Small frame revolvers aka Snubbies come with conventional hammers, spurless hammers, shrouded hammers and concealed hammers. For simplicity the last form, which will be our main interest, will be described as hammerless. I'll also use the term J-frames generically for small framed revolvers, although strictly speaking it only applies to Smith and Wesson models. Colt termed the frame used on weapons such as the New Detective Special and Agent a D-frame.
The lack of external hammer allows a hammerless J-frame to sit low in the hand so they shoot very well, despite their light weight and quite powerful loadings. But it is as pocket guns that these weapons really shine. There are lots of weapons that claim the name pocket pistol but the hammerless small frame has an advantage over nearly all of them, having neither hammer nor slide to get caught in the pocket lining. This means that if fired through a pocket it will be easier to fire again or then draw the weapon. The same comments can be applied to shrouded hammer guns but the shrouding often acts as a fluff and debris trap, which brings other problems. Some weapons with spured hammers can be converted to shrouded by fitting with Hammer Shrouds. Many J-frames are under 14oz in weight, so sit well even in fairly light jackets.
Some regard shooting from the pocket as a comic book idea. What do you do if you need a weapon fast and your shoulder holstered .45 is zipped beneath your parka because it was 30° below? A lightweight J-frame will sit virtually unnoticed in an outside pocket until you need it. Pocket carry also allows you to have your hand on a weapon without looking too aggressive. An officer can approach a suspect with his hand discreetly in an outside pocket, but be ready for any aggressive act. Once a coat or jacket is removed, the revolver can be placed in an ankle holster. A good position is the inner side of the weak side leg, butt forward. When drawing your weak hand pulls up the trouser leg as your strong goes for the gun. Drop to your strong side knee rather than bending forward so you keep your target in sight and make yourself less of a target. If the weapon is fitted with a Hip-Grip you can simply tuck it in your waistband and not fear it traveling too far south.
In his book on Combat Handgunnery, 3rd Ed. Chuck Karwan made a comparison of several medium calibre rounds fired from a snubby revolver that yielded some interesting results.
110gr .38 +P Rem SJHP
115gr 9mm+P Cor-Bon JHP
125gr .38 +P CCI JHP
124gr 9mm+P Fed JHP
158gr .38 +P IMI JHP
110gr .357 mag Rem SJHP
115gr 9mm Rem JHP
125gr .357 mag Rem SJHP
124gr 9mm Rem MC
158gr .357 mag IMI JSP
147gr 9mm Hornaby JHP
Test weapon was a 2.75 Ruger Speed Six. Click here for graph of muzzle energies. .
It can be seen that both types of 9mm Luger ammo (P+ and Standard) have much more energy than the 38+P rounds. Interestingly, the 110gr 357 had similar muzzle energy to the 9mm+P/124gr and was outperformed by the 9mm+P/115gr round.
If only rating the effectiveness of a round was just a matter of comparing muzzle energy! There are of course other considerations:-
Bullet weight. The heavier a round is the more energy it will have retained when it reaches the target, and the less likely it is to be deflected on its way to or through a body.
Recoil. The heavier rounds sometimes have more felt recoil, and if this effects your shot placement too much this round may be a poorer choice.
Bullet design. The 9mm rounds most likely to be available will be JHPs -though these have improved in design over the years, they are still variable in mushrooming performance. The revolver rounds are available in a much wider range, including Semi-Jacketed Soft Points which performed very effectively in military testing. Some of these rounds are available in heavier weights than was tested by Karwan. Revolvers will, of course, handle such rounds as reversed hollow base wadcutters.
If you need to drop someone, use a longarm. Failing that, large calibre pistols work better than ANY medium calibre weapon, including the high velocity ones such as the .357 and 10mm. There was, however, one medium calibre round that exhibited a terminal performance of similar levels to the big bores:-The .38 200gr LRN. Softer lead loads of the same weight performed even better. After World War One the UK began to phase out the .455 revolver in favor of a lighter .38 weapon that it was felt it would be easier to train conscripts in the use of (pistol training in this era usually being formal target work). It was admitted that the .38 would be less effective, but interestingly the load adopted was a 200gr Lead round. Bullets lighter than 200gr are far more likely to be deflected by an impact and veer off path, missing the internal structures that they were aimed at.
