A "Short" Look at Snubs
By Stephen Camp
Popular now for well over a century, the snub revolver continues being produced by several manufacturers in a fair number of calibers. Some "gun people" really like them while others side with the compact automatics. I prefer the snub-nosed revolver to all others for pocket carry.
Why is it that the snub continues to be used and available from the small J-frame Smith & Wesson's and Taurus revolvers to large frame giants from S&W? Why is it that some of us continue to use the limited-capacity snub in this age of autoloaders?
In short, what is the appeal of the snub? Which are the best? What's the best caliber to get?
I won't be able to cover each and every version made, but will pass along that which I have learned through long-term use. I'll try to be objective as I can, but I'm sure some subjectivity will creep through. Please forgive an old man his transgressions!
While this piece will focus on double-action revolvers, it's probably a fair bet that the cut-down Colt Peacemaker was one of the first snubs used in this country. Sans an ejector system it was slower to reload than those having longer barrel lengths. This unfortunate description holds true with the 1 7/8" barrel snubs of today as well as those having 2 1/2 to 3" barrels, depending upon caliber. It is ironic that a last ditch panic backup or in some cases, primary defense arm would be somewhat diminished in rapid-reload capability, but such is the case. That does not mean that they cannot be reloaded quickly. It does mean that practice is essential.
Uninformed individuals have stated that the snub is "inaccurate." It is not, but that statement is. Mechanically, the snub-nose is generally capable of very good accuracy. The rub is in the gun's practical accuracy. They are more difficult to shoot well. The very things that make them convenient as easily concealed carry guns work against them in being able to make precise shots quickly. Short sight radius allows for more gross sighting errors. Reduced weight results in greater felt recoil, which can lead to flinching. Compact size can make for a less comfortable gun to hold. On the smaller examples of the gun, sights can be difficult to see. None of these characteristics aid the shooter in getting precise hits as easily as he or she might with another type handgun.
Let's take a look at some of the snub-nose revolvers frequently used today.
S&W J-Frames: In my opinion these are the ne plus ultra of the breed. There are more than a few versions of these little guns from which to choose. So far I have found no gun that suits me as well as one of these, but that comes with a caveat: I will not own one having the key lock. Though I have not heard of any locking up when being fired, I abhor the way these guns look and what that lock represents. Others will feel differently.
Though they can be had in scandium and other super lightweight materials, I do not recommend going lighter than the aluminum-frame "Airweight" series. The slight reduction in weight offered by the more modern J-frames (titanium) simply does not balance well with me when there are limitations on both allowable bullet weight as well as cleaning procedures that can harm them. The steel, stainless steel, and aluminum frame revolvers avoid all this.
I strongly prefer the Airweight J's. The steel guns are probably stronger and capable of a greater number of hot loads and have less felt-recoil, but I prefer the ease of pocket holster carry with the Airweight. I find the steel guns just a bit too heavy for such. Having said that, either will do and some very informed shooters I have known went with the heavier steel J-frames.
Model 36 Chief's Special: Introduced during the middle of the last century this is the one that started the S&W J-frame .38 Special "craze". This 5-shooter sired the rest of the Smith & Wesson J-frame flock. I strongly suspect it was much more popular than the less potent "Terrier" chambered in .38 S&W. Frequently said to have "2-inch" barrels, the actual length is 1 7/8". I've owned more than a few of these in both the standard 1 7/8" barrel to the 3" versions, both "skinny" and "heavy" barrel. Usually found with fixed sights, some versions have been offered with adjustable ones. The revolver was chambered for .38 Special, but could be had with square or round butt. Designated by different model numbers, essentially the same guns could be had in .22lr or .22 magnum. These usually bore "Kit Gun" somewhere in their descriptions.
Model 37 Airweight: This is an aluminum frame Chief's Special sporting the same external hammer, DA/SA capability, and 5-shot capacity. Like the Model 36, these could be had with steel parts blue and the aluminum frame dark anodized to match or nickel-plated all over. They too were available in round or square butt. These weigh in at about 15 ounces, about 5 ounces less than the Model 36.
Over the years I carried several Model 36 or 37 revolvers as a working police officer. Either worked fine inside the pocket of the old "tuffy jacket" worn by most uniformed officers, but I began to have fewer of the "heavy" snubs and more of the Airweights. These days all I own in J-frames are Airweights. Nestled in an ankle holster as a second or even third gun, they are barely noticeable in my experience.
