Small-Frame Revolvers: Still An Excellent Choice

For an officer considering a backup gun, one of the major factors is weight. Smith & Wesson and Taurus have addressed these issues in the small-frame revolver by replacing heavier steel frames with lighter aluminum, titanium, and scandium metals.

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In an age where the word "tactical" populates every other page of the firearms print media, it's refreshing for me to encounter dozens of officers who choose small-frame revolvers as backups to their primary service pistol.

Small-frame revolvers have been around since the 19th century, but the features that make them attractive to officers and lawful concealed-carry citizens have surfaced much closer to today.

Probably the most important development has been the reduction in size and, more importantly, weight. Smith & Wesson pioneered the compact small-frame revolver and designated it the "J" frame. Smith & Wesson uses a letter system to denote frame size, with J being their smallest frame size. The J frame was an instant success, packing five rounds of .38 Special, and later .357 Magnum, into a compact cylinder and small frame.  Gunmakers such as Taurus, Charter Arms, and others soon followed suit and "cloned" similar platforms.

For an officer considering a backup gun, one of the major factors is weight. Smith & Wesson and Taurus have addressed these issues in the small-frame revolver by replacing heavier steel frames with lighter aluminum, titanium, and scandium metals. When properly alloyed, these metals are as strong as steel, lighter, and more corrossion resistent. This is a great advantage when considering placing one in an ankle holster, where weight and perspiration can take their toll over time.

In addition to weight, another major concern is capacity. Since these revolvers hold only five rounds to reduce the cylinder's bulk and profile, many officers are concerned about having the necessary firepower in a potential engagement.

These concerns should be put aside as the small-frame revolver is not meant to be your primary service pistol which gives you anywhere from 15 to 20 rounds of .40 S&W. The small-frame revolver is meant to be a last-ditch backup.

Furthermore, the capacity of the small-frame revolver can be enhanced by the use of speedloaders, which hold extra rounds of revolver ammunition captive in a circular platform that is calibrated to fit the dimensions of your revolver's cylinder. With the simple twist of a knob, the speedloader deposits addittional life-saving rounds into the revolver's cylinder. Speedloaders are available from all major catalog suppliers and cost $10 to $15 each.[PAGEBREAK]

Speedloaders for most popular models from Smith & Wesson and Taurus are represented, and leather and vinyl pouches are available for housing them from such holster makers as Galco and Uncle Mike's. Most will hold two speedloaders, giving you an addittional 10 rounds on the belt or ankle.

Officers say that with practice, it isn't difficult to master a quick revolver reload with a speedloader. The process is significantly different from a quick magazine reload of a semi-auto pistol, so it's prudent to seek out those who have mastered the skill in order to gain life-saving training and confidence. The muscle memory dynamics are different. Please practice at home with an unloaded revolver using plastic dummy rounds. I use .38 Special dummy rounds in a .357 cylinder.

It's also important to address revolver reliability. To assume 100 percent reliability is a mistake, but revolvers are substantially more reliable than a semi-automatic because the cartridges are being fed in a circular fashion instead of against spring tension in a vertical column.

This also makes the revolver less prone to limp wristing in firing from unconventional cover or concealment, particularly at deep angles or one-handed fire. This is among the strongest advantages for officers. Jamming is almost unheard of, but revolvers still need lubrication to keep the areas of movement smooth and reliable.

Finally, ammunition selection for the small-frame revolver needs to be addressed. Most small-frame revolvers are chambered for .38 Special and/or .357 Magnum cartridges. There are a lot of urban legends surrounding the .38 Special. Most experts recommend purchasing the .357 Magnum-chambered revolver since it will accommodate the .38 Special cartridge, but will fail to tell you that the .357 Mag chamber is longer. This increases length, which may be a concern to those individuals who place a premium on every millimeter of deep-concealment space.

Having said that, I own the .357 Mag-chambered model, but would never hesitate to carry .38 Special +P ammyunition (for added pressure/velocity). Today's .38 Special +P expanding bullet is not your grandfather's lead-ball ammunition. Today's .38 hollow-point offerings from Corbon, Hornady and Speer offer near 100 percent weight retention and minimal bullet deformation upon entry and penetration. If you're recoil-sensitive to a .357 Magnum, there's no reason to dismiss the respectable .38 Special +P offerings.

Gunmakers such as Smith & Wesson, Taurus, and Charter Arms started to offer compact revolvers chambered in 9 mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP. This is great for the officer whose primary service pistol is chambered in these calibers. This type of flexibility should place the compact small-frame revolver at the top of your backup gun considerations.

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Brian Ostro Web Headshot
NRA Firearms Instructor
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