Snub Nose Roundup: A Look at Today’s Small Frame Snub Nosed Revolvers.
A Collection of Modern Snub Nose Revolvers
If memory serves me correctly, it was the 2005 SHOT Show. I was sitting in the presence of several prominent gun writers, when the subject of what everyone “really” carries came up. To which, the vast majority admitted to having a small snub nosed revolver with them at all times, since few found a full size 1911 practical to carry 24/7. The little snub nosed revolver has become the “Rule 1” gun (Rule 1 of a gunfight; Have a gun!)
For well over a century, the small frame “pocket” revolver has been the preeminent “Rule One” gun, and there’s no indication that that trend is likely to stop.
With the increase of civilian right to carry laws and savvy citizens availing themselves of these new legal options for carry, small frame revolvers are more abundant and diverse than ever before. For finishes we have blue, stainless, titanium, anodized aluminum, and a few variations in between. For cartridge selection we start out at .17Mach2 and top out at .357 Magnum. We have exposed hammers, bobbed hammers, shrouded hammers and concealed hammers. Simply put, most any combination you can think of for a small frame revolver probably exists.
Doing a true roundup of small frame revolvers could easily become a 5 year project since when you add them all up, between Smith & Wesson, Ruger and Taurus , the different models would number well into the hundreds. So instead, I decided to grab up a sampling of some representative models from each of the manufacturers for test purposes and then talk about them based on caliber.
.32 H&R Magnum
The .32 H&R Magnum cartridge was a joint effort between Harrington and Richardson and Federal Cartridge back in 1984. I’ve always been confused by it’s “magnum” moniker as I see nothing “magnum” about it. Its predecessor, the .32 S&W Long would push a 95 grain bullet along at around 800fps and the H&R “Magnum” only adds 100fps to that on a good day. Regardless, the .32 H&R has a following and it remains a good small game round and many feel it’s suitable for defense purposes. Given our modern ammunition choices, I also feel the .32 H&R can serve as a self defense gun if need be, and I’ve been known to slip one in my pocket from time to time.
Charter Arms was the first company to see its potential for self defense and chambered their “Undercover” snubbie for the new .32 in 1985. The new Charter company still offers a revolver in .32 H&R as does Taurus, with S&W doing small runs from time to time, and if you look around, you can even find a used Ruger SP-101 in .32 H&R. Regardless of who make it, the coolest thing about the .32 H&R is they are all 6-shot instead of five.
My sample was the petite little 431PD from Smith & Wesson. The 431 is a 6 shot .32 Magnum with a traditional exposed hammer, but there is a concealed hammer version as well. Care was taken to reduce weight at every available opportunity, as can be seen by the cutouts on the back strap and the trigger guard. Comment must be made on the extremely well executed, matte anodized finish. I’ve never seen anodizing that looked that much like matte bluing; it truly is a first-rate job. The finished product is a feathery 13oz, good looking 6 shot pocket snub nosed revolver that is nearly undetectable by the wearer during his/her normal day.
Whatever you can say about the .32 H&R, you can just add more with the .327 Federal. Along with significantly more horsepower (nearly the equal of a .357 Magnum), there’s significantly more recoil and muzzle blast. Unfortunately for this test, I didn’t have access to a representative in the .327 cartridge; but it’s popularity remains to be seen.
Taurus 851BUL Ultralight
The popularity of the .38 Special however, cannot be called into question. The .38 Special is the cornerstone cartridge for snub nosed revolvers. Next to the .22 Long Rifle, the .38 Special is perhaps the most developed handgun cartridge in existence. Current ammunition offerings keep the .38 Special in the top ranks of defensive cartridge performers, and is largely responsible for keeping the little snub nosed revolver the number one hideout gun. In 2003 Speer released the new “Short Barrel” line of ammunition designed to give full size performance from abbreviated guns. Filling this niche for short barrels has proven to be a great move for Speer, who is enjoying lively sales in both the civilian and law enforcement markets, as their performance goal seems to have been largely met.
On the gun side, our representative revolver comes from the largest producer of small frame revolvers in the world, Taurus USA. The model 851BUL Ultralight is a blued steel / black anodized aluminum framed revolver with a shrouded “Zero Profile” hammer like the Bodyguard series from Smith & Wesson. Like most Taurus snub guns, it has a full 2” barrel with a completely enclosed ejector rod. The Taurus differs from the S&W version in having a rear sight blade that is adjustable for windage, which turned out to be fortuitous on the range since out of the box it shot about 3” to the left. A quick twist with a small screwdriver and we’re right on the money. Grips are Taurus’s own “Rubber Boot” which are comfortable, but I don’t care for revolver grips that cover the back strap. Other than that little personal peeve, I find little to complain about on the Taurus 851; it’s a great carry gun.
Now here is an oddity, but not as much of one as you might think. S&W has made a few 9mm revolvers in its day, but only one in the small “J” frame: the S&W 940. The 940 was made from 1991 to 1998 but had lackluster sales. Unfortunately, the buying public seems to be missing the boat on the snubbie 9mm. The extremely efficient 9mm case develops actual velocities very close to the .357 Magnum but with about half the recoil. What’s more, a 5 shot moon clip is a most convenient way to carry ammunition, in addition to the speed loading and unloading advantages it offers.
