Snub-Nosed Revolvers

We have gone through several successive years of intense development of concealed-carry handguns, the vast majority of which were semi-automatic pistols.

By Wiley Clapp (RSS)
March 16, 2012

You are a mighty picky handgunner if you can’t find a subcompact 9 mm or .380 ACP to suit your needs and preferences. In the past, I have been assigned to review these new guns and for the most part, it has been an interesting and educational experience. Still, I have to wonder if we aren’t missing something in our rush to embrace all this new technology in subcompact semi-automatic manufacturing. Most of the new guns are admittedly made with polymer frames, which tend to annoy curmudgeons of my generation at the same time it delights the iPod crowd. There’s nothing wrong with polymer frames, as Glock has so strongly established. What gives me pause is the tendency to rule out the great little snub-nose revolver as a dependable concealed-carry handgun.

Yeah, I know there are some ultra-modern snubby revolvers with polymer parts. Ruger is selling its LCR revolver and Smith & Wesson offers the Bodyguard 38, complete with its trendy laser. Taurus, the irrepressible Brazilian manufacturer, has several short-barreled, polymer wheelguns in its comprehensive catalog.


Sadly, Colt no longer offers revolvers other than the Peacemaker, a gun that’s still a viable product some 138 years after its introduction. Therefore, I draw your attention to the used-gun tables of any gun show. Check out the price tags on old Cobras, Detective Specials and the like. It would seem the classic D-frame Colt still has a following willing to pay for that old-time quality.

This is not to suggest all revolver makers have discontinued their metal snub-nosed revolver lines, because they absolutely have not. Ruger has its all-steel SP101 and Smith & Wesson offers Chiefs Specials, Bodyguards and Centennials with steel and lightweight-alloy frames and Taurus still offers several varieties of its Model 85. It’s not that the guns aren’t available, but it is rather ominous when there is greater interest in semi-automatic pistols that can’t match the revolver’s reliability or ballistic performance.

That latter statement is likely going to draw some fire, so let’s get the limits of the debate straightened out. In my book, the revolver is not a snubby unless the barrel tapes 2 inches or shorter. There were a number of Colt and Smith & Wesson short-barrel revolvers in the Frontier era, as well as some less popular brands. Most of these guns actually had barrels slightly longer than 2 inches—barrels that appeared balanced with the size of the frame. They were shortened for practical concealability, but the makers still wanted to offer small revolvers with visual appeal. A revolver, either solid-frame or break-top, looks ungainly with a barrel less than 2 inches. Some of the first of this breed were the so-called bicycle guns of Smith & Wesson’s New Departure Safety Hammerless series, small numbers of which were made with super-short barrels. In the early 20th century, a few other models were offered from Smith & Wesson and Colt.

Beginning in the 1920s, however, both makers began to offer small- and medium-frame revolvers with short barrels that look almost the same as comparable guns made last week. Colt sold short versions of its Pocket Positive, Police Positive and longer-framed Police Positive Special. These models became popular police and civilian carry guns. Pre-World War II, Smith & Wesson offered 2-inch K-frames in .38 Spl. and the unique little I-frame Terrier in .38 S&W. These snubbies were assuredly nifty, but product lines exploded after World War II.

The biggest innovation of the post-war era was the development and use of weight-saving metals—for the most part, aluminum alloys. That was a giant step forward, as was Smith & Wesson’s development of snubbies with alternative trigger/hammer systems: the (original) Bodyguard and Centennial revolvers. Eventually, the company also came up with improved metallurgy and strengthened frame contouring so they could safely chamber a small, light revolver for the mighty .357 Mag.

Size and weight are critically important factors in selecting a concealed-carry handgun, because a gun that’s a problem to carry is a gun that won’t be carried.

I said a snubbie revolver is superior to a pistol of comparable size on the grounds it enhances reliability and performance. Modern semi-autos are very reliable mechanisms and seldom produce problems. But the functioning of a semi-automatic is dependent on perfect ammo, proper lubrication and sometimes even a correct grip on the gun. In a semi-auto, there is much more going on in order to get repeated bangs. Even the smallest snubbie revolver comes with a DA trigger that is simplicity itself. They aren’t perfect, but revolvers have a better track record in action.

