For over a century, the debate between revolvers and semi-automatic pistols has raged. Revolvers were the standard for law enforcement for a very long time, with semi-automatic pistols having a reputation for spotty reliability. “Those semi-automatics jam up” was a common thing to hear from the erstwhile “experts” at gun shops. However, as technology has progressed and semi-automatics have been improved, the differences in reliability have really narrowed. Modern semi-automatic pistols are extremely reliable and hold much more ammunition than they once did, so the limited capacity and very slow reload time of a revolver has become more and more difficult to justify on reliability grounds. Many shooters, myself included, go thousands of rounds in their semi-automatics between malfunctions. I personally have only had a few malfunctions out of my defensive, centerfire semi-automatic pistols out of tens of thousands of rounds, and all of those malfunctions were due to ammo problems, not gun problems.
One relic of the old conventional wisdom on revolvers is how they are recommended. It is extremely common to see revolvers recommended to new shooters, and especially to women. These recommendations are often given in a somewhat condescending way. Recently, the tide has begun to shift, not just to recommending semi-automatics to new shooters, but to (rightfully) criticize the sexist, elitist attitudes that many gun shop employees have toward new, and especially female shooters. A semi-automatic is not difficult to learn how to use, and there is nothing inherently better about a revolver for a female shooter. The main reason for this pattern of recommendation is the simplicity of using revolvers, and the assumption that a woman (or just a new shooter in general), is not going to put in the effort to properly understand how a semi-automatic pistol works. Nothing could be further from the truth, and if anything is going to prevent someone from learning what they need to learn about guns or shooting, it is that condescending attitude that colors their early experiences.
But this article is not to sing the praises of the many amazing semi-automatic pistols that are available today. This is intended to be an exhaustive compilation of posts I constantly seem to be making on gun forums in defense of the double-action revolver. Double-action revolvers are my personal favorite type of gun to shoot, and I most commonly carry them as well. Despite it’s shortcomings, there is still a role for the humble revolver. In fact, I’m going to sound like I’m contradicting what I said in the last paragraph and say that revolvers are a good choice for new shooters, just for a few different reasons than are normally given (and many of the same reasons). However, many of the benefits of a double-action revolver can be had for seasoned shooters as well, so revolvers are something for everyone to consider having in their collection, whether it is their first gun or their fifteenth. When I became an instructor, very few of the other candidates really knew much about revolvers, and one of them hadn’t ever even touched one. That just won’t do. Despite the overwhelming popularity of semi-automatics, revolvers are still common enough that anyone seeking to call themselves knowledgeable about guns should be familiar with them. Below are some reasons that anyone should take a hard look at owning at least one revolver, no matter their skill level, instead of just assuming they are obsolete.
Simplicity and Safety
Revolvers are easier to learn to use, and easier to avoid making a dangerous mistake with. That isn’t to say that a new shooter can’t easily learn to use a semi-automatic safely, but many gun owners buy a gun with the best of intentions to seek training, and don’t quite do as much of it as they should (or get “trained” by the ubiquitous uncle/brother-in-law/whatever who “knows a lot about guns” and does more harm than good). If a person is likely to only go shoot a few times, and the gun is most likely to spend its time collecting dust, a revolver may be a good option. This is probably the main reason revolvers are recommended to new shooters, and it isn’t technically wrong, it is just all too often assumed that a female shopper is less likely to become adequately familiar with their gun. In reality, women seem to pay more attention to their instructor, and men seem more likely to assume they already know how to use theirs. I can’t find any statistics, but I’d be willing to bet that men have a much higher rate of negligent discharge of firearms than women.
On a revolver, there is simply a trigger, a cylinder release, and usually (but not always) an exposed hammer. That’s the extent of the “controls” that one has to learn. Semi-automatics similarly all have a trigger and a magazine release, but also have a slide which must be manipulated, and may or may not have a safety, decocker, slide stop, hammer (which may or may not actually work the same) or any combination of the above. Furthermore, loading and unloading a revolver is more straightforward. Either there are cartridges in the cylinder or there aren’t. When a revolver is loaded, the cartridge rims are clearly visible, so it is very difficult to think a loaded revolver is actually empty. There is no “forgetting one in the chamber” with a revolver. With a semi-automatic pistol, you can remove the magazine but still have a cartridge in the chamber capable of being discharged. This is the main cause of negligent discharge – ignorance or carelessness of properly unloading a semi-automatic pistol. A revolver, however, is more forgiving of these sorts of mistakes that a new gun owner is somewhat more likely to make.
The same goes for trigger discipline. Rule two of safe gun handling is “always keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.” This is a critical rule, and all shooters should strive to follow it at all times (known as “Trigger Discipline”). However, mistakes do happen, and many shooters don’t get adequate training to overcome that natural urge to put their finger on the trigger. At least with a revolver, pulling the trigger is more difficult than on many semi-automatic pistols. It is a very long, deliberate trigger pull in double action mode, so momentary lapses in trigger discipline are less likely to result in a negligent discharge. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t maintain proper trigger discipline with a revolver, but for a new shooter, it can be a benefit. A revolver trigger is also substantially less likely to be pulled by something other than a finger, like a strap on a faulty holster, which is another source of negligent discharge. Many instances of negligent discharges occur during reholstering, and revolvers are more resistant to these careless mistakes than the most popular semi-automatics.
So in short, a revolver is easier to learn to operate properly and safely, and more forgiving of common safety mistakes. But there are many other reasons to consider a revolver, even for safe, experienced shooters.
The versatility of revolvers is one of my favorite things about them. Many common revolvers can shoot more than one cartridge. For example, any gun chambered in .357 Magnum can fire .38 Special. .38 Special is cheaper and has much less recoil, so it is great to practice with. With a revolver chambered in .357 Magnum, you can fire very powerful magnum loads that are strong enough for hunting use, super light .38 special target loads for easy shooting by even the weakest hands, and perhaps most importantly, anywhere in between. You can find a “Goldilocks” load that has the “just right” amount of power, so that you can get the maximum performance that you are still able to shoot comfortably and control. Even if a revolver doesn’t allow for multiple cartridges to be fired from it (for example, a .38 special revolver can only fire .38 special), there is still much more variety in ammunition choice than for a semi-automatic pistol. Because the power of the cartridge has nothing to do with the operation of the gun, revolvers can fire reduced-power, lower recoil rounds and still work perfectly well. Revolvers will cycle even with blanks. In a semi-automatic, the ammunition needs to be sufficiently powerful to cycle the action, so if the recoil is too much for the shooter, there is nothing they can do short of buying a different gun.
You also have much more variety in ammunition choice for features other than power. A revolver can handle any shape of bullet perfectly well, whereas a semi-automatic may not reliably feed certain bullets. Revolvers can also fire rubber bullets or wax bullets and still function perfectly. Loads like this can allow you to practice shooting practically anywhere, as they are even less dangerous and damaging than a pellet gun (though you should still always follow all rules of gun safety, and definitely don’t shoot anyone!).
Additionally, since the grip doesn’t have to contain a magazine, there are many more grip sizes available for revolvers. Some semi-automatics are just too big for some shooters, but most revolvers can accept very small or very large grips with just the turn of a screw.
If you’re trying to find the most versatile revolver, a medium to large framed .357 Magnum revolver (such as the Smith and Wesson 686 or Ruger GP100) with a 4 to 5″ barrel is probably the single most versatile option. Barrels under 4″ limit power and accuracy to a point where they would not be suitable for hunting, and barrels over 5″ become a little too long and unwieldy for practical defensive use. The 4″ barrel is the historically most popular length, and for good reason, so this perhaps the easiest configuration to find, though there are many 5″ options these days as well.
Because of this unparalleled versatility, a revolver is something that any member of a household can learn to use, even if they have completely different levels of hand and arm strength or recoil aversion. Male, female, young, and old, there is likely a load available that they will enjoy shooting and can learn to shoot well. And if your budget is limited so that you can only buy one handgun, but want to be able to do any kind of handgun shooting activity with it, you can’t beat a medium sized double action revolver.
