Additionally, since many .38 Special and .357 Magnum loadings were designed with 4” or longer barrels in mind, they may give marginal performance out of 2” snubbies. Military Arms Channel found that a .38 +P cartridge fired from a 2” barreled Airweight produced a staggering 32% lower muzzle velocity and energy (789 feet per second, 172 foot-lbs) than that produced by a 9mm revolver (1163 fps, 372 ft/lbs) with effectively the same bullet weight and barrel length.
Even the “mighty”.357 magnum chronographed 6% lower velocities and energy (1090 fps, 329 ft/lbs) in the same bullet weight from effectively the same barrel length as the 9mm revolver, while producing much more (painful) recoil and muzzle blast.
(9mm revolvers are comparatively rare and expensive, and most require the use of “moon clips” for reliable ejection.)
If you choose .38 Special “wadcutters,” an oft-recommended cartridge for “lower recoil” use in these lightweight revolvers, you may indeed experience less discomfort when plinking or practicing, but terminal ballistic performance of these projectiles on a determined threat is debatable, and velocity and energy are very low by defensive standards.
Revolvers are thick and can be difficult to conceal
We said above in the “pros” section that the smooth, rounded shapes of revolvers can help them conceal better in some situations than similar-sized autos. However, you can’t get around the fact that revolvers are thick. The thinnest 5-shot revolver’s cylinder is wider, at 1.3” or more, than the overall width of nearly every “pocket capable” semi-automatic pistol.
If you carry IWB (inside the waistband) you’re going to notice that thickness. Even if you pocket carry, that bulky cylinder might stand out like a sore thumb, depending on your choice of clothing and pocket holster.
Concealable revolver grips are small and can be slippery
For decades, you could get J-frame revolver grips from S&W made out of any material you wanted, as long as it was wood. Most shooters found them too small and narrow to be useful, and too slippery to afford effective recoil control.
Nowadays rubber grips have become de rigueur on CCW revolvers, and, due to the “painful recoil” factor discussed above, some grips offered on these tiny revolvers have become bloated to the point of ridiculousness. If you have to strap a large, bulky, padded grip to your small, concealable revolver to make it tolerable to shoot, suddenly it’s not quite so small and concealable anymore.
Even small-handed shooters may find that the standard, “concealable” round-butt grips don’t offer enough to hold onto.
Ammunition capacity is limited
Even the smallest 9mm semi-auto pistol has a magazine capacity of 6 rounds. In .38 Special/.357 Magnum, the small revolvers we’re outlining here have a cylinder capacity of 5 rounds. You can get 6 or even 8 shots if you drop to smaller calibers like .32 or .22LR, but they typically don’t perform well in defensive applications.
Small revolvers are difficult to reload quickly (and may not extract fully)
As a follow-up to the point above, not only are revolvers lower in capacity than their contemporaries in the CCW semi-auto world, but they are also slower and more difficult to reload. The practical necessity for reloading during a real-world gunfight is very unlikely, but the fact remains that the process is much more fiddly with a revolver.
In the first place, these short-barreled revolvers have, by the necessity of their design, short ejection rods. In many cases the stroke of the ejector star is thus insufficient to fully extract empty cases from the chambers, particularly if the cases are hot, dirty, or have expanded significantly due to firing. Under stress, many shooters find they have to resort to picking the empty cases out of the chambers with their fingers.
As for reloading, you can use “speedloaders” that hold your cartridges in a circular housing ready to insert into the cylinder, or you can use “speed strips” that hold your cartridges by the rims in a polymer “clip-like” doohickey, or you can go old-school and fumble loose cartridges into the chambers one at a time.
Either way, lining up the bullet noses with 5 chambers on a revolver is nowhere near as simple as slamming a full magazine into the grip of a semi-automatic.
These revolvers have poor sights and a short sight radius
Compared to similar-sized semi-autos, J-frames and similar revolvers have a very short sight radius, or the distance between the rear and front sights. A longer sight radius usually means a more accurate sight picture.
Furthermore, to ease a carry revolver’s egress from a pocket or purse, most of them have very basic, flush-mounted rear sights and simple ramp front posts, with no provision for changing out the sights for more visible ones. (Unless you involve a gunsmith.)
Most small revolvers have heavy, long triggers and are difficult to shoot quickly and accurately
The lightweight that makes these revolvers a joy to carry, combined with a heavy and long trigger pull of up to 12 lbs or more, makes them particularly difficult to shoot well without good hand strength and a lot of regular practice.
Think about it this way: if the gun itself weighs less than 1 pound, and it takes 8, 10, or even 12 pounds of pressure to move the trigger to the rear (AND that trigger stroke is much longer than on a semi-automatic), it’s much easier for the front sight to stray off the target as you stroke the trigger through its travel.
Some smaller shooters may feel the trigger is impossible to use at first blush, and have a hard time believing how much pressure they have to exert to make the gunfire.