And power? Now that we have lightweight snubbies chambered in .357 Mag., there is no comparably sized semi-automatic that can compete. One of the .357 revolver’s greatest virtues is the wide assortment of ammunition that may be fired in the gun. Many shooters argue the flat-profile semi-automatic is easier to conceal, but their shape is basically two straight lines meeting at a slight angle. This tends to print through clothing.

Not surprisingly, I am a dedicated fan of the short revolver. I bought my first one and immediately began carrying it more than 40 years ago. Since then, I have generally had one in my pocket. I would really like to be able to spice up this account with a lurid tale of how it saved my life one dark night, but that never happened. Besides, if there had been a dark night when my life needed to be saved, I would have had to do it myself—the gun is just a tool. It is, however, my considered judgment that a Smith & Wesson Centennial cannot be improved upon as a piece of anywhere, anytime, any weather, any costume—always—fightin’ iron.

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21 Responses to Snub-Nosed Revolvers

  1. TH says:

    In 1996, I bought for my wife the S&W 940 Centennial in 9mm. Lots of kick and she chose a Beretta .380 Cheetah. The 940 is a super-reliable revolver and can handle +P rounds flawlessly. Last year I was contemplating selling/trading the 940 for a semi-auto pocket pistol. Then I saw on several forums and related sites that the 940 I paid $350 for 15 years ago now commands upwards of $1K. Try that with a plastic Glock that is built to fall apart. My 940 will be around a lot longer than any of the plastic guns, and I’ll keep the 940 in my pocket where it belongs, not at the gunsmith’s. Nice article. Thanks.

  2. Ron says:

    I have been a fan of snub nosed revolvers for years. I carry a S&W model 60, 38 and my wife carries at S&W model 642. I have used during my carrer Barettas, Sigs, Glocks, Rugers and Walthers. I still own a Sig 229. I have no problem carrying any of the guns , I just feel more comfortable with the Model 60 as my every day gun with speed loaders. My wife had the Walther PPKS and put over 500 rounds through it. Every relay the gun stove piped and jammed, even after a gunsmith worked on it. The revolvers work first time every time. I qualify every year under HR218 and this is just my own opinion. Yes I love my Sigs but not my everyday gun.

  3. Steve says:

    Regarding TH’s comments about the 940:

    I too had a Smith 940 and carried it for many years. Bought it around the same time and paid about the same too. I found after shooting it at the Thunder Ranch revolver course the gun to not be as reliable as the 442 Smith I also bought and now carry.

    What would happen is the full moon clips had to be perfectly flat otherwise the cylinder would bind on closing or opening. Also, the gun was ammo fussy and if the loads were too hot the cylinder would bind. This was also listed in the owners manual included with the gun.

    After going through the revolver course I decided to sell the gun and made a handsome profit over what I bought it for. Hopefully the new owner will keep it in the safe and not rely on it for protection.

    Incidentely, everyone in the Thunder Ranch revolver course had Smiths and

  4. Roy Odhner says:

    Great article. I’ve carried different guns over the years, but for the past few years I’ve exclusively carried a snubby. Right now I carry two of them: a NAA .22wmr and a S&W Model 640 Pro Series. I do not obsess over the possibility that I will be waylaid by methed-up zombie bikers, and I do not neurotically fixate on the need for a gazillion rounds on my person. A primary snubby, BUG snubby, and two speed loaders is all I’m likely to ever need. Snubbies are reliable, easy to maintain and carry, and potent. What more do I really need?

  5. Dennis keene says:

    Great article! I started my L/E career in 1977 with a S&W snubby in my pocket as my back up/off duty weapon. As I entered the 90′s I got caught up in the plastic craze and sold my model 36 and went to a semi auto. This year, after being retired for 8 years, I found a mint circa 1967 model 60 in a gun shop. It now rides in my pocket just like the old days. The J frame snub nose five shot is the best all around carry weapon you can carry. It will fire from your pocket without jambing like an auto. The barrel can be shoved against a body part and it won’t take the slide out of battery and stop the weapon. Get one!!

