I know what you’re thinking—“Ugh…not another rehash of the most trite and hackneyed argument in the history of gun magazines!” Yup. I’m afraid so. Why? Because the argument has not been settled yet.
The “revolver versus auto” argument has gone on for more than a century. The auto quickly won on the military side, but not until the last quarter of the 20th century did the American police establishment make the same decision. On the armed citizen side of the house, things were a lot more fungible. For most of the 20th century, the snub-nose revolver was the most popular concealed carry handgun among “civilians.” Today, the autoloader collectively outsells it, but you’ll still find Concealed Carry Weapon (CCW) classes where more armed citizens bring snubby revolvers than semi-automatic pistols.
Go to a high-speed defensive shooting class, however, and you’ll see predominantly, if not entirely, “square” guns instead of “round” ones.
The reason the debate persists is that there are some very solid arguments on either side of the debate. Anyone who thinks the matter is cut and dried for everyone has probably oversimplified the matter and missed a few points.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of each. In many ways, the strength of one platform is the weakness of the other, and vice versa.
Why The Revolver Remains
Even taking the auto advantages into consideration, there are reasons why the revolver not only has yet to disappear into museums, but remains a strong seller—particularly in the personal defense-oriented small handgun market.
Simplicity of administrative handling remains a strong advantage of the double-action revolver, particularly the double-action-only style. From new shooters to the elderly and/or debilitated, it is easier to swing out a cylinder than to rack a slide against strong spring pressure. When that cylinder swings out naked, all its chambers are easy to check by sight and feel. It’s easier for a live cartridge to be left un-noticed in an autoloader’s firing chamber.
Reliability was the cardinal advantage of the revolver for most of the duration of the long-standing argument, though the super-reliable autoloaders of today, typified by the Glock, have largely lev-eled that side of the playing field. Even today, though, the revolver will run with everything from blanks to snakeshot loads to light “granny rounds” to Elmer Keith Memorial Magnums. The autopistol has a more finite window of reliability with this broad array of ammunition, being geared to the pressure curves of a limited range of power levels. Moreover, a revolver will fire if held in a limp-wristed grasp, and that’s not true of most of even the most highly evolved semi-automatics.
Faster handling is sometimes a re-volver advantage, depending how it’s carried. When the gun is hidden tight to the body—ankle holsters, belly bands and particularly pocket carry—the flat-sided grip frame of the auto requires the drawing hand to dig a little bit to get a secure drawing grasp. The rounded shape of a revolver’s grip-frame allows the hand to slide more easily onto the stocks, allowing for faster access from the pocket and some other carry locations.
CQB muzzle contact shots definitely favor the revolver, as a rule of thumb. When the gun’s muzzle must be pressed against the attacker’s body in a truly desperate self-defense situation, most autopistols will have their barrel-slide assemblies pushed out of battery, and will not fire. (The service-size Springfield Armory XD and the pocket size Beretta Nano are rare exceptions to this.) Any modern revolver, however, will fire five for five or six for six in that situation, and the only side effect will be that the muzzle blast will be directed into our would-be murder-er’s body, magnifying his wound(s) and stopping him all the sooner.
Accuracy out of the box will, dollar for dollar, generally favor the revolver. Back in 1988, the police department I then served traded in its Smith & Wesson Model 13 .357 Mag service revolvers for the same manufacturer’s Model 4506 .45 caliber semi-automatics. The .45 ACPs proved to be satisfyingly accurate: they averaged about 2.5-inch groups at 25 yards. That was nice, but the revolvers we traded them in for could shoot about the same groups at twice the distance, 50 yards. This fine-point difference in accuracy is usually not decisive, but in rare instances, it can be. It becomes more important to the rural dweller whose sidearm might be used at a distance on a four-legged target, and not just “typical self-defense distance” against a two-legged deadly threat.
Lack of maintenance (as opposed to abuse, a different thing) is a situation that a revolver survives better than an auto. With most autopistols, manufacturers recommend that springs be changed every 3,000 to 5,000 rounds. By contrast, most revolvers in heavy use today are still running with the same springs that were in them when they were shipped new from the factory. Autos need regular lubrication on their slide/frame contact surfaces; even if they haven’t been fired lately, lubricant can drain from its own weight in carrying, or evaporate. The revolver can run just fine with its innards completely dry. Thus, while losing to the auto in terms of resisting abuse, the revolver has a clear advantage in surviving lack of routine maintenance.
Revolvers have advantages in ankle carry. The upper rear edge of an auto’s slide generally bulges the trouser cuff area; the revolver has no bulge in that area. Carried close to the ground where dust and dirt are stirred up with every step, an ankle-holstered gun quickly gets covered with a fine film of grit. Many small pocket autos can jam on that accumulated crud. Revolvers, even when coated with a film of dust and cobwebs, will still fire reliably.