Model 38 Bodyguard: This is just an Airweight with a hump back. It has a shroud as part of the frame that covers all but the tip of the hammer allowing for thumb cocking if desired. I have never seen one of these having a square butt.
The Model 638 is popular with folks wanting to be able to thumb cock the gun as an option but still have a hammer not prone to snagging.
I tried a few over the years and currently own one. It is the stainless version and is designated as a 638. The "6" denotes stainless steel for the non-aluminum parts. The aluminum frame is anodized a light silver color to better match the stainless steel parts. I have no real complaints with these guns, but do find that they gather lint from pocket carry pretty rapidly in the shroud area behind and on both sides of the hammer. I have never seen this jam one. I've never seen one jammed with a dime wedged between the hammer and the shroud, but do recommend the use of a pocket holster in a pocket in which only the holstered gun is carried. While I carried one of these for about a year, I most often carried a Model 37 with the hammer spur removed.
Over 25 years later, I've changed my preference in J-frame S&W revolvers:
S&W Model 642: I hate the looks of stainless steel and originally began carrying a Model 042, a blue Airweight having the internal hammer. The 042 is essentially a 442 (the common blue version of this Airweight). It was originally intended for a run of 642's. In these early production days the frame color couldn't be matched good enough for S&W and the frames were to be scraped. Someone came up with the idea of stamping a "0" over the "6" and simply dark anodizing them for use with the blue versions. I carried it in a pocket for several years. Wear is inevitable, but summers here in Texas are hot. Sweating through my pants and even the pocket holster sometimes, fighting rust became a daily issue. I succumbed and bought the stainless version.
This Model 042 was my primary carry gun for several years. It has since been replaced but still sees some carry and range use.
The 042 and my 442 have different finishes. The former has the slick anodized finish while the latter has more of a matte finish. Both of these have the shorter version of the J than that currently used. It popped up when S&W began offering .357 magnums in the small frame. All of the .38 Special J-frames use the "long" J-frame now. It is sometimes called the "magnum J-frame".
The Model 642 is my current "all the time" gun. Practice is essential. The ejector rod must be used forcefully to completely eject fired hulls.
So far I have not found a pocket gun that suits me better than the S&W Model 642. It remains my pick of the litter in this 15-oz. snub.
Colt Snubs: I could never really warm up to these little things. I owned a few of the all-steel Detective Specials, Colt's competition to the Chief's Special. Slightly larger, they did offer 6 shots rather than 5. They shot well enough for me, but I could never get used to the trigger-stacking inherent in the design. Currently I own one like-new Colt Agent. This is an aluminum-framed 6-shot Detective Special with a slightly shortened grip. I shoot the thing now and again, but mainly have it just as a representative of police "plain clothes" guns from the past. I never owned the Cobra, which was the lightweight Detective Special w/o, the abbreviated grip of the Agent. These can be carried concealed nearly as easily as the S&W J-frames. I find the sights on the Colts better and easier to pick up at speed. More recent Smith & Wesson's have thicker front sights, but they still do not match the Colts in my opinion.
Being but little larger than the S&W J-frame, the Colt Agent provides 6 shots between loading.
Ruger SP101: Offered in several versions, I most often saw and shot the 2 1/4" barrel version sporting fixed sights. I've not shot one in other than .357 magnum. I don't have the weight, but this fairly compact little 5-shooter is all stainless and fairly heavy for size. I see it as a belt gun. The fixed sight version has very useable sights out of the box and they've been pretty well "on" in my experience. I believe them to be more durable for loads of magnum shooting than are the J-frame S&W three-fifty-seven's. In the short barrel-length, this little thing suffers a lack of full case extraction as do the rest unless the ejector rod is vigorously depressed.
The SP101 is a durable, compact revolver for concealed carry using a belt holster be it IWB or out. It probably won't have as smooth a double-action as the S&W, but the ones I have shot have been extremely "decent". They can be had with or without a spur hammer. The SP101 has proven itself a dependable snub in my admittedly limited experience with them. I would choose this gun over the S&W J-frame if the bulk of my shooting anticipated magnum usage. If staying with .38 Special, I opt for the S&W Airweight's.
The SP101 is a tough little critter capable of 5 shots of .357 before reloading.
Larger Snubs: So far we've looked at a few of the smaller examples of the breed. Let's take a look at the larger K-frame Smith & Wesson snubs as well as the GP100 from Ruger.
