These type of firearms are one of the easiest to carry and conceal, yet are the hardest to obtain and maintain proficiency with.
Pros: Extremely easy to carry and conceal. Ultra reliable. If a respectable caliber, packs a punch on the receiving end.
Cons: Combination of a light weight frame, short barrel, and moderately large size ammunition, make these little revolvers snappy in your hand when fired. Recoil, paired up with the short sight base from the 1.78″ barrel, requires quite a bit of practice to learn to shoot accurately
Calibers: .38 Special is probably going to be the most effective in terms of terminal performance and firearm shootability. Avoid .357 Magnum.
.357 Magnum Snubnose Revolvers: Don’t buy a .357 Magnum snubnose revolver. It will have a tremendous blast and blinding flash, and yet any ballistic advantage that .357 Magnum may provide from a longer barrel is lost with a short barrel. If you do by a .357 Magnum snubnose revolver, don’t shoot .357 Magnum ammunition. Shoot .38 Special +P ammunition instead. If you insist on shooting .357 Magnum ammunition, do shoot light weight bullets (110 grain or less). They will come apart and jam up the revolver.
Ammunition: Currently Speer’s Gold Dot 135 grain +P, and Federal’s HST “Micro” 130 grain + P jacketed hollow-points are considered state of the art ammunition, and were developed specifically for snubnose revolvers.
From a .38 Special pocket-size revolver you should also expect penetration that exceeds FBI standards, with exceptional expansion and excellent terminal performance from Hornady 110 gr FTX Critical Defense, Winchester 130 gr Ranger Bonded +P, Remington 125 gr Golden Saber +P.
You may find that heavier 158 grain ammunition will shoot higher that where you aim, and lighter 110 grain ammunition will hit lower than where you aim.
Maintenance: Clean your revolver after each practice session, and on a regular schedule when it is carried frequently. Do not squirt oil into the inner workings of the revolver as they are intended to be run dry. Do not remove the slide plate as you can easily damage the finish and the internal parts. Let a qualified gunsmith disassemble your revolver once a year for a complete detailing.
Model Choice: Choose a hammerless model, especially if you intend to pocket carry. The hammer can get snagged in your pocket, and a hammerless model will have less of an opening to collect pocket lint. Currently Smith & Wesson’s models 442 and 642, or Ruger’s LCR are going to be your best choices for hammerless snubnose revolvers in terms of quality, reputation, and product support. Stay away from Taurus, Rossi, and Charter Arms.
Carry Choices: There are many different manufacturers of quality leather or Kydex holster for belt or IWB carry, as well as leather and Neoprene holsters intended for pocket carry. Do not carry with the pistol stuck down in your pants (gangster style) or in your pocket without a pocket holster.
Training & Practice: Practice dry-firing as much as possible so as to learn the trigger. When dry-fire practicing always use Snap-Caps, especially with Smith & Wesson revolvers. You can break the internal parts if you don’t. Frequently practice drawing and reloading.
If you don’t have the patience for a detailed explanation, then you will still be well served by the information above. If you want to know more, keep reading.
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- Snubnose Files: Snubby History, Tech, Tactics, and Accessories
- Snubnose Files: The Theory of the Snubnose
- Snubnose Files: The Revolver as a CCW Gun
The first rule of a gunfight is, “bring a gun.” There are situations where you really don’t think that you will need to carry a pistol, but you subscribe to the theory, “better safe than sorry” (example: I’m going to the movies with the wife and don’t expect any trouble, but I realize that shit happens). There also may be situations, such as while operating in a law enforcement capacity, that requires you to carry a compact backup weapon just in case your primary weapon breaks, or is lost in a melee. A compact pocket pistol or revolver fills the requirement in both scenarios, without adding any more weight or inconvenience than carrying an extra wallet.
The pros of light weight revolvers are that they are extremely easy to carry and conceal, ultra reliable, and if a respectable caliber, pack a punch on the receiving end. The cons are that with the combination of a light weight frame, short barrel, and moderately large size ammunition, these little revolvers snappy in your hand when fired. Recoil, paired up with the short sight base from the 1.78″ barrel, requires quite a bit of practice to learn to shoot accurately. Any pocket pistol is intended for concealment and close range shooting, but maintaining the skills to shoot it accurately past five to ten yards requires regular practice. Also note that these revolvers only hold five rounds of ammunitions, so fast reloading skills are important to master.
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Double Action Only (DAO) vs. Double Action/Single Action (DA/SA):
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Snubnose Caliber Choices:
Generally speaking I am not a big fan of the new pocket-size .380 caliber semi-auto pistols on the market. Needless to say, .22LR, 25, and 32 autos are even more anemic and less desirable for serious self-defense use. Of course they are better than nothing, and while they barely satisfy the first rule of a gunfight… “bring a gun”, they fail to meet rule number two… “bring enough gun”. I would rather carry an extremely light weight .38 Special caliber revolver.
