Four Reasons to NEVER Carry Just a .38 Snubnose

SW442 38 special plus p revolver
A hammerless .38 special snub-nosed S&W 442 revolver. Compact, reliable but with stout recoil.

U.S.A. -(AmmoLand.com)- Despite the fact that revolvers are among the most recommended carry guns for new and female shooters, they aren’t all great choices.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’ve owned and carried revolvers for years. While six-shooters absolutely have their place in a shooter’s arsenal, they’ve often employed wrong. This isn’t to say that they’re a bad choice when shoe-horned into roles they weren’t built for, but more so that a combination of factors have caused some of their most shining moments to eclipse. Paramount among these is the .38 special snub-nosed revolver. Compact, reliable and fool-proof, the .38 wheel-gun should be the perfect concealed carry option for new shooters – but it’s not.

Here are four reasons why it’s not.

You’re Not a Good Enough Shot.

RIP my inbox – but hear me out before you glass me from orbit. A snub-nosed, double-action-only revolver in any caliber is a very difficult firearm to shoot both accurately and quickly. In fact, I would argue it is among the most difficult. The combination of minimalistic carry sights and ultra-short sight radius stack the odds against the shooter purely from a usability perspective. After all, how is a shooter supposed to successfully hit a target if the sights preclude both accurate and fast target acquisition?

Think about that for a moment. Most modern firearms have sights designed for either speed or precision and sometimes even both. But have you ever heard of a pistol with sights that are both slow to align and too large to place shots accurately? If you own a two-inch barrel revolver you have. My point is that it takes a ton of dedicated practice to even be on par with a  casual shooter armed with a quality auto-loader equipped with modern sights. And this problem only gets worse for shooters with bad eyesight or in dim lighting conditions.  You know, exactly the sort of conditions someone might need to use a concealed carry weapon. For these reasons, I only recommend double action only, snub-nosed revolvers for experienced shooters.

SW442 Snubnose vs SW686
“Stop! Or I’ll shoot!” vs “I’m your Huckleberry!”

.38 Special Terminal Ballistics Suck

While a bit over-the-top, the statement holds true. The terminal ballistics of a standard SAAMI spec .38 special round fired from a short barrel are terrible. That said, newer .38s chambered for +P rounds help mitigate this, but in my opinion, for any serious use, a revolver should be chambered in .357 Magnum and have at a minimum, a three-inch barrel.

Why? Because out of a super-short barrel, a 38 special has similar or worse penetration than a 9mm round. And given the seemingly endless number of new subcompact 9mm handguns hitting the market every year, there’s not a huge reason to opt for a .38 over one. Yes, some shooters struggle to rack an auto-loaders slide. But buying a locked-breech pistol and giving proper instruction makes this feasible for anyone who isn’t struggling with a disability.

SW686 SSR 357 Magnum
With the wrong ammo, snub-nosed 38 special revolvers can kick harder than this SW 686 SSR .357 Magnum!

Big Kick, Little Pew

One of the most common comments I’ve heard when I’ve let new shooters fire my S&W 442, is on how much recoil the thing has. Especially from folks who’ve shot bigger .38 special revolvers or level-action rifles in the past. They expect the same mild recoil of an old S&W Model 10 out of the alloy-framed 442. Instead, they’re met with a disproportionate muzzle blast and sharp recoil impulse. And before the comments section fills up with such brilliant recommendations as, “You’re a wimp!” or “Hit the gym!” It’s not about whether can handle the recoil. It’s about whether the average shooter can. And in my experience, most cannot.

Not 1980’s B-movie amounts of silly recoil where the gun seems to be firing SCUD missiles, but enough that most shooters will want to stop a practice session after firing through two cylinders worth of ammunition. This makes the pistol, in general, a tough sell for new shooters. Especially given the aforementioned short sight radius. In a nutshell, punishing recoil combined with difficult sights makes successfully grouping rounds on paper very tough. This will very likely discourage new shooters from practicing and honing their marksmanship skills.

SW442 Speed loader Remington Golden Sabre
Reloading a revolver under stress is very tough. Utilize speed-loaders filled with quality ammo to get the most out of your wheel gun.

