Firearms

When Size Matters… Snub Nose and Belly Guns

Colt Detective Special revolver, left profile

By the 1850s or so, metallic cartridges began to replace percussion cap technology. In 1857, Smith and Wesson introduced its first revolver, which used the .22 short rimfire cartridge S&W also developed. The Smith and Wesson Model 1 was a huge success in the marketplace. It was responsible for establishing Smith and Wesson as a major player. By the mid 1860s, centerfire cartridges became more popular.

Centerfire revolvers, and the more powerful smokeless powders, also started to become popular after 1886. As a consequence, revolver manufacturers began to certify their weapons as smokeless powder safe about that time. This advancement meant it was necessary to use the new metallurgical techniques to manufacture new weapons that could withstand the higher pressures generated by smokeless powders.

Colt side loading revolver, left - crane mounted cylinder revolver, right
Left: The traditional type of Colt side-loading gate. Right: The crane mounted cylinder that swings outward for loading or unloading of the revolver, with push rod and star ejector to extract cases.

Because of the rapid fire capability of the double-action mechanism, it became the mechanism of choice for the new models of revolvers. Even Colt, the proponent of single-action pistols, switched to double-action models by the end of the 1800s with its Colt New Service Revolver. Models by Smith and Wesson, Remington, Webley etc. were very popular as well.

As the cutting edge of technology the new revolvers were the weapon of choice in military and police departments around the world, until semi-automatic pistols such as the Colt M1911 were developed. The semi-automatic became more popular due in part to it’s shorter reload time and higher capacity. Police departments in the United States however continued to use revolvers well into the early 1990s because of the lack of perceived need and the high costs associated with the replacement of revolvers with semi-automatic pistols.

Today, revolvers are still popular in the civilian market as sporting or hunting weapons. Most new, modern revolvers are double-action, such as the Kimber K6 series. In fact, many trainers (myself included) recommend that those new to shooting begin the learning process with a revolver.

Snub Nose Revolvers

An early type of revolver with a short barrel was called a snub nose revolver. The snub nose was a handgun designed for self-defense at short distances. In general, the term is used to refer to any revolver with a barrel shorter than 3 inches long that can be drawn quickly. The term “belly gun” might have come about because many people carried these weapons concealed in the trouser waist band, close to the belly. Others believe that the name belly gun evolved because of the method of use: placing the barrel into the belly of the opponent and pulling the trigger.

One of the early snub nose type of revolvers was the Colt Shopkeeper Special model, which was based on the Colt M1877 Lightning Double Action Model. It was a double-action revolver designed for the .38 Long Colt cartridge. However, the Shopkeeper Special Model had a smaller barrel and no ejector rod, to keep the size compact.

Colt Detective Special revolver, left profile
The one that started the modern trend of snub nose revolvers, the Colt Detective Special. This classic has been in the family since the 1950s and was carried daily in Brooklyn despite the Sullivan Law.

In those days, Colt revolvers were side loaders. In 1894, Smith and Wesson invented a revolver where the cylinder was mounted on a crane which swung outward for loading or unloading of the revolver, with an attached push rod and star ejector to easily extract the cases. That design, along with the double-action mechanism is what we still see today in most modern revolvers.

We had to wait until 1927 for Colt to introduce its Colt Detective Special. It was based on the Colt Police Positive Special model, which was a six-shot revolver designed to fire the .38 Special cartridge. The Colt Detective Special used the same frame and six-round cylinder as the Positive Special model, but it had a shorter 2 or 3-inch barrel. The new model immediately found popularity among police detectives who were tasked with missions that required them to dress like civilians.

Soon, Colt discovered there was a large number of people who also wanted a small concealable firearm. As a result, additional models soon followed. For example, the Colt Banker’s model was based on the earlier Colt Police Positive revolver. The Colt Police Positive was designed for smaller cartridges than the Colt Police Positive Special which took .38 Special. The Colt Police Positive was chambered for the .32 Colt and .38 S&W. The Colt Banker’s model was scaled down for the smaller cartridge, with the reasoning that because the bankers were smaller they wouldn’t be able to handle the recoil of a larger .38 special cartridge.

