LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
What are the best .38, .357, and .44 caliber snub nosed revolvers—ever? Tough question, there are and have been so many good ones. However, which are the true greats?
Regardless the brand, snub nosed revolvers have one definitive characteristic: barrels three inches or shorter. Between two and two and a half inches is most common, though. Why do snubbies exist, anyway? Short barrels make them easier to conceal than their long-barreled brethren. A secondary benefit is a shorter barrel clears a holster’s mouth quicker on the draw than a longer weapon. This reduces time to target, and in gun fights, milliseconds often separate the living from the dead.
Snubbies have been around since handguns were first developed. Small, concealable wheel lock, flint lock, and percussion cap muzzle loaded pistols were quite popular in their day. Favored as last ditch problem solvers by well-heeled gentlemen, women, lawmen, gamblers, and general riff-raff alike. When Samuel Colt introduced the world’s first viable mass produced revolver in the 1830s, it didn’t take long before he, and many other gun makers who followed, developed short barreled versions. By the late 19th century, snubbies (the British called them “Bulldogs”) evolved with the then new double-action revolver into the form we recognize today.
Snub nosed revolvers have been produced in almost every handgun caliber ever invented. Today, snubbies are, in the main, offered in just a few: .38 Special, .357 Magnum, and either .44 Special or .44 Magnum. There is some overlap, when you consider the magnums can fire their special counterparts (but not vis-a-versa).
Here, then, are the best snub nose revolvers—ever—in each caliber.
The Best .38 Caliber Snub Nose
Most snub nose revolvers on the market today are .38s. They are, as a rule, built on a gun maker’s smallest revolver platform so they are the most concealable snubbies available. The good news is there are so many to choose from, the bad news is it’s difficult to tell the exceptional ones.
The runners up in this segment are the Ruger LCR, the classic Colt Detective Special, the new Colt Cobra, various Taurus models, some from Rock Island Arsenal, and Rossi, to name a few. These are all fine revolvers. The Ruger brought innovative polymer frame technology to the revolver world. The tried and true Detective Special and a Rock Island model offer six shot cylinder capacity as opposed to the segment’s normal five.
As good as these guns are, there is one snubbie which still dominates and looks poised to maintain the lead for a long time. It is Smith and Wesson’s ubiquitous J-frame. The diminutive J-frame evolved from the company’s I-frame in 1950. Dubbed the “Chief’s Special,” the original Model 36 offered a carbon steel frame and cylinder, a two-inch barrel, a strong two lug locking mechanism, and a five shot cylinder.
J-frames have been produced in many variations: shrouded hammer; DAO concealed hammer; aluminum frames; even lighter Scandium frames and cylinders; stainless steel frames and cylinders; and many grip options.
I once owned a blue steel Model 36. The gun did have some short comings—which lead me to sell it. J-frames are so small, even the heavier all steel guns are a bit snappy to shoot with standard pressure .38s. I also felt the gun weighed too much to justify the .38’s reduced punch when fired from so short a barrel.
Things have changed, though. It took a while, but Smith got the formula right when they debuted the alloy-framed, steel cylinder Model 642 in the 1990s. The 642 is the old Airweight Centennial (1952) but without the questionable grip safety. The 642 is near perfect. The hammer shroud’s fluid design means it won’t snag when drawn. Plus, you can fire it from inside a coat pocket in an emergency! The concealed hammer can’t get caught on anything. The 642 is also rated for +P ammunition so it gives a bit more thump at the business end than my old Model 36—with increased recoil, though. Its light weight means you stash it just about anywhere on your person as either a primary or backup gun.
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Some complain the factory trigger is a bit heavy, but if you carry it in a pocket or handbag, you’ll appreciate the extra safety margin this provides. In my experience, the triggers lighten up a bit as they are used, and some basic practice will let you master what is still a smooth, even, pull.