For both new and experienced shooters, a revolver is a great training tool. Of all handguns, a double action revolver probably offers the most training value that a single gun can. The only thing I can think of that you can’t practice with a revolver is magazine reloading and clearing malfunctions. A double action revolver is great for training your trigger control. One gun gives you two different trigger modes to practice in – light, crisp single action (manually cocking the hammer before firing), and long, heavy double action (firing with the trigger alone). Practicing with a the long, heavy double action pull will do wonders for your trigger control, and make the debates over the minor differences in semi-automatic triggers seem somewhat pointless. And even though the double action trigger may be long and heavy, it is still smooth, so it is still possible to shoot very well with one. The single action trigger will also allow you to make very precise shots, and to practice fundamentals other than trigger control by minimizing the effect of trigger pull on your technique. For new shooters, the easy, light, and crisp single action trigger is a good stepping stone to building fundamental skills, and they can “graduate” to shooting all double action once they’ve got a good handle on the basics. After these skills have been developed, a shooter can still switch back and forth between shooting in different modes, to keep from getting too accustomed to a certain trigger feel and becoming sloppy on fundamentals. Having two different trigger modes available, with all other features of the gun being identical, can really help isolate problems with trigger control, as you can change just that one variable and note the differences.
A double action revolver is also excellent for dry fire practice. You can endlessly dry fire a double-action revolver without having to manipulate the slide as you would have to do for many striker-fired or single-action semi-automatics. The heavy double action pull will also really help build hand strength with routine dry fire practice.
A double action revolver is also easy to do certain training drills with, such as the Ball and Dummy Drill. With a semi-automatic, the ball and dummy drill requires dummy rounds. For a revolver, it can be performed even without having dummy rounds. Similarly, to get the benefit of the ball and dummy drill in a semi-automatic, the shooter needs to be completely unaware of the position of the dummies. This generally requires that someone else be present to load the magazines. However, with a revolver, you can do this drill by yourself, by leaving one chamber empty and spinning the cylinder without looking at it, so you don’t know where the empty chamber is. The ball and dummy drill is excellent for new shooters, and it still something that seasoned shooters should do from time to time, just to check that they haven’t become sloppy. Finally, another benefit that a revolver has for this drill is in retention of dummy rounds. With a semi-automatic, when you reach a dummy round, you will have to eject it by racking the slide. This can send it flying to the ground, and if you’re in an indoor range, that could mean beyond the firing line. It can be disruptive, dangerous or flat out disallowed to retrieve anything that goes past the firing line, depending on your range. Dummy rounds aren’t cheap, either, unless you make your own.
A similar thing to the ball and dummy drill is to load a mixture of .38 Special and .357 Magnum ammunition (or a mixture of heavy and light loads of the same caliber). You can also combine this with the ball and dummy drill, to have three different levels of recoil in one cylinder. This is an excellent technique to train out recoil anticipation.
Several of the things previously discussed also make a revolver a great training tool – it is easier to learn to operate safely for new shooters, and you can shoot anything from wax bullets to powerful magnums out of the same gun to build up recoil handling skills. Simply put, you can get more variation in training with a double-action revolver than with anything else.
Though I have already said that the reliability differences between revolvers and semi-automatics are minimal, there are a few situations in which the inherent reliability of a revolver still shines. Because of how integral the reliability issue is in the debate about revolvers, this is going to be the longest section of this article. Note that revolvers can, and do, malfunction, but malfunctions in a revolver are less likely to be induced by the shooter. The only thing required for a revolver to cycle and fire is that the trigger is pulled, so the revolver isn’t susceptible to failure based on poor technique by the shooter. Even if a semi-automatic gun is nearly as reliable as a revolver, the shooter or the situation aren’t always reliable. For example, semi-automatics can malfunction due to a shooter error often called “limp wristing.” I’ve seen this happen many times personally, especially with the small, lightweight guns that many people erroneously assume are best suited to small, lightweight shooters. If the shooter does not hold a semi-automatic firmly enough to resist the recoil, the gun may malfunction. The shooter needs to have adequate control of a semi-automatic for the slide to move backward against their resistance – if the entire gun moves backward too far instead of just the slide, it won’t properly cycle. Limp wristing can happen pretty frequently with new shooters, or with shooters that lack adequate hand and arm strength. It can also happen when the situation demands atypical shooting techniques, like one-handed or off-handed shooting. A shooter could have no problems firing two-handed, but might not have enough strength to keep proper hold control with one hand or with the off-hand, and this could cause a malfunction. In a self defense situation, if you’re reduced to firing with one hand or especially with your off-hand, the situation is already far less than ideal. At times like that, the extra reliability of a revolver may make the difference, especially for a less skilled shooter. A revolver can be fired upside down with the pinky finger of the off hand, and as long as the trigger can be pulled, the gun will cycle. As a side note, this is why it is important to practice one-handed and off-handed shooting regardless of what kind of gun you have – you don’t want the first time you try it to be when your life is on the line.
