SKILLS: The Truth About Snub Nose Ballistics

Which round is the best for you? READ MORE

snubnose revolver

Jason Hanson

Jay L., of Greenbrae, CA was a car collector who had amassed an array of 1970s-era cars in the past, but being 90, Jay had been selling off most of his collection. He dwindled down his cars to owning a 1996 Mitsubishi and a 2005 Ford.

One morning, around 10:45 a.m., a criminal entered Jay’s home, detained him at gunpoint, and searched the residence for valuables.

During this time, the burglar told Jay there was a contract out on him. Jay asked, “How could there be a contract out on me?”

To which the burglar replied, “I understand you’re the guy with all the expensive cars.”

At one point, the burglar led Jay at gunpoint to the bedroom, which he ransacked for valuables while 90 year old Jay sat on the bed concocting a plan.

Next, Jay told the burglar he needed to use the bathroom, which is where his five guns were hidden.

When the burglar refused, Jay pulled his pants down and said he would defecate on the spot.

The burglar let him go into the bathroom but would not let him close the door. Jay then asked the burglar, “Do you like to watch people?”

Then the burglar let him close the door and Jay went for his Smith & Wesson .38 snubnose.

As Jay exited the bathroom, the two men exchanged gunshots, resulting in Jay being shot once in the jaw and the burglar being shot three times in the abdomen.

Both men emptied their firearms and the burglar ran from the home.

The burglary suspect drove away from the scene before calling 911 and claiming he had accidentally shot himself.

He spent nine days in the hospital before he was taken to jail and charged with attempted murder, burglary, robbery and firearms offenses by a felon.

Clearly, Jay did exactly what he had to do that day to make sure he made it out alive.

There is no question the criminal was targeting Jay since he believed there was large sums of money in the home because Jay collected cars.

The thing is, many people who may be similar in age to Jay prefer to own revolvers since they are so simple to use and you don’t need the hand strength to rack the slide like you do on a semi-auto.

With that in mind, I often hear the debate about which handgun caliber is the best between .38, .38+P, or .357.

For that reason, here is a breakdown on the different calibers and what may be best for you and your situation.

.38 Special. The .38 Special is a classic revolver caliber and it’s impossible to go into any gun store and not find a selection of revolvers chambered in this round.

It has a history as a workhorse and gained popularity among law enforcement in the 70’s and 80’s.

Today, .38 special rounds are still carried by some law enforcement as a back up weapon, and are used by citizens who want a small revolver that can still deliver effective rounds. .38 Special rounds are great for new shooters and can be a very effective self-defense round in close quarters.

From a ballistics perspective, the .38 operates at a maximum average pressure of 17,000 PSI, with typical penetration being around 12 inches depending on all the variables.

Of course, the .38 special round is going to create less recoil compared to the other two rounds below.

While the .38 is still effective, it wouldn’t be my first choice for home defense since I would rather have a bit more power in my home defense round.

.38 Special+P. Prior to the development of the .38+P round, there was the .38 Special High-Speed round, which was intended for use only in large frame revolvers.

Nowadays, the .38 Special+P round is suitable for most medium frame revolvers and delivers a maximum average pressure of 20,000 PSI, and typical penetration of 13-14 inches, which is a significant, but not massive increase over the .38 special.

The .38 special+P is a moderately powerful round that is easy to shoot for reasonably experienced shooters.

In addition, the .38 special+P muzzle blast is louder than standard pressure .38 loads, but far less than .357 Magnum loads.

For many years, the standard FBI service load was the .38 Special +P cartridge. Their lower recoil and muzzle blast make them faster for repeat shots than full power .357 loads.

They are also less blinding and deafening when fired indoors at night. This is the round that I recommend for most people who want to carry a revolver.

.357 Magnum. The .357 was the first magnum handgun cartridge. The .357 rounds are loaded to a maximum average pressure of 35,000 psi, and typical penetration is well over 16 inches.

The recoil from full power loads is sharp and the muzzle blast definitely gets your attention. Fire a full power magnum load at night and the flash looks like the gun exploded.

Experienced shooters can generally learn to control the .357 size revolvers and with practice, very fast and accurate shooting can be accomplished with .357 loads.

In a survival situation, the .357 could be effective for hunting game for food.

There is no question that revolvers are still effective for self-defense situations.

While semi-automatics are highly reliable, they still have to deal with stovepipes, jams, and failure to feed issues on occasion. Some semi-autos are also prone to the pickiness of ammunition.

Revolvers don’t care about that. This is why revolvers are and will always be a solid choice for defensive purposes.

Jason Hanson is a former CIA Officer and New York Times bestselling author of Spy Secrets That Can Save Your Life. To get a free copy of his book, visit

11 thoughts on “SKILLS: The Truth About Snub Nose Ballistics”

  1. “The thing is, many people who may be similar in age to Jay prefer to own revolvers since they are so simple to use and you don’t need the hand strength to rack the slide like you do on a semi-auto.”