The Best .357 Magnum Snub Nose
In a bygone era (the mid to late 20th century) a person had just a few choices when it came to snubbies chambered for the fabled .357 Magnum. For the most part, you picked either a K-frame Smith & Wesson, such as the Model 19, or Colt’s magnificent Python. Since these guns were just short barrel service-sized revolvers with steel frames, they were on the large and heavy side compared to a J-frame.
As a former S&W Model 19 owner, I can attest a 2-1/2-inch barreled .357 Magnum is a challenge to shoot. Think enough muzzle blast to induce a migraine, muzzle flash akin to a flamethrower, and ballpeen hammer recoil. The undersized ejector rod wouldn’t always free stubborn spent cases, either. Yeah, I sold it. If I ever go this route again, I’ll get a Model 65 with a three-inch barrel and its attendant full-length ejector.
In 1988, Bill Ruger stood the snub nosed .357 world on its head when his eponymous company introduced the SP-101. No one had ever seen anything quite like it. The SP-101 had a five shot cylinder which made it thinner by a significant margin than the six-shooter Smiths and Colts. It weighed less, too. Even with the optional, easier to shoot three-inch barrel it still took up less room in a waistband than its rivals. Over-engineered, all stainless steel construction meant you could carry it next to sweat soaked skin and it wouldn’t corrode. It could digest the stoutest .357 loads as a steady diet and not shoot itself loose like some medium framed guns will.
Today, there even more choices. Ruger’s newer LCR comes in .357 as do several S&W J-frames, and Kimber’s new K6s offers the smoothest trigger in the segment. Still, these other guns don’t offer the SP-101’s wonderful balance between size, weight, power, and price. The trigger is pretty good, to boot.
The Best .44 Caliber Snub Nose
.44 caliber snub nose revolvers lay moribund for decades after World War Two. Once a popular bore size, and epitomized by the .44 Special, it fell on hard times until the .44 Remington Magnum hit the scene. The major motion picture, Dirty Harry, catapulted it back into the mainstream in 1971. However, despite the .44 Mag.’s celebrity, the market offered few snubbies.
You could get S&W’s large N-frame with a three-inch barrel, but this gun proved big and quite heavy. Not the best to cart around tucked into a waistband when you’re in summer attire. The other option lay in Charter Arms’ .44 Special Bulldog model. A good enough gun, but not the Smith’s equal in overall quality. Plus, use by infamous “Son of Sam” serial killer, David Berkowitz, in the 1970s cast a pall over the Bulldog in many people’s minds.
In the past decade the .44 Special has risen from the ashes. Some people want a big bore carry gun and the market has responded. Ruger offers the Super Redhawk .44 Magnum with a two-inch barrel and their GP-100 in .44 Special. Smith and Wesson have their ubiquitous N-frame available with three or even one-inch tubes and now the Model 69, a five-shot L-frame, both in .44 Magnum. Taurus has several .44s suitable for carry, in particular the Tracker and M445. Charter Arms is still around and has improved the Bulldog. There are other, less well known gun makers with .44 snubbies as well.
The .44 snub noses present unique challenges for designers and shooters both. It is difficult to balance size with power due to a .44 cartridge’s diameter. Lighter, more compact guns, such as the Bulldog and M445, ramp up the .44 Special’s recoil and they intimidate some shooters. This can be said about all the .44 Magnum snubbies, the Tracker and S&W’s scandium offerings in particular. The large frame guns are less than comfortable to carry concealed all day, but they offer the best shooting dynamics when stuffed with .44 Specials.
I’ve shot a custom three-inch barrel S&W Model 57 in .41 Magnum. It’s not as bad as you might imagine. My guess is a similar size and weight .44 Mag. would prove just as manageable as the .41 if stuffed with moderate 185 or 200 grain loads.
The best .44 snub nose revolvers offer a balance between bulk and power. Based on this metric, the S&W Model 69 is the best in the lot. Its medium frame and five-shot cylinder allow it to carry as well as a big bore can, yet it has enough heft to dampen recoil. The fact it can shoot either specials or magnums gives it a versatility which the dedicated .44 Special guns do not possess.
© 2020 LJ Bonham