Small Revolvers are Hard to Shoot

Sometimes you can be too close to something, too involved in a topic to see it from other perspectives. You can stand too close to a painting to see the whole scene and instead, focus on individual elements. A couple days ago I pulled my S&W 640 Pro out of my range bag. After a couple strings of fire I realized I had been suddenly yanked from the midst of the trees and treated to the full view of the forest that I’d been missing.

Rude Awakening

In the last four months I have mostly been focused my range time on my carry 1911. I have some hard skill-oriented goals I want to accomplish with this gun, and I want to build intense familiarity with it. It’s the gun I’ve spent aobut 18 hours dry practicing with this year, and the gun I’ve put ~2,500 rounds through so far.

The 1911 (and especially this 1911) is an easy gun to shoot. The trigger is very light and very crisp, and has very short travel. The gun makes recoil management easy by allowing a full gripping surface (to say nothing of its perfect grip angle). Sight radius, even on my shortened 1911, is long enough to allow a decent degree of precision. In short, it’s about everything you could want in a shooter.

A few weeks ago I headed out to the range.  I had decided to run a few drills with my favorite small revolver. The first drill I had planned was the Super Snubby Test from Hardwired Tactical. I’ve run this drill before, and generally score in the high 130s or low 140s (out of 150 possible). I had also just ran the single-stack version of the Advanced Super Test with my EDC 1911 and scored a 295 out of a possible 300, so I was feeling pretty confident in my abilities.

I ran my target out to 10 yards, readied my 640, and set the turning target to an 8-second face time. The target turned, I presented the little revolver, and I proceeded to get slapped in the face by reality.

Forest? What Forest? All I See is Trees!

That first stage on the Snubby Super Test was humbling. I didn’t get all my rounds off on time, and most of them landed somewhere outside the 9- and 10-rings. I was wondering what happened, where I’d gone wrong. And then I realized what I’ve been saying for a couple of years now is actually true: small revolvers are hard to shoot!

Because I had spent several years carrying, shooting, and thinking about nothing but revolvers (and mostly small revolvers), I got pretty good with them. I handled my 640 Pro on a daily basis. I dry practiced with it several times a week. Over the span of two years I put nearly 3,500 rounds through it – probably more than most J-Frames get shot in several lifetimes. I got really used to that gun and I worked very hard to overcome its limitations.

Now here I am, struggling – failing, actually – to get off five rounds in eight seconds. I was surprised by the recoil and muzzle blast, even with target-grade .38s. Accuracy was nowhere near where I wanted it to be, even at a mere 10 yards. Let’s look at the lessons I took out of this experience.

Small Revolvers are Hard to Shoot

The most universally applicable lesson in this experience was that small revolvers are objectively difficult to shoot well. They are are hard to shoot because they are small. They are light, but have really heavy triggers. It is difficult to move a 10-pound lever while keeping a 1-pound object perfectly still. Not only are the triggers heavy, they require long movement and are coupled with small grips that almost seem designed to promote a sub-optimal trigger finger placement. Small revolvers usually have crappy sights, and even if the sights are fantastic, the radius between them is really, really short. All that adds up to a gun that is mechanically very difficult to shoot well.

Small Revolvers Are Hard to Shoot

There is an additive effect in inexperienced and/or recoil-sensitive shooters. Small revolvers – even .38 Specials – can generate an intimidating amount of noise, muzzle flash, and recoil. As an example, the first gun my girlfriend ever fired was the 3″ Kimber K6s. To most of us here this is a fine, all-steel, shooting sized gun. For her it wasn’t, though. Immediately I was able to tell that it wasn’t a whole lot of fun. Seasoned shooters could ignore the noise and handle the recoil, but it can be distracting (at best) and completely intimidating (at worst) to inexperienced shooters.

Revolvers Vs. Semi-Autos
Note the significantly shorter sight radius of the revolver – even on a similarly-sized autoloader.

