by Mike McDaniel
Barack Obama has been the best firearm salesman the industry could never have imagined. Americans have responded to his manipulation and abuse of power by buying firearms and ammunition in unprecedented quantities, and more and more of those consumers are first-time firearm owners. For those of us who have carried handguns as daily companions, with and without a badge since young adulthood, the revolver vs. semiautomatic argument has gone through many phases as technology, firearms law and societal norms have changed. At one time, the idea that revolvers were in an entirely different–and superior–reliability class than semiautomatic pistols was pretty much taken for granted. That’s no longer true . . .
With the goal of contributing useful information to first-time or relatively inexperienced shooters, and hoping not to garnering too many angry and outraged comments, I’ll present this week and next a basic handgun primer that may be useful in making firearm buying choices. This week: revolvers.
There’s a venerable old story about a reporter that asked a weathered (of course) Texas Ranger why he carried a .45. He replied in a slow drawl (of course): “Because they don’t make a .46.” The point is that one should always carry the most effective weapon they can efficiently manage. Anyone who knowingly enters a gunfight armed with less than a rifle (or submachine gun) is likely to die. Long guns are much easier to shoot accurately at much greater than handgun ranges and their cartridges are generally far more deadly. However, since it’s difficult or impossible to carry such weapons on a daily basis, a handgun is usually the best alternative.
The choice of a personal defensive handgun needs to take into account many factors, but ultimately one should choose one that’s powerful, concealable, reliable, one they can shoot well, and with which they are comfortable. That said, the choice is at once simpler and more difficult than many imagine.
REVOLVER OR SEMIAUTOMATIC?
Revolvers predate semiautomatics of course. Revolvers are so-called because cartridges are loaded into a steel cylinder commonly holding five or six rounds, though some major caliber, full sized revolvers hold seven and some .22LR revolvers hold as many as 10. Pulling the trigger and/or cocking the hammer mechanically rotates–revolves–the cylinder bringing a live round into precise alignment with the barrel. The cartridge aligned with the barrel at rest will not be the cartridge fired first. Revolvers come in two action types: single action and double action.
Single action revolvers are like the Colt .45 handguns of cinema westerns. The first step in firing requires cocking the large, external hammer, usually with the strong hand (the hand holding the revolver) thumb. This activates internal mechanical linkage that rotates the cylinder to align the next cartridge with the barrel while holding the hammer fully back, ready to be released to drive forward under spring tension with a pull of the trigger. The resulting short and light trigger pull serves only to release the hammer to strike the primer of the cartridge (pulling the trigger does not cause the cylinder to revolve)—the firing pins of such weapons are often fixed to the hammer–firing the cartridge.
This revolver is the modern Ruger Vaquero, however it faithfully reflects the general configuration of the genre, including no real, truly useful rear sight.
Such weapons are generally inappropriate for personal defense. Experts can indeed do amazing things with these designs, which are more than a century old, and manufacturers continue to produce modern versions of these weapons that are completely safe to use with modern cartridges, have fully adjustable sights, and modern safety features that allow them to be safely handled with fully loaded cylinders, but they are large, cumbersome, slow to fire and even slower to reload. They’re great fun for target shooting, or western style shooting competitions, but modern weapons have surpassed them in convenience and effectiveness.
One narrow exception is modern single action revolvers designed for hunting such as the handguns of Freedom Arms of Wyoming. These revolvers are truly huge, made of stainless steel, are designed to be used with optical and/or electronic sights (scope mounts available from the factory are substantial indeed), and fire cartridges of such size and power their cylinders hold only five rounds. Some of these cartridges rival rifle ammunition in power, and recoil and muzzle flash are impressive and for most, punishing.
NOTE: Original single action revolvers like the famous Colt Peacemaker design should have only five out of six chambers loaded and should be carried with the hammer down on the empty chamber. This is necessary because, lacking any kind of firing pin safety (most modern single action revolvers have this feature and their cylinders may be fully loaded with safety), a blow on the hammer can drive the firing pin into the primer of a cartridge, firing the weapon. Anyone owning such weapons should be absolutely certain of its safety features, or the lack thereof.
Double action revolvers are modern weapons, and can be fired in double action mode, with a long, relatively heavy trigger pull that rotates the cylinder, simultaneously cocks the hammer, and ultimately drops the hammer to strike the primer and fire a cartridge. As a result, revolvers do not have mechanical safety devices that must be manipulated in order to fire the weapon. They also have a single action mode—very much like single action only revolvers–where manually cocking the hammer rotates the cylinder and sets the trigger fully back, producing a short, light trigger pull. Owners of double action revolvers should always train to use their weapon in double action mode. It is very easy indeed to accidentally fire a cocked revolver in single action mode when under stress.