This, combined with the sharp, even painful recoil mentioned above, places the small revolver in the “expert” category of CCW guns, rather than, as many people believe, the “novice” category.
It’s difficult to clear certain types of revolver malfunctions
We mentioned above the inadequate ejection stroke that can leave empty cases partially expelled from your snubby revolver’s chamber. But things can get much worse.
Many shooters who swear they’ve “never had a malfunction” with their revolvers have likely not shot a heck of a lot, because it’s relatively common for an oft-used revolver to get a grain or two of unburned powder or other debris under the ejector star at the back of the cylinder, which can lock up the gun and prevent the chamber from being opened without tools.
A stuck case in one or more chambers can cause the ejector star to jump the rim, resulting in an infuriating malfunction that prevents the chamber from closing and, you guessed it, requires the use of tools (and often a lot of cussing).
A third type of malfunction can occur in these super-light, sharp-recoiling revolvers, where a bullet can actually be pulled forward out of its case by the recoil (similar to a hammer-type bullet puller) and bind up the cylinder. This is uncommon with quality, well-crimped defensive ammo, but it is possible, and it causes a nasty situation that, again, requires the careful use of tools.
Unless something breaks, the vast majority of semi-automatic malfunctions can be remedied by “tap-rack” drills, or in the case of a double feed, an “unload/reload” drill.
Tips for minimizing the downsides of a small revolver for concealed carry
If you have determined that you want to choose a “J-frame” type revolver for your CCW gun, or if it’s the only gun you have access to, it’s a good idea to do everything you can to make the experience as pleasant as possible. Here are some points to thing about:
Consider steel or polymer frames
As noted above, a steel-framed revolver is heavier, but felt recoil can be significantly less. Additionally, the newer polymer-framed revolvers offered by several manufacturers often transmit less felt recoil to the shooter.
Choose your ammo carefully
It’s important to select ammunition that will likely perform as you intend it to in a defensive shooting. Look at ballistic gel tests and read reports of your selected ammunition, and try to find a load that shoots to point of aim, performs well in ballistic testing, and doesn’t produce punishing recoil or muzzle blast. Then buy as much of it as you can find/afford.
Use good grips that fit your individual hand
As noted earlier, the slick and thin wood grips that come on some small revolvers can make shooting more painful and difficult that it has to be. While the Ruger LCR and the new Colt Cobra come with large, cushy-rubber full-sized grips, they’re more difficult to conceal as a result.
You might like to practice with a “comfy” grip and then install a smaller grip for carry, but be sure to practice enough with your actual carry setup to become proficient.
Rubber “boot grips” that end flush with the bottom of the gripframe may offer the best compromise between concealability, size, and shootability. Also, some grips such as Crimson Trace and others offer a laser to help with aiming in low-light conditions or unconventional shooting positions.
Optimize your sights
Many models just have plain notch-and-post iron sights. These can be improved with the judicious application of some high-visibility paint to the front sight. Fiber-optic rods and tritium-enhanced “big dot” options may be available for some models, so look into those, or consider talking to a gunsmith.
S&W’s recent “Bodyguard” polymer-framed revolvers come with the facility for optional, integrated laser aiming devices if desired.
Keep it clean
You should keep ANY firearm you intend to use for defensive purposes clean, maintained, and lubricated (and refresh the ammunition occasionally). Dirt and corrosion can not only damage the finish and bore of your revolver, but can cause malfunctions (like the dirt under the extractor star situation we went over above).
Pocket carry in particular can result in a surprising amount of lint, dust, and debris entering the mechanism of your revolver. Check it regularly, clean it often, and you’ll have less chance of a malfunction when you need your gun most.
Ammo is pricey, rage access can be limited, and time is a precious resource. But if you intend to carry a handgun for protection, it’s your responsibility to become proficient with it. Practice as often as you can in order to maintain and improve your skills. Make it a priority.
Install lighter springs and/or polish the internal sliding surfaces (gunsmith recommended)
The heavy trigger pull of many CCW revolvers causes a lot of people to seek a remedy, perhaps with lighter mainspring and/or a good polish of the sliding surfaces inside the gun.
This can be a good idea in some cases, but be very careful. If you lighten the trigger pull too much, you can hurt reliability as the hammer may no longer have sufficient force to set off primers reliably.
Furthermore, don’t go sanding/filing/polishing ANYTHING inside your gun without training. We recommend you take your gun to a qualified gunsmith that understands how to do a good &ldq>uo;trigger job” for a CCW gun.
Keep your revolver secure from unauthorized access with a Liberty safe or handgun vault
Whatever CCW handgun you select, it’s your responsibility to keep it secure, either on your person or locked away from unauthorized hands. Liberty makes the best line of USA-made gun safes and handgun vaults for you and your family. Check them out!