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First Time Shooters and Snubnose .38 Revolvers

A practical look at the "snubby syndrome" and if you are really better off with a "simple" revolver compared to a modern self-loading pistol!

First Time Shooters and Snubnose .38 Revolvers

A practical opinion from a female shooter, Michelle Hamilton looks at the general suggestion of the snubnose as a "fix all" for first-time and female shooters.

I have encountered the "snubby syndrome" at one time or another. Typically though, it is outside of my area (as my local gun shops are typically good people, especially my friends at Stevens Firearms in Ashland Kentucky). I also observe it passively, especially with young couples that are new to shooting and wanting to purchase a first handgun for self-defense. The first cabinet that is frequented is always the one which houses a plethora of snubnose revolvers of different brands. It is typically a Smith and Wesson Centennial Airweight or Ruger LCR that is presented, and often times, I see the 4473 filled out after the pitch.

So, what is the "snubby syndrome" exactly? It is a blind following of ancient opinions, pushed through to modern times with less than modern solutions. It seems that the "go-to" for any woman showing even the most remote interest in self-preservation is always the Smith and Wesson “snubby” .38.

First Time Shooters and Snubnose .38 Revolvers
This 14.4 ounce J frame features a 5 shot stainless cylinder and alloy frame. With today’s advancements in handgun capacity, 5 shots isn't a lot.

While the snubnose does still offer credible merits to its existence, the advancements in auto-loading handgun technology brings reliability of said firearms up to levels that nearly match that of wheel guns. Also, the recent design improvements in sub-compact and "micro pistols" give capacity advantages that more than double that of a 5-shot J-frame revolver. Does this spell the end for snubnose revolvers? Or will nostalgia, "fuddlore" and "snubby syndrome" keep the pocket revolvers selling? In my opinion, they will live on, regardless of advancements or advantages in firearms technology.

In my personal collection, I have several sub-compact and micro handguns, including the Smith and Wesson Model 642 Centennial Airweight in .38 Special. This aluminum-framed revolver features an internal double-action-only (DAO) hammer, stainless 1 7/8-inch barrel and stainless 5-shot cylinder. This J-frame revolver weighs in at a mere 14.4 ounces unloaded, and seems like a concealed carrier's dream, on paper. Even with the factory rubber grips, the surface area is minimum and does not lend well to recoil absorption in the least. While aftermarket rubber grips do exist, it practically ruins the carry profile of the handgun, making it marginally larger than its semi-automatic counterparts.

First Time Shooters and Snubnose .38 Revolvers
Shown here is the Model 642 Centennial Airweight, next to the SIG Sauer P365 in 9mm Luger. Note the similarities in size, with the J-frame actually being slightly longer.

Speaking of recoil, most modern defensive .38 Special +P choices offer little more than blast, muzzle flash and intense, sharp felt recoil when fired from a very short barrel, with diminishing returns in the terminal ballistic realm. My personal suggestion for snubnosed carry and defensive ammunition is "Micro" and "Short Barreled" options from CCI and Federal. The Micro HST is an acceptable performing cartridge all-around and does reach depths of penetration considered within the acceptable range for FBI protocol. However, the cartridge has a profile much like that of a 148-grain lead mid-range wadcutter. Due to this it may lead to slower reload times under stress, especially from speed strips. This is a serious concern in my opinion, considering the limited capacity of a J-frame.

Even for an avid shooter of smaller stature, training with an Airweight J-frame is unpleasant. Even with standard 130-grain FMJ practice ammunition, after prolonged range time it becomes uncomfortable, and with defensive ammunition downright painful. The webbing of the hand takes the brunt of the recoil, and with a practically solid lockup and no moving parts (like on a semi auto handgun and its recoil spring assembly), all of the recoil is directed to the shooter. Recoil with quality defensive +P ammunition is best described as highly reminiscent of a 125-grain jacketed hollow point .357 Magnum offering from Federal or Remington, fired from a 3-inch J-frame Model 60 or 4-inch K-frame Model 66 Smith and Wesson.

