Snub Nose Revolvers: The First and Last Line of Defense.

Snub Nose Revolvers: The First and Last Line of Defense.

This is a discussion on Snub Nose Revolvers: The First and Last Line of Defense. within the Sidearms / Shotguns forums, part of the Sniping Related category; Snub Nosed revolvers, aka "snubby", "belly gun", "boxing gun", even popular as a "throw-down" have developed a resurgence in popularity since the advent of concealed ...

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  1. #1
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    Jan 2008

    Snub Nose Revolvers: The First and Last Line of Defense.

    Snub Nosed revolvers, aka "snubby", "belly gun", "boxing gun", even popular as a "throw-down" have developed a resurgence in popularity since the advent of concealed carry permits in the 1990s. Simply reasoned, they are light weight, offer a low encumbrance to the body, are easy to operate, can be carried in the pocket, and offer perhaps the fastest response to an imminent threat.

    However, using a snub nosed revolver is a gun craft unto its own. It is a craft that employs "point shooting" which is specifically advantageous for close quarter self defense. Either used as a back up gun, (bug), or as a primary gun for fast access, the snub nosed revolver and point shooting is fast becoming an integral part to military, police and civilian self defense training.

    Point Shooting is Not "Point and Shoot"

    In simplest terms, Point Shooting is the skill of firing a firearm quickly in self defense without bringing the gun into a plane of sight or using the sights in general. While speed is a component of point shooting that will develop with training, this is not fast draw shooting.

    It has been proven time and again that when confronted with a close quarters imminent threat, point shooting involves a natural fighting stance, say that of a boxer, who is being physically challenged and responds with the stance to undertake a hand to hand fight.

    Statistics indicate most gunfights take place at very close range in low light conditions. Whether a soldier, law enforcement officer, or citizen; events during a gunfight transpire so fast, the training received in target range shooting and accompanying safety measures hold little value when confronted with the use of deadly force for self defense.

    Some say there is no formal stance for point shooting and no particular gun needed. Its just that the snub nose revolver holds the best combination of grip, ergonomics, weight, and firepower. Between Frontsite, Thunder Ranch, Gunsite, Blackwater, and Lethal Force training academies, a whole host of styles and stances are taught. Ultimately, however, when one can empty their snubby either one handed or two handed into a pie plate at 7 and then 10 yards in 5 seconds, you are now an accomplished point shooter.

    Col. Rex Applegate of the military's Office of Strategic Intelligence (OSS - Precursor of the CIA) is credited with developing snub nose revolver point shooting for training OSS agents in WWII. Evidently, the snub nose permitted maximum movement of the body while shooting. Not only for self defense, but in many cases, the compact size and center of gravity made the snub nose revolver ideal for creating "door knob" and "window" booby traps.

    Resurrection of The Snub Nose:

    Technically, a "snubby" qualifies as any double action revolver with a barrel of less than 3 inches and will fit in one's pocket. As a pocket revolver, they are also known for their (really useless) fixed sights- "shaved" front sight- open, enclosed or shrouded hammer, and 5 or 6 shot capacity. The two most popular are Smith & Wesson's "Chief's Special" more commonly known as the J-Frame and Colt's "Detective's Special." The snub nose design has been around since the 1920's and were primarily preferred as a plain clothes policeman's or detective's sidearm, and even a "bad guy's calling card" in the days of suits and ties.

    Unlike the 1911 or "wonder-nine" high capacity semi auto pistols which could be employed for direct aimed fire, suppressive fire, evade and escape fire, or target matches; the snub nosed revolver holds but one purpose - a fast close combat means of offensive fire or a hand to hand close combat response of defensive fire. It is considered the unromantic "ugly duckling" of gun world while being praised as perhaps the most practical.

    "Pocket Guns" have been around since the early days of the revolver. Many soldiers during the civil war carried the Remington 1849 single action pocket revolver. The pocket pistol was also a favorite of shop keepers, gamblers who had to surrender their exposed firearm while in town or the saloon, or by business men walking the streets of major cities.

