Why does a 145 year old concept keep hanging around?

Snubbies have been around since the 1870’s, and have proven to be a resilient seller in the face of 20 years of plastic fantastic autoloaders. That seems impossible, given the small capacity and relatively weak rounds most of them chamber, and antiquated design. Why is it they continue to thrive?

In the US the snubbie started with specially shortened typical single action revolvers call either ‘Sheriff’s’ or ‘Banker’s’ models. From the 1890’s until the 1920’s the typical CCW was a 3” 5 shot DA revolver in .32S&W or .32S&W long carried in a pocket. Today regarded as totally inadequate calibers, they were effective because getting shot in the torso at the turn of the 20th century still held a huge chance of sepsis and death. So many were made gun auction websites still have dozens of these from back in the day for sale.

The modern version of the 1890's pocket pistol. The Smith and Wesson model 36, a classic small frame snubbie.
The modern version of the 1890’s pocket pistol. The Smith and Wesson model 36, a classic small frame snubbie.

The first double action revolver that we would recognize as a modern snubbie was the Colt Detective Special marketed for the first time in 1927. In 1950 Smith and Wesson followed suit, and in 1972 Ruger included a 2¾ inch barrel version of the Security Six. Snubbie maker Charter Arms started in 1973, and Taurus was already importing by 1968. When I was growing up, Rossi revolvers were well thought of, now owned by Taurus and also snubbie makers from the beginning.

Today archetypical snubbie is a 5 or 6 shot revolver in .38 special with a 1¾ to 2½ in barrel. Because it is so short, it is very maneuverable and concealable. It was designed to handle combat at very close quarters, even during a grapple and I will argue it is yet to be exceeded in this role.

The arguments against a snubbie include it’s low capacity, difficulty of aim or inherent inaccuracy, and weak caliber. Let’s analyze these.

Low capacity – no modern center fire revolver has more than 8 rounds, that is the limitation of the design and a fact of life. However I would point out at contact distances that the snubbie was designed for, capacity is not a limiting issue. There’s an old cop saying about a revolver – “you will run out of time before you run out of bullets” – and this is reflected by the fact that a vast (98%+) majority of self defense shootings done by anyone – police in a surprise situation or civilians – is over in 4 shots – by everyone involved. This means both sides of the fight. There’s another old cop saying about gunfights – “2 shots at 2 feet in 2 seconds”. In that case I’d want a quick draw and nothing like a safety slowing me down.

 

The Smith and Wesson model 66 medium frame in snubbie form. Many people prefer the extra size and 6th round of this frame over the smaller J frame.
The Smith and Wesson model 66 medium frame in snubbie form. Many people prefer the extra size and 6th round of this frame over the smaller J frame.

Difficulty of aim – snubbies have a short sight radius like any other small gun, but also being revolvers they have a heavy double action trigger pull that aggravates the problem of aiming them well. I would not recommend them for that 200 yard shot, although both Bob Munden and Jerry Michulek have done it repeatedly, which belies claims about inherent inaccuracy. But within 25 yards, hitting a man sized target is within anyone’s ability, and takes about 10 minutes instruction to get there. I will never shoot a snubbie as well as a long barreled gun, but I am satisfied that at self defense distances – which should really start at 10 yards – they are suited for the job.

Weak calibers – Mostly in comparison to modern law enforcement caliber like the .40S&W the .38 special seems weak, However the .40S&W and rounds like it were designed to penetrate barriers like a car windshield and still retain enough energy to disable or kill a target. BUT the physics involved in this cuts two ways, and the other situation – where there is no barrier and shot is frontal shot – guarantees such a powerful round even with hollow point ammo will completely pass though the target.

Even the less powerful 9mm is likely to do this as evidenced by this sensational story about a NYCPD shooting in 2010. Note that although Alvarez was hit 21 times, he was alive and recovering at the hearing because ALL the JHP bullets passed completely though his body, and even Soto, who was killed by the NYCPD was hit 18 times and was killed by the one bullet that had a very long path and stayed in his body. Note also in this shooting 2 cops and 3 bystanders were hit, most or all of them by bullets passing through the targets! I invite the reader to investigate shootings by the NYCPD as this is by no means an isolated incident.

 

 

The Taurus model 85, a small frame snubbie. I believe these are a great value for the money.
The Taurus model 85, a small frame snubbie. I believe these are a great value for the money.

The .38 special came out of time when cities were crowded, and over penetration was a real danger. The were several attempts at an ideal police cartridge that didn’t over penetrate, those being the .32 New Police (.32 S&W long) and .38 New Police (.38 S&W) – in fact Teddy Roosevelt when he was New York City Police Commissioner standardized the NYPD on the .32. But neither cartridge was powerful enough, and the search continued. In 1898 the .38 Special was was proposed, probably the last black powder pistol cartridge ever developed. It worked, powerful enough but not so powerful the bullet passed through a body, ideal for a time of crowed cities.