There are other situations that can arise as well. One is in the case of contact shots (where the muzzle of your gun is pressed into your attacker’s body in a struggle). This can push the slide of a semi-automatic pistol out of battery (in other words, the slide not fully closed) and prevent it from firing. This is a very small issue of course, but it is still a problem that revolvers don’t experience.
There are other situational benefits of revolvers, such as firing through a pocket. If you are carrying a small revolver in a coat pocket or something, you can fire the gun without taking it out of the pocket if absolutely necessary (this is best with hammerless revolvers – fabric can still catch or obstruct an exposed hammer and prevent firing). However, semi automatics will almost always malfunction after the first shot or two, as the fabric will prevent the slide from moving back fully, closing fully, or the case from being able to clear the ejection port.
Even the most reliable gun in the world is still only half of the equation. Your ammunition still has to function properly for your gun to fire. No matter how reputable a brand of ammunition is, there is always a chance that a cartridge could fail. Sometimes primers are just duds, or are too hard to be fired on the first strike. With a revolver, if a cartridge fails to fire, all the shooter has to do is pull the trigger again to try the next round. This is also the case with double action automatics, but for single action and striker fired automatics, this would have to be cleared like any other malfunction. I have had a round from a premium, trustworthy manufacturer with a too-light powder charge that sounded weak and failed to cycle the action. I still continue to trust and carry this brand, but the point is that no ammunition is 100% guaranteed to work, however high quality.
The last thing I’m going to mention about reliability, and this is especially important for newer or more casual gun owners, is that revolvers don’t require you to extensively test and evaluate defensive ammo for reliability. I touched on some of these factors in the Versatility section above, as a revolver will cycle reliably no matter the power of the round, and any shaped bullet will work just fine. With semi-automatic pistols, certain brands of hollow point ammunition for self defense may not feed reliably in certain guns. All hollow points are shaped slightly differently, and the way the shape of the bullet nose interacts with the feed ramp, chamber, etc, can cause reliability problems. For example, if the hollow cavity is too wide, it can catch on the bottom of the feed ramp and prevent the cartridge from being chambered (this happened to me once). This is one reason that there are no wadcutter loads for semi-autos, and semi-wadcutter loads are often unreliable. It is possible for there to be nothing wrong with a certain gun, and nothing wrong with certain ammo, but the combination of the two just doesn’t run right. Best practices for semi-automatic pistols are to test a sufficient number of a certain defensive hollow point round to ensure reliable function. This means shooting at least a few boxes through your gun. However, most quality defensive loads come in boxes of 20, and cost more than a dollar per shot. To sufficiently test one type of load means to spend around $100 in many cases. And if that load doesn’t work as well as you’d like, you have to start over with a different one. Realistically speaking, many gun owners do not adequately test their defensive ammo, or may not even know that it could even be a problem, assuming that any premium round will deliver premium performance. While most guns will work fine with most loads, there is a chance that the rounds you bought specifically for self defense will fail you when you most need them if not thoroughly tested. This isn’t really a problem with revolvers, though. You can be confident that whichever load that you want to use will function correctly. The shape of the bullet has no impact on the reliability of a given round in a revolver. The only necessary testing of self defense rounds in a revolver is just to shoot enough of them to get a feel for the level of recoil and point of impact. This can be done with only a few rounds.