    By the 1890s, these pocket pistols were quite common among both police and civilians. Smith and Wesson sold close to 1 million double action Model 3s between 1880 and 1919. The single action Model 3 Schoefield was a favorite among frontiersmen and lawmen selling nearly 121,000 in the 1870s and 1880s.

    Above: Circa 1900 Smith & Wesson Model 3 DA in five shot .32 S&W. Weight 18 oz. Near Mint Condition.
    Below: 2010 Smith & Wesson J-Frame Air Weight Model 442 in 38 Special +P with ported barrel. Weight 15 oz. ANIB

    The First Line of Defense

    Having a pistol in one's pocket or within arm's reach such as a bed side table or desk drawer offers a response of fire time as fast as 1-2 seconds. In probably all instances of imminent threat self defense, one's response is governed by your adversary's actions and not your own.

    The simplest of examples being an individual whom approaches you and asks for a match or spare change just to have a reason to get close, and follows up with either a knife or gun pointed within inches of your face or body.

    Reaching into a coat pocket, you grasp your snub nosed revolver, fire, and eliminate the threat. Better a hole in your jacket pocket than a stab or gunshot wound to your body. I have spoken to many detectives whom when expecting a close quarters dangerous situation will actually initiate any approach or contact with their hand in their pocked grasping a snubby.

    Secondly, the snub nosed revolver can play an important role in hand to hand combat. It can be used to "box," punch and whip an opponent. It is more difficult to disarm from the hand than say a semi auto or long barreled revolver, and if required to fend off a grasping or wrestling opponent, it can be easy manipulated into an adversary's body cavity.

    Some people are of the notion that since the snub nose is a double action revolver, grasping the cylinder in a hand to hand confrontation can prevent pulling the trigger. While this can be true, it can be overcome by rotating the frame 90 degrees while pulling the trigger, permitting the frame to cock and discharge the gun instead of the trigger rotating the cylinder into battery.

    The Last Line of Defense

    It is not uncommon within the military or law enforcement for individuals to carry a back up gun; whether in a coat pocket, in a holster inside the waistband or on the ankle. The compact size and light weight oftentimes permits an individual to conceal yet have fast access to an auxiliary weapon.

    Its use becomes invaluable if and when one's primary weapon malfunctions, runs out of ammo, is lost or surrendered, or the need arises to arm an associate at your side. In contrast to a semi auto, the snub nose revolver's reliability is unquestionably superior as there is less "that can go wrong."

    I have actually had students who were the victim of home robberies. In both instances, they were rendered defenseless within 30 seconds. And, in both instances the victims owned guns but were not capable to arm themselves in time as the guns were too large to keep nearby.

    In view of the ease in which one robber could enter and take control, an individual became a victim multiple times. One individual, after his first traumatic encounter, bought a snub nose for his bedside. A repeat robbery attempt wrought several shots though the bedroom door. While the intruder was not hit, this fellow has not seen a robbery attempt in over three years.

    South Florida holds a rather large elderly population along with a large single woman population. Many only purchase a firearm as a last line if not a last resort of self defense. They have no interest in target shooting, they find automatics cumbersome and confusing, and they rarely have any desire to practice.

    While this goes against many principles of handgun ownership, the snub nosed revolver offers the simplicity, ergonomics, and capacity for the inexperienced individual to at least defend one's self. Not surprisingly, once an inexperienced student completes my basic NRA safety course, it is the snub nose revolver many elderly and women wish to train with for self defense and concealed carry.

    How Much is Enough Power?

    The .38 Special snub nose was considered amongst the most popular carry guns among lawmen in the first half of the 20th century. But in terms of power, it was considered a trade off. The .38 Special offers formidable ballistics when fired from a 6" or even 4" barrel. But one cannot readily carry a 6", or 4" barrel for that matter comfortably in one's pocket. Yet, the .38 special loses significant ballistics and expansion when fired from a 2" barrel.

