The Long & Short Of Sixgun Barrels
By Skeeter Skelton
Shooting Times Magazine
Revolvers are now offered in barrel lengths that include 2", 2½", 3", 3½", 4", 4¾", 4 5/8", 5", 5½", 6", 6½", 7½", 8 3/8", and 12". It hasn't been long since the Colt New Service was offered with individualistic 4½" tubes, and Smith's longest 357 used to be 8¾" instead of its present 8 3/8". Until recently Ruger answered Buntline competition with a 10" barrel on their 357 and 44 Blackhawks, and Colt made a Frontier Scout 22 with a 9" barrel. Choosing the correct stretch of pipe for your own peculiar uses is a matter that deserves some careful consideration.
Barrel length affects numerous qualities inherent in your handgun: concealability, comfort in carrying, muzzle heaviness or balance, accuracy, and power. The barrel length that will serve you best in one department frequently scores low in another and the best compromise can be reached only by measuring the gun against the actual work to which it will be put.
The 2" 38 Specials have become the standard for plainclothes detectives, federal agents, and off-duty harness bulls. While it is true that they will fit into a coat pocket better than a 4" version of the same gun, how many of these officers carry their stingy gun in a pocket? Almost invariably you will find the little snubbie sacked out in some sort of belt or shoulder holster. Thus carried, this shortest of sixguns is no more easily hidden than the same model with a more positive-handling 4" barrel.
With the longer barrel, the belly gin enjoys a greater sight radius for easier hits, along with a slight increase in knock-down potential. This latter can become pretty vital, depending on the loads you use.
The standard 38 Special police load shoots a 158 gr. bullet at a velocity of around 870 fps. At least this is the figure generally bandied around by the cartridge makers. In practice, this load will develop about 780 fps when fired from a 6" revolver. The same cartridge fired from a Smith & Wesson or Colt with 2" barrel, will clock close to 690 fps. As a practical matter, the factory specs of 870 fps are beyond the means of an 8 3/8" barrel, which registers only a few feet over 800 fps with the standard 38 Special round.
A 4" barrel will develop, with the standard 38 Special load, something like 750 fps. The total spread between a2" barrel and an 8 3/8" barrel is approximately 120 fps. When only the 38 Spl. police service cartridge is considered, this is a relatively unimportant velocity differential.
It should be noted, though, that the velocity loss is not constant as barrels are progressively shortened. A 6" barrel throws the standard 158 gr. 38 bullet at about 770 fps, only30 fps less than the 8 3/8", and hardly an argument for the extra 2 3/8" of iron. But cut two inches off your 4" 38 Special and you more than double the loss suffered between the longer barrels, the snubbie guns, forfeiting approximately 60-65 fps to their 4" counterparts.
Velocity loss is perhaps a more important factor in the magnum calibers, which are more often chosen for hunting or law enforcement work. One lot of namebrand 357 stuff was tested in a Smith & Wesson revolver, the barrel being sawed off gradually and clocked at different lengths. Listed by its manufacturer as giving its 158 gr. bullet a muzzle velocity of 1450 fps in an 8 3/8" barrel, it actually had a chronographed velocity of 1328 fps, 15 feet from the muzzle of the 8 3/8" test revolver. As the barrel was shortened, the following 15 foot velocities were obtained:
6½" - 1290 fps
6" - 1270 fps
5" - 1232 fps
4" - 1206 fps
3½" - 1185 fps
2" - 1093 fps
In the same tests, another popular brand of 357 Magnum ammo registered a lowly 928 fps in the 2" Smith & Wesson, and clocked only 1183 fps at the 8 3/8" length, although advertised at 1450 fps.
This reflects a significant loss in velocity, which in turn affects both flatness of trajectory and wounding power. The difference of 100 fps or so can become crucial as velocity is lowered to the 1000 fps mark, which is generally accepted as the minimum at which hollowpoint bullets can be made to expand.
All things being equal, a short barrel is essentially as accurate as a long barrel. Put a good gun in a machine rest and start shortening the barrel. Little difference in group sizes can be expected. Unfortunately, none of the shooters I know can hold quite as closely as a machine rest. Within reason, you will find that you are able to hold a long barrel steadier than a short one. The extra weight out in front of the gun helps dampen sideward movement, and the increased sight radius does not allow minute changes in sight picture to be so distractingly apparent. Shooters with weak wrists sometimes find that barrels in excess of 7½" are too much for them, bringing on quick fatigue and shakiness.
Ease of concealment s almost always the factor that leads a handgunner to the choice of one of the 2" snubbies. Yet when they are carried under a coat in either a belt holster or shoulder rig, these midgets can be as easily spotted as a longer revolver simply because they have the same thickness and cause just as much bulge as the more efficient gun.
I often carry my gun without any holster at all, simply jamming into my waistband under a snug belt. The 2" 38 Special is the least secure when packed in this fashion. If it shifts even an inch upward from the belt, its barrel is too short to bear against the wearer's body and hold the gun in place, leaving it in real danger of toppling over the edge of the belt.
A long barreled gun may be carried inside the pants with much more aplomb. I have frequently carried 7½" Colt single actions in the right front of my waist, the barrel passing diagonally across my lower abdomen. When I sit down, the front of my left thigh pushes the gun barrel up and the butt down, causing no discomfort at all. The butt of the sixgun rides flat against the belly and Can't be seen under a buttoned jacket. During strenuous activity, the loading gate of the single action is flipped open to prevent the gun's sliding down the inside of a pants leg.
Another good way of carrying a longer revolver under a coat is in a crossdraw holster. Considered slow and old fashioned by many jet-agers who haven't bothered to try it, the crossdraw is the fastest carry yet devised for a seated person to draw and shoot from. For the right-handed officer driving a car, it keeps the sixgun on the far side of his body from prisoners, and carries a large gun with less tell-tale bulge than a conventional hip holster when it is slipped forward of the hipbone.
Long barreled revolvers, however more efficient they may be, are a nuisance when they must be carried continually in a car. The average cop who wears a Sam Browne belt finds that a revolver longer than 4" - 5" pokes the car seat with its muzzle, forcing the gunbelt upward in the direction of his armpits. Some officers, whose own choice or that of their superiors is to pack a 6" gun, solve their problems with a swivel holster. This permits them to lay the gun muzzle forward on the seat, but is a dubious compromise since it also puts the gun butt in an almost inaccessible position.
The horseman and the hiker need not be concerned much with barrel length insofar as it affects their comfort. The mounted man's holster hangs easily down against his saddle skirts, getting in the way of nothing he may want to do while on horseback. Afoot the long barrel can hamper movement only if the holster is slung so low that it slaps against the knee or lower leg.
If I had to choose one barrel length for all my sixgun work, it would probably be 5", a length not often seen today. Ruger's 4 5/8" and Colt's 4 3/4" and 5½" single actions are close to this compromise, and Smith & Wesson still offers their M27 357 and M10 38 Special with 5" barrels. Users of such revolvers as the Colt Python or Mark III Trooper, or the M19 S&W Combat Magnum must chose between 4" and 6" lengths to approach this intermediate barrel size - I could live with either if necessary.
Your politics are your own business, but when you're selecting a sixgun stay away from extremist barrel lengths. You'll be better armed and better satisfied. Me, I'm a conservative.
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