At one time, virtually all American police officers carried full-sized duty revolvers, initially in .38 Special caliber, but ultimately in .357 Magnum when that cartridge was developed. The .357 Magnum is a .38 Special cartridge with a slightly longer case, which allows greater velocity and power. This Smith and Wesson Model 686 .357 magnum is an example of a modern full-sized double action revolver. Beautifully made, it is a large and heavy revolver, which is necessary to stand years of firing full-charge .357 ammunition, which produces significant muzzle flash and considerable recoil. It is also very labor intensive to produce, and as a result, is expensive.
This small revolver—the Ruger LCR in .38 special caliber—is state of the art in revolver design with its polymer frame, relatively low bore axis, relatively smooth trigger and relieved/lightened cylinder. Notice that it uses an internal hammer. It cannot be cocked, or fired, in single action mode; it is a double action only revolver. Its primary design goals were obviously ease of concealment, the use of advanced, non-traditional materials and light weight.
REVOLVER ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES:
Modern double action revolvers come, generally, in large, medium and small sizes. However, as previously noted, there are some revolvers made for hunting or competition with very large magnum cartridges that fall into the “huge” category. Such weapons are universally made of steel, are very heavy, and have barrels of 6” or longer. On the opposite side are mini-revolvers, such as the stainless steel, derringer-like, 5 shot .22LR (Long Rifle) weapons made by Freedom Arms (an article on that little revolver can be found here).
Such weapons, which fire single action only, are made primarily as back-up guns, or for circumstances that prevent the carrying of a larger weapon. Unfortunately, their barrels are very short—just over an inch in standard configuration–which can cause keyholing (for the appearance of the holes they leave in paper targets), or unstable bullets tumbling end over end. As a result, their accuracy beyond a few yards is generally poor, their penetration ability is limited, reloading requires removing the entire cylinder from the weapon, and for the inexperienced, and even more experienced shooters, they are hard to shoot with any degree of consistent accuracy, to say nothing of the general unsuitability of the .22LR cartridge in the self-defense role. Such weapons would be a poor choice as one’s sole personal defense arm.
Large, or full-sized revolvers generally hold six rounds (though a few designs hold seven), have at least a 4” barrel, and usually have fully adjustable rear sights (adjustable for windage–side-to-side, and elevation–up and down). This class is generally considered to be “duty” revolvers of the kind a diminishing number of police forces still use. Unless one is a large, strong person, concealing such weapons is difficult. They are best carried in exposed holsters on substantial belts. It is possible to conceal them with the right holsters, but they are big, heavy handguns built to take substantial wear from powerful cartridges over the long term.
Medium framed revolvers also share barrels of the same length, but are lighter and not as solidly built. However, they will still provide many years of service for most people. Many models have barrels from 2” to 3” and some do not have adjustable rear sights. They are generally somewhat smaller and weigh somewhat less than fully sized revolvers, offering reasonable concealment possibilities for some–usually larger–people. Medium and large revolvers, particularly with four inch barrels, are generally hard for short waisted people–women–to conceal.
Small frame revolvers like the Ruger LCR commonly have barrels of around 2” length and are of only five round capacity. They rarely have adjustable rear sights. Most rear sights are merely notches or grooves machined—or molded–in the top strap of the weapon. They commonly have small grips. Such weapons are designed in recognition of the fact that full and even medium sized revolvers are not easily concealed. Some revolvers in this class have aluminum, titanium or alloy frames for reduced weight, but their barrels and cylinders generally must be steel. Some of the newer weapons in this class, such as the Ruger LCR are being manufactured with frames and some parts made of polymer to reduce weight as much as possible.
ADVANTAGES OF MODERN, DOUBLE-ACTION REVOLVERS: Because they have no separate safety devices, they are simple; pull the trigger and they go “bang.” In fact, long, heavy double action trigger pulls are usually thought to be an inherent safety feature, requiring the shooter to really intend to shoot to discharge the weapon. Revolvers do not have mechanical safety devices that must be manipulated in order to fire the weapon. On the other hand, short, light single action trigger pulls are, with justification, thought to be dangerous because they are far more prone to unintentional discharge. It is also easy to load and unload revolvers, and one can tell at a glance if they are loaded. Properly maintained, revolvers–particularly in stainless steel–can last a lifetime. Stainless steel does rust, but is far less susceptible to rust than other steels commonly used in firearms.
