A recent event transpired where I found myself in a non permissive environment for an extended period of time. Even though I was legally allowed to carry a concealed weapon, someone noticing it would have likely caused an unwanted and unnecessary commotion. Since I had some foresight before the event took place (although it didn’t not unfold as expected), I made the decision to leave the trusty VP9 that I usually carry at home and opt for a smaller and more concealable option. I picked the P365 XL. The P365 XL worked well in the given context, but as the event progressed and I realized the duration of the event was going to be extended significantly I began wondering if maybe I had something else in the safe that was just as discrete if not more so, but even more comfortable to wear. An opportunity to go home and change presented itself. Weighing my options once again and remembering how surprisingly comfortable the S&W Model 66 K-frame was in the JM Custom Kydex holster when I wore it during the revolver segment of the Rangemaster Master Instructor Development course, I swapped out the defensive tools. I’m glad I did. Yeah, I gave up a lot of capacity, but the difference in comfort and discretion more than made up for it. That event got me thinking about the viability of revolvers as defensive tools which I thought would make for a good topic to write about and here we are.
Let me backup a hair. There is no doubt in my mind that revolvers are viable for defensive carry applications. For many years, revolvers performed very well for both civilians and law enforcement alike. Especially, when placed in capable hands as due modern semi-automatic pistols. The thing is both the defensive and law enforcement world have adopted modern semi-automatic pistols and retired revolvers for several valid reasons. Some of these reasons include increased capacity, faster reloads, ability to clear malfunctions and get the gun back into action, and they are often easier to repair and maintain. Bottom line is that capable pistoleros can get more good hits on target faster with a semi-automatic pistol than they can with a revolver. This doesn’t diminish the revolver’s viability as a defensive tool. It simply means there are more effective and efficient options for that use case that are often less expensive than a modern revolver. In fact I have it on good authority that there are very capable defensive pistol instructors who, perhaps surprisingly to some, opt to carry a small J-frame revolver as their defensive tool day in and day out. The question for me was, why? I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. At least, not until now.
There are a number of valid reasons why someone might opt to carry a revolver rather than a semi-auto pistol. The two most likely reasons I suspect are either the individual inherited the revolver and doesn’t have the means to pick up a modern semi-auto, or the person was misled into thinking revolvers were somehow superior to a semi-auto when making their initial purchase. I’m sure there are more valid reasons, such as living in a part of the world where revolvers are allowed but semi-autos aren’t, but that’s just me guessