The era of the double-action (DA) revolver dominated both the American police and armed private citizen handgun markets is long gone, as the semiautomatic pistol mass transition took place way back in the 1980s.
That said, even in 2023, the DA wheelgun still has its place in self-defense usage, especially in the realm of concealed carry applications.
Let’s now take a deeper look at the five best snubnose revolvers for CCW purposes.
Colt Detective Special .38 Special
“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.”
Specifications for the original gun were a barrel length of 2 or 3 inches, an overall length of 6.75 or 7.75 inches, and a weight of 21 ounces. Though snubbies are frequently 5-shooters, omitting one round of traditional revolver ammo capacity for the sake of additional compactness and ease of concealment, the Detective Special remains a true sixgun.
Smith & Wesson Model 36 Chief’s Special .38 Special
The Smith Chief’s Special was the bestselling snubby among cops and private citizens alike for many years and, unlike the Colt Detective Special. It has consistently remained in production for 72 years. The Model 36 is one of the longstanding members of S&W’s J-frame revolver series. For basis of comparison, the medium-size S&W Model 19 .357 Magnum is a K-frame, and Dirty Harry’s Smith Model 29 .44 Magnum is an N-frame. It has a reputation for excellently smooth trigger action.
Specifications for the current iteration of the gun are a barrel length of 1.88 inches, an overall length of 6.94 inches, and a weight of 19.64 ounces. The Chief’s Special is a 5-shooter. The manufacturer states an MSRP of $849.00.
Ruger SP-101 .357 Magnum/.38 Special (and several other calibers)
This is my personal favorite snubnose … which is consistent with the fact that my favorite full-size revolvers in .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum alike are also Rugers, namely the GP-100, and Redhawk respectively. Indeed, it’s the only snubby I’ve ever owned. As is the case with her full-size sister guns, the SP-101 is by far the strongest and most durable revolver of its class – as I’ve repeatedly said, Rugers are the Timex of wheelguns – thanks largely to the investment casting construction process and solid steel sidewalls.
It’s also the most comfortable snubby to shoot thanks to the factory rubber grip (which still has wood inserts available to appeal to the aesthetic traditionalists) that absorb the recoil of full-house Magnum loads and +P .38 Special load. A hell of a lot better than the pain-inducing stubby all-wood grips of old-school Smith and Colt snubs.
As a testament to the versatility of the SP-101 platform, the gun is also available in 9mm, .327 Federal Magnum, and .22 LR. Barrel length options are 2.25 inches and 3 inches, with an overall length 7.20 inches and weighing in at 26 ounces. Capacity is five rounds. The manufacturer’s official info page shows a current MSRP of $919.00.
Charter Arms Bulldog .44 Special
Big-bore aficionados who aren’t fond of “medium caliber” .38s, .357s, and 9mms need not feel left out of this CCW revolver discussion. For them, the Charter Arms Bulldog is a match made in heaven. As the manufacturer’s official info page states: “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!”
Overall length is 6.7 inches and weight is 20.1 ounces. MSRP starts at $425.60, with most variants staying under $500.00, with the exception of the so-called “Crimson Bulldog” with Crimson Trace lasergrips, which tops off at $631.40. The Bulldog is a 5-shooter.
Smith & Wesson Model 642 LadySmith .38 Special
Smith & Wesson has been producing handguns under the Ladysmith/LadySmith moniker since the early 20th century, but the concept really took off in the 1980s with the surge in self-defense gun purchases by women spearheaded by pioneering female firearms instructors like the great Paxton Quigley.
LadySmiths come in both revolver and semiautomatic pistol options; one of the best examples of the former is the Model 642LS, which like the Chief’s Special, is part of S&W’s J-frame series. As Smith’s official info page states:
“The Model 642LS is a variation on the Model 42 Centennial Airweight that integrates the time-tested features of the original with modern advancements.” One of those “modern advancements” that was specifically catered toward female shooters was “grips with finger grooves designed for smaller hands.”
Barrel length is 1.88 inches, overall length is 6.31 inches, and weight is a mere 14.6 ounces thanks to the aluminum alloy frame (though that could conceivably increase the sensation of felt recoil and muzzle flip.
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.