Slow, Difficult Reloads

The comment section is going to be flooded with readers talking about how fast they can reload their favorite wheel gun. But the fact of the matter is that given equal amounts of practice, a magazine-fed firearm is vastly faster to reload than a revolver. Yes, there are ways to partially mitigate this. Speedloaders, speed strips, and moon clips do a great job of speeding up the process. But they’re just addressing the symptom and not the cause.

But I’m not blind to the benefits of a revolver. Assuming the wheel gun of choice is chambered in something really potent like .44 Magnum or .357 Magnum, the slow reloads are acceptable. After all, each pull of the trigger is delivering an insane amount of energy. But on a snubnosed .38 special, shooters are slowing themselves down needlessly. OK, you might be thinking, the reloads are slow, but they’re not difficult! You simply remove the spent rounds and replace them with fresh ones.

True. In essence, reloading a revolver is a simple affair. But it’s a combination of what’s involved and the circumstances under which a shooter would do so that makes them difficult. Let me explain. When humans (or really any animal) are frightened or confronted with a major threat, our bodies dump adrenaline into our bloodstream. This increases our strength, speed, and stamina. But like anything, there’s no free lunch. This increase in physical capabilities comes at a cost – reduced fine motor skills.

This is a huge component of why it’s important to train extensively both for soldiers entering combat, and civilian shooters for a potential armed confrontation. Under stress, it’s difficult to do intricate tasks. It’s why defensive instructions tell shooters not to use the slide release, but to charge the slide with their whole hand.

Worst case scenario, reloading without a speed loader is akin to playing a life-or-death version of Operation with advanced Parkinson’s Disease; your hands will tremble uncontrollably while you fumble to load slippery cartridges into a free-spinning cylinder – and if you fail you might die.

Am I being dramatic? Sure.

Am I wrong? No.

Parting Words

There is no such thing as a hand-held, 100% reliable fight-stopping weapon. Terminal ballistics are a crazy thing. As a defensive shooter, part of our jobs is to help shift the odds in our favor. This is why many instructors have a minimum caliber recommendation. But equally as important as ballistic potency, is shot placement. A .25 ACP round to the eye is more effective than a .44 Magnum to the small finger. But all things equal, bigger is better. More powerful is more reliable at incapacitating an attacker, and expanding ammunition is crucial to maximizing a round’s potential.

Why add this to the article? Because I carry a Smith & Wesson 442 in .38 special from time to time. But I’m realistic about both my, and its capabilities. And that should be the takeaway from this article. There are a ton of reasons to carry something better, but even so, a .38 snub nose is a dangerously effective tool when employed correctly. Personally, I think that it is recommended to new shooters far too often for reasons that can be easily overcome with rudimentary training and familiarization.

That said, I would take a .38 snub over any rimfire weapon for self or home defense any day of the week. Think of the .38 snub as a small tack hammer. If you need to build a treehouse, there are better options. But that doesn’t mean the little guy can’t get the job done.


Jim GrantAbout Jim Grant

Jim is a freelance writer, editor, and videographer for dozens of publications who loves anything and everything guns. While partial to modern military firearms and their civilian counterparts, he holds a special place in his heart for the greatest battle implement ever devised and other WW2 rifles. When he’s not reviewing guns or shooting for fun and competition, Jim can be found hiking and hunting with his wife Kimberly, and their dog Peanut in the South Carolina low country.

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nobodyuknow
nobodyuknow
1 year ago

Thank you, Mr. Grant for this article. I owned two gun shops for a total of about 20 years and was an active certified instructor for a total of about forty years. I have been active in a number of shooting competitions throughout the years including IMSA, PSAA, IPSC, and IDPA. I was most active in IDPA where I had 24 first place finishes in regional, state, and major club competitions. I have never recommended a .38 special snub – particularly a light weight model – as a primary carry sidearm to a new shooter. They are definitely NOT a… Read more »

jdtaylor
jdtaylor
1 year ago

Yep, you’re a yyoungster who probably loves guns made from plastic. As a mature male who has carried a firearm before the invention of plastic, I love a good revolver. I still enjoy a good modern age auto, like my Kimber ultra-Carry. You say that a revolver is only for the “most experienced of shooters.” I totally recommend revolvers for the inexperienced. Most self-defense situations are NOT like at the range where you have a static target at 25+ yards. I’d say it’s slightly beyond knife fighting distance… so who needs fancy sights anyway. My wife carries a snubby. When… Read more »

nobodyuknow
nobodyuknow
1 year ago
Reply to  jdtaylor

jdtaylor . . . . Thank you for your post. BTW, do you and/or your wife engage in any tactical pistol competition, e.g., USPSA or IDPA. i would recommend that if you do not you should start, It is the very best training/practice in which you can engage short of as real gunfight. Besides which, it is immense FUN!

