One of the first questions facing new handgun buyers is guaranteed to spark debate: revolver or semi-automatic?
Without question, we are living in the age of the semi-automatic concealed carry pistol. More guns of this type are sold than any other in the U.S.
But Mansell Jones at Defense in Depth believes that the obsession with increasingly smaller and lighter semi-autos has caused revolvers to be unduly overlooked. “I grew up in an age of revolvers,” Jones says. “I think they’re underappreciated now because everyone has become so enamored with high capacity.”
Despite the fact that revolvers usually carry fewer rounds, here are some things Jones says you might consider.
The world’s oldest existing revolver is this 1597 model.
Suffice to say, “wheel guns” have been around for a long time. The proven design offers a simplicity that simply doesn’t exist for semi-automatic pistols. This is apparent even with simple tasks like checking to see whether a gun is loaded. Checking a revolver is usually a 2 second process – just swing the cylinder open and look. Semi-automatics require removing a magazine, pulling the slide back, and looking into (and/or feeling) a darkened chamber to see whether there is a round in the breech.
This is only the start. “A semi-automatic is a much more complicated piece of machinery than a revolver. And everything’s got to work. The spring tension in the magazine has to be matched to the speed of the slide, for instance. They can also be more sensitive to dirt and grit.”
The more complex a piece of machinery is, the more ways it can potentially fail, and this remains true of handguns. Like any machine, revolvers fail sometimes, but they have fewer moving parts, and therefore fewer ways to leave you out-of-luck in a bad situation.
2. Double Action Training
Most revolvers are shot in one of two ways: “double action” or “single action”.
Single action involves cocking the hammer back with a thumb, then using the trigger to let the hammer fall. This trigger pull is lighter, requiring less force.
Firing a revolver “double action” means firing without cocking back the hammer. The trigger itself pulls the hammer back, then releases it – two actions with a single movement. Jones says that firing this way takes a little more effort, and with that effort, it’s a little harder to hold your sights on target.
This may sound like a downside rather than a perk, but there are several benefits as well. The added force required (usually about 10lbs of pressure) means that most revolvers do not have safeties to fiddle with. The stiffer trigger itself is the safety, and it’s somewhat difficult to accidentally pull one without meaning to.
Furthermore, if you take the time to master the grip and trigger pull of shooting a double action revolver, you can rest assured that you’ll be able to handle the trigger of almost any modern semi-automatic pistol.
“It’s my belief that if you can learn the skills associated with a double action trigger pull, it will serve you well for other guns,” Jones says.
When some people think of revolvers, they think of models like these, sold here at Defense in Depth.
Jones says that these are great for home defense, but what about revolvers for concealed carry? Most people who are interested in carrying concealed choose “J-frame” revolvers. These are models like this Smith & Wesson 38.
Notice that the hammer is invisible, totally covered by the frame of the gun (giving them the appearance of the letter “J”).
J-frames are sometimes referred to as “pocket revolvers”, because there is no hammer to snag on a pocket (or other piece of clothing) when drawn from concealment. It is true that cylinders are slightly wider than the thinnest semi-automatic pistols, but Jones says that this isn’t a problem. “With a nylon pocket holster, it can disappear in your pants, purse, coat pocket, or whatever you might need.”
In an emergency, a revolver can even be fired from inside a pocket, since there is no slide flying backward, as there would be with a semi-automatic.
Still Jones says that some of the J-frame revolvers can kick hard, simply because they’re being made so light. There is always a balance to be struck between weight, caliber, and controllability.
It is worth noting that some revolvers, like the Taurus Judge and the Smith & Wesson Governor, can fire .410 shotgun shells, which offer nearly endless options for customized loads. Defense in Depth carries self defense ammunition specifically designed for these pistols, but any shells will work.
Let’s face it: part of the difference is just aesthetic. Style preferences are purely taste, but Jones sees a simple elegance in the form and movement of a revolver that just isn’t present in the boxy, jerking slide of a semi-automatic. To each their own, but it’s not hard to see why some folks just like the looks of revolvers.
Choosing a firearm always depends on what it’s primary purpose is. Jones says if you’re planning on buying a handgun for sport, at least try out a nice, solid revolver. “They’re certainly underrated for pleasure shooting. If you’re going to have one at home where weight isn’t an issue, or for a fun day of shooting, a revolver is a great gun.”