The Best of the Old Compared to the Best of the New:
Colt Cobra and Ruger LCR .38 Spec. Snub Nose Revolvers

By Chuck Hawks

Guns and Shooting Online reader Bruce Johnson, who was pondering whether to purchase a new Ruger LCR or a used Colt Cobra .38 snubby for daily concealed carry, suggested this comparison. Having previously reviewed both revolvers, liked both and actually carried both on a daily basis, it seemed like a comparison I was as qualified as anyone to make.

Colt Cobra

In operation, the Colt Cobra is a double action (DA), .38 Special, six shot, swing-out cylinder, exposed hammer revolver that can also be fired single action (SA) by manually cocking the hammer before pulling the trigger. The Cobra was built on the compact Colt "D" frame and is the aluminum alloy framed version of the famous Colt Detective Special. The Dick Special was the first modern .38 snubby and it remained the best (and most expensive) throughout its long production life. Like the Detective Special, the Cobra was fit and finished to Colt's usual high standards. For daily carry, I prefer the lightweight Cobra to the heavier, all steel, Detective Special, but aside from the frame material, the two models are identical. Since both are now discontinued, they command high prices on the used market and are in short supply. This is especially true of the Cobra, but they can still be had if you want one badly enough.

Here are the basic specifications of the Cobra, circa 1971:

  • Calibers - .38 Special and .32 New Police
  • Frame material - aluminum
  • Action - exposed hammer DA / SA
  • Cylinder material - steel
  • Cylinder capacity - 6 cartridges
  • Barrel material - steel
  • Barrel length - 2" or 3" (4" available in .38 Spec. only)
  • Overall length - 6.75" with 2" barrel
  • Weight - 15 ounces
  • Sights - fixed .135" square notch rear, ramp-style .110" front; 3.5" sighting radius
  • Trigger - grooved
  • Grips - full checkered walnut, round butt
  • Finish - polished and blued with hard anodized black frame or nickel

The Cobra used a traditional Colt "V" mainspring spring action, which gives it an excellent trigger pull. Mine breaks at a clean 2.5 pounds in SA mode. Its cylinder rotates into the frame for a tight lock-up when the trigger is pulled. The Cobra action incorporates the patented Colt hammer block and is safe to carry with all six chambers loaded. The hammer itself is serrated for a sure grip.

Late model Cobras came with a fully shrouded ejector rod and Colt/Pachmayr rubber grips and weighed about an ounce more (16 ounces). The frame of all Cobras was made of a highly polished, high tensile strength aluminum alloy that was anodized black on blue finish guns. All other metal parts were steel. The external finish of the steel parts was a polished blue. The sides of the hammer were mirror polished and left in the white.

Cobras are rated for limited use (approximately 1000 rounds) with .38 Special +P ammunition. Extensive use of +P ammo will not blow-up a Cobra, but the high pressure hammering from continuous use of +P ammo will eventually stretch the aluminum frame enough to affect headspace and reliability. Load +P ammo for social purposes if you prefer, but practice with standard .38 Special loads. At the range, I shoot inexpensive Remington/UMC or Winchester/USA factory loads with 130 grain FMJ bullets in my Cobra. 5-shot groups fired SA from a bench rest at 25 yards typically measure 2"-3" center to center with this ammunition. The Cobra is usually a very accurate snubby!

A Cobra with Pachmayr grips is also the most comfortable snubby of its weight to shoot. It is a handful with +P ammo and not nearly as much fun to shoot as the much heavier Colt Diamondback .38, but it is considerably more pleasant with which to practice, using standard velocity .38 Special ammunition, than a Ruger LCR or S&W Airweight Chief's Special.

Ruger LCR

The Guns and Shooting Online staff was quite impressed by the new Ruger LCR when we reviewed a sample in 2009. In operation, it is a double action only (DAO), .38 Special, five shot, swing-out cylinder revolver. The hammer is concealed within the fire control housing, so it is not possible to manually cock the hammer before firing. We consider this the best concealed carry revolver to hit the streets since the Colt Cobra. It represents a rethinking of snubby design and incorporates the latest materials, including a polymer frame. As such, it is a manufacturing breakthrough, unlike any previous revolver. This 13.5 ounce, small frame revolver is packed with new technological advances and features a smooth, easy to control, DA trigger.

It is a modular revolver composed of three major sub-assemblies. These are the Frame sub-assembly, Fire Control Housing sub-assembly and Cylinder sub-assembly.

The LCR's monolithic aluminum frame sub-assembly supports the barrel and cylinder. The stainless steel barrel is threaded into the frame, which surrounds the barrel, leaving only the muzzle and forcing cone of the actual barrel visible. The frame itself is treated with a two element, synergistic, hard-coat finish. This involves a hard-anodized bottom layer and a baked-on surface polymer. The result is an extremely hard surface finish (reportedly Rockwell C60) that is impervious to just about everything, including saltwater.