NA
NA
3 months ago
Reply to  jdtaylor

I always stop after the first insult to a product that is a passive way to insult all owners of said product. It’s the perfect way to show a total lack or respect for people and prove you have no real experience that’s useful to anyone.

aryfrosty
aryfrosty
1 year ago

I’m always impressed when some noob teaches me important lessons about guns. I have socks older than Mr Grant.
I’ve been carrying revolvers for 53 years and have enjoyed moderate success with them. They are accurate. They have adequate oomph if good reason is used in the choice of ammunition.

nobodyuknow
nobodyuknow
1 year ago
Reply to  aryfrosty

aryfrosty . . . . I assume from the attitude taken in your post that you consider yourself another Jerry Miculek.

mgkdrgn
1 year ago

0. Its better than a pointy stick 1. Majority of self defense shooting are at “bad breath” range. If you can hit a human size target from a yard or less away, it doesn’t matter what you use. 2. See pointy stick reference above. Any attacker what will just shrug off a couple of 38 spcls will likely do the same with a 9mm or 357. Drugs are wonderful things. 3. Anything big/heavy enough to -significantly- reduce recoil is going to be too big/heavy to carry. Recoil is a thing, Practice and learn to live with it. 4. How often… Read more »

nobodyuknow
nobodyuknow
1 year ago
Reply to  mgkdrgn

mgkdrgn . . . With some reservations my reply is YUP!

Dan
Dan
1 year ago

Not sure how you came to the conclusion on 38 spl snub . I personally have defeated bad guys with a mod 60 SW. I have also use a 4 inch mod 64 that worked just fine. You are entitled to your opinion. I have seen the result of a 38 spl snub and 4 inch . Very effective . Grave yard dead effective.

CEMinMO
CEMinMO
1 year ago
Reply to  Dan

I never felt that my backup 3-1/16″ stainless Ruger SP-101 loaded with Federal or Winchester 158gr. LSWCHP +P put me at a disadvantage if I needed to go to it. I DID, however, strongly feel that the levels of power and velocity required the use of non-jacketed bullets to get expansion. Didn’t come across any jacketed bullets back then that I would choose, but did not try Super-Vel. Haven’t tried any newer ones; no longer have a .38.

UncleSnake
UncleSnake
1 year ago

Gramps used to carry a 38 snubby in his pocket all the time. He always told me that it was not a target pistol. It was a pocket gun. He also taught me how to shoot from the hip. I can still hit a target at 10-15 feet from the hip. I would not try to do this unless necessary. I’m fairly proficient in aiming the revolver as well. That also took LOTS OF PRACTICE AT THE RANGE. That being said; I agree with your point; that a 38 Snubby is NOT a gun for beginners. My EDC (every day… Read more »

ElHalcon
ElHalcon
1 year ago

The only way to use the snub nose is like the S&W I got for my wife to have as a bedroom gun. It came with a red laser grip sight. sighted it in for the bedroom door to the end of the hall leading to the room and it is like I told her put the dot on the torso and pull the trigger, do it at least twice

UncleSnake
UncleSnake
1 year ago
Reply to  ElHalcon

I personally hate using a laser on any handgun. Just my experience.

nobodyuknow
nobodyuknow
1 year ago
Reply to  ElHalcon

ElHalcon . . . Have you considered a 20 gauge youth pump shotgun for home defense. it certainly can be used by your spouse and is far more effective than a .38 Special.

