On page 64 of the April 2017 issue of American Rifleman Magazine, Editor in Chief Mark A. Keffe IV dropped an interesting new term, “defense-size”, on the shooter’s lexicon. In this case, Mr. Keefe was referring to Colt’s relaunch of their Cobra .38 Special revolver.


[Image courtesy of American Rifleman]

I find the term “defense-size” interesting because it implies a purpose defined application much like the dreaded term “assault rifle” that bears little connection to reality, so let’s examine the notion of “Defense-size” revolvers to see if sense can be made of this concept.

Since today’s topic is “Defense-size” revolvers, we will ignore the single-shot muzzle loading pocket pistols that predate Colt’s Paterson revolvers from 1835.

All of the pistols in this photo have been carried and used for defense. This collection is far from complete, but the firearms pictured represent a sufficient sampling for this discussion.


From the top:

Colt’s 1860 Army revolver – A pistol commonly used during the War of Southern Independence, and on the western frontier. This specimen has a 7” barrel. The 1860 Army was an evolution of Colt’s 1851 Navy which was of similar size and also sported a 7” tube.

Starr revolver – The third most common handgun used by Yankee forces, and one of the few double-action revolvers to be procured by the US War Dept. during the 1860s.

Remington 1858 New Army revolver – This revolver was second to the Colt’s 1851 Navy and 1860 Army revolvers in total numbers purchased by the US War Dept. during the 1960s. Originally issued with a 7 1/2” or 8” barrel, this specimen sports a 5 ½” barrel representing a post-war trend toward shorter barrels commonly referred to as a “sheriff’s model”.

Ruger Super Blackhawk – A modern revolver loosely patterned after the Colt’s Single Action Army that served the US military from 1873 until almost 1900. This pistol has a 4 5/8” barrel, a length sold for civilian use, making it quite easy to carry in a belt or shoulder holster.

Many .22 and .32 caliber revolvers were manufactured by Smith & Wesson as their Model 1 and Model 2 respectively during the 19th century. These diminutive revolvers are represented here for scale by the Ruger Bearcat, a lightweight .22 rimfire pistol sporting a 4” barrel.

During first 75 years of the 20th Century, the most common pistol carried by uniformed police officers were revolvers with 4, 5, or 6” barrels. During this same period, 2-3” barrel “snubnose” versions of the standard duty pistols were introduced. The snubnose revolver is represented here by the Ruger SP101 and the S&W J-frame. (Hat tip to my Mrs. for the loan of her Ladies’ Home Companion with the purty pink stocks.) The snubnose fulfilled the role of providing a compact weapon that could be hidden away by the line cop to be used in case he was disarmed by accident or criminal action. Detectives and administrators took to the snubby in droves because it offered convenient concealment, and was more comfortable to wear.

Just for size comparison, I threw in a Kel-Tec P11 compact 9mm that approximates the size of most semi-automatics popular with those who carry concealed handguns today. Just looking at the picture, a definite trend toward smaller weapons is pretty obvious.

Of course, “smaller” can only go just so far when the gun is chambered for a cartridge suitable for defense. On a revolver, the cylinder and frame immediately surrounding the cylinder are pretty much fixed in size by the dimension of the cartridge, so in order to get “smaller” a few design modifications can be made to reduce overall dimensions and weight. First, the grip frame can be rounded in profile and reduced in size and thinner stock panels can be installed. Second, the barrel can be shortened resulting in the classic 2” snubnose style. Third, the diameter of the cylinder can be reduced by lowering the number of chambers.

In the early days, factories churned out models with full size frames and short barrels. The demand for these pistols was so great a specialty industry sprang up to meet the demand.

J.H. Fitzgerald worked for Colt, and he developed a customization package for Colt’s double action revolvers that became known as the Fitz’s Specials.


[Image courtesy of American Rifleman]

Fitzgerald also worked as a police trainer, and his book “Shooting” is worth reading.

While any revolver can be made into a snubby simply by installing a barrel less than 3” in length, the best known example of the archetype are Colt’s Detective Special (an ancestor of the Colt’s Cobra pictured above) and Smith & Wesson’s Chief’s Special 

These two guns were the gold standard for snubnose revolvers until the wonder-nines started taking over police holsters in the 1980s, followed by increasingly compact 9mm pistols. Now things may be changing. Much like ladies’ fashions, revolvers are coming back, and from some unexpected sources.

2017 has been graced by the return of Colt’s Cobra.

The big surprise of 2016 was the K6, a new 2” .357 Magnum revolver from Kimber.

Another 2016 surprise were the mid-size “duty” revolvers from Smith & Wesson in .357 and .44 Magnum. In 2017, S&W recently released 3” versions of these classically styled wheelguns. A 3″ barrel is a bit long for a “snubby”, but it definitely makes these guns easier to conceal.

Unfortunately, no matter how great these pistols are, these weapons require effort to properly master them for use in a defense situation. The good news is the number of resources available to help the new owner of a “Defense-size” revolver get the most out of his firearm.

Snubnose.Info contains a variety of articles that discuss the peculiarities of using a snubnose revolver for concealed carry.

Michael DeBethencourt offers snub-specific training classes. The Blog link on his site contains very helpful information that will round out the information on Snubnose.Info.

Reading can NEVER replace profession firearms training. It CAN provide much food for thought the martialist might find helpful:

The Snubby Revolver: The ECQ, Backup, and Concealed Carry Standard by Ed Lovette

From Amazon: “In this book, former CIA operative and Combat Handguns columnist Ed Lovette pays homage to the short-barreled revolver, or snubby, holding it up as the timeless standard in concealed carry, backup and extreme close quarters (ECQ) defensive weapons.”

Grant Cunningham has written a number of books on firearms and revolvers in particular. Mr. Cunningham offers firearms training, and blogs on personal defense issues. His latest offering is:

Protect Yourself With Your Snubnose Revolver by Grant Cunningham


If semi-autos can be described as “compact” and “micro”, then we definitely have a place for “defense-size”, but I still think “snubnose” sounds way cooler.

Stay safe out there.