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.
I much prefer the Taurus 85, ultralight, very little kickback. Easy to handle, slightly bulky for conceal carry but very doable. Fit with crimsom laser grips it will awaken your sight.
Thanks, Deb. Interestingly, my wife (who fired all three of these guns as much as I did) liked the Taurus 85 best, too.
The Taurus I tested was purchased in either 1981 or 1982, shortly after the model was introduced. Though I don’t have any information on first- or second-year changes, I’m willing to bet that the company probably made at least some improvements along the way. Hopefully, we’ll have a newer model to test at some point in the future.
Nice read, I own both the 85 and the 36, like both for different reasons, 85 is lighter,less money and really good looking great warranty. The 36 shoots great and is a true classic. But my ruger LCR may be ugly as a mud fence, but the best trigger in the bunch, super light and easy to carry, best groups you will ever see from a stubby. Won’t get rid of any of them but the LCR in the new king of the stubbies. Just my two cents.
I really enjoyed the article. Over the past fourty years of owned several “Chief’s Special” revolvers, square butt, round butt, and the “airweight” model #37. Some folks and cops I shoot with prefer the looks of the square butt. I suppose feeling good about the way your personal armament looks may build confidence at the range. Looks aside, performance of the right tool for the job is the criteria I measure. My 1972 blued round butt model #36 achieves and exceeds the standards I require. I own a lot of handguns, some for a specific task and others just for the hell of it. My old “Chief” is absolutely the best performance delivered handgun I own. Thanks again for your insight.
If you want to raise the point of aim on your Model 36, you can easily file a little off the front site.
I own the Mod 36 and carried it for 10 years as my backup while on duty and as my concealed when off duty. I did change the grips ( I have large hands) and had the gun gone through and the hammer filed off by the police gunsmith. It made it easier to conceal and not get hung up when I needed to pull it out. I am a legal concealed permit owner now and still carry this little gun. I also have a Beretta Mini-Cougar in the 40 cal but it is secondary to my little 36.
If the rounds you shot were lighter weight than the rounds originally used to sight in the Model 36, or the rounds it was designed for, then I think the groups will be slightly lower on the target. To the best of my recollection, heavier grain rounds will generate more recoil, and those groups will strike slightly higher on the target.
My Chiefs Special works best with 158 grain bullets. I use lead HPs (FBI load).
Great article and thank you for the obvious time and effort you put into this comparison. However, I think your math is a little off. According to your star rating both the Cobra and the Model 36 averaged 3.6 stars. Like you I am biased but mine is toward the Colt. My harassment is all in good fun as I agree with you that it is all up to personal preference when it comes to what you shoot and carry. Again, thank you for the articles. All three are great reads and I will be looking for more of your work immediately following this ribbing.
Have my eye on a 1978 Colt DS 3rd ED. nickel in excellent condition and the trigger feels smooth as butter. The gun dealer is selling for $650. No cylinder ring or powder burns, so looks hardly fired. However, I am considering a stainless S&W .38 they have for $550. Any suggestions or considerations from any experienced snubby owners? Would laser sights be a worthwhile upgrade?
Bought the Smith 60 SS 38 spec. for $525. It is almost like new even & came with original box and old oil paper wraper from 1986. Will shoot this weekend.
Picked up S&W Mod. 36 with 3″ for wife. Got for good price. Trigger was rough on double action, but ok single. When shooting groups 1.5 to 2″ at 10 yds., but 6″ low and 6″ to left. Ended up taking punch and hammer to right side of front sight and yes it did move the barrel. Also ended up filing .050 off top of front sight. Spent 6 hrs. honing on inside so now it’s smooth. Changed factory loads to 158 gr. HP’s cast with 2.5 grs. Bullseys. Now its dead on. Not very impressed with work man ship of S&W.
Carried a 36 in a ankle holster for 40 years, nothing comes close to this guns top shelf reliability.
Thanks great reveiw!
“Carried a 36 in a ankle holster for 40 years, nothing comes close to this guns top shelf reliability.” That pretty much says it all. I just traded my LCP .380 for a 1984 model 36, carried by a detective and sold by his son later on. I couldn’t be happier to own and carry this icon of American weaponry.
Bought my S&W Model 36 probaly 50 years ago. Misplaced box in moving several times. Gun has been fired less than 10 rounds. Any idea what it might be worth? Serial # in the 48xxxx range.
