We’re fans of the snub revolver here. For reasons that we’ve discussed in detail before, we think it’s a useful tool for many of the self defense situations we’re likely to encounter inside and outside the home.
However, we’re also cognizant of the snub’s limitations. While the snub does some jobs better than other guns, the qualities which make it useful in those scenarios can also be a detriment if the circumstances change. That’s the nature of selecting a firearm for defense—it’s a balancing act, where you trade off some qualities and capabilities for others, and you never get 100% of what you want. We’d all like to choose a gun that carries like an Airweight, has the legs and accuracy of a long-range target rifle, points like a finger, and recoils like a .22, but hits like the Hammer of Thor.
Alas, it doesn’t exist, which is why we make trade-offs and learn to live with them.
That “learning to live with them” part is something we don’t talk about often enough. I daresay we’ve done a pretty good job of addressing it in these pages, in the past, but we still spend the majority of our time and effort looking at equipment, here on the blog. It’s easy and fun to talk about the “hardware,” but when the conversation turns to “squishy” things like mindset, awareness, tactics, and skills—the “software” that allows us to put the hardware to good use—it becomes more like work, doesn’t it?
Indeed, but if we want to turn the gun into something more than a talisman, we’ve got to put in the work, so it seems like a good time for us to make a deposit in that bank, and talk about some of the things, other than equipment, that keep us safe.
Regular readers of the blog, and of my book, are familiar with the “Priorities of Survival” model that Massad Ayoob has taught as part of his Lethal Force Institute and Massad Ayoob Group curriculums for decades. In brief, Ayoob lists the following priorities, in descending order, with the most important first:
Mental Awareness and Preparedness
All of these are important to your survival, but the ones at the top of the stack have a greater impact on your ability to survive a lethal attack than those at the bottom. An alert person armed with a mediocre gun will generally fare better than a clueless, distracted idiot armed with an expensive blaster, eh? Similarly, an average shooter who uses good tactics will generally fare better than a highly skilled marksman who uses poor tactics. What good are shooting skills, if you never get the chance to use them because you failed to use available cover, and got shot, right?
Right. So let’s spend a little bit talking about those top priorities, as they relate to a shooter armed with the popular snub revolver.
My brother said something to me once, very early in my experience of carrying a gun in self defense, that made a big impact on me.
I was carrying a snub revolver exclusively, at the time, and I was asking him about his own experience, carrying a similar gun. He lived in a state with carry laws that were much less restrictive than mine, and had unlimited discretion in what he could carry. Sometimes he chose a compact auto, other times the snub revolver, but in the course of our conversation, he made a statement about making that choice that stuck with me, all these years.
“When I choose the snub, I know I’m limiting my tactical options—there’s some things that I can’t do now, some shots that I shouldn’t take, and I have to remember that before I step out the door.”
Hmm . . .
What is it, about the snub, that might limit our tactical options, as my brother discussed?
The first thing that jumps out at us is its limited capacity, and the time it takes to reload the gun. When you have a gun that only holds five or six rounds, and takes upwards of four or five seconds to reload (maybe less, if you’re highly skilled, maybe much more, if you’re not, you’re using a slower loading tool/method, or you’re injured), you will be at a distinct disadvantage in an extended, high-volume gunfight.
The late Dr. William Aprill once told a story (start at 38:00, then again at 4:10 in the next episode) about a highly-skilled competitive shooter and self defense trainer who volunteered to take on four armed robbers, while armed with a five-shot snub revolver. Even if we acknowledge and appreciate this person’s aggressive mindset and demonstrated skill at arms, might we agree that his equipment wasn’t well-suited for the task, and it might have been a better tactic to summon help, rather than voluntarily engage such a superior force? 1
Another issue with the snub is its practical accuracy. By definition, snub revolvers have abbreviated barrels, with a correspondingly abbreviated sight radius, that makes it more difficult to be precise. Snub sights are also typically harder to see, and frequently suffer from regulation issues, throwing the bullet to a different point of impact than the point of aim. Additionally, the small frame of a snub can negatively affect handling qualities, and the lopsided ratio between trigger pull weight, and the weight of the gun itself, can make it harder to hold the gun steady on target. All of these factors combine to make it more difficult to hit targets—particularly if they are small and/or distant–with precision when you’re shooting a snub. The gun usually has great, inherent, mechanical accuracy, but it’s often hard for shooters to extract it, in real-world conditions.2
That precision becomes even more important when we consider the ballistic performance of typical snub ammunition. While it’s possible to fire some relatively potent rounds through a snub revolver (I’m thinking of 9mm, .327 Federal Magnum, .357 Magnum, etc.), a great many shooters tend to carry less energetic loads, that produce less felt recoil (.22 Magnum, .32 Long, .32 H&R Magnum, .38 Special wadcutters, etc.). This, combined with the slight energy loss incurred by the use of a shorter barrel, can make it harder to deliver fight-stopping energy on target, especially after penetrating intermediate barriers. It’s useful to remember that even Magnum ammunition, as powerful as it is, is only handgun ammunition, and handgun ammunition is basically “low energy” by definition. We rely on handgun ammunition to do the job because handguns are easily portable, but if we really wanted to assure ourselves that a well-placed round would terminate hostilities, we’d be talking about more powerful rifle and shotgun cartridges, wouldn’t we?
