When choosing a double-action revolver, the shape of the handle makes a great deal of difference. The primary difference is between round and square butt grip frames. Smith and Wesson offers only one grip frame (round) in modern revolvers, while conversion grips allow the use of either round or square butt grips. Understanding the how and why of grip design will allow you to make the best choice for different chores.
Let’s look at a little history, and the pros and cons of round and square butt design. The first revolver grips were well designed and survive with little modification. The Colt Navy grip fits most hands well and the plow-handled Single Action Army is similar. When double-action trigger cocking revolvers were introduced, there was a need to stabilize the grip, as the trigger finger swings down and back rather than straight back as with the single-action revolver.
Recoil and abrupt edges began to be a concern with the grip design. A grip frame that properly stabilized the firing hand was essential and slippage was a concern. Some revolvers had bird’s head-type grips. This is an odd shape that while round in cross section in double-action revolvers offers a stabilizing wedge.
The square and round butt had made their appearance by 1870. Smith and Wesson’s first revolver, the No. 1, was introduced with a square butt, but later models were manufactured with a round butt grip frame. Concealed carry and the ability to cup the small grip in the hand were advantages of the round butt.
When Smith and Wesson introduced the successful Military and Police double-action revolver, it was manufactured with a round butt grip frame. Eventually, the square butt frame became more popular, and the majority of Military and Police .38s were square butt revolvers. I frame revolvers were mostly round butt designs, but the Regulation Police was a square butt design.
The original .22 Kit Guns had special grips that fit over the I frame’s round butt. The J frame was much the same but today is offered in round configuration only. Target sighted revolvers were delivered with square butt frames, and when the N frame .44 frame was introduced, it was a square butt. When Smith and Wesson introduced the Model 19 Combat Magnum with 2.5-inch barrel, it was designed as a round butt revolver.
Among my prized revolvers is a Smith and Wesson Model 66 four-inch barrel with round butt. It is relatively uncommon. This revolver and its good traits spurred this article forward. While Smith and Wesson revolvers are the ones I use most often, Colt also had different frame designs.
The Colt New Police and the first Police Positive revolvers had one of the most uncomfortable grip frames ever designed for a double action revolver, in my opinion. The Colt Police Positive Special and the treatment given the Detective Special were great improvements. In the small calibers used in the Police Positive the grip frame, it didn’t matter as much. With the .38 Special, things were getting uncomfortable.
With this background in mind, we have a basis on which to choose our best hand fit. When Smith and Wesson went to the modern transfer bar actions, they also went to the round butt grip frame. Both K and N frame revolvers have the same frame dimensions. (The Classic line differs.) This is fine for manufacturing process but not always the best for the consumer.
The worst kicking .44 Special I have ever fired was a Smith and Wesson Model 21 with the modern round butt and small pre Magna grips. I fitted a set of Culina round butt grips with plenty of wood as soon as possible and had a tractable and controllable revolver. The round butt is a good choice for fast-handling defense revolvers. The square butt is best for target revolvers. The single-action press must be controlled, and the larger square-butt grip allows that. As an example, even the 2-inch barrel Combat Masterpiece with square butt grips is a very accurate revolver.
As a field gun for accurate shooting well past 50 yards, I will choose my proven Model 19 Combat Magnum with square-butt grip. The hand remains in place when the thumb is used to cock the hammer for single-action fire. On the other hand, the Smith and Wesson Model 66 with four-inch barrel and round butt handles quickly in double-action fire.
The round butt is less likely to print on covering garments when the 66 is worn concealed. The round butt is smaller and has less area but also invites a very fast grip acquisition. When firing heavy loads, the smaller grip frame of the round butt may transfer more energy to the palm but that is a trade off. The trigger is more quickly manipulated, in my opinion, with the round butt grip.
Another concern is heeling, sometimes called combat heeling. This is the effect when the handgun is gripped improperly too high on the grip. With this grip, the shooter will often fire for the heart, but hits the head regions, unless the bullet simply flies over the head of the target. This is a product of hurried training and not taking time to affirm the grip. For what it is worth, I believe that this type of problem is less likely with the round butt grip frame.
After firing revolvers for many years, I have learned “how a grip feels” may not necessarily mean it will give the best performance on the range. Smaller grips may actually make for more encirclement with the fingers and a stronger hold. Trigger reach may be slightly shorter with the round butt for most hand sizes. This is important when dealing with a double-action revolver.
Carefully consider your needs. Smith and Wesson began manufacturing its most successful double-action revolvers with a round butt. Today, the round butt may still be the best choice for most of us. I use both Hogue and Pachmayr grips with good results.
Which butt feels best in your hands—round or square? Share your answer in the comment section.
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