> TEOTWAWKI Blog: The Snub Nose Revolver



The Snub Nose Revolver

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.

.38 Special
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.

Other Considerations
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.


  1. i had a ruger lcr and i liked it. it was light, so very snappy with +p ammo. i ended up selling it because the grips were so wide that it was tough to pocket carry and reliably draw it.

    now, i pocket carry a ruger lcp and i like it much better. it draw much smoother and doesn't get hung up on clothing like the rubber grip did on the lcr. it's 6+1 and magazine changes are quick.

    the only drawback, IMO, is in a close quarters situation. contact shooting with a semi-auto is just not possible. pushing back on the slide if the muzzle is pushed against an attacker will prevent firing.

    i think that some loads from buffalo bore and others will equalize the .380 to other cartridges of comparably sized pistols.

    PS, i've foregone the high viz tape for a garage sale sticker on the front site of my lcp. it's done the trick and takes a couple months to fall off.

  2. So many thoughts:
    -A gun you WILL have is a lot better than one that is going to get left in the safe/ nightstand/ glove box. I regularly carry a Glock 19 but am looking for a smaller pistol for when I can't/ won't do that. Somebody who will not carry a compact or full sized pistol (and is only going to own 1) should sell it and get something they will regularly carry.

    -The manual of arms is somewhat deceiving. It does have the advantage of basically being universal in 'pull trigger till it goes click instead of boom, push cylinder release, extract shells, reload, repeat'. Doesn't really matter if it's a Smith, Ruger, Colt, Charter Arms or Taurus. That is not true with auto's. I know guns pretty well; however I cannot 100% fluidly handle every single pistol out there when I pick it up.

    However this is problematic (sort of like shotguns) because people tend to see the simple manual of arms and get the impression that if somebody can load it and fire a cylinder they are capable with a revolver. Little revolvers are fairly difficult guns to shoot well. I am seriously more afraid of Randy Johnson with a baseball at 20 yards than most folks with a snubby .38.

    That being said they are (especially the decent SW/Colt/Ruger types) capable of surprising mechanical accuracy. I remember Massad Ayoob talking about testing groupings with a bunch of snubbies at 100 meters and getting 12" and tighter groups. Granted most folks aren't Mr Ayoob but it shows they can get better through training.

    I could probably say more but am tired of writing. Good post!

    1. Very unlikely you could justify a self defense shooting at 20yards. These guns have a purpose, and its self defense = 6 yrds and closing.

  3. highdesertlivinJanuary 24, 2013

    Nine out of ten times you will find me w/ A340 m&p ti scandium 357 loaded w/ speer gold dot 130 gr +p .38,and 1 speed loader. So light and compact never have a reason (maybe swimmming)to not carry.Good article thanks. Oh from a prtepper point of view .357 better way to go, more ammo options.

    1. Highdesertlivin, I thought about the ammo availability point for awhile. First in my experience most folks who have a .357 mag have roughly 10-25% .357 ammo and the remainder is .38 special just due to cost. Secondly for ME the $300 price difference for an already expensive for what it is pistol was just too much to bear. However if I stumble into 1 at a deal down the road it will come home.

  4. About the 'not on a ban' comment - true, but I'm sure that will change very soon. The statistics clearly point out that its HANDGUNS which are involved in many shootings, they are just wanting to get the 'scary black guns' first. But I'd bet you a donut that handgun size restrictions are coming, especially on those deadly 'hide-outs'.

    Bottom line - as semi-autos already have happened, the price on a concealable designed handgun will likely sky rocket. If you are interested, I'd pony up as soon as possible.

    Just my feelings on that subject.

    1. While there's certainly many who would try, I think we're a long ways off from a ban on concealable sized handguns. 'sides, there a bajillion of 'em out there and they're small and easy to hide, so they'd be pretty difficult to round up en masse.

      Snubs have also been around so long that there are plenty of them available via private party sale...at least for the time being.