Let's return to Kawan's findings. Of the loads tested, my first choice would be a 357 weapon using the 357/158 loading. If this proved too much to shoot then either the 357/125gr or 38+P/158 with a suitable bullet, probably the latter. This is just my choice from the rounds listed above. If you look at factors such as momentum or TKO rating you'll see that the 38/158 and 357s of 125gr or heavier are better than the 9mms.
As we've seen, the 9mm rounds work quite well and this would be the choice of pocket gun if forced to use a 9mm auto as the primary weapon or operating in an environment where 9mm was more readily available than 357 or 38. These guns are loaded by full moon clips, which are usually more compact and slightly quicker than conventional speedloaders. I'd opt for a 357 rated small frame rather than a 38 only since it gives more options. Ideally a small frame would come with easily interchangeable 9mm and 357 cylinders, or better still be able to handle any 9mm/38/357 rounds in the same cylinder, like the Medusa revolver.
Small frame revolvers occur in two forms:- those that hold 6 medium calibre rounds and those that hold only five. Recent advances in metallurgy has given us medium frame .357 revolvers with seven or even eight rounds. It is not impossible that J-frame weapons with six or more rounds may now be built without any increase in size. A useful option for a backup weapon would be a medium calibre J-frame revolver using the multi-round facility of the Medusa revolvers so it could fire 357 rounds but also use rounds such as 9mm Luger and 9mm makarov.
Another interesting possibility for small frame revolvers is to build the grip and frame from polymer. In automatics polymer frames are said to reduce felt recoil while saving weight. Such a strategy would allow the weight and strength of a light revolver to be concentrated where it is most needed- in the barrel and cylinder.(Since I wrote this article the Ruger LCR with a polymer grip frame has been marketed) Some snubbys have grips too spindly for most hands. An extension piece to the frontstrap increases circumference without increasing bulk. Another desirable feature is a backstrap that extends up to let the hammerless weapon sit low in the hand The S&W Centennials made in the 50s had this latter feature for what was essentially a saw-handle grip. The weapon pictured on the left below has this feature. Compare this to the grip of a modern J-frame on the right.
Col. Rex Applegate was instrumental in the development of the S&W Centennial. In his book Kill or be Killed (right) he observes that a large handed shooter can fold his smallest finger underneath the butt of a snubby, reducing muzzle flip and therefore improving accuracy during rapid fire. If the lowest quarter of a grip was made of a smaller diameter then the same effect could be gained by smaller handed shooters. Those with large hands could still fold their finger under.
Another nice feature for a J-frame grip is the Barami Hip Grip. This keeps a weapon in position when tucked into a waistband, but still allows the use of a conventional or pocket holster. Such a feature could be combined with the laser projector shown below.
Sights are another issue for snubs. Although these are intended as close range defensive weapons many users can get accurate performance out to 50 or 100ft. Most guns have fixed sights, although a dovetailed front sight that is adjustable for windage and elevation should be practical. Some guns use a bead as a front sight, and a laser would also be appropriate for this class of weapon.
There are small frame revolvers available with barrels of 3" or longer. These offer more velocity and accuracy and also sit better in holsters than their snubby stablemates. For these reasons they are a better choice for any carry other than pocket or possibly ankle holsters. However, if you don't want a pocket gun there are many alternate weapons of similar size and bulk, many of them being autoloaders with a greater magazine capacity.
There are also small frame revolvers in smaller calibres, and often these manage to squeeze at least an extra round into the cylinder, some being 8 shot. 22LR, 22 mag and .32 are not really combat rounds but these revolvers do make handy hunting weapons for targets of opportunity or mercy shots. The S&W versions are termed Kit guns, since they are part of your backpacking kit. Being small and little burden to carry they happily can fit on your belt even if you are already carrying a larger pistol for self defense or hunting larger game. These small calibre small frames are better used in a 3+ model, and a conventional hammer configuration may be useful for more the aimed single action shooting that hunting may require.