S&W Model 10: Whether in 2" or 4" barrel lengths, these have been favorites of mine over the years. These .38 Specials have served in police (and military) holsters for decades, not to mention service as home defense guns for millions of Americans. I carried a 4" Model 10 for a few years in uniform before switching to another K-frame, the Model 19 .357 magnum. The Model 10 2" snub filled more than a few detectives' holsters in years past and I observed about as many square butts as round in this role. These 6-shot revolvers have flat mainsprings rather than the J-frame's coiled ones and are capable of extremely smooth double-actions and "hair trigger" single-actions. At the current time, S&W no longer offers the blue or nickel 2" Model 10. It can still be had in the 4" version, but the snub substitute is the stainless Model 64. It weighs between 30 and 31 ounces and can be had in both 2 and 4" barrel lengths. I may be wrong, but I think some Model 10's and 64's were offered with 3" tubes. Long discontinued, Smith & Wesson offered the Model 12. This was merely an aluminum-framed Model 10. Some versions have a slightly thinner frame and grips for the steel version will have about an eighth-inch gap. Not made of as tough of alloys as more recent S&W revolvers, I do not suggest using +P in these. I've personally seen two with cracked frames. One had fired exactly 3 rounds of the old Winchester .38 Special Armor Piercing factory ammunition. The other managed 12 shots before suffering the same fate. The cracks occurred in the frames below the barrels. The Model 12 revolvers I've seen were either the 2" round butt snub or 4" square butt.
This old Model 10 snub once filled more than a few lawmen's holsters. They're still favorite shooters of mine.
The Model 10 remains one of the easiest snubs to shoot well in my experience. While the barrel is still short, the increase in frame size results in a longer sight radius. Combine that with more visible fixed sights and a smoother trigger pull and you have a snub capable of more easily putting bullet holes where you want them.
These guns were and are popular today. Model 10's are not so easily found used as they were in year's past. It seems that people who have them are keeping them. I think I just named one reason why in the proceeding paragraph.
Yet this K-frame snub makes no sense! The four-inch version is much easier to hit with having but a 2" longer barrel. It's been argued that an advantage to the snub is that its shorter barrel makes it harder to be lost in a struggle with an attacker. The short barrel cannot so easily be grabbed and used as a lever to torque the gun from the shooter's hand. I reckon that's true enough, but I suspect that part of it has to do with "snub-nose means defense" as well as the panache of the old things. Other than when just sticking in the waistband sans holster, I find the 4" no harder to tote than the snub.
I still like old Model 10 snubs. Right now I have but one. It's a '60's vintage square butt that's had the hammer spur removed. It appears to be "all handle" but like the Colt Agent, I enjoy shooting it now and again and remembering an era now passed, one of which it was a representative.
I would not be afraid to use this gun for serious purposes.
S&W Model 15 Combat Masterpiece: Some have called this the "overlooked" snub and I agree. A K-frame Model 10 having S&W adjustable sights and a square butt is a decent description. Not as popular as the Model 10 in my experience, I did know a couple of detectives who frequently toted them. The ones I fired in snub version shot no better or worse than the fixed sight Model 10, but the adjustable sights allowed for a very precise POI vs. POA. The stainless counterpart to the Model 15 is the Model 67. I don't think it's available in snub-length barrels today.
S&W Model 13 & Model 65: These are merely Model 10's capable of handling the .357 cartridge in addition to .38 Special. I enjoyed and used both of these over the years in the 4" heavy barrel version. For this article we'll concern ourselves with the 3" guns. I've never seen one with other than the round butt in the latter barrel length. These were very popular with detectives and several FBI agents I met carried them.
These are capable of better ballistic performance than the snubs having barrels in the 2" range, but they are belt guns and just not well-suited for pocket carry due to barrel length and weight. With a slightly reduced trigger pull and a shrouded ejector rod, the Model 65 is also available as the Model 65 Lady Smith. I like the shroud and think this would be my choice in 3" S&W .357 magnums. (I'd have to get the "Lady Smith" inscription removed though!)
S&W Model 19 Combat Magnum 2 1/2" barrel: This gun was very, very popular with plainclothes officers. It offered a K-frame magnum with the adjustable sight capability of easily matching POA to POI. It remains one of the classiest looking defense guns in my subjective view. Until you move into the 140 to 158-gr. bullet weight, it actually provides terminal ballistics comparable with the 9mm +P from service size automatics.
