Thin Is in but Short and Fat Is Where It’s At!

engraved Colt Detective Special revolvers with engraving

In a previous article for this column entitled “When Size Matters… Snub Nose and Belly Guns” Published on March 7, 2023 I stated: “Due to their shorter barrel lengths, snub nose revolvers are perceived to have less accuracy than firearms with longer barrels. This is not true. Short barrels are in fact intrinsically more accurate. The shorter sight radius, however, does make them more difficult to shoot accurately.” One of the readers, Yorarider, posted this in the comments section:

Great article, but I don’t understand the comment about shorter barrels being “intrinsically more accurate” than longer barrels. No less accurate I agree, but more accurate… you’ll have to explain.

Smith and Wesson Model 49 revolver complete with Crimson Trace Laser Grips
A Smith and Wesson Model 49 complete with Crimson Trace Laser Grips makes for fine concealed carry option.

Because of the space required to give the answer it’s due, I decided to devote a column to the answer, so here goes.


To start with, I must apologize for misstating my position that no doubt lead to Yoraraider’s comment. What I should have said is; “intrinsically more precise.” Precision describes the closeness or the spread of two or more individual shots to each other or how close individual shots are to one another, regardless of the point of impact. Accuracy on the other hand is defined in the shooting sports as, how close a shot is to the desired point of impact or centered on a target, and is determined by how well sighted-in a shooting system is.

If the shot group is not centered on the target, it can be assumed that the firearm just needs to have its point of aim adjusted. That said, it must be understood that there are many aspects of what can influence the precision of a specific barrel, so let me first isolate those aspects and then explain them.

Anyone who shoots often, understands that precision and accuracy are about controlling the variables, and shooting (by its nature) provides loads of variables. We will only examine a barrel’s physical variables in this column and how they might affect its precision. Of the physical variables, we will not only discuss barrel length but also its width or thickness, chambering, contour, powder charge, and projectile to understand my statement.

Because a barrel’s length is what this is about, let me introduce some general beliefs and concepts about barrels. Originally it was believed that longer barrels give the powder charge more time to complete a full burn to propel the bullet. With all else being equal, for that reason it is believed that longer barrels generally provide higher, more consistent, velocities.

infographic showing vertical barrel oscillation

However, as the bullet moves down the bore, the gas pressure behind the bullet diminishes. Given a long enough barrel, eventually a point will be reached where friction and air pressure will equal the pressure behind it. At that point, the velocity of the bullet will then start to decrease. This is probably one reason the optimum barrel length for most sporting rifles has been 26 inches for decades, that, and I suppose because it just looks right.


It was also believed that for every inch of barrel length that was eliminated that you would lose 25 feet-per-second of velocity. The truth is there isn’t any clear-cut answer as to how much velocity will be lost per inch of barrel reduction, because there are other variables that contribute to the exact amount of lost velocity. Some of those factors include the type and amount of powder, as well as the weight and bearing length of the bullet that play a major part. As a general statement, we do know that rifles in smaller calibers tend to lose less velocity than rifles in larger calibers.

infographic showing barrel flex as a bullet is fired

What we can say with certainty is that barrel length influences velocity, which, in combination with bullet design, dictates expansion and penetration. Many also assumed that barrel length and velocity walk hand in hand. However, once again, there are many other variables that must be considered. Some of those factors are, chamber dimension, bore dimension, and the powder burn rate that also play an important role and are important factors in determining velocity.

infographic showing the sine waves through a barrel as a bullet is fired

How barrel length effects velocity is very important, especially when discussing defensive handgun cartridges. You need enough velocity to make the bullet expand and provide sufficient penetration. Basically, relying on someone else’s estimate of how your particular firearms load will perform is tantamount to suicide. A particular load will ONLY generate a certain velocity from a specific barrel. To really know how your firearm is preforming, do yourself a favor and chronograph the specific load you will be using through the actual firearm you will fire it in. Nothing else means anything…

infographic showing the effect of barrel vibration

So remember, every load is different, and every firearm is different. Some loads need more barrel length than others to deliver maximum performance, and some firearms because of manufacturing dimensional variations can produce lower or higher-than-expected velocities. The take away of all this has to be that old short hand of 25 fps per inch of barrel length is not as reliable as we once believed and velocity is one of the variables that must be understood and controlled. Now that we have a basic understanding of the roll length plays with a longer barrel, let’s discuss what happens when the barrel is shortened.

