By Massad Ayoob
During a slower sales climate, turning back to timeless favorites presents additional
selling opportunities for you. The Ruger LCR (left) and S&W 43C each hold eight rounds
of .22 LR — presenting significantly reduced recoil for users.
In times of slower sales, a time-honored response is emphasizing old favorites. The small-frame, short-barrel revolver certainly fits the profile. If you’re one of the many who think a small-frame revolver is the worst choice for a first-time handgun owner and not the best even for a seasoned user, I understand. Bear with me for the duration, though, because some of your customers will be dead set on buying one and nothing else — and you want to keep the sale and have the customer leave both proficient and confident.
While semi-auto pistols continue to dominate the market, many dealers find revolvers selling surprisingly well — particularly smaller and lighter ones. Before we look at their shortcomings and how to explain them, let’s enumerate the advantages the popular “snub-nose .38” has boasted since the introduction of the Colt Detective Special 90-some years ago.
Compactness: No, they’re not so small nor light as a Ruger LCP or Kel-Tec P-3AT, but they fit in pockets and purses and ankle holsters quite well. They fit small hands very well.
Ease of safe handling: Folks suffering from arthritis or similar physical ailments have trouble operating the slides of semi-automatic pistols, and sometimes have difficulty even filling their magazines with cartridges. The swing-out cylinder of a revolver makes it almost effortless to load, unload, check and clean. Routine maintenance doesn’t even require disassembly. Some of the buyers won’t be “gun people,” which leads us to …
Reduced maintenance requirements: The long bearing surfaces where the slide contacts the barrel and frame demand the auto pistol be lubricated. Many buyers think their guns only need to be maintained after they’ve been fired, or fired a lot. Some lubricants can turn sludgy, and when the gun is carried, liquid lubricants are subject to gravity and can drain from the gun. Revolvers are much less demanding of lubrication. Generations of American police officers carried double-action revolvers for 20- or even 30-year careers without ever taking them apart for maintenance, and their guns still worked. If you get a sense the prospective buyer is not a gun enthusiast, this is an excellent point to bring up.
Capability of contact shots: Many-a-customer worries the miscreant will be right on top of them when they have to fire in self-defense. With the muzzle pressed against the target, most auto pistols will go out of battery and can’t fire even a single shot. (Some will: the shorter barrel Springfield XD series for example, the SIG P290 or any auto with a flashlight attached which projects ahead of the muzzle, but they are the relatively rare exceptions.) A revolver, by contrast, will fire at muzzle contact.
Ability to shoot through pocket or purse: An auto pistol fired from inside an overcoat pocket or from inside a purse is subject to malfunctions when fabric or leather block the ejection path. It doesn’t happen every time, but it happens often enough to worry about. A revolver? No problem, especially if the hammer is shrouded so there is no possibility of the hammer snagging on fabric before it drops to detonate the primer.
Addressing The Shortcomings
The big downsides of small-frame snubbies, especially the light ones and those loaded with .357 Magnum ammo, are recoil and short sight radius. Both of these can be addressed and ameliorated by the well-educated firearms salesperson.
.38 Wadcutter: In my younger days, the mid-range .38 Special 148-gr. wadcutter was strictly a mild target load, and few considered it worthy of self-defense use unless the hollow-base bullet was handloaded backward to make a giant cup point. The thinking has changed. Dr. Gary Roberts, who inherited the mantle of the late Dr. Martin Fackler as the guru of wound ballistics, appears to approve of the .38 wadcutter as a self-defense load, since it cuts a full-width wound channel at close self-defense ranges and produces surprisingly deep penetration.
On the street side of things, highly regarded expert Chuck Haggard concurs, and carries target wadcutters in his own .38 Special snubs. The mild recoil of this load answers many of the concerns about controlling snub-nose .38s. Of course, it’s milder still in a steel-framed snub such as the current version of the Colt Cobra, Kimber’s K6 line, the Taurus 85 or any of Smith & Wesson’s all-steel J-Frames.
.32 Long: Theodore Roosevelt thought the .32 Long was adequate for law enforcement, and issued the Colt New Police in the same caliber when he was commissioner of the NYPD in the 1890s. Over the years, the .32 Long became seen as less than up to the task, but the poor results always seemed to be with round-nose lead bullets. S&W and Ruger have tried mightily to sell .32 H&R Magnum and .327 Federal Magnum revolvers with scant success, even though the loads are hotter and the small-frame revolvers hold six of the .32-caliber rounds instead of five .38 Special or .357 Magnum.
Stock some .32 Long wadcutter target loads, which will fire just fine in .32 Magnum and .327 Magnum revolvers. Their recoil is ridiculously mild. Yet the flat nose of the .32 wadcutter should cut a wound channel similar to a round-nosed .38 Special bullet. While many of us don’t feel this is enough, no less an authority than the late master instructor Pat Rogers was known to say non-expanding .38 Special bullets got the job done if they hit the right spot.
.22 LR: Gun expert Claude Werner, also known as The Tactical Professor, has pointed out for some people the .22-caliber revolver may be the best choice. Recoil is virtually non-existent. Ammo is still relatively cheap, which encourages skill-building practice. And — sales tip here — any customer you know who owns a small-frame snub .38 or .357 is an excellent candidate to buy the same model in .22 LR for cheap practice. S&W in their J-Frame line, Ruger in both the all-steel SP101 and the polymer-frame LCR models and Taurus and Charter Arms all have .22 LR analog models to complement their more popular, more powerful snubbies in larger calibers.
The 3-Inch Option: Kimber received a great reception early this year when they offered their sweet little K6s .357 Magnum with a 3-inch barrel to complement the traditional 2-inch. In years past, the small-frame 3-inch .38 was “the gun of the cognoscenti.” Holster and gun expert Chic Gaylord wrote in 1960 it was the ideal concealed holster gun. Back when 2-inch .38s were “the thing” for backup, off-duty and detective work, NYPD’s gun masters like Frank McGee and Tom McTernan carried 3-inch Chief Specials. The improvement in sight radius results in improved hits for most shooters.
The suggestions above will hopefully help you sell more small revolvers. Their advantages make them enduringly popular. The dealer who stresses these advantages and shows how customers can compensate for their disadvantages can be expected to sell still more of them.