Choosing a Handgun, Part I: Revolver vs. Semi-Auto

So you’ve decided to join the millions of Americans who own a handgun. You’ve received some instruction, gone to the range to practice with someone else’s weapons, and signed up for your concealed handgun license tests. Yes? Now, choosing which handgun to buy is a personal decision. If anybody tells you something along the lines of “a revolver is the only handgun you’ll ever need” or “you’d be an idiot to buy anything other than a semi-auto,” ignore their advice. Manufacturers sell handguns designed for a wide variety of needs and uses and, let’s face it, fashion. And yes, there is such a thing as a bad gun. Handguns that are too powerful or underpowered or complicated or bulky for their owner. You need to choose your weapon wisely, lest you end up with a firearm that you A) don’t like and/or B) can’t control when you’re faced with a life or death decision. Let’s start with the basics. There are two main types of handguns: revolvers (a.k.a., “wheelguns”) and semi-automatic pistols.

A revolver is the kind of gun you imagine when you think of a western movie. It’s the classic six-shooter, carried by every celluloid gunfighter from Tom Mix to Kevin Costner. A wheelgun is a deceptively simple machine that comes in two basic flavors: single-action and double-action.

You have to cock the hammer to fire a single-action revolver. You can fire a double-action revolver even when it’s not cocked. A revolver usually holds between four and six rounds (cartridges). The guns almost never have “safety” mechanism. The usual precaution: keep the gun loaded with one round less than capacity, and keep the cylinder (the “wheel” part of the wheelgun) turned so that the firing pin is set to the empty chamber.

Unlike semi-automatic pistols, revolvers don’t depend on a spent round’s exhaust gasses to advance the cylinder to the next cartridge. Revolvers don’t automatically eject spent cartridge casings. They hold less bullets than a semi-auto and take longer to reload. Some self-defense experts believe these factors put revolvers at a significant disadvantage in a combat situation. Others believe gunfights are such close, fast and limited events that the amount of ammunition is a relatively minor consideration.

On the positive side, revolvers are relatively dependable and user-friendly. They almost never jam and they’re dead easy to shoot. Revolvers come in a wide variety of calibers (the bullet’s approximate diameter, measured in inches or millimeters). Even if you shoot a revolver without keeping your wrist and arm stiff (“limp-wristed”), the gun will continue to fire. If you encounter a defective cartridge, you simply pull the trigger again.

Generally, revolvers cost less than semi-automatics. If you want a handgun that’s simple, super-reliable and requires virtually no skills or knowledge to fire (though not necessarily fire well), a revolver is a great choice.

Semi-automatics have been the sidearm of choice to virtually every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine from WWII onward. They come in single- and double-action models, a variety of calibers and a variety of capacities. The venerable Model 1911-1A, also popularly known as the Colt .45 or the Navy .45, is considered the classic semi-auto. 1911 sales still account for a large percentage of the handguns sold each year.

The so-called polymer-frame (a.k.a. “plastic gun”) is the fastest-growing style of semi-auto. The category includes the Glock, the Springfield XD and weapons from Smith & Wesson, Colt and a slew of others. Polymer-frame guns are lighter and cheaper than their metal siblings, and usually offer with higher-capacity magazines than 1911s.

A good semi-auto holds more rounds than a wheelgun. It can be reloaded easily by releasing and replacing a magazine with bullets. Because semi-autos use spent exhaust gases to chamber the next round, owners must keep their wrist stiff and not allow the gun’s recoil to flip the barrel up to a point where the pistol jams. A spent cartridge can “stovepipe” in the ejection port and prevent the pistol from working; you have to clear the jam before you can chamber the next round.

Semi-autos are generally more expensive than wheelguns. If you want a gun with the maximum capacity for rounds without reloading, easy reloading, and a wide variety of calibers, grip sizes, and other features (adjustable grips, sights, magazines, etc.), a semi-auto is a sensible choice.

So which one is the right gun for you? That depends on you. If you’re into “simple” and don’t feel as if you’ll need a lot of rounds, a wheelgun will do the job without complaint. If capacity and reloading are concerns, if you’re willing to work harder to acquire and maintain shooting skills, a semi-auto is the better choice.

Ultimately, remember the old expression: the best gun is the one you have when you need it. Backing off from that, the best gun is the one you know how to use. Practice and training in an indefinite loop are the key to marksmanship and subconscious rapid response time, regardless of whether or not the handgun is intended for personal protection or sporting use.

Once you get past the question of revolver versus semi-auto, it’s time to start considering things like how the gun feels in your hand, how you’re going to use it (will you conceal/carry, keep it in a gun safe, carry it in your car, etc.), and which members of your family may (or may not) use it. In my next post, I’ll discuss those factors and how they can—and should— influence your purchase.