Revolvers represent well-developed technology and manufacturing methods and are relatively free of inherent malfunctions. With speed loaders, they can be reloaded reasonably quickly–during my police days with revolvers, I could reload in the 3 second range, sometimes less–though experts can reload with amazing speed even without speed loaders. High quality revolvers are also potentially more accurate than many semiautomatic pistols, though relatively few shooters are skilled enough to notice any actual difference at common handgun ranges. There is a difference between intrinsic accuracy—the accuracy potential of the design–and practical accuracy, which is what a given person can hope to accomplish with a given handgun.
With the wide range of different materials and shapes available, most people can adapt a given revolver to their unique hand by simply exchanging factory for aftermarket grips. Revolvers are also capable of handling the largest, most powerful pistol cartridges, but only with very large, heavy and hard-recoiling weapons.
DISADVANTAGES OF REVOLVERS: The higher the bore axis (the barrel) of a handgun is above the hand, the greater the recoil effect on the shooter. Virtually all revolvers, by design, suffer from this inherent problem, a problem made worse by more powerful cartridges and lighter weapons. It is ironic that in an attempt to make some revolvers more easily carried and concealed, manufacturers have also greatly increased the recoil effect (from light weight), muzzle blast and report (from short barrels), small grips, and lessened accuracy (by means of shorter barrels and small, non-adjustable sights). Small .38 caliber revolvers are notorious for their sharp—even painful—recoil and dazzling muzzle flash and report.
The long, heavy trigger pulls commonly considered a safety feature also make accuracy difficult. When shooting, one must essentially isolate the trigger finger from the rest of the hand and hold the entire weapon absolutely steady through the entire trigger pull. Old time shooters learned this difficult skill by balancing coins (flat, not on edge!) on their front sights while practicing double action trigger pulls. As one might imagine, people with larger, stronger hands–men–have the advantage here.
While speed loaders greatly lessen reloading times, they tend to be inconvenient for most people for concealed carry because they must be as large as the cylinder of the revolver. In addition, many grips interfere with speed loaders and often have to be “relieved,” which consists of removing any grip material in the way. This is not particularly difficult, but does take some skill and specialized tools.
Some suggest that revolvers are utterly reliable, but revolvers are very dirt sensitive and can and do malfunction. This is one of the primary reasons that virtually every military issues semi-automatic pistols rather than revolvers. Even with well-maintained revolvers a tiny piece of grit under the ejector “star” can actually jam the cylinder, preventing the gun from firing. Remember that the round aligned with the barrel at rest will not be fired. When the trigger is pulled (or the hammer is cocked to single action mode), the cylinder rotates to the next cartridge, so if the cylinder won’t rotate, the shooter will not be able to fire a single round. Unfortunately, virtually anything other than grit under an ejector star that causes a malfunction in a revolver is due to breakage of or damage to internal parts and cannot be quickly repaired in the field without tools. If one is under fire, this is a significant weakness indeed. Revolvers much be kept scrupulously clean, but many designs are ironically time consuming and demanding to clean thoroughly and properly, with six to seven separate tubes–the chambers and the barrel–requiring careful attention.
NOTE: A malfunction is a stoppage that can be fixed in the field, by hand, usually within a few seconds. A jam is a stoppage that cannot be fixed quickly by hand and which usually requires tools and/or replacement parts and a trip to the shop.
Even expensive, top of the line revolvers have the same potential weaknesses. In my early days of police work, I carried Colt Pythons, very expensive, very accurate, high quality weapons, as did several of my police shooting buddies. One day at a range session, one of my friend’s brand new Pythons suddenly started sending bullets down and to the side of the target. He couldn’t figure it out and asked me to take a look. I peered down the sights and was amazed to find that the barrel had come unpinned and was, under the recoil of .357 duty (fully-charged) magnum ammunition, unscrewing itself from the frame. The front sight was cocked at an angle! I opened the cylinder, unscrewed the barrel with my bare hands and handed my open-mouthed pal the two parts, announcing deadpan that I was reasonably sure I’d identified the problem. A good gunsmith quickly and cheaply fixed the gun, but even the best handguns can experience unexpected problems.
Cylinder cranes and ejector rods are likewise prone to damage. Anyone flipping out a cylinder or violently snapping it back into place with the flip of a hand ala TV gunslingers is looking for a bent crane and a lengthy, expensive visit to a gunsmith. Whenever the cylinder is out of the frame–as in ejecting spent rounds from the cylinder and/or reloading–those parts must be handled with gentle care. The kind of idiotic handling of revolvers one sees in movies or on TV is highly likely to result in damage that will quickly render a revolver an expensive paperweight. Don’t get me started on people who “spin” cylinders. Not only is such foolishness utterly unnecessary, at the least it causes accelerated wear on fragile parts, and at worst, can damage the weapon, leading to malfunctions at the worst possible times.