In this or any other K-frame, I'd limit my use of 125-gr. full-house magnum loads. The forcing cone in these guns has a flat at the 6 O'clock position and it's reported that heavy use can result in its cracking. This has not been a problem when using mid-range magnums such as Remington 125-gr. Golden Saber.
Mine is loaded with 145-gr. Winchester Silvertips.
The S&W Model 19 Combat Magnum snub remains a favorite of mine for belt carry. Its popularity has diminished somewhat now that more compact and powerful autoloaders are plentiful.
In the J and K-frame size revolvers, full-house magnums are "noticeable" when fired, especially in the smaller J-frame. Some find them just too much even in the mid-size K and opt for a hot .38 Special instead. While the .38 may not have the same ballistic delivery as the magnum, the ability to be better placed due to lower recoil can still result in some pretty decent terminal effectiveness. For those willing to work at it and practice a bit, the K-frame can be handled effectively with magnums.
S&W offers a stainless steel version of the Combat Magnum designated as the Model 66. It is the same revolver excepting for the nature of its steel and many coming with a plastic orange insert in the serrated ramp front sight. A few were offered with 3" barrels for a particular federal agency but most of those having less than 4" barrels were the 2 1/2" versions. I've only seen the 2 1/2" guns offered with round butts.
S&W Model 686: The snub version of this L-frame weighs in at about 35 ounces with a 2 1/2" barrel. A bit larger than the K-frame, this series of revolver is intended for constant use of full-house magnum ammunition. It is definitely a belt gun and it's definitely a shooter. I've never shot either the 2 1/2 or 4" versions that did not group exceptionally well. Recoil is less than with the K-frame. I do not own an L-frame S&W. I prefer the J, K, and old N-frame guns. That does not mean that these are not extremely popular with revolver shooters. I think the 4" version is more popular than the 2 1/2".
There are S&W large N-frame's available in snub barrel lengths, but I really believe that in this size revolver the snub makes no sense in less than a 4" tube. The rest of the gun is large enough to preclude pocket carry and the abbreviated tubes offer only reduced ballistics and shorter sight radiuses in my view.
Exceptions might be the older versions of the S&W Model 625 in .45 ACP that had 3" barrels as well as the Model 27 with its classic 3 1/2" tube. I see no use in the N-frame Model 625 made of stainless and scandium, but sporting only a 2" barrel. With the large frame I truly believe a bit more barrel hurts nothing and is more appropriate for that size gun. This is purely subjective and evidently some folks do like the things as I'm told they're selling. I have only shot the Model 625 in the 4" and 5" barrel lengths. While I have a 5" that is not going anywhere but to the range now and again, I have no desire for one having less barrel length. The Model 27 remains a classic and a favorite. I don't think there's a "meaner" looking revolver made. To me it exudes capability, but it's only a half-inch shorter than the uniform standard 4" revolver. They can be carried concealed, but there are more comfortable choices in my estimation.
Ruger GP100: My limited experience with these has been but a few guns in both 3 and 4" barrel lengths. They are built like tanks and I like the fixed sight picture better than that offered by the fixed sight K-frame Smith & Wesson's. Ruger refers to this as a "medium" size frame. I think it's tougher than the medium size S&W and more closely approximates the L-frame. I have never seen one out of the box with an action to quite match that of the S&W, but triggersmiths can make them mighty nice.
This GP100 has just fired approximately 100 rounds of .357 magnum handloads. It has been a very good performing revolver.
I own but one GP100. It is the 3" stainless short shroud/short butt version and it is a revolver that has pleasantly exceeded expectations. I like its factory grip and find it easier to control than the S&W Model 19 or 65 when shooting full-house .357's. I bought this one as a substitute for a clean, used Model 65 3". I'm no longer looking for one as the GP has proven itself a most capable performer. Its "serious load" is also Winchester 145-gr. Silvertip.
Power Levels Between .357 & .38 Snubs: Some say there's no real difference in power between these two. I have not found this to be true. The .357 simply packs more than does the .38 Special with most loads.
If interested in more, it can be found here:
Comparing the Snub .38 to Its Competitors: The snub .38 faces competition from small autos in .380 ACP and 9x18mm Makarov. I believe the .38 Special +P to be the better load. I also find it to be the hardest to shoot well when using hot, defensive loads. It is still my first choice between the other two rounds mentioned. In all but one loading that I've seen, the 9mm exhibits superior performance compared to the snub .38 Special.
