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Pocket rocket primer part 2: snubbies.

Snubbies are the most popular pocket guns, but shooting them can be a challenge. Here are some hints from a pro.

Despite all the attention pocket autos are getting these days, the snubnose revolver is still considered the quintessential pocket gun. While no hard numbers are available, I would wager that of all the makes and models of pocket guns--autos or revolvers--more Smith & Wesson J-frame snubnose revolvers (otherwise known as snubbies) have been sold over the years than any other type of pocket gun. And they continue to sell, as do snubbies from Ruger, Taurus, and others. This is despite the fact that snubnose revolvers are some of the hardest handguns to shoot with any appreciable degree of speed or accuracy.

I've got a few helpful hints when it comes to wielding your snubby at optimum efficiency, but first let's take a look at why the snubby is still so popular with both novice and experienced shooters.

First, they're simple. Load the cylinder with live rounds, close it, aim it, and pull the trigger. That's it.

Second, they're reliable. There is no break-in period with a revolver. Load the cylinder with live rounds, close it, aim it, and pull the trigger. Again, that's it. Sound familiar? Also, you don't have to worry whether some types of ammo won't cycle the gun--you cycle the cylinder with every pull of the trigger, and mixing magnums with popcorn PPC rounds will not cause any problems.

When it comes to malfunction drills for semiautos, the first thing you have to do is ask what type of malfunction. Is it a double-feed, stovepipe, or something else? Once you know the kind of jam you're having then you'll know how to go about clearing it. With a snubby, if you pull the trigger and it doesn't go bang, here's your malfunction drill: pull the trigger again. The cylinder will rotate and a fresh cartridge will move into place under the falling hammer.

Snubnose revolvers don't have safeties to disengage. Whether you're a veteran cop or a frightened mother being confronted in a dark parking lot you won't have to think about how to operate a snubby--aim it and pull the trigger. Are you detecting a pattern?

Snubnose revolvers typically have barrels of two or so inches, and with traditional small butts they are more than small enough to fit into a loose pants pocket. Snubbies with frames made of material lighter than steel (aluminum, scandium, titanium) are even more comfortable to carry.

Also, traditionally, snubnose revolvers are chambered in .38 Special, and almost every modern snubby made is rated to handle +P ammunition. While that short barrel will bleed off velocity, that's true for every short-barreled handgun out there, and the .38 Special +P starts out with a lot more oomph than, say, the .380 ACP.

So why are snubbies so hard to shoot?

They Can Shoot! Can You?

Their difficulty in shooting has nothing to do with them being inaccurate. In fact, the opposite is the case. I recently had a conversation with another gunwriter who mentioned his carry gun would do 1-inch groups at 25 yards. I asked him what it was, thinking it was probably a tricked out 1911. Nope, it was a 2-inch barreled revolver. Snubbies show the greatest variation of any type of firearm between their inherent accuracy and their practical accuracy.

Inherent accuracy is just that--how accurate the handgun is with all other variables removed. For example, inherent accuracy shows how well a gun will shoot when mounted in a vise or something similar. Concerning snubbies' construction, their barrels are screwed into the frame and don't move, and the sights are attached directly to the barrel and frame. Locked into a vise it's the rare snubby which won't do 2-inch groups or better at 25 yards with the right ammo. The problem is with their practical accuracy.

I'll define practical accuracy as how accurately the average person can shoot the design. There are two things affecting the practical accuracy of a snubby. The first is trigger pull, the second is the sight radius.

The traditional trigger pull on a snubnose revolver is long, heavy and usually gritty. In fact, trigger pulls on snubbies are historically heavier than on full-size revolvers. Why? Large revolvers have large hammers that hit the cartridge case (or the firing pin), and that large hammer equals lots of mass. For you physics fans out there, mass=the quantity of matter that a body contains as measured by its acceleration under a given force. Snubbies have much smaller and lighter hammers, so the springs need to be stronger to make the hammer fall fast and hard enough to guarantee the round will go off. Stronger springs=heavier trigger pulls.

In other words, trigger pulls on snubnose revolvers usually suck, because science dictates that they have to. And to belabor the obvious, long/heavy/gritty trigger pulls make accurate and fast shooting more difficult. The only consistent exception to this I've found has been the Ruger LCR. I don't know how the Ruger engineers managed to load so much pixie dust and unicorn tears into each of their revolvers to make the impossible possible, but LCRs consistently have smooth and light trigger pulls. They ship with excellent recoil absorbing rubber grips, too, but those grips are so big that the LCR can't really be considered a pocket revolver.

Secondly, the sight radius on a snubnose revolver isn't any better than on a pocket auto. In fact, because of the way revolvers and semi-autos are designed, it may be worse. Comparing my 2-inch barreled S&W Model 638 Airweight .38 to my Ruger LCP-sized I.O. Inc. Hellcat .380 with its 2.75-inch barrel, the S&W snubby is an inch longer overall than the .380 auto, and its sight radius is actually three-quarters of an inch less.

As I mentioned in my previous column on shooting pocket autos, competition shooters use big guns not because of their weight but rather their lengthy sight radius. When locking a gun into a vise to determine its inherent accuracy the sight radius doesn't matter, but when you're holding it in your hands and trying to line up the front sight with the rear sight with the target, the more precise your sights are the better chance you have of hitting what you're aiming at. This is always a good thing in a gunfight.

Be A Better Snubby Shot

So ... how to shoot snubbies up to their potential?

