The Enduring Snubnose
Almost since handguns hit the scene there has been an effort to reduce their size for carrying and concealment purposes. Examples would include the small derringers and pepperbox handguns that settled many a dispute over who actually won a hand of poker. The Peacemaker had its barrel shortened and ejector rod removed and was sold as the "Sheriff's Model" if memory serves.
The trend continued into the 20th century as well. John M. Browning and others were designing and companies making various "pocket" automatics that sold like hotcakes.
During the last century, another pocket gun came on the scene and remains popular to this day; it is the snubnose revolver. Initially, about the only quality snubs were made by Colt and Smith & Wesson, but these days, we find primarily S&W, Ruger, and Taurus dominating that market niche with Rossi and Charter Arms trailing.
Why is this so? Why does the "antiquated" snub continue to garner a sizeable share of the concealed carry market when the more "advanced" compact automatics are so available? Once the province of the .32 and .380 ACP, very small pistols chambered in 9mm and forty are readily available. Either of these ballistically surpass the .38 Special out of a short barrel and most hold more than the 5 (six at most) shots offered by the revolver.
The Colt Agent was an attempt to further reduce the weight and already small size of Colt's immensely popular Detective Special. This revolver has an aluminum frame and the grip has been shortened a fraction of an inch from that of the aluminum-framed Cobra or all steel Detective Special. These revolvers competed against not only the popular S&W K-frame Model 10 and 12, but their diminutive J-frame models like the Model 36, 37, 38, etc., as well as those versions with aluminum "Airweight" frames. Not much larger than the J-frame, the Colt Detective Special et al, held 6 shots like the K-frames and this was touted as an advantage in the old Colt ads.
I believe that there are several reasons for the long and continuing "life" of the snub. Some might be pretty obvious while others are more subtle. If the perspective buyer of a defensive handgun is choosing a snub as his primary defensive weapon to the exclusion of others, he's almost certainly "into protection," but not really "into guns." It's a safe bet that most of us believe that there are certainly better primary defense handguns with which to deal with the majority of self-protection scenarios. "Thirty-eight special" has name recognition and most are aware that it was the predominant police service cartridge in the US for many decades. This person may not be aware of what a 9mm or .40 actually are. This description does not fit all buyers of snubs of course, but will describe some. Others will appreciate the simplicity of use while some will like the fact that it is small, not realizing that more practice and skill is required to use the little thing effectively. Some, not locked into the idea of revolver only, will look at the .38 Special cartridge next to a .380 or 9mm and because it's larger assume that it just must be more "powerful".
A substantial number of the snubs are sold as backup or secondary concealed weapons for those very serious about self-protection or in law enforcement. In this role, I think the snub comes into its own and remains an extremely good choice.
This S&W Model 642 fired the discontinued Corbon 115-gr +P+ JHP at an average velocity of 1188 ft/sec. Current Corbon 110-gr JHP +P hit almost exactly the same average velocity from the little gun. With most factory loads, 9mm standard pressure ammo will soundly beat any of the +P thirty-eight's out of the snub. This does show that there are exceptions to every rule. I do not carry this load, as I believe it too "hot" for the J-frame's thin forcing cone. (It is "memorable" to shoot, too!)
The snub is often recommended as a gun for the non-shooter who wants a self-defense handgun; I think that's partially wrong. While I do agree with the revolver part of the suggestion, I believe that the ability to get decent hits with the snub is proportionately more difficult than the difference in barrel lengths between the 3 or 4" revolver. It has been my observation that the small snubs require practice in order to be effectively used. For the neophyte, the increased recoil of the little gun can be detrimental as well.
Yet, the small snubs continue to sell.
No longer in police service, my orbits are extremely tame and my lifestyle, low-risk. Yet, I have seen "what is out there," and insist on being armed 24/7. I've tried several handguns for this role and after several years of "experimenting," have settled on the S&W J-frame, almost always a Model 642. It is the right size and weight for pocket carry and an extra speed loader in my pocket offers a total of ten rounds and carries easier than a spare magazine for an automatic. Though I much prefer the looks of a blued revolver, the stainless steel is more practical here in Texas where we have two versions of hot weather: summer and super-summer! Five shots has nothing to spare and is less than I prefer between reloads, but it is probably sufficient for unexpected encounters of the worst kind that I'm likely to face.
These two loads are my first choices for self-protection in my J-frame snubs. On the left is the now discontinued standard pressure Federal 125-gr Nyclad hollow point. On the right is Remington's 158-gr +P lead semiwadcutter hollow point. The Federal load is more pleasant to shoot and averages nearly 900 ft/sec from my Model 042, and a bit slower from my stainless one. Likewise, the Remington round averages about 838 ft/sec from the blue 042 and 800 ft/sec from the 642. Neither is a powerhouse, but with placement does offer at least viable terminal ballistics. The snub is a compromise in my opinion. We sacrifice some "firepower" for convenience in a gun that is so capable of always "being there."
I find the convenience and reliability of this revolver to meet my perceived needs for daily wear around the house and in my low-risk activity. It is on my person from when I get up until I go to retire for bed and then, it is near by. Is it the perfect defense gun? Certainly not, but there are niches it fills better for me than any other handgun I've tried.
The majority of handgun shooters that I'm acquainted with own at least one thirty-eight snub and while the small 9mm's like the Glock 26 or Kahr series have made inroads into the BUG market, something keeps the little snubnoses selling, too. I suggest it is their simplicity, proven design, "style recognition," and reliability. For someone willing to invest the time in quality practice, I think they'll meet most of the deadly force scenarios that the private citizen might encounter. Actually, I usually bet my life on it, as the snub is all I'll have the majority of the time. I do not believe that it meets all requirements that a defensive handgun might be called upon to meet and if a person's interested in but one handgun to do this, I respectfully suggest that it be either a service type automatic or 4" K-frame revolver. I'd pick either over the snub if I knew a fight was imminent and forced to use a handgun.
While snubs are available in the larger revolvers like this S&W Model 19, I think they make more sense in the smaller size revolvers. This K-frame .357 is too large for pocket carry unlike the J's, and when carried on a belt, the 4" gun is about as easy to carry while offering superior ballistics and longer sight radius.
The little snub guns filled a perceived need or niche in the handgun market, particularly as more and more states pass concealed carry laws for their citizens. I think we'll see the gun in some form or another for many years to come. S&W and Taurus offer a myriad of models in this type revolver and today, one can buy an all-steel or aluminum-framed snub or go with the newer titanium or scandium revolvers.
For the person not really "into shooting," but wanting to cover all bases for a defensive battery of handguns, these two S&W revolvers would be a very viable choice in my opinion.
The snub .38 is a compromise as is the case with many things in life. With some understanding of what it can realistically do combined with quality practice, I think it offers quite a bit for folks concerned with personal safety.