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I’ve always liked snub nosed revolvers. There’s a certain mystique to them that goes back to old private eye and detective shows. Plus, they’re still a pretty compact carry gun, and remain popular even well into the 21st Century. I’ve owned a few over the years and the only one I’ve kept is my 3-inch Ruger SP-101 in .357 Magnum, and I don’t totally count that with its 3-inch tube. I kept getting drawn to them though and at one point decided that if I was going to get another one I should give in to that old detective story appeal and get an old one.

The author’s Smith & Wesson Terrier in .38 S&W

There’s No I in Team, but There Is in Terrier

When I started looking around, I initially was looking at pre-60s Smith & Wessons and Colts. I knew this was mainly going to be a novelty gun for me so I didn’t want to spend a ton on it. In my head the .38 Special is the quintessential snubby round, but when I started looking at older guns I found that wasn’t always the case. .38 S&W was quite popular even into the 1960s and so was .32 S&W Long. I also found that guns in those chamberings are apparently less desirable, and the prices reflect that. I imagine it’s a combination of the facts that ammo can be harder and more expensive to find for those calibers, and that modern defense ammo isn’t commonly available. That makes sense, but for my desire to have a classic to take to the range once in a while that wasn’t an issue. Plus, I was already shooting other guns in both calibers so I wasn’t adding anything new to the ammo cabinet.

The .38 S&W round is a fair bit shorter than the .38 Special, and can use a shorter cylinder.

Older Colt snubbies, even in .32 or .38 S&W still seem to command a decent price and don’t seem to be quite as common as Smith & Wessons in those calibers. I found a fair number of Smiths available, usually on the Terrier platform. The Terrier was Smith & Wesson’s nomenclature before moving to model numbers in the late 50’s. The Terrier models were small frame, 5-shot revolvers in either .32 S&W Long or .38 S&W. Barrel lengths ran from 2 to 4 inches, but 2-inch ones were what I was looking for. So, a small frame with Smith & Wesson means a J frame right? Yes, that’s true, but that wasn’t the only small frame that Smith offered. In looking at these older guns I found that while some Terriers, and the later Model 30, 31, 32 and 33’s were in fact built on J frames, the early ones used an even smaller I frame.

The I frame makes for a nice compact revolver.

The I’s Have it

So what is the I frame? Basically it’s a compact frame just a little smaller than a J frame. It was first used with the Hand Ejector series way back in 1896, and holds five rounds of .38 S&W and six rounds of .32 Long. The cylinder and cylinder frame window are shorter than the J frame and would not accommodate the .38 Special, which is why the J frame was later developed. The grip dimensions are slightly smaller as well. Although the J did eventually replace the I frame, both were made concurrently for a while. There was also a transitional model that had a longer cylinder and frame window to accept the .38 Special but still had an I frame grip. These were called the “Baby J” or Baby Chief” by collectors.

Once I learned about the I frame, I decided it was enough of an oddball in this day and age that it was just what I needed. Plus, for my interest in a pre 60’s snub nose it was perfect. While less known now, the I frame would have been quite common for the time.

The author found this great condition S&W Terrier on Gunbroker.

My Terrier

I ended up finding a nice Terrier in .38 S&W on Gunbroker. It’s in what would be classified as Very Good condition, with a bit of holster wear at the muzzle. It had a set of nicely checkered original grips and an added bonus of an aluminum Tyler T grip. It was under $400, so not dirt cheap but a lot less than a current snubby from Smith, and most importantly, it was exactly what I was looking for.

When I picked the gun up from my local shop and pulled it out of the box (just a shipping box, it didn’t have the original box) I knew I’d made the right choice. The blued finish, checkered walnut grips, the rounded front sight all screamed 1940s or 50s. The lockup was solid and the action was great. Smooth, either from hands on attention to detail when it was made, or from wear from use.

The gun was definitely used, but not abused, and well maintained. Maybe it was the carry gun of a private eye or police detective? It could have sat in the drawer of a shop keep or in someone’s nightstand, too, but I’d like to think that the addition of the T grip indicated it was owned by someone who used the gun, rather than just stashed it away “just in case.”

My Terrier is a 5-screw model with a coil main spring, which makes it post World War II. Between the features and the serial number it was made somewhere between 1948 and 1953 when Smith started making the 4-screw, “Improved I Frame” model.

Punching Holes

At this point I probably should be giving you a range report with test targets and chrono data, but honestly I never did any of that. I’ve had the gun for years at this point and never set out to do a review of it, considering what it is. I’ve casually shot the Terrier at full size silhouette targets at 5, 7 and 15 yards from standing positions, both with my primary hand and offhand, and mostly in double action. I never seriously tracked group sizes, and didn’t chronograph anything.

I used a mix of various brands of 148-grain lead round nose rounds from my ammo locker, as well as some Steinel Ammunition’s .38/200 load that I use in my MK IV Webleys. The 148s are pleasant to shoot and work their way down range at somewhere around 650 fps depending on the brand. The Steinel uses a heavy 200-grain bullet chugging along at a sedate 540 fps. You might not be able to outrun it, but it’d be close. The heavy 200-grain bullet hits with a lot more authority than the 148s though, especially on steel.

My gut was to use the 200s, which were much like the old .38 S&W New Police loads from back in the day. While they shoot great in my Webleys though, the little Terrier didn’t like them nearly as well. They shot well off from point of aim and didn’t group that well out of the 2-inch barrel. The 148s shot pretty much to point of aim, and I could cover five-round groups with the palm of my hand out to about 15 yards. Further out than that and all bets were off, although that’s likely just my skill, or lack thereof, with a snubby revolver.

I had one last load to try though and this one proved a winner all the way around: the Buffalo Bore 125-grain Hard Cast Flat Nose .38 S&W, coming out at a comparatively screaming 1,000 fps out of a 2-inch barrel. The Buffalo Bore round was designed to give all of these older revolvers out there some punch, and it does that. The 125-grain hard cast lead bullet at 1,000 is creeping up on a 124-grain 9mm, and on par with many companies’ .38 Special 125-grain +P loads. While the other .38 S&W loads are pretty pleasant to shoot this one’s a bit of  a thumper. It feels like you’re shooting a +P load out of a snub revolver. The 125s surprised me by shooting point of aim at 7 and 15 yards. Groups were actually the tightest of anything I shot. I wasn’t measuring as I wasn’t really planning on writing this up, but I’d guess about 3 inches for double-action groups, standing offhand. I’m calling that good enough for government work.

Buffalo Bore also makes a similar load for the .32 S&W Long for folks that still have those floating around as well. It’s worth noting though that these are much more powerful than most other ammo companies .38 S&W or .32 Long offerings. Buffalo Bore cautions against using them in old break top .38s and .32s or older solid-frame revolvers that may have been made for blackpowder loads initially. I’d probably add in the myriad of Spanish Smith and Colt clones that used to be common in the 20s and 30s to that caution list as well.

Holsters and Grips

Even though I was unlikely to carry my Terrier, I still wanted leather for it, just in case. Finding I frame holsters wasn’t easy, but eventually I stumbled upon an Italian-made, inside-the-waistband model listed for an I frame on Ebay. Perfect! I jumped on it and anxiously awaited its arrival. When I got it, it seemed to fit well enough, but when I looked closer at the stamping, I saw that it was really a J frame holster. I don’t fault the seller, the stamp did look like it could be an I rather than a J. Still, my lesson learned was that the I and J are so close that you can use J frame holsters without issue. I ended up picking up a Bianchi 9R upside down shoulder rig shortly after that as well, just because I always wanted one, and now had a gun that would fit it.

Now, the same reciprocity between I and J frames can not be said for grips. I had a set of old butterscotch Micarta Tyler Tru-Fit grips for a J frame that I thought I could use on the Terrier. I liked the wood it came with, but wanted to use the Tyler’s so I gave them a try. I found out for sure that the I frame is different. It’s shorter, and J frame grips do not line up correctly. So if you need replacement grips, then you would need to find I frame specific ones.

What is it Good For?

So, what is an I frame in .38 S&W good for these days? Well, it’s a solid, quality made revolver, with a good trigger. With those Buffalo Bore loads it potentially could be a viable defense gun even today. With that said, I have plenty of other carry options so it probably isn’t going to fill that role. For me, it’s mostly nostalgia. It scratches an itch for a classic wheel gun with some fun mystique around it. That’s honestly good enough for me. It’s a neat little gun, with interesting history, and being an I frame rather than a J frame makes it a little quirkier, which I like. As a retired police detective, I like that connection as well. I carried a .40 S&W Glock 27 during most of my time in plain clothes, but I imagine if I was working in the 40s or 50s something like the Terrier might well have been what I would have used.