Compact revolvers can be bought in smaller calibers such as .22LR, .32, and the new .327 Magnum. If you have physical problems that would limit you from shooting a pistol with any significant recoil, then you could make do with the smaller calibers. If you can handle the impulse from the .38 Special, then you should not settle for the decrease in terminal performance that you get with the smaller calibers. Bottom line: rule number two of a gunfight: “bring enough gun”. The snub nose .38 Special barely meets the “bring enough gun” requirement. Anything less than .38 Special doesn’t meet the requirement.
I do not recommend the .357 Magnum version of the “Airweight” guns, however if you insist, make sure that you shoot .38 Specials out of it. Believe me…the .38 Specials are punishing enough to shoot. Firing a .357 Magnum out of a super light gun with a short barrel yields unnecessary self-abuse with only moderate, if any, ballistic gains on the target. If you must shoot .357 Magnums, do not shoot light weight bullets (110 grain). With the tremendous recoil the other bullets in the cylinder can come unseated from their casings. They can actually move forward enough to keep the cylinder from turning, thus jamming up the gun.
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Ammunition for Pocket Size (Snubnose) Revolvers:
It matters what kind of ammo you shoot out of these guns:
Generally speaking, full-size .38 Special revolvers with 4″ barrels and fixed sights are calibrated for 158-grain ammunition, however with snubnose revolvers you may find that heavier (158-grain) ammunition shoots high, and lighter (110-grain) ammunition shoots low. Also, heavier bullets may not always reach enough velocity to fully mushroom in the target when fired from a short barrel revolver. Most snubnose .38 Special revolvers shoot best with 110 to 135 grain ammunition, both in terms of accuracy, and with terminal performance.
Should You Use +P Ammunition In Snubnose Revolvers:
Here is your spoiler: YES
+P Ammunition In Older Firearms:
Suggested Ammunition for Snubnose .38 Special Revolvers:
Speer Gold Dot .38 Special +P 135 Grain Short Barrel Ammunition:
Per request by the FBI, Speer has developed a 135 grain 38 Special +P cartridge in their “Gold Dot” line specifically for snubnose revolvers. The cartridge’s design allows proper expansion at snubnose reduced velocities without sacrificing tactical penetration. This ammunition shoots reliably and accurately from my Smith & Wesson 642. Use it.
Federal HST “Micro” .38 Special +P 130 Grain Ammunition:
From a .38 Special pocket-size revolver you should also expect penetration within FBI standards, and excellent expansion & terminal performance from Hornady 110 gr FTX Critical Defense, Winchester 130 gr Ranger Bonded +P, Remington 125 gr Golden Saber +P.
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Even if it isn’t fired, your revolver will require routine maintenance as it will be in close contact to body moisture and pocket lint. Keep your revolver clean by scrubbing with a toothbrush, gun oil, and cloth. Run a couple of oily patches through the barrel and cylinder. Wipe it completely dry, especially inside the individual chambers of the cylinder where the ammunition will be loaded. Excessive lubrication can penetrate and compromise the primers and power of ammunition.
Many people have the misconception that revolvers are less complex mechanisms than semi-automatic firearms. Revolvers have complex timing mechanisms that can be damaged if manipulated (fucked with) by unqualified personnel (this means you). Avoid the temptation of removing the side-plate and exposing the internals. First, there is a trick to removing a Smith & Wesson side-plate without damaging it. Second, there is no reason that you should disturb the internals. Leave the cover on.
Internals of revolvers should be dry. Avoid the temptation of squirting lubrication into the internal mechanism of the revolver.
I carry a J-frame S&W revolver on a daily basis. I give the external surfaces a wipe-down at least once a month. Every twelve months I have a qualified gunsmith open the revolver and give it a quick detailing and inspection.
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Snubnose Training & Practice:
- Snubnose Files: Making the J-Frame .38 Snub Work
- Snubnose Files: Practice Drills for the Defensive Snubnose
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Snubnose Revolver Carry & Concealment:
Like other handguns there are many ways that you can carry your snubnose revolver, including in a belt holster, in an inside the waistband holster, and in an ankle holster. The discussion of different methods of carry is outside the scope of this particular blog, but I would like to make note of how I carry 99.9% of the time: pocket carry.
It is possible to simply carry the revolver in pocket of your trousers or jacket, however it is not recommended. Carrying your revolver in a holster intended for pocket carry will hide the outline of the gun in your pocket, protect the trigger, help keep the revolver free of lint and other pocket matter, protect the revolver from body sweat, and most importantly, keep the revolver oriented upright for quick access.
