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Smith & Wesson Model 36 Chief’s Special: A Top Subnose Revolver Gun?

Do You Agree? “Smith & Wesson Chief’s Special is the most popular .38 snubby. This is because most buyers hardly shoot these guns at all, and buy strictly on the basis of eye appeal.”

Smith & Wesson Model 36
Model 36 .38 calibre Smith & Wesson which was issued to women in the NSW Police, on display at the Museum of the Riverina as part of the touring exhibition The Force: 150 years of NSW Police.

Less than 40 years ago, the double-action (DA) revolver prevailed within American police forces and dominated private handgun markets. Eventually, it gave way to the semiautomatic pistol. And while Colt and Sturm, Ruger & Co. produced many fine products during the wheelgun’s multiple decades of dominance, Smith & Wesson was far and away the market share king of the revolver’s glory days. In the specific arena of snubnose revolvers, this kingship was spearheaded by the Smith & Wesson Model 36 Chief’s Special in .38 Special.  

S&W M36 History & Specifications 

As noted by the manufacturer’s official info page: “This small revolver, designed primarily for plainclothesmen and off-duty police officers, made its public debut at The International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in 1950. At the conference, the Smith & Wesson sales force asked the police chiefs to vote on a name for the new revolver. The most commonly suggested name was .38 Chief’s Special®. Designed with the needs of law enforcement officials in mind, the Chief’s Special proved to be a popular revolver for personal protection due to its size and weight. When Smith & Wesson adopted model numbers in 1957, the Chiefs Special became the Model 36.” 

Among the major customers of the Model 36 were the NYPD – where it was standardized for its detectives and plainclothes officers – and the Japanese National Police Agency

Seventy-two years after its first appearance, the S&W M36 is still going strong. S&W classifies the M36 as part of its so-called J-frame ultra-compact revolver series. For comparison’s sake, the K-frame series includes the highly popular Model 19 .357 Magnum and Model 10 .38 Special, while the Model 586 .357 Magnum Distinguished Combat Magnum falls under the medium-large L-frame category, the Model 29 .44 Magnum (the Dirty Harry gun) and Model 57 .41 Magnum are classified as large N-frames, and the mega-monster Model 500 in .500 S&W caliber is in the extra-large X-frame category.  

Specifications for the current iteration of the gun are a barrel length of 1.88 inches, overall length of 6.94 inches, width of 1.3 inches, height of 4.3 inches, and weight of 19.64 ounces (less than half the weight of an M1911 .45 caliber autopistol). While full-sized revolvers are often referred to as sixguns, snubbies are frequently five-shooters, sacrificing one round of firepower for the sake of additional compactness and concealability. This is also true of the Chief’s Special. 

Impressions of Fellow L.E. Veterans/Gun Writers 

Massad F. Ayoob’s book In the Gravest Extreme: The Role of the Firearm in Personal Protection was published way back in 1980 but still considered one of the best books ever written on the subject of armed self-protection. The author, a former police captain in the state of New Hampshire and the renowned founder of the Lethal Force Institute, had this to say about the Chief’s Special: 

“Smith & Wesson Chief’s Special is the most popular .38 snubby. This is because most buyers hardly shoot these guns at all, and buy strictly on the basis of eye appeal. Those who use short .38’s regularly in combat competition have found serious shortcomings in the little Smith. The sights are much too small. The ejector rod is too short to clear empties completely out of the chambers, a failing that can cause a fatal delay while reloading during a drawn-out gun battle. The sharply-squared cylinder release latch is so placed that, with a heavy-kicking Super Vel round, it can rip open the shooter’s thumb…On the plus side, finish is excellent and trigger action is the best of any snubby. Buy the all steel version, not the Airweights…Better yet is the stainless version, the Model 60.” 

Want Your Own? 

True Gun Value states that a Smith & Wesson Model 36 pistol “is currently worth an average price of $624.70 new and $596.92 used. The 12-month average price is $645.74 new and $530.51 used.” The manufacturer lists an MSRP of $849. Checking around the various online sellers, MidwayUSA’s asking price matches that MSRP figure, while Guns International has a full page worth of Chief’s Specials for sale, from as low as $359.99 to a high as $1,599.99 (the latter specimen being an engraved collector’s edition).  

Christian D. Orr has 33 years of shooting experience, starting at the tender age of 14. His marksmanship accomplishments include: the Air Force Small Arms Ribbon w/one device (for M16A2 rifle and M9 pistol); Pistol Expert Ratings from U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP); multiple medals and trophies via the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF) and the Nevada Police & Fires Games (NPAF). Chris has been an NRA Certified Basic Pistol Instructor since 2011.  

Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).

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