Raven Arms .25 caliber semi automatic pistol, left profile
One of the undisputed kings of the cheap throw-a-way automatics, The Raven Arms .25 caliber is a classic in its own right.

The nice thing about such a small revolver is that it is easy to carry in a pocket or a purse and has a multiple-shot capability. Another reason many people preferred these to the larger models was because of the speed the snub nose could be deployed. Anyone who has used a full-sized revolver from a holster knows the gun is relatively heavy and the long barrel must be pulled clear of the holster before shooting. The snub nose equivalent is much easier and faster to draw from the same holster.

Semi-Auto Alternatives

After cheap semi-automatic pistols such as the Lorkin, Hi-Point, Phoenix Arms/Raven, Jennings, and Davis — along with other garbage pistols that started becoming widely available in the late 1960s — the popularity of these revolvers declined in the U.S. This was mainly because semi-automatic pistols typically hold more ammunition than revolvers do.

Then, in 1968, the Gun Control Act passed and limited the availability of imported handguns and cheap pistols. Suddenly, snub nose revolvers reappeared to file the gap. And so, it was. After the cheap, unreliable pistol craze faded, the popularity of snub nose revolvers increased again.

Smith and Wesson Model 49 with Crimson Trace Laser Grips revolver, right profile
A Smith and Wesson Model 49 with Crimson Trace Laser Grips make for a nice concealment package.

Snub Nose Pros/Cons

I personally like revolvers and believe there are advantages to them. I believe so strongly in revolvers that I personally carry a S&W J-Frame and here are some of the reasons why.

  1. Concealability: These revolvers can easily be carried in a pocket or a purse. The curved grip is much easier to conceal than the straight grip of a semi-auto pistol and it doesn’t look like a gun when placed inside a pocket.
  2. Easy to put into action: Due to its smaller weight and size, it is easier to pull one of these out of a holster or pocket than the equivalent full sized handgun model.
  3. Simplicity of use: It is much easier to teach someone to use a revolver than to use a semi-automatic pistol. Limp wristing is not a problem with revolvers, even someone with a weak grip can use one. Revolvers are also less likely to malfunction than semi-automatics. If a revolver doesn’t fire due to a bad cartridge, the procedure to clear it is to simply pull the trigger again.
  4. Increased safety: Double-action triggers require more strength to pull in double-action mode. Therefore, it is not likely to go off if it gets snagged on clothing, which provides extra safety.
  5. Better retention: Not only is it faster to pull a snub nose revolver out, but the shorter barrel also means an attacker can’t grab on to it and try to wrestle it away. Also, unlike a semi-automatic pistol, a revolver can’t be pushed out of battery.
  6. Ammunition options: A revolver by its design is not at all ammunition sensitive.

The truth be told there are some disadvantages as well:

  1. Capacity: All modern snub nose revolvers have a 5 or 6 round capacity, whereas even a pocket sized semi-automatic pistol carries 6 or rounds. Of course, there are those who argue that 5 rounds are more than enough in most cases.
  2. Greater recoil: Because of the smaller size and weight, the perceived recoil force is greater on a small revolver.
  3. Inferior sights: Due to shorter barrels, the sight radius is short. The longer the sight radius, the more accurately a weapon can be aimed.
  4. Reload speed: It takes much more time to reload a revolver even with speedloaders unless of course you are Jerry Miculek.

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. That said, most people who practice can be effective to about 20 yards. Experienced marksmen can hit IPSC targets reliably out to 50 yards.

Ed LaPorta with Jerry Miculek at the Steel Challenge
The author with the aforementioned Jerry Miculek at the Steel Challenge.

Colt currently manufactures a limited line of snub nose models, but I have always preferred Smith and Wesson, and it still makes a large line of J-Frame Snub Nose models like the one I carry, the 360PD as does Ruger (SP101 and LCR).

Do you own or carry a revolver? Which model and why? Share your answers in the comment section.

