If you’re older than cell phones, you probably grew up watching every TV and movie detective worth his salt getting it done with a snub nosed revolver in their hand. No, no petroleum by-product polymer Wunder-guns for these guys. And despite all the science and technology brought to bear in modern firearms, the iconic snub nose revolver is still getting it done.
Snub. Snubbie. Roscoe. Bulldog. Belly Gun. Short barreled revolvers have been with us for well over a hundred years reaching back into the second half of the 19th century. They were lighter, smaller and more concealable than their full barreled brethren. With barrels of three inches or less in length, snubbies found their way into pockets and ankle holsters where the big boys just couldn’t go.
Snub nose revolvers aren’t target guns. Despite having dispatched legions of reptiles on the trail when loaded with snake shot, they’re not hunting guns either. The belly gun is a defensive weapon and it’s as subtle as a closed fist. In fact, with five in the chambers you could argue it’s just that with a little more range and power.
Since the early 20th century the snub nose, and revolvers in general haven’t changed a whole lot. Sure, materials and manufacturing have progressed for sure – you didn’t find a lot of Scandium alloy guns back in the 20s. The basic design though seems frozen in time. A Colt Detective Special from Prohibition era looks a whole lot like a Colt Detective Special from the 80s.
Compared to modern pistols, snub nose revolvers are something of a throwback. They’re usually less accurate and have lower capacities than semi-auto pistols. They are slower to load, reload and harder to aim. In fact, with a sight radius shorter than Alec Baldwin’s temper maybe it’s best to just embrace point-shooting and be done with it.
Truth be told, for targets inside of 25 feet that’s a valid strategy.
So, with all the modern choices available to present day gun buyers, how do the diminutive wheel guns still sell?
Why a Snub Nose?
Well… they’re reliable. As reliable as Big Ben and the tax man. They (almost) never jam, they never stovepipe. The magazine never slips, and the pistol becomes a brick because the magazine fell out, because it has no magazine to fall out.
If some ammo robot in the factory stuck a less than perfect primer into the cartridge you’re trying to fire and it went “click” instead of “bang”? No worries. Just pull the trigger again and fire the next one. Easy-Peasy.
That fancy unobtainium alloy death-star super expanding ammo you paid $3 a round for never hangs up climbing the feed ramp because there is… no… feed ramp. Snub nose revolvers invented the K.I.S.S. principle.
Belly guns have a manual of arms so simple a caveman could use one. They may be challenging to master but they are so easy to learn. If you can use a toaster successfully you can probably handle a snubbie.
They’re sexy. OK I said it. Yes, they are. Put a Colt Diamondback next to a Glock 19 and tell me which one has it going on. That’s right. Sorry Gaston but your gat looks like a brick.
Snub Nose revolver Calibers
Although snub nose revolvers started out and continue to be offered in other calibers, .38 Special and .357 Magnum have become the overwhelming favorites in this niche. In a handgun this size, these calibers offer the best balance between adequate power and requisite control.
Yes, you can get a .44 Magnum and Smith & Wesson even made a snub chambered for the massive .500 S&W cartridge. I suppose if you’re about to be eaten by a bear it is the gun you want but you will not want spend a day at the range with it. Tossing out well over 2000 ft-lbs of energy it’s like a tactical nuke in a 2” barrel. Shooting that thing is going to sting a little.
The far more civilized .38 and its big brother the .357 Magnum have proven over a century to be potent enough cartridges without risking spraining your wrist. So if it’s down to these two, which should you choose? You’re right, it depends.
When in doubt I usually go with the most flexible option. In this case that leans us towards a gun chambered in .357 Magnum. Revolvers made for the slightly longer and much higher pressured .357 loads can also shoot .38 Special.
So… .38 or .357 Snub?
One of the most common scenarios for people that carry a snub, is to mostly practice with the milder (and cheaper) .38 loads then carry the more powerful (and expensive) .357 Magnums for “business”.
You can blend in some amount of the hotter loads in your range sessions as needed.
It’s a good strategy but still, it’s not for everyone. Some shooters find the full power load in the snub nose .357 hard to control. If you can’t control it with confidence, it is not good choice to carry it. In that case a snub nose revolver chambered in .38 Special makes more sense.
Without the need to contain the higher 35,000 PSI pressure of the .357 Magnum loads the gun may be made of thinner and lighter materials. That makes for an easier carry and less saggy pockets. It also makes for a more consistent shooting experience. The cartridge you train with is the cartridge you carry.
Another option is to make the slight escalation up to using .38 Special +P rounds. Often touted as a step up from the power of a standard .38 Special round, in reality the +P is a very subtle difference.
Despite what on paper looks like 15% boost in performance with +P ammo, in reality out of a 2” barrel it is far less. This brings up one of the major shortcomings of the snubby (see what I did there?). The shorter barrel just doesn’t give many cartridges adequate time to burn all the propellant before the bullet leaves the barrel. You’re basically leaving money on the table.
PSA: To be on the safe side though, they should only be shot in guns that are explicitly rated for the higher pressure loads (20K PSI for the +P vs. 17K PSI).
Powder burning outside of the barrel may make for a spectacular fireball but unless your goal is to set something on fire, that energy is wasted. Luckily there’s lots of smart people around and they’ve designed ammunition specifically for a quicker burn out of short barrels. If you want that little bit extra, that’s the way to go.
The bottom line is, the .38 Special or .38 +P is an adequate self-defense round. The .357 Magnum is an excellent self-defense round. Despite the short runway of a snub nose barrel these rounds retain enough of their potential energy to be effective choices.
One of the other perennial selling points of snub nose .38 and .357 revolvers is their inherent safety. Because of the basic mechanics of a revolver and the typically heavy double action trigger it is darn near impossible to unintentionally fire the gun.
If you snag some clothing or a finger holstering a snubby you’re going to know it before enough force comes to bear on the trigger to fire. As most snub revolvers have double action trigger pulls far north of ten pounds, well before. But on a light, striker fired trigger? Let’s just say that a ND is within the realm of possibility.
Modern revolvers also typically have a drop safety mechanism such as a transfer bar which prevents the firing pin from being struck unless the trigger is pulled.
Despite being a little wider around the cylinder, a snub nose conceals well. My Ruger SP101 is only a little over ¼” thicker than an LC9s but the frame itself is less than ¾” wide. It hides well. At 26 ounces though, the Ruger is a hefty snub for its size so that’s a holster carry in most cases.
The S&W 638 on the other hand weighs just a tad over 14 ounces. With a snag-free concealed hammer, the S&W Airweight can be tucked just about anywhere. A snub this light might make you forget about those medieval torture device looking holsters you’ve been fighting with.
The curves of the revolver also tend not to print as much as a blocky semi-auto under clothing. It just doesn’t shout out “gun”.
Is a Snub Nose Revolver a Good Fit For You?
Yes. If you favor a gun that is simple, reliable, safe and concealable – a definite yes. If you want a gun that will fire a capable self-defense round at typical self-defense distances and carries enough rounds for the average self-defense engagement, also yes.
However, if you want a range gun that will chew up bullseyes at 25 yards or expect you’ll need 10 or 15 rounds or more to do whatever it is you need done… well, the snub can always be your backup. But everyone should have at least one. They’re just so darn cool.