The Way of the Wheelgun: Getting to Know Your Revolver

Posted on April 27, 2011 by


When the warrior becomes skilled and understands his chosen weapons, when he cares for them with a sense of oneness knowing that they are used to defeat enemies, he can be self-assured as a warrior.” – Miyamoto Musashi, 16th Century.

The revolver is an elegant weapon. And that is what it is (at least for the purposes of this series of articles). It is a weapon. It has but a single ultimate purpose: to defeat enemies. But for all of that brutal utility, it is an elegant weapon nonetheless. Obi-Wan might have said it was a more “elegant weapon for a more civilized age.” In reality of course, the wheelgun has seen service in many ages, some of them not particularly civilized.

Over the course of this post we’ll be taking a look at the advantages and disadvantages of the double-action revolver as a platform. But let’s be honest with ourselves. There’s something about the revolver that just calls to some of us. It’s simple, yet elegant. Reserved, yet efficient. Conservative, but at the same time exotic.

And I think this is okay. Aesthetics shouldn’t be most important consideration. But the fact is that if you don’t like a gun you won’t practice with it, and if you don’t practice with it you shouldn’t carry it.

This brings us to my number-one rule for selecting a weapon for your personal defense: There is a minimally-acceptable standard of power, accuracy, and reliability. Beyond this, it all boils down to personal choice. Which handgun choice will get you to the range to practice more? Which handgun will get you excited most about carrying daily?

 Richard’s Minimum Handgun Performance Standards:

  • Power: 12” penetration in ballistic gelatin (achievable with any round from the .380 ACP and up, if you have the right load)
  • Accuracy: Should be able to consistently put rounds in a pie plate (5” circle) at 25 yards, if fired from a rest
  • Reliability: Should be able to feed 400 rounds straight without a hiccup

With that said, let’s spend some time getting familiar with defensive revolvers. First, let me give you a couple of basic assumptions we’re going to be working with based wholly on this writer’s experience and prejudices. We are specifically discussing double-action revolvers (I believe there can be a valid place in the defensive lineup for the single-action wheelgun, but I’m neither skilled nor experienced in their nuances) with barrels of 4” or less in length. I simply do not feel that longer barrels are practical for the concealed carry applications on which we will be primarily focused. And we will not be taking into consideration calibers more powerful than the .357 Magnum. In this author’s opinion, anything harder-recoiling (such as the .44 Magnum of Dirty Harry fame) is impractical for defensive use. With that said, if you happen to have a .44 Mag that you’d like to use, don’t fret. Just load it up with some .44 Specials and you’ll be good to go.

There are basically two sizes of revolvers. Keep in mind that when we talk about “size” for revolvers we are usually discussing frame size, not necessarily barrel length. One of the beauties of the wheelgun is that it is remarkably easy to get several variations on a single gun to meet the shooter’s specific needs by changing the barrel length. The two sizes are the Service and Compact classes of revolver.

Service Revolvers

“Service” refers to the fact that the gun is of a large enough frame to be a duty gun. This size of gun is most commonly found in the 4” barrel length, though 3” and 2” models are available as well. I consider 2” service revolvers to be overgrown snubbies, subject to some, but not all, of the rules of the snubnose. By definition, a service revolver must hold at least six rounds (though there are some that hold as many as seven or eight).

Service revolvers are, in fact, the easiest handgun to learn to shoot and shoot well, bar none. There is a reason that so many people refer to the revolver as a “beginner’s gun.” Service revolvers are fun to shoot and very forgiving.  And they look friendly. There aren’t any complicated controls to learn and if you can operate one, you can operate them all. There are a thousand and one different varieties of wheelguns out there, but no radical differences in how any of them operate.

Most of the training and manual-of-arms we’ll discuss will apply directly to service revolvers. Later we’ll spend some time specifically with the smaller wheelguns and the special challenges they face. There’s a reason for this: if you’re going to be serious about revolver shooting, don’t start with a snub. Get an inexpensive used service rig and cut your teeth on that. Snubs are for experts and for people who are willing to practice a lot.


When we say “compact” revolvers we generally mean a snubnose, but not always. Compact revolvers have been known to come in 3” or even 4” barrels. More precisely, we mean guns that have been designed to have a more compact frame specifically for the purpose of making them easier to conceal and carry. The Smith & Wesson “J” frame series is the most obvious representative of this class, but there are numerous others as well.

The main difference between service-size and compact revolvers (given equal barrel length) is fourfold: First, the grips are going to be smaller and there is going to be less to hold onto. Second, the gun will generally be lighter which means the recoil may be sharper. Third, compact revolvers by and large hold one round less than service revolvers (usually 5 rounds instead of 6). And last, compact revolvers will typically have heavier triggers that will require a greater level of trigger control on the part of the shooter.

The “true snubs” (2 ½” barrel or less) are part of this class. Snubbies are by far the most ubiquitous form of revolver for concealed carry and law enforcement (as a back-up gun) use. As an illustration, Smith & Wesson actually sells more of these little guns per year than any other item in their lineup. Snubs are, as I have said, “expert guns.” They represent a certain set of compromises that come with their own specific challenges. You can conquer these challenges and achieve snubnose perfection, but it takes time and practice. Because of that, snubbies will be getting special attention as we go along.

Next time we’ll be taking an in-depth look at some of the reasons people like revolvers, along with some of the special problems that they present to the shooter.