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.

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About Brad Kozak

Brad Kozak is an iconoclastic, curmudgeonly graphic designer/marketer/writer/musician/advertiser/conservative creative guy. In 2007, he completed a gradual transition from a conservative semi-pacifist to a proactive, armed citizen, willing to exercise his Second Amendment rights to protect his family and property. His idea of “gun control” is hitting where he aims.

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

  1. avatarDonal says:

    A few years ago, I ran across a survival/doomer website with a link to an article about arming yourself, referencing the author's observations of the Argentine economic collapse of a decade ago. He was all for semi-auto pistols, citing that the larger magazines had come in handy during several robbery attempts by groups of determined gunmen. One of those attempts was while the target, a wealthy doctor, I believe, was leaving a restaurant. The target was killed, but not before he killed several of his assailants with his semi-auto pistol. Another was a car-to-car shootout, which I gather can last a lot longer and offers little chance for reloading, (despite Dirty Harry doing just that).

  2. avatarMike says:

    I have fired both and decided on a revolver. But don’t make the decision based on reading, base it on experience. I fell into the trap of buying something (actually 2 somethings) in the compact semi-automatic category based on reading alone. What a mistake. When I finally took a shooting course and had the opportunity to fire other guns I found out a larger revolver was my preferred weapon. (4″ barrel with adjustable sites) I traded in my semi-automatics on a revolver. Once I have a good breadth of experience I may go beyond that. But TRY BEFORE YOU BUY.

  3. avatarJared says:

    I would rather have a semiautomatic with a lot of rounds if I were carrying a gun for self defense. However I do not carry a gun for self defense, I just like to shoot long distances, and for that you cannot beat a big heavy long barrel revolver. Revolvers are much easier to clean.

  4. avatarTNAndy says:

    Here’s part II:
    http://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/2010/03/brad-kozak/choosing-a-handgun-part-ii-form-follows-function/

    (I had to do some searching to find it. Now you won’t have to….)

  5. avatarMatt Loves Glocks says:

    A-hem. Point of fact. Most semi-automatic handguns do not use exhaust gasses (“straight blowback”) to cycle their actions. Only small-caliber handguns are blowback operated (e.g. most .22s, and up to some .380 ACPs, such as a Walther PPK). Most “defensive” calibers – anything from 9x19mm on up, and semi-auto, is going to be recoil-operated, based on some usually minor variation of two John Moses Browning – that in the M1911 (swinging link), and that in the Hipower (linkless). In recoil operation, the barrel is allowed to move rearward; gas pressure impingement on the cartridge is not the operative force; it’s the the rearward kinetic force created as a reaction to the propulsion of the bullet. The barrel is caught on the frame’s locking block, but it has already pushed the slide with (if the correct ammunition loading is used) enough force to overcome the resistance of the recoil spring and complete its rearward travel. When the rearward travel is complete (because the slide is physically retained by something), the remaining force is dissipated (to you) and the recoil spring returns the slide to battery, unless it is caught by the slide stop.

    In straight blowback operation, the barrel is fixed to the frame and the slide is resisted (held closed) by the recoil spring and mass of the slide; here, the chamber pressure after bullet ignition does indeed open the action.

    These are not the exclusive methods of operation, but these are the two most common in defensive caliber and minor-caliber handguns that you’re discussing.

    Does this distinction matter to a gun buyer? No, because operationally, it’s the same effect. (Blowback and recoil operated guns are a little different when you take them apart or service them). But this is TTAG. You guys dispense truth not shibboleth. And I’m surprised no one has mentioned this yet.

    • avatarCarlosT says:

      Well, it is a really old article. Hi-Points are the exception: they’re straight blowback, but they come in 9mm, .40, and .45, in addition to .380.

    • avatarBDS says:

      Wow. Call it what you – blowback, recoil, but leave the physics out. Gas is the forcing factor. Gas operates the slide in both cases. You engineers have to sound so technical, yet simple concepts elude you.

  6. avatarGary Efaw says:

    The admonition to keep one chamber in the cylinder empty is based on old information referring to single action. It was to prevent accidental discharge if the hammer was struck or dropped. Modern revolvers, especially those with a transfer bar system won’t fire unless the trigger is fully pulled to the rear. Keeping an empty chamber isn’t necessary and reduces an already limited capacity.

  7. avatarAndy says:

    I ccw a .38 snubby,I carried a .357 while a Deputy so I am used to a revolver,even though I do own some semi autos also,it’s just that I have more experience with a wheel gun so if a self protection incident comes along I jump into the old mode of shooting with what I have the most experience with.I do practice with my semi autos but after so many years with a wheel gun on my belt I feel more comfortable with it and isn’t that what choosing a self protection firearm is all about.Be prepared and ready.Keep your powder dry.

  8. Pingback: Perspectives: Thoughts for first-time gun owners | St George News| STGnews.com

  9. avatarNick says:

    Sounds like the semi-auto is better in every area exception of recoil and jamming. I’d go for a semi because of that.

    On the other hand, like a shotgun, a revolver allows you to reload for every spent round even when you’re only fired one shot instead of the all or nothing reloading with a clip where you either don’t reload at all or reload an entire clip. This is one of the main attractions to a shotgun for me, but it just doesn’t seem worth it in this situation since you still have to manually eject the shells in a revolver [where as the semi-auto shotty auto ejects each shell]. So, not really the same as a shotty where you pretty much reload anytime you aren’t firing and don’t have all your rounds in.

    Just not seeing many reasons to care about a revolver. I mean I have one and carry it with me but if I had the money I’d buy an auto. I only have the revolver cause it was given to me for free.

    Personally I’d want the 5.7 pistol cause that bitch has 20 rounds and rather low recoil and it’s accurate. My friend has the 5.7 and it’s definitely fun. Certainly a great gun.

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