Given that many Law Enforcement officers use weapons in the 10mm Auto or .40 S&W loading it is perhaps surprising that at the time of writing (Aug 2010) no company has yet offered a 10mm/.40 J-frame pocket revolver.
A Dedicated Snubby Load. A gun is just a tool to deliver a bullet. There is obviously a need for a round optimized for J-frames that will propel a heavy deformable bullet with reasonable recoil in a small frame.
One of the advantages of a revolver is that it can use rounds of a shape, length or softness that would not feed through an automatic. To exploit this, a dedicated defensive load should be developed for short barreled medium calibre revolvers.
This will probably take the form of a large diameter soft lead hollow point, possibly resembling the reversed Hollow base Wadcutter rounds used by some handloaders. An alternative could be a round based on the Webley Manstopper -a lead cylinder with a deep hollowpoint and a hollow base. Like all hollowpoints, reliability can be improved by filling the cavity with Vaseline to act as a hydraulic intermediate. With a small cavity you have to use a syringe and large bore needle (19G). With larger you can just pile it in with a spatula and use the warmed end to melt it.
Northwest Custom Projectile offer a round based on the orginal Manstopper. The 357/38 is only available in 110gr and 158gr at the moment, but it is a start.
The correct bullet weight for this round needs to be established empirically. A selection of bullet weights of the correct configuration should be fired a gelatin targets set up at several realistic combat ranges, for example 2, 6 and 12 metres. Selection would be made on the basis of penetration, mushrooming performance and proportions of stretch cavity. Practical accuracy and recoil would also be considered. Test should include bullet weights in the 158-200gr range, and my feeling is that the heavier round is preferable. The obvious round to use will be based on the 357/38spl case. There would probably be a load for .357 capable weapons and another for very light or older guns that can't handle these pressures. Suitable powder charge is another consideration. A large charge of slow burning powder is of little use in a short barrel -it just increases blast and recoil.
The above data shows that a 9mm +P 115gr bullet actually has more energy and velocity than a slightly lighter 110gr .357 when fired from a short barreled revolver. Logically, this must be due to the powder used in the 9mm.
There are also J-frame pistols chambered for 9x19mm ammo that may not be able to fire a 38spl based round. A 9mm based round will also be made using Luger brass. Since these rounds do not have to feed through an automatic they can hold a longer heavier bullet than is usually used. Possibly these rounds will be 9mm Auto rim This may make them incompatible with moon clips, so they may be conventional 9x19mm brass. If a rim is desired it can be added using the sprung C clips found in hardware and autopart stores. An interesting idea is to make the 9mm snubby rounds semi-rimmed. They could then be used in conventional speedloaders or moon clips.
A non-expanding high penetration round for defence against animals and target practice would also be produced. The reversed bullet ideas detailed at http://guns.connect.fi/gow/QA13.html may prove to be very useful if applied to bullets for short barreled revolvers, since most of the flight is likely to be subsonic.
Spurless hammers available. No model with internal hammer.
Ruger-LCR Marketed after this article was first webbed, a hammerless Ruger revolver with polymer grip frame.
Colt no longer make Snubs, but Detective Specials, Agents and Cobras are still available second-hand and are often still perfectly serviceable weapons.
UPDATE The 200gr .38 Spl round tested in the trials was at 630fps, closely reproducing the ballistics of the British 38/200 round. On paper this does not look that impressive. Muzzle Energy is only 176 ftlbs, momentum 0.56 ftlb/sec and TKO 6.4, all less than a typical 9x19mm. I believe the superior performance observed in the trials is due to the soft lead bullet with a very high sectional density (0.222). This is much higher than any common pistol round short of rounds like the 300gr .44 magnum. Bruce Jones informs me he has used an even more effective 200gr .357 round at 950fps that works very well in snubbies. Momentum is 0.84 ftlb.sec (close to .45ACP rounds) and TKO 9.69.