I’ve become kind of enamored with the platform now and would love to get a .32 Long Terrier, and maybe a 4-inch square butt Regulation Police as well. I won’t likely carry those either, but they’ll be fun ones to take to the range now and then.

 

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44 COMMENTS

  1. “…the only one I’ve kept is my 3-inch Ruger SP-101…”

    Is a three-inch really a snub-nose?

    • When it’s a five-shot wheelgun, yes. Back before the Second World War the shortest barrel S&W offered on the N frame guns was 3 1/2″, available on the .357 “Registered Magnum” revolvers. General Patton carried one, though I don’t recall if his was 3 1/2″. That’s where I draw the line. Snubbies have barrels shorter than 3 1/2″, say I. I put them into the “snubby” category even more enthusiastically when they hold fewer than six shots and are obviously designed for concealed carry.

  2. Nie revolver. I’ll stick with the J frame. I like the factory grips. The Tyler T-grips are especially cool.

  3. Oh, a nod to the Old Timer. Both of my grandfather’s dropped one in their pocket as soon as they put on their pants.

  4. One other thing. The brass knuckles, switch blade, torch and cigarette lighter are very cool. Period stuff.

    • Zippos were highly macho, but when Bics came out, it was like a new world. Suddenly, burning ticks and lighting farts was easy and relatively safe.

      • Lightting farts. Lol. I saw that a party once. It was funny. Made me think during COVID though. If a pair of Levi’s can’t contain a fart, what’s a face mask going to do with a cough?

        • OMG I had a neighbor kid that would flop onto the ground whenever he felt a fart coming on and light it! Same kid would eat onion sandwiches. I mean 3/4 inch slice. With lots of pepper. Fart fuel I guess. We had a contest to see who could stay inside a pup tent with a bucket of smoldering dry grass. He won.

    • Yep. The Everyready Captain provided yoeman service.

      Folks today should revel in the great flashlights we have for cheap.

      My first mag lite made the Captain look puny……now the Maglites power can be carried on a keychain.

      But my Maglite C cell will run over 40 hours on Low. Amazing.

    • Looks like a Kissing Crane stiletto. The resemble a classic switchblade, but are ordinary, non-automatic folding knives.

  5. Great guns. Mine is an improved Iframe but still has the short cylinder.
    One of my favorite trail guns. Really accurate.
    I have loaded 38 special 148 HBWC out to the same length as the 146 g round nose. They shoot very well.

    • Have you seen the new 38 special Heritage Roscoe? 2&3″ barrel throwback revolver. Extremely nice bluing. Saw a few video’s. I’m not in the market but hey it shoots +P.

      • I just can’t get past the Roscoe having a front lug but no locking plunger.

        Smith and Wesson should be ashamed they haven’t made mainstream retro guns on the j frame..

        Just steel (or Dural) with “unobtainium” bits to Jack up the price.

        Might breath new life into 38 S&W and 32 Long.

        Remember – they dropped the 40 and 42 Centennials in the 70s because no one was buying them.

        If they made nice looking fun guns, they would sell like crazy.

    • I dunno possum. I’ll bet people said that a few decades ago. If there is a market, someone will sell it.

      • I think in 15 years any emu is going to be hard to find.
        Not just the unpopular calibers but all calibers.
        I hope I’m wrong.

          • When a buddy and I were about 18, his Dad let us shoot his nickle plated S&W in 38 s&w at their country cabin. He hadn’t fired it in decades and only told us it was a “38”. We didn’t know any better and bought and fired some 38 special reloads from a local county store. After a few shots a spark came out the cylinder (not sure from where) and hit my buddy in the face. The ammo case had split open. We thought it was just crappy ammo, not realizing it was the wrong cartridge for that gun and the case probably wasn’t supported fully. Accuracy was atrocious too. The gun locked up on another officer occasion (also shooting.38 special) before we finally figured out we screwed up.

    • Already is tough if you don’t reload.

      And I’m sure it seems daunting to start reloading now……but it’s probably going to be necessary to shoot anything but 9mm.

      • Collecting all that 9mm brass among the short grass in the field at the rural mountaintop range where I shoot is maddening at best, I’m going to have to resort to laying out a tarp to catch all the flying empties.

