Although many would argue that the day of the revolver is gone, in U.S. States with magazine limits, personal preferences, and personal physical requirements the revolver is still a viable option. I will openly admit I have carried and preferred semi-automatic handguns since I first started shooting, first started carrying, and onward to this day. That is not to say I have not bought the stray revolver along the way, with purchases varying from historical significance, to hunting, to just a ‘cool’ gun.
Although none of my revolvers were bought specifically for carrying, a few of them have seen some limited use in my carry gun rotations. In some cases, this has been as a part of period dress (for example serving as a range safety officer at an ‘Old West’ shoot) where I often carry my Ruger Vaquero or as an attention-getting gun at specific gun-related events with my original Colt Python.
For me, the slimmer profile, higher capacity, and easier trigger of the semi-automatic results in my choice of carry being semi-automatic handguns. Again, at least for me, I am quicker and more accurate with a semi-automatic than a revolver. However, this article is not a discussion of the semi-automatic handgun or even a direct comparison of revolvers versus semi-automatic handguns on positives and
I have worked with many different people over the years and still cringe when someone is told “just get a revolver” by the ‘gun guy’ in their family or friend circle. There is nothing wrong with choosing a revolver if it actually fits your needs. I have honestly lost count of the number of students showing up to a class to shoot for the first time with a super light/small, double action only (hammerless, 8-12 pound trigger pull), revolver chambered in .357 magnum. The person is inevitably unhappy with shooting this suggested firearm. It has happened so many times, that I started actively bringing a Browning 1911 in .380 and a Glock 26 in 9mm to any class I teach. This article is more about making an informed choice and its focus is on the advantages of revolvers and those for whom it makes sense to utilize those advantages.
Simple Function and Loading
One of the clearest advantages of a revolver is its simplicity of function. The revolver is an overall simpler device, as rotating the cylinder to a new live round and cocking the hammer for the next shot are both achieved through physical force transferred from the gun’s user through the trigger (or external hammer). Additionally, the rounds are already ‘chambered’ in the revolver’s cylinder and do not need to be moved from a removable magazine into the chamber for each shot as with a semi-automatic.
By comparison, in a semi-automatic the slide is driven back by the chemical reaction in a fired round, ejecting the spent casing and pushing a fresh round into the chamber while resetting the hammer or striker to fire a new round. Although this process in the semi-automatic only requires force to release the hammer or striker to fire, cycle, and return the gun to ready-to-fire mode, there is a lot that can go wrong mechanically in this process. It is not that malfunctions cannot occur with a revolver, but outside of ammunition not firing, they are incredibly rare, and if it is an ammo issue, just pull the trigger again to get to the next round. Semi-automatics are reliable, but a part of becoming proficient is learning various malfunctions and the techniques to clear them. Revolvers are the clear winners if malfunctions and having the skills and ability to easily clear them are a concern.
The loading and unloading processes for a revolver are also simpler. Loading a revolver is as simple as rotating out the cylinder, dropping live rounds into each chamber, and then returning the cylinder to its locked position in the frame. This process requires little strength and primarily uses gravity to easily assist in the process. Semi-automatic handguns by comparison require a magazine spring to become compressed tighter and tighter as rounds are loaded, and then that magazine needs to be properly seated before the gun can fire.
Unloading a revolver is similarly easy as once the cylinder is rotated out of the frame the gun is no longer capable of firing, and unloading is again mainly assisted by gravity. Unloading with semi-automatic handguns includes a small additional but important step. If a round has already been chambered in a semi-automatic handgun, removing the magazine does not render the gun unable to fire; the live chambered round must also be removed by racking the slide. Additionally, the magazine must be removed first, otherwise racking a round will simply replace that live round with the next live round in the magazine. Finally, unloading the magazine presents a similar challenge as loading the magazine as the spring tension holding each round in place is still present.
This combination of easy to load, easy to render incapable of firing, and less likely to malfunction makes revolvers appealing to those who truly want simplicity in their chosen firearm. Additionally, if there are strength, skill, or coordination issues that result in a person struggling with making clean and consistent racking of the slide, the revolver offers an eloquent solution. To be fair, all these issues with semi-automatics are addressable either through additional devices to make loading or racking easier, moderate training with malfunction and reloading drills, or choice of firearm (choosing the Smith and Wesson EZ for example). Just make sure you are choosing a revolver because it is right for you, not just because you are avoiding some additional practice.
Carrying and Ease of Mind
Simplicity and trigger pull can also be advantages when carrying revolvers. Due to the relatively lighter trigger pull of semi-automatic handguns, some people find them unnerving to carry. The revolver’s heavier trigger pull and in most cases easily seen safety features — the hammer cannot contact the primer on the round that is ready to fire — may boost confidence in carrying a revolver.
Regardless of whether carrying a revolver or a semi-automatic, a solid quality holster that covers the trigger is a must, but there are psychological advantages in ease of mind that comes with the revolver. Additionally, if carried within clothing or carried bags, a revolver can be fired with less issue if still contained, as there is no sliding action that could become mired in clothing. I would again argue that for most, this is just a little more education and training required to become comfortable with a semi-automatic handgun. But I also recognize that a gun that you do not feel comfortable with quickly becomes a gun you do not train with or carry. Thus, if a revolver is a better psychological fit for you, I will default to the adage that any gun is better than no gun when you really need one.
Capacity, Legality, Psychology, and Ballistics
Revolvers and semi-automatics are legal in all 50 states. Additionally, there are more states (27) with permitless carry than those with greater restrictions to carrying a handgun. However, there are still many states with restrictive laws governing the carrying of a firearm. There are currently 14 states that have laws limiting the magazine capacity of handguns. A smaller number of these states (New Jersey, Delaware, Colorado, and most recently Illinois: 8.67% of the U.S. population) limit handguns to 15 rounds. The remaining 10 states limit handgun magazines to 10 rounds (Washington, Vermont, Rhode Island, Oregon, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Connecticut, and California: 27.67% of the U.S. population). Especially with the 10-round magazine limit, the advantages of the revolver start to have more appeal if moving to a semi-automatic only increases your capacity by four rounds.
There is also the perception of a gun used in self-defense that may well play into how the media and a prosecutor may examine a case, especially in less gun-friendly states. Functionally there is no difference between a black-polymer-furniture AR-15 and a wood furniture Ruger Mini-14. However, one is often seen as a weapon of war (AR-15) while the other may be seen as a smaller hunting rifle by those who seek to limit access to firearms. In the same vein, a revolver may well be seen as a less offensive older design compared to a modern polymer striker-fired gun like a Glock.
Finally, when examining ballistic energy, the .38 special has less energy (~200 ft/lb) than the semi-automatic 9mm (~310 ft. lb.) but the .357 Magnum comes out on top (~415 ft. lb). If the question is would I rather have 6 rounds of .357 Magnum (a total of 2,490 ft/lb) over 17 rounds of 9mm (a total of 5,270 ft/lb), my answer is 9mm. But if I lived in the approximate 25% of the country with a 10-round magazine limit the question becomes, would I rather have 6 rounds of .357 Magnum (2,490 ft/lb) or 10 rounds of 9mm (3,100 ft/lb) and I am no longer as sure of my answer.
Although my choice is a semi-automatic handgun, that choice is based on multiple factors including my skills, physical capabilities, experiences, and the laws of the state I live. That choice is also based on an analysis of the advantages and disadvantages based on what I value and the risks I am comfortable with. Each person needs to determine their own list of importance and comfort and make the choice that is right for them physically, mentally, and legally. So, the next time someone tells you to just get a revolver, don’t just agree or disagree. Take the time to decide if that advice is right for you.