Going Shorter

When you squeeze the trigger, you are initiating what amounts to a controlled explosion that launches a projectile. That explosion creates osculations that affect the entire system. As the shooter, you must understand and find ways to deal with this vibration and turn it into an advantage because taming barrel harmonics is what precision is all about. Understand, all barrels oscillate when bullets travel through them…. Even .22 Rimfire firearms. 

The amount of whipping a barrel displays is proportional to the length and thickness of that barrel, and so it is that barrel length and contour determines the relative “stiffness” of a barrel, i.e., how much a barrel will tend to whip or vibrate. Barrel stiffness helps reduce harmonic issues and generally a thicker, stiffer barrel will be more precise. A heavier contour also tends to provide less variation between a cold shot and subsequent follow-up shots as the barrel heats.

Barrels also tend to expand as they heat up and as the barrel expands any stress on or in the barrel will cause stringing of the shots resulting in an increase in the group size. That is why heavier barrels also tend to be more consistent, because they take longer to heat up and heat is a major factor. Rapid strings of fire such as those found in a prairie dog town heats up the steel making the barrel more pliable, and that causes it to expand. Do you have a barrel that walks its shots as it heats up? Now you know why.

So, it stands to reason that if a heavier barrel contour helps mitigate barrel movement by keeping those harmonic waves smaller, then shorter barrels must have oscillations of smaller amplitude than longer barrels, which equates to less barrel motion at the muzzle. Ergo, because there is less flex, less harmonic vibration and less muzzle whip, they are stiffer and thus potentially more precise. With that information, it is reasonable to assume and it is in fact true that, shorter barrels with the same barrel profile will be stiffer than longer barrels and that is why shorter barrels are actually more precise than longer barrels.

engraved Colt Detective Special revolvers with engraving
A nice pair of factory engraved Colt Detective Specials that some might find a bit too nice for concealed carry.

Additional advantages of shorter barrels are that they allow the use of a heavier contour without making the rifle unwieldy. A short rifle barrel is lighter and easier to carry than a long barreled rifle. Short barrels are also faster to react with. Short barrels can also prove to be very convenient in steep country or heavy brush where long barrels may get hung up or limit movement.

Some might ask, “What about muzzle blast and muzzle flash? Isn’t that a problem with a short barrel?” Those are valid concerns as shorter barrels do increase the muzzle blast and muzzle flash somewhat, but not as much as you would think with rifle barrels. The actual differences between a 24 or 26-inch barrel and an 18 or 20-inch barrel are negligible. Only when magnum cartridges and slow burning powders are used in handguns, should one be concerned.

In summation, I will apply this final comment to my original statement that “Due to their shorter barrel lengths, snub nose revolvers are perceived to have less precision than firearms with longer barrels. This is not true. Short barrels are in fact intrinsically more precise. The shorter sight radius, however, does make them more difficult to shoot accurately with precision.” We can also add to that, in the context of the short barrel on a defensive handgun that the shorter, stiffer barrel is more easily concealed, lighter to carry, and is less likely to be taken from you in a struggle.

And that my friend is why, “Thin may be in But Short and Fat is Where it’s At!”

What’s your call? Do you agree with the author? Why or why not? Share your answers in the comment section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (22)

  1. I carried a S&W Chief’s Special 2-inch when transporting classified documents overseas in the late 1950s. The same Chief was always with me in the RVN when my assigned M1911 was weighing down my right hip AND I was carrying a M16 rifle. Both the .45 & AR were needed and used. I still have that Chief and I will probably never get rid of it. Today, and for many years, I have carried a Ruger SP101 357, 3-inch Stainless, in various holsters. My alternate is a SIG SP2022, 9mm. I do shoot & clean each of them regularly.

  2. I have carried a S&W Model 38 for over 50 years now and never thought of it as inaccurate, as long as the range is 7 yards or less. Since have picked up a Model 36, Model 60 and a Colt Detective Special 2 inch with shroud. You could say I am addicted to these snub nosed wheel guns. But, they have never let me down.


    Excuse me!

    I only clarified my statements and provided facts, as for rude… You are the one that stated, “you can shove it.”

    Bravely done, while hiding behind the anonymity of the internet.

  4. Good article. As a past firearms, cartridge, and bullet designer (and past firearms manufacturer), with a background in design engineering honed in the aerospace industry, and a longtime shooter (military and law enforcement) myself – I appreciate your knowledge and insights.