  • Smith and Wesson snub nose revolvers, Model 12, 36, and 60.
  • Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum K-Comp revolver
  • Smith and Wesson 360 PD with Crimson Trace Laser Grips loaded with Winchester PDX .38 Special +Ps
  • Smith and Wesson Model 66 chambered in .357 Magnum
  • Smith and Wesson Model 49 with Crimson Trace Laser Grips revolver, right profile
  • Ed LaPorta with Jerry Miculek at the Steel Challenge
  • Raven Arms .25 caliber semi automatic pistol, left profile
  • Colt Detective Special revolver, left profile
  • Colt side loading revolver, left - crane mounted cylinder revolver, right
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 (40)

  1. I’ve carried an SW Model 10 2″ barrel snub nose now for almost 43 years. It so old I think it was for WWII for w ithout a hitch.OSS agents as well as airmen. But even with all that history behind it, it still shoots like a good SW should. It’s taken the NRA OFF-Duty course as 20 years. If I’ve a complaint it that it is sometimes tough to conceal even with round butt grips but the extra safety I’ve gained with that 6th round instead snubbies usual 5, has been immeasurable. And I can all the +P ammo I can load into it. I have fairly large beefy hands that can’t shoot J frames well so the model 10 is it for me. I’ll NEVER give it up. Just learn to dress for the gun and not the way around.

  2. Being a gun enthusiast and retired law enforcement I own several handguns in various calibers. My wife packs a S&W 9mm semi M&P. She shoots “Marksman” consistently.
    When I was working plain clothes detective duty I have carried both semi auto and short barreled revolvers. For comfort my Colt Diamondback 38 special revolver with a 3” barrel was my go to choice. My ammo of choice was factory Winchester Silver tip 125 grain rounds. Very effective man stoppers
    I still carry the Diamondback but I also have a Smith & Wesson model 66 357 magnum stainless steel 3”. A bit heavier but it handles my researched hot reloads well. That is a Nosler 158 gr. JHP loaded with 16.7 gr. Winchester 296 and a magnum primer. That gets me 1591 fps. causing the bullet to flatten out like a half dollar coin and 10” to 14” of penetration. A most positive stopper/killer.
    My Diamondback eats a 125 gr. Winchester Silver tip loaded with 7 gr. of Longshot achieving a velocity of 1228 fps. Plenty to ruin a bad Guys day and almost always fatal.
    I recommend if you opt for a short barreled revolver for concealed self defense carry buy upscale quality that will handle the heaviest and nastiest loads. No caliber less than a 38 special or 9mm. That’s right you can get 9mm in a quality revolver opening many ammo selection options. They reload nicely too allowing you to bump up the heat according to your reloading manual specs.
    To carry concealed is a great responsibility and a very personal choice. Likely as not if you do carry you may never need to use it. But…if the situation does arise nothing else but your hideaway sidearm will resolve it. I know…been there done that!!
    Snub nosed revolvers are indeed comfortable. So if you carry do your homework and try out different firearm options until you find one comfortable and suitable to your individual needs…and practice, practice, practice!!

  3. Thank you, Mr. Laporta, for covering on such a great subject. As a fan of the S&W J-frame revolvers, it is important to note that the star-ejector rod on these great little guns WILL NOT eject the spent cartridges. I wanted to point this out because “eject” and “speed loaders” were mentioned in the article. The J-frame has a short-throw ejector rod which only partially ejects the cartridge. The intent here is that, during a gunfight the shooter could duck behind cover, hit the ejector rod and pluck the spent cartridges, which have expanded and will stay up, from the cylinders. The shooter would then top off the empty cylinders using either loose rounds or a Bianchi Speed Strip. My favorite of the J-frames is the S&W 340 PD.

    A couple of nice semi-auto pocket guns are the Colt Mustang in .380 and the Sig P290RS in 9mm.

  4. I’ve had a Colt Agent Special as my carry piece since the early 1990’s. Fortunately, I never had to use it but I always felt it would do the job. It is light, powerful enough, and easy to operate.

  5. Got a Rossi S&W clone with a Barami Hip Grip and a little filler piece I bought online from a man in OK. That and an old Kel-Tec P-11 with a steel clip on the side are my belly guns….which I need because this belly keeps gettin’ bigger and bigger….