    While I’m not of an age with Jay, I prefer the semi auto pistol alternative which is similarly simple. Pistols like the Sig P250, SCCY CXP-2 and Ruger LCP, for example, fulfill pretty much the same role as a revolver. Just pull the longish trigger and they do they their thing just as simply and safely.

  2. Upon reading the headline, I kind of thought the article was going to tell me which actual ROUND was the better choice for the Snub Nose pistol. With reference to Grain, Bullet Type, Expansion, Energy, Brand possibly. The lead in story was remarkable, glad the Good Guy Won!

  3. This is the reason my carry gun is a seven round Taurus model 617 snub nosed (two inch barrel) chambered in .357 magnum! I also carry two extra speed loaders in holsters on my left side. Twenty one rounds in total. If the situation isn’t handled by then, I’m probably toast anyway?

  4. Thanks for the post. It’s interesting to me that these two cartridges (38 Special and 357 magnum) are talked about as though they’re the only defensive cartridges available for revolvers. In my view, the far and away BEST choice for a defensive revolver for the overwhelming majority of people is a 32. The 327 Federal is the most available choice, and it’ll also fire 32 H&R Magnum, as well as the 32 S&W Long (aka 32 Colt New Police), 32 S&W, and _sometimes_ the 32 Auto.

    In a true snubbie, even 38 Special recoil is more than most shooters will _want_ to deal with, and 357 recoil is absurd in those guns. The 32s offer equal or better penetration than the 38s, and do so with anywhere from less to dramatically less recoil. 327 Federal ammo is also normally flash-suppressed, so the gigantic fireball that plagues the 357 and even some of the 38s is greatly reduced.

    Give a 32 a try. You’ll be most pleasantly surprised!

  5. Hi,

    Good article, but your research is not complete.. Charter Arms has a sweet little snubbie in the 40sw that looses nothing to the semi-autos in the velocity dept… Recoil is less than the .357’s but will set back square in the hand. Accurate enough to hold the black on a B-2 target at 50′, not that I would use it for bullseye competition.. Check it out.,

  6. Complete junk, so full of bad information it isn’t even good enough to wrap a dead fish in before you put it under someone’s car seat in july.

    Penetration of a snubnose is very high when the round fails to expand. Independent testing has shown that MOST hollow points that fail to expand from a 38 snubnose, and MOST rounds fail to expand, can penetrate anywhere from 2.5′ to 4′ in FBI gelatin blocks.

  7. The biggest problem with snub nose revolvers is that you lose a lot ballistically due to the super short barrel and the cylinder gap. If you pump up the power by using +P .38 or a .357, then muzzle blast becomes a factor. In addition, most snubs are fixed sight, so if you use ammo that is different than what the gun was regulated for, you may not get the bullet where it will do the most good even at close range. A better alternative is one of the five shot large bore revolvers that are available. Not only do they throw a bigger, heavier bullet, they tend to lose less velocity in the short barrel. Since momentum is doing the work, they are more effective, and don’t have as much muzzle blast as others. Charter Arms has the various .44 Special Bulldog models, but they also have one in .45 Colt. Both throw a fat, heavy bullet at fairly slow velocity. Ruger has the GP100 snub barrel in .44 Special, and S&W sells a Model 69 short barrel version in .44 Mag, which can be loaded with .44 Specials. While these guns are bigger than a Detective Special, they are still easily concealed, often have adjustable sights, and provide a much more effective level of firepower than any .38 Spl, and even most .357 snubs, and larger grips make them more controllable.

  8. So many say a short nosed pistol is not accurate. At 10 to 15 feet it you can just about point and shoot. I can hit playing cards with a 6 inch barrel at 100 feet and a playing card at 50 feet with a 2 inch barrel . With even occasional practice you should be able to hit an adults midsection at 15 feet.

  9. A Ruger LCRx with a 3″ barrel weighs nothing, has a hand-filling recoil taming rubber grip, will handle +P ammunition, has adjustable sight and hasn’t failed to fire yet in 500+ practice rounds. If it was available in 327 Mag, I would carry that but right now Hornady’s Critical Defense 110 grain load is my choice with a box of +P in reserve. I had an S&W 642 3″ but it siezed up over and over again firing standard pressure 9 m/m Federal Hydrashock & JHP rounds. (Siezed up so tight that I needed multiple trips to my gunsmith to open the cylinder-who wants to carry a heavy stainless steel One-shooter?) I had a variety of semi-autos (Kahr, Browning, Walther & S&W) but the reliable ones are too big to conceal and the small ones-oops we’re back to the one-shooters again. Last, but not least, my wife and almost constant companion handles the revolver easily and cannot charge or clear any of the semi-autos we have tried, large or small. Think about who backs YOU up while you might face trouble or terror?

  10. None of this is going to matter unless you practice, practice, practice.
    We can go on and on about which round in which caliber is most effective, but the real deal is being able to get the gun on target and hit center mass.

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