In summary, while modern semi-automatics are extremely reliable, and may be more reliable than revolvers in certain conditions (like mud and sand) that are frequently used to test reliability, there are many situational issues in which revolvers still have a slight edge. Many of these situations are also more likely be arise, especially for new and civilian shooters, than any kind of “gun in the mud” scenario.
Ease of Maintenance
Another benefit that revolvers have, which again primarily helps newer or more casual gun owners, is the ease of maintenance. This also plays into their “real world reliability,” as they are more likely to function properly even their are not maintained as carefully as they should be. Revolvers are easy to clean, and don’t need to be disassembled at all to do so. If you clean out the bore and the chambers, that’s pretty much it. Almost everything else is just cosmetic. With stainless steel revolvers, you don’t even have to worry much about the metal itself corroding. Revolvers are also less susceptible to failure due to improper lubrication, and don’t need to be lubricated nearly as frequently as semi-automatics in order to ensure proper function (the actual internal action should be kept fairly dry). As such, a revolver can be left neglected in a drawer for a long period of time and be more likely to work when needed than a semi-automatic. The lubrication on a semi-automatic can dry up, get sticky over time, or be soaked up by whatever it is stored in, be it a holster, pistol case, or socks in a drawer. When it comes to concealed carry, a carry gun quickly attracts a lot of lint. This lint is more likely to become a problem with a semi-automatic than with a revolver if the gun is not frequently cleaned. Again, I do not endorse neglecting one’s guns, and all guns should be routinely inspected and practiced with, but many gun owners may not exercise their due diligence as much as they should.
Even for the diligent gun owner like myself, there is something to be said for the peace of mind that comes with easy maintenance. Even though I regularly inspect and maintain all guns that I use for self defense, I still worry that I’m not doing enough of it. I don’t always remember how long my nightstand gun has been in my nightstand since it was last lubricated. I’ve never had one fail on me due to lack of maintenance when it does make it to the range, but the threat is always there in the back of my mind. The sight of lint on my semi-automatic carry guns is more worrisome than on my carry revolvers. On a related note, loading and unloading a semi-automatic for maintenance causes me some worry as well, and can especially be a problem for less experienced shooters. Repeated chambering of ammunition in a semi-automatic can cause bullet setback (the bullet getting pushed into the casing, shortening the overall length, and potentially causing reliability issues or an unsafe rise in chamber pressure when fired). Many new shooters don’t know about this. There is debate over whether the pressure can actually get to dangerous levels, but the change in cartridge overall length can certainly cause failures to feed. Also, the more a gun is loaded and unloaded, the more opportunities there are to have a negligent discharge. As discussed in the Safety section above, forgetting a round in the chamber is the most frequent reason negligent discharge occurs, and some semi-automatics actually require the trigger to be pulled before the gun can be disassembled, so it is critical to visually inspect that the chamber is clear. On the opposite side of that, it is possible upon reloading the gun to forget to chamber a round. If that happens, the gun won’t go bang when you need it to. I’ve never actually done this personally, but when I carry a semi automatic I still worry about it sometimes, and will check on a regular basis just to be sure that a round is still chambered. It always is, but it is an itch that can only be scratched by checking, and it is better to visually double and triple check whether a chamber is loaded or unloaded than to get complacent and assume you’ve done everything right.
The last thing that makes revolvers worth owning is that they are just fun to shoot. You get two trigger modes in one gun and a wide variety of ammo choices, as discussed previously. Many people, including myself, just like how revolvers look and how they feel in the hand. That may sound like a silly reason to chose a certain gun, but the fact of the matter is that you will practice more with a gun you enjoy owning and shooting. This is one reason I continue to carry revolvers – most of my practice ends up being with revolvers, and a lot of successful self defense is pure automatic reaction and muscle memory. When I point my carry revolvers, the sights line up with the target automatically, just because of how natural they feel in my hand.
