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By William C Montgomery on March 25, 2010

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.

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  1. Couldn't agree more, Bill (nice to see another TTAC'er over here.) My affection for revolvers is in the genes: When my dad deployed to Vietnam in 1966 he took his Smith and Wesson revolver, figuring it would be more reliable than the Army .45 he would be issued. From the day I got my first handgun in 1983, I've always had at least one revolver, and a revolver is my choice for a "car gun" when I go camping or exploring in the back country.

    I think we sometimes forget how choices for something as functional as a sidearm are often as subject to the whims of fad and fashion as clothing and cars. Semi autos became sexy and cool in the 1980s and pretty soon every police department in the country "had" to switch to a high capacity semi – and when they did, their rate of negligent discharges skyrocketed.

    BTW, one other safety point in the Revolvers favor is that you can pick up a revolver and tell at a glance whether it's loaded or not – the rims of the cartridges will be quite apparent behind the cylinder, not to mention the fact that the bullet-ends will be visible through the front of the cylinder.

    I would actually dispute your claim that revolvers are less expensive, though. Certainly a used revolver can be had for less than a new semi auto, but prices for new revolvers are, to be honest, ridiculous (unless you are talking about bargain basement crap like a Rossi or an RG, which no self-respecting gun owner should consider anyway.) I paid more for my wife's Smith and Wesson 642 (J frame, airweight .38 snubby) than I did for my own Glock 23. And have you priced the Smith and Wesson model 17 in .22lr? You could buy a rack full (or at least a brace) of semi auto .22 pistols for the cost of one .22 DA revolver.

    I think this may be because of the hand-fitting that DA revolvers require. I've often said that a semi-auto pistol is a machine, while a well made revolver is a work of art.

    • Muzzle flash and the noise a gun makes are often overlooked when making recommendations for home defense. I sure don’t want to use dad’s quail gun an Army riot gun with a Polly Choke and Cutts Compensator put on to get an 18 and 1/4 inch barrel and 175 dB muzzle blast. The choke and compensator work very well I have killed ducks on crossing shots at 50 yard a few times. If I shot it in the house at night I would be deaf and blind after the fist shot.

      Full bore loads in 357 Magnum are almost as bad.

  2. I do note that the Ruger LCR lists for $525, while the Ruger LCP lists for $364.

    I like revolvers, but I'm trying to get my mind around the application. For defending my house, Farago suggests I should choose a shotgun. If I had to deposit the receipts after closing, I suspect I would want as many rounds as I could cram into a 9mm pistol. In fact the magazine capacity argument makes a lot of sense to me because my eyes aren't as good as they used to be, I won't ever shoot as accurately as a cop, and I have to expect that any attacker will have a full magazine instead of five or six revolver rounds.

    • First, thanks for taking the time to read this and thank you for your comments. We don't get enough of this around here. Now here's my feedback…

      The LCP shoots a .380 ACP which is two big steps down in stopping power from the .38 Special. The LCR has also already been recalled once because it tended to discharge on its own if you dropped it. And it's magazine capacity is only one more than the LCR, so I have a hard time getting excited about the gun whatever the price.

      I don't believe in a one size fits all solution to personal defense, which is why my recommendation was for "most people most of the time." Shotguns certainly have their place but they would not be my primary self-defense recommendation for most people most of the time. Consider: 1) shotguns can be unwieldy in the confined confines of a home, 2) someone with a shotgun is more easily disarmed by a close-range assailant because of its long barrel that can be grabbed and leveraged, and 3) you can't conceal a shotgun.

      I don't know what kind of attacker you are expecting, but it's hard for me to imagine that one would continue an assault on you after you discharge a round or two in their direction. Once the first shot is fired all an assailant is going to want to do is get the hell out of there, not keep swapping lead with you until you are empty. They'd rather find an easy target who won't shoot back.

      Get an automatic if you prefer, but keep up on the maintenance (i.e. regularly emptying the magazine) and train, train, train so that should the worst happen, your body reacts automatically. Most people don't do this, thus my recommendation.

      • I don't have the foggiest idea who is likely to attack me. Brad reminded us that some guy might crash into the restaurant and shoot all of us just because he can. We've laid a few folk off so there might be some disgruntled coworkers. But we can't carry in the city, and even if, my bosses wouldn't like it.

        So my only use would be to defend my house against burglary or invasion. Revolvers have some great attributes, and would certainly adequate if I can trust the bad guys to be the fairly timid souls that you describe, but what if they're meth-heads? If I'm going to spend $500 – $1,000 on a weapon, holster, lock, safe, etc., why not keep up in the arms race?

        • Donal:

          Brad reminded us that some guy might crash into the restaurant and shoot all of us just because he can. We’ve laid a few folk off so there might be some disgruntled coworkers. But we can’t carry in the city, and even if, my bosses wouldn’t like it.

          Then for sure don't get one of Farago's shotguns. It's awful tough to get one into Luby's at lunchtime or into the office.

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