Our sample 9mm is the Stainless Steel Taurus 905 using their proprietary Stellar Moon Clip. This is a most conventional looking snub nosed revolver with an exposed hammer and perhaps the nicest out-of-the-box double action trigger I’ve ever encountered in a small frame revolver.
The Stellar Moon Clip is Taurus’s effort to make the moon clip more user friendly, with the thinking that if they’re easier to use, maybe people will give moon clip revolvers a try. The Stellar Moon clips are much thinner than conventional clips and have a split in between cartridges to make loading and unloading easier on the fingers. My impression was that they were a bit too thin, bordering on the flimsy. This impression was further cemented when I dropped a loaded Stellar Moon Clip on a linoleum floor. Two rounds popped out and the clip was badly disfigured to the point that it took a few taps with a hammer on an anvil to get it back into play.
Concerned about this for a carry gun, I decided to give the Stellar Moon Clips a more practical test; that of daily carry. I can say that for a 3 month period, at any time you could catch me with two loaded Stellar Moon Clips in my pockets. I started with 5 new moon clips and at the end of the 3 month period, I had 3 that were still serviceable. My carry time confirmed by first impression, they are a bit thin for daily carry. My recommendation is to have a good supply of Stellar Moon Clips on hand for range sessions, because they truly are easier at the range; but buy some of the traditional moon clips for daily carry.
In 1999, Smith & Wesson made a single prototype 940 with an Airweight frame. It was shipped to writer Wiley Clapp for review but nothing ever became of this revolver. I think this was an opportunity missed, because in 2” barrels the 9mm performs on par with the .357 magnum (in the same barrel length) but with much less recoil and muzzle blast. Perhaps S&W or Taurus can resurrect this idea, and if they do, my check is in the mail.
The .357 mag is the top rung on the power ladder for small frame revolvers these days – and let’s hope no one is foolish enough to try to stuff more power into these little guns, because the .357 is a handful. The Ruger SP-101 was one of the first small frame revolvers offered in .357 and if you ask me, it’s still the best for handling this powerful round. It’s a little bit bigger than the competition and is blessed with what is without a doubt the best factory grips put on a small frame revolver at any price. The weight and excellent grip design keep the very stout recoil under control, making the SP-101 an outstanding carry gun.
Smith & Wesson also sent me one of their leading edge revolvers in .357, the Scandium / Titanium 340PD. This featherweight 12oz gun is a masterpiece of design innovation, materials technology and manufacturing know how, but I must tell you…This gun sucks! As in, it sucks to shoot, but it also sucks the life out of anything it’s pointed at! Take my word for it, no one’s ever going to shoot someone on a whim with one of these. After firing a cylinder through the 340PD you’ll give some SERIOUS consideration before pulling this gun on the street, because they guy shooting the gun only comes away slightly better than the recipient of the 340’s intended wrath.
Now, I’m anything but recoil shy when it comes to revolvers, but this one is just not enjoyable to shoot at all. This is a fighting gun and nothing else. As a fighting snubbie, it may be without peer. Light enough that you forget it’s there, with a trigger action more like pre-war S&W’s and a fiber optic front sight that literally stands out like a neon sign. What’s more, if you can suffer through the recoil, it’s accurate. A finer small frame revolver cannot be had, but might I suggest carrying it with +P .38 specials?
Carrying Them and Shooting Them
Putting this article together has been perhaps the most difficult article I’ve worked on yet. Nothing seemed to be going my way. Getting guns was problematic at every step, getting ammo was just as difficult and just about anything that could go wrong did. A fortunate side effect was that I had these guns in my possession for a long time and I got to carry each one several times during my normal daily routine. I also got to take them to the range several times and I had several people shoot them.
Universally both .357’s were considered extreme in the recoil department, but many also commented that the power of a .357 in your pocket offset the unpleasant sessions at the range. The 340PD did humble some of the big, testosterone filled “I can handle anything” guys. A couple of shots and they quietly walked to the other side of the range to see if anyone was shooting .22s.
The Taurus 851BUL and the S&W 431PD were both such a delight to shoot that I decided to shoot them at 50 yards for some fun, taking advantage of their single action option. Hits at 50 yards were really no problem, but you’re not going to win any bullseye competitions. With both, very little “Kentucky Windage” was needed, as 50 yards is only far if you’re holding a little snub nosed revolver; the bullet drop wasn’t extreme at all and hits were made by aiming about 3” high.
It’s the ability for deep concealment that makes the small frame snub nose gun as attractive an option that it is. If I’m going to carry something in an IWB holster, it’s probably going to be a bigger gun since I have to wear something over it. With one of these small frame snub nosed revolvers, you can carry anytime while wearing most anything. My two most common modes of carry for a snub nosed revolver are in my Milt Sparks PCH-RI pocket holster or a Renegade ankle holster. Once again, these are my “Rule One” rigs of choice and it’s rare you catch me without a snubbie in one of these holsters.
Where guns are concerned, I’ve narrowed everything down to two basic types of guns, holster guns and pocket guns. If a gun hits a hip holster, it takes just as much effort to conceal a snub nosed revolver as it does to conceal a full sized semi-auto. So when I’m not carrying a full sized pistol in a hip holster, I’m usually carrying a small frame revolver in my pocket; if I’m planning on sitting down at a restaurant, I’ll strap on an ankle holster because ankle draw is pretty easy when sitting at the dinner table. Regardless, I’ll take the small frame snub nosed revolver for the job of pocket gun every time.