Here are some observations on this:
Conclusion: What is the "best" snub and in what caliber? Why choose a snub revolver when more potent compact automatics holding more shots can be easily concealed?
I think the best answer comes in two parts:
· The best snub for pocket carry, and
· The best snub for belt carry
I think the best snub for 24/7 carry using a pocket holster is the S&W Model 642. I won't argue with anyone opting for the blue version, but the 642 is the one best meeting my needs. I live in a low crime area and am not faced with much threat from gangs. My most likely scenario would involve one or two aggressors. In my state (Texas) I can carry different concealed handguns. On occasion, I do carry something more potent, but the Model 642 is still on me. Caliber of course remains .38 Special.
For a short-barreled belt gun, I'd go with either the S&W Model 65 LS or the 3" Ruger GP100. Both of these have shrouds and both have very good fixed sights. The Ruger sight picture is superior to the S&W in my opinion, but the S&W normally has the better DA out of the box. With these medium frame revolvers, .357 is just right and still allows the use of hot .38's if desired.
I didn't get into Taurus revolvers as my experience with them has been limited to less than a half-dozen revolvers in calibers ranging from .22 magnum to .44 Special. Results have been mixed with the Model 85 .38 Specials I tried. Some worked fine and others went out of time, broke firing pins, or just locked up. I have not bought a Taurus revolver in several years. I cannot accurately comment on the quality…or lack of it in current revolvers. Frankly, I'll stick with either Ruger or S&W.
My only Taurus snub at the moment is this Model 432, a fixed sight .44 Special.
Assuming that you have a snub or have picked one for protection, there are some things that must be addressed when using such guns for serious purposes.
· We must be able to get the hits. That means that we have to be able to shoot the gun well at speed and this means practice. Some say, "these are for carrying a lot and shooting a little." I disagree. The snub .38 remains a relatively difficult handgun to shoot well and carrying "lots" and shooting "little" does absolutely nothing to enhance competence. Not being capable and just carrying it because it's comforting is not enough if push comes to very hard shove. We need to practice with these guns. I try and shoot mine at least 50 rounds every two weeks at the minimum. I generally shoot mine mostly at about 10 yards, but throw in some one-handed shooting at very close range as well as more deliberate aimed fire out to 15 or 20 yards. Include two-hand, strong-hand, and weak-hand practice. Try to make each shot mean something and learn from it. Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice does. Include reloading drills. Be sure you can eject fired cases. This requires practice with the little guns.
· Routinely carry at least one extra reload. I've used both speed strips and speed loaders. My preference is for the HKS speed loader. It doesn't present telltale bulging except in tight-fitting pants like jeans and I find it considerably quicker than the speed strip.
A snub in the hand is worth more than two .45's at home.
The .38 snub is not going to be as potent as a super hot .357 from a 4" barrel nor as easy to deal with multiple opponents as a slick 1911. It cannot match the "firepower" of a high capacity 9mm or even with the neutered 10-round limit! What it can do is be unobtrusive yet instantly ready for close combat, particularly if using pocket carry. One can shuffle along a dark parking lot with the strong hand unobtrusively grasping the butt of the snub. To the rest of the world it appears that some old guy is walking along with his hands in his pocket. Being able to instantly produce a reliable weapon of at least adequate power coupled with the ability to place the shots might mean more than having a "better" performer on the belt if surprised. (Nothing says we cannot have both.) It is certainly better than a .44 magnum at home.
To be able to count on the .38 snub for serious matters, shot placement must be quick and accurate. Practice is essential.
Clint Smith of Thunder Ranch says that guns are not meant to be comfortable. They're meant to be comforting and there is truth in his statement, but realistically it needs to be balanced against the perceived threat level. The gun that is convenient to carry more likely will be than one that's a chore to tote unless the
threat level warrants it. Most of us have insurance policies on our homes, cars, and person. I consider the 24/7 gun another form of insurance and prefer to have my "policy" in effect all the time. The snub .38 allows this. Sometimes I have a more potent "policy" in force, but the little gun is always present. It rides daily in a Galco pocket holster in my right front pants pocket. It's just as much at home in the pocket of a robe on cool winter evenings and it takes up hardly any space when covered by a towel when I'm soaking in the tub. It is comfortable because I've practiced lots with it and comforting because it is there.