All of the lock work, including the hammer, is inside the fire control housing sub-assembly, which incorporates the grip frame. It is made of a proprietary, long-glass fiber reinforced Nylon, the type of polymer used for the frames of many modern semi-automatic pistols. The LCR's lock work is primarily based on previous Ruger DA revolvers, as well as introducing several new innovative features, including e-nickel Teflon on critical engagement surfaces and a small concave camming surface on the trigger where it interfaces with the hammer sub assembly. The latter is primarily responsible for the LCR's excellent DA trigger pull. The barrel, cylinder, crane, front sight blade and most of the internal mechanism are blackened or tumbled stainless steel; the hammer and trigger have been coated to increase their corrosion resistance and improve operating smoothness.

The cylinder sub-assembly includes the cylinder, crane, cylinder lock pin, star ejector, ejector rod and associated parts. The cylinder is machined from stainless steel and further protected by an advanced version of Ruger's Target Grey finish. The crane is a stainless steel investment casting. The center lock pin is made from titanium to reduce mass and inertia.

Here are the Ruger LCR's basic specifications (with optional Hogue Tamer grip):

  • Caliber .38 Special +P
  • Capacity: 5
  • Barrel material: 17-4 PH stainless steel
  • Barrel length: 1.875 inches
  • Frame finish: Matte black, synergistic hard coat
  • Fire control housing: Long-strand, glass-fiber filled polymer
  • Cylinder finish: New - Advanced Target Grey
  • Sights: Integral, square notch rear; replaceable, pinned ramp front
  • Sight radius: 3.75 inches
  • Length: 6.5 inches
  • Weight: 13.5 ounces
  • Grip: Hogue Tamer

The LCR is very lightweight and the DAO trigger pull is exceptionally good. This trigger's pull weight increases gradually and smoothly as the trigger is pulled back. It is lighter, smoother and easier to control than ordinary DA revolver triggers, especially of the S&W or Taurus variety.

The LCR's cylinder is the most heavily fluted cylinder I have ever seen. Only the back portion of the cylinder, where the locking bolt cuts are, is actually full diameter. The entire forward half of the cylinder has been fluted. This radically fluted cylinder gives the LCR a very distinctive look, as if the polymer grip frame were not unique enough! The cylinder is locked in place at the rear by the cylinder lock pin and at the front of the ejector rod by a titanium spring-loaded latch imbedded in the frame's under lug. Although the cylinder revolves counter-clockwise (to the left), or out of the frame, lock-up with the trigger held all the way back is tighter than normally found in new S&W or Taurus revolvers, if not quite a solid as a Colt DA revolver. The firing mechanism includes a Ruger transfer bar ignition system. At rest, the hammer rests directly on the frame with the transfer bar withdrawn. This means that the revolver may be safely carried with all chambers loaded.

Ruger claims that the polymer grip frame and Tamer grip combine to deliver about 50% less felt recoil than other .38 Special revolvers of similar size and weight. I do not find this to be true. The fact is that any lightweight .38 Special revolver, including the LCR, kicks like the devil, primarily due to the very high recoil velocity inherent in lightweight guns firing powerful cartridges. In fact, due to the LCR's very high recoil velocity, titanium (instead of steel) is used for the LCR's cylinder lock pin and front latch to reduce the mass and inertia of these parts and prevent the cylinder from unlocking at the moment of firing. In my hand, the LCR seems to kick much more violently than the 16 ounce Colt Cobra.

As to accuracy, in our our full length review (see the Product Reviews page) the LCR averaged about 6" groups for five shots at 25 yards. This is an average of three types of .38 Spec. ammo, +P and standard velocity, fired over sandbags from a bench rest. The LCR shot its best groups with +P ammo, although it kicked worse and had a very loud muzzle blast. It is an excellent close quarters self defense gun, but not fun to shoot at the range.

Summary and Conclusion

The new Ruger LCR is slightly smaller and lighter than the classic Colt Cobra. It is also thinner through the cylinder, the widest part of any revolver. The Ruger LCR's lighter weigh and narrower width makes it somewhat more comfortable to carry all day. Its hammerless design makes it less likely to snag if carried in a coat pocket, or in some other unconventional manner.

On the other hand, the Cobra is not a great burden to carry concealed, carries an extra cartridge (20% more ammunition) and is easier to shoot accurately when needed. The Cobra is also more fun to shoot, and practice makes perfect.

Both are chambered for the potent .38 Special cartridge, a serious self-defense round. These are excellent revolvers for concealed carry.

The greatest difference between the two revolvers is the Cobra's SA/DA capability. For someone, like me, who learned to shoot with single action revolvers and to this day almost always manually cocks the hammer before each shot, the Cobra is the better choice. It allows better accuracy and this makes the Cobra a superior all-around defensive pistol, not just a "belly gun." (You probably won't have to engage an enemy at 25-50 yards, but with a Cobra you could.) Being an experienced single action shooter, I can shoot almost as fast SA as I can DA and with much greater confidence. Because of this, I stick with the Cobra for most of my daily concealed carry needs.

On the other hand, to someone who practices the "modern" revolver technique of shooting DA in all defensive situations, the LCR's lighter DA trigger pull would be beneficial. The LCR has a better out of the box DA trigger action than any other lightweight snubby revolver I have ever fired. A committed DA shooter would probably favor the LCR over a Cobra for daily concealed carry.

Note: Complete reviews of the Colt Cobra and Ruger LCR revolvers can be found on the Product Reviews page.

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Copyright 2010, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.