Colt Detective Special
Photo credit: Frank Borelli
Ruger SP 101
Photo credit: Frank Borelli
S&W Chief's Special
Photo credit: Frank Borelli
Twenty-five years ago, it wasn't a surprise for a snubnose revolver to be a common off-duty or backup gun. But in the 1980s, a ton of law enforcement agencies started transitioning from revolvers to semi-automatic pistols, and it became more common for compact and sub-compact pistols to become the mainstream off-duty or backup gun. After all, it only made sense to have your backup gun be a high-capacity weapon of the same caliber as your duty weapon. But in 2006, when a major holster manufacturer is prioritizing what model of weapon to make a new holster for, the snubnose revolver was way up on the list. Everywhere I turn--most especially in the northeast section of our country--the snubnose revolver is there in off-duty holsters. It made me wonder just what was so great about the snubnose--because I haven't carried one for more than twenty years.
Those many years ago, the snubby I carried was a Smith & Wesson Chief's Special, as shown right. The little gun was one of my favorites for off-duty carry, and I was careful to always carry a speedloader with an extra five rounds. I had many an "old timer" tell me that I'd never need more than five rounds--especially off-duty--but I just felt like I needed more. Thankfully, I never did need that off-duty gun. On duty, the gun sometimes rode around in an ankle holster. On at least one occasion, I had brain-farted and left my duty weapon in my locker--and when I realized that (out on the street), I reached down to grab the snubby and put it in my waistband. Hey...what can I say? I was all of about 22 years old at the time. We all have those moments.
Not one to ever be happy with the small wood grips that came stock on the S&W Chief's Special, I quickly acquired and installed a pair of Pachmayrs. Of course, the minute I did that I realized that the gun was less concealable. Still, the two-inch barrel (measured from the back of the forcing cone to the front of the barrel) and the slim profile of the five-shot cylinder made it fairly easy to conceal. And it was far better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
Qualifying with it certainly wasn't as easy as it was with my S&W Model 15 or the Sig P226 I was eventually issued. As I gained experience with firearms, I realized just how important that sight radius--the distance between the front and rear sight--is. Still, basic marksmanship is basic marksmanship and I've seen some veteran officers qualify faster and easier with their snubbie than with their full size semi-autos.
The other popular snubby at the time was the Colt Detective Special. One thing that I was taught in the academy was that the cylinder on all Smith & Wesson revolvers turned counter-clockwise while the cylinder on Colts turned clockwise. Colt starts with "C," just like "clockwise." Of course, so does "counter," but no one ever said that to me, so it never clicked. Colts turned clockwise. The Detective Special was impossible to find in stainless steel though, and I just knew that any gun that was going to spend time in my ankle holster or pressed up against the skin would rust if it wasn't stainless. A blued gun just wasn't going to last. Still, there were folks--experienced cops--who swore by the Colt and cursed the Smith & Wesson. Other knowledgeable shooters I've met since then swear by the Smith & Wessons--two of them in fact: one in each pocket of an overcoat. That particular gentleman carries matched Model 66s--stainless steel .357 Magnums loaded with .38+P+ loads.
For some cops, the decision about which one to carry was made based on two simple things: the Colt carried six rounds as compared to the S&W's five, and the Colt could be had with a full ejector rod shroud. To me, it seems silly to base a decision on ONE bullet, but I've never been in a shooting that was one or lost by that ONE bullet. And the ejector rod shroud, while providing protection to the rod, is generally perceived as "better looking" rather than "more functional." If you're going to purchase a snubby based on how it looks, then say so.
Then, a number of years back, Ruger came out with a snubby that was quite comfortable, offered .357Mag capability, and gained quite a following: the SP101. Although heavier and bulkier than its counterparts, the Ruger enjoyed a reputation for being reliable even under the harshest of circumstances. The softer rubber ergonomically-shaped grips gained in popularity with some, while others gravitated toward the slimmer profile of the S&W grips.
But here we are in the year 2007. BlackHawk Products Group has been making their CQC carbon-fiber SERPA holsters for a couple of years now. It was no surprise that the first holster they made fit the Glock 9mm and .40 caliber weapons. It WAS a surprise--at least for me--when they made the CQC SERPA for a J-frame revolver such as the S&W Chief's Special. When I looked into why, I found out that there is still a big demand for holsters to transport these little guns. Most especially in the northeast section of our country, it seems like snubbies are far more popular for off-duty and concealed carry than any of the popular semi-autos.
So, I started paying attention. Last month at the range, I had a chief of police and his deputy chief both qualifying with their snubnose revolvers. Ironically enough, one had an S&W Chief's Special, while the other had a Colt Detective Special. Both had owned the guns for more than fifteen years. For the chief, the snubby was his primary carry gun, both on and off-duty. The deputy chief liked to carry his Government Model 1911 .45ACP pistol on duty, but off-duty he pocketed his snubby. Neither man had any trouble qualifying with the small revolver, and both had practiced reloads so often that they could almost keep up with those shooting pistols. There were virtually no malfunctions with the revolvers and the confidence with which these men bore the weapon has to have played a role in how well they shot. Both shot scores in the upper 80s and lower 90s. That's better than many shooters do with pistols.
For men such as those, who have been carrying snubbies for so long that it's what they are confident and comfortable with, I strongly recommend that they continue to carry them. Five or six shots may be all they have, but five in the chest is still five in the chest and is a whole lot better than two or three in the chest with seven or eight more going downrange, potentially hitting innocent targets.
For my part, I still think I'd rather have a Glock or Kahr off-duty. I'm not a fan of the .38 Special cartridge, and having only five shots in my weapon and then five more available for a reload seems insufficient when I think about 10 or 11 rounds IN my pistol, plus a back up magazine of another 10 to 17 rounds (in 9mm). Still, snubbies are seeing a resurgence in popularity, and I DO find myself wondering how come I don't have one in my gun safe. Perhaps it's a deficiency I'll have to correct.