  5. As always, TEOTWAWKI is a great web-blog to read and ponder!

    Here are a couple of extra pennies,

    I have allot of experience with small revolvers and I find some of the stereotypes about them are frequently unjustified. First, I've been carrying handguns off and on for 30 years (legally with a permit). I've carried everything from an old S&W mod 59 (I hated that beast) to my newest pet a Smith Wesson Model 340pd .357 magnum. The 340pd I bought 7 years ago and it has been a true constant companion in my pocket or on my belt almost always. The 340pd is a J frame made of some exotic metals that I can hardly pronounce and it is equipped with an internal hammer making it snag free on the draw. I’ve run over 3,000 rounds through my 340pd, 70% .38 practice ammo, 30% Magnums of all stripes. I've work outdoors allot here in Colorado on ranches and in the National Forest as a hunting guide. So far I've taken two coyotes with my "snubbie". One was shot at 15 yards, after running him down with my pickup, and one was taken at 35 yards measured in a pasture. He jumped out of a ditch and just stood there looking at me because he couldn’t tell I was armed. My experience with these guns is that they are like all handguns. They require regular practice to be consistent with. That said I’ve learned that quality guns in this class are very inherently accurate.

    I’ve taught many good folks to use handguns and I’m not sure this gun is a lot more difficult to master than say my Glock 19. The two guns are different and each of them has their own challenges. The Glock has better ergonomics but is a more complex system overall. My experience teaching with these guns is that neither can be mastered in one range session but both may be mastered with a weekend of intensive study and regular ongoing practice. I think the same is true for the Glock 26, which is Glock’s 9mm answer to the Snub nose revolver.

    The benefit of the J frame revolver over a semi auto pistol is that it matches the semi auto’s power in a much more concealable, workable, and still accurate enough package. For carry ammunition I have settled on the Speer, Gold Dot, Short-Barrel .357 magnums. These launch a 135 grain bonded Gold Dot bullet at around 1050 fps. The load is specialized to reduce muzzle flash. It recoils a bit smarter than a similar .38 +P load but is still controllable for follow-up shots. Out in the woods, I normally carry Federal “low recoil” .357 magnum loads. These produce a velocity of around 1150 fps with a 130 grain hydra-shok bullet. This is a stiff load but I like it’s performance a bit better if I happen to find myself, point blank, nose to nose with a mountain lion or black bear. Yes, I know it would make more sense to pack a rifle or at least my Python when I’m out in the woods but I find it a distraction to lug all of that steel around. I have confidence in my snubbie, both in the wilds or in the urban jungle.

    I think J Frame types pistols are very solid, modern, performers and a great gun to have with you. Always!


    1. Colorado -

      Great points! The exotic metal is scandium, I think.

  6. My husband bought me a snubbie .357...with a pink handle of course...for Christmas two years ago. The first time I shot it was with .357 and I will admit, I hated it. It kicked far more than either of my Glocks (9 & 40) but once my husband changed the rounds to .38 I find it very easy to handle/shoot. It is not the gun I choose to carry but this bad girl sits on my nightstand for sure.

  7. Ruger SP101 is a nice revolver, its small enough to carry concealed, but its HEAVY. For that reason alone I prefer a kel-tec 9MM. Its so light I forget its there sometimes.

    1. I have a double action 101 as my carry gun. Yes, it is a bit on the heavy side, but no heavier than any compact semi. The thing is pretty darned near indestructible, and will shoot +P loads forever without problems. Try shooting a few hundred loads of +P through a 642 and see how it holds up. My 101 is probably my "for the rest of my life" gun, along with my 870 shotty.

  8. .38 snubby is a great choice for realistic self defence encounters. Personally, I'd be inclined to invest a lot more time and cash into my edc handgun and training with it than I would on almost anything else - infinitely more likely to be what saves your life than the AK at home. (Of course that is until the zombies outnumber the muggers, then things might change!)

  9. Try this unload your revolver double check to make sure it is unloaded and grab the top of it. Try to pull the trigger. The fact it the equivalent to putting a semi in battery can also be done with a revolver. That being said know your firearm its characteristics its weak points and how to correct them if they happen.

    1. The difference with a revolver is that after the pressure is removed from the cylinder, you can start firing again immediately. The semi you'll probably need to rack the slide or smack it to get it to go back into battery.

      And that's to say nothing of jams from firing from close proximity/tangle/clinch range. Anything hits the slide of that semi is likely to cause a malfunction.

    2. There are a lot more things that will put a semi auto out of action. A semi put in battery, jammed in clothing, a limp wrist due to a struggle. As Alexander Wolfe noted it is a lot more likely for a semi auto to jam in this situation than a revolver.

      To me the biggest benefit of a revolver in this scenario is the 'contact shot'. You can stuff a revolver barrel into somebody's abdomen and squeeze the trigger till it's empty. Most modern auto's would not be able to do that.

      To me the uuber CQB angle is negligible.