    Top: Circa 1958 Colt's Detective Special in .38 special. weight 21 oz
    Center: Smith & Wesson J-Frame Model 640 Stainless in 357 mag and recoil reducing grip, pre-lock. weight 23 oz
    Bottom: Smith & Wesson Custom J-Frame Model 442 in .38 special +P with ported barrel and wood fighting grip. weight 15 oz
    Not Pictured: Smith & Wesson 340 PD .357 magnum with Crimson Trace Laser Grips. weight 12 oz
    Note: All Colt snub nose revolver cylinders rotate clockwise and all Smith & Wesson snub nose revolver cylinders rotate counter clockwise. All Colt Detective Specials were/are six shot and all Smith & Wesson J-Frames were/are 5 shot

    Many police officers, and soldiers in battle complained the .38 special snubby ballistics were so poor, (especially when firing into a covered position, a vehicle, or at a large individual), that a larger caliber was greatly needed. Simply put, the greater the velocity - the better the terminal ballistics and hollow point expansion. And at 680fps to maybe 820 fps, the 38 special, launched from a 2" barrel was sincerely lacking.

    Most .38 special revolvers are constructed with the conventional 158 grain bullet in mind. Accordingly, smaller and faster loads will have a tendency to shoot low as the bullet leave the barrel before all the powder can pressurize the bullet.

    The logical next step was the .357 magnum. Now from an 8" barrel, the .357 mag 125 gr. bullet can develop as much as 1800 fps. But from a 2" barrel? Maybe 1060 fps.. The muzzle flash, (more like a fireball) and sound have been know to cause temporary blindness and deafness in addition to control difficulties in sustained fire mode. Again another trade off - reasonable penetration and expansion at the expense of greater muzzle blast and less control. The .357 magnum while an excellent round for penetrating covered positions was just not the ticket for the snubby.

    Then around 2004 or so the 38 special +P SB, "short barrel" ammunition made its debut. It was a happy medium of fast burning powder, a lighter 124 to 135 grain bonded core bullet with a wider opened face hollow point. Bonding the core of the bullet to the jacket provided superior weight retention and hollow point expansion with a muzzle velocity of 860 fps to roughly 900 fps. The SB round which burns powder quicker is still very flashy but offers the control necessary to maintain sustained fire. Speer's SB Gold Dot, Remington's SB Golden Saber and Winchester's SB SXT Ranger +p are well known among law enforcement and the military.

    You can reference Speer's 135 grain .38 special +p Gold Dot here:

    The Best Accessory for Point Shooting

    Other than a holster, the only accessory I recommend for the snub nose revolver is the Crimson Trace Laser Grips. Laser Grips will guide the shooter through a shorter training period.

    In point shooting the shooter is developing a hand eye coordination over the gun. The laser will enable the shooter to hone one's coordination of barrel to the target. Even more important, it will develop a smooth trigger pull by keeping the laser on target while dry or live firing.

    There are two schools I particularly like. Michael de Bethencourt's site, (a former instructor at the SIG Academy) at is an excellent program for civilians. (Note the blog on 25 reasons a revolver is better than an automatic.) For military and law enforcement personnel who need accredited programs, the Bill Rogers Shooting School at offers an excellent program in reactive shooting

    I do hope this week's long winded HoJo speak will be of some value to those of us unacquainted with the snubby. For me it has been quite fun transitioning from double and triple tapping automatics to rapid fire revolver shooting.

    Esteemed and honored to instruct,


    NRA Certified Pistol Instructor

  2. #2
    Senior Member tuck's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2008
    That was a bit long, but a very good read. Especially since I just started shooting a Colt Cobra .38.

    Thanks for the wisdom HoJo!

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Largo, FL
    Excellent writeup. Not too many people adequately address the issue of the shorter barrel vs. powder burn and effect on ballistics: you did it very well and simply.

    I'll toss in one other thought. I have a 340PD in .357, which I carry with the .38+P. Some might ask why a .357 in light of your comments on the fireball. It relates to your other comment about a BUG if a primary is lost/malfunctions/lost, etc. My primary is a larger .357 revolver. If I want to back that up with my snubby, I want to be able to use whatever ammunition I have. Logically, I'd carry more ammunition for the primary .357. I don't want to be limited to only my supply of .38 in a "bad situation." So, one might want to consider a BUG which can shoot the same ammo as the primary if necessary, though the initial load might be a lower power one for the reasons you mention.
    Yes, I am a pirate, 200 years too late;
    the cannons don't thunder,
    there's nothing to plunder.
    I'm an over 40 victim of fate.

