Aug 02

Revolver vs. Semi-Automatic

If you really want a tale as old as time (well, almost), look no further than the debate between revolvers and semi-automatics! Militaries and police forces the world over debated this for decades, and today the argument has been kept alive by firearms enthusiasts and concealed carriers. Though the first qualification is always, “What are you going to use it for?”, we’ll just cover the general differences and allow you to reach your own conclusions.

Six for Sure

Revolvers are strong, rugged, and classic. They’ve been with us for centuries, and will likely remain for centuries more. The expression “six for sure” refers to the seeming inability of revolvers to fail. This isn’t always the case, as anything mechanical can and eventually will break down, but the revolver platform will probably be one of the last things to go.

IMG_4077Some would argue that a revolver seems more intimidating to the bad guy(s).

That being said, when a revolver does fail, it tends to be catastrophic, requiring the services of a gunsmith. If the cylinder can’t turn, you can’t fire the gun. If the hammer won’t cock, you can’t fire the gun. If the cylinder latch won’t latch, you can’t fire the gun. If the timing is off, you can’t fire the gun. Well, you probably can on that last one, actually. But you shouldn’t. This is uncommon, but it does happen. I personally have had a revolver cylinder bind up on me before, but only once (as compared to the more common jams I’ve had with semi-automatics). If you do choose to utilize one of these handguns, make sure that everything is in working order somewhat regularly. You should be doing this with any firearm you own.

Revolvers are generally chambered for bigger, heavier cartridges. They have their equivalents on the semi-automatic side of the divide, but they tend to throw more lead downrange as a general rule. Some of the most common chamberings for revolvers are as follows:

.22 Long Rifle
.38 Special
.357 Magnum
.44 Special
.44 Magnum

Two big advantages pop up on the revolver side of the debate in regard to ammunition. First, they can handle any brand of ammunition. Doesn’t matter who makes it or how it’s loaded: so long as it will chamber and all of your dimensions are correct, the revolver will fire it.

Second, a revolver chambered in .357 Magnum can fire .38 Special, too. The two bullets are the same size, though the cases are different lengths. This means that a .357 Magnum cannot fire in a .38 Special revolver, nor would it be safe. You can go smaller with a bigger gun, but you can’t go bigger with a smaller one. The same is true for .44 Magnum. 44 Special will chamber, but not the other way around. Basically, you get two calibers for the price of one.

In addition, revolvers are chambered all the way up to .454 Casull and .500 S&W (currently the most powerful handgun cartridge on the planet at present). These calibers are great for people who find themselves in bear or other dangerous predator territory and don’t want to lug around a rifle or shotgun. I wouldn’t recommend carrying either of these calibers outside of that scenario, however.

Furthermore, little 5-shot J frame type revolvers are excellent for concealed carry. They can fit into a waistband or pocket holster and utterly disappear. The natural curves of a revolver tend to help it blend well with the fabric around it.

IMG_20151210_155732327_HDRA Smith & Wesson Model 36. 5 shots of .38 Special in a small, easily concealable package. This was a favorite of police detectives for decades.

Revolvers don’t require the use of springs to cycle the action in the same way semis do. This means that they can be run dry and still function reliably. Again, I don’t advocate this kind of abuse, but if you find yourself in that situation, it’d probably be alright.

One of the biggest pros is that revolvers are simple to operate. No safety. Just aim and squeeze the trigger. This negates the chance of forgetting to turn off your safety, which is disastrous when seconds count. Revolvers tend to have heavy triggers that act as their safeties in place of switches, levers, or other fancy options.

Now that we’ve glorified the old wheel gun (of which I’ll always be a fan), let’s talk about some of the inherent flaws.

The first is capacity. You may have six for sure, but you had better make those six count. Yes, there are 8-shot revolvers out there, but they’re pretty uncommon outside of the .22 caliber versions. A higher round count makes for a bigger cylinder.

Of course, you can always carry more ammunition with you. Speed loaders, speed strips, and moon clips cut down on the reload time, and if you practice with it you can manage to reload ALMOST as fast as changing a magazine on a semi-auto. However, it takes quite a bit of practice and muscle memory. To reload with a speed loader requires aligning all six rounds with all six empty chambers at once. Have people done it under pressure? Yes. But I don’t want to be one of them. Speed loaders also tend to be bulky, and obviously visible if stuffed into a pocket.

