Bob Owens

The saddest truth in politics is that people get the leaders they deserve

No, you do not want a snub-nosed revolver.

Written By: Bob - May• 14•12

A relative asked me yesterday what I thought about nice-looking .38 Special revolver he was looking to obtain for his wife as her first carry gun. It was a Smith & Wesson hammerless with a grip-activated laser, like this one.

Smith & Wesson 642CT

I’m familiar with Smith & Wesson J-frame like the 642, having carried the hammered version of the same basic gun for a concealed carry article I wrote in 2008.

While I enjoy the gun for what it is, I told him what I know from both personal experience and from reading those I trust.

This is an expert’s gun, and not a gun for beginners.

The recoil with any decent defensive load in a lightweight alloy-framed gun is sharp, and shooting more than a box  of ammunition can be punishing.  Combine the light weight and heavy recoil with blinding muzzle blast, a long DAO trigger pull and a nearly nonexistent sight radius, and you have the “perfect storm” of nearly every factor that can keep someone from developing proficiency with a handgun.

I cannot and will not recommend a snub-nosed revolver, unless the person in question has serious physical limitations that simply prevent them from using a semi-auto as a carry weapon, such as the lack of hand strength to cycle a slide.

The recent developments in “pocket nines” with better sights, longer sight radius, more ammo capacity and better concealability should all but kill the need for snub-nosed revolvers.

Want is another story entirely…

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  1. RRRoark says:

    Well if “the wife” is like many I’ve trained in concealed carry courses, she isn’t going to be a recreational shooter. When I’ve trained ladies with such weapons, for practice they use low power wadcutters with the +P ammo saved for carry purposes. Anecdotal tales from ladies I’ve known relates that they didn’t notice the rather harsh recoil and report when they actually had to use this type of carry pistol. For a person that is not going to devote significant time practicing, one must consider such things as clearing “smokestacking” (particularly with those with less wrist stregnth),clearing misfires, carring with a round under the hammer, and releasing the safety.

    Those are the reasons that I must respectfully disagree with you, unless your relative believes that his wife will convert into a t least a recreational shooter and actually shoot 50-100 rounds a month.

    • louielouie says:

      i must respectfully agree with you.
      the gun in the photo is my C/C, less laser, and 357.
      considering the weapons available for C/C, i choose this one because, considering the issues of maintaining a semi-auto, if you are carrying a revolver, if you pull the trigger and nothing happens, you pull the trigger again. this is a principle a noob like myself can master in about 1/2 second.

  2. Steve in TN (@sdo1) says:

    The wife (a rank beginner) and I went on a multi year search for a carry weapon for HER and settled on the SW 49 J-frame we already had. I can’t believe a weapons knowledgeable person such as yourself would reject the snub nosed revolver out of hand as you have seem to have done in this item.

    An “expert’s gun” when compared to a pistol? If anything it is the pistol with many varied and different actions and devices that is an “expert’s” weapon. One must be very practiced in slide functioning, magazine tactics, proper wrist and hand techs, etc… to operate a pistol. The revolver is a beginner’s weapon by definition, point and click.

    Muzzle blast? Heavy recoil? Please. We’re not shooting .357 mags out of a snub for self-defense. .38+p is the most one wants in this weapon and muzzle blast is no more in this load than with a pistol. True, in some of the lighter snub options recoil *may* be a problem for very small shooters, but steel snubs with proper grips are a different story.

    Sight radius? We aren’t target shooting. Defensive shootings happen VERY close in a VERY big majority of self defense shootings. Most aren’t even aimed shots. Proper sight tech removes this objection in the other cases, revolver or pistol.

    And so much for denigrating the “long” trigger. That is EXACTLY what we want the beginner to have in a self defense situation. You want a beginner, in the throes of an adrenaline rush a self defense encounter will dump on them, with their finger on a single action trigger stroke?

    The positives to a snub are very pronounced for a beginner. Ease of carry, the ability to fire from inside garments/carry options, the KISS principle, etc… If my loved one beginner shooter is in a situation where that weapon has to save their life, I want them thinking of the fewest things possible, and the snub revolver is most likely that solution if they can’t carry a full size weapon. I don’t want them thinking about what to do if the thing jams, where the “safety” is, what all the levers and buttons do, etc… Just point and shoot the bastard that intends them ill.

    I have no problem with a person committing to a pistol if they are versed in tap/rack, what ammo feeds best in their particular weapon, putting in time to develop muscle memory in the various functions of their weapon, and all that. You should have no problem with the beginner who needs a simpler viable option.

  3. Knitebane says:

    I wouldn’t mention that theory around Mrs. Knitebane who is in the process of migrating from a Ruger SP101 to a Ruger LCR .357Magnum for her daily carry piece. She’s a frighteningly good shot with both of them.

    We’ve been hearing about the demise of the the snubby since the advent of the plastic gun fad and it’s still not true.

    By the time you’ve ramped up the caliber of a pocket auto into the 9mm range you get into the most of the same issues as the snubby. I find that a big XS front sight on the LCR is way better than the stock sights on most pocket autos.

