Big Bore, Short Barrel Revolvers for Self-Defense


After many years of carrying a defensive handgun, I find the same formula works today that worked when I began studying handguns decades ago. The equation isn’t terribly complicated, but it does requires attention to the variables. Quick access and speed, combined with a reasonably powerful cartridge is the solution.

Skill is the most important thing. Speed to acquisition of the front sight and good shot placement are up to the user. A choice I made some time ago for defense against both bipedal and quadruped threats is the big bore revolver.

Big Bore: Still Relevant

While the majority of concealed carry handgun shooters deploy a self-loading handgun, I would say that well over half of the handguns carried are not something I find suitable for personal defense. This opinion is based upon reliability, quality of manufacture, cartridge efficiency, and the ability to use the handgun well in a defensive situation. While prepared Americans may not deploy a second-rate .380 ACP pistol, many others do. They are in the unenviable position of being armed with a deadly weapon, but are unable to defend themselves well.

A big bore revolver has certain advantages over even a full-size, big bore self-loader. One of these advantages is that in a worst-case scenario such as an animal attack, the revolver may be pressed into the adversary’s body and fired repeatedly. The self-loader would malfunction after the first shot. Even with a less-than-perfect grip, the revolver will continue to function.

Big Bore, Short Barrel
The Smith and Wesson Model 69 is a hard-hitting handgun.

What About Concealed Carry?

One of the best revolvers for concealed carry use is what is often referred to as the pencil-barrel revolver. These are fixed-sight revolvers without adjustable sights or heavy underlug barrels. Oversized or target-style hammer and trigger options are not included with these revolvers. The grips are not target-style stocks. These are service-grade revolvers, instead of target-grade revolvers. These revolvers are ideal for those working or playing in the woods, as well as those that prefer the revolver.

As an example, some years ago a colleague working plainclothes carried a Smith and Wesson Model 1917 revolver. He had had the barrel professionally shortened from five to four inches, re-crowned, and a proper front sight added. The revolver wore custom grips and rode in a crossdraw holster. I asked this experienced officer why he did not simply carry a Commander .45. He stated he did not wish to engage in field-stripping and lubrication on a weekly basis, and elaborated further.

His practice schedule was slight to nonexistent. He had grown up on the revolver, did not trust the .38 due to harsh experience, did not like the blast and recoil of the .357 Magnum, and ‘on any day when I have a cold,’ the revolver fit his hand and came up firing. He spent more time in the legal library and in court than on the range, and was a good officer by any standard. His logic was cop logic for decades and it worked for him.

.38 Special and .44 Magnum Revolvers
Model 69 compared to a Model 10 .38 Special.

Best Big Bore Options

Smith and Wesson double-action revolvers feature excellent fit, finish, and reliability. The action has proven reliable in millions of examples over one hundred years of use in two World Wars and innumerable personal defense incidents.

Among the finest modern revolvers for defensive use is the Model 69. While this Smith and Wesson is chambered in .44 Magnum, a lightweight revolver is best charged with the .44 Special cartridge. The action is the smoothest Smith and Wesson has ever manufactured (in my opinion). The sights are an excellent combination for good accuracy and fast work. The floating firing pin will withstand high pressures better and is less likely to suffer a stoppage from primer setback.

The action is smooth and a trained shooter may deliver accurate double-action fire well past 25 yards. The single-action option allows precise fire with a barely perceptible trigger movement and a clean break of 2.5 pounds on average. This class of revolver invites practice. I am not able to fire up to the accuracy potential of the revolver illustrated, but have done good work during many drills.

This revolver isn’t too heavy for constant carry in a properly designed holster. As my colleague pointed out, they are safe, fast, and come up firing when we need them. This revolver is a five-shot version. Heavy frame, six-shot big bores are too large for most of us to conceal. The L-frame and the slightly larger GP100, when offered in five-shot .44 versions, are good choices. The Ruger GP100 is a .44 Special — not a bad place to be.