      I do not worry about the other guy disabling my gun (the concern is more how things can go with a gun, particularly an auto in a fight). That is Lethal Weapon type fantasy. More to the point. If I am fighting somebody who can prevent me from killing him while simultaneously having the capability to think and disable my weapon I am probably hosed anyway.

      In a hands on scenario I am disinclined to take out a gun for a lot of reasons. If I were to do so the best gun would be a really heavy one like a USGI 1911 or full sized steel .357 magnum. They would serve the same role a rock or brick would in bashing the heck out of the other guy.

    3. Ryan -

      How can you think that your gun being disabled in a fight is Lethal Weapon type fantasy? If you have a gun and the other guy is within contact range, you can bet he's going to be grabbing it, trying to wrestle it away. He may not be consciously trying to disable the gun, but his actions would have much the same effect.

      Here's an ECQC evo from a South Narc training class that shows a very possible progression of an encounter a CCW holder could have. Click for YouTube video .

      Note the focus on the gun. Eventually, GG gets handgun free, dumps SIM rounds into both attackers before they wrestle him to the ground, take gun, clear jam, shoot him and then beat him with empty weapon.

    4. Alex, Think we are saying the same thing in a different way. I was talking more about the comment that somebody can pinch the cylinder of a revolver than the general jammability of guns in fights. Guns are disabled at hands on range. Guns being jammed/ mags dropped/ etc all during the course of fighting for the gun in a close struggle/ fight I can see for sure. Being disabled because the other guy knows the perfect way to pull the slide off/ pinch the cylinder etc to jam your gun, no. See what I am saying?

      The video is interesting. The problem with SIM as a reality check is that it is only valid of folks who are shot behave like they have ACTUALLY BEING SHOT. Guys you shoot in the chest do not just keep wrestling you like nothing happened. Not saying they fall down and die in place but it affects them.

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

  10. For years I've loved my snub S&W .357 but just last week picked up a used Ruger LCR .38 and whoa... that thing is a cannon. My hand was so sore! Due to the size and weight of the .357 I often didn't carry it, it's difficult to conceal with female clothing but the LCR is no trouble. Although I love the LCR for the smaller size and weight that old .357 doesn't feel like there's any recoil at all in comparison now!

  11. I've found that j-frames are almost to small for my hands. I still like them and own several. An older colt cobra or detective special is a small amount larger and holds 6 rounds, and no stinking lock. After reading a bunch, I like the old fashioned 158gr lead SWC hollow point +p. It is supposed to work well out of a short barreled revolver and I find that it goes to the same point of aim as regular 158gr rounds. Also in a cobra with rubber grips it is a pussy cat to shoot. That cobra is quite light and sometimes I forget its on me!I'm something of a gun glutton so I also like a bunch of stuff but what ever.....

  12. I am looking for a small and compact gun. I live in alaska and earthquakes are common. But one night the tsnumai sirens went off and we couldnt get all our gear. About 2 miles from our house we rendevoued with two other familys. We then realized that we left our house unlocked in the hurry and had to send a few of the men back. All they had was bear protection. With the 454's they had they would blow a guy in half. We are looking for a small load but big enough to stop someone temporarlily.

    1. If you're open carrying a gun for bear, that should suffice against a human foe, should it not? A small gun like the snub nose only really excels when concealment is a prime consideration.

      When firearms are brought into play, there's not really a "temporary" stop - all firearms can turn lethal. If you're looking for something expressly non-lethal, you'll need to look elsewhere.

  13. The benefit of a snub nose comes down to this, size and shape. It fits in your hand, on your belt, in your pocket. It doesn't print like autos do. Its rounded edges tend not to poke and snag. And it actually fits in your hand comfortably (never had a snub nose that didn't).

    All that and it packs a hell of a punch. I got mine as a novelty and though I often carry my Glock 22, I have found that its comfort makes me more likely to carry it everywhere.

  14. I'm a little confused by a comment you made in your article. You stated a S&W 642 was your choice as a carry gun for 2 years and then later in the article you stated you hadn't landed on a particular round for self-defense. I found that odd, after all this time you haven't picked a carry round. What do you normally carry ?

    1. I carry Federal Nyclads in the cylinder and usually Winchester Silvertips as reloads. Have some Gold Dot short barrel stuff floating around, too.

    2. Thanks for your reply, I have a 637 and carry Federal Nyclads as well. Always looking at options and wanted to know what you thought was a good round in the airweight.