  6. Gerald Kerner says:

    I love revolvers and have several. They are particularly good for women since you do not have to rack the slide. I carry either a S&W 637 .38 or a Colt Mustang .380. The revolver I need a coat pocket since it is a little bulky for inside a pocket; I also have a holster for it on my dash. I have a pocket shot holster for the Colt so it fits nicely into my back pants pocket and looks like a wallet.

  7. TJ says:

    I too had a S&W 940. Great idea for a carry gun poorly executed. I too had problems with the moonclips that came with it, so I switched to the Ruger SP101 clips instead. Vast improvement.
    The biggest issue with the 940 is that the cases would tend to stick in the cylinder and it’s something that would happen unless nickel plated casings were used, but even then it wasn’t 100%. I sold mine off too at a handsome profit.

    Now.. what I DO carry is either a S&W 640-1, or a Ruger LCR with the 110 grain JHP Hornady .38 SPL rounds. When I carry these, they are strictly as Back Up Guns, as for the same size and weight, I can generally carry a Glock 19 and 3 times the ammo. Still, the J-Frame revolver is alive and well, just not a primary carry gun for me.

  8. otto johnson says:

    looking for classic sttubnose revolvers 2-3 inch u.s. guns or around the world manufactures of guns – no- air weights- – brigh steel and looks like a sub nose colt- classic——— if you know where i can get one in the box? please advise– private manufactures ok- who make real guns

    • Dave H says:

      Rock Island Armory makes a 2′ barreled snubby in a parkized finish runs around 200 bucks in .38 special and holds 6 luke the Colts

  9. Guillermo Lima says:

    Are all Colt Cobras “Detective Special”? I own one and need to know…how can I tell?



    • spclopr8tr says:

      No, they are not the same. The Cobras were based on an aluminum alloy frame while the Detective Specials were steel frame. Otherwise they are basically the same handgun.

  10. Dave H says:

    I like the .45 colt the most and other then the old Ruger Redhawks or the old model 25 s&w or 625 models gun makers seem to think .45 colt and double actions don’t seem to go together. If some one made a snubby in .45 colt with a warranty that worth it I would probably leave my 1911 at home. I prefer the colt to the acp but a s&w in the caliber seems to run around 1200 bucks I could buy 3 Rock Island Armory 1911′s for that.

  11. john says:

    Comment im looking to buy a nice nine for a good price can anyone help me out?

  12. otto johnson says:

    subnose for collection /hobby/ as well for work/ the best model for all stubnose guns is the colt Detective Special …. it will aways be..but it does’nt take plus P bullets?? and not made iin brigth steel– please give us that one back…- i have been in army, and police work for almost 50 years; i have pull my gun out on bad people many, many times…… i am very happy to say i never had to shoot anyone.. and i done with my revolver. i love the stubnose.

  13. Karl Vanhooten says:

    I have a S&W M&P 9mm, but I love my dad’s old 1928 Colt Pocket Positive which accepts S&W .32 Long. Small, dependable, mechanically perfect, and never fails. Not enough knock down power? Wanna face me at 15 yards and let me take a few shots?

  14. Luis says:

    Love my Ruger Police Service Six 357 Mag/38Special 4″ Barrel circa 1985. Shoots like a dream and make me feel comfortable. Mostly, is my home defence gun, however, sometimes I feel guilty because I don’t take her out that often, and I feel like she is complaining–so I take her out every now and then to make her feel like she is an important part of me. She’s so beautiful!

  15. Luis says:

    Oh! I forgot to tell you, my primary carry gun is a Kimber Pro Carry .45 ACP.

  16. Geedunk says:

    A great bang for the buck is a Taurus 38 Titanium Lightweight.
    A 5 shot wheel gun that shoots great and is a pleasure to carrym

  17. Antonio Berrios says:

    I have a 38 snug nose that you have to pull the pin all the way out to load it I want to know how old is it

  18. Chet Radven says:

    Still have a Chiefs special that I bought new in the early 60′s for around $65.00 dollars. Never fails. Found a Model 19 357 at a gun show that was like new, guess the first owner didn’t like the kick. Never will give them up, will pass them on.

  19. RANGER says:




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