  6. What 3in sp101 holsters are you using? Not related but since it was mentioned.

    • Hey CentralVirginia “SW Virginia” here, I say you can’t go wrong with Pusat holsters out of Turkey, I have five (5) of theirs including one for the fiancee’s Ruger SP101 .38 Special 3″ barrel French Railway Police “turn-in (link at bottom to model I bought, they have others). They are fantastic, fine leather, great stitching, sturdy snaps, gorgeous color, superb customer service, and at a great price, delivery even here to rural Virginia is under a week. If you ordet don’t forget the matching speedloaders pouches.

      https://www.etsy.com/listing/674456767/ruger-sp101-revolver-5-shot-leather-owb?click_key=89568e08f8898bae912d12b73ac864c463fdbfcd%3A674456767&click_sum=064d2b96&ga_search_query=ruger%2Bsp101&ref=shop_items_search_1

      I also bought Pusat holsters for my Rossi 685 “J”-frame 2-1/4″ barrel, my Star BMs, my Star PD, my Rock Island M200 and added the matching magazine & speedloader pouches and couldn’t be happier. There was a screw-up with the Rossi holster, they sent one for the shrouded hammer model, Adam at Pusat rectified that immediately, told me to keep that holster and promptly dispatched the correct model which arrived in less than a week (my neighbor had a shrouded hammer S & W “J”-frame w/2″ barrel so I gave the first holster to him, he loved it, it fit his revolver like a glove). Check out Pusat on Etsy or visit their website.

  7. Thems some pretty walnut grips on that pistol. S&W must have scored on the walnut.
    I like wood and blue steel.
    Your a better shot then me by golly. Around the 25ft mark you’d be pretty safe if I was shooting at yah.
    It’s,, high power scopes make me shake and short barrels make me think I’m steady
    dead on.

  8. This photograph explains one reason why revolvers fell out of favor. Handgun grip ergonomics.

    A revolver almost always has a terrible grip for the user. This one like many has the aftermarket grip improvement accessory.

    And the “gun community” does a terrible job of explaining grips to new gun owners. I think handgun grips are just like shoes. If it doesn’t fit and feel good holding it? Then when you shoot it, it’s going to hurt your hand.

    In general most semi auto guns have better grips. And they have better grip accessory choices.

    • You said it, manufacturers have to do better with wood grips. The backstrap when left unvovered by the S & W-style wood grips “sting” even with standard loads. I’ll be putting one of those grip extensions (from Robertson’s Trading Post) on my 2-1/4″ barrel Rossi 685 to help me get a better purchase but I don’t foresee it helping with the sting transmitted through the buttstock frame.

      The (now unavailable) Trausch grips on my fiancee’s Ruger SP101 and that factory polymer grip on my Rock Island M200 are superb, my sister, nine years younger and a foot shorter than me had no issues using the RI M200, both she and the fiancee’ prefer the “fuller” grips.

    • Wut?

      A J or K Frame Smith feels like well-worn tool in my hand. Especially if it has a Tyler TGrip.

      I bought a pair of Pachmayr presentations for my N frame back in the 70s. Then noticed my scores went down in competition.

      Switched back to the manga stocks and TGrip and – low and behold – they went back up.

      Maybe just what you get used to….but I’ve never met anyone who said a flat, polymer, grip felt “natural”.

      It’s why I prefer metal framed Beretta 92 or Cougar to the Storm. Flat grips sides are cheaper to mold but suck to hold.

      Most revolver have at least some roundness to them.

      You have to get to HK-level pricing to get a palm swell with roundness on automatics.

      Now there is a point that a square automatic grip makes for a good target hold that is consistent.

      But what I mainly see is people putting grip sleeves on an auto to get better ergonomics.

      YMMV.

    • I guess that’s one reason, but I’d put it pretty low on the list, behind “low capacity,” “slow reloads,” and “mediocre sights.” Firearms culture in the US is extremely conservative. Back before World War I you could have gotten a Colt 1908 in .380 that had a lot more power than any .38 S&W, 7+1 instead of five, and enormously faster reloads, that was also half an inch thinner than any I-frame or J-frame, though the sights were still an afterthought. A hundred and fifteen years on people still pass over a Glock 43X in favor of a J-frame that may cost more.

