The short barrel, snub nose revolver has been a self defense staple for decades, and they remain a viable option today, even in the face of stiff competition from pocket sized .380 and 9mm semi-autos. A snubbie - a S&W 642 - has been my personal daily carry handgun of choice for going on two years, and my recent pocket dump has sparked a bit of interested around snubbies for conceal carry, so I wanted to give a quick run down on some of the pros, cons and things to think about when looking at a snub nose revolver for your personal carry.
And by snub nose revolver here, I'm talking about J-frame Smith & Wessons, Ruger SP101s and similar size guns from the other makers like Taurus and Charter, with a ballpark 2-inch barrel. I realize that you can have larger revolvers with a short barrel, but those are a different discussion entirely.
First off, I wanted to point you to this stopping power study that was recently posted; the results are in line with other ballistics studies that I've seen. The short version: there's little real world performance difference between .38 Special, 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP when using modern jacketed hollow points. They penetrate similarly and expand to similar sizes. All are poor performers when compared to a centerfire rifle or a shotgun. Shot placement is going to be more important than whether its a 9mm or a .45 or a .38. The venerable .38 special, with the right load, will be fairly comparable ballistically to the other major handgun calibers you may be considering.
.38 Special vs. .357 Magnum
Next, let's take a brief look at .357 Magnum out of a short barrel, in comparison to .38 +P. The .38 Special and .357 magnum have the same size of bullet, but the .357 is going to be loaded hotter. That gets you more power out of the barrel (+200 to 300 ft p/s from the ballistics numbers I've seen), but that extra speed comes at the price of recoil, flash, noise and an overall lower controllability. All of those are bad things and are going to reduce your rate of fire, the accuracy of follow-up shots and cause other issues.
Most guys who have Airweight .357s run exactly one cylinder of Magnums through them and then, after icing their hand, decide to run .38s through it going forward. It's not something most are eager to practice with on a regular basis, and that's no good, either. If the extra power is important to you, I would look into a steel gun with good rubber grips to help mitigate some of the recoil. If you can handle .357 Magnums out of a snub nosed revolver without a significant decrease in performance though, the extra power is probably worthwhile.
That said, if you want to have the capability to run .357s just in case and don't mind the extra $100-$300 a .357 Magnum snub will run you over a .38, then there's not a real downside to having a .357 and running .38s in it.
My snub is a .38 Special. I haven't landed on a single choice for carry ammo yet, but tend to be more concerned with controllability than getting a little bit of extra power out of it.
Snubs also come in other calibers - you can step up to .44 Special or step down to .22 Magnum or .22 lr. For the especially recoil sensitive, a .22 Magnum snub could be a decent compromise.
Downsides of the Snub Nose
I'll just bullet point these out:
- Low ammunition capacity: 5 rounds is the standard for a snub. A pocket .380 or 9mm will usually be 6+1 rounds, in a fairly similar sized package. Will 5 rounds be enough? Most of the time, yes. Very few self defense shootings go more than 5 shots...but, having more in the gun is obviously better.
- Slow reload times: With speed loaders and a lot of practice, you can actually get fairly respectable reload times. This guy (Claude Werner, well regarded snubbie trainer) is an example of how fast you can get. But, you'll still be slower than semi auto's magazine, and speed loaders are prone to more problems and fumbling than a regular mag, too.
- Recoil: Airweights kick, especially with +P loads. This can pose a problem for practice and controllability when shooting rapidly. Big rubber grips can help substantially, but they also bump a snub nose up to the next size category. Steel guns will recoil less, but they're also substantially heavier.
- Trigger: Double action trigger on a snubbie is very heavy and very long. It's not all bad - you're really very unlikely to accidentally pull the trigger on a snub. But, it's going to slow down your shooting and take some getting used to. The stock trigger pull on a S&W J-frame is somewhere around 12 pounds, and not particularly smooth, either.