  6. I prefer my Charter Arms 44 spl. Bulldog. I am a former Deputy Sheriff (long ago) that has seen more gunshot folks than I care to talk about. If I don’t have my 44 on me, I’ll have my S&W Model 19 snub 357 with me. I feel safe with these since I am not as frosty as I once was. Maybe I missed it, but if you were to poke someone with a semiauto, you may knock it out of battery and you cannot do that with a wheel gun. I liked your article. Stay safe and always keep their hands in sight!
    LA

  7. Charter Arms Bulldog Pug 44spl, 3 inch, big and slow. I believe in shot placement, not pray and spray. My second choice is an S&W 642 in a pocket holster. My lady carries a Charter Arms model 53851, 2 inch, Pink Lady. She thinks it’s cute and has no problem hitting her target, who am I to judge. What ever you carry practice, practice and practice some more.

  8. Charter Arms Bulldog Pug 44spl, 3 inch, big and slow. I believe in shot placement, not pray and spray. My second choice is an S&W 642 in a pocket holster. My lady carries a Charter Arms model 53851, 2 inch, Pink Lady. She thinks it’s cute and has no problem hitting her target, who am I to judge. What ever you carry practice, practice and practice some more.

  9. This was a very good article. I guess use of a snubnose revolver is a matter of personal preference and availability. For EDC I either carry a S&W 9mm M&P semi-automatic as a pocket gun or a Ruger LCR which is a 9mm snubnose revolver in an ankle holster, depending on the circumstances of my day. I find that the Ruger shoots well for me at up to 15 yards, whereas the semi-automatic shoots well for me at double that distance. The snubnose Ruger is easier and faster to draw and quickly fire, and with the moon clips, it is a quick reload. I can keep several loaded moon clips in a pocket. Being hammerless, the snubnose Ruger does not snag on clothing, and I like the idea of it firing 9mm hollowpoint projectiles–the same ammo as a lot of my larger guns. For close in protection the snubnose performs well, is easy to draw and shoot, is accurate (with practice), and is easily conceilable. The snubnose revolver does not jam and is reliable and easy to clean after a day at the range.

  10. We were issued S&W 686s for duty carry in the late 1980s. Good accuracy and great range with 125 grain 357s. Unfortunately we transitioned to S&W 659s, but we were at least still able to carry personal weapons off an approved list. The 659 was worthless. I opted to go Sig P220 in 45.

  11. 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.

    I carry a 3” sp101 in .357 mag with a crimson trace laser in a cross draw shoulder holster. The laser eliminates the short sight radius problem, not to mention the far-sightedness I’ve developed in recent years. I shoot 1” groups at 35 yrds. I also carry a LCP with a 7 round mag as backup in my boot. I prefer the reliability of the revolver, but at 9oz the LCP is much less intrusive to carry. Oh, and if you couldn’t tell, I’m a big Ruger fan.

  12. Hard to beat the convenience of throwing my 50 year-old S&W Bodyguard (Model 49) in a suede pocket holster into my front pocket when running down to the corner market. 148 grn wadcutters are accurate and will surely mess up a bad guy’s day!

  13. Friends,I am a civilian and I wander a lot.
    I pocket carry a S&W 642 with Crimson Trace Grips.
    I stood out in a field, away from my car, with a large camera on tripod.
    Two large farm dogs started an attack, as if attacking an inattentive deer.
    I pulled the revolver from my pocket.
    I flicked the laser beam across their eyes.
    They immediately backed away.
    I think my decision to carry the 642 saved me a mauling or worse.

    For context, I have a S&W 57 in the car.
    I have twice had to display the 57 to stop attacks, first by two men and second by four men.
    The 57 is too big to tote around with full camera equipment.
    The 642 seems about the right size and shape.

  14. A little history lesson here, back in 1899 the US Army lost a lot of soldiers who carried the .38 Long Colt as their issued side arm. They were shooting Moro warriors multiple times who were undeterred from killing our guys before succumbing to their wounds. The Army determined that the .38 Long Colt was more dangerous to the US soldier than it was to the enemy. The failure of that round led to the creation of the 1911 chambered in .45 ACP. Is there anyone who would espouse bringing the .38 LC back for concealed carry, or even for basic self-defense? No? What a shocker!

