of any concealed carry gun is not abusive use but simple neglect. The S&W J-frame was made to be neglected, its solitary existence seldom enlivened by social interaction with other guns, warm human hands, regular rapid-fire feasts or even the occasional affair with a sweet-smelling cleaning rod. The vintage Chief’s Special I used in this story, the one that looks like it was recently retrieved from a toxic landfill, actually came directly from a retired detective’s concealed holster, where it had rested almost completely undisturbed for 30 years. I took the little gun directly to the range, wiped off some of the accumulated crud and expected it to perform flawlessly, which it did. It’s awfully hard to resist that kind of charm.
[ Robert H. Boatman is the author of Paladin Press books Living With Glocks, Living With The Big .50, Living With The 1911, and soon to be released Living With The AR-15. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org ]