September 09, 2019
The first five-shot snub I owned was an Iver Johnson Safety Hammerless with a trigger safety lever à la Glock. It had a two-inch barrel, chambered .32 S&W, and was almost new in the box. I didn’t shoot it much; a box of .32 S&W cartridges was expensive for me in those days. After I traded that little “Owl Head,” I missed it and finally found another one a few years ago. I also owned a S&W Safety Hammerless “Bicycle Revolver” with a two-inch barrel.
As with many reading this, my first five-shot .38 Special snub was a S&W Chiefs Special, an early one with the flat latch. I carried it as a backup to my S&W Model 58 revolver, or in my pocket when serving papers for local lawyers or earning a $10 bill for accompanying finance company assistant managers when they re-possessed cars.
In those days, a lot of older cops carried detective specials as their secondary or off duty gun, while younger guys tended to carry Chiefs Specials (Model 36s once numerical designations were assigned). Those of us who carried Chiefs Specials called the Dick Specials “Defective Specials,” while those who carried Colts called the S&W snubs “Cheap Specials.” Both were excellent guns, and I still use a 6-shot Colt Agent or Cobra, as well as S&W five-shot revolvers.
After S&W designated the Chiefs Special and its cousins, “J-Frames” the name became generic, and that is how I will designate S&W five-shot snubs for the rest of this article. I’ve owned 15-20 S&W J-frame revolvers and shot others. I rate them among the greatest firearms ever created, an outstanding choice for pocket carry. I’ve evolved over the years; currently, my favorite pocket S&W revolver is a Model 38 or 638 “Bodyguard,” both of which have alloy frames. These little gems have a hammer shroud that still allows cocking the hammer for precise shots at longer distances. It clears the pocket well when carried in a pocket holster. I actually carried a Model 38 on a few protection jobs and once on a receiving line had it in a pocket pointing at each supplicant that approached my principal, though experiments have shown that firing through the pocket can catch the coat on fire!
S&W Bodyguard .38 SpecialSeven Yards, Five-Shots Double Action $385.00 (M&P model, no laser)
- SIG-Sauer 125-grain FMJ: 4 inches
- Triton Quik-Shok 110-grain QSHP +P: 2¼ inches
- ZERO (Commercial Reloads) 158-grain SWC: 3¼ inches
I still use the 638 I’ve had since it was introduced, but I’ve also become impressed with the S&W M&P Bodyguard .38 Special with laser. As she is cross-eye-dominant, my wife likes handguns with lasers and shoots better with them so I got her an M&P Bodyguard with laser. I’ve been impressed when I’ve shot it. The laser allows rapid target acquisition and rapid repeat shots. Its ambidextrous laser control allows either my wife or I to use it, especially as I often carry a Bodyguard as a left-hand pocket gun. Its top ambidextrous cylinder release is another plus for this revolver.
S&W Bodyguard (with Crimson Trace Laser) .38 SpecialSeven Yards, Five-Shots Double Action $699.00
- SIG-Sauer 125-grain FMJ: 2 inches
- Triton Quik-Shok 110-grain QSHP +P: 11⁄8 inches
- Federal 129-grain Hydra-Shok JHP: 1¾ inches
Another S&W 5-shot snub I use is the Model 42 Classic, another “Airweight,” which is a true DA-only design. It draws well from a pocket and with enough practice is effective and accurate at close combat ranges. I do find, however, that DA-only guns often magnify recoil for me, because the heavy trigger pull causes my hand to tense up. Practice and good ammo choice can help you shoot the 42 Classic or other DA-only revolvers better. I practice using mine with either hand, as I sometimes carry it as a second gun. I prefer the old-school Model 42 or 42 Classic, which has the grip safety. I had a few friends over the years who carried a Model 40 or Model 42 because it was virtually impossible for a child to depress the grip safety and pull the trigger, adding a level of safety when they had small kids.
S&W 42 Classic .38 SpecialSeven Yards, Five-Shots Double Action DISCONTINUED
- Winchester 130-grain FMJ: 35⁄8 inches
- Black Hills 158-grain CNL: 33⁄4 inches
- SIG-Sauer 125-grain V-Crown JHP +P: 21⁄8 inches
My favorite S&W 5-shot snub for shooting is not my favorite for carrying. I have one of the limited number of “Model 60 Target” revolvers with two-inch barrel and adjustable sights. In the past S&W also produced a limited number of “Model 50” revolvers, which were Chiefs Specials with target sights. Some were just listed as Model 36 Targets. Even though those little guns have two-inch barrels, the adjustable sights make a lot of difference in accuracy. I shoot my Model 60 Target at 25 yards double action a lot and at 50 yards single action quite a bit. But, the adjustable sights do not make it a good pocket gun. I generally carry mine in a belt holster when I carry it.