I’ll add that all this .38spl development was done with plain old lead slugs, hardball if you will. So with modern JHP bullets, penetration is even less likely – BUT IF the point clogs with clothing which happens frequently and the round doesn’t open up, well then you are back to good old solid lead performance, which is fine if your round is designed not to over penetrate using solid lead.

Shootings by civilians are defensive. They are rarely though barriers – my own thought on this is if there is a barrier between me and the bad guy it’s because I want it there. So the defeating barriers part of the equation doesn’t apply to me as a civilian. My shot is likely to be very close – bad breath distance – or frontal – that is running towards me. Running any other direction other than towards me is not a killing offense. So the power of the gun in my hand should be appropriate to the situation, capable of stopping an assailant either totally with a CNS hit (central nervous system – the instant death shot stopping all threat) or doing enough damage to disable or significantly weaken a target – and it would be best if I shot with power that wouldn’t guarantee the bullet exiting the target and leaving me liable for someone else being wounded. I am certain I won’t be too concerned for bystander safety if I’m in a fight potentially for my life, so it would be best to plan ahead. A caliber exists that has enough power without having too much, and a 100 year history of putting bad guys to rest and that almost all snubbies are chambered for: the .38 Special.

The strengths of the snubbie are excellent close quarters usage especially for a grapple, simplicity and ready use, and simply the best pocket usage.

Close quarters – This is the snubbie’s strength. Close quarters presents a likelihood of a grapple, that is the opponent grabbing your gun. There is one good grip on a small gun, and since you have it in your hand you have the advantage. But once grabbed an auto has 3 ways to be rendered useless and a snubbie two. An auto can be pushed out of battery by some with his hand on the slide, rendered useless by hitting the mag release because most all modern autos have a action block when the mag is dropped, or the trigger can be pulled while someone grips the slide leading to a FTE or FTL then a having to clear the failure which is a two handed operation.

Snubbies can only be stopped by holding the cylinder from turning, and tripping the cylinder release. Holding the cylinder from turning only works as long as the gun is gripped – and that grip is on a short awkward shape which only has one good handle which is in the hand of the user. So all things being equal leverage advantage to the person with their hand on the grip and more likely they can twist the gun out of the assailant’s grasp.

Hitting a cylinder release on a revolver to disable it is much less likely than hitting a magazine release on an auto and having the magazine eject itself from the gun. The cylinder release must be held and the cylinder pushed open, while holding the release, which can be done one handed, but requires complete control of the gun.

Simplicity – Most of the time the winner is the guy who got off the first shot – even while surprised, even while forgetting to rack his slide, even while forgetting to thumb his safety – so this is my point about revolvers, they cover two out of three things in that situation. A loaded revolver is ready for instant use. Over the long and successful use of DA revolvers that heavy DA trigger has proven time and again to be a safety feature, allowing a gun instantly ready to fire but difficult to fire without a grip on gun and a finger on the trigger.

Ready Use – A revolver simply the best gun to shoot from a pocket – works perfectly, doesn’t jam trying to eject a cartridge or cycle it’s slide in a closed space. For draw from a pocket, the round cross section of the cylinder holds the pocket open and gives an path for the fingers to the grip which is thinner than the cylinder. Mas Ayoob pointed this out about snubbies. I proved it to myself using an LCP and LCR from pocket holsters, I was consistently more sure and controlled in the draw with the LCR, all due to not fumbling trying to get a grip on the weapon.

 

The Ruger LCR, the snubbie rethought in modern materials.
The Ruger LCR, the snubbie rethought in modern materials.

For someone wanting more power than a .38spl, the .357 mag versions are available in the same or slightly beefier versions. My thought on that is a full bore .357 out of a short barrel has a lot of recoil, flash and noise, while not being able to develop that awesome .357 power due to the short barrel (designed for a 4” barrel, and does great out of barrels up to 20”). So while it is significantly more powerful, for my likely scenario – frontal shot at close distance – it defeats my goal of minimum chance for pass through. If you are looking for more power, I suggest the 44spl would be a better choice – more power and much less likely to over penetrate.

Snubbies, like all revolvers, are insensitive to load strength, and I have some extremely soft rounds I practice with, and some very powerful rounds I use CCW. This makes practice easy, since I’m not beating my hands up or the gun up to practice. The difficulty of shooting high power ammunition in small light guns makes practice painful – for people who carry autoloaders which rely on a minimum power to operate the gun. Revolvers – well I reload and I have some boxes marked ‘mouse farts’. I can also chamber and shoot the .38 short and .38 long Colt rounds, today considered totally inadequate in power, but they make holes in paper just fine. For a snubbie user practice time can be quite easy.

Snubbies also have a lot of aftermarket items, and can be helped dramatically by a fiber optic sight for $30, or a little glow in the dark paint on the sights. Grips, speedloaders, etc. are readily available.

Snubbies are still performing well, 140 years after their birth, and given their strengths there seems to be a niche for them for the foreseeable future.