    Let’s consider the ballistics of that round. It fired a 150 grain slug traveling at a velocity of 770 ft/s with ME of 198 ft/lb. Look at the energy of the round. Now let’s compare those numbers to some modern cartridges frequently used in concealed carry weapons. The Hornady 32 Auto 60 grain XTP .32 ACP has a MV of 1,000 ft/s and ME of 133 ft/lb. This is from a 4 inch barrel. A shorter barrel will not attain that velocity or ME. But what about the vaunted .380 ACP? The Hornady BLACK® 380 Auto 90 gr XTP® has a MV of 1,000 ft/s and ME of 200 ft/lb., again with a 4” barrel. Any weapon with a shorter barrel will not meet, let alone exceed, these numbers.

    Just looking at the numbers, it would appear that, energy-wise, neither of these is an improvement over the .38 Long Colt, which led to the death of many American fighting men who needed a weapon that delivered, (but did not.) But these are modern loads made by Hornady, and are still no better than the woefully inadequate .38 Long Colt.

    I do not understand how anyone could (would) recommend these rounds for self-defense when they are no better than a colossally proven failure, a round that was more dangerous to the shooter than the shootee. That was the opinion of the Army in 1899. Soldiers who used the .38 LC were dying at alarming numbers and the Army pulled it from use and began issuing older weapons that had been considered to be obsolete but were at least more effective than the .38 LC.

    As a retired ER Nurse and having spent more than 30 years in busy metropolitan ERs, I have seen hundreds of GSW patients, and I can attest that the .32 and the .380 are not effective self-defense loads. Many people who used these rounds ended up dead because the inadequacy of the load fails to deter the shootee in their intention to commit villainy. Many of the shooters of these rounds were killed by the shootee, much like the American soldiers using the .38 LC. That is why some of the local cops called these rounds the Last Bad Choice of Dead People Everywhere. From what I have seen, fewer than half of the people who were shot with these rounds died and many of those that did actually die went on to kill their shooter before they died. (That is what was reported to us by the police.) The shootee was brought in to us and we saved them so they could spend the rest of their lives in prison.

    For those who want to talk numbers and compare, these numbers don’t lie. Consider that the numbers that didn’t work in 1899 will still not work in 2023.

  15. 1980-1990, I carried either a S&W model 10 or 13. From 1990-2010 I carried a S&W 686-2. These were duty guns, and I trained with them extensively. Great reliable firearms.

  16. One additional benefit to a revolver is in the close combat situation, as you explained when describing a “belly gun.” If you must fire your piece while the muzzle is pressing against an attacker, a revolver will always fire. An automatic will not, as the disconnector will engage as the slide is pressed rearward.

  17. Versatility is provided by my S&W 638 with Crimson Trace laser grips. It is lightweight, easy to conceal, regardless of weather conditions. It replaced my Colt Cobra which had become too expensive to replace if “temporarily” ceded to law enforcement after action.
    Weather conditions permitting, my go to is still my S&W Model 67, 4 inch.
    Either way I feel well armed for most potential encounters with a supplemental speedloader and two speed strips.

  18. Most of the time I carry a S&W model 586 with a 4 inch barrel, using 357 magnum ammunition. I do own several snubbies and love them, i.e., S&W models 60, 642, Air-lite Ti, and a model 37 that I had the hammer spur bobbed; I also have a S&W model 19 with a 2 inch barrel. The reason I carry the full size 586 is because it is easy to shoot, the extra weight doesn’t bother me, and is a formidable weapon. In the winter it is easy to wear an M-65 field jacket or even a flannel shirt. When I carry one of my smaller revolvers it’s because I need something I can put in a pocket, or conceal inside of something small.

  19. I have a S&W 686 plus as my carry gun. 2.5-inch barrel. It replaced my Colt Detective, which I still own.

  20. Hello gun lovers. Since 1971 I have owned and traded over 100 handguns, predominantly Smith & Wesson. S&W knows exactly what the American public wants. Most of my handguns have been sold. I still have five left, a 17, 19, 66, 637 and 638. My EDC is the 638. 80% of the time it’s in my pocket. I like the shroud and shoot single & double action. I can hit a target at 100 yards. 125 grain plus p is the best. God bless America.

