Semi-Automatic vs Revolver

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by Sandy Keathley

The semi-automatic handgun is now the highest level of technology in the pistol world, and has been around for over 50 years. Police were slow to adopt it, initially, but as designs improved, even they were won over. There are several advantages:

  • It fits the hand better, especially a full-size gun, like the 1911-style
  • It can carry more ammo, 12-18 rounds for a service sidearm (6-10 for concealables)
  • The reciprocating action of the slide absorbs much of the recoil, providing either greater accuracy, more available firepower, or both
  • Many different chamberings available, from .22 to .45 or greater

The revolver, on the other hand, is simple, old technology, going back over 150 years. It has few moving parts, but is limited in capacity, has a somewhat unwieldy grip, and sends all the recoil up your arm. They can be painful to shoot, which is a huge drawback for a less experienced shooter.

So why does anyone even use these anymore? Two words: idiot proof.

They never jam, almost never fail to fire (except for a faulty cartridge), and if they do, just pull the trigger again. They have no safety, no release levers, no buttons or switches to learn, except the cylinder release. Point, pull the trigger.

I’ll admit, I was never attracted to revolvers (low-tech) until I bought one. Now it is one of my favorite guns. It is the one I keep loaded all the time, at home. Because I wanted it to be fun to shoot, and accurate, I bought a Smith & Wesson 686 in .357 Magnum (also .38 Special) with a 6-inch barrel. It is very well made, solid steel, heavy as a brick, and easy to shoot well. It’s way too big to conceal, but for a house gun, can’t be beat.

A revolver for concealed carry is problematic, because a short, light revolver is not fun to shoot. It can save your life, but I would prefer a student carry a gun they will actually practice with sometimes. However, there is something to be said for having no doubts whatever that a gun will fire 6 times.

This is not to cast doubt on a semi; an expensive one, with good ammo, might go 1000 rounds without a jam. Others might go 200-300 rounds, but eventually, one of these things will happen:

  • You limp-wrist a shot
  • The slide grooves get dirty
  • The feed ramp gets dirty
  • A magazine spring or slide return spring gets weak

Most people don’t spend time worrying about all these what-ifs, and most people who carry a concealed weapon shoot often and clean often, so it’s not a problem. But what about the person who buys a gun to keep at home, puts it in a drawer, and doesn’t touch it for 6 months? That person, I submit to you, should have a revolver.

Disclaimer: one very popular use for the revolver, not relevant here, is a type of competitive shooting called “Cowboy Action Shooting”, which uses single-action, Western-style revolvers. These would generally not be used for home defense.

Author: Sandy Keathley

NRA-Certified Firearms Instructor