Short and Still Sweet
January 03, 2011
The snubnose revolver is still a viable competitor in the carry-gun market. It's not going anywhere...because it goes everywhere.
The Smith & Wesson M&P 340 CT snubbie, with its tritium front sight, Crimson Trace Lasergrips, and scandium frame, is the state-of-the-art carry revolver.
Have you looked at carry guns lately? When shopping for a carry gun today, you are confronted by a bewildering array of choices.
What caliber should you opt for? Should you get a high-capacity piece, or is a slim grip more important? Which is the best frame material--carbon steel, stainless steel, aluminum, titanium, or polymer? And what about the action--single-action, traditional double-action, or double-action-only? Moreover, how will you carry the gun?
Yep, deciding on a carry gun can be a painful process.
A big tritium dot on the front sight of the S&W M&P 340 CT aids target acquisition in the low light typical of armed encounters.
Or you can simply walk into your nearest gunshop, plunk down your money for a medium-caliber snubnose revolver, and know you've probably made a pretty good decision.
The iconic short-barreled wheelgun is still a solid choice for concealed carry. Oh, it lacks some flash and panache, but those qualities are sorely overrated in a gunfight. It's certainly not without drawbacks, but its virtues are numerous. And while some of those virtues are readily apparent, others require a little examination.
Simple Is Beautiful
There is much to be said for simplicity. It comforts a shooter when he or she can more fully understand how the gun functions. Even a person with no firearms experience whatsoever can observe the functioning of a revolver and get a pretty good idea of how it works. The trigger is squeezed, the cylinder rotates, it locks into position, and then the hammer falls. Simple. Try watching a semiautomatic. It moves so fast, it might as well operate by magic.
Snubbie revolvers are easy to check, too. You can see the case rims or the noses of the bullets, even when the cylinder is closed.
Simplicity also lends itself to reliability. One shot in a revolver usually has very little to do with the previous one. Get a dud--not a squib--in a revolver, and you have only to pull the trigger again to try to improve your luck. Of course, if you get a squib that lodges the bullet in the barrel but still allows the cylinder to rotate to the next chamber, well, that can be very, very bad.
Revolvers are nowhere near as ammo-sensitive as semiautos, and this is becoming an increasingly important selling point. Because the operator--rather than the recoil or gases of the previous round--cycles the action and because each revolver round is manually placed in one of multiple chambers when the gun is loaded, several potential issues are avoided. Ammunition--with varying pressure curves, bullet profiles, weights, jacket materials, etc.--rarely affects the functioning of a revolver, but it can cause jamming in semiautos.
Experimenting with carry loads is becoming a pretty costly matter as the price of premium ammunition continues to rise. The rule of thumb was to put at least 100 rounds of your carry ammo through your personal-protection gun to be sure the gun functioned at 100-percent reliability with it. Well, with top-of-the-line carry ammunition going for as much as $23 for a box of 20 rounds, you're talking about spending $115 just to test one brand of ammunition. And what if it isn't reliable in your gun? You've got to spend another $115 on another brand and keep doing so until you achieve that 100-percent reliability.
Fortunately, both off-the-shelf semiautos and premium ammunition have never been more reliable than they are today. If you just can't afford to follow the old rule of thumb, you may get away with less than 100 rounds of testing. Still, you can usually load just about any cartridge of the correct caliber in a revolver and be sure it's going to go bang.
Revolvers can't compete with semiautos when it comes to the speed of reloading, but devices like Safariland Comp I speedloaders narrow the gap a little.
Now, there is a notable exception. Avoid nonjacketed lead bullets when using hard-recoiling guns, particularly lightweight snubbies and even the all-steel models if chambered for magnums. They are usually made with a light crimp, and during recoil, the bullets in the nonfiring chambers can actually begin to pull out of the cases, sometimes far enough to prevent rotation of the cylinder. In such guns, always opt for jacketed ammunition with its firmer crimp.
An advantage tangential to a revolver's inherent lack of ammo sensitivity is the fact that one chambering can often fire different loads that use the same caliber bullet. A .357 Magnum revolver can also fire .38 Special and .38 S&W loads. The new .327 Federal Magnum chambering can likewise fire .32 H&R Magnum rounds as well as .32 S&W Long and .32 S&W. This is of no little significance. You can work on technique and marksmanship with a lighter--and less expensive--load while still carrying a more powerful one. Also, such versatility is great for training new shooters. A newbie can start out with mild .32 S&W Long, then move up to .32 H&R Mag. before graduating to .327 Fed. Mag., if they so desire.
Misconceptions Put To Rest
Snubnose revolvers are easy to shoot but difficult to shoot well. This and the looks of those short barrels have led many to conclude that they are inaccurate. Not so. Put Lasergrips on an exposed- or shrouded-hammer .38-caliber S&W snubbie, load it with 148-grain match wadcutters, and fire it single-action from a rest. The accuracy is startling. The gun has enormous accuracy potential; it's just that, given its ergonomics, that potential is difficult for most shooters to realize.
