The Gentleman Adventurer on Handgun Selection

Posted on February 25, 2010 by


Mythbusters: Revolvers vs. Semi-Automatic

“Revolvers vs. Semi-Automatic pistols.” It’s the age-old question that has plagued gun owners since the choice first became an option. It has been the subject of numerous gun magazine articles and numerous heated debates in online message boards.  Usually, these articles and discussions reach the same conclusions every time: revolvers are more reliable and simple, but the semi-automatic is the only real “serious” tool for self-defense when it comes to handguns. We’ve heard it so much we start to believe it. But the lines are not nearly so cut-and-dried as that. There are some common misconceptions or “myths” that need to be debunked.

Myth: Revolvers are more reliable

Reliable? Reliable how? Reliable with what? As far as just basic function goes, a quality revolver is neither more nor less reliable than say, a Glock or a Sig Sauer pistol. When you start getting into the cheaper (and by cheaper I mainly mean lower quality) guns, you can have issues regardless of the platform. The only way in which the reliability of a revolver really trumps that of a semi-automatic is in terms of ammunition. If you have bad ammo or a squib load and your semi-automatic fails to fire, you could be in trouble. With a revolver (and I’m talking Double-Action, here) you pull the trigger again and fire the next shot. One additional note: as the size of the semi-automatic pistol decreases, so generally does the reliability (though this varies amongst manufacturers). This is simply not true with revolvers. Myth: Partially debunked.

Myth: Semi-Automatics are easier to shoot

This is statement cannot be truly correct because there are such a wide variety of sizes of both types of handguns available. Speaking in terms of full-sized handguns, this is simply not true. In revolvers, S&W K-Frames and up have such smooth (and often adjustable) triggers, that they are quite easy to fire. Often, the feedback that a steady, constant trigger pull gives (as opposed to a Glock-style trigger on a pistol) actually is more pleasant for first-time shooters. Where revolvers get difficult to master is in the small snub varieties. These usually have heavy trigger pulls and feature a short sight radius, both factors that make accurate shooting difficult and even unpleasant for beginners. The snub (and to a much lesser extent, small semi-autos) is an “expert” weapon and the user should practice very frequently to be proficient enough to justify carrying such a weapon. Remember, you are responsible for the bullets you miss with, too. Myth: Debunked.

Myth: Revolvers are better beginner weapons

This is another sweeping statement that we should avoid. While it is often the case it is not necessarily true. The best beginner weapon is, in my opinion, whichever weapon the beginner has the most fun with. No one who is new to shooting is going to take it up as a hobby if their first experience is unpleasant. Whatever gun you start a new shooter on, just start small (a .22 in some variety is your best bet) and work up based on the person’s individual taste. The fact is, anybody who can drive a car can operate a semi-automatic pistol. Myth: Debunked.

Myth: Quote, “I can cycle 10rounds from a semi-auto twice as fast as anyone could with a double-action revolver simply because of mag capacity.”

Yet another sweeping statement, and not necessarily true. Anybody who says this clearly has not seen Jerry Miculek or Clint Smith shoot. For those who don’t know, Jerry is on record (and video) as firing six rounds on target, reloading, and firing six more rounds on target, all in under three seconds blindfolded. We aren’t all Jerry, I know, but he proves it can be done given practice. I personally have practiced extensively with speed loaders and can reload one as fast as most people can reload a semi-automatic pistol. With a moon-clip equipped revolver, appreciable differences in reload time are null. However, acquiring this kind of proficiency in speed reloads with a revolver takes much more practice than with a semi-automatic; another reason a semi-automatic may be a better beginner’s gun (or service gun – more on this later. Myth: Debunked.

Myth: Semi-automatics are more accurate than revolvers

Simply not factually accurate. This probably comes from people trying to fire 2” snubbies before learning trigger control on a full-size gun. A 2” snubbie is actually capable of more mechanical accuracy than a larger semi-automatic handgun. Get a vice and some sandbags and you can easily verify this for yourself. Myth: Debunked.

Myth: 6 Rounds is not enough for defensive purposes

Partially true. Nobody will ever argue that having more bullets could possibly save your life. However, this is where we need to look past our fantasies and actually look at the data. The fact is, with proper training, 6 shots is enough for 99% of the social situations that we as citizens are likely to face. Let me illustrate my point: The largest number of bad guys on record as being killed in a handgun fight with a single good guy is 5. The situation? The close quarters of a small jewelry store robbery. The good guy was properly trained and new his stuff. He fired 6 rounds from his handgun (which held 7 rounds) and dropped all 5 goblins.

Usually when the argument is made for the higher-capacity semi-automatic, those making the argument site this capacity as being necessary for taking on multiple opponents. But the above case clearly disproves this. Contrast this to a case I know of personally where the good guy in question emptied two magazines from his Springfield XD-9 and only scored three hits on the bad guy. The difference in the way these stories ended was the training of the man behind the gun, not the capacity of the gun itself. This will always be the case, regardless of the firearm in question. Guns do not win fights. Tool-using humans do.

Top this with the fact that statistics show that over 90% of self-defense shootings involve 2 or less shots fired (statistic courtesy the Rifleman).

Again, let’s lay aside our fantasies of massive zombie killing for a moment. If you are really engaged by 6-7 opponents, more bullets are probably not going to save you. As one instructor said, you need “minute of tennis shoe” and “more people on your side of the argument.” The fact is that most of us (Law Enforcement and military backgrounds included) simply do not have the speed or expertise in gunfighting to get us out of a situation that 5-6 shots cannot rectify.