Mike
Mike
1 year ago

Good greef, I’ll just leave the model 60 at home and and carry a pocket full of rocks.

nobodyuknow
nobodyuknow
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike

Mike . . . I own several “,38 snubbies”, including a S&W Model 60. Upon RARE occasion, I do carry one of these sidearms for personal protection, I hope you never have to find out, even with +p ammunition, just how inadequate they are to stop a fight. They are better than a “handful of rocks”, however, they certainly are not the be all and end all of a defensive sidearm,

Don in 805
Don in 805
1 year ago

This is just click bait, next write an article saying the 1911/is dead. It would be about as relevant. Most of what you say is both wrong and ignorant. Might I suggest you take lessons?

nobodyuknow
nobodyuknow
1 year ago
Reply to  Don in 805

Don in 805 . . . . And what, I might ask, are your qualifications to make your derogatory statements?

JRL
JRL
1 year ago

This clickbait listicle could have been two items.

1. I don’t know you, but you suck.
2. .38 Special is weaksauce, because it’s not even more effective than 9mm. And also, you should get a 9mm instead.

Chuck
Chuck
1 year ago

I agree to a point. Yes DA only is difficult for a novice. It requires many hours of practice, and few newbies are willing and/or able to dedicate that kind of time. Ballistically, every caliber suffers in a 2″ barrel (there’s simply not enough barrel to provide the stability the bullet needs to achieve its maximum velocity and energy regardless of caliber. That’s Physics 101). The only answer to that is to use more powerful cartridges, which just increases the recoil, and all the pluses and negatives that goes with that mechanics of shooting. The only way to neutralize that… Read more »

Knute
Knute
1 year ago
Reply to  Chuck

Chuck) I’ll have to disagree. If you have newbies that find hitting with DA difficult, you have them too far from the target. If needed, have them hit a man size silhouette from 6 feet! Nothing wrong with that at all. That’s the range that DA was designed for. They used to call it “card table” range, or the distance to another man on the other side of a poker table. Another point, that I admit is picking a nit, it is NOT stability that the bullet gains from a longer barrel. The spin, imparted by the twist rate of… Read more »

RichV
RichV
1 year ago
Reply to  Chuck

Between family and I we have had five 2” snubs three 3”. Never had a bullet stability problem. Countless amateur and professional penetration tests prove with proper ammo penetration is not a problem. NYPD records prove the effectiveness of 38spl +p 158gn swc Bullet. At 21 ft I’m having no prob hitting 5/5 rapid fire looking over my little painted white front sight. Ejecting spent shells from a 2” snub with a smart smack on the ejected rod.

SEMPAI
SEMPAI
1 year ago

I carry an HK USP.45 c but going out to dinner it’s either sig 365 or ruger sp 101and I can and will bust your ass @20ft with NO PROBLEM and have no doubt could be accurate further we have many years and rounds together fat boy .38s or med weight .357 only 5 shots but she’s a bad bitch.

nature223
nature223
1 year ago

don’t feel undergunned with my S&W 19 2 1/2 357 MAGNUM, it is barky and only 6 shots…but it ALWAYS goes bang and it is NOT a recoil killer. frankly anybody who goes into a long engagement with only a few speedloaders is truly nuts, this is not the 1960’s anymore. it’s intended to get the guy (s) out of my house with a few new holes. if stuff gets serious, I go to my CZ-75 and it REALLY lays the hurt down on them combo’ed with my HOUSE AR-15 Carbine, carrying a red dot scope, flashlight, and spare mags… Read more »

Deplorable Bill
Deplorable Bill
1 year ago

Think of a firearm as a tool. Tools have specific jobs. Hammers, wire cutters, screwdrivers all have different jobs. Some of them have good crossover properties. I have no idea of how many people have been killed by 38’s but a safe bet would be in the thousands, maybe the ten thousands. The author is correct in that light weight short barreled revolvers are beyond difficult to accurately shoot. A short barreled anything is designed as a belly gun for short range engagements. With this in mind the lowly ole 38 starts to shine. Ballistics: You have basically a 9mm… Read more »

JIAZ
JIAZ
1 year ago

No matter what else I’m carrying IWB at 4 o’clock my 342PD is in a right side front pocket holster and has been for decades.

In public when yellow sometimes begins to turn a shade of orange I can nonchalantly slip my hand inside my pocket without the oranges of the world knowing that I’ve got a full combat grip on my sidearm.

Thousands of rounds, zero malfunctions, zero issues, zero concerns.