The first trick is either buying a snubnose revolver with a grip that fits and fills your hand, or buying an aftermarket grip for your gun that does so. Thirty years ago this would have been very tough, as almost every manufacturer sold their snubbies with little tiny grips better suited for the fists of toddlers than adults. A grip that fits and fills your hand will give you a more stable platform as you pull the trigger, and now most snubnose revolvers are sold with grips that provide more control while usually not sacrificing concealability. Most the credit for that goes to Craig Spegel.

There hasn't been a better aftermarket grip for snubbies destined for pockets since Craig Spegel designed the Boot Grip in 1978. It fills the hand without increasing the overall size of the grip, and most of the improved snubby grips you see on factory guns these days are copies (licensed or otherwise) of Spegel's excellent design.

When it comes time to actually shoot your snubby, you will want to choke up as far as possible on the gun as you can without getting hammer bite--if your snubby has a hammer--while still being able to pull the trigger. If that means moving your hand up over the top of the grip, so be it. Recoil in a J-frame, even using standard pressure .38 Special ammo, is usually stiffer than what you'll get with .380 semi-autos. Not only is the cartridge itself more powerful, there is no recoil spring and reciprocating slide to soak up the recoil.

Revolvers have much higher bore axes than semi-autos, and choking up on them will get your hand closer to the bore line, which will help absorb recoil, reduce muzzle rise, and get you back on target quicker. Most revolvers easily allow you to get your whole hand on the grip, and in that way they are superior to most pocket .380s and 9mms. The Chiappa Rhino fires out of the bottom of the cylinder, not the top, and as a result there is almost no muzzle rise on their 2-inch gun even with full power '357 Magnum ammo--recoil is straight back. I've yet to test a Chiappa Rhino I haven't eventually broken, though, so I can't recommend the design.

I shoot everything with a thumb-high hold, and on my S&W J-frame my thumb is positioned over the top of the cylinder release, pressing against the shield in front of the cylinder. This gives me the most leverage possible. Everyone's hands are different sizes and shapes so you'll have .to see where your fingers end up, but you should always try to climb your hand up over the top of your revolver as much as possible.

The trigger pulls on revolvers are longer and heavier than on semi-autos, and instead of pulling the trigger with the pad of your finger you should be pulling the trigger with first joint of your trigger finger. This gives you more strength and more control.

Hitting what you're aiming at is all about keeping the sights on the target while you're pulling the trigger, and keeping the sights from wiggling is made all the more difficult when you've got a long heavy trigger pull on a small gun with a short sight radius. So let me throw a four-letter word at you--practice.

Practice dryfiring your snubby until you want to punch kittens in the face. Most importantly, pay attention to how your sights move during the trigger stroke. You will probably find your sights move off target, or that they'll want to move off target, the same way every time you pull the trigger. That is good; in that consistency lies the key to good shooting. Be aware of what the sights want to do as the trigger comes back, and either fight it or correct for it, whichever works for you.

When I shoot snubbies, the front sight always wants to move up just as the trigger gets close to the frame and is about to break, and the faster I shoot the harder this is for me to correct. I can't get rid of this problem, so I tend to aim a few inches low to get my hits. A man's got to know his limitations. The great thing about dryfiring with a revolver is you don't have to work the slide every time to recock the hammer/striker like you do on most autos.

Dryfiring will also get you used to the feel of the gun in your hand, and get you used to the way it points. As part of your practice regimen you should include drawing the snubby from wherever you plan to carry it--front pocket, purse, or whatever.

Next, head to the range and do the same thing with live ammo, to see if what you want to do is what you're actually doing. Once you add live ammo and recoil things often change, and you may find you have some other bad habits to overcome. Once you add live ammo you'll see that snubnoses work just fine for hitting man-sized targets at conversational distances, but once you add distance or reduce the size of your targets you'll soon learn your limitations.

Watch That Blast!

Shooting snubbies one-handed looks cool, but of course everyone should use two hands when possible. However, snubnose revolvers present a potential hazard when shooting with two hands that is not found with pocket autos--the cylinder/barrel gap.

When a cartridge ignites in a revolver, the case stays in the cylinder while the bullet speeds from the cylinder into and down the barrel. Between the cylinder and the forcing cone of the barrel there is a narrow gap. Gases from the burning gunpowder shoot out in all directions through that gap (which is why putting a silencer on a revolver doesn't work), and are an inherent danger. Getting your fingers too close to that gap can mean getting burned or sliced open by superheated gas. The higher the pressure in the cartridge, the more dangerous the expanding gas, so all of you people shooting snubbies chambered in .357 Magnum need to be especially careful.

I normally shoot with the index finger of my support hand on the front of the trigger guard. If I try that with revolvers, especially small snubbies, it puts the thumb of my left hand right underneath the cylinder/barrel gap, in the danger zone. I have to move my support hand back and down, off the trigger guard. Perhaps because I still have a horrible scar from a third-degree burn I got 42 years ago I quickly internalized to keep my fingers back or they'll get burnt, and a revolver-specific grip comes naturally to me now. When you grab your snubby in a two-handed firing grip, make sure your fingers, especially your support hand thumb, are safety away from the cylinder/barrel gap.

Snubnose revolvers are probably the hardest type of handgun to shoot fast and accurately, but even in this age of uber-autos they are popular because they are both simple and reliable. Bottom line: Practice your trigger pull and your draw/presentation, and choke up on the snubby.
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Author:Tarr, James
Publication:Shotgun News
Date:Dec 10, 2015
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