For all practical purposes, the whole revolver versus auto debate has pretty much played out and further comment is pointless. There are, however, a number of things a snub revolver does very well. Perceived shortcomings will also be addressed, along with ways to overcome them.
For starters, the snub (2.5-inch barrel or less) revolver is an extremely size/weight-efficient package. The most popular snubs accommodate five or six rounds of .38 Special ammunition in a delivery system that can be carried on the belt, ankle or in a pocket. If given a reasonable amount of care, snubs are very reliable, which is something that cannot be said for like-size pocket pistols. Five shots are a very big advantage in extreme close quarters where the user may be firing with a less than optimum grip, unlocked wrist or the muzzle pressed up against an assailant. Its short barrel also makes it more difficult for an assailant to effectively disarm you.
The manual of arms for the revolver is simpler than that of the pistol. One can instantly verify its condition by opening the cylinder and taking a peek. Unlike a pistol, its ammunition reserve is entirely self-contained and is unlikely to be lost. There is no manual safety to disengage prior to firing or decocker to sweep after firing.
On the downside, a short sight radius and inferior sights are often identified as major liabilities. Fortunately, there are a number of technological solutions to alleviate this concern. Limited capacity is yet another reason why some folks shun the snub. True, a snub may only have one-half to one-third the ballistic payload of many pistols. For most self-defense situations, however, capacity is rarely an issue. In any event, the ability to reload under pressure may mitigate the capacity shortfall of the snub revolver.
To the uninitiated, snubs can be very contrary guns to shoot to a high standard—particularly with users whose handgun experience has been limited to the autopistol. But by making a few simple modifications and putting in some practice time, good results can be achieved in fairly short order.
In the past, the factory splinter grips were far too small for most users and afforded poor control in rapid-fire. To rectify this situation, many end users simply fitted a grip adapter to their snub, which filled in the area between the rear of the triggerguard and the frontstrap. This trick allowed the user a far better grip on the gun without increasing external dimensions.
Most snub revolvers now come from the factory with a set of slightly oversized, soft rubber grips. They do fit the hand better and certainly diminish felt recoil but rubber often adheres to clothing and these grips can give you away should your covering garment ride up and expose your roscoe to the world.
Of course, aftermarket grips made of wood and other materials are available from a number of sources. Personally, I prefer “boot grips” that don’t extend beyond the bottom of the grip frame or make the gun harder to conceal.
Moving up top, let’s consider the sights. Most snub combinations consist of a milled notch rear sight and a serrated ramp front sight. This setup doesn’t exactly grab your attention in optimum light and is nearly impossible to define in poor light or when subjected to life-threatening stress. Additionally, the short sight radius compounds the slightest error into off-center hits or even a miss. Some may argue that the sights on a snub are not that important since most street encounters will be at very short range. To me, that represents quite a bit of wishful thinking and I wouldn’t want to bet the mortgage on it.
I’ve come to appreciate a high-contrast front sight that I can pick up in almost any light condition without corrective lenses. Some of the better choices include a fiber optic sight from HiViz and the Big Dot from XS Sights. These sights can be retrofitted by a reputable gunsmith to most snubs and are available as a factory option from Ruger and Smith & Wesson.
I wasn’t quick to embrace the concept of laser sights, but I’m now convinced they are one of the better accessories you can affix to your snub. Without question, laser sights will get you on target in poor light. Since most armed confrontations occur under less-than-optimum light, laser sights for your snub make tremendous sense. Snub grips with integral laser aimers are available from Crimson Trace and LaserMax.
In theory, the shooting fundamentals with the snub—stance, sight picture and follow-through—are no different than with the pistol. However, some areas, such as grip and trigger control, warrant further discussion.
If one were to achieve a perfect grip as the gun is drawn from the holster and brought to bear on target, the sights would be pretty much aligned. As the gun is drawn from the holster, the user takes a firm and final grip high on the backstrap. The support hand and dominant hand come together and lateral, side-to-side pressure is applied to the grip panels. I wouldn’t categorize the pressure applied as a white-knuckle death grip, but an extremely strong grip is desirable.
When shooting a pistol, both of my thumbs tend to point forward toward the target. The rounded contours of the revolver require a somewhat different technique, and I utilize a thumb-over-thumb grip with a snub. With the revolver, I place the thumb of the support hand over the dominant hand thumbnail. On small-frame guns, the pinky of the dominant hand is curled under the short grip frame.
Trigger control remains the most critical of all the shooting fundamentals. Even if we are doing everything else picture perfect, jerking the trigger at the moment of truth will result in a miss, even at very short range. Success will be realized by minimizing movement of the gun as the trigger moves to a breaking point and back forward to reset.
