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Why a J-frame revolver is ideal as a backup/off-duty gun

With a proper holster and a reasonable amount of practice, a J-frame revolver can be drawn with the same speed as a duty gun


When things go really bad, a J-Frame revolver can make all the difference.

Photo/Warren Wilson

Somewhere around the middle of the last century, the J-frame revolver was brought to market. Although, that moniker is brand specific, it is becoming synonymous among non-purists with five-shot .38 special caliber snub nose revolvers.

Back when I first came into law enforcement in the 1990s, officer safety and gun-fighting skills were at the forefront of law enforcement training. More experienced cops had recently survived the challenging era prior to the officer survival movement of the 1980s. The wisest among us rookies absorbed as much as we could from those folks. One of those mentors credits his survival in one of his (that’s right, one of many) gunfights to his back-up gun. To this day, one of these tiny titans is always in my off-side front pocket either as a back-up or even on rare occasions as my primary off-duty pistol. I encourage you to consider doing the same.

Who needs a backup gun?

We have seen what I believe is a dangerous cultural change in law enforcement. Be it generational or whatever, young cops are moving away from some of the gear that was considered mandatory for us 20th century cops, e.g., the dedicated “cop” wallet, a knife (or two), and the backup gun.

Why bother with a backup gun? If you shoot enough, you will see a quality pistol from a reputable manufacturer fail. If you haven’t yet, you don’t shoot enough. Along those lines, if you study enough shootings, you’ll note that officers often suffer injuries to their strong side hand/arm during confrontations. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a support-side accessible pistol in case of one of these events?


A J-frame can serve as a primary off-duty gun as well. Generally, it’s best to carry the most effective gun possible both on and off duty. A mid-size version of the duty pistol is a great option. That said we must accept the fact that many of our cops are not willing to lug around a 25-ounce pistol everywhere they go. They may, however, be willing to carry a 15-ounce five shooter. A lightweight revolver is certainly a compromise compared to a full-size duty pistol. Still, it can be very effective in the right hands.


Granted, the J-frame isn’t the only option for a backup or off-duty weapon. Today’s cop has access to some high-quality, micro auto-pistols, but none of them disappear in a front pocket as readily as the internal hammer, shrouded hammer or bobbed-hammer snubby. Nor do autos offer as smooth a draw stroke from the pocket as the perfectly tapered J-frame. Small auto-pistol technology is better than ever, but they are still more prone to stoppages than their larger brethren in my experience; especially in less than perfect environments. Revolvers certainly aren’t perfect, but small wheels roll just as well as big ones.

Cops are all familiar with semiauto malfunction clearing drills, or they should be. With or without revolver-specific training, those same cops are already familiar with the most common wheelgun malfunction procedure: pressing the trigger again. It’s as simple as that. Common stoppages such as misfires (failure of the powder to ignite) are not really an issue for revolvers. Pessimists will often say that terrible things will befall the revolver shooter who experiences a hang fire (a delay in powder ignition) and presses the trigger again. In decades of doing this and having seen untold numbers of rounds fired, I’ve seen exactly one hang fire and that was a rimfire cartridge. Suffice it to say, the odds are in our favor.

The J-frame really shines in pocket carry. Autos may not be a great choice in this area because the magazine release tends to be activated at inopportune times. The same applies for any other controls such as manual safeties. Speaking of which, a snubby revolver’s long, deliberate trigger pull negates the concern some may have about the lack of a manual safety. Another hazard of carrying an auto-pistol in a pocket is that the slide can be worked out of battery during normal movement. That means the gun’s slide is moved rearward making it inoperable. Again, that’s not a concern with the revolver.

The J-frame advantage

The J-frame revolver will forever have a place in my equipment locker. The design serves its specific role very well. Like the survival mindset, no suitable replacement has arrived. It would be a tragedy for either of them to lose their place in the pocket of law enforcement.

Warren Wilson is a captain, training commander and rangemaster with an Oklahoma metropolitan police department. He is a former SWAT team leader, current firearms instructor and writer. He is certified as a De-Escalation Instructor and Force Science Analyst by the Force Science Institute. Warren has over 3,100 hours of documented training including multiple instructor certifications on firearms, active shooter and OC. He has been a full-time law enforcement officer since 1996.