- Sights: The sights on the snub often get a bad rap, but they're not as horrible as they're made out to be, and especially when compared to other small guns. A bit of high viz paint on the front sight certainly helps. Many models come with bigger/better sights these days too, which is probably worth the extra coin.
|The 642's current grips - S&W Dymondwood grips and a Tyler T-Grip|
Life is full of compromises, and carrying a concealed handgun is no different. If you can carry a larger, more capable handgun than a snubbie, I would recommend doing so. But, if you're limited to a small handgun for whatever reason, then the snubbie does has some unique advantages over similar sized weapons.
- Concealable: The shape of the snub, and especially the curve of the grip, often make it much easier to conceal than a comparably sized semi-auto. In a pocket, it doesn't look much like a gun. Inside a waistband, it can be much more comfortable, with no beavertail to dig into your abdomen. The snub can be concealed readily in almost any attire - it's really a gun that you can always have with you, without too much hassle.
- Simple Manual of Arms: Teaching someone how to operate a revolver takes all of about thirty seconds. Open cylinder, load or unload and close cylinder when done. Pull trigger to make it go bang. There's no slide to bust open thumbs due to poor grip technique.
- Less likely to jam: While revolvers have their own malfunctions, they are less likely to jam up than a semi automatic. "5 for sure" is often said. This goes along with the simple manual of arms - clearing a jam? What's that? If you get a dud round, just pull the trigger again.
- Heavy D/A Trigger: You're going to have a really hard time accidentally shooting yourself with a snub - that heavy trigger is going to take a deliberate pull, not go off if snagged in some clothing. This provides a certain amount of peace of mind and added measure of safety when carrying.
- Better in a close quarters "gun grapple": A semi auto can be easily knocked out of battery or jam up in an up close and personal struggle. Then you're not only trying to fight off the aggressor, but clear a jam from your weapon, too. The longer barrel can provide a point of leverage for an attacker to wrestle the gun away, too. A snub revolver (especially a hammerless or shrouded hammer) is not going to jam up in grappling, contact-distance shooting conditions, and the short barrel provides nothing for an attacker to grab onto.
- Plenty of Aftermarket Support: There are holsters galore for snubbies, in every design imaginable, because people have been carrying them day-in, day-out for decades. Speed strips, speed loaders, and replacement grips are also easy to find and generally inexpensive. Getting yourself set up to carry a snubbie is very easy to do.
- Not on any "ban" list.
- Unlikely to ever see a run on .38 Special ammunition
- Can fire a wide variety of loads without hiccups: Snake shot? Fire away, with no concerns of jams.
- Brass is easy to retain: No hunting for your spent brass all over the range; handy for reloaders, brass hoarders and the lazy.
I'm sure I'll come up with a few more - but, for their downsides, snub revolvers do certainly have some upsides.
Accuracy: Snub revolvers are often referred to as "belly guns" for their supposed inaccuracy, but that reputation is usually due to the combination of sights, trigger pull, recoil and lack of practice. Most of my practice with my 642 has been at around 10-12 yards (minimum range for the shooting range) and groups on 8" targets was no problem at these ranges. I've gone out as far as 50 yards, and with aimed shots, was able to get hits on torso-sized targets without too much difficulty.
Cost: A new in box Charter Arms or Taurus will run around $300, while a new S&W 642 or 442 will run around $400. You can find deals on used revolvers pretty readily. The accessories you need are minimal and generally inexpensive - no need for a dozen $30-$40 magazines.
Models: While the Smith and Wessons are generally considered the gold standard, I haven't been overly impressed by my 642. Were I do buy another snubbie, I would give a hard look at Ruger's offerings, and consider spending a bit more on a nicer S&W. If you can, get a model without an integrated "lawyer lock", and where you can swap out the front sight if desired.
If you're thinking about a snubbie, I would try to get some hands-on time with one if possible, so you know what you're looking at in terms of the downsides I mention above. I've got mixed feelings about mine - it's not a ton of fun to shoot, but it does provide a challenge and fills its concealed carry niche fairly well. They're not perfect, but nothing is.
In the quest for "perfection," I will probably be diving into one of the similarly sized pocket 9s that have come out in the part year or so as a possible replacement for my 642.