Snubnose revolvers – affectionately known as “snubbies” – are not fun to shoot, but then again, they’re not supposed to be.
As plenty of my fellow gun writers point out, they’re “meant to be carried a lot and shot a little.” They’re certainly amazingly compact and concealable, reliable, and durable as well, as long as you do your part in properly caring for them.
They’re simpler and more maintenance-friendly than semiauto pistols in “pocket pistol” calibers such as .32 ACP and .380 ACP.
Ruger SP101 .38 Special/.357 Magnum
Those of you who’ve read my articles shouldn’t be the least bit surprised that I put this particular gun at the top of the list. As I’ve previously stated ad nauseam, Rugers are the Timex of wheelguns, i.e. they take a licking and keep on ticking. That’s true of their large-frame, medium-frame, and snubnosed revolvers alike.
Now, as our ballistics-savvy readers already know, the .38 Special cartridge had a bad reputation as being a “widow maker” for American cops when using the standard-pressure 158-grain roundnose lead (RNL) loading.
This led to the development of the so-called “FBI Load” AKA “Chicago Load” AKA “Metro Load,” the 158-grain +P lead semiwadcutter hollowpoint (LSWCHP), which expanded reliably at subsonic velocities even when fired from shorter barrels, and definitely improved stopping power … but at the price of wear and tear on the guns.
Enter the Ruger SP101 with its solid steel sidewalls. Initially built around the .357 Magnum cartridge, the SP101 will have precisely zero problems standing up the operating pressures of +P .38 Spl loads. Better yet, the ergonomically friendly factory rubber grip helps take a lot off of the bite of the recoil experienced with the higher-pressure rounds.
I previously owned a .357 Ruger snubby and I put my fair share of Specials through it as well as full-house Maggie loads; and whilst I still don’t consider it to be truly “fun” or “pleasant” to shoot, the SP-101 comes closer to meriting those descriptors than any other competitor … including the remaining entries on this list.
Smith & Wesson J-Frame Series .38 Special
If snubbies, in general, aren’t enjoyable to shoot, S&W J-frame snubbies are downright freakin’ painful to shoot, especially the old-school versions with the thin, stubby wood grips; Jeez-Louise, I actually find Smith’s N-frame M57 .41 Magnum and Model 29 .44 Magnum to be a more enjoyable shooting experience!
Aftermarket rubber grips help somewhat, but still not as well as on the Ruger SP-101, thanks to the Smiths’ thinner construction.
But they’ve proven themselves effective in plenty of gunfights, in the hands of cops and armed private citizens alike. What’s more, they come in a long veritable laundry list of options, including the Ladysmith and the Model 36 Chief’s Special.
In short (bad pun intended), there are plenty of desirable features that explain why the J-frame series has remained in production since 1950.
Smith & Wesson (S&W) Model 13
This gun goes to show that S&W’s medium-sized “K-frames,” though a step up in size from the J-frames, could still be viable snubnose revolvers, with the added advantage of being easier to shoot thanks to an extra bit of beef that helps tamp down recoil a bit. The Model 13 in particular proved its effectiveness as the longtime standard issue of the FBI and the New York State Police.
Colt Detective Special .38 Special
Arguably every bit as famous a moniker and phrase in the handgun world as “Colt .45,” this is the gun that arguably planted the concept of the .38 snubby in the minds of the shooting public in the first place. First introduced in 1927, this wheelgun went through three separate initial production runs before being brainlessly discontinued in 1986.
But what a glorious 59-year run it was. As stated by the NRA’s American Rifleman staff, “The Colt Detective Special became a favorite carry option for law enforcement as well as armed citizens.”
Luckily for fans of modern classics, Colt’s marketing wizards came to their collective senses and resurrected the Detective Special from 1993 to 1996, and today it’s produced in a slightly tweaked version called the Colt Cobra.
Charter Arms Bulldog .44 Special
Big-bore revolver aficionados take heart: you don’t have to settle for a “medium” caliber if you’re gonna pack a snubnose, and the Charter Arms Bulldog is living proof of that.
It’s chambered for the .44 Special cartridge, the kinder, gentler ancestor of the .44 Magnum that’s still more than sufficiently powerful for self-defense work.
As the manufacturer’s official info page states, “Known for its rugged reliability and stopping power, Charter’s .44 Special is a versatile revolver for personal or home protection. With a barrel length of 2.5″, the .44 Special is one of the larger revolvers to qualify for concealed carry. It has potent stopping power, while not being burdensome to carry … This safe, reliable revolver is powerful enough for serious home protection, but has the size and functionality for effective concealed carry!”
Retired Detroit PD Sgt, Evan Marshall, best known for his statistical studies on handgun stopping power, is particularly fond of the Bulldog,
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. In his spare time, he enjoys (besides shooting, obviously) dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.