Shooting the snub S&Ws well takes a lot of practice. I shoot the ones I carry at least once a month, usually firing 50 rounds of .38 Special through them. However, I also have two .22 long rifle “understudy guns” I use for training. I have a Model 63 two-inch barreled model with adjustable sights that I shoot as practice for my Model 60 Target and I have a lightweight DA-only Model 43C that I use as a .22 practice gun for all of my S&W snubs that I fire mostly double action. It also makes a nice training gun for my wife or her friends who carry revolvers. For self-defense usage, the 351C in .22 Magnum is worth considering.
Make your training realistic: practice drawing and engaging with a quick double tap. Shoot from available cover. Practice engaging with one hand while turning sideways and using the support-side elbow to fend off an attacker. Shoot while retreating or from unconventional positions. Carry spare ammo and practice reloads. If the snub revolver is carried as a backup gun, practice drawing and engaging with the support hand and transitioning from the primary handgun. Bottom line: the snub is carried as a close combat weapon; incorporate close combat techniques in your training. Don’t just shoot two-handed from a Weaver stance.
By far the most popular chambering for the S&W J-frame snubs is .38 Special, but there is another option. S&W offers various snubs in .357 Magnum. I’ve fired a few of them and have owned a 360PD for years. The 360PD has a Scandium frame and a Titanium cylinder, which keeps unloaded weight to 11.4 ounces. It carries wonderfully in a pocket but “lightweight” means heavy recoil—really heavy recoil! I’ve been firing magnum revolvers for years and have developed tolerance for heavy recoil, but I find the 360PD more punishing than any other revolver I fire. I have carried it occasionally. When I’ve trained with it, to avoid a flinch, I have normally fired 10 rounds, maybe 15 if I’m feeling tough that day. When doing shooting tests for this article I had fired various other snubs in .38 Special with +P ammo the same day I fired the 360PD. After all that, I put 20 rounds of .357 Magnum ammo through the 360PD and another 20 rounds of +P .38 Special through it. All were fired DA, which causes my hand to be tenser and, hence magnifies recoil. After firing the magnum loads, the web of my hand was bleeding profusely. When I evaluate the advantage of the .357 Magnum cartridge in such a compact revolver versus the time it takes to recover and fire a follow-up shot, I would normally opt for a +P .38 Special round and a quicker double action double tap—and a hand that remained usable!
Even if I were carrying the 360PD as a backup for one of my carry .357 Magnum revolvers I’d probably load it with +P .38 Special. If for any reason I needed to load .357 Magnum in it, I could.
S&W 360 PD .357 MagnumSeven Yards, Five-Shots Double Action $1,019.00
- Black Hills .357 Magnum 158-grain SWC: 25⁄8 inches
- Federal .357 Magnum 158-grian Hydra-Shok: 4 inches
- SIG-Sauer .38 Special 125-grain FMJ: 13⁄4 inches
Charter Arms started producing five-shot .38 Special snub revolvers in the 1960s. The original Charter Undercover was a well-made compact snub that was less expensive than the S&W 5-shots but still utterly reliable. Plus, its one-piece frame allowed it to handle relatively heavy .38 Special loads safely. I remember carrying Super-Vel loads in the first one I owned. My favorite five-shot Charter, though, was the .44 Special Bulldog. I acquired a Bulldog with the 2½-inch barrel and switched out the larger grips for those from an Undercover as the grip size was the same. This allowed the Bulldog to be readily stuck in my pocket.
Charter Arms Off DutySeven Yards, Five-Shots Double Action $419.00 (black finish)
- Federal 129-grain Hydra-Shok: 23⁄4 inches
- Winchester 130-grain FMJ: 17⁄8 inches
- Black Hills 148-grain HBWC: 13⁄4 inches
For this article, I shot the current version of the Undercover, which is a DA-only design with finger-grooved rubber grips. There’s also an Undercover Lite with an exposed hammer. My wife has the Southpaw Pink Lady version of this revolver so I fired it as well. Its larger grip makes it more comfortable to shoot but harder to stick in a pocket. When she carries hers, she uses a Galco purse with built-in holster.