    And pocket autos have an inherent flaw…the smaller sizes infer closer tolerances which in turn increases the likelihood of malfunctions. Or you can increase the tolerances and decrease accuracy.

    A pocket snubby is much more likely to go bang until it runs out of ammo than a pocket auto. Fewer parts means fewer malfs.

    Anyone who shoots enough to be proficient with any carry piece will shoot enough to be proficient with either a wheel gun or an auto. The decision to go with an auto or a revolver then becomes one of choice and not perceived obsolescence.

    And the Mrs. choice for a carry gun is a snubby. It’s also my choice for a BUG/pocket gun.

    That’s why MY recommendation for a carry gun is to try several different guns (semi and revolver) and see what works for them. I won’t rule out snubbies just because.

  4. Robert says:

    Until the manual of arms for an auto doesn’t include clearing malfs, revolvers will still have a place.

  5. Mister_V says:

    Personally, I recommend a new shooter/carrier purchase two handguns. The first should be a full or midsize gun in a proven stopper caliber that is, above all, easy to shoot well. This is the one they will use to build the muscle memory that will translate well to smaller guns.

    The second is the “always” gun, i.e., a gun that is so small and light you have no excuse not to carry it. This is the realm where the .38 snub and .380 auto excel, but they are not especially easy to shoot well and it’s easy to build bad habits with them.

    That said, there are also “compromise” guns that are adequate, but not perfect, at filling both roles. A Kahr K9, for instance is a good compromise gun (I often pack a CW9 myself). If this particular lady is indeed a fan of small revolvers, I might recommend a 3″ S&W model 60 as a heavier, lower recoiling gun with a longer sight radius. YMMV.

  6. S.Lynn says:

    My CCW Kahr 9mm was OK but I am in love with my new Ruger LC9. Accurate, shot 100 rounds out of the box, no misfires or jams and other than my forearm being a little sore today, not a lote of recoil. Just have to find the perfect IWB holster for it.

  7. Caspian says:

    I have taught women’s classes for a number of years-what I have learned:
    1) Recoil is not a problem when you don’t practice
    2) Most encounters are very close – as in point and shoot
    3) If they are off balance or have a weak grip the autoloader will jam on the first shot
    4) Other than a glock they have to remember the safety – not good under stress – remember no practice
    By the way I really like your site and try to read it every day

  8. Chaz says:

    This is an expert’s gun, and not a gun for beginners.

    This was my experience with my S&W 442. It was difficult for me to shoot accurately and at the same time its grip was too uncomfortable for me to want to practice regularly. Reloading helped. Factory practice ammo typically 95-100 power factor has a firm recoil. Defense ammo can have power factor 120. My practice reloads power factors are in the 80s which is much more comfortable.

  9. Dave says:

    I have an old Ruger Security Six 357 Magnum with a
    2 inch barrel and it’s dead nuts on target even at 50 feet.

  10. nk says:

    My opinion is a minimum of 3.5″ for any decent caliber. 4″ is better, still concealable. I suppose, with a .41 Remington blackpowder, at arms-length, you could have a 2″ barrel.

  11. Motor-T says:

    Any woman (or man for that matter) that can drive a car or operate a smart phone has more than enough technical snap to operate a semi-auto pistol.

  12. mikee says:

    The only time in over 5000 rounds that my Glock 19 has had a malfunction was the first shot taken by my 14 year old daughter, which resulted in a stovepiped empty cartridge. She limp wristed the gun, despite experience with 22LR pistols and .38SPL revolvers, because the grip was so big for her hand. Adjusting her grip (away from teacup to a proper isosceles two hander) solved the issue.

    My aged and saintly mom, given a snubby .38SPL by my brothers, loved shooting my Ruger 22LR pistol. It was the first time she was not bothered by recoil.

  13. Marq says:

    I’m on the fence on this one. As a peace officer I carried a full size semi-auto (mostly a 1911) and a 642 as a back up. I found that no matter what I always had the 642 with me. When I left law enforcement I quickly found putting on a full size gun every day was real work, especially when I no longer had a badge to make “getting caught” less problematic. The 642 (which is in my pocket as I write this) not so much. Is it ideal? No, but ideal is rarely obtainable, especially in “the perfect gun” debate. All handguns are anemic and most of us would opt for a rifle if we knew a fight was coming. However having a gun at all times trumps having the perfect gun sometimes.

    As to a “new female shooter” (the gist of the article) picking a lightweight .38 for ccw, I agree there are better options. But unless she is a dedicated, and in most cases, fairly strong female, the manual of arms for most semi-auto handguns is all but impossible to master. Now please recall I said “dedicated.” I know there are tons of laddies out there who can handle any handgun presented to them, but they are NOT the norm. For that matter, men who can are not the norm in the general population either.

    So what is ideal? The firearm the shooter can shoot and manipulate well and reliably. In 30 years of teaching men, women, children and cops I saw plenty of other instructors who would push one or the other super whammy firearm on every student as the “one and only answer.” While I tried to get them to try a range of firearms and go with what worked (in one instance selling the actual range rental Glock 19 to a cop who, before shooting it, couldn’t hit water from a boat), I eventually reached the conclusion that the average person (read one who is not a dedicated shooter, who will not practice religiously and always think tactically) is best served by a revolver.