First Time Shooters and Snubnose .38 Revolvers
Note how slim modern conceal carry semi-autos have become. This is the P365 9mm, which more than doubles the capacity of the Model 642 while remaining equal in size.

By far, the most uncomfortable ammunition I've fired is unfortunately one of the best terminal performers, Remington’s Golden Saber 125-grain brass jacketed hollow point (BJHP) +P. Recoil with Golden Saber +P easily matched its blast and flash, all of which borders on severe. With a 14.4 ounce, small-framed handgun and "boot grips", consistency and well-placed shots begin to dwindle. Couple that with a 14-pound double-action-only trigger pull, and fast, accurate follow-up shots are much more time consuming, training oriented and simply not as fast as its striker fired, "micro pistol" counterparts.

Comparing the P365, a more modern double-stack micro pistol offering from SIG Sauer chambered in 9mm Luger, it is easy to immediately see how quickly the tide turns against the Smith J-frame snubby. The P365 is quite an engineering marvel and took the firearms world by storm upon its introduction on January 8, 2018. This is due to its near impossible size to capacity ratio. The P365 features a 10, 12 and 15-round magazine capacity, with quality steel night sights that give a great sight picture. The front sight is more than adequate for fast shooting and far superior to that of the J-frame or other more traditional offerings (such as the Walther PPK or PPK/s).

First Time Shooters and Snubnose .38 Revolvers
Reloading in a gunfight? It can happen, especially with firearms of limited capacity. Note how wide and awkward a Safariland speed-loader is in comparison to the straight 12-round 9mm magazine.

While the P365 does weigh in at 17.8 ounces, or 23.11% more than the Airweight J-frame, this is still only 1 pound 1.8 ounces, and in compact/micro handguns, sometimes weight (or lack thereof) can be the difference between comfortable and uncomfortable recoil. The J-frame and P365 are both approximately the same size, with the P365 being shorter overall, with a 5.8-inch overall length, as opposed to a 6.3-inch overall length on the 642. Even though it is shorter, the P365 has the superior barrel length, measuring just over 3-inches and features a great (4.9 inch) sight radius. The P365 is also blessed with an excellent trigger, making it very user-friendly. This, coupled with the sight choice by SIG Sauer, makes the P365 easy to both learn and operate effectively.

For the same size package as a J-frame SIG Sauer’s P365 is dramatically easier to shoot quickly and effectively, with more than twice the capacity. Revolvers, to be blunt, are slow to reload. They are slow with speed-loaders, and agonizingly slow with speed strips compared to a modern magazine fed pistol. For the average person, reloading a revolver under stress makes it even slower. So, after your five there will be a noticeable pause as you reload. The high capacity magazine of a P365 or similar design is a distinct advantage. The superior trigger and excellent sights are other very real advantages. The 9mm Luger cartridge has a performance advantage over the .38 Special which should not be overlooked either. There are a host of modern 9mm Luger expanding loads developed for personal protection to choose from. These offer an advantage when it comes to terminal performance over the .38 Special when fired from the very short barrel of a snubby.

First Time Shooters and Snubnose .38 Revolvers
This gives a visual representation of capacity differences between the snubnose .38 and the modern micro 9mm. The P365 offers over double the capacity, with a notable terminal ballistic advantage.

Overall, I will never discount the J-frame revolver. It has a long history, with an astounding track record. Smith and Wesson produce among the finest revolvers on the market and their Centennial Airweight J-frames are no exception. I also believe technology and technological advances have shadowed the J-frame "snubnose .38" as the general choice for first-time handgunners and self-defense choices for women. The Airweight J-frame .38 Special is simply hard to train around, hard to train with, takes roughly double the time for the average handgunner to learn to shoot well. They simply are not pleasant to shoot. I understand the simplicity of a revolver and the reasoning behind the suggestion. I also believe that the "snubby syndrome" is also outdated ideology and does more harm than good, especially with so many choices in the modern firearms world.

If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at


About the Author:

Michelle Hamilton has a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice/Homeland Security, is a serious student of wound ballistics, military history, small arms design and manufacturing and is a competitive shooter.

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