Revolvers also make other shooting-related hobbies easier and more rewarding. I mentioned hunting previously in the Versatility section, and many revolvers are better suited to hunting than the average semi-automatic, if only because of the relative ease of mounting optics on them. Also, if you handload/reload your own ammo, a revolver makes that hobby much easier and more interesting, and as a handloader myself, this is one of the main reasons I continue to shoot revolvers as much as I do. First of all, you don’t lose any brass. You eject the brass manually and can put it right back in the box, as opposed to having to search around for the ejected brass on the range floor (you never find all of it). Secondly, again as discussed in the Versatility section, you can load your ammo as light or as hot as you want (within safe pressure ranges of course), and you can develop your own “perfect” load. Lastly, revolver ammo is also just easier to reload, because you don’t have issues with the overall length. This saves a step in the process, and avoids the issue of loading a “bad batch” of unreliable ammo when trying a new bullet because the overall length is slightly wrong.
As you can see, there are many reasons why owning a revolver is still a valid choice, even as a self defense gun. Does all this mean that I think that they are better than semi automatics? Of course not. Semi-automatics are still the best choice for most people, and I continue to recommend 9mm semi-automatics to most people I train, even though I love revolvers. If I know nothing about someone other than that they want a gun, a medium frame 9mm semi auto is the go-to recommendation, as it will be the most likely to suit the average needs of the average person. But there are still good reasons to choose a revolver and to recommend a revolver to certain people, even today, and those who do choose a revolver shouldn’t be mocked by armchair experts.
Despite the criticism, a revolver may be a good recommendation to a new shooter for the reasons listed above, provided that recommendation is actually well considered for that shooter’s needs, and not just based in a sexist or elitist attitude. And yes, even though the recommendation of revolvers to women is cliché and usually for the wrong reasons, there are still some situations in which the recommendation is legitimate, it just has nothing to do with sex or gender. When I used to sell guns, it was fairly common for a female shopper to only be there because her husband/boyfriend/father/etc. wanted her to have a gun for self defense, not because she personally had the intrinsic desire to learn. In those situations, where she is likely to only go shoot a few times at someone else’s urging, then put the gun away forever, the inherent ease of reliable use, maintenance, and safety of a revolver might make the most sense. This has nothing to do with the fact that she is female, but everything to do with her overall attitude toward gun ownership. I’ve met many male gun shoppers who clearly just want a gun to have around the house for peace of mind, and don’t seem very interested in pursuing shooting as a hobby or sport. A revolver may be the best option for them as well. I’ve also had many people interested in buying a gun for themselves, but one that their wife who is not interested in guns could also feel comfortable using. Again, a revolver is less intimidating to learn for many people who have little desire to learn, and the availability of lower-power ammo can help with this as well.
While all gun owners should take a deep interest in their shooting skills and should seek at least some level of formal training, the reality is that many (probably most) do not. Many that do get training and practice at first don’t keep up with regular practice or maintenance. This does not mean that they shouldn’t still have the right to own a gun, but it may mean that a revolver is the best gun for them.
And even for experienced shooters, a revolver isn’t a stupid idea. There are many activities in the shooting sports that revolvers excel at, and a skilled shooter who enjoys shooting revolvers can still use one to great effect in self-defense. There is an old pro-revolver argument, or more of a gun store meme, that “if you can’t do it with 6 shots, you can’t do it with 16.” This is a pretty stupid argument in a lot of ways and is rightfully criticized. However, nothing gets passed around that much without at least some grain of truth to it. While having more capacity in a gun is always a better thing, most defensive gun uses are resolved with no shots fired or with very few shots fired, to the point where a revolver is usually enough gun. It isn’t always enough of course, and there is no harm in having more rounds on tap. But whenever it comes to arguments about guns and self-defense, we need to remind ourselves that ALL of these competing considerations are on the margins. Having to use a gun in self-defense is already a fairly unlikely thing. Having to actually shoot someone is even more unlikely. Having to shoot someone until you are out of ammo or having to reload in a gunfight is even much more unlikely still, and the same goes for having to deal with a malfunction. So in reality, the differences between semi-automatics and revolvers are ultimately only relevant in a small percentage of a small percentage of situations, to the point where preference may actually be more relevant than practicality.
Piece be with you,