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February 1, 2023

Snub Nose Revolvers: Evolution and Models

By Joe Engesser

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The snubbie. The belly gun. The bulldog. The snub nose revolver goes by many slangs and encompasses a broad range of wheelgun models, but the term generally refers to any revolver with a barrel length of 3 inches or less. In short, a close-quarters weapon that's faster to draw and easier to carry than its long-barreled brethren.

A Kimber Model K6S First Edition snub nosed revolver with box and case.

By nature, the snub nose revolver sacrifices accuracy and range in favor of maneuverability and concealment. These characteristics were appealing to lawmen, gamblers, thieves, and anyone in the market for a reliable, short-range, self-defense firearm. The demand for the snub nose was high from the offset, and the race was on from the mid-19th century onward to perfect the design. Click on the images throughout this article to learn more about each model.

Snub Nose Revolver Predecessors

The concept of the handgun has existed since the invention of firearms, with the 16th century wheellock being the first ignition system to allow for a somewhat concealable option. However, the first true pocket pistols wouldn't be widely available until the flintlock hit the scene in the early 17th century. The development of the more compact box lock action in the 18th century allowed gun makers to reduce pistol size further still.

A pair of engraved H. Nock boxlock flintlock pocket pistols, the conceal carry 'belly guns' of their day.

When Samuel Colt realized the concept of accurately syncing a rotating cylinder to a fixed barrel in the 1830s and invented the first genuine revolver, it didn’t take long before short barrel versions were offered to the public. Early snub nose Colt designs include the Pocket Model Paterson Revolver No. 1, the Model 1848 Baby Dragoon, and the popular Colt 1849 Pocket.

A scarce Colt Pocket Model Paterson revolver No. 1 with a 1 3/4 inch barrel, one of the first snub nosed style revolvers commercially available.

Early Colt Snub Nose Cartridge Revolvers

The first widely available snub nose style cartridge revolver came in the form of special order Colt Single Action Army variations. Officially referred to as "Ejectorless Single Actions" by Colt's Hartford factory, gun collectors have since dubbed these short-barreled SAAs "The Sheriff's Model," "The Storekeeper's Model," and "The Banker's Special." These revolvers lacked ejector rods and rod housings, creating a simplified wheelgun that was easier to draw for up-close engagements that didn't require a rapid reload.

Colt First Generation “Sheriff’s” style Bisley Model Single Action Army revolver with a 3 inch barrel.

The next step in the evolution of the snub nose revolver was the introduction of the double action trigger. Among the big American manufacturers, Colt won the race with the Model 1877 DA. These revolvers were nicknamed “Lightning,” “Thunderer,” and “Rainmaker” by Colt distributors like Benjamin Kittredge & Co. of Cincinnati. As with the Colt SAA, the Hartford factory offered custom barrel lengths for their Model 1877 DA line, with the Lightning "Sheriff's" Model becoming a popular snub nose option for those looking for a fast-shooting sixgun chambered in .38 Long Colt.

A Colt "Sheriff's" Model 1877 Lightning double action snub nosed revolver with a 2 1/2 inch barrel.

“The British Bull Dog”: Webley’s Snub Nose Revolvers

Five years before Colt's Model 1877, Philip Webley & Son of Birmingham, England first produced the British Bull Dog DA revolver. This five-shot wheelgun featured a 2 1/2 inch barrel and an affordable price tag that made it a popular pocket pistol in the United Kingdom and beyond.

Two variations of the "British Bulldog" style DA snub nosed revolver.

Numerous manufacturers in France, Spain, Belgium, and America copied the Bull Dog design. The official Philip Webley & Son's Bull Dog revolvers and many of the European variants were commonly chambered in .442 Webley, .455 Webley, and .450 Adams. The most common American clones were more often found in .44 Webley and .38 S&W. Charles J. Guiteau infamously used a Bull Dog chambered in .442 Webley to assassinate President Garfield in 1881.

Early Smith & Wesson Double Action Snub Nose Revolvers

Three years after Colt released the Model 1878, Smith & Wesson responded with the .44 Double Action 1st Model. In the years to follow, Smith & Wesson introduced additional lines of DA revolvers, including the Smith & Wesson Safety Hammerless series.

The Smith & Wesson Safety Hammerless, named for both its grip safety and its internal hammer.

The Smith & Wesson Safety Hammerless model was manufactured from 1887 until WW2. Also known as "The New Departure," these five-shot revolvers were typically chambered in .32 S&W or .38 S&W. Small and concealable, the Safety Hammerless allowed for fast reloading with their top break design. Along with their snub nose barrel lengths, the revolver's internal hammer was designed not to snag when drawn or fired from the pocket.

A true snub nose, this rare Safety Hammerless 3rd Model example is chambered in .32 S&W and has a 1 1/2 inch solid rib barrel.

At the turn of the 20th century, Smith & Wesson released what would go on to be known as the Model 10. This world-famous revolver, originally called the "Smith & Wesson .38 Hand Ejector Model of 1899" and the "Military & Police," has been offered in numerous variations over the decades, including the first snub nose models that hit the market in the 1930s.

A classic snub nose .38, the first Model 10 revolvers were offered in 2 inch, 2 1/2 inch, and 3 inch barrel lengths.

The Fitz Special and the Colt Detective Special

The Police Positive, released in 1907, was Colt’s premier revolver for the law enforcement market. The gun included a positive lock safety to prevent accidental firing and came in a variety of barrel lengths. Though .32 New Police was initially the most popular chambering for the revolver, Colt introduced a beefed-up Police Positive Special in 1908 that chambered the significantly more powerful .38 Special. This version of the revolver proved a runaway hit and inspired Colt gun designer John Henry Fitzgerald to create the Fitzgerald Special in the 1920s.