JIAZ
JIAZ
1 year ago
Reply to  JIAZ

SW 342PD

UncleSnake
UncleSnake
1 year ago
Reply to  JIAZ

I own a 642. I changed out the grips to an old timey skinny J-frame grip and my accuracy improved.

ras52
ras52
1 year ago
Reply to  UncleSnake

Will, 10 4 to that, the 642 is great! 3 hard cast wadcutters with 2 90 gr. Hornady Critical Defense loads. Penetration and expansion.

Knute
Knute
1 year ago

And now for the other side of this coin. My top four reasons that one SHOULD carry just a .38 snub. 1. Reliable. The most likely to go BANG, when the trigger is pulled, regardless of conditions of neglected maintenance, dirt, a bent mag that didn’t get noticed, etc. 2. Even in a DGU, which is highly unlikely in the first place, a reload is almost never needed. And even if one IS needed, one is a fool to not hunt cover for the reload anyway, no matter how fast it can be accomplished. So that one is no reason… Read more »

MICHAEL J
MICHAEL J
1 year ago

Good article!
I love the 38 special, it’s economical, versatile, easy to shoot and reload plus it’s accurate. I have a two inch model 19, at close range it’s okay but it’s not my go to weapon. The magum’s weight has its trade off, but +P’s recoil is tame.
As for my right gun, It’s the one I have and the hopefully the proficiency to use it.

Omar
Omar
1 year ago

As a retired police officer with over 40 years experience, I strongly disagree with this article. Most shootings happen within 3 to 7 feet distance. A .38 is a fine round for this purpose. A hammer less snub nose can be carried and fired both from a purse and in a pocket. The hammerless firearm will not hang up when drawn from the pocket or purse because of the lack of a hammer. The no hammer revolvers do not allow debris, coins or make up to interfere with the weapon firing. There is no thought process needed in a stressful… Read more »

Bauble
Bauble
1 year ago

Imagine, over the last 100 years or so, there must be thousands of people buried in graveyards across the country, disappointed that they were killed by the obviously inadequate .38 Special.

LordFoul
LordFoul
1 year ago

Every tool has a specific purpose. I would never dream of driving a 2″ trim nail with a sledge hammer. Neither would I try to break concrete with a tape measure. It’s like trying to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig. A small DA internal hammer .38 special like a Smith & Wesson 642, is what my Father referred to as a “belly gun”. He, and I, would never dream of trying to hit someone 15 = 20 feet away with one unless our sole goal were to make as much noise as… Read more »

Agostino
Agostino
1 year ago

A friend told me that in a revolver course he took he was encouraged to carry a 3 inch barreled gun rather than a 2 inch barreled one. The rationale was that with the 3 inch the extractor would completely remove the fired casings. With the 2 inch, the shooter would have to manually augment the extractor. That’s extra time.

Wild Bill
Wild Bill
1 year ago
Reply to  Agostino

, that was a complaint about the S&W model 60, but I believe that S&W fixed that on later model 60s, and has not repeated the error.

SEMPAI
SEMPAI
1 year ago
Reply to  Wild Bill

@Wild Bill
Kojak and crocker use to keep NYC clean with those old smitty .38 wheelie snubbies remember that? hellzz yea
(Let’s make tv great again)

Wild Bill
Wild Bill
1 year ago
Reply to  SEMPAI

, Peter Gunn, too. He could hit his target thirty yards away without using the sights! Gotta love Hooiewood.

SEMPAI
SEMPAI
1 year ago
Reply to  Wild Bill


Datz right..no sights ..no problem

UncleSnake
UncleSnake
1 year ago
Reply to  SEMPAI

Mannix used to shoot guys off roofs with his!!!

mlhtd51
mlhtd51
1 year ago

Don’t care what You own, Practice, Practice, Practice, The Most Expensive Round You Shoot Will Do No Good Unless It Hits It’s Target !

Wild Bill
Wild Bill
1 year ago
Reply to  mlhtd51

@mlh, Yes, I think that is better advice than the author gave. Skip the gizmos and increase the practice.