We should keep this in mind (and perhaps voice it) when a well-meaning husband tells us he’s going to buy his wife some ultra-light snubby. Mike’s “That Guy” article sums up a conversation I get to enjoy with a family member every holiday. I have also recently witnessed this same thing in gun shops. The commando behind the counter recommends a snubnose revolver – one of the hardest guns to shoot well – to inexperienced shooters. Sadly, this is still a real thing.

We should also keep this in mind when we start getting confident in our own abilities, despite the fact that we haven’t exercised those abilities in a few weeks. . . or months. Which is a perfect segue in to the next portion of the article.

You Can be Really Good With Small REvolvers, but…

To steal a quote from Claude Werner: “It [a snubnose revolver] is only an arm’s length gun if you’re incompetent†.” If you’re not working toward competence and maintaining it, you’re probably incompetent. I found this out at the range. It turns out that being good at something requires more than just getting good. It requires staying good. . . otherwise you turn into someone who was good.

So who should invest the time to be good with small revolvers?

First and foremost, anyone who relies on a revolver for self defense should be good with it, and should work to stay good with it. Regardless of what you carry you should become competent with your chosen equipment. If you’re carrying a small revolver, you’ll have to work harder than most to accomplish this. Because I still carry my 640 occasionally, my failure to stay competent is just that: a failure.

If you’re a firearms instructor and there is any chance a student will show up in your class with a small revolver, you’ve probably got some work to do, too. I’m not a firearms trainer but if I was, I’d want to be able to shoot whatever showed up on my firing line. If I were the student showing up in class with a small revolver, I would want the instructor to be able to demonstrate (rather than merely explain) the art of the possible. I know this is not an issue with most of the trainers I tend to gravitate toward (Ayoob, Bolke, Cunningham, Dobbs, Ellifritz, Givens, Haggard, etc.) but it doubtlessly is with some.

How to Be Good With Small Revolvers

To again lean on Mr. Werner’s quote from above, being good with a small revolver is well within the realm of the possible. Small revolvers don’t have to be “belly guns” or “card table guns.” With some skill you can really let them stretch their legs. It takes work to get there and stay there, though. When I say “work” I mean “work,” in the same way you and I mean it when we say, “I had a busy day at work.” I mean hard, mentally and physically tiring work.

Professional training is imperative to getting good with small revolvers. It doesn’t necessarily have to be revolver-centric training, though that doesn’t hurt.  If you’ve had enough training on autoloaders that you’ve myelinated some basics, you can translate that for revolvers. Translatable skills important for employing a snubby revolver are stance, draw stroke, and moving the trigger without disturbing the sights.

Frequent, planned practice sessions support both getting and staying good. My first draft of this article had a paragraph beginning with the phrase, “shoot it a lot” but that doesn’t go far enough. Shooting should support skill development and maintenance, not just turn money into noise. This requires planning your session, finding drills that work the skills and abilities you want to achieve, and executing them.

I’m also a firm believer in dry practice. There are a lot of credible reasons you and I can’t get to the range twice a month. There are not a lot of credible reasons you can’t dry practice for five or ten minutes, several times per week.

Here’s one you probably haven’t heard in a while: development and maintenance of physical strength is important. My mother, for instance, cannot operate a factory double-action trigger on most S&W J-Frames. On the ones she can operate, she doesn’t do it well. Hand (and arm, and chest, and back, and leg) strength will help you grasp the gun, shoot accurately, and manage recoil. If you are strong you are starting with a significant advantage. Shooters of all stripe should probably invest some time in getting and staying strong.

The Bottom Line

I know none of what I said here is new information for most readers of RevolverGuy. Collectively the readers here probably have more experience with and knowledge of revolvers than. . . well, more than just about any other group of people I can think of. Sometimes we all need a reminder, though. I got mine at the range last week, and maybe someone here can learn from my mistake.