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  5. #4
    Senior Member JCinPA's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2007
    Excellent post, thanks!

    I carry a Taurus stainless snubby (+P certified, about 1985 manufacture) frequently.

    I've been thinking of trying to reproduce that Speer load and was thinking of Hodgdon Longshot as the powder to use.

    Any thoughts?

  6. #5
    Senior Member kraigwy's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2006
    Good post, but don't sell the sights on these pocket revolvers short. It takes practice, humulating practice, but it can be done.

    Try shooting an ICORE, PPC, or Bullseye Match with your little pocket gun. You wont win, but you'll learn to shoot the little revolvers.

    Also play at extended ranges, I shoot my 642 a lot at 50 and 100 yards. Not saying I can hit every time at 100 yards, but I've developed the confidence that I could discourage bad behavier at extended ranges. Now I can never fantom a need for a defensive pistol at 100 yards, but you'd be supprised what shooting extended ranges does to your close range scores.

    Below is 20 rounds fired as fast as I could pull the trigger with my little 642 Smith at 15 yards.

    Distinguished Rifle Badge #1071
    USAMU Sniper School, Oct '78

  7. #6
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Good read Hojo. I carry my 340 pd alot especially in the summer. I practice with 38's and carry .357's in it. I'm just guessing but when and if I get that adrinaline dump I bet I won't even feel it. Just as a reminder almost every other time I practice I will shoot 10 to 15 .357's through it. It's a handful or should I say painful. As a side note when I first got it I went to the range and shot 50 .357 rounds through it. I walked out of their with my hand bleeding and thinking I bought the wrong gun. Just down right nasty with .357's.

  8. #7
    Junior Member
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    Sep 2009
    I always loved a wheel gun. Less moving parts.
    Thanks for the great write up.
    "Medications are just poison given in measured amounts to acheive a specific reaction or effect"

  9. #8
    Junior Member
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    Nov 2010
    I had to log on and register to say "Thank You".

    Your post was one of the most informative that I have read in regard to the snub nose revolver.

  10. #9
    Join Date
    Sep 2010
    Excellent post indeed. I really enjoyed your delivery of this subject and share your opinion.

    This was the same logic I used when I was a police officer and intially carrier a tarus M85 in .38 as a BUG. I was of the opinion that should I ever need to bring this weapon to bare my primary weapon would not be accessable or be out of action do to the proximity the attacker i.e. we are on the ground and I have rolled onto my holster to deny access of my duty weapon to the attacker or I have experienced some kind of mechanical failure.

    For this purpose I carried the snubby in a vest holster on my body armor hopeing that most bad guys will assume that cops still carry back ups on their ankles and also I decided that it was much eaiser to access the BUG if it was on my torso rather than way down on my ankle. This also seemed like more superior location as it pertains to weapon retention and control.

    Additionally, the revolver seemed superior in this respect because contact shots (weapon pressed into the attacker) were likely, thus elevating the risk of pushing a semi auto out of battery and consequently preventing the weapon from discharging.

    Lastly was the reliablity factor and immediate action drill that the reveolver offers in the instance of a failure to fire. In a CQB deadly force encounter your going to be fighting like a mad man for your survival and probably wont have the precious seconds needed to perform the two handed drills required for the "rip rack roll" or "tap and rack" that a stalled semi auto will require. Simply pulling the trigger again is about as simple as it gets.

    All that said, your warrior mindset is always your most important weapon. Regardless of what type of BUG you carry, have a plan and train like you will fight, and do it over and over. I always stressed to my trainees that there was someone out in the world that is training eveyday to beat you, if your not training twice as hard mentally, and physically, your best bet is to pray that you never meet that person.

    Blessed are the peace makers...


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