A Snub Nose Journey
I confess. I have been prejudiced against snub nose revolvers. They are difficult to control, challenging to shoot accurately, and inherently low in ammo capacity. On paper, they are inferior in virtually every aspect to a modern semi-automatic pistol, and still they remain one of the most popular handguns on the market. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good revolver, especially for a field gun, but a snubbie? Come on, get a Glock! So when I’d see a snubbie in my basic pistol class, I’d shake my head and take a deep breath, knowing I had my work cut out for me. The thing is, as an instructor, I do not get to decide how my students spend their hard earned money. I can advise if asked, but my job is to make them the best shooter possible with their choice of gear. So I had a decision to make. I could continue to grit my teeth and silently curse whenever a student proudly displayed their shiny new snubbie, or I could get off my high horse and learn how to shoot the darn things. It was an easy choice, and a few months back I became the proud (if somewhat reluctant) owner of a brand new Smith and Wesson Airweight 642 in .38 Special. This article, and those that follow, will describe my ongoing journey towards snub nose mastery and will share the tips and lessons I learn upon the way.
Say what you will, I have always found that revolvers have an elegance and timeless appeal that few semi-autos can match. They are a beautiful blend of form versus function honed over nearly two centuries, and posses a powerful, nostalgic magnetism that instantly connects me with times gone by. Yeah, I’m a bit of a romantic. The S&W Airweight has all of these things and is truely a remarkable piece of engineering. Weighing in at just over 16 ounces fully loaded, the 642 compares favorably to my Keltec PF9 at 20 ounces loaded, albeit at the expense of 3 rounds of ammo. The overall dimensions of the two weapons are fairly close, with the Keltec being a bit shorter and thinner, however the curved shape of the revolver does fit the body contours better and helps it conceal even in light clothing. The function and operation of the Smith is very smooth and consistent, and I’ve found no rough edges in the finish. The double action only trigger has a much longer pull than say a Glock, however it is very consistent and smooth, and much nicer than what I’ve seen on pocket autos like as my PF9. It’s pretty much what I expect from Smith and Wesson: a high quality product.
Snub Nose Selection
I chose the 642 as much for its availability as any other reason. When it comes to revolvers, I place Smith and Wesson and Ruger at the top of the ladder, with Taurus, Charter Arms, Rossi and the others arranged on lower tiers. I’ve had bad experiences with the finish on Rossi revolvers and don’t recommend them if you can afford something better. (To be fair, that was some years ago and they may have improved.) Colts, if you can find them, belong on the top rung, but they come with an ever increasing price tag. I still kick myself for selling my Colt Python all those years ago…stupid, stupid, stupid.
Here are a few factors to consider when choosing your snub nose revolver:
I’m not going to rehash the great caliber debate; if we haven’t agreed on what is the “best” caliber yet then we never will. I recommend a .38 Special or higher for self defense. For most people, anything in the forties will have too much recoil in a snub nose frame. The .38 Special and .357 magnum have proven themselves over the decades and are my choice for a snub. I avoid 9mm and .45 in revolvers because I don’t like moon clips. Smaller calibers (.22 and .32) are just too unreliable for self defense. If you like .38 Special then any quality handgun will serve you well. If you are leaning to .357 magnum, I’d suggest something heavier, like the Ruger SP101, to help absorb the recoil. The Ruger LCR is a sexy looking pistol, but I think it is too small for .357 magnum. I’ll talk about ammo load selection in another article.
Hey, it’s a revolver; there ain’t much to say about capacity. Fix or six shots is all you get. If that isn’t enough then choose a semi-auto. The truth is, once the shooting starts there’s no such thing as too much ammo. On the other hand, if you find yourself, as a civilian, trading shots in an extended gunfight across a parking lot with multiple assailants, you failed before the first shot. In that case, you should have brought a rifle (and a buddy with a rifle). In the end, each of us must weight the pros and cons of a particular weapon against our risk, skill, and lifestyle. For me, a snubbie with a few reloads is an acceptable tradeoff, in part because I know I will practice, practice, and practice.
Snubbie barrel lengths range from 3″ to about 1 7/8″. A longer barrel offers two main advantages. First, the longer the barrel the higher the velocity of the projectile, and in general, the more damage you do to an assailant. Some hollow point bullets will not expand reliably at the velocities typically seen with snubbies, so do your research. Second, the longer the barrel the longer the sight radius (the distance between the front and rear sights), and the easier it is to aim the weapon. With the shorter barrels, even the smallest variation in sight alignment is magnified, but rest assured the snubbie is much more accurate than you the shooter.
For the average shooter, there’s just not that much difference in performance between a 1 7/8″ or a 3″ barrel. The shorter barrel is a touch easier to conceal, while the longer one has a touch better ballistic performance.
This is one of the most important factors when it comes to choosing your snubbie. I believe that a gun can be made too light, and for me the 16 oz Airweight and 20 oz Keltec are the limit. These guns are already so small and light that you don’t notice carrying them, and they are right on the edge of the controllability cliff. A responsible gun owner shoots his or her gun often, and I just don’t see the average shooting putting 50-100 round through one of the titanium or scandium snubs on a regular basis. It’s unpleasant bordering on painful, especially with high pressure, self defense loads. If you have joint problems or arthritis it’s surely worse. My advice is try before you buy. Rent or borrow the model you are considering and shoot a box of self defense loads. If you are still having fun and want to shoot more, buy it. If not, look for something heavier.
Shooters are like teenage girls, we like to accessorize. Holsters, speedloaders, laser grips, an ankle holster, belts, ammo pouches, another holster…the gun is just the beginning. Make sure you can get the accessories you need for your pistol before you buy it. You don’t want to hear your brand new snubbie hit the concrete because the only holster you could find was some cheap, generic piece of junk that doesn’t fit properly, or find out after you buy that Crimson Trace doesn’t make grips for your Acme Snub.
OK, I started this article with a confession, so it’s only fitting that I end with one. I’m hooked! I’ve really enjoyed getting to know revolvers again and appreciate the challenge of learning how to employ the venerable snub nose. I’ll be carrying mine for the foreseeable future. The snubbie is still not my first recommendation for new shooters, because they demand a lot of practice to employ effectively. However, they are compact, light weight, and simple to operate, which means they will continue to be popular for self defense. I’ll see you on the firing line!
© 2012, mjshozda. All rights reserved.