In the 1960s and 70s, the short barreled snub-nosed revolver was the one to have. Police officers carried full-sized wheelguns with four or six inch barrels, so that was the norm. The really cool guys on TV or in the movies carried snubbies, little Colt Detective Specials or Smith & Wesson Chief’s Specials. I remember Gene Hackman’s ankle-holstered snubbie from The French Connection. I always wondered if it was a Colt or a S&W. It turns out, thanks to continuity errors it was both!
Sales figures indicate that the snub-nosed revolver is more popular than ever. Recently we noticed that the S&W 642 is one of our top selling firearms so far in 2012. The 642 is a stainless steel .38 Special holding five shots. The whole package only comes to 15 ounces due to its aluminum frame, so S&W dubbed it the “Airweight.” If you are brave enough, +P high velocity ammo can be safely shot through the 642, so hold on tight to its tiny grip with both hands and press the double action only trigger straight back. Accurate shooting with a snub nosed revolver can be frustrating for a perfectionist like me, but you can’t expect much from a barrel measuring less than two inches and iron sights that are barely there. S&W helpfully makes a 642 variant with Crimson Trace Lasergrips already installed–as soon as you grasp the grip of the revolver the laser turns on, and you may be able to deliver aimed fire without needing the sights at all. For those of us in states that allow it, S&W makes the 642 without the “integral lock” feature that revolver purists and 2nd Amendment advocates disdain.
Why go with a snubbie in the 21st century when there are so many subcompact automatics available? Well, the 642 fits nicely in a pocket holster, where only .380 ACP automatics can go. Yes, it only holds five rounds, but my Bodyguard .380 only holds two more. A .38 Special +P Gold Dot load from Speer is pretty similar in specification to a .380 ACP +P Gold Dot load, except that the .38’s bullet weighs nearly 25% more, giving the revolver 50 more foot-pounds of muzzle energy. Shot for shot, the 642 hits harder than a .380 ACP semi-automatic of similar size and weight, but that’s not the whole story.
The prime reason I believe people still buy snub-nosed revolvers is five for sure reliability. Failure to feed, failure to extract, failure to eject, stovepipe, limp wrist—none of these phrases have any meaning at all with a high quality Smith & Wesson Airweight. The intimidation factor of having one of these guns pointed at you is extremely high–you can see the live rounds in their chambers and, with the super short barrel, even the bullet behind the barrel. Some folks don’t have much upper body strength, or have suffered injuries that make it difficult for them to rack the slide on a semi-automatic. These people can still easily open and close the cylinder of a revolver and operate a smooth and light double-action trigger. Further, in the event of a misfire in a life-threatening emergency, the trigger may simply be pulled again to fire a fresh round. Finally, you can repeatedly fire a hammerless revolver like the 642 Airweight from inside a pocket or a purse without drawing it at all, for what is perhaps the ultimate surprise for a bad guy at contact distance. No semi-automatic of any size or caliber can do this.
The snub-nosed revolver remains a viable choice for concealed carry, and the classic 642 still stands tall as one of the best of the breed. With no exposed hammer to snag on the draw, an excellent track record of reliability and durability, and chambered in a proven caliber, Smith & Wesson quickly sells every Airweight they can build.