  21. Good article Ed. —- Good name too! I knew about the “belly gun” carry style, which I believe came from the latter 1800’s due to the fact that purchasing a gun was as expensive, in retrospect, as it is now. Frequently, the buyer wouldn’t be able to afford a holster also. So the result is that they carried the gun in their belt in front.
    It might be noted that S&W .22 was one of the most affordable revolvers at the time. Those original S&W .22’s also had no trigger guard on them. The got the nick name of “suicide specials”, due to the action of the person carrying it in their belt in such a manner that occasionally, it was thought when the individual was going through the daily twists and turns of the body that the hammer would be cocked by the belt or belly as the person bent over, and when they straightened up, either the exposed trigger would cause a discharge, or if the hammer was only pulled back enough to fall back on to the cartridge, and causing a discharge. In as much as the gun was positioned as it was in the belt, when it discharged, it would injure the carrier, shooting them in the leg in the area of a main artery and the person would bleed to death. There were also I suppose a few what I like to refer to as the “Russian accident”, by blowing your Peckeroff!
    An unhappy experience in either event!

  22. I carried a S&W M36 .38SPL for decades, but my home state eventually made it a felony to carry, so I stopped. I now have a concealed carry card but I now prefer a G43 9mm (lighter, smaller, just as reliable and less perceived recoil). I still have a couple snubbies, though. You just have to love ’em. Stay safe.

  23. I have a number of guns and my S&W 642 is a favorite. With no external hammer it is absolutely snag proof. Good gun to slide into a pocket if the situation calls for it. Reasonably accurate and easy to control even with +Ps.

  24. My main carry weapon is a Glock 29. My backup is a Charter Arms in 45 Long Colt. I trust the 29 for a crap hits the fan situation. If it is nessasary I have the CA for backup. When I am driving I have my revolver in a cross draw holster which allows comfortable driving and fast deployment if need be. The Glock rides in the center console when I am in my automobile.

  25. EDC: S&W Centennial Airweight, aka M642-1, no lock, with factory trigger action package and Apex Tactical spring kit, Crimson Trace LG305 laser grips.

  26. I now regret selling both the .25 Raven and.38.special J frame S&W. But, we learn.from experiences. Now my edc is a Ruger ECP. However, when circumstances dictate my old reliable is my .357 Ruger GO-100 with 6″ full-lug barrel in a shoulder holster. This pistol is a beast and has served me well. The size alone has the ability to dissuade ner do wells without even needing to fire one round. It may not be a snub nose or pocket pistol, but it surely is more intimidating.

  27. In the 80’s, most states didn’t allow anyone to carry conceal, so the RAVEN .25 ACP was a popular carry gun. Several members of my family carried the RAVEN. At 30 -35 feet, each of those RAVEN .25s would consistently hit a 4″ balloon. Two spare magazines cost almost as much as the pistol (~$30 vs $35) did back then. As a retired LEO, my father preferred his S&W model 36, but ran the risk of losing it if he had to use it in self-defense. Biggest change/improvements from the 80’s is the upgraded ammo and constitutional carry. At my age, and no longer worried about losing my CCW, I can carry a “real gun” (i.e. -S&W “J” frame). Racking the slide on a 1911 is now a problem, so the “J” frame size revolver, with modern ammo, is a great senior citizen handgun. Just stay away from the “air weight” models and swap out the grips to something that fits your hand. The CA .44 spl. Bulldog, with Cowboy Action loads, is also a good choice and more effective than most folks would expect. Note – CA factory Bulldog grips are so much better than the S&W “J” frame grips, and don’t need to be replaced.

  28. The author is right on with this. Best personal carry weapon is that snub nose revolver.that’s my carry weapon. You should be able to protect yourself with 5 rounds.

  29. Very informative sir! These articles are entertaining to read and full of knowledge. Looking forward to Ed’s next article, easily my favorite author.

  30. Great article and an interesting point about new shooters starting with a revolver. I’m a fan of the K-6 myself, and of the Seecamp, which might also be worthy of an article some day. Thanks!

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