A Wells Fargo Co. Police Positive DA revolver.

The Fitzgerald Special, also dubbed the “Fitz Special” or “Fitz Colt,” was a snub nosed revolver with the hammer spur removed to avoid snagging clothing as it was drawn. It also removed the front of the trigger guard so the user could more quickly acquire the trigger. With an emphasis on drawing from concealment, it was still sturdy enough to chamber .38 Special rounds. This innovation of a gun became the prototype for what would eventually be dubbed the Colt Detective Special in 1927.

Manufactured in 1938. These FitzGerald Specials were hide away guns with short barrels, cut away trigger guards, and cut away (bobbed) hammers.

The Colt Detective Special is one of the most famous early modern factory production snub nose revolvers. The wheelgun was made as a double action with the ability to function as single, used a swing-out frame for faster loading, and was specifically designed for the .38 Special. The revolver quickly found a home with undercover cops and detectives, as well as Taxi drivers, store owners, mobsters, and anyone looking for a small gun packing big firepower.

A pair of snub nose .38 revolvers. The Colt Detective Special is a sized-down version of the popular Police Positive Colt.

The S&W J-Frame and K-Frame Snub Nose Family

In the years after WW2, Smith & Wesson produced their own snub nose revolvers that could chamber the .38 Special. The "Chief's Special," or what would become known as the Model 36, is a five-shot DA revolver created on the Smith & Wesson J-frame, a sturdy design introduced in 1950 that became the foundation for many of Smith & Wesson's five-shot snub nose revolvers to follow.

A Smith & Wesson Model 36 snub nosed revolver chambered in 38 Special, with a 2 inch solid rib barrel.

The Airweight Model 37 was produced in 1951, a Model 36-like design that used an aluminum rather than a steel frame in order to reduce the gun’s weight. Smith & Wesson manufactured 605 J-frame Aircrewman revolvers in 1952 as survival weapons for U.S. Air Force flight crews. These lightweight wheelguns used an aluminum cylinder and barrel as well, though heat-warping issues proved to be problematic and the model was withdrawn from service.

(Left) A Smith & Wesson Chief's Special Airweight Pre-Model 37 snub nosed revolver. (Right) A S&W Model 37 Airweight snub nosed revolver.

The Smith & Wesson Model 12 revolver took the idea of the Model 37's aluminum frame and applied it to a larger six-shot K-frame. The Model 12 snub nose variants became a popular option for undercover officers and civilians looking for a lightweight concealed carry with enough heft to dampen recoil compared to the Model 37. Produced until 1986, the Smith & Wesson Model 12 was a predecessor to modern titanium and scandium frame snub nose revolvers like the Smith & Wesson Night Guard.

The Model 12-2 Airweight revolver, a snub nose .38 from Smith & Wesson.

Meanwhile, Smith & Wesson continued introducing new snub nose options built on the smaller J-frame, including the Centennial hammerless model (or "Model 40") and the Bodyguard line with shrouded hammers. Both of these families include a five-round cylinder and were initially designed for .38 Special. Further iterations of both the Centennial and the Bodyguard family allowed for the powerful .357 Magnum as well.

A gold-plated, engraved Smith & Wesson Pre-Model 40 Centennial DA snub nosed .38 revolver.

Snub Nose Revolver Calibers

Snub nose revolvers have been produced in almost every handgun caliber ever invented, from .22 LR to .460 S&W. Today, the snub nose is most often chambered in .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .44 Special, and .44 Magnum, all tried-and-true calibers for self-defense.

A Colt Cobra snub nosed revolver chambered in .38 Special. Manufactured in 1974. Provenance: The Collection of Jimmy Lane Frederick.

Since revolvers chambered for the more powerful (and longer) Magnum cartridges can fire their “Special” counterparts, there's some natural overlap in the market. The .38 Special continues to be one of the most affordable ammunition options for revolver owners, and it's no surprise that the reliable round is still the most common chambering for today’s snub nose wheelguns.

A Colt Python snub nosed revolver chambered in .357 Magnum.

Snub Nose Revolvers Today

Though Smith & Wesson and Colt dominated the revolver market throughout much of the 20th century, numerous competitors released snub nose options of their own. The Charter Arms Bulldog became one of the best-selling handguns in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Taurus Model 85 revolver also gained a footing.

A Ruger SP101 snub nosed revolver with case.

In 1988, Bill Ruger introduced the stainless steel SP-101 revolver, a small-frame snub nose design that offered an impressive balance between bulk and power. For someone in the market for a steel-framed concealed carry, the SP-101 presented a lighter and more affordable alternative to the Colt Python or the K-frame Smith & Wesson revolvers such as the Model 19.

Smith & Wesson's Model 60 revolver was the first production revolver in stainless steel. Building on the popularity of the already popular Model 36, the new concealable .38 special was perfect for folks seeking a more durable finish for their ED

Today, no shortage of snub nose revolvers are available. From the Kimber K6S, the Chiappa Rhino, and the Ruger LCR, Rock Island Auction Company offers a range of modern snub nose revolvers in our Arms & Accessories Auctions, and our Sporting & Collector's Auctions frequently feature many of the numerous classic snub nose models exhibited in this article.

Smith & Wesson Model 460 Emergency Survival DA revolver with case and survival tools. Chambered in .460 S&W.

The Snub Nose Revolver for Sale

The snub nose revolver has been a popular self-defense option since its inception. Iconic models like the Colt Detective Special and Smith & Wesson Safety Hammerless have appeared in countless films and television series throughout the decades and have become a favorite gun with arms collectors today. From pristine examples to revolvers with honest wear, selections from every corner of this expansive genre can be found for sale at Rock Island Auction Company.

A gorgeous Colt Detective Special snub nosed revolver originally owned by Prohibition-era Sheriff Frank Schram of Detroit.

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