This article makes a very good case for medium calibre snubbies being an ideal self-defence gun for non-gun people.
Simple to operate, even under stress, and needing little maintenance or training.
Low weight and bulk.
Wide range of carry/concealment options.
Comfortable for prolonged carry.
Uses widely available and reasonably effective ammunition.
Recoil within the tolerances of most individuals.
Grip suited to all hand sizes.
Can be used at extreme close range. Will fire when pressed against the body of an assailant.
Many of these points can also apply to larger bore short-barreled revolvers. Compact large bore defensive revolvers were popular in the late 19th Century. Best known of these were British Webley Bulldogs. Similar weapons were produced in America and often called by the same name. In 1973 the idea was revived by Charter Arms who produced a 5-shot .44 Spl Bulldog. The Charter Arms name is once more in business and the Bulldog back in production. Taurus also offer a wide range of 5-shot .44 Spl Snubs. What the .44 Spl guns offer is considerably more power, having a TKO level similar to the .455 Webley. Like the smaller snubs they are simple to operate, very reliable and low maintenace. Although they are slightly larger than .38/357/9mm J-frames, Bulldog-type weapons are still of moderate weight, ranging from 19-30oz with about 23oz being typical. They use a compact/medium sized frame, so are similar in size to 6-shot .357s. These are more holster guns than pocket weapons, so a spurless hammer is acceptable (and there don't appear to be hammerless or shrouded models available). A Colt Commander hammer style does not appear to have ever been tried with a revolver. The S&W 469 Automatic had a spurless hammer that could be thumb cocked. Gentle pressure on the trigger allowed the thumb to be placed on the checkered top of the hammer.
The capabilities of the .44 Spl may not be as familiar as those of other rounds. Originally introduced as a target round, the writings of Elmer Keith drew attention to the fact that it could be handloaded to exceed the performance of factory .357 and .45 Colt. Before the introduction of the .44 Magnum it had gained a reputation as a hunting round. Many modern combat loadings for the .44 Spl follow the trend for light, high velocity rounds, but still have a bullet of 180-200gr. Heavier loadings such as the 240-245gr more closely resemble the most effective rounds of the .455. The 44 Spls history as a hunting round suggests that Bulldog type weapons may be an alternative to short barreled .44 Magnums for officers who also need a defensive capability against large animals. Taurus also offer models in .45 ACP, .45 Long Colt and .41 Magnum. The .45ACP is ballisitically a shade better than the .44 Spl, but this may be outweighed by higher recoil and the .44s potential to use heavier and more effective designs of bullet. The .41 Magnum and possibly the .45 Long Colt is probably not a gun for inexperienced shooters.
For a combat pistol a non-reflective finish is usually a requirement, so as not to betray the firer's position in low light conditions. For a personal defence weapon this is not so much of a requirement. Some suggest that the muzzle of a polished weapon looks more intimidating. Such weapons will spend a long time in close proximity to the body, so in some respects a matte or polished stainless steel finish is a very practical choice. If having an aesthetically pleasing weapon helps the carrier bond with the weapon, so much the better. The Taurus range of revolvers offers a wide choice of finishes. As well as the more traditional, the use of titanium offers new shades. A nice option is that of gold plated triggers and cylinder releases. Sadly this is not offered with the hammerless models. A nice grip is another thing that can improve the looks of a weapon. The Barami Hip-grip is only available in black for most models, which is not a good colour for concealment, since it can show through light materials. The Clipdraw is an alternative that lets you use the grip of your choice, but it also prevents the use of a conventional holster. It should be fairly easy to construct a metal clip that works like the Hip-grip that has an end that secures under the grip panel. If produced commercially, it should be available in a choice of finishes. As well as weapons like the Detective Special, Colt also used their D-frame for the Colt Diamondback. This was a long barreled .38 Spl resembling a gracile Colt Python. It was John Waynes weapon in one of his detective movies, and many shooters mourn its passing. S&W J-frames are offered with 3 barrels, and the addition of a vent rib and ejector shroud would improve the look of these.