Classic Snub Guns

By John Taffin

Twenty years ago it was very difficult in many areas to get a concealed weapon permit. Thanks to the hard work of many individuals and organizations I believe every state now has legislation in place to issue concealed weapons permits. Not only are the laws in place, we now have a near endless supply of pocket pistols, both revolvers and semi-automatics to choose from. However, when I started shooting seriously the choices were basically a Colt or S&W 2″ double-action .38 Special, the classic snub guns of the 20th century.

In 1950, one of the most famous of the S&W revolvers arrived. A 5-shot, compact revolver chambering the more powerful .38 Special instead of the .38 S&W, was introduced at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Colorado Springs, Colo., and has been officially and lovingly known as the Chiefs Special ever since. This was the first J-frame revolver, a bit larger than the I-frame, which had been chambered in .22, .32 S&W Long and .38 S&W. In 1960, all I-frames became J-frames.

The Chiefs Special as been offered in a number of versions along the way. The standard model became the Model 36 in 1957, offered in both round- and square-butt versions, followed by the Airweight Model 37. The Model 38 Bodyguard, which has an extended frame protecting the hammer, exposing only enough of the tip to allow for cocking, was also introduced. Thanks to the urging of Col. Rex Applegate, the modern version of the Safety Hammerless — the Model 40 Centennial .38 Special — arrived with a hidden hammer and safety bar in the back of the grip.

The late Col. Applegate was often involved in clandestine operations from his early days with an outfit known as the OSS in World War II, through his commissioning as a general in the Mexican Army. One of his favorite pocket pistols was a Top-Break .38 S&W which he carried in a special holster designed to be worn on the belt but with the pistol up under his arm. When he had to empty his little .38, which was chambered in .38 S&W not .38 Special, to stop an attacker, he knew more power was needed in pocket pistols.


Purdy Gear’s “Rex” rig (left) and “Applegate” rig (right) are based on the Colonel’s
rig he wore while carrying a top-break .38 S&W. Rex’s experience in shooting helped
lead S&W to make the J-frame .38 Special. Purdy Gear: (706) 692-5536,

Colt’s Idea

Colt had been way ahead of Smith & Wesson in the .38 power market. Long before WWII they had chopped the barrel of their Police Positive Special to 2″ and called it the Detective Special. It was a start in the right direction, but with its 6-shot cylinder, some felt it was a mite big for a pocket pistol. Smith & Wesson went to work to improve the I-frame by slightly enlarging it to take five rounds of .38 Special. In addition to a larger frame, the new J-frame used a coil mainspring and an extra long cylinder filling out the frame window.

There was a time in my life when I needed to carry the Chiefs Special in a situation where a firearm was not only disallowed but I could not take the chance on anyone brushing up against me and feeling the outline of the little .38. My solution was to carry it in the top of my boot where it lived for several years. I certainly would’ve felt better with something larger such as a .45 ACP 1911 or a .44 Special Smith & Wesson, however for several reasons — none of which were very pleasant — I couldn’t take the chance.

In 1965, a most significant J-frame variation appeared, one that was to have far-reaching consequences throughout the firearms industry. This was the Chiefs Special, carried out in stainless steel as the Model 60. Instantly popular with peace officers and outdoorsman alike, the first stainless steel revolver from Smith & Wesson revolutionized firearms. Stainless steel revolvers as well as semi-autos are now a major part of the handgun industry, but at the time this was a radical development.

Colt first began offering 2″ barrel .38 Specials in the 1920’s. Colt introduced the Detective Special in 1927 using the Police Positive Special as the platform. In that year, the 6-shot Police Positive was chambered in .38 S&W, a shorter and less powerful cartridge than the then relatively new .38 Special. In 1908 the Police Positive was made slightly larger in frame and cylinder to become the Police Positive Special chambered in .38 Special.

Both the standard Police Positive and the Police Positive Special were popular since they were relatively light and small in size. Even with a 4″ barrel they were easy to conceal, especially in a coat pocket. When we talk of Fitz Specials, the custom sixguns of John Henry FitzGerald, we normally think of the large Colt New Service .45 with a 2″ barrel, shortened and rounded butt, de-horned hammer and cutaway trigger guard. Fitz also performed the same surgery on the Police Positive and he pictures a pair of these with a pair of .45 New Service Fitz Specials in his 1930 book Shooting.