      I think of it as memetic inertia, the same thing that keeps the gunstore commandos talking about muh 1911 and muh Fuddy-five stoppin powah and muh two World Wars and muh great great grandma who killed two Comanches with a cap-and-ball revolver at Adobe Walls. Revolvers are aesthetically highly pleasing and wonderfully fun range toys but for any purpose more serious than punching paper they are a technological dead end, from which the engineers wrung the last drop of potential during the Harding Administration. Detachable box magazines containing a double column of cartridges, calibers that can exceed 400 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle without excessive pressure or recoil, expanding bullets, and sights you can actually see in poor light, are the way.

      “Would you stand in front of it?” I wouldn’t stand in front of a matchlock arquebus either. That doesn’t mean I’m going to reach for a muzzleloader if I’m awakened by the sound of breaking glass at 2am. I own a number of revolvers. Do I carry any of them? Do I have any of them ready by the bedside in the event I might find myself repelling boarders? No.

  9. I have a 1903 Hand- ejector .32S&W long
    I just ordered a good used barrel to replace original that started to crack right next to the cylinder, hand grips are Mabe for a model 10 or a J frame as they do not fit 100% correctly
    The small wood grips , small frame in .32 S&W long is wonderful to shoot. barrel is more like 3.25- 3.5 inches long
    Repeat on a wonderful gun to shoot single or double action

  10. Not a snubby fan myself, but I wouldn’t mind owning that one. In other news, that Old Timer pocket knife has been in my EDC for about 50 years.

  11. Great article! I love wheel guns, especially the old snub it’s. Most of my career was with the new autos but I started my career with an early S&W K frame. I still sometimes carry an old J frame.

  12. Purchased an “I” frame S&W 38 S&W with a 4″ barrel when I turned 21. Started reloading 38 S&W with a LYMAN Nutcracker tool. Fifty years ago, could still buy replacement grips for an “I” Frame, and finally found a set that fit my hand properly. Foolishly, I ended up selling that Regulation Police model because I wanted a 38 S&W Special “J” frame, (because that what various family members carried) and found that the spare grips I had doesn’t fit a “J” Frame. Think that the “I” size frame would be a better fit for the current 22 mag or 32 H&R cartridges than the “J” frame. Too bad the only “I” frames available are found in the used guns section. If you do get a 38 S&W chambered revolver, note that some have over/under sized (.355 – .360) bores. Stick with cast bullets!

    • .38 is about as low as I’ll go w/ new purchases, though I often carry a pocket .380 S&W Bodyguard and am fond of a .32 Beretta police turn-in that’s fun to shoot. I’ve become enamored lately with vintage S&W wheel guns, bought a .44 29-2 and a .357 Highway Patrolman in the past couple years. I want one of thee I-Frame like you found, REgulation Police you say, so I’m looking. I already have a .38 S&W Model 10 police turn-in that’s a little rough, as well as a Ruger LCP .38 revolver my wife carries.

  13. Great article….never heard of a Terrier but now I want one…I bought a used Rossi years ago, has a Tyler and a Hip Grip onto it, nice little piece…

  14. I know the feeling going into a gun shop and looking for “weird” ammo these days. Used to be every shop had some cheap Makarov from russia and lots of other weird calibers at the back of the shelf, but after the last couple of ammo shortages when the 9, .40, & .45 dried up a lot of folks pulled out their safe queens that they haven’t shot in decades and began buying all the weird ammo up so they could take something to the range without depleting their tactical stockpiles too much.

    That weird ammo never really got stocked back up again since it isn’t cheap or plentiful any more and I think many people kept shooting their weird guns after falling back in love with them. This further exacerbated the supply shortage as demand stayed higher than before.

    The big ammo companies are concentrating on churning out the popular chamberings and a lot of the cheap imports have been doing the same or are no longer allowed to import into the USA (Russia.) It’s just harder to find odd cartridges now than ever before without going online.

    Even .38 special is not super well stocked in brick & mortar gun shops. Yeah, there is a ton of high-power and even +P defensive loads on the shelf for top dollar but it is only recently that have I been seeing cheaper plinking ammo. Nobody has wadcutter ammo at any price but Academy I noticed is starting to stock lead semi-wadcutter and jacketed round nose at just barely under $25/50. I haven’t seen much .38 S&W or .32 S&W at all on the shelves of even hole-in-the-wall shops but I am sure it can be found online for a price.

    I prefer to buy everything with cash and not be tracked and on lists as a recent ammo purchaser. Buying online really gives the goons a good idea of how much you shoot, what you shoot, and when. It’s amazing how much these records can show about your habits.

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