Rise Of The Auto
Back around 1983, I wrote a book called The Semiautomatic Pistol in Police Service and Self-Defense. Prior to that, I had written in gun magazines why I felt the autoloader had certain distinct advantages for law enforcement.
Firepower was the big reason cops changed. There were the occasional cases where a cop ran his six-shooter dry and was trying to reload when the bad guy—more often than not, armed with a higher-capacity autopistol—shot him dead. Such incidents led LAPD to go from the six-shot S&W .38 Special to the 16-shot Beretta 9mm, and later other autos… which led NYPD to move forward from the .38 revolver to “officer’s choice” of three 16-shot 9mms…which led California Highway Patrol to switch from six-shot .38s and .357s to Smith & Wesson .40s with twice the revolver’s cartridge capacity—the list goes on.
Faster reloading was part of the firepower advantage of the auto, though some advocates thought of it as one more, separate item on the credit side of the semi-automatic’s ledger. While a skilled revolver shooter can reload a six-gun faster than a new shooter or a clumsy criminal can reload an auto, with equal levels of skill and practice the auto is simply faster to recharge. That’s true in an extended firefight, and it’s true in households where, to please an anti-gun spouse, the pro-gun member of the household has compromised by keeping the handgun unloaded and will have to load it to bring it into action to defend self and family.
Hit potential generally im-proved with the autos. The reason was that their more modern designs put out the same or greater power level with less recoil and muzzle jump, and many autoloaders (including traditional double-action autos, at least after the first shot) had shorter, easier trigger pulls than the revolvers they replaced. Starting in 1967, when they became the first big department to go with 9mm Smith & Wesson pistols, the Illinois State Police saw their hit ratio in actual gun-fights almost triple over the Colt and S&W revolvers they’d had before—with the same excellent level of training.
Proprietary nature to the user was a much-overlooked factor. Autos could be had with manual safety devices as part of the platform. The skilled, legitimate owner would reflexively off- safe the gun as part of the draw, losing no real tactical advantage…but if the bad guy got the gun away from him and tried to shoot him with it, the criminal would have to fumble with the unfamiliar pistol to find and release the safety. This has saved many lives in the past. It’s not present on autos that don’t have manual safeties, of course, but this factor has simply saved too many lives to be ignored.
Similarly, pistols with magazine disconnector safeties allow the legitimate user to press the magazine release button and “kill the gun” if he feels the bad guy is gaining control of the weapon in the struggle. There are police de-partments coast to coast that insist on this feature for this reason. The revolver has no such analogous mechanism.
Relevant training was another bonus that came with the auto. With the revolver, it was customary among police then and some armed citizens now to train and practice with low-power target loads, which ill prepared them for the recoil
and muzzle blast of the full power ammunition they would be using “for real.” The design of the autoloader was such that it would often jam on low-power loads, forcing the user to practice with full-power ammunition that was more “reality-based” and “street-relevant.”
Abuse resistance was a big factor in the early adoption of the autopistol by the military powers of the world, and while less important on the street than on the battlefield, was still a consid-eration. A finely fitted double-action
revolver, if dropped in the thick mud of a World War I trench or in a mucky ditch alongside a modern American roadway, might be out of action for the duration. Most “mil-spec” service autos would continue to fire after such abuse, their slide mechanisms literally chewing up the dirt and spitting it out.
There are more than just the mech-anical pros and cons to consider. Habit-uation can certainly be a factor. The retired cop who carried and qualified with a revolver for his entire career may simply be more comfortable with that familiar platform in retirement. The Marine Corps pistol team member who has logged a six-figure round count with
a 1911 .45 will probably be more com-fortable carrying that same kind of .45 ACP on his own time.
For concealed carry, the size and shape of the gun may be determining factors. The flat silhouette of the auto-loader tends to ride more comfortably inside the waistband for all-day carry than the lumpy cylinder of a revolver.
The rounded profile of the revolver may allow a faster “grab and draw” than the square-edged auto when a pocket holster is the chosen method of carry.
And if the shooter is still in a quandary as to what to choose, the option remains to go with one of each. There
was no stronger advocate of the double-action revolver than Bill Jordan. I knew the man. He generally carried the
Smith & Wesson .357 Combat Magnum revolver he conceptualized under his sport coat…but he told me he also had a 15-shot Smith & Wesson Model 59 9mm semi-automatic in the glove box of his car. Col. Jeff Cooper was the high priest of the 1911-pattern large caliber semi-automatic pistol, and he almost always wore one on his right hip. I knew him, too, and he wrote that he occasion-ally carried a J-frame Smith & Wesson snub-nose .38 when wearing a tailored suit, and that he bought one for his wife to carry as well.
If revolver or semi-automatic is too tough a question to resolve, then a revolver and semi-automatic pistol is a perfectly satisfactory answer.