Snub-Nose Revolvers: Which is Right for You?

The small-frame “snub-nose,” known colloquially as a “snubby,” remains the last and strongest bastion of the revolver in the defensive handgun world. The reasons for the snubby’s popularity are its concealability, reliability, and simplicity of operation, not to mention the fact that it won’t go out of battery and fail to fire when you need it.

We’re talking about a small-frame revolver with a plus/minus two-inch barrel that can fit into a pocket. There are four formats from which you can choose.

The Formats

You can get the spur hammer model, which goes back to the very dawn of revolvers. You can also get spurless hammer revolvers, which harken to when double-action revolvers first became available and were modified by users who carried them concealed. There is the wrongly named hammerless style that goes back to the Smith & Wesson Safety Hammerless top-break revolver that was introduced in 1887 whose hammer is actually completely contained inside the frame and unavailable to the operator’s hand. And, finally, the shrouded hammer configuration that was introduced by Colt with their screw-on hammer shroud for their D-frame Detective Special and Cobra in 1950.

three different hammer types
From left — S&W makes spur hammer Chief Special, sometimes sold with hammer bobbed; shrouded hammer Bodyguard, and “hammerless” Centennial series.

Spur Hammer Snubs

These are conventional DA/SA (double action/single action) revolvers which can be fired with either a long pull of the trigger or by a short pull if the hammer is manually cocked.

Good news: if a precision shot is needed and the owner feels a light trigger pull is necessary for that, this configuration makes it easy. Because it’s useful to know that you don’t have a high primer in a cartridge that could bind cylinder rotation and jam the gun, when you load one of these you can safely keep your finger off the trigger and ease the hammer back just enough to drop the cylinder bolt and allow a cylinder rotation check to confirm that your wheel-gun is ready to go.

Bad news: If the hammer is cocked in a high-stress situation, it’s pretty scary to have to press the trigger to lower the hammer back down with shaky, adrenalized hands. Moreover, there have been numerous cases where a hammer was cocked, creating a “hair trigger” effect, and then an unintentional shot was fired with one of those shaky hands.

Still more bad news: if the gun is capable of being cocked, it can be falsely alleged that you did so and then negligently discharged a “hair trigger” gun when you shouldn’t have. This is why so many police departments rendered their wheel-guns double action only back in the “service revolver” days.

S&W 22 in hand with hammer cocked
Cocked hammer, as on this S&W .22 Kit Gun, has dangers explained in text.

There is also the problem of the hammer spur catching on clothing and snagging the draw. The great mid-20th Century gun expert Paul Weston of NYPD described hammer spurs as “fish hooks.” The good news is that if you place your thumb on the hammer when you draw such a revolver from a pocket, your thumb will act as a hammer shroud to keep that from happening.


Drawing a J frame from the pants pocket
The thumb on the hammer spur of this nickel Colt Cobra acts as a “human hammer shroud” during pocket draw (left); the author prefers hammerless S&W 340 M&P (right) for a snag-free pocket draw.

Bobbed Hammer Snubs

With the hammer spur ground off or not there in the first place – S&W, Colt, Ruger, and others have offered this configuration – there is no longer a “fish hook” to snag the draw. However, it doesn’t mean the hammer can’t be cocked. I’ve seen expert witnesses demonstrate that a bobbed hammer can be cocked by starting it back with a partial trigger pull, which gives a less-than-scrupulous lawyer a hook for a negligence case, because you can see how hard it would be to lower a bobbed hammer after it was cocked. If you have a bobbed hammer, you want that hammer to be without a single-action cocking notch.

With a bobbed hammer you can hold your thumb on the hammer while you bring the trigger back for a cylinder rotation check, but you’re still pressing the trigger on a loaded gun, and that gets dicey…

Shrouded Hammer Snubs

That 1950 Colt hammer shroud attached to a D-frame snubby, and left a tip of the hammer exposed just in case a precision single action shot was deemed necessary by the user. However, with just the tip of the hammer for the thumb to grasp, lowering the hammer under stress if a shot wasn’t fired became more difficult with a trembling thumb. The Colt shroud also tended to catch the web of the shooter’s hand and accentuate recoil. A few years after Colt introduced the hammer shroud, their arch-competitor, Smith & Wesson, came up with an integral one on the revolver they called the Bodyguard, which didn’t hurt the web of the hand.

Good news with this design: it didn’t snag on the draw from any sort of concealed carry, and the hump of the shroud prevented sharp recoil from rolling the gun back in the hand enough that the web of the hand blocked the hammer spur and prevented a shot in rapid fire. It also allowed a cylinder rotation check by drawing the hammer back and permitting “the wheel to turn.”

The bad news: With only a “cocking button” for the thumb to grasp, it wasn’t as easy to thumb-cock for a single-action shot (or to safely lower the hammer) as a conventional DA/SA revolver.

 hammer shrouded J Frame
Integral hammer shroud of S&W Model 38 Bodyguard Airweight keeps gun from rolling up in hand on recoil.

“Hammerless” Snubs

Beginning with the 19th-century Safety Hammerless, that word is in quotes above because the hammer was still there, but internally, just not accessible to the shooter. It was “double action only” (DAO). Good news: slick draw. Never a “hair trigger negligence” accusation.

More good news, little recognized: Because the “high horn” of the backstrap gets the gun hand higher on the gun, there is more leverage working for the shooter and the muzzle doesn’t rise as much upon recoil, enhancing rapid-fire capability!

S&W Centennial in hand
Note how high the web of the hand gets on “hammerless” 2.5” ported Centennial from S&W Pro Shop, greatly reducing muzzle rise.

The bad news with the “hammerless”: not only is the easy single-action trigger pull off the table, but so is the cylinder rotation check: you’d have to pull the trigger of a loaded revolver to get the cylinder to rotate. With a “hammerless,” you have to examine each cartridge before you load the gun to make sure there are no high primers.

Finding the Balance

Having shot snub-nose revolvers since the early 1960s and extensively carried all four formats, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best approach is for the individual user to try all four types. For rapid fire, in which hot loads can make a small grip-frame want to roll up in the hand, I found that the spur hammer type was the worst, the spurless hammer was better, the shrouded hammer better yet (because no hammer spur could hit the web of the hand and prevent the next shot), and the hammerless best of all.  Combat accuracy? Cocking the hammer is slow, and I found the spur hammer Chief Special fired single-action would still give me all head shots at 25 yards, but so would double-action, with only a slightly larger group dispersal. A long time ago, having carried DA/SA Colts, Rugers, and S&Ws extensively, I locked in on the hammerless S&W for my preferred backup revolver and remained there.

The choice is yours…but the choice will only be truly valid after you’ve checked out each option and found out which works best for you, and for your needs.

Massad "Mas" Ayoob is a well respected and widely regarded SME in the firearm world. He has been a writer, editor, and law enforcement columnist for decades, and has published thousands of articles and dozens of books on firearms, self-defense, use of force, and related topics. Mas, a veteran police officer, was the first to earn the title of Five Gun Master in the International Defensive Pistol Association. He served nearly 20 years as chair of the Firearms Committee of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers and is also a longtime veteran of the Advisory Bard of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. A court-recognized expert witness in shooting cases since 1979, Ayoob founded the Lethal Force Institute in 1981 and served as its director until 2009. He continues to instruct through Massad Ayoob Group,

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