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Home  >  Police Products  >  Firearms

June 09, 2008
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Richard Fairburn Law Enforcement Firearms
with Richard Fairburn

The Snubnose: The little gun that could…

When I started out more than 90 percent of all police officers carried a revolver for a sidearm. No, they weren’t cap & ball muzzleloaders ... I’m not THAT old! As you can verify at any police firing range you choose, nowadays almost NOBODY carries a revolver anymore. With one exception ...

Most officers now pack the latest polymer-framed, computer-designed, indestructible, laser-guided wonder pistol in (insert your favorite) caliber that fires thermonuclear-tipped hollow-point projectiles at a muzzle velocity just shy of the speed of light. The real shootists scorn anything made of “plastic,”so they wouldn’t be caught dead without a hand-built 1911 pattern pistol that costs at least $2,000 (not counting magazines and other essential accoutrements).

But, the dirty little secret is - drum roll, please - when these same officers leave home for the quick trip to pick up a gallon of milk at the corner stop-n-rob, they likely as not drop a .38 snub nosed revolver in their pocket for the errand. Still more high-tech cops carry a lightweight snubbie in an ankle holster (or in a jacket pocket) as a back-up gun. And, they almost seem ashamed to admit they own a wheel gun.

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The favorite snubnose revolver we see today is probably chambered for the old .38 Special cartridge, has a barrel about two inches long and probably holds five rounds. Some of the newer ones chamber the .357 Magnum round, but anyone who has fired them with magnum ammo generally end up loading the milder .38 loads.

Firing more than a few magnum rounds from a two inch revolver might singe your eyebrows off. I did a 50 round qual course with a snubbie firing 125 grain magnum hollow points one time on a dare. It was so much fun I sold the gun a few days later and bought a lighter .38 model. While they’re a bit big as “snubbies” go, Taurus even makes some that will interchangeably fire a .45 Colt cartridge or a 2.5 inch .410 shotgun shell - they call this one The Judge!

Colt quit building snubbies some time back, but Taurus imports a lot of short revolvers, Ruger makes a few models and Charter Arms is back in business with both .38's and their notorious Bulldog chambered for the big .44 Special round (aka - the Son of Sam Special). But, S&W is the one I see the most. And, despite our almost total change over to semi-auto duty pistols, S&W and the other makers are cranking out snubbies like there’s no tomorrow. They make the little revolvers from steel, aluminum, titanium and scandium (whatever that is). They have fixed sights, adjustable sights, night sights and laser sights. You can get ‘em in silver, black and even some really cool iridescent blue hues, with gold trim, on some Taurus titanium models. Whatever color they are, when it comes to the lowly snub nosed revolver, we still love ‘em, buy ‘em and carry ‘em.

One thing you need to consider when staking your life on a snub nosed revolver is their finicky appetite for ammunition. The short barrel means lower muzzle velocities, which often means erratic terminal performance from the bullets. Most of the mid-weight (125 grain to 135 grain) hollow point loads will do OK in the +P versions of .38 Special loadings. Speer ammunition has a 135 grain +P load that is specifically designed for revolvers with two inch barrels and it performs well in all categories of the FBI terminal performance testing protocol.

Not all .38 snubbies are rated for +P ammunition and the super lightweight models are generally not recommended for use with un-jacketed (plain lead) bullets since the projectiles can move forward from the case under severe recoil and prevent the cylinder from turning, making the revolver about as dangerous as a rock of equivalent weight. I really don’t recommend .357 Magnum ammunition in small frame revolvers, you gain very little in terminal performance at a great cost in recoil, muzzle blast and a blinding muzzle flash - shoot .38 +P ammo and call it good.

If you like a bigger bullet, try a Charter Bulldog, the Taurus Judge or one of the medium-frame snubbies from S&W that fire the .44 Special. Winchester, Speer and Federal all make lead or jacketed hollow point loads that should give good performance from a .44 Special snubbie.

One important aspect of snub gun ammunition is to have a reload handy when you’re packing one. Remember the off-duty Utah officer who engaged the active shooter in the Salt Lake City mall? He had a .45 auto and no spare ammo. It worked out for him in the end, but he said he’ll always carry a spare magazine from now on.

For backup use, a reload might be so critical, but if the snubbie is your only weapon, five or six rounds may not be enough. Speed loaders for a revolver are great for reloading, but bulky to carry in a pocket. Bianchi still makes it’s steel reinforced rubber Speed Strips that hold six rounds of .38/.357 ammo in-line and are handy to carry in a pocket. For other calibers ... figure something out for carrying another cylinder of ammo.

In terms of holsters, practical and concealable models abound for a small frame revolver. If you can adapt to the weight of an ankle holster, they can make for practical backup use on duty. These revolvers do not generally lend themselves to the old “tuck it in the waistband” technique for informal carry - they can slide down into your pants when you need ‘em the most. Although, an old timer who trained me carried a S&W .38 tucked in his waistband almost 24 hours a day. He kept the wood grips wrapped with several layers of rubber bands, replacing them as needed, and claimed it was as secure as in a holster. Still, a secure holster is the best option. But, when the night is cool, a jacket pocket is likely to be the most common “holster” and can do well enough, I suppose.

So, assuming you stay proficient by shooting it more than once a year for the off-duty qualification course, the snub nosed revolver is truly the little gun that could. It’s a trusty friend in your pocket off duty and a reliable backup on duty. It ain’t flashy or sexy or cutting edge. But, like any good partner, it’ll always be there to back you up when you need it most.

About the author

Dick Fairburn has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming, working patrol, investigations and administrative assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst and as the Section Chief of a major academy's Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident training program. He has a B.S. in Law Enforcement Administration from Western Illinois University and was the Valedictorian of his recruit class at the Illinois State Police Academy. He has published more than 100 feature articles and two books: Police Rifles and Building a Better Gunfighter.

Contact Richard Fairburn



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