The funny thing is, I wouldn’t have gotten this reminder had I not taken a step back from wheelguns for a few months. I’m really appreciative of the opportunity to examine some things from fresh eyes. Had I continued to handle them on a daily basis I wouldn’t have gotten this visceral rediscovery of something I intellectually knew.

If you own a snubby revolver and rely on it for anything serious, do the work and become competent with it. Just as importantly, do the work of staying competent with it. You will see have seen some revolvers worked into my dry practice routine and range time in the past couple of weeks. If you’re carrying a revolver you should probably be investing similar time.


†I read this quote in the March 2019 edition of the Rangemaster Newsletter [opens to .pdf]. I was unable to find this quote directly from Mr. Werner at his website, TacticalProfessor.com. Not that I doubt the veracity of this statement; I just hate to “quote a quote” secondhand.

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Author: Justin

Justin Carroll is a former MARSOC Marine and veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Leaving service after eight years in the U.S. Marines, Justin continues his involvement with a variety of government agencies to this day. Justin began RevolverGuy.com in late 2016 with an simple idea: provide an source of high-quality information for revolver enthusiasts.

16 thoughts on “Small Revolvers are Hard to Shoot”

  1. At least for me, I’ve found that revolver practice translates to autoloaders, but not the other way around. I shoot my revolvers much more that autos these days. Range sessions always begin with the former, and follow up with the HK USPc. (The only auto I regularly shoot.) I’ve noticed a definite improvement in my HK scores over the past few years because of this. While I still struggle with that damn LEM trigger (it’s been love/hate for 15 years) there isn’t the continuing evil of dropping shots to the left anymore. In my kindergarten mind, I think its because the muscle training required for the DA revolver pull causes me to concentrate much more on both the front sight and the overall muscle movement and co-ordination. (If that makes sense.) I’ve found that most autos to me now (especially something like a BHP with an SA trigger, or even a M&P has the equivalent of a “bang switch”. It’s equally puzzling that I don’t enjoy shooting them as much anymore either.

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Jim! You mention the necessity of focusing on the front sight and I’d have to agree. If you can move that long DA trigger through its entire range of motion without upsetting the sight alignment/picture, you can probably shoot just about anything well! Your point is also well made that the reverse isn’t true – I’ve been so focused on the 1911 that my revolver skills have definitely suffered.
      Great thoughts – thanks for sharing!

    2. Jim, you underestimate yourself. I happen to know you have a 6th Grade mind. ; ^ )

      That Love-Hate relationship you describe applies to me and my J-Frames. Can’t live without ‘em, but they make me cuss sometimes. I like your theory about the discipline that revolver shooting encourages, and think you’re spot on.

      Be safe brother, and keep up the great work.

  2. While I was working at the gun shop, probably a half dozen or 10 guys (‘that guy’ types, mostly) came in to get a gun for ‘the little woman’. They’d point one out in the case–a snubby .38 or a baby .380 usually–and say ‘She wants that one’. I’d ask if she had handled one like it before, and the invariable answer was ‘Nah, but that’s just her size.’ I’d try, mostly diplomatically, to suggest he bring her in and let her handle some to see if she liked one better than the other, but no, ‘that’s the one she needs.’ Within two weeks, our hero would be back in, with her and the [wrong] gun, so she could pick out the one she wanted. Most often, I would–kind of diplomatically–say ‘I told you so.’

    We just did the ORF qualifications a week or so ago, and I shot my Ruger Speed Six way much better than my 9mm semi-auto, but neither went real well; I haven’t been practicing enough at all with either. It seems I tend to maintain skill with the revawver than the autos, for some reason–but the skills on both deteriorate badly without practice.