One of the first things pistoleros have to come to terms with is the long, relatively heavy trigger stroke of the snub revolver. Get yourself some snap-caps and indulge in some dry-fire practice. A favorite dry-fire drill consists of positioning myself close to a wall and taking aim at a minute spot or imperfection. With an inert revolver (you did check it twice, right?), cycle through five or six “shots” as smoothly as possible without disturbing the sight picture. The neat thing about the “wall drill” is that it can be practiced without ever leaving your home.
Moving on to live fire, consider the “bullet hole” drill. This is very similar to the “wall drill” outlined previously, except that we are now going ballistic. With the snub, position yourself 5 or 6 feet away from your target and fire a single shot through it. Next, fire the remaining 4 or 5 rounds through the same bullet hole. When you can place all your shots through a hole no larger than your fingernail, you have arrived.
Keep it Hot
Since ammunition capacity of the revolver is significantly less than a pistol, reloading skills become far more important. One needs to be proficient in both the tactical reload as well as the speed reload.
A tactical reload is best described as bringing the partially depleted handgun back up to full compliment without discarding the live rounds in it. With the revolver speed reload, the entire cylinder is voided and any remaining live rounds are dumped on the deck with the empty cases. The gun is then topped off and the cylinder is closed to await further action.
A tactical reload should only be attempted when; there is a need to retain the ammunition in the gun, a safe place to execute the process (think cover) and the time to execute the load. If any one of those three conditions is not met, you should speed load. Next, with the muzzle pointed down about 45 degrees, open the cylinder and nudge the ejector rod about halfway. When you release the rod, gravity will cause loaded cases to drop back into the cylinder. Empty cases will remain partially extracted where they can be plucked out and replaced with fresh rounds from a 2x2x2 pouch or strip.
To speed load the revolver, the traditional technique called for the user to activate the cylinder latch, switch the revolver to the non-dominant hand, and stroke the ejector rod with the thumb to kick out at the empties. With the muzzle pointed down, fresh rounds were loaded into the gun, cylinder closed and you were back in business. This technique tends to work great on the square range but breaks down under stress, particularly with snubs.
Most snub revolvers are outfitted with short ejector rods which, when fully extended, are not long enough to kick empty cases clear of the cylinder. An alternative technique that plays out far better for snubs goes something like this: Rather than switch hands, the 88 percent right-handed majority can pop the cylinder open and stabilize the cylinder by inserting a finger through the window of the frame onto a cylinder flute. Elevate the muzzle to the sky and slap the ejector rod with the palm of the hand. This will kick empty cases well clear of the gun.
Next, point the muzzle to the ground. Line up two chambers with fresh cartridges in your speedloader and insert. With gravity working for you, release the rounds from your speedloader and let it fall away. Swing the cylinder shut and get back in the game.
Unfortunately, users who shoot from the port side will have to adapt. Since the cylinder swings out the left side of the frame, the southpaw will still have to transfer the gun to the support hand during the reload. The rest of the drill is pretty much the same.
Carry in Style
An ankle rig may not be the ideal choice for the primary handgun, but it still fills a limited role for me. The Alessi Holsters’ precisely boned, felt-padded ankle holster was simply the best and it has never caused any discomfort. If ankle carry is on your agenda, Alessi is the way to go.
When ankle carry was not practical, I often carried my backup snub in the support-side pocket, as not to interfere with my primary handgun. Depending on the style of trousers worn, my snubby typically rides in a scabbard crafted by Pocket Concealment Systems. Personal favorites from the PCS line include the No-See-Um and the French Curve.
Another product I’ve come to favor is the Pocket Concealment Systems Cross-Draw. This rig gets the call when riding mass transit, as it allows the fastest access to my snub from a seated position. I’ve dubbed this holster the “J-train Special” and it is virtually undetectable under a loose shirt or light jacket.
Generally, I do not favor strong-side belt carry with my small frame snubs, but occasionally carry a medium frame, short barrel revolver in this location. My Milt Spanks PMK holster is a personal favorite that rides very well, positions the gun optimally for the fastest possible draw and has served me very well.
Another candidate is the TJ Special from Bulman Gunleather. This holster has a slight muzzle-forward rake and is worn just forward of the hipbone. Concealment qualities are very good and like all Bulman products, quality is first rate.
If you haven’t already, I strongly suggest you take in some formal training. High on my list would be the Defensive Revolver course taught by the Gunsite Academy. Another sound choice would be one of the snub-specific courses offered by Michael de Bethencourt. Michael’s knowledge of the snub is second to none and his programs in this area are extremely comprehensive.
Snubs are not a relic from an earlier era of time and it’s unfortunate that some people see them that way. But, with the right equipment and a commitment to training, a snub revolver can help you maintain your safety in a hostile world.