Ultimately, these are the only two real disadvantages outside of a total breakdown of the firearm. Unfortunately, they’re two disadvantages that have signaled the death-knell of the wheel gun in military and police circles. Civilian carriers will probably keep utilizing them for years to come, however. Some people just prefer simplicity and a proven track record.

No One Ever Wished for Less Ammo

“No one who has ever been in a gunfight has ever wished they had less ammunition.” Thus saith they on the semi-automatic side of the debate. They’re certainly not wrong. The modern semi-automatic handgun doesn’t work alone: it brings a lot of friends to the party. Usually between 8 to 30 of them per magazine.

Capacity is the single greatest reason why most people have chosen to go with the semi-automatic. Granted, there are plenty of single-stack semi’s that only hold six rounds, but even these can be reloaded faster than a revolver.

Though the FBI data tells us that most incidents are over in three to five seconds, with three to five shots being fired, there are exceptions. You may encounter multiple attackers who don’t run when fired upon (especially if they themselves are armed and willing to return fire), or you may encounter an attacker who has some illicit narcotic coursing through their veins, making them impervious to pain and fatigue. In such a case, only a direct hit to the central nervous system will be effective in bringing them down. In the event of multiple determined attackers, you’ll need to have enough firepower to stay alive, whether that means standing and fighting or fleeing as best you can. There is always a need for more ammunition.

This is not to say that you want to simply “spray and pray”. You need to practice with whatever firearm you choose. There are far too many people who rely upon lots of ammunition like some kind of magical talisman. These people never practice with their firearms, and hope that throwing lots of lead in the general direction of their assailant will keep them safe. This is not typically the case.

Magazines are much faster to change, even for those who have had little to no practice. Press your magazine release and the spent magazine falls out. Insert a fresh one and rack the slide, and you’re back in action for another 8-30 rounds.

Semi-automatics tend to allow for much greater customization than revolvers. They have a plethora of moving parts when compared to the older technology of the wheel gun (at least in regards to the main components the user interacts with). There are so many different manufacturers making all different sizes of semi-automatic that there’s virtually no reason you can’t find something to fit your desires.

Greater variability exists within semi-automatics in regard to ammunition. Though the cartridges are not interchangeable like on some revolvers (though some pistols are similar enough to allow a barrel swap to a different caliber), there tends to be a much greater variety than with revolvers. The most common and/or popular calibers with semi automatics are as follows.

.22 Long Rifle
.25 ACP
.32 ACP
.380 ACP
9mm Luger/Parabellum
.357 SIG
.40 S&W
.45 ACP

Some of these are more popular than others (.357 SIG and 10mm have a small but loyal enough following to keep them alive). However, there is something for everyone on the semi-automatic side of the debate.

DSCF4258The Ruger LCP is a small .380 pistol meant for pocket carry. It is very popular.

So, let’s get into the disadvantages of the semi-automatic wonder pistols.

While the magazines are easy to swap and can hold more ammunition, they are also the most common failure point on semi-automatics. Your magazines must be free of defects for the firearm itself to function. This means nothing bent, dented, dirty, etc. A bad magazine can make for a really bad day. This is probably the best reason to always have a spare magazine nearby.

There is the possibility of “limp wristing” a semi-auto. Because the slide relies on recoil to eject the spent casing and load a fresh cartridge, you must hold the firearm firmly so that it has a steady platform on which to slide. Otherwise, your body will absorb some of the recoil or move in such a way that the slide does not have enough clearance or energy to eject or load. This leads to a malfunction, or jam. Fortunately, jams are usually fixable rather quickly, unlike on a revolver.

Another culprit of jamming is ammunition. Semi autos are reliant upon the ammunition fed into them in order to cycle the action properly. Unlike a revolver, some brands of ammunition will simply not reliably function in some firearms. Each semi auto is different, so you’ll have to go through the paces to find out what works for your individual pistol and what doesn’t.

And the Winner Is…

So, which do you prefer? Though I’ve always loved the revolver, I must admit that I do feel more comfortable with a semi-auto. But that’s just me. Your mileage may vary. In the end, you need to pick what you feel comfortable with and enjoy the most! It’s just like math – there is always more than one answer. Or, wait…maybe that’s wrong.


Check out our video on this subject!

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