September 24, 2010
By Patrick Sweeney
It's increasingly a semiauto world, but there's still a place for diminutive wheelguns.
By Patrick Sweeney
Classic two-inch .38s, clockwise from top: S&W Model 15, S&W Model 60, S&W Airweight 442 and Colt Agent. The two on the left are six shots each, the two on the right hold five.
There was a time when pistols were considered just not good enough to bet your life on. Wheelguns were real guns, and real men carried them. Sometimes more than one of them. Called the "New York reload," carrying an extra gun (or two or three) was the solution to the perceived low capacity of revolvers. After all, even when the FBI was publishing statistics like "the average gunfight is over in 1.5 seconds, and involves 2.7 rounds fired" (or whatever that year's statistics actually were), who wanted to be the statistical anomaly of a guy holding a six-shooter in a seven-shot shootout?
Why a revolver? Three things: trigger, springs and ammo. The trigger of a revolver is less likely to be a lure to flinching than a pistol. Yes, the pistol trigger is shorter in the distance you need to pull and can be lighter in weight, but the length of the revolver trigger pull means your subconscious doesn't know when to expect a bang. The surprise-break aspect of revolvers is good for accurate, flinch-free shooting.
Also, revolvers don't depend on magazines, and their springs, for reliable function. Yes, I have shot pistols using magazines that had been left loaded for many years, but in a revolver that is a complete non-issue.
As for ammo, as long as it fits the chamber, is within pressure specs and has a bullet within a reasonable weight range, a revolver will be fine with it. I've known handloaders who made special super-light practice ammo in .38 Special cases using wadcutters of less than 100 grains. At 700 fps, such a load is no threat to a new shooter. Try something like that in your plastic wondernine.
But for daily wear revolvers have these barrel things that make them long and hard to carry concealed. So we invented the snub-nosed revolver. When I say "we," I mean consumers who requested snubbies from manufacturers.
Some cringe at the use of the word "snubbie," but not me. The first revolver specifically made and marketed for carry was made by Colt in 1927: the six-shot .38 Special Detective Special. Since that time, every revolver maker, if it expected to be taken seriously, made a short-barreled revolver positioned for the concealed-carry market. And while many were compact, some were barely so.
A popular snubbie for agents of the newly armed FBI was the S&W Registered Magnum. You could order it in any size and configuration you wanted, and many of them opted for the 3.5-inch version. Now, I've packed a lot of guns through the years, but you won't find me claiming a 3.5-inch Model 27 is a "compact" gun. (No round-butt frames back then, either.)
Today, anyone who wants to pack that much size and weight has a lot better choices than a .357 Magnum. You see, the .357 depends on velocity, and a short barrel like that takes too much speed from the bullet for the ease of carrying, at least for my tastes. If I'm going to pack something that big, it will be something in a caliber beginning with the numeral "4."
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start small and light, and work up. Smith & Wesson's J-frame revolvers have even more compactness than the old Detective Special, but they hold only five shots. I have a pair of J frames. One, a Model 60, is a police trade-in--at one time a good source of inexpensive snubbies. As police departments divested themselves of wheelguns, they became much more common on the used-gun market.
While many worry about the loss of velocity in short barrels, ammo makers such as Speer are using new technology to get plenty of punch out of snubbies.
My trade-in Model 60 is a stainless, round-butt model with a spur hammer. The more modern J-frame is a Model 442, which makes up for all the Model 60's shortcomings. An alloy-frame Airweight, it features an enclosed hammer and a black finish. It is the very description of a pocket gun.
Another ultra-durable five-shot snubbie is the Ruger SP-101. While the Model 60 is tough, the SP-101 is nearly indestructible. If you want a new, inexpensive snubbie, look into Charter Arms revolvers. It offers both alloy and steel revolvers.
Moving up in size to six shots you have to go to the Smith & Wesson K frame or the Ruger GP-100. However, the GP-100 is available only down to a three-inch barrel, while you can find S&W K-frames at two, 2.5 and three inches in length.
My carry pair here are a Model 65 in .357 Magnum with a three-inch barrel and a Model 15 .38 Special with a two-inch barrel. As a daily carry item, either would accompany me in an upside-down shoulder holster. I'd pack the magnum as the main gun, with the Special as the backup to something on my belt.
The magnum is a pro's gun, in that it's difficult to shoot with full-magnum ammo. The Model 15 is so easy to shoot that were I a bit more predatory I'd try to work up bets on the range. "See that rock at 100 yards. Five bucks says I can hit it four out of six times."
The work required to get performance out of a short-barreled magnum makes bigger calibers attractive. Here, Ruger drops from our choices. Yes, a Redhawk is strong, but a snubbie Redhawk is a contradiction in terms. It is just too big to carry concealed on a daily basis.
