Can a person get by with One Handgun?
People I know who don’t own a gun, but are thinking about buying one frequently ask what ONE handgun they should buy for home defense, home and outdoor protection. They would never use a handgun for big game hunting, but would carry it when working outdoors, traveling on vacation hiking, fishing, boating or camping trips, and depend on it, if needed, for home or personal defense.
They don’t want a gun “collection,” but only ONE handgun to serve multiple needs in a family where shooting is not a hobby activity. The basic requirements are safety, reliability, durability, accuracy, and modest cost of gun and ammunition. Also important is ease of use by the “female significant other” or adult children who may wish to learn.
These parameters haven’t changed since Smith & Wesson first introduced its famed Military and Police Model in 1903. Julian S. Hatcher said, in the Textbook of Pistols and Revolvers (1935), “Were it necessary for the average shooter to own and use but one revolver, it should be a .38 Special.” This is still true today.
Used .38 Special revolvers in sound mechanical condition are much less expensive than a new, modern combat auto-pistol. Ammunition for the .38 Special is common everywhere and produced in sufficient volume that it remains relatively inexpensive. Factory .38 Special loads available today provide greater variety than for any other handgun cartridge. Today it is generally deemed the minimum revolver cartridge suitable for personal protection.
While the .38 Special is no longer the duty gun of choice among police or military units, it enjoys great popularity in states where civilian concealed carry is permitted. It is also true compact pocket revolvers are now available chambered for the more powerful .357 Magnum, but using .38 Special ammunition in small revolvers which weigh less than about 20 ozs. makes more sense for a variety of reasons.
While a .22 rim-fire is most often recommended as an outdoorsman’s “kit gun,” the owner of our “one handgun” can use his .38 Special for this purpose and find it effective. When outdoor trips are short, few rounds of ammunition are really needed. In snake country I carry a Speer shot load first-up in the cylinder, with the rest of the rounds in it being +P personal defense hollow points, such as the Winchester X39SPD, or Remington R38S12 “FBI load.” Three TUF Quick Strips ( See How To Use Quick Strips) fit into an A.G. Russell belt pouch, tabs up, without looking like an ammo pouch, printing “speed loader bulge” or rattling on your belt, in your coat pocket or day pack. On longer trips I pack a box of wadcutters too.
I would recommend that the non-enthusiast seeking “one handgun” select a steel-frame, “police-service-type,” double-action .38 Special or .357 having either a 3″ or 4″ barrel. I say “or .357” because a “Magnum” revolver of these general specifications can also use any .38 Special ammunition, but is more durably constructed, so it won’t loosen up with frequent use of .38 Special +P defense loads. In states where concealed carry is legal a used 4” service revolver is usually about $100 cheaper than a 2”snub in similar condition. Similarly a used .38 Special is about $50 cheaper than a similar model in .357.
For defense and survival use fixed sights are more rugged, but for accurate field shooting of small game a gun having adjustable sights is a plus. A 4” barrel is easier to shoot accurately, but can still be easily concealed in a proper holster. For concealed carry most people are well served with an inside-waistband type with reinforced opening which permits one-handed re-holstering.
Snubbies” are most popular as concealed carry guns, but I do not recommend a snubby unless you are willing to practice with it. A short barrel has advantages for weapon retention in close-quarter defense but they require frequent practice to maintain proficiency at longer distance.
Wadcutter ammunition is good for general use including field shooting. It is accurate, gives a good knockdown blow on small game, and doesn’t destroy much meat. Wadcutters provide adequate soft target penetration with good “crush” and are a valid choice for defense carry in “air weight” or alloy-frame guns which cannot handle +P ammunition. Novice revolver owners should train and practice with wadcutters until able to place six shots fired double-action, with a two-handed hold at ten yards into a 6 inch group fairly reliably.
After developing basic skill and some confidence it is OK to experiment with heavier +P loads, in guns suitable for them, to become accustomed to their additional recoil. A .38 Special loaded with +P ammunition is fully adequate for personal defense. Winchester X38SPD, Federal 38G and Remington R38S12 158-gr. all-lead hollow-points provide stopping power equal to .45 ACP hardball and represent the upper limit of power which the average non-expert person can handle. +P ammo is not for casual shooting, but for defense carry against two or four-legged varmints when more power is needed.
In light alloy frames the most effective non+P load is the Winchester 110-gr. Silvertip HP. It is the only load which I have found which expands reliably when fired from a 2″ barrel. Recoil is mild, like a wadcutter, so this load is easily managed by the female significant other who may be recoil-shy. In my experience the heavier 125-gr. jacketed +P loads require a 4″ barrel to develop normal velocity and expansion. The major US brands Federal, Winchester, Remington and Speer factory +P “personal protection loads,” such as Hydrashok, Silvertip, Golden Saber and Gold Dot excel when used from those.
Ten years ago the market was flooded with police turn-in .38 Specials in good condition selling for around $200. Today you must shop carefully to find a used revolver which isn’t worn out. If you don’t know revolvers take a retired cop who carried one for 25 years to the store with you. You do not want to buy into a “gunsmithing project,” because you may spend more fixing a basket case than it is worth.
Simple is good on your ammunition supply. If you have a light alloy frame gun use mid-range target wadcutters for both practice and carry. In steel frame guns you can practice with wadcutters or semi-wadcutter field loads, but for actual defense carry use only factory loaded lead hollow point or JHP “personal protection loads.” You may also want to keep a few Speer shot shells around if you live in snake country. These loads really handle all uses for a .38 revolver. Competent use of .357 ammunition requires a higher level of training and expertise.
The muzzle of a revolver should always be elevated when ejecting fired cases. This ensures that any unburned powder particles fall out with the empties, rather than under the extractor, or between the crane and frame, which could tie up the gun. Carry a toothbrush in your kit for cleaning residue out from under the extractor. If you don’t own a handgun, but have been thinking about getting one, you can’t go wrong with a sturdy .38 Special (or .357).
C.E. “Ed” Harris is well known to readers of American Rifleman, the Gun Digest and the Cast Bullet Association’s Fouling Shot magazine. During 12 years on the Technical Staff of the National Rifle Association he was a consultant to numerous military, law enforcement and firearms industry organizations and was officially commended by the U.S. Marine Corps Development Center, Quantico, Virginia for expert technical assistance provided during the Development and Operational Testing of the M16A2 rifle. He is a graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, holds the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Professional Development Certification in Emergency Management and for 22 years he has worked for local government in Northern Virginia.