Two New Additions To The Tried-And-True
.38/.357 “Belly Gun” Format
By John Taffin
There are several manufacturers offering 2-inch .38 Special snubbies or belly guns—whatever we wish to call them. With nearly every state now providing for the issuance of CCW permits, these little pocket pistols outsell larger revolvers and those designed for hunting and long-range shooting. The 2-inch snubbie may be rarely seen, but is found in thousands upon thousands of pockets and purses—out of sight yet always ready.
The latest manufacturer to offer them is Harpers Ferry Armory. The original Harpers Ferry predates the American Revolution. Robert Harper owned land at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, where he started a ferry service. A land rich in farming, trade consequently developed and a town sprang up. George Washington set the wheels in motion to build an armory and—in 1801—Harpers Ferry began producing guns.
Today’s Harpers Ferry Armory is a few miles away from the original in Ranson, West Virginia. Currently they are producing a pair of snubbies—the I.S. 38 and the A.H. 357. The manufacturers have reached back into history for those particular names. “I.S.” stands for “Isaac Smith,” the alias used by the abolitionist John Brown who along with his followers attacked the original armory in 1859. He was arrested by forces under the command of Robert E. Lee and prosecuted by Andrew Hunter. The result? Brown was permanently “stopped.” Since the .357 Magnum has excellent stopping power, it was given the model name of “A.H. 357” after Andrew Hunter.
Both guns are good-looking and of high quality when it comes to fit, finish and materials. The I.H. .38 Special is a DAO. The barrel length is 2 inches with fixed sights consisting of a square notch cut in the back of the frame matched with a serrated ramp front. The frame is constructed of 416 stainless steel and the back of the frame is flame hardened. Both frame and the barrel have a black Cerakote finish while the heat-treated cylinder, yoke, cylinder release latch, triggerguard, trigger and grip frame are high-polish stainless steel. This 5-shot DAO .38 is rated for +P loads.
Both Harpers Ferry snubbies are “5 rounders” and are well built, reliable and
distinctive additions to the concealed carry market.
Instead of very small hard-to-hold-onto wooden grips, the grips on this little .38 are pebble-grained fingergroove black rubber that fill in behind the triggerguard. Even .38 Specials can be a handful in a 16-ounce revolver, however, these grips are quite comfortable and help to take the sting out of +P loads. Since this is a small pistol designed for self-defense and pocket carry, testing was done at 7 yards. I pressed eight .38 Special factory loads into service for testing.
My results were especially gratifying, since this is a DAO pistol with a 14-pound trigger pull. But it’s a smooth one and feels lighter. Especially satisfactory were the loads grouping well at 7 yards. These included Black Hills 125-grain JHP +P (770 fps), Buffalo Bore’s 158-grain LSWC HPGC, (800 fps, 1 inch), Buffalo Bore’s 150-grain Hard Cast Wadcutter (820 fps, 1-1/8 inch), Hornady’s 140-grain XTP-JHP (660 fps 1-1/4 inch) and Speer’s 125-grain Gold Dot HP (850 fps, 1 inch).
Any of these would be good choices for self-defense and the 150-grain Buffalo Bore Wadcutter looks devastating! With my eyes and hold most groups were about 5 inches low at 7 yards, so the front sight needs to be filed down if point of impact is to coincide with point of aim. But this is basically an up-close pistol and with the distances it would be used at, I don’t think shooting low would make much difference.
The original .357 Magnum back in 1935 weighed nearly 3 pounds. The A.H. 357 from Harpers Ferry Armory weighs much less than half that—20 ounces. Also a 5-shot revolver, it’ll of course handle .38 Special, too. For most uses I’d load three .38 Special +P loads in the chambers backed up by two .357 Magnums. The A.H. is 4 ounces heavier than the I.S. version. Just as with the I.S. .38, the frame is 416 stainless, the back of the frame is flame-hardened. The cylinder is heat-treated to 40-45 Rockwell C scale. The hammer, cylinder, trigger, grip frame and triggerguard are all high-polished stainless steel while the barrel and frame have a blued Cerakote finish. Unlike the .38 Special version, this is a double-action/single-action snubbie which has an external “thumb-cockable” hammer.
The Harpers Ferry A.H. in .357 performed very well with Black Hills’ 100-grain Honey
Badger .38 Special load which clocked at 950 fps.
Buffalo Bore offers both HP and wadcutter defensive loads for the .38 Special. They gave excellent
results in both Harpers Ferry snubbies.
I have no hesitation whatsoever in admitting I was not looking forward to shooting .357 Magnum loads in the A.H. (in fact, I put it off as long as I could). The grips are identical to those found on the .38 Special “I.S.” But while helpful on the .38, they are absolutely mandatory on the .357.
Once I fired the first round I realized my worries were for nothing. No, it is not a pistol which is pleasant to shoot with the magnum loads, however, the wraparound fingergroove rubber grips are also aided by 3-hole barrel porting on both sides of the front sight. These really work—in conjunction with the rubber grips—to make the recoil tolerable. I would not want to spend all day shooting full-house .357 Magnums, however, it is controllable. And just as with the .38 Special model, this one also shoots about 5 inches low for me at 7 yards.
Because of its exposed hammer, the A. H. 357 does not quite work as well as a pocket pistol as the I.S. 38. However, it carries nicely in a Bianchi Belt Slide.
I shot it with nine .38 Special factory loads and four .357 Magnum factory loads. With .38 Specials, the Black Hills 125-grain JHP +P clocked out at 760 fps with a 4-shot, 7-yard group of 1 inch. Buffalo Bore’s 158-grain LSWC HPGC, 150-grain HC Wadcutter and 110-grain Barnes Tactical (970 fps, 1-inch) were also impressive.
My .357 Magnum loads all showed excellent accuracy. They included Black Hills’ 158-grain LFP (830 fps), Hornady’s 125-grain XTP-JHP (1,213 fps) and the Winchester 110-grain Lead Free JHP (1,150 fps). These three all grouped in 7/8 inch, while the 125-grain Speer Gold Dot HP (1,125 fps) grouped four shots in 1-1/8-inch.
The latest innovation in self-defense loads is the polymer bullet shaped much like the tip of a Phillips screwdriver. Black Hills is offering one in their .38 Special Honey Badger load, which performed well in both of these guns. The 100-grain bullet is rated +P. From the I.S. .38 it clocked 937 fps with four shots going into 1-3/8 inches (double action). Switching to the .357 A.H., it clocked 978 fps and grouped at 2 inches for four shots (single action).
My final take? Both these little pistols have been well thought-out. Either one would be a good choice for self-defense.
John shot his .38 Special groups with the I.S. double-action only (above). His .357 single-action groups
with the A.H. version (below) were also fired at 7 yards.
Black Hills Ammunition
P.O. Box 3090
Rapid City, SD 57709
P.O. Box 1480, St.
Ignatius, MT 59865
Hornady Manufacturing Co.
P.O. Box 1848
Grand Island, NE 68802
3120 E. Mission Blvd
Ontario, CA 91761
P.O. Box 856
Lewiston, ID 83501
600 Powder Mill Rd.
East Alton, IL 62024