JPM
JPM
1 year ago

If you think that a DA revolver is difficult to shoot due to minimalistic sights and short sight radius, try shooting a small DA only pistol. Not only do they have for the most part, even smaller sights and a shorter sight radius, the trigger pull for most are atrocious. If you think the .38 Special is feeble, then try the .380 Auto. I know several small ladies who l shoot with using a variety of both pistols and revolvers and with training and experience they shoot both equally well. However, when first introduced to shooting, they ALL learned on… Read more »

Monolito
Monolito
1 year ago

We appreciate your insight and effort in sharing your observations about snub-nose, .38 Special revolvers for EDC and self-defense. Thankfully, your article clearly acknowledged that these revolvers are “reliable”. Unlike our somewhat finicky, favored class of semi-automatic pistols, revolvers will never experience failures to feed, failures to extract, stove-pipe jams, and they do not require a pesky magazine or manipulation of a stiff charging spring to chamber a round. You will likely never “limp wrist” a revolver. Negligent discharges are possible with a revolver, but nothing compared to those with semi-autos. Actually, premium defensive ammo performs very effectively from a… Read more »

Stone
Stone
1 year ago

I understand where Jim is coming from, but I don’t agree with all of his thought processes. Point one; none of us are good enough shots. Yes, we are awesome at the range, but that is not shooting under stress. Under stress, even the police don’t shoot as good as they do on the range. We all need more practice and when possible, more realistic practice. Few of us get to take classes and get realistic training. One nice thing about a lot of revolvers, is you can manually cock the hammer, which reduces trigger pull length and pressure allowing… Read more »

Procky1
1 year ago

I agree with Felixd. They aren’t called “belly guns” without reason. The ballistics concerns in your article may be true, but there is no substitute for being able to fire point blank from a pocket or purse without having to draw the weapon.

Stone
Stone
1 year ago
Reply to  Procky1

From “pocket or purse”, meaning the hammer is enclosed like in the picture at the top of the article. Otherwise there would be a big chance of getting it hung up on something.

aBigMeanie
aBigMeanie
1 year ago

i don’t know. personally i like a rimfire when working inside a building. my 7 inch barrel that can shoot the nuts off a fly at 25 yards does just fine in short hallways and won’t cause any ancillary damage, unlike a spray and pray snubnose 38.

JDL
JDL
1 year ago
Reply to  aBigMeanie

A carefully aimed anything is always better than a spray and pray anything else. You stick with your rimfire and get killed; I’ll keep using my legitimate self-defense caliber, thank you.

Stone
Stone
1 year ago
Reply to  aBigMeanie

I used to use my Ruger Mk.II for squirrel hunting. They are accurate as all get out. But I think there’s a difference between hitting a small game animal and trying to stop a 200 pound drug adict. It is better than nothing and a couple in the throat or eye might stop them fairly quick. But that will probably be a moving target. I will stick to a large calibur fragmentable round for home defense. 22LR can still go through walls. Spray and Pray I will not do.

MajorMike
MajorMike
1 year ago
Reply to  aBigMeanie

Back in the 1930’s and 40’s Lester Dent wrote a paperback series where the hero trained endlessly until he could always glance the bullet off his target’s head causing the bad guy to be knocked out. Far easier than shoot the nuts off flys.

My hat is off to you!

Dr. Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  MajorMike

Excellent reference to the Avenger! Lester Dent also wrote the Doc Savage series, under the name Kenneth Robeson. Great fiction, fun to read, bad tactical advice, as you point out, tongue in cheek. Personally, I carry a 5 shot .38 spl. but only as a backup gun, and have installed a red laser for night work. A mouse gun is great, but only for hunting mice.

Felixd
Felixd
1 year ago

Actually Jim small, hammerless, revolvers are great when you need to defend yourself while interviewing a moron who might be involved in a crime. You simply carry it in an overcoat pocket and keep your hand on it as you talk. Just shoot through the coat. No one expects to reload if you use it. You just grab your auto pistol and go to work. The only big problem is that the coat may catch fire. BTW, only buy inexpensive overcoats if your working.

tim
tim
1 year ago

Hi Jim – well, kind of. If you are relying on a snubbie you HAVE TO PRACTICE. Is that any different from any other self defense firearm? Terminal ballistics with premium loads are actually quite good, esp. in +P. Federal HydraShok comes to mind, many others out there. Ball ammo not so much. Number 3 is related to number 1. You have to practice. If that is a hardship, rethink self defense, maybe take up knitting. Number 4, no argument. Reloading revolvers under time pressure is a drag and not fast. How likely are you to be in a position,… Read more »