Pocket holsters are primarily made from leather or Nylon and Neoprene. Leather pocket holsters are usually manufactured so that the rough side of the leather is on the outside and the smooth is on the inside. When you draw the pistol from your pocket the rough side of the leather should help the holster adhere to the inside of your pocket, and the smooth side will facilitate an easy exit of the revolver. There are several brands of pocket holsters made from synthetic materials. Many times the holster’s exterior will be made from Neoprene or some other type of sticky or tacky material that sticks to the inside of your pocket and help prevent the holster from pulling out of your pocket when the pistol is drawn. The interior is almost always some type of smooth Nylon.
DeSantis Nemesis Pocket Holster:
Shown right is the S&W 642 in the DeSantis Nemesis pocket holster. It is smooth on the inside so that the revolver will easily slide out. The outside of the holster is a sticky or tacky Neoprene like material that sticks to the inside of your pocket so that it will stay in and not come out when the pistol is drawn. Although thin and lightweight, it still works great at hiding the outline of the gun through your pocket.
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Revolver Speed Strips and Speed Loaders:
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Smith & Wesson J-Frame Pocket-Size Revolvers:
Smith & Wesson 642/442 “Centennial”:
I like the Smith & Wesson model 642 (pictured right). This is my first choice for a pocket carry revolver. It is stainless steel / alloy (ultra light weight and corrosion resistant in your pocket), hammerless (hammer won’t get snagged up in your pocket), and fires very potent 38 Special caliber ammunition. On both the S&W 642 as well (as on the Ruger LCR discussed farther down) the hammer is completely internal (sometimes referred to as “hammerless”). If carried in a pocket holster, there isn’t any exposed hammer spur to get snagged on clothing and accidentally cock the gun. Also, because the area around the hammer is closed up, there isn’t any way for that area of the revolver to fill with pocket link or other debris that might affect reliability. If you are not a fan of the bead-blasted stainless finish of the 642, the S&W 442 is the exact same revolver, but with a black finish.
Smith & Wesson model 638 “Body Guard”:
Shown right for comparison this is the Smith & Wesson model 638 “Body Guard”. It has the same features as the 642, but has a semi-exposed hammer. A pro may be that you can cock the pistol to shoot more accurately, but during my limited experience with the revolver I found the semi-exposed hammer awkward to cock, and I didn’t feel very secure lowering the hammer on a live round. Still though, with hardly any of the hammer exposed I would feel totally safe carrying this revolver in a pocket. With practice one should be able to take accurate shots without cocking the hammer (double-action), so having the exposed hammer is not a priority to me.
This is another view of the shrouded hammer on the S&W 638. A S&W 642 is shown on the right for comparison.
Smith & Wesson model 637:
For reference, shown right is the Smith & Wesson model 637. It has all the features as the other two “Airweight” revolvers shown above, but sports a completely exposed hammer spur. This revolver is fine for holster carry, but I would not recommend carrying it in a pocket as the hammer could easily snag on clothes.
Avoid Smith & Wesson revolvers with internal locks, as seen right. These locks were designed so that the owner can use a small key to “lock” the internals of the firearm when not in use and render it unable to fire. While a noble idea, there have been a number of documented cases of the locking mechanisms breaking and jamming up the revolvers. This is something that you definitely do not want to happen, especially in a self-defense scenario. If you are worried about the safety of your revolver when not in use, unload it and lock it away, just like you should with all of your firearms. Even if I came across a fantastic deal on a Smith & Wesson revolver with a safety lock I would pass on the deal. I would hold out for another deal on a revolver with no safety, or go with the Ruger LCR (discussed below).
Smith & Wesson Stocks (Grips):
Some people choose to change the stocks (“stock” is the correct term for a grip panel on a revolver) on their J-frame revolvers, either to add a slightly larger size for better grip (as seen right), or to add a stocks with a laser aiming device. Keep in mind that if you add a bigger set of stocks it may help you get a better grip, but their might be a some type of penalty with regards to your ability to conceal the gun. However, unless you add giant stocks to the revolver you shouldn’t have any problems concealing in a pocket holster. The revolver seen in the photo to the right rides quite nicely in a DeSantis Nemesis pocket holster.
Square Butt vs. Round Butt:
If you are going to replace the stocks then you will need to know if it is a “round butt” or “square butt”.
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Ruger LCR Pocket Size Revolvers:
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These small and lightweight revolvers are extremely easy to carry and conceal and probably are the gun that you will find yourself carrying the most, however they are some of the hardest firearms to master and truly become combat effective with. Practice! Practice! Practice!
Awesome information, I feel the same about .380s. My wife carries a SW EZ simply because of severe RA. However myself, I love my Gemini Customs SP101 Wiley Clapp Edition, that has been ported. Marc the owner is a true wizard with revolvers. There are many options and I never felt under gunned any where. People talk about the port’s being an issue in low light, I shot a rabid dog with Federal C357b 125gr, and the flash wasn’t bad at all. I am currently looking into the Federal HST 38+ loads but have been unable to find any in my area. Keep up the good work.
Thanks for the comment, Ian!