My first gun was a 3-inch Model 36 purchased for $67 in 1967. I wish I still had it. I did buy a mint condition snub nose Model 36 with round butt three years ago for $300. I won’t let this one go to anyone but my sons. If I were to pick a .38 to carry, however, today it would be a 642 Centennial Airweight.
My summer carry gun is a ’50s vintage Model 36 with beefier grips. I absolutely love it, and I can attest to the accuracy. I can plink empty 12ga hulls at 7 yards with relative ease.
I have both the Model 36, and the Model 637-2 Airweight, along with a late model Colt Detective (1994). I worked as a GM down in Memphis and surrounding area for a small local restaurant chain. Often working late and being in rough areas I bought and carried the 637-2. My wife expressed she would like something in that size, but preferred the look of the Colts. We were able to find this one at 98%, never having a round fired out of it or even a ring on the cylinder. One day as company was coming over she picked my Smith up off the table and just stopped. The look on her face was comical as she went and got her Colt, one now resting in each hand she did the little weigh in. She then proceeded to put MY Smith back in her handbag, and laid the Colt on my dresser.
After a week of carrying the Dective in a IWB holster, and jerking up my pants constantly it was retired to a nightstand gun and the Model 36 was picked up for my day to day carry. I lucked into a ’60’s model in 85-90% condition (just showing light signs of holster wear) for right at $300.00. Only a third of what we gave for the Colt.
I love the looks of my Colt, but for me Smith and Wesson has it hands down in the snubbie department.
Just purchased a S&W 36-1 w/3″ barrel. Custom grips, J-frame & blued. Interesting note however; the frame is stamped 32-1, but s/n J1XXXXX & “.38 S&W Spl.” on barrel (as well as other measurements ) indicate a Model 36. Might have been erroneously stamped @ factory ?? Anyhow it is now my favourite pocket piece.
The Smith & Wesson Model 12 was an “I” frame in .32 caliber. They also made an “I” frame in .38 S&W (not Special) called a Terrier. They were dropped in favor of the new “J” frame, a five shot .38 Special. If yours is a J frame, the markings are certainly in error. Does it chamber a .38 Special cartridge? I would still have the gun checked out for safety. Your serial number indicates a J frame. Very confusing.
Yup, chambers .38 spl. Had it checked by a gunsmith & pronounced A1. Have since fired it with 158 gr. rn.
Definitely a ‘keeper’.
The Smith Model 12 is a K frame airweight
I just bought a nickel plated S&W model 36 “no dash” with diamond S&W grips. I polished it up with Flitz and got some beautiful pearl like grips and she sure looks sweet! I have not taken it out and shot it yet. The question I have is I checked it when cocked and the cylinder was nice and tight but when the hammer is down and the cylinder is in I can still turn the cylinder. None of my other revolvers does that is this normal for the model 36’s?
THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH YOUR GUN. I OWN THE SAME MODEL AND IT SHOULD NOT ROTATE. THIS IS DANGEROUS WHEN LOADED. SEE A GUNSMITH RIGHT AWAY!
I have an older model, nickel plated Model 36, J-Frame; purchased used in early ’70s. I qualified for CWP (50 rapid fire shots) with this gun using +P, FBI loads (158 grain semi-wadcutter hollowpoints). The recoil was awful, causing the gun to twist, raking my thumb with the knurled hammer; but, I did qualify. Much later, I learned that these older revolvers are not +P rated; and, of course S&W cannot give there approval for use. I would like to know the practical experience and thoughts of other such owners on the use of +P ammo.
I have a Model 32-1 Terrier in .38 S&W with extra 1.4″ long .38 Special cylinder which digests factory wadcutters and JHP personal defence loads not exceeding 1.40″ OAL such as the 110-grain and 125-grain Winchester Silvertip, Speer 135-grain Gold Dot and “full charge wadcutter” handloads with 3.5 grains of Bullseye ion .38 Special brass with 148-grain HBWC bullets. I also received with the gun a 1.40″ long file-trim die which shortens 158-grain LRN factory .38 Specials to fit the short cylinder, converting them into 146-grain flatnosed bullets with large 0.25″ meplat, which was found more effective back in the day than the traditional round-nosed lead cop load.
My gun came from the estate of a DCMPD detective and is my EDC!
What is maximum bullet grains that can be used in model 36