The exposed hammers of small revolvers are prone to hanging up in pockets or clothing. Many manufacturers have designed smaller, or “bobbed” hammers, made shrouds around external hammers, or have even made internal hammer designs to address this well-known problem. The aforementioned Ruger LCR has an internal hammer and cannot be fired single action. Careful holster design can minimize this unfortunate snagging tendency.
The largest problem with revolvers remains their long, often rough double action triggers. This factor makes revolvers much more difficult to shoot with consistent accuracy than semi-automatic pistols. This problem can be addressed, to a degree, with an action job by a competent gunsmith, but that’s additional expense, commonly in the $200+ range. Some revolvers now come from the factory with much better triggers than one would have found in the past, but this is still an issue to be considered.
It should also be noted that this problem is exacerbated with smaller, lighter more concealable weapons, and made even worse by the recoil effects of full-powered, as opposed to lighter loaded target, ammunition. Smaller men and many women often find long shooting sessions to be actually painful, and any weapon that is painful to shoot will dramatically degrade accuracy and effectiveness. It is ironic that even full-sized, heavy revolvers that are poor choices for concealment can suffer from this problem, though to a lesser degree and requiring more rounds fired.
Consider the experience of a police department for which I once worked. In the mid-90’s that agency was run by an anti-gun chief, and the issued department weapon was the S&W model 686, a stainless steel, 4” barrel, .357 magnum revolver. As an issued weapon–the only weapon allowed for every police officer–it was a mediocre choice. On one hand, it was–and is–a high quality, reliable weapon. Its stainless steel construction made it easier to maintain, and the 125 grain hollowpoint duty cartridge was an effective choice. On the other, the revolver was very large, heavy, had substantial muzzle blast and report, substantial real and felt recoil, was difficult to conceal, and the only concession allowed to the individual officer was the choice of a few different styles of rubberized grips.
Female officers had a hell of a time with the weapon. We used to joke-–sort of-–that even if we missed, the bad guys would be incinerated by the muzzle blast. Night-firing qualifications were wonders to behold, each round fired illuminating the area like a lightning strike. I had no difficulty with revolvers, but I became a police shooter in a time of few reliable semiautomatic pistol choices. I was also willing to reload and devote considerable time to developing my skills. As a result, I became adept with the revolver, even earning the top shooter honor in my first basic academy class.
I’m also a 6’, 200+ pound man with larger than average hands and greater than average strength. Consider too that I was–and am–an avid shooter, so I was far more practiced than most of my compatriots (most cops aren’t shooters–really). Even so, after 50 rounds of qualification with full-charge cartridges, I was feeling the effects of fatigue in my hands and arms and glad to be done. Many of my smaller, less experienced colleagues absolutely hated to shoot their handguns, wincing with each report and actually experiencing bruises and abrasions on their hands. Their qualification scores reflected this reality. Still, if my only option for a duty weapon had to be a stainless steel Smith and Wesson in .357 caliber, the 686 would probably be my choice.
Because of the necessary width of their cylinders, overall configurations, and their weight distribution, revolvers are generally wider and more difficult to conceal than semiautos. One final observation is that because of their designs, revolvers can become “out of time.” In other words, the cylinder no longer precisely aligns cartridges with the barrel. This can cause splashback of portions of a bullet, and in extreme cases, injure the shooter or bystanders. While this is usually not seen outside of significant mechanical failure or significantly worn (as in mechanically degraded) weapons, it is something about which to always be aware with revolvers.
Police experience is revealing. Police agencies transitioning from revolvers to semiautos have commonly found that the hit ratio of their officers, on the range and in actual gunfights, significantly improves. This was my experience when an agency of some 100 officers for which I worked transitioned to GLOCKs in .40 S&W caliber. Officers who struggled to make minimum passing scores with their .357 revolvers were consistently scoring much higher with much less effort. Officers who were highly skilled demonstrated far less variation. One hundred percent shooters are 100% shooters for a reason. In other words, semiautos are generally easier to shoot accurately (practical accuracy) than revolvers despite the fact that revolvers may have greater intrinsic accuracy.
Despite this litany of potential problems, modern, quality revolvers are generally quite safe and reliable and will usually fire every round without fail right out of the box. However, no one should carry or rely on any firearm for self-defense without function verification and familiarization training consisting of firing several hundred rounds through the weapon.
Next week: semiautomatic pistols.
Mike’s Home blog is Stately McDaniel Manor.