On the other hand, it was never intended for bullseye matches. Its practical accuracy for close-quarters self-defense is quite adequate, as any 7-yard drills will amply demonstrate.
A Barami Hip Grip can be installed on a small revolver and serve as a built-in inside-the-pants holster.
One typical misconception about revolvers in general and snubbies in particular is that the designs are static. Sure, there have been a wealth of innovations in semiautos in recent years, but unless you were paying attention, you may have missed the many improvements made to snubnose revolvers over the past decade.
The materials have changed. Snubnoses have sometimes led the way in terms of innovative materials. It was, after all, the S&W Model 60 that was the first production handgun available in stainless steel. While both steel and aluminum alloy have been offered for decades now, S&W upped the ante a few years ago with its proprietary scandium alloy. The introduction of a smidgen of scandium turns S&W's aluminum alloy into a super alloy of sorts, much tougher and more durable that previous formulas used in firearms.
Then titanium arrived. An abundant mineral, titanium is difficult to use for firearm fabrication unless you really know what you're doing. S&W and Taurus both did their homework and created guns using this enormously strong and, relative to steel, lightweight metal. By combining aluminum-alloy frames with titanium cylinders and steel barrels, these companies have been able to produce shockingly lightweight revolvers that are nonetheless chambered in some very serious fighting calibers, including .357 Mag. In fact, S&W's .357 Mag. Model 340PD weighs a mere 12.5 ounces, something inconceivable just a generation ago.
Even the stocks have changed. Rubber or soft polymers are now original equipment on most snubbies, and today's grips fill in the space behind the trigger guard, and some include palmswells for a better, fuller feel.
In addition to its sizzling muzzle velocity, the big advantage of the new .327 Federal Magnum is that it is slender enough for six rounds to fit in the cylinder of a small revolver.
Charter Arms even mirrored two models of its snubby line to accommodate the southpaws of the world.
The features of snubbies have changed too. How is that possible on something that is essentially just a short barrel attached to a small frame that encloses a little cylinder? Well, there have long been various options on snubbies, such as hammer shrouds and fully enclosed hammers. But in recent years, manufacturers have added key locks for safety. S&W also offers a front night sight on some of its snubbies. Additionally, the venerable Springfield, Massachusetts, manufacturer has teamed with Crimson Trace to offer the option of fully adjustable Lasergrips on some models. Yes, the 19th century has met the 21st century.
Short Barrel But Long Future
If there is anything that can challenge the supremacy of the snubbie, it is the new breed of medium-caliber, polymer-frame DAOs that has entered the market lately. These guns are flatter, more capacious, easier to shoot, and faster to reload. Some of them also boast 100-percent reliability. Yet many shooters, both new and experienced, opt for snubbies. After all, the wheelguns have a far simpler manual of arms. Additionally, they don't require the extended break-in called for by some of their semiauto competitors.
And don't discount the importance of those detachable stocks to those choosing between a small polymer-frame semiauto and a little snubbie. They make installation of Lasergrips a possibility but also give you the option of installing Barami Hip Grips. For the uninitiated, Hip Grips replace the OEM stocks and essentially perform the function of a built-in inside-the-waistband holster. And they don't fill this role in a "better than nothing" way, either. They are surprisingly secure and comfortable in addition to being tremendously convenient.
One advantage usually ceded to the small semiauto has been firepower. Typically, medium-caliber, small snubbies hold five rounds. However, Federal just made things a bit more interesting with the introduction of the aforementioned .327 Fed. Mag. With a muzzle velocity of 1,400 fps (from a 4-inch test barrel), it's touted as being the deadliest 32 since O.J. Simpson. But just as significantly, six cartridges will fit in a small revolver's cylinder. Ruger got to market first with a six-shot version of its sturdy little SP101 wheelgun, but Charter Arms just introduced its six-shot .327 Fed. Mag. Patriot line with both 2.2- and 4-inch barrel lengths.
The other big disadvantage to revolvers is that they are relatively slow to reload. While this fact is inescapable, it can be somewhat mitigated by HKS or Safariland speedloaders and, to a lesser extent, Bianchi Speed Strips. Speed Strips are slower than speedloaders, but their appeal is that they lie flat in trouser pockets.
A lightweight snubbie teamed with a paddle holster or set of Hip Grips, plus a pocket holster and maybe an ankle rig, makes a very versatile system. Toss in a speedloader and Speed Strip for good measure. From these components you can put together a carry outfit for virtually any occasion. While it may be ideal for none, it will be pretty good for most. Chances are, you'll get more mileage out of this system than most carry combinations of similar effectiveness.
When you factor in both the simple comfort of its simple design and its ongoing evolution, it's easy to see that the short-barreled revolver still has a very long and very bright future ahead.