Factors like these encourage us to think about snub revolvers as guns designed to get us out of trouble, instead of guns that we’d choose to get into trouble, as friend Darryl Bolke reminds us. If we were looking to get into trouble, we’d definitely be looking at a larger gun—probably shoulder-fired—with greater capacity, power, range, and practical accuracy, and we’d be looking to have a bunch of friends with us, who were armed the same way.
Dealing with limitations
The snub is a good choice for our typical self defense mission, though, and it’s a lot easier to carry around than a squad of rifle-equipped Marines on your back. For many of us, it’s a great fit for the types of dangers we’re likely to face in our everyday lives.
However, we do acknowledge its limitations, and we try to minimize them by emphasizing the higher priorities in Ayoob’s survival model. By placing greater emphasis on things like mental awareness and preparation, and using good tactics, we try to tip the scales in our favor so we don’t have to rely on our skill at arms, and aren’t impacted as much by the limitations of our equipment.
Consider the top priority of Mental Awareness and Preparedness. By paying attention to our environment, we try to detect and anticipate dangers with enough lead time to avoid them, if we can. We couple this heightened awareness with a prepared mind—one that has already made certain decisions ahead of time, so we don’t need to make them in the heat of battle.
This is an exercise that’s beneficial to us regardless of what we carry, but it becomes even more important when we’re armed with a weapon that may be insufficient to deal with certain threats. Recall the story we discussed earlier about the highly-proficient shooter who chose to close with, and engage, a force that was superior in numbers and armament with his five-shot snub revolver. We’ll presume that his awareness was high, as he was able to detect the robbers staging for their attack on the jewelry store, but he had clearly not prepared his mind to answer the question of which scenarios he was, and was not, going to involve himself in while he was armed with a five-shot gun.
It’s one thing to be forced to defend yourself with a snub revolver when you have no ability to escape or avoid the threat, and a different thing entirely, to jump into the mix when you have a choice to flee, summon help, and be a good witness. If our hero had been a patron in the store, and the four robbers had come in firing, then he would have had no choice but to respond with his snub revolver, using his best tactics and skills to stop the threat, even though they outnumbered and outgunned him. However, was it a smart idea to take on four guys with four guns, knowing he had just a fraction over one round per man, when he could have just called the authorities from a position of safety?
We can’t anticipate every possible scenario and preplan our responses, but figuring out what our “lines in the sand” are—the things which will obligate us to act, even if the tactical situation is not in our favor–is an important part of carrying a gun for self defense, and it becomes even more critical when we’re carrying a gun like the snub. Figure these out ahead of time, because there will be no time to do it when “the balloon goes up.”
Our choice of tactics is also very important, and influenced by what we carry.3 If we had that squad of rifle-armed Marines we were talking about in our back pocket, we could choose from a different set of tactics than we could if we were by ourselves, armed with only a snub.
Powerful guns, with high capacities and extended effective ranges, give us access to a different set of tactics than low powered, limited capacity, short range guns. The former may allow us to overwhelm an enemy via aggressive fire and maneuver tactics, whereas the latter won’t really support that, so we have to match our tactics to our available equipment to maximize our effectiveness.
When we’re talking about the snub, that generally means we have to get closer to our attacker (to ensure we can hit what we need to the first time), ensure we have an unobstructed line of sight (because our ammunition isn’t great at dealing with intermediate barriers), and limit the access that other attackers may have to us (because it’s even more important to keep threats “on line,” and deal with them one by one, when we’re working with a tool that has limited capacity, range, and power).
