I said that I was going to write something about snub-nose handguns, and I meant to until something shiny when by and I forgot.
I have always been a big fan of light, short-barreled revolvers like the S&W Chiefs' Special or the classic Colt Detective Special in .38 caliber. These are reliable firearms and effective so long as one is aware of their limitations. I am speaking strictly of the .38 Special non-plus-P weapons. A .357 magnum snub-nose is an entirely different animal with its own issues — particularly recoil and muzzle blast. Standard .38 Special revolvers are quite mild-mannered by comparison.
All snub-nose handguns are best used at short range, unless one as accomplished as the mighty Elmer Keith. He offered the suggestion that a 4-inch barrel was a suitable compromise for a field weapon, but Mr. Keith had astonishing abilities that placed him well outside the realm of mere mortal handgunners. For most of us a longer barrel is preferable for longer range accuracy as well as the benefit of increased muzzle velocity. A shorter barrel is better for carrying, especially concealed, but we give up something with every inch trimmed from the length.
I have rarely used a snub-nose revolver for anything other than target practice, which is probably the case with most of us. I have hunted with a revolver on several occasions and often used them for varmints and pests around the house, but those firearms all have barrels ranging in length from four to seven-and-a-half inches. There's no reason to use a snubby when you have full-size weapons easily available. My assessment of snubby effectiveness is based largely on comparisons of penetration as tested in various material from pine 2x4s to liquid-filled containers. Frankly, even when compared to a .22LR, a standard .38 round from barrel of two inches or less is hardly impressive.
Will a round from a .38 Special snub-nose stop an attack? It will. Is it the best fight-stopper? No, it is not. There is a very good chance that someone shot with a single round from such a weapon would be able to persist in an attack if they chose to do so.
I'll tell you what I can about a little incident I had recently. I cannot give details because I don't want people throwing a fit and possibly accusing me of doing something illegal, though I have not broke any law as far as I know. There is a certain creature that I absolutely detest for a number of reasons. It is not a dangerous creature, but it is thoroughly annoying. I have killed a large number of them over the years, usually at a considerable distant with a varmint rifle in .223 or .22 magnum. I've killed some with a .22LR rifle and at least one that I can recall with my Single-Six in .22 WMR. These creatures vary considerably in size, some being only a few pounds while others are quite large and heavy. The other day I happened onto one of the large, heavy ones, and the only firearm I had available was my good old Rossi 68. I have been carrying it quite a bit lately since getting some Hornady Critical Defense ammunition for it.
Brief digression — the Hornady ammunition is excellent. I really like it and recommend it. The issue here is not ammunition. While Hornady has optimized the CD ammo for short barrels, there is only so much velocity that can be generated and, hence, only so much penetration that is possible from one of these firearms.
I shot the creature twice. It is possible — I was not in a position or situation that would allow an extensive assessment of the effects — that I missed the first shot, but the second one was a pretty good hit. The range was short. The bullet seemed to expand. The problem was that it did not penetrate very well. While the shot proved fatal, I was not, shall we say, pleased with the time it took. My Single-Six, with its six-and-a-half inch barrel would have terminated the creature much more quickly and humanely. I also would have needed only one shot.
I am not saying that a snub-nose .38 Special revolver should not be carried for self-defense. I'm suggesting that you test the penetration of your rounds and keep in mind that not all rounds in a self-defense situation will be fired under ideal conditions. Expansion is good, but a round has to get to the vitals of an attacker in order to be effective. Shot placement can compensate for lack of expansion, but perfect shot placement may not always be possible.
We have yet another good reason to carry a big knife.