Sometimes picking a winner is easy. Like now. Even though our third-place Taurus Model 85 and our second-place Colt Cobra were both worthy challengers, the classic Smith & Wesson Model 36 proved to be the best .38 Special of the bunch, easily capturing first prize in our inaugural TTAG revolver comparison. In fact, only on paper was it even close.
Launched a half-century after Smith & Wesson introduced the .38 Special cartridge, the company’s J-frame-built Model 36 was originally called the “Chief’s Special.” That was in 1950. Proving that change is a gradual affair around Springfield, Massachusetts, some variants still use this moniker today (ah, heritage!).
However, it’s worth mentioning that Colt’s Detective Special (the Cobra’s look-alike, all-steel cousin) beat S&W to the compact .38 punch by a full 23 years. Whether being late to their own caliber’s party gave S&W an opportunity to perfect the snub-nosed revolver is highly debatable. Nonetheless, the Model 36’s slightly smaller dimensions and competitive (or in this case, better) accuracy probably at least mitigated its late arrival.
One aspect of the Smith & Wesson vs. Colt debate isn’t debatable: the Smith’s perpetual second-place finish in the looks category. Whether blued (like our example), stainless, or plated, the Model 36’s smidgen-shorter one-and-seven-eighths inch barrel and super slim wood grips just can’t round out the gun’s appearance like the Colt’s beefier appendages.
Big appendages aren’t everything, though, and while it’s less than impressive aesthetically, the Model 36’s shorter profile and five-round cylinder make it an absolute packing pleasure.
Over the years, the particular gun tested here has been carried in: an ankle holster, a hip grip, a pocket holster, a cross-draw rig, an inside-the-waistband holster and a purse. The less risk-averse among us may even consider secreting the Model 36 in the concealed-carry garment known as “ThunderWear” (where – we pray – the gun’s shortened appendages won’t become contagious). Of course, you could carry both the Taurus Model 85 or the Colt Cobra in all the same ways, but having done so with all three guns, I can honestly say that the little Smith & Wesson still ekes out a slight advantage.
There’s no eking at all once you pull the trigger, though. Even though the S&W’s double-action pull registers as something less satisfying than the Colt’s tactile nirvana, the Model 36’s firing ergonomics are still truly excellent (and far better than the Taurus). As expected, recoil and muzzle flip are much less bothersome than what the twenty-percent-lighter Cobra produces, but they’re also better than the similarly-heavy Taurus.
Know what wasn’t expected? The tiny wooden grips fitted to the Model 36 didn’t detract from the firing experience whatsoever (but I did wonder what the much larger/better looking grips adorning the Model 36LS “LadySmith” version would feel like).
After the trigger work was done, I looked at the target and immediately noticed two things. First, this Model 36 appeared to be shooting low with respect to the point-of-aim (it did this consistently all afternoon, with several different shooters). Second, it shot – by far – the absolute tightest double-action group of the three guns in this test.
As the video demonstrates, the other two snubbies aren’t even in the same universe when it comes to how tight you can group shots on the target. (Make some jokes about the Model 36’s short appendages now!) And even though this example’s (non-adjustable) sights are obviously off a bit, a good grip-mounted laser would probably be cheaper than a trip to the gunsmith.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to . . . you guessed it . . . personal preference. Or maybe cost (especially in the case of the Taurus). From the conventional twenty-one-foot “self defense” distance, each of these revolvers is perfectly capable of, if not blowing your head “clean off,” then definitely killing you “deader than hell,” as my dear old dad is fond of saying.
Since your web browser isn’t currently viewing a website called “The Relativistic Non-Opinion About Guns,” we’re here to tell you that – objectively and subjectively – the Smith & Wesson Model 36 soundly spanks both the Colt Cobra and the Taurus Model 85. No snake oil, and no bull – just the truth, along with the cold, blue steel of a classic American revolver.
Model: Smith & Wesson Model 36 (“Chief’s Special”)
Action type: Double action/single action revolver
Caliber: .38 S&W Special
Capacity: 5 rounds
Barrel length: 1.875”
Overall length: 6.9375″
Weight: 19.5 oz.
Stock: (Small) wood grips
Sights: Fixed; front ramp, rear notch
Current Value: $350 and up (depending on condition)
(Out of five stars)
Style * *
The Model 36 may not have ridden the short bus, but compared to the Colt and Taurus, it looks like it did.
Ergonomics (carry) * * * * *
Regardless of how you carry, this little S&W does it better than the others.
Ergonomics (firing) * * * *
Not as good as the Colt Cobra, but still terrific
Reliability * * * * *
Countless cops and detectives wouldn’t have chosen the Model 36 as their “back-up” gun over the years if it wasn’t one of the most reliable small revolvers ever built.
Customize This * *
As with the others, there’s not much other than grips and grip-mounted lasers. This one could really benefit from the latter.
OVERALL RATING * * * * *
Turns out, there’s a reason why the Smith & Wesson Model 36 is one of the most common revolvers in nightstands across America.