A compact S&W N frame, but in a big bore, works wonders. My main gun in that regard is a cut-down 25-2 in the evergreen .45 ACP. I installed a short barrel and recontoured the frame to round-butt configuration, years before S&W ever offered such a model. In .45 ACP, a 230-grain jacketed roundnose leaving your vicinity at 730 fps is hardly onerous in recoil. Nor is a 200-grain XTP leaving at 804 fps. But either will certainly cause a change in career path of a would-be assailant.
The beauty of the 25-2 is that you load it with full-moon clips, so you have all six rounds in and out at once. As a bonus, you can use .45 GAP ammo, a trick USPSA competition revolver shooters figured out. The rounds fit just fine in the moon clips, and there is no loss of accuracy or velocity.
If you find moon clips are just not your style, then search for .45 Auto Rim ammo. There, you'll have a plain lead roundnose that does everything a 230-g
rain jacketed roundnose does.
And if you find that an all-steel big bore snubbie is just too heavy for daily carry, then the new S&W Night Guard series (profiled in the December/January issue) is just what you're looking for.
Why a snubbie as a main gun or backup? Speed and reliability. I was at a law-enforcement-only class once, where the instructor told us as he took us up to the range that the purpose of the drill we were about to do was to make us flub reloads and run dry of ammo.
Once I'd expended all the ammo I had for my pistol, I dropped it and drew the magnum. After I delivered a pair of shots I heard a shout from the other end of the line: "What was that?" It seemed I was the only one in the class who was packing a backup gun.
Practicing with a snubbie can make you a much better overall handgun shooter as it demands the utmost trigger control and follow-through.
Drawing a backup gun is faster than reloading a pistol. So much so that many times through the years the Main Event at Second Chance was won by a revolver shooter, one who simply did a "New York reload" instead of trying to reload the gun he'd run dry.
A backup gun will (more so than your main gun) ride with you for a long time and not be called on. A revolver is much more forgiving of lint, dust, perspiration and lack of lubrication than many pistols can be. Also, there are no switches, levers or other controls to practice with and remember. Just line up the sights and stroke through the trigger. Repeat as necessary.
There are another couple of aspects of snubbies that I find fascinating but others find aggravating. They can be unforgiving of follow-through. If you don't keep the sights on the target all the way though the shot, you can miss.
When I shoot in USPSA competition with my full-size 25-2, its 6.5-inch barrel is very forgiving. If my front sight is anywhere inside the A zone of the target, I get a hit. If I go back through the same stage with my two-inch Model 15, I have to pay attention to what I'm doing or I'd throw C-zone hits.
So to improve match performance I'll occasionally shoot with a snubbie in practice instead of the big gun. When I do that, match hits with the big gun are so accurate you'd swear the thing is radar-guided.
The other aspect of snubbies that I like is reloads. The short barrel makes it a snap for me to juggle the gun while ejecting moon clips or brass and getting moon clips in or a speedloader to the cylinder.
Some time ago an indoor range in town held a winter league. They decided to have a revolver division. I took one look at the course of fire and brought a two-inch Model 10 in .38 Special. The course called for multiple reloads. Those using PPC revolvers and big, duty 586 and 686 magnums struggled to get their reloads done in time.
The course called for 48 rounds, and I watched them average 40 to 42 shots per match under the time limits. I was able to reload the snubbie with ease and get all 48 every night. I gladly gave up a point or two now and then to get six to eight extra shots per night.
Packing a snubbie is a piece of cake. No holster maker who makes more than one model lacks a holster for a snubbie. And if a holster is not what you need, a big pocket will do. To test that latter idea (something I've done many times in the past) I put on the snubbie Model 25-2 in an Uncle Mike's inside-the-waistband holster and the Model 65 in my upside-down Safariland holster. Then I shrugged on a new Eotac field jacket, then dropped a snubbie in each of the four pockets. (Airweights up top, all-steel guns in the lower pockets.)
At the gun club I just looked like another guy with too much stuff in his pockets. I had six .45 ACP, six .357 Magnum, and 22 .38 Special rounds on-call. And switching from one to the next would be no switch at all, as they all work the same way.
An additional note or two on shoulder holsters: all of them allow you to be casually fingering your holstered snubbie and pass unnoticed. The upside-down one allows for drawing while seated or using a left-handed draw. All useful in sticky circumstances.
So let's total the score. When compared to pistols, we have a bit of bulk, and perhaps some capacity issues. On the plus side we have reliability, adaptability of ammo choices, simplicity of use and tradition. No comparison here, I'm keeping my snubbies.