Charter Arms Southpaw Pink Lady .38 SpecialSeven Yards, Five-Shots Double Action $452.00
- Winchester 130-grain FMJ: 21⁄8 inches
- SIG-Sauer 125-grain FMJ: 23⁄4 inches
- Black Hills 125-grain JHP: 13⁄4 inches
Charter Arms still offers my old favorite, the .44 Special Bulldog in various configurations. I decided to try the Boomer, which has a two-inch ported barrel and oversized combat grips. To allow a snag-free draw, it lacks a front sight. It is also DA-only. I tried the Boomer with various .44 Special loads. At seven yards, sighting down the trough atop the frame I could keep all of my rounds in the torso of a silhouette target firing DA. However, I found a tendency to shoot high so aimed below where I wanted to impact. Recoil was noticeable but tolerable. The Boomer is what old timers called a “Belly Gun.” It offers a lot of punch for use at extreme close ranges.
Charter Arms Boomer .44 SpecialSeven Yards, Five-Shots Double Action $443.00
- Black Hills 210-grain FPL: 21⁄2 inches
- Winchester 200-grain Silvertip: 11⁄2 inches
- Cor-Bon 165-grain JHP: 33⁄4 inches
Charter Arms’ .357 five-shot snub is the Mag Pug, which does not punish the hand as much as the S&W 360PD but you know you’ve shot a compact magnum revolver. Its rubber grip helps cushion recoil. As with the 360PD, many users will choose to carry +P .38 Special loads.
I’ve liked Ruger revolvers ever since I got a Security Six shortly after they came out. That, of course, was a belt gun. There were five-shot SP-101s with 2¼-inch barrels, but it was the LCR that really made me a fan of Ruger five-shot snubs. I like the shrouded hammer and the smooth DA-only trigger pull that lets me shoot the LCR well. At 13.5 ounces unloaded, the .38 Special LCR is light enough for easy pocket carry. There is also a .22 long rifle version available for training and a .22 WMR version for self-defense. I’ve stuck with the .38 Special. Recently, Ruger introduced the LCR in .327 Federal Magnum. I haven’t tried that version, as I don’t want to add another caliber to those I keep around.
Ruger LCR .38 SpecialSeven Yards, Five-Shots Double Action $579.00
- SIG-Sauer 125-grain FMJ: 31⁄4 inches
- Triton Quik-Shok 110-grain QSHP +P: 31⁄4 inches
- ZERO (Commercial Reloads) 158-grain SWC: 41⁄4 inches
However, I did try the .357 Magnum version of the LCR for this article. It is a bit heavier than the .38 Special LCR at 17.1 ounces. The Hogue Tamer Monogrip is appreciated on the .38 Special LCR and really appreciated on the .357 Magnum. I shot well with the LCR .357 due to the comfortable grip, smooth DA pull, and the white dot front sight insert that let me pick up the target quickly. It shot especially well with the Barnes .357 Magnum 140 grain XP HP. I have a Don Hume side-pocket holster for the LCR that allows easy carry with either the .38 Special or the .357 magnum version.
Ruger LCR .357 MagnumSeven Yards, Five-Shots Double Action $669.00
- Barnes .357 Magnum 140-grain XP HP: 11⁄2 inches (4 shots of 3⁄4)
- Federal .38 Special 129-grain Hydra-Shok: 23⁄4 inches
- Black Hills 100-grain Honey Badger +P: 2 inches
Brazil recognizes the right of its citizens to defend themselves and concealed weapons licenses are relatively common. However, civilians are limited to revolvers in .38 Special or less and autos in .380 or less. Most of those I know in Brazil with concealed carry licenses choose to carry a compact .38 Special revolver unless they live in more rural areas where a longer-barreled revolver might be preferred. As a result, Taurus offers an array of .38 Special revolvers, including some five-shot snubs. Also offered for the US market are snub revolvers in calibers, such as .357 Mangum, are not legal for civilians in Brazil.
I’m most familiar with the .357 Magnum 605 revolver available in matte stainless or matte black oxide finishes. The 605 is chambered for .357 Magnum/.38 Special +P and is only 6.5 inches overall. However, it weighs 24 ounces unloaded. That makes it a bit heavy for pocket carry. On the other hand, of the .357 Magnum two-inch snubs I tested for this article it handles recoil the best. As always there is the tradeoff between weight/recoil. Its rubber grips also help with recoil. The 605 has an exposed hammer, another disadvantage for pocket carry.