To accomplish these things, we think about tactical considerations like:
- Maneuver. “Getting off the X” and putting ourselves in a superior tactical position–preferably behind cover–that allows us to place effective fire on the threat, and minimize his ability to return the favor, is critical. Working the angles to defeat the threat’s cover and “choose your shot” is very important with a weapon that has limited ability to penetrate intermediate obstacles, and limited capacity. Similarly, closing the distance, rather than increasing the distance, may be important when you’re armed with a shorter-range weapon like a snub–especially if the threat is armed with a long-range weapon, like a rifle. Closing the distance may also allow you to thwart their draw or get your hand on their weapon, which may provide an opportunity to disable it (especially if it’s an autopistol);
- Ambush. One way of effectively closing the distance is to “wait your turn,” and ambush your opponent when they’re in range and you have the tactical advantage. We might keep our armed status hidden, for example, and wait for an armed threat to approach within range, and turn their attention away from us, before we present our weapon and fire;
- Surreptitious draw. The fastest draw is one that starts with the weapon in your hand, and a pocket-carried snub offers a huge advantage in this respect. You can already be “at grip” while looking like just another guy with his hands in his pockets, which plays well into the tactic of biding your time for the right opportunity to launch your ambush on your attacker. There’s no need to telegraph your move from across the room—where your attacker’s weapon or tactical situation may give him an advantage over you, and allow him to engage you sooner—if you can wait to strike at close distance, at a speed which will deny him the chance to stop you before you’ve pulled the trigger;
- Target selection. When you’re armed with a firearm that has limited capacity and power, your target selection becomes even more important. It’s of even greater importance to hit your target in the spot that will do the most damage, and terminate the threat in the least amount of time and rounds fired. In some situations, this may force you to favor a more difficult target area, like the head, instead of the more traditional target area in the upper, center chest, when you’re armed with a snub. Hitting this more difficult target may require you to make other tactical choices, like closing the distance with the threat, and waiting for your best opportunity before taking the shot;
- Second gun. Because snubs are small and light, and slow to reload, it may be a useful tactic to carry two of them, and plan on drawing the second gun in lieu of reloading the first;
- Battlefield pickup. In some rare situations, a snub may be useful as a means of acquiring a better weapon. A properly-executed ambush may give you the opportunity to take an attacker’s more capable weapon and use it against the remaining threats, particularly in an age of Complex, Coordinated Attacks by terrorists, urban street rioting, and criminal assaults carried out by large gangs of armed people;
- Break Contact. Perhaps the best snub tactic of all involves using the gun to create an escape path, and getting away from the threat. We don’t necessarily need to vanquish the foe, we just need to escape to a place where he can’t hurt us, any longer.
These are just examples, of course, and not hard-and-fast rules. The situation will dictate the tactics and the decisions, but the key is that your equipment (and your skill with it) may influence or limit your tactical options, and the savvy defender will think about that ahead of the battle.
We’ve touched on this a little already, but it’s important enough that it deserves a special mention.
You are responsible for every shot you fire, so it’s critical that you exercise fire discipline when shooting in self defense. Unlike the bad guys, we don’t get to haphazardly spray a bunch of bullets, without care for the safety of those around us. Instead, we have a moral and legal obligation to make sure our aim is true, and our target is legitimate, before we fire each round.
This applies to us, no matter which firearm we are using, but it takes on special importance when we’re carrying a gun with limited capacity, as is the case with most revolvers. If you can’t get the job done with the first five or six rounds in your revolver, then you may not get another chance, as it’s highly unlikely that you will have the time, distance, and opportunity to complete a revolver reload, in extremis.
So, beyond the moral and legal concerns, there are very real tactical concerns about volume and precision of fire that affect us, as revolver shooters. Part of developing the “snub mindset,” then, is accounting for how the limited capacity of our revolvers impacts the Tactics and Skill components of our survival model.
Remember, again, that equipment is an important priority in our survival model, but our awareness, preparation and tactics are even more important, since they may eliminate the need to use our equipment at all. In the worst case, if force becomes necessary, our awareness, preparation and tactics may put us in a better tactical position to use that equipment, and provide a better chance for success.
We tend to focus a lot on the gear in the greater gun culture, but it’s your awareness, preparation, and decision-making skills which are of greatest importance to your success.
So, put the first things first, and be safe out there.
Of course, you could have an autopistol and a belt full of increased-capacity magazines, and it wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be any different, right? Perhaps it’s not a wise idea to get yourself into situations where you need to rely on your equipment to get you out of trouble that you could have avoided in the first place. This is the essence of the “snub mindset,” is it not? It makes sense to avoid confrontation regardless of what you’re carrying. The best way to guarantee victory in a fight is to avoid getting into a fight, so act accordingly!
We’re not in the camp that believes the snub revolver is a “phone booth gun,” that’s only useful at arm’s-length distances. We practice with our snubs out to 25 yards pretty regularly, and occasionally push them to 50 yards, because it’s still reasonable that you might be forced to engage a threat at that distance, and the skills you hone at the longer range will pay dividends when the target is closer. Having said that, we’re honest enough to recognize that it’s harder to perform with a pocket-sized snub at these distances than it is with a larger gun, and acknowledge that most snub shooters simply don’t practice beyond a handful of paces. The snub is not a “phone booth gun,” but there’s a lot of “phone booth shooters” out there, carrying snubs. No matter how you slice it, the small, compact size of the snub is both one of its greatest advantages, and one of its greatest disadvantages. For those shots that require a higher level of precision, the snub is not your frontline choice;
Our tactics are also influenced by a realistic assessment of our skill with that equipment. Knowing whether or not you’re capable of making the shot is critical, and will have a profound influence on where, when, and if you will engage. If the distance is too far, the target too small, or the window of opportunity too tight for you to make the shot, then you need to know that. If you understand it, you can employ tactics to remedy the situation and create a proper opportunity to fire, but if you don’t understand it, you’ll risk harming an innocent with an errant shot, or identifying yourself as a target to a bad guy who is beyond your reach, even though you may not be beyond his. Training, then, is essential to support both the Tactics and the Skill priorities in the model.