Whether the .38 Special snub gun is from Smith & Wesson or Colt,
it performs exceptionally well as a self-defense sixgun.
Note the slightly larger grip frame of the Colt.

Positive Ideas

The Police Positive had a cylinder 11/4″ in length and was normally chambered for the .38 Colt New Police which is basically the same as the .38 S&W. The later Police Positive Special had its cylinder increased to 15/8″ and was chambered for the more powerful .38 Special. The former arrived in 1905 while the latter came on the stage in 1908.

My particular Police Positive has a 4″ barrel and is chambered in .38 Colt New Police/.38 S&W and is particularly easy to shoot with very little recoil and also shoots very accurately. In this day and age it’s probably considered under powered, however I would still prefer the .38 S&W cartridge over such “acceptable” defensive cartridges as the .380 ACP and .25 ACP. The .38 Colt New Police/.38 S&W is a shorter cartridge than the .38 Special and is also slightly larger in diameter. It also takes a bullet of 0.360″ instead of the standard 0.358″ of the .38 Special. Starline still offers .38 S&W brass.

The first shortened versions maintained the square butt of the Police Positive Special, however this was soon round-butted to the standard Detective Special .38 we are most familiar with. One year later the Police Positive received the same treatment to become the .38 New Police Bankers Special. Since the Detective Special started as the larger of the Police Positive models it’s also slightly larger than the Bankers Special.


Colt offered both the Detective Special and the
Cobra in nickel-plated finishes.


The Colt Banker’s Special .38 S&W was
built on the Police Positive.

Still Timely?

Life is full of trade-offs and definitely so when it comes to choosing a firearm for concealed carry. I always recommend the first-time carrier to choose a .38 Special. In these days since the Colt is no longer available I normally recommend a J-frame. Back in the day when one had both choices one could either go with the smaller, lighter S&W Chiefs Special 5-shooter, or the slightly larger, heavier Colt Detective Special with a 6-shot cylinder. Easier carrying or one extra round is the choice which had to be made. Personally I find the Detective Special a little easier to shoot, and if it was the 1950’s — long before high-cap magazines were common — that one extra round may have made a difference.

In the waning days of the 1940’s, Alcoa and Colt worked together to come up with a lightweight frame for the Detective Special. The result in late 1949/early 1950 was a 15-ounce revolver. That’s six-ounces, or just under a 30 percent reduction in weight of the Detective Special. This new alloy frame, 2″ .38 Special was given the appropriate name of the Colt Cobra for its quick striking ability. It’s identical in all ways to the Detective Special except for the lightweight frame. I first saw my choice at the company store and I could not resist this nickel-plated pocket pistol. It rode in my pocket from the early 1960’s on.

Taking a close look in the display case of most gun shops will reveal a large number of modern pocket pistols. However, if one looks very closely, and if everything happens to be going right at that particular time, it may actually be possible to find one of these classic snub guns almost hidden in a sea of polymer. The good news is when they are found they normally have very reasonable prices. These Colt and S&W 2″ .38 Specials will be found to have been carried a lot and shot very little. A bargain just waiting for the right sixgunner to come along.


The 5-shot .38 Chiefs Special is quite a bit
smaller than the 6-shot M&P.


Snub guns/pocket pistols don’t come any better than the Chiefs
Special or Model 60 (stainless) from Smith & Wesson.

Hard Choices

Only one thing remains, namely which one should we choose, Colt or Smith & Wesson? I must admit I have a terrible time making such decisions so in situations such as this I take my own advice and “Buy ’em both.” This is easy simply because I like them both. However, there are some differences. The Chiefs Special, also known as the Model 36 since 1957, is a 5-shooter and slightly smaller than the 6-shot Detective Special. Both are available in lightweight frames as the Chiefs Special Model 37 and the Colt Cobra. The Smith & Wesson version is also offered in stainless steel as the Model 60.

The Smith & Wessons have a somewhat protected ejector rod while the original Colts do not. Colt “corrected” this with their final run before production stopped. Finally the Chiefs Special has a smaller grip frame than that of the Colt and also Colt added larger grips in their last run. In their original form with standard grips I find both the Smith & Wesson and the Colt relatively easy to control and shoot, and I don’t use them with +P’s and honestly, there’s no reason to.

Read More Taffin Tests Articles


Order Your Printed Copy Of American Handgunner Sept/Oct 2014 Issue Today

Download A PDF Of The American Handgunner Sept/Oct 2014 Issue Now!