  5. @Ed (the most interesting in the world) La Porta…
    Holy Jeebus you ticked off a bunch of folks apparently. Not me, obviously. Don’t get me wrong the Colt Detective Special is good, however the RIA M206 .38 snub is pretty bad a** copy. No one likes the .38 today but no one will argue with being shot with one.

  6. I have 3 357 mag revolvers; a 2 3/4″ Ruger, 4″ model 19 S&W and a 6″ model 66 S&W.

    As long as I can put 6 rounds on copy paper,(8 1/2 x 11) at twenty yards with all three I can pass California CCW qualification. All have adjustable iron sights.

    All three have their specific purposes, love them all.

    “Stringing” pattern can be reduced on rifles by removing enough wood under the for-arm so when properly bedded tight you can easily pass a dollar bill all the way to the chamber.

  7. To the roar interesting person. My my, you are a rude one. I was just asking so behind that you can shove it.

  8. Sir,
    What about having enough length to stablize the spin of a bullet?
    Most of the very accurate Free Pistols have lengths at/close to giving a complete rev of the .22LR.

  9. Very interesting! This guy is a wealth of knowledge. “Never take a knife to a gun fight and if you know you are going to be in a gun fight, take the biggest gun you can effectively wield.”

  10. I read the article title and was immediately filled with dread – questioning my entire dating life and afraid I had made BAD decisions – but fear not! It was barrel length and not body type! A deviant smile crept back over my face…
    Great article, makes total sense, very well presented. I’ll be in the garage with a hacksaw the rest of the weekend.

  11. Thanks once again Ed. As I was reading your article it reminded me of the first time shooting both a 2″barrel and the 6″ version and the varying results. I would like your take on the mechanics/set-up for short distance targets 8-10′ vs. 15-20′. Appreciate your insight and experience.

  12. What is the average cost of the smith & wesson model 49? I have been looking for a second gun


    Everything stated is fact and has been known to experienced shooters for MANY years.

    Clearly you are not an experienced shooter so I will address your specific comment;

    This information has been varified by my own experience and that of the testing and research conducted by numerous independent ballistics laboratories along with testing by the United States Governments Military.

    I hope this puts your mind at ease.

  14. An extremely well thought out and presented article. Perhaps a bit more technical than many of us need or understand. Although not a Ballistics Engineer I had some exposure to the same common internal problems with bigger bullets of 105mm, 155mm and 8-inch sizes. This discussion doesn’t address at least one potential external problem, specifically that of resistance in barrel wear. I believe most serious handgunners begin a range day or any shoot with a clean and lightly lubed gun and clean ammunition. I suppose many of us are also conscience of temperature of the barrel or with use of some ammunition at any shoot. The age old shooting axiom “Know your Weapon” always applies.

  15. Stringing as the barrel heats up is due to changes in internal and external stresses, as well as simple geometry changes as the barrel expands. Steel does not, however, become more “pliable” at the temperatures encountered in sport shooting.

  16. Harmonics affect every barrel, but almost no one has ever thought about how it affects accuracy. At one time, several firearm companies did offer a barrel weight that could be “tuned”, (moved back and forth), so that the muzzle would always be the “nodal” point of barrel movement – i.e. always in the same position when the bullet leaves the barrel. When a barrel is ~16+ inches, a small change in bullet weight, powder charge, etc, changes if the muzzle is in the nodal point or is constantly in a different position each time the bullet leaves the muzzle. Short (handgun) barrels don’t vibrate as much as the longer rifle barrels, so the muzzle doesn’t move as much off the nodal point as the longer barrels. ANY barrel can be accurate if the muzzle is always in the nodal point when the bullet leaves the muzzle. Using a fixed rest, in theory, every barrel is capable of very small groups. P.S. – Accuracy = Precision, Precision = Accuracy

  17. Extremely well written, and laid out easy to understand I myself thought that greater bore axis lead to less accuracy I learned something thank you

  18. Well reasoned and delivered explanation.
    Another perceived reason for short barrel pistols, and revolvers in particular, being less accurate is the lack of easy to use sights being offered on these platforms. Good sights or the addition of a laser greatly improve the hit capability.

  19. Ed – many thanks for your detailed explanation. I have one followup question – would it be fair to say that without measuring and analyzing each of the variables you mentioned, that this is still conjecture, or are each of the variables that you mentioned “facts” based on measurable observations and analysis?

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