    Airweight? Maybe not, but there are plenty of steel frame snubbies that tame recoil and shoot very well and are easily concealed. Misfire? Pull the trigger again. Weak wrist? Quality revolvers don’t jam from that. Administrative handling? Open cylinder and press ejector rod. No magazine to drop, safety to manipulate, slide to pull. Trigger pull is usually heavy enough that ND’s from “booger hook on the bang switch” syndrome are less likely. And anyone who thinks a 2″ .38 revolver is only a “table and elevator gun” should shoot them a bit more. I routinely win bets at the rang hitting a man sized gong at 50 and 100 yards with mine. At normal defensive use distances a 2″ .38 loaded with any quality defensive hollow point ammo (note I do not specify +P ammo) that the user shoots accurately will satisfy the first rule of gun fighting. Have a gun.

  14. Kristopher says:

    I see a bunch of folks jumping on this guy … most of whom were suffering from “my gun is the only best gun” disease.

    I own a light framed S&W model 38. It is one of my carry guns. Anyone who insists that a new shooter learn on such a weapon must secretly hate new shooters.

    If you want a revolver for a female relative, I suggest a full frame and barrel length .357 loaded with .38 special. An old Model 66 would be perfect.

    Don’t saddle a newb with a difficult to control weapon.

  15. Joe Doakes says:

    My wife doesn’t carry but she wanted something for at home when I worked nights. After feeling the grip and heft of every pistol in the store, she picked a .38 revolver with 3″ barrel. It just felt right in her hand. That made all the difference at the range, both in confidence and accuracy.

    I learned on a mil-spec 1911 40 years ago so I can handle crappy sights and tap-rack-bang drills. Now, we’re both happy in our separate lanes at the range.

  16. Steve in TN (@sdo1) says:

    Kristopher: The item specifically says “first carry gun” and NOT first gun shot, or the gun she learns to shoot first. I don’t know many women that are willing to carry a full sized revolver or pistol.

  17. The real issue here is why on earth is the HUSBAND buying his wife’s first gun? If you’re bullying your wife into carrying a gun, buying an ultralight snubbie is NOT the answer. This has to be HER purchase after she has done the research, and it has to be her decision to carry a gun. There are so many women only intro to firearms classes that we really shouldn’t be having this discussion anymore. What is with men wanting to force their wives into a carry gun first before their wives are comfortable shooting?? HUSBANDS SHOULD NEVER TEACH THEIR WIVES TO SHOOT. You pay someone else to do that. If your wife wants a .22 for practice, buy it. You will never waste money buying a good .22 target pistol for practice.

    I already wrote my experiences on why I carry a snubbie here:

    Some things have changed since I wrote that. I now do almost 100% on body carry and have switched to an LCR in .357 but again carry .38+p. I switched because it is much lighter and it is easier to get holsters for it. My pants also have a better chance of staying up around my waist. I am still getting used to the trigger as it is non-stacking and after shooting an SP101 and Security Six for several years, it is a little different. There is about a half pound difference in weight between the LCR and the SP101. I can shoot 100 rounds of .357 out of the SP101 and not even blink. 10 rounds in the LCR and I don’t see any reason to continue abusing myself. I see a significant drop in accuracy with 4 to 6 inch groupings at 5 to 7 yards instead of hole on top of hole. We won’t even talk about 10 yards. The range we shoot at every week has a notice on the rental LCR, “for experienced revolver shooters” and it is true. Which is exactly what Bob was saying about the above gun and I’m going to agree.

    If you want to have a gun for self-defense, you need to do some research. Everyone is different and needs change over the years too. The problem with the ultra-light snubbies, especially the pink and purple ones, is that they do have significant recoil and can be difficult to learn to shoot with. The other problem is finding a self defense instructor who will accept your choice of a revolver. I’ve even had an instructor refuse me entry into his class until I agreed to carry a semi-auto for defense. Finding good, experienced revolver instructors isn’t easy but they are out there.

  18. Knitebane says:

    I would also like to note that a semi-auto in a pocket used for self protection suffers from a malady that you won’t see while shooting at the range.

    Ask George Zimmerman where he would be if his first shot had not killed Treyvon Martin.

    His pocket gun malfed due to barrel/slide contact with something. He got one shot off and was not able to get off another because the slide didn’t cycle.

    A wheel gun doesn’t suffer from this problem.

  19. Mike says:

    There seems to be a tendency among gun folk of confusing “concealed carry handguns” and “defensive handguns”. I carry a Kahr P9, but my home defense gun is a 4″ barreled Smith and Wesson 686, loaded with 125 gr. hollowpoints.

    Why? Well, that’s the best defensive handgun cartridge for one-shot stops, the revolver’s long trigger pull and simplicity of operation reduces the chances of a sleepy accidental discharge. Yes, I could achieve the same with a DAO autopistol. But I like the revolver.

    Now, would I carry a snubbie? Sure. But I think I’d load it with 38 +P. I’ve fired hot magnums out of light snubbies, and it’s a painful experience.