Taurus 450 .45 Colt Revolver
The Taurus 450 in .45 Colt offers compact power.

Another credible defense revolver is the Taurus 450, a fixed sight short barrel revolver chambered in .45 Colt. This is a fast-handling, easy-packing revolver. The barrel also features ports that help reduce recoil. This revolver is less expensive than the Model 69 and, while not as smooth or accurate, it is a fine choice for close-range personal defense. Another alternative is the Taurus Tracker five-shot .44 Magnum with adjustable sights and underlug barrel. This is a great shooting and fairly compact revolver.

Choosing a Caliber

The primary choices in big bore revolver calibers are .44 Special and .45 Colt. Compared to Magnum calibers, recovery time is faster and recoil and muzzle blast are less. Since defense use may require a rapid follow-up shot, speed and control cannot be compromised. High velocity increases energy, but actual damage is what matters. A flatter trajectory is important when hunting, but is less of an advantage in personal defense.

I am not a fan of changing loads for different scenarios, but the big bore revolver offers several urban and rural options. As an example, Buffalo Bore offers quality lead hollow-point bullets for personal defense, while each of these calibers is available with a hard-cast semi-wadcutter bullet. Sectional density of rifle bullets is used to measure long-range performance, while sectional density pushes bullet diameter for penetration in handgun calibers.

The .44 Special was intended as a mild-mannered and highly accurate big bore cartridge. The cartridge still holds this promise. The Hornady 180-grain XTP offers a good balance of penetration and expansion, coupled with good accuracy for personal defense. The lighter .44 Special Critical Defense load may be chosen for urban use. The Buffalo Bore 190-grain lead SWC-HP makes use of the expansion properties of unjacketed lead with good results.

S&W 69 with .44 Mag Speedloader
Practice with speedloaders— you may need those spare rounds.

The .45 Colt is a grand old cartridge with an excellent reputation in personal defense. The .44 Special and .45 Colt use straight-walled cartridge cases that are a joy to handload. Using efficient and affordable cast bullets, they offer real economy. For personal defense, there are reasonable loads, such as the Hornady Critical Defense, that make for good wound potential for personal defense. For outdoors use, the Buffalo Bore SWC loads are useful. The Taurus revolver’s gripper grips help with recoil, but expect some muzzle flip.

Revolver Cartridges
Left to right: .44 Special, .45 ACP, .45 AR and .45 Colt.

Using a Big Bore Effectively

A small group on target never saved a life. I believe that a hard blow delivered quickly is the key to personal defense. As any boxer will tell you, a series of light blows never equals a single heavy blow. Mastering a double-action revolver is much the same as mastering any other handgun.

The stance, grip, sight picture, and sight alignment are the same. The revolver trigger must be smoothly pressed to the rear. As the revolver fires, the same amount of time is allowed for reset as the trigger press, the sights are regained and you are prepared to fire again.

At short range, using only the front sight superimposed on the target gives excellent results. When an attacking member of our protein-fed, ex-con criminal class is filled with cocaine and a quart of whiskey, the big bore revolver is a great asset.

Revolver in Holster
The Lobo Gunleather holster makes for a good mix of speed and security.

The big bore revolver isn’t for everyone. The type remains valuable to those that understand the system and have specific needs. While I deploy a variety of viable handguns, I would hate to be without my .44 and .45 caliber revolvers. To end this article, I’ll leave you with their average velocities:

.44 Special loads
Hornady 165-grain Critical Defense 980 fps
Hornady 180-grain XTP 920 fps
Buffalo Bore 190-grain LSCWHP 1,101 fps
Buffalo Bore 255-grain SWC 1,020 fps
.45 Colt Loads (Taurus 450)
Blazer 200-grain Gold Dot 714 fps
Hornady 255-grain Cowboy Load 680 fps
Buffalo Bore 225-grain LSWCHP 809 fps

What’s your favorite big bore firearm? How short is the barrel? Share your thoughts in the Comment section.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in April of 2020. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.

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