Let’s face facts: semi-automatic pistols are cool and revolvers are for stogy old farts and nerds. Case in point, who gets all the chicks: Riggs (Beretta 9mm) or Murtaugh (S&W .357 Magnum)? Magnum (Colt Government Model .45 APC) or Higgins (.455 Webley MK VI)? Axel Foley (9mm Browning Hi-Power) or Billy Rosewood (Colt Detective Special, .38 Special)? True, nobody wants to look like Barney Fife when they are trying to stare down hardened home-invaders. But it’s too bad that the wheel gun gets no respect because in the real world double action revolvers are the best choice for self-defense for most people most of the time.
The sublime irony of the revolver is that is both inherently safer and potentially more lethal when needed. Double action revolvers don’t typically require the use of safety mechanisms because the trigger itself is stiff and requires a long pull making unintended discharge a rarity. Unmodified, double action revolvers need approximately twelve pounds of pressure to move the trigger the requisite half inch distance to fire the weapon. Meanwhile, a cocked and unlocked automatic needs just about five pounds (or less) and the trigger moves nary a millimeter.
When a combat situation arises common folk tense up, their minds blank out, and they get tunnel vision. This is why military and police firearms training is so regimented and repetitive – so that when the bullets start flying and combatants become walking zombies, they can fall back on the muscle memory developed in training.
Even so, war records are full of stores of soldiers who forget to switch off their safeties. Amid all of the noise and violence swirling about some soldiers never realize that their gun isn’t firing every time they madly tug on the trigger. That’s why double action revolvers are so effective for non-pros: you just point and pull the trigger. There is no slide you have to actuate to chamber the first round or safeties to mess with.
But ease of use, safety, and real world practicality are just the beginning of the wheel gun’s advantages.
Revolvers are generally less expensive. Revolvers are made for a broader array of bullets including un-jacketed wadcutters that can’t feed through most automatics. Revolvers are chambered for a greater number of cartridges – everything from little .22s and .25s to monster .410 gauge shotshells.
Revolvers are more reliable. They have fewer and simpler moving parts that tend to break less often. They are free of feed and stovepipe jams that plague automatics. The spring in the magazine of an automatic pistol must be regularly detentioned or it loses its springiness, which in turn results in feed jams. [Rule of thumb: a magazine should be emptied at least monthly.]
So if you want to keep a loaded weapon around for self-defense but you aren’t a gun range rat, get yourself a good revolver.
The most obvious drawback of the revolver, of course, is magazine capacity. Except for the small caliber guns, most revolvers max out at five or six rounds. Meanwhile 9mm automatics commonly hold two to three times than number of cartridges.
Is this really a big deal? An extensive study of 6000 police involved shootings by the NYPD published in 1981 found that individual officers involved in a gunfight fired an average of just two to three rounds per incident. The officers, whose standard issue sidearms were .38 Special six-shooters only reloaded in six percent of the shootings. Furthermore, the incidents that required reload involved pursuits or prolonged long distance actions such as ferreting out barricaded persons – not the kind of thing that a homeowner defending his castle is likely to ever become involved in.
In other words, the magazine capacity advantage of an automatic is really just theoretical.
And don’t go thinking that you have to get an ugly Glock automatic to be able to take advantage of the latest composite materials and other futuristic goodies. The modern interpretation of the revolver includes such high tech gems such as the Ruger LCR that weigh less than one pound, fires potent .38 Special+P ammo, and can be fitted with Crimson Trace laser grips.
So when it comes to revolvers, don’t get swept up in the semi-automatic hype. Yeah, they look James Bond cool but they aren’t always the right tool for the job. Forget Barney Miller and think “Dirty” Harry Callahan. A little.