Saturday, March 20, 2010

Guns: Snubbie Wars

When Colt introduced the Detective Special snub-nose revolver in 1927, the gun immediately carved out a niche for itself. The DS was a shortened version of the popular Colt Police Positive, and thus chambered six rounds of full-power .38 Special in Colt's small 'D' size frame. It was an enormous amount of firepower for a pocket gun back then, and in the '30s and '40s, the DS reigned supreme as the king of snubs.

It was only when Smith & Wesson hit back with the Model 36 "Chief's Special" in 1950 that the snubbie wars began in earnest. The Model 36 was the first J-Frame revolver, and its progeny continues to sell like hotcakes to this day. The J-Frame's 5-shot cylinder made it a sleeker hideout gun than the Detective Special. Most people were willing to lose the extra round since these guns were as likely to ride in an ankle holster or a jacket pocket than on a belt.

With the battle lines drawn, S&W and Colt dueled with each other on numerous fronts. Both released aluminum alloy-framed versions of their snubbies in order to shave weight. Both experimented with hammer shrouds in order to ensure that their snubbies wouldn't snag on clothing. S&W eventually gained the upper hand with two important J-Frame designs, the internal hammer Centennial and integrally shrouded Bodyguard (pictured below); the screw-on shrouds for the Colt snubbies looked positively crude by comparison:

For a number of reasons, Colt dumped its line of double-action revolvers long ago (that's a whole 'nother post). Since then, S&W has been the only game in town for those looking for a snubnose revolver. Oh sure, you could get a Ruger SP101, but it would weigh a ton and carry like a canned ham in the pocket. And yes, Taurus and Charter Arms do make concealed carry revolvers, but they're more like poor shadows of the S&W J-Frame than true competitors.

To their credit, S&W did not stand completely idle. The scandium-alloy J-frames are still the smallest and lightest .357 Magnum revolvers you can buy, for instance. But without a real rival, they were mostly content to sit back and reap the profits when concealed carry laws expanded the market for their small revolvers tenfold.

That's why there must have been mild panic after the debut of the Ruger LCR, the first credible threat to S&W's snubnose revolver hegemony in decades. It's lightweight, it's part polymer, it boasts a lighter trigger than most J-frames, and, most importantly, it's being made by Ruger, a big company with the revolver cred to seriously challenge the guys from Springfield.

Yet as before, when Colt was first to market with the aluminum-framed "Cobra" variant of its Detective Special, S&W has not panicked. Instead, it's answering innovation with innovation:

The Bodyguard 38 is, like the LCR, a part-polymer revolver. It's got a top-mounted integrated laser that points near the boreline of the gun (unlike the Crimson Trace grip-mounted lasers sported by the LCR and the J-frames). It's got an ambidextrous cylinder release, also mounted on the top of the frame. And, most importantly, it has all-new internal lockwork that might help reduce the famously heavy J-Frame trigger pull.

I'm not sold on the integral laser yet, since it jacks up the price. Plus, unlike the Crimson Trace lasergrips, the Bodyguard 38's laser needs to be activated with a separate manual switch (something tells me it'll be hard to find that little button in the middle of a fight). But the ambi cylinder release is a good idea, and the entire package weighs in at under 15 ounces.

Would the Bodyguard 38 have been developed if it weren't for the LCR? Maybe. But the snubbie wars are back, and the beneficiaries are the people who tote snubnose revolvers.


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