    Good article, should be required reading. Ace

  3. Great article Mr. Carroll! Your points are well made. I carry an airweight 442 everyday on my ankle and then my strong side carry weapon changes from a Glock 19 for work, to my Smith and Wesson M19 on my off time. I discovered at the range a couple weeks ago, my shooting abilities with my full size guns were par for the course. When I pulled out the 442, I quickly realized I had neglected the one firearm I carry more than any other. It was humbling to say the least. I focused the rest of my range session with the 442 and felt better after I fired 150 rounds, drawing from the ankle and from the pocket at 5, 7, and 10 yards. My experience that day reminded me, that regardless of my lifetime experience with firearms, you never reach that point of “being good” and then get to take a break. A responsibly armed professional or armed citizen should always strive to maintain and improve their abilities.

  4. Many thanks for the reminder, Justin! I just did 5 minutes of “dime therapy” with my Taurus 85. It has a new firing-pin spring. My gunsmith says to put a dime on the top strap, then use my normal hold and dry fire without dislodging the dime.

    Works like a charm, but I have to remember to do it. So I appreciate the nudge here at the blog!

    As to Ace’s point: I think that’s how I got a nearly unused Kimber K6S with everything that came new to the gun, for a great price. “That guy” bought it for the little lady and she didn’t care for it one bit.

    1. Truer words have rarely been spoken. Watching Claude Werner shoot a 2″ Model 10 or similar wheel gun in an IDPA match is akin to watching the Blue Angels lead and opposing solos execute a Tuck-Away Cross.

      Dry fire: Mine is exclusively with double action revolvers. It’s split about 1/3 with my S&W M13-3, and 2/3 with my M60-5 (all with snap caps)

      The strength and fine motor skills needed to work a J frame are actually more intense than for the K frame. The earlier posting noting that trigger skills with the revolver pass over to the autoloader, but not vice versa, is absolutely correct.

      It also pays to reload your .38 Special brass . . .

  5. Oh yes! They suck for sure! That recoil out of “mere” .38 rounds reminds me that even .38 is enough gun. I’m generally not so worried about the heavy trigger but I find the light weight and small grips will cause these beasts to shift around in hand with every shot, ruining consistency. The LCRX helps with that big Jordan style grip.

  6. A bit OT maybe…maybe not…but there is a video floating about where the folks at LuckyGunner discuss handgun terminal ballistics with the techs at Federal/CCI/Speer. The discussion is nothing particularly new, but it bears hearing again. (With pictures and video.). Basically, any modern technology pistol bullet is going to perform about the same, and shot placement is the key. There just isn’t enough velocity to produce the permanent stretch wound cavity like you have with a rifle round. 2200fps seems to be the magic number where the “stretch” becomes a “tear”. So…moral of the story is shot placement I guess…

  7. I think part of it comes down to grips and trigger preference. The grips on my 640 (not the pro model) are just a little longer but it still disappears in my pocket. It fits me like a glove and I like the trigger a lot. At 15 yards I shoot it better than my old 1911. You have probably shot yours a lot more than I have, but at 15 yards I can keep a fist sized group shooting faster than some ranges in my area allow. I’m terrible with small single stack pistols like the M&P shield though, but I prefer revolvers anyways.

  8. I thought this until I put an Apex tatical kit in my 442 after months of dry firing and my trigger finger was strengthened. With quality ammo (Federal 38+P HSTs) I can make holes touch at 7 yards and produce little groups at 25. This is in good light or at NIGHT with a Protac 1L. The problems with J-Frames come down to this for me:
    Dispense with the ridiculous factory hamner spring and return spring…then put an Apex Tatical kit in.
    Dispense with the mediocre factory grip and put one on that fits…for me an old Uncle Mike’s boot grip.
    Get good ammo or make it.

    1. The focus on equipment kind of misses the point. If you can make “little groups at 25” with a J-frame, with one hand (because I assume you’re holding the light in your other), it’s not because of anything you put on the gun. It’s because you’ve worked your butt off to make that possible.
      Still, that doesn’t change the fact that these guns are objectively more difficult to shoot than larger guns, guns with longer sight radii, and guns with shorter/lighter triggers.
      Maybe these guns aren’t “hard” for you to shoot, but they are objectively harder than almost anything else out there by comparison.

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