Ah, the 5-shot, short-barreled, .38 revolver. Carried by both men and women, “snubbies” remain remarkably popular, despite the vast number of semi-auto alternatives on the market.

They can be quite a challenge to shoot. The pros and cons of these revolvers as serious self-defense weapons have been written about countless times, so I will not re-hash all that. Let us focus on two concerns: cartridge capacity and shooter usability. 

Cartridge Capacity

Many consider a 5-shot “anything” to be insufficient for self-defense in a world full of wolves.  You can drive yourself mad with worry about whether your carry gun will be sufficient to stop an attacker. To make informed decisions in life, we often resort to studies and averages.  According to one 11-year study in New York, involving 6,000 gun fights, it took 2.6 shots fired – on average – to stop the bad guy.

So, with this is mind, would a 5-shot revolver loaded with premium hollow point ammunition be a smart choice for carry gun? Sure, if you simply focused on the average (2.6 shots) in this one study. Remember, though, how averaging works. Within those 6,000 cases, you can bet that there was one case on the low end where it took only one shot to stop the bad guy. You can also safely bet that there was at least one case on the opposite end where it took far more than five shots to stop the attacker. In such a case, your revolver would have been woefully inadequate.

Where does that leave us? If we live with the old expression “some gun is better than no gun” and acknowledge that a) getting in a gun fight is possible, but not probable, and b)  you will be able to defend yourself far better with a gun that without one, then you can find comfort in such statements.

Shooter Usability: Stiff Triggers

Small revolvers are manufactured by a variety of gun makers –  Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Taurus, Charter Arms, and Rossi, to name a few.  Each has a following based on name recognition, reputation, price, and reliability.  What nearly all of them have are two undesirable characteristics: hard-to-see sights and a hard trigger pull. When you combine these two aspects, you have a handgun that can be a major challenge for some women and seniors to operate. Let’s look at trigger pull first.

As we age, most of us lose some hand and finger strength. In addition, arthritis can further limit movement and dexterity. Modern double action revolvers typically have a very long and hard trigger pull. Since revolvers typically do not have an external safety mechanism, the long, hard trigger pull acts as the “safety.” You must forcefully pull the trigger to fire the gun.

Can a gunsmith “correct” this?  To a point, yes. He can change springs, and smooth & polish the critical internal parts of the firing system, such as the sear. If the newly installed springs are too light, however, the hammer and firing pin will not have the necessary striking force to punch the primer and cause ignition. You do not want to hear a “click” when you are expecting a “bang” in a self-defense scenario.

Why are triggers made so excessively difficult to pull on modern revolvers? One explanation is that the manufacturers’ corporate attorneys have advised their employers to make the triggers extra stiff and hard to pull, in order to mitigate future civil liability. Purely a CYA tactic.  I cannot prove this, but because I have heard this for decades from so many people, including gun dealers, police officers, and gunsmiths,  I must give it some credence.

As further evidence, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) signed by President Bush in 2005, was created to protect gun manufacturers and licensed gun dealers from frivolous lawsuits over guns that were legally made and sold, then misused afterwards, even years later.  There actually was a devious and calculating movement afoot by clever gun grabbers to sue gun manufacturers into oblivion and force them out of business with crazy, baseless, nuisance lawsuits.  No company, they figured, could sustain indefinitely a nonstop avalanche of frivolous lawsuits, even if they were settled (as nearly all were) in pre-trial settlements. With this fact in mind, it stands to reason that corporate attorneys would counsel their employers thusly.  Well, great for them, and bad for us, the end users.

By the way, if you ever have a chance to pick up and dry fire an older Colt double action revolver you would be amazed at how silky smooth the trigger is. It is not just smooth, but crisp, with the snick-snick audible and tactile quality of a fine Swiss watch. Simply superb. You won’t get that feel in a modern, mass-produced revolver, unless you pay a gunsmith to work it over for you. Even then, with some cheaper brands, he won’t be able to “make a silk purse out of sows’ ear.”  Well, damn, you say, I just paid $500 for this brand new gun, and now I have to take it to a gunsmith and pay him $125 (or more)  to make it “right?” Yep. Welcome to our litigious American society.

Shooter Usability: Hard-to-See Sights

It would be inaccurate to say that “snubbies”are inaccurate. Granted, these snubbies are designed for close encounters, e.g. “point shooting,” but you would be surprised at how accurate they can be at farther distances. In order to hit the target and experience the gun’s full potential for accuracy at those distances (say 7 yards) however, you must align the sights correctly. And to do that, you must be able to see the sights. And herein lies the second challenge in shooting a snubbie. With young eyes, this is a challenge, but with older eyes, dependent on eyeglasses, bifocals , etc, this is a genuinely daunting task.

While most snubbies have a decent-sized front sight, the rear sight is very often not a traditional independent sight affixed to the gun, but rather, a trench machined into the top strap of the gun’s frame. It is, indeed, called a “trench sight.”  You look through the shallow trench and align it with the front sight. Easier said than done.  Why do they not install a traditional rear sight? For one, the fewer sharp edges a gun has, the better it is for drawing from concealment. Smooth surfaces are less likely to snag on clothing while drawing. Secondly, it is less expensive to manufacture.

There are several snubbies that can be found with traditional sights, even with fiber optic sights, night sites (tritium powered), and also lasers.  A subject for another time.

The Double Whammy

Let’s say that your husband, boyfriend,  or significant other gives you a new, trench sight-equipped, double action revolver with that factory stiff trigger. He may love you, and want you to be able to protect yourself, but he is not necessarily doing you a favor, especially if you are a “seasoned citizen.  He is most likely following the popular myth that these guns are “great for women,”primarily because they are simple to operate. Well, yes they are, but “simple” and “easy” however, do not mean the same thing. Rolling a 1,500 pound boulder 10 feet on a level surface is simple, but not easy.

So, here you are at the range with your new “gift,” ready to try it out for the first time. You can expect to be a bit anxious and apprehensive. Best if you have a competent instructor (wink, wink) with you. You put your safety glasses on.  Next, you install your ear protectors (plugs or muffs). Now you load 5 cartridges in your new snubbie and close the cylinder. The anticipation is building.  You extend your hands with the gun held in a firm two-handed grip. You try to align the sights as you were taught. Holy smokes, you can barely see them to align them!

Now, you start to pull the trigger, and pull, and pull, further to the rear.  When will this thing go off?  Boy this is hard to do. Oh, hell, the sights are moving around.  BANG! You missed. Why? Because as you use more force to pull the trigger, the muscle contractions in your hand move your gun off target. That’s why. And that is the “double whammy. ”  Can it be overcome? Maybe. Are you willing to spend money with a gunsmith? Are you willing to put it in many hours of range time? If so, you will improve.

Or you could just go out and buy a nice, easy-to-shoot semi-auto pistol, and be done with it.  If you simply must have a revolver,  here are some recommendations:

Best revolvers for Women


At Semper Firearms Training we encourage you to buy a good firearm, get trained in how to use it, get a Nevada CCW permit, and continue your firearms training as part of a defensive lifestyle.


Images courtesy of Oleg Volk