This is not to say that you should not carry more than this. Bullets are kind of like toilet paper. You probably can’t have too many. But to say six “isn’t enough” is an incorrect blanket statement. For many people 6 may very well be enough. Also, keep in mind that there are several revolvers out there that hold 7 or even 8 rounds. And if 7 rounds of .357 Magnum isn’t enough… Again, you really need more people on your side of the argument.

A final thought; studies have shown that the more bullets a person has on tap, the less likely they are to place them with accuracy. This has to do with the ‘pray and spray’ phenomena. Remember that we are responsible for any stray bullets and who/what they may harm as well. Regardless of your handgun type or capacity, you should be practicing responsible accuracy. Myth: Debunked.

Myth: Semi-Automatics are the choice of the “experts”

Just who constitutes an “expert” these days is a truly loaded question. Experts can be anybody from the guy behind the counter at the gun store (who has probably never been in a gunfight in his life) to my granddad who used to be in the military. However, generally this argument gets broken up into two categories:

1)      Law Enforcement officers use semi-automatics, so the semi-automatic is the choice of the expert.

2)      The military uses semi-automatics, so the semi-automatic is the choice of the expert.

The first thing to take into account here is that firearms purchasing decisions are not made by gunfighters; they are made by bureaucrats. Proof positive of this fact is that the US military is still using a patently unreliable (by modern standards) assault rifle for desert operations, when there are clearly much more effective options available.

Also to take into account: military or law enforcement background does not mean someone is an expert when it comes to firearms. The amount of training actually provided for handguns in the military is minimal. Law enforcement officers get a little bit more, but by and large they are not encouraged to shoot. There is a good reason for this: police departments should not be in the business of hiring people who enjoy shooting. AS is the case with probably most of us, I know several police officers, all of whom get less trigger time than I do (and I am no expert).

There are exceptions, of course. SWAT teams, and Special Forces officers are usually very proficient at what they do. I respect and commend them for their service. But these men will also usually be the first to tell you that it is the training, not the weapon, that counts.

In the case of the Navy SEALS, though the standard issue weapon is a SIG or HK semi-automatic pistol, during Vietnam and at other times some of them have taken to carrying their personal .357 magnum revolvers into combat. Why? Because the .357 magnum could punch through home made body armor with monotonous reliability.

Now, all that said, the semi-automatic pistol makes a better service sidearm for on primary reason: reloading speed. Not because revolvers cannot be reloaded quickly, but rather because to learn to do so requires a greater amount of training. And police officers and most soldiers have better things to do with their time than practice reloading drills all day.

But if you take the “experts” – the people who have really defined modern firearms training; names like Cooper, Suarez, Askins, Jordan, Smith, Ayoob, and Keith – you will predominately see two handguns are the preference: either the M1911 (which is really a fine handgun, but, like the revolver, considered too complex and archaic for issue as a service weapon anymore) or the service-size double action revolver. Col. Charles Askins, probably the deadliest gunfighter (at least with a handgun) to have ever lived, preferred a Double-Action Colt over any other handgun and was never seen to use a semi-automatic. He was in more gunfights than I ever care to see, often against multiple opponents, but at no point in time was he hampered by not having “enough gun.”

Bill Jordan, probably the fastest gunfighter who has ever lived, states in No Second Place Winner that he considered the double-action revolver to be the best sidearm available. Jordan was a Border Patrol officer, back in the day when that meant a shootout against multiple opponents at least once a week. He saw more lead fly in his day than probably any of us combined ever will. And his weapon was a DA .357 Magnum. Until he recently passed away, he was considered one of, if not the world’s foremost experts in the area of gunfighting. Jordan’s policy was draw first, hit first, and hit where it counts. It worked pretty well for him.

Together, these men really invented the modern doctrine of pistol shooting. All the handgun training (and most of the sharpshooter stuff, too) taught in the military and law enforcement, sparse as it is, ultimately stems from their work. To say that the semi-automatic is necessarily the expert’s choice is incorrect. That said, some experts have and do choose these handguns. And they do the job very well indeed. But it is the man behind the trigger that made and will always make the difference. Myth: Debunked.

Myth: Among the concealed-handgun bunch, there are more semi-automatics carried

This is simply not true. In fact, a poll conducted by the USCCA magazine among its members showed revolvers ahead by a very slight percentage point. I blame the J-frame. Myth: Debunked.

Myth: Revolvers are harder to conceal

What is and isn’t hard to conceal depends entirely on the person’s build and body type. Many people actually find the revolver easier to conceal because its rounded shapes look more natural and print less against clothing than a similarly-sized semi-automatic. But this is all subjective. What is “easy” to carry for you may really be a very poor solution for me because of my body shape. Myth: Partially debunked.


A realistic look at the facts and at plausible – not fantasy – scenarios shows that revolvers and semi-automatics really come out as equally viable platforms. The revolver is more of an “expert” gun that the individual had better be prepared to train and train hard with if they want to use it to its full potential. A semi-automatic actually requires less discipline, and so (generally) makes a better service sidearm.

In the final analysis, though, it’s the gray matter between your head that is going to win the day. Each individual needs to find the combination of ergonomics, stopping power, and controllability that they feel most comfortable with. Then they should stick with it and practice often. That is all there really is to it. Any “mine is better” or “yours is better” comparisons are really so very much spinach.

It’s the Indian, not the arrow.