Whether the classic Colt Detective Special, the aluminum frame Smith & Wesson Airweight or the tiny five-shot Chief's Special, these were small frame revolvers chambered in .38 Special, with short barrels, round butts and often a bobbed or shrouded hammer. The reality is that the .38 Snubby was the gun you carried if your job required you to carry a gun but you never really expected to have to use it. It was the classic "belly gun" of the streets, not something that could not be shot accurately, but rather intended to be used at contact distances. Tactical doctrine was simple - you pulled it from concealment, pressed it against your foe and squeezed the trigger.
Out of a 2" barrel, the low-velocity .38s were not ballistically impressive. There would be no expansion, very little penetration - indeed, both car windshields and heavy winter overcoats tended to provide sufficient protection against this round - and the standard load, the 158gr LSWC was unlikely to stop a determined attacker. This was a gun for people who didn't care about guns, for people who never even thought about guns. This was a "gun" in the most generic terms, intended to remain in a well worn leather holster over a 20 year career, fired at the range four or five times a year, and passed on to a son at the end of a life of service to one's community.
Make no mistake - the .38 Snub of the mid-twentieth century was a lethal weapon, and took a lot of lives. But contrast it with the iconic handguns of the current era. From Sonny Crockett's Bren Ten to the Beretta 92F carried by Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon to Raylan Givens' Glock. These are not as much lawmen as gunfighters, and they pay infinitely more attention to the tools of their 'trade' than their predecessors. Those earlier cops would have been a little embarrassed at that kind of attention paid to their gun. Carrying it was part of their job, part of their uniform, part of their daily life, but shooting it certainly was not. They represented the image of the cop-as-crime solver, not the kind of cop-as-warrior gunfighter we have grown so comfortable with today.
Today, sitting in a restaurant having lunch, we think nothing of local cops coming in dressed in tactical gear, pants bloused into their boots, ballcap and sunglasses, tactical holster slung low on their thigh, tac vest with STANAG mag pouches and a bundle of flex-cuffs on their belt. These are men (and women) who are entirely conversant in the use and capabilities of their weapons. They are not the people who would have clipped a .38 snub on their belt and gone to another day at the office.
I guess I will leave the question of whether we are better or worse off for this development as an exercise for the reader.