Taurus 605 .357 MagnumSeven Yards, Five-Shots Double Action $392.94
- Federal .357 Magnum 158-grain Hydra-Shok: 25⁄8 inches
- Barnes .357 Magnum 140-grain XP HP: 23⁄8 inches
- Black Hills .38 Special 100-grain HoneyBader +P: 23⁄8 inches
The 605 Protector Black Polymer is lighter at 20 ounces and has a shrouded hammer, which as with the S&W Bodyguard has a nub that protrudes allowing cocking for SA if desired. It uses the same comfortable rubber grips as the standard 905. I have not had a chance to try the 605 Protector but intend to when I get a chance. I have tried various other Taurus .38 Special and .357 magnum snubs and found them tough, reliable, bargains as defensive handguns. By the way, the HKS speedloader #36-A is intended to work in S&W J-frames, as well as Charter Arms and Taurus 5-shot .38 Special/.357 Magnum revolvers. However, I found that my #36 HKS speedloaders I’ve used with S&W J-frames for years catch on the 605’s rubber grips. I’ll have to order the #36-A as I assume it will work with 5-shot revolvers from all three makers.
Taurus offers one other five-shot snub that I find intriguing. The 905 is chambered for the 9x19mm round, which it will chamber without moon clips but using them allows quicker extraction of empties and reloading.
Available in matte stainless or matte black oxide, the 905 weighs 21 ounces empty. Recoil with +P 9x19mm loads is about the same as with +P .38 Special loads. I found accuracy good and reloads easy with five-shot clips included with the revolver. The 905 might offer a good backup to a 9x19mm auto pistol. It could be carried with a five-shot moon clip in place but should the primary weapon go down, ammo could be stripped from the auto’s magazines and the 905 loaded without using moon clips. I doubt many will go that route, but it is an option. And, for those who have an issue weapon in 9x19mm and access to ammo in that caliber it might make a good off duty choice. I like the 905 but have the same problem I have with other revolvers that take moon clips. I don’t like bulky spare ammo carriers on my belt, and I worry about sticking the moon clips in my jacket pocket where cartridges can work loose.
Taurus 905 9x19mmSeven Yards, Five-Shots Double Action $530.63
- Federal 115-grain Train & Protect: 2 inches
- SIG-Sauer 124-grain FMJ: 13⁄4 inches
- Black Hills 115-grain JHP EXP: 23⁄8 inches
Most of the time I carry five-shot revolvers in a side pocket holster, though I also use a hip pocket holster sometimes when carrying a revolver as a backup on my left side. This allows access should I be struggling to retain my primary carry gun with my right hand. I use side pocket holsters from Aker, Mitch Rosen, Milt Sparks, and Don Hume. The hip pocket holster I use is from Don Hume.
I do occasionally carry a five-shot revolver in another type of holster. For example, Ken Null’s SKR or SMZ is an upside-down shoulder holster designed for concealment even under a light shirt and allowing fast presentation. Among original customers were agents of various intelligence agencies who needed to conceal their J-frame S&Ws under light clothing in tropical climates. Although it is available in either white or black, I have always used the version in white specifically as it was less likely to show through a shirt. Ken Null does another specialized holster for the S&W J-frame that I use occasionally. Designated “The Vampire,” it was designed for RCMP VIP drivers and positions the revolver parallel on the belt for an easy draw while seated in a vehicle.
I also like my Model 60 Target so much that I carry it as a compact belt gun. The DeSantis FLETC 2.0 makes a perfect holster for it. Based on a holster/ammo pouch combo developed years ago at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, the FLETC 2.0 combines the holster with a six-round ammo pouch that slides onto belts of various widths as a unit. I have had a similar FLETC holster/pouch combo for years that I’ve used with a four-inch K-frame revolver.
Ever since the days of British Bulldog revolvers and S&W Safety Hammerless “Bicycle” revolvers, the snub five-shot revolver has been a popular choice for self-defense. The J-frame S&W revolver introduced the compact, five-shot snub to a wider array of those who carried a handgun concealed for self-defense. Today, modern materials have allowed light and stronger snubs available in an array of calibers and with accessories such as a laser. I have focused on Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Charter Arms, and Taurus, all of which offer snubs to fit any need, budget, or taste. For most users, I would recommend the .38 Special snub nose because of the choice in ammo, including some designed specifically to perform well in snub revolvers, as well as the wide variety of models, and the ease of handling.
The snub revolver is most effective as a close-range, self-defense weapon that may be presented quickly and fired accurately double action at ranges of seven to 10 yards. I practice with my snubs to greater distances, but I practice most using them in quick DA mode. I would also recommend, if budget allows, acquiring an “understudy” to the carry revolver chambered in .22 long rifle. It can be used to teach other family members to use the carry revolver as well as to practice tactics less expensively. Loaded with the right ammunition, it may also be used as a defensive weapon itself.
The snub revolver was designed as a companion weapon so it can always be with its owner. It performs that function admirably.
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