Colt’s “Belly Guns”: Detective Specials top, and Cobras, bottom, all have 6-shot cylinders.

There’s always been a certain segment of the shooting population who have considered the .38 Special to be a poor man stopper. This may have been true with the original round-nosed lead bulleted versions, but today we have a long list of .38 Special rounds available. From target wadcutters and jacketed hollowpoints, to +P loadings and the latest from Buffalo Bore — a 158-gr. “Outdoorsman Load” with a velocity of 1,200 fps — the field is full of choices. Even today, with all the available polymer pocket pistols, my recommendation for a first handgun for concealment and self-defense use is a .38 Special with a 2″ barrel. If you’re recoil shy, such a revolver loaded with .38 Target Wadcutters is relatively pleasant to shoot while still being effective. Anyone who has ever shot any kind of varmint with one of these loads remembers the authoritative “thwack” sound when they hit.

Shooting rapid-fire, double-action at 10 yards with the S&W .38 Chiefs Special and
Colt .38 Detective Special shows they certainly can deliver the goods!


In 1926 Colt introduced the first Detective Special simply by fitting the Police Positive with a 2″ barrel. Then, seven years later it was further improved by rounding off the front and back corners of the grip frame. A Classic sixgun was born. In 1936, soon-to-be Col. Charles Askins said of the Detective Special: “There has always been a constant need for a type of pistol which is even smaller and more compact than any of the various Colt models previously described. This third class of arm is the pocket handgun invaluable to the plainclothes officer or civilian in need of a weapon combining knockdown power and compactness. Pocket guns, or as they are familiarly called, ‘belly guns’, enjoy a large sale because of their great utility.”

The Colt Detective Special was the first of the modern “Belly Guns” and is still one of the best. Even after all these years, the Colt Detective Special is still an excellent choice for concealed and self-defense use. My lust for the Colt Detective Special began with an article by the late Skeeter Skelton in our sister publication GUNS in the late 1950’s. Skeeter had a pair of nickel-plated, ivory-stocked Detective Specials with bobbed-off hammers. The closest I came in the early 1960’s was a nickel-plated Colt Cobra, which is nothing more than a Detective Special with a lightweight alloy frame. Somehow in my youth I let it get away, but about 10 years ago I found another one new in the box. It didn’t stay that way very long.

Most double-action sixguns I shoot are shot single-action. However, with the Detective Special and the Cobra I make a concentrated effort to fire them double-action only. They are not target revolvers, they are not plinking pistols, they are not hunting handguns, they are made for self-defense and that normally means quick action. With this in mind, I always practice with both my Detective Specials and Cobras shooting double action at 7-10 yards. If I ever need them seriously that’s where the action will be.

Useful for both self-defense and the trail, S&W’s “Trail Masterpiece” Model 60 is a 5-shooter.
Custom stocks are by BluMagnum.


Smith & Wesson’s offering of Belly Guns goes back to the early days of the top-break pocket pistols. With the arrival of the M&P in 1899, the stage was set for a really fine double-action pocket pistol. However, as far as I know, Smith & Wesson did not offer a 2″ M&P until after WWII. Early advertising said of S&W’s M&P: “There is a warm spot in the hearts of thousands of detectives and plain-clothes operatives all over the country for this little gun, which has proven itself a fine companion in a tight spot many and many a time. A short-barreled version of the world’s largest-selling revolver, the 2″ M&P’s small size makes it easy to conceal and gives you lightning-fast handling qualities. Yet its 281/2 ounce weight and hand-filling Magna grips absorb the recoil of the powerful full-charge .38 S&W Special cartridge with comfort.”

Both the Colt Detective Special/Cobra and the S&W M&P are 6-shot .38 Specials, and each has their advantages. The smaller Colts are probably easier to conceal and carry, however, the M&P is built on what we now call the K-frame with a larger grip frame. In fact, of all the double-action revolvers I have ever handled, with standard factory stocks the K-frame fits my hand the best. This makes the M&P much more comfortable and easier to shoot for me, although I do feel well armed with either manufacturer’s offerings.

Prior to WWII, Smith & Wesson offered their smallest revolvers as the I-Frame. Considered too small for the .38 Special, they were mostly offered in .32 Long and .38 S&W. In 1950, a major change occurred with the introduction of S&W’s Chiefs Special.

The Smith & Wesson’s J-frame Chiefs Special, right, holds five rounds while the
K-frame M&P is a true six-shooter. Custom stocks are by BluMagnum


The unveiling took place at the International Association of Chief’s of Police Meeting in Colorado Springs. A vote was held among the law enforcement officers to name the new gun and the Chiefs chose Chiefs Special. It did not take long for this little 5-shot revolver to become the epitome of Perfect Pocket Pistols.

My own first Chiefs Special was the square butt version, many decades ago. About 20 years ago I decided to make it into a truly custom pocket piece. It was totally tuned by Teddy Jacobsen, and I also had him bob the hammer, as it would be mostly used for double-action shooting. It was coated with a wear-resistant stainless steel type finish by Metalife, and just recently fitted with custom stocks by BluMagnum. I have extreme confidence in it after all these years.

In 1965, Smith & Wesson introduced the stainless steel Model 60 version of the Chiefs Special. Everything good said about the blued Chiefs Special applies even more so to the Model 60, as the stainless steel construction makes it a good choice for constant use. One of the variations of the Model 60 is what my friend Terry Murbach has dubbed the “Trail Masterpiece.” It’s simply a Model 60 fitted with a heavy underlugged 3″ barrel enclosing the ejector rod. It’s definitely an excellent companion for the trail. It’s certainly not suitable for big game, but for camp meat, or varmints with two or four legs, it will do the job when properly loaded.

A S&W .38 Military & Police and early advertising proclaiming “A Small Friend You Can Really Trust.”

Affordable And Reliable

For much of the 20th century, every police officer on duty carried either a Smith & Wesson M&P or a Colt Official Police, both chambered in .38 Special. These guns have been mostly forgotten by the masses, however they’re still viable self-defense sixguns. One of my favorites is a relatively late Model 10 with a heavy barrel and round butt, while another goes all the way back to the 1940’s. The latter has been refinished in the military style and has the original slim pencil-shaped barrel. Both of these M&Ps have only been fired double action and I intend to keep it that way. Ed McGivern’s favored speed shooting double action was the M&P, and although I’ll never even be close to his speed or accuracy, I still use these sixguns the way they were intended.

When it comes to most of my sixguns I am a handloader, not a reloader. The former experiments with different powders, charges and bullets while the latter finds one load and sticks to it. For practice loads with the .38 Special Belly Guns I’m in the latter category, reloading 158-gr. SWC’s over 4.0-5.0 grs. of Unique and switching to factory loads for daily carry.

In spite of my affection for .38 Special Belly Guns, I do also like plastic polymer pistols for several reasons. They are lightweight, and every one I have tried — and I’ve tried most of them — are totally reliable. And, an unintended consequence of their widespread proliferation is the fact it’s now possible to find .38 Specials at very reasonable prices!

For decades, sixgunners grouped into two camps, either Colt or Smith & Wesson. I’m much more bipartisan and when it comes to Belly Guns I’m an equal opportunity user and advocate. They are both excellent choices, even in the second decade of the 21st century.