Shooting Times Magazine

July 1982



Taking a look at the long and short of handgun barrel lengths, Skeeter believes shooters of the short-barreled revolvers are coming up short in terms of accuracy. And those handgunners who like additional iron for increased velocity are actually gaining very little. According to our Handgun Editor, the five-incher is the perfect medium, with the four- and six-inchers tied for a close second.


If you are somewhere near the norm, you can hold and hit markedly better with a long-barreled revolver than with a snubnosed pocket model. Two factors make this possible: The long barrel puts stabilizing weight out in the area of the front sight, deadening unwanted movement to a degree; and the longer barrel gives a longer sight radius - a longer distance between the front and rear sights. 


No sixgunner is capable of holding a perfect sight picture for each shot. More often than not, there is a small human error, and the front blade will be slightly misplaced high or low, right or left, within  the frame of the rear notch.


When the sight radius is short, as in the case of a two-inch snubnose, this error is very difficult to observe, and the shooter of the short-barreled gun is often confounded by the wide miss that doesn't go with what he had believed was perfect holding and squeezing. the longer sight radius magnifies faults in the sight picture and makes barrel wobble more obvious. It forces the shooter to concentrate in order to attain that perfect, squared-off sight picture when the trigger breaks.


I have encountered nothing that would make me conclude a long barrel is inherently more accurate than a short one, but there are other elements to consider. It has long been accepted that grossly short barrels burn powder less efficiently than there longer counterparts, with one result being lower muzzle velocity. Lower velocity means a higher trajectory arc and more difficulty in ascertaining the proper sight picture for long-range hits.


It is often said that since short barrels don't burn slow-burning powders like Hercules 2400 and W296 efficiently, higher velocities are obtainable with faster burning powders. I used to believe this, but tests have shown that relatively slow powders such as 2400 give the best .357 velocities, even in 2 -inch revolvers, although with noticeably increased muzzle flash.



Powder Charge Bullet 3 1/2" Bbl 5" Bbl 6 1/2" Bbl 8 3/8" Bbl
3.5 Gr Bullseye 148 Grain WC 779 fps 826 fps 845 fps 868 fps
16.0 Gr 2400 146 Grain SWCHP 1231 fps 1411 fps 1436 fps 1478 fps
8.0 Gr Unique 146 Grain SWCHP 1170 fps 1253 fps 1276 fps 1327 fps
14.0 Gr 2400 160 Grain SWC 1084 fps 1198 fps 1248 fps 1301 fps
7.0 Gr Unique 160 Grain SWC 995 fps 1093 fps 1138 fps 1192 fps

Many years ago, the late Phil Sharpe ran velocity tests with an 8 3/8-inch S&W .357. He fired thousands of rounds of factory loads and handloads through the revolver, carefully recording velocity data as he hacksawed off the barrel one inch at a time. Sharpe's tests indicated that an average velocity loss of about 35 fps could be expected (with magnum loads) for each inch the barrel was shortened. The velocity differential with low- or standard-velocity ammunition is much less.


Dave Andrews, Speer's noted ballistician, has compiled the following test data and has generously allowed me to use it here. The first chart shows the results of tests with various handloads fired in S&W Model 27 .357 revolvers having various barrel lengths. It's a good index of what to expect with similar loads.


Andrews also performed a test of .44 Magnum handguns (with different barrel lengths), using one lot of jacketed Remington hollowpoint ammunition (Index 7144). The results were very similar to those obtained with heavy .357s loaded with 2400 powder. The Remington .44 stuff performed as follows:




Muzzle Velocity (fps)

 Four-inch Smith & Wesson Model 29 1192
 6 1/2-inch Smith & Wesson Model 29 1282
 8 3/8-inch Smith & Wesson Model 29 1377
 7 1/2-inch Ruger Super Blackhawk 1383
 10-inch T/C Contender 1548

Speer has also conducted experiments demonstrating that barrel length is not the only factor that affects velocity loss. Guns of the same make and model and with the same barrel length, using the same ammunition, frequently give substantially different chronograph readings. This can be attributed to slight variations in bore diameter, relative smoothness or roughness of the bore, and other variables.


Using xix revolvers, all with six- or 6 - inch barrels, and a reference lot of Speer 158-grain JSP .357 Magnum ammunition selected  for its uniformity, Andrews obtained these fascinating results:



Muzzle Velocity (fps)

 Smith & Wesson Model 19 1224
 Smith & Wesson Model 19 No.2 1261
 Smith & Wesson Model 28 1344
 Smith & Wesson Model 28 No. 2 1139
 Colt Python 1139
 Ruger Security-Six 1321

Switching to the Speer 125-grain JSP .357 Magnums, the results were:



Muzzle Velocity (fps)

 Smith & Wesson Model 19 1366
 Smith & Wesson Model 19 No.2 1323
 Smith & Wesson Model 28 1421
 Smith & Wesson Model 28 No. 2 1248
 Colt Python 1211
 Ruger Security-Six 1443

This information leads me to believe that if you select an extremely  long-barreled revolver over one with a medium-length barrel solely for the purpose of obtaining great gains in muzzle velocity, you are adding iron to the end of your barrel for a very small gain.


I rather like long-barreled revolvers simply because I can shoot better using them. When it is practical and comfortable, you'll find me carrying a 6 - or 7 -inch Ruger, a 7 -inch Colt, or a six- or 6 -inch S&W. I find the 8 3/8-inch Smiths and the eight-inch Colt Python just a hair on the awkward side.


One of the very best ways to pack a long-barreled sixgun is in an old-fashioned crossdraw holster. This scabbard holds the gun up high on the waist so the muzzle isn't down around your knees. It is more practical than a conventional hip holster when riding in a car and is the first choice for horsemen.


Contrary to what you might think, a long revolver can be carried easily and comfortably without a holster in the waistband. I shove the muzzle diagonally under my belted waistband, allowing the muzzle to cross my lower abdomen and rest in front of my upper left thigh. When I sit, the bending thigh pivots the barrel up out of the way, and only a grasp of the hand on the gun butt is required to position it when I stand.


Paradoxically, the two- and 2 -inch double-action snubnoses are difficult to carry. Stick one into your pant's waist, and it will immediately begin to try and crawl out and fall on the ground. Failing to escape this way, the snubbie frequently drops beneath your belt and rattles down your trouser's leg.


Various methods have been used to hold the shorties fast, like rubber bands wrapped around the small of the grip, or even special grips with a protruding lip that rides over the outside of the belt. But such improvisations leave something to be desired.


Snubnose revolvers are too bulky to be concealed and are very difficult to draw when in a pocket. They need a holster, and if a holster is used, then nothing is lost by going to a longer barreled gun.


My favorite barrel length for double-action revolvers is five inches. I have a Smith & Wesson Model 27 .357 in that length, as well as an old S&W Military & Police .38 Special. For some inexplicable reason, no manufacturer I know of now makes a five-incher. Still, I can live with my four- or six-inch revolvers.


They're not too long and not too short.




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