Many of us have been seduced, perhaps temporarily, by big brassy autos with longer legs. But hand a guy a classic snub-nosed revolver, even a tough guy with a cocked-and-locked .45 on one hip and an 18-round 9mm on the other, and he’ll smile as sweetly as if you just handed him a lost love letter from an old girlfriend.
Smith & Wesson had been making small-frame double-action revolvers of one sort or another for about 70 of its 100 years when it introduced the all-new J-frame in 1950. The J-frame was slightly larger than the smaller and older I-frame, large enough to chamber five rounds of .38 S&W Special, a more powerful cartridge than the 19th century .38 S&W which was the maximum the I-frame could handle. The J-frame Smith was also noticeably smaller than the original “belly gun,” the Colt Detective Special, also in .38 Special, which was nothing more than the standard six-shot Colt Police Positive duty gun with its barrel cut off.
The new breakthrough Smith & Wesson was presented as a new gun especially for concealed carry by plainclothes law enforcement officers at the 1950 Conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and was known thereafter as the Chief’s Special. The little .38 was an immediate hit, and you’ll still find it riding primary or backup duty in the holsters, pockets, waistbands and underwear of police chiefs, administrators, undercover and plainclothes cops, and probably about a million civilians whether licensed to carry concealed or not.
Years after the introduction of the Chief’s Special, in an embarrassing demonstration of how little some companies respect their own traditions, Smith marketing people tried to re-apply the name to one of their otherwise nondescript semiautomatic 9mm pistols, but “Chief’s Special” always has and always will mean the two-inch .38 Special J-frame revolver. Smith & Wesson has built good revolvers from the beginning, and its revolver innovations are legion. But its double-action semiautomatic pistols have never risen beyond the level of second-rate copies of Walthers, cheaper to manufacture but entirely devoid of the German obsession with quality and precision necessary to make them work reliably under difficult and demanding conditions. Now that Smith & Wesson is making a copy of the single-action 1911 (the “Smith & Wesson Colt,” as Jeff Cooper has described it) we’ll see if they do a better job with that. But the story of Smith & Wesson autos is another story entirely.
That first Chief’s Special, later catalogued as the Model 36, without losing any of its pioneering more-power-in-a-smaller-package character, spawned variations which are still multiplying to this day. Introduced as an all-steel gun, it was soon followed by “Airweight” aircraft aluminum alloy-framed models, later by stainless steel, finally by a super-lightweight scandium frame with a titanium cylinder. You could have a round or square butt frame, different length barrels, fixed or adjustable sights, metal finished in blue, chrome, anodized aluminum, or polished stainless. Calibers available included .22 rimfire, .32 S&W, .38 S&W, .38 Special at standard and +P pressures, 9mm with a full-moon clip, and today even .357 Magnum. You could have the conventional double-action/single-action exposed hammer model, or the shrouded-hammer “Bodyguard” which still permitted single-action cocking, or the enclosed-hammer double-action-only “Centennial.” Typically unsatisfactory double-action revolver grips were standard at first, followed by even thinner grips on the “Lady Smith” models and finally, thankfully, by hand-filling “boot grips.”
For all-around use and daily concealed carry by most people, an Airweight loaded with standard-velocity .38 Specials offers a beautifully balanced power-to-weight ratio in a small gun that’s a delight to carry, easy to conceal and fun to shoot. For pocket or purse carry, the slick Bodyguard and Centennial models prevent snagging the hammer on the draw. Boot grips, in rubber or wood, either as furnished from the factory or as a custom item, make this little gun eminently controllable.
SMILE TILL IT HURTS
Of course, it’s also possible to take the gun to extremes. A standard-velocity .38 Special cartridge will drive a 125-grain bullet at 945 fps, but the longer .357 Magnum cartridge can drive the same bullet 500 fps faster. A good friend of mine up in Idaho, Chad Hyslop, recently bought a S&W model 340PD. That’s the concealed-hammer model with a scandium alloy frame and titanium cylinder, barrel under two inches, weight under 12 ounces, chambered and rated for full-house .357 Magnum ammo. Chad is a thoroughly experienced handgunner who usually carries a .45 auto, but is attracted to the concealability of the snubby revolver, the virtual weightlessness of the scandium/titanium Smith, and the proven stopping power of hot .357 Magnum loads. He reports:
“Despite a pouring rainstorm we took the gun to the range Saturday. At eight yards I had no trouble keeping five shots in a neat palm-sized group on a four-by-four wood post. The gun swings into position naturally, and the sights track well for me. The 125-grain Federal Personal Protection .357 Magnum Jacketed Hollowpoint loads went right through the four-by-four, penetrated the thick chipboard backstop, and left a big hole.
“All the .357 Magnum loads hurt to shoot, especially when I tried some Cor-Bon and some 145-grain Federal hunting loads at something like 1480 feet-per-second. Nine shots of .357 was enough for my first day, and left my wrist feeling a little abused and the beginnings of a blister on my hand and trigger finger.
“The .38 Special Winchester target loads were very comfortable to shoot, however. No more recoil than my Kimber .45 or 9mm Glock. Really mild. I could’ve shot those all day if it hadn’t been raining so hard.
“The gun is phenomenally light. Every time I pick it up I still can’t believe it, and my hand jerks up with the gun because I’m expecting more weight. It’s incredibly concealable, too. I forget I’m even wearing it, which is a first.”
YOU’VE HEARD IT ALL BEFORE
You’ll hear arguments for and against every single defining feature of the snubby.
Many will say that, in an age of more powerful high-capacity semiautomatics, the little five-shot revolver is hopelessly outclassed, underpowered and obsolete. The fact is, unless you are planning to lay siege to a crack-house or break your bad-seed cousin out of a maximum security facility, five shots is more than you will ever need in almost any imaginable kind of realistic defensive confrontation. And a little practice with a speedloader will allow you to recharge your revolver almost as fast as an automatic.
Conventional wisdom in law enforcement has it that high-capacity autos just give the poorly trained officer more rounds to miss with. Random flying bullets do not make up for a well-placed shot, and relying on the seemingly bottomless pit of a big fat magazine can reduce an undisciplined shooter to the reckless spray-and-pray mode which is known to be hell on innocent bystanders if little more than an annoyance to the guilty party.
As in all forms of dangerous-game hunting, bullet placement – that means accurate shooting – most especially first bullet placement, is more important than anything else, including the caliber of the bullet being placed. Make the first shot count and you will probably not need a second, much less a third, fourth or fifth, though an insurance shot or two is always a good idea.
As far as power goes, a standard velocity .38 Special loaded with a good modern hollowpoint bullet is equally as effective as .45 ACP hardball, according to the people who document such things, and the .357 Magnum still has a significantly better record of one-shot stops on the street than any semiauto cartridge. Granted that an auto the same overall length as a revolver may accommodate a four-inch rather than a two-inch barrel, and the longer barrel will deliver higher velocity from the same class cartridge, the difference is rarely critical. Besides, .38 loads have been developed especially for the snubby with bullets than open up at lower velocities while still providing adequate penetration.
You may feel more confident with two hands full of .45 cartridges than a small handful of .38s, but that is more in the nature of your own psychological insecurities than anything else. The gun is as good as it always has been, and that has been good enough to save the lives of more cops over its 55-year history than probably all other concealable police weapons combined.
Accuracy? At combat distances you can shoot the buttons off the shirt of the bad guy with a little practice, and I have never fired a snubby that was not capable of grouping all five rounds on a heart-size target at 50 yards. The only potential problem of shooting the short-barreled revolver accurately is the extremely short sight plane, which means that any lack of precision in your sight alignment will be multiplied greatly as the range increases. The solution is therefore to work on maintaining a perfectly aligned sight picture. As most snubbies tend to be carried a lot and shot very little, most people simply do not practice enough with the little gun.
There was the case of the off-duty cop whose wife was being held as a shield by an armed robber in a convenience store. The cop, armed with his backup two-inch, decided to go for the head shot, missed, shot and killed his wife instead. This was a case, not of an inaccurate gun, but an inaccurate shooter.
The smoothness and consistency of the Smith & Wesson double-action trigger pull is usually excellent, even straight from the factory, and some judicious work by a competent gunsmith can make it smooth and consistent almost beyond belief. The overall workmanship on a high-end Colt may be better than on a Smith, but the Colt trigger loads up as it approaches let-off where the Smith trigger is constant throughout. This fundamental design difference is the reason why virtually all shooters in revolver competition use Smith & Wessons. Accuracy potential in double-action mode is impressive indeed. but accuracy potential in single-action mode with its short, crisp trigger pull is ever better. Cocking your revolver with your shooting-hand thumb is painfully slow and awkward but, given a proper two-handed grip, using your weak-hand thumb to cock your hammer between shots is both fast and secure.
We all know that the most important quality of a concealed carry gun is reliability. No shooter with any experience will argue that a semiauto is more reliable than a revolver, but there are plenty who will argue that it is equally so. They will point out that a revolver is more complex and fragile than a semiauto, has more moving parts that can break or get clogged up with dust and dirt or frozen with corrosion, cylinders whose rotation can get out-of-time, chambers that are open to the elements. These arguments are technically true, but almost wholly irrelevant in the context of the real world. In reality, semiautos sometimes fail, revolvers almost never.
I’ve been shooting pistols and revolvers for something like half a century, and could not begin to count the number of times a semiauto has failed to extract a spent cartridge from the chamber, failed to eject it properly, failed to pick up a fresh round from the magazine, things that are impossible with a revolver. The saving grace of a revolver is that it will fire pretty much anything you can stuff into the cylinder, without regard for bullet shape, velocity, pressure, dented cases or other little imperfections and inconsistencies that can easily choke a semiauto to death. I can recall only one time when a revolver failed to fire, the result of a too-light hammer fall from a competition-tuned gun on a too-hard primer. The solution was simply to pull the trigger again, serving up a fresh cartridge that fired with no problem, something that is impossible with a semiauto.
The revolver may be a more complex mechanism than a semiauto, but the actual dynamics of its firing is considerably less complex and therefore less likely to fail. It’s that simple, all falsely stretched arguments to the contrary notwithstanding. As the primary concealed-carry weapon for civilians, an emergency backup for heavily armed professionals, an extra bit of insurance that rests in the nightstand or desk drawer, the snubnosed .38 Special revolver is without peer.
In the end, the deadliest enemy of a gun intended for concealed carry and emergency deployment is not abusive use but simple neglect. The S&W J-frame was made to be neglected, its solitary existence seldom enlivened by social interaction with other guns, warm human hands, regular rapid-fire feasts or even the occasional affair with a sweet-smelling cleaning rod. The vintage Chief’s Special I used in this story came directly from a retired detective’s concealed holster, where it had rested almost completely undisturbed for 30 years, went directly to the range where some of the accumulated crud was wiped off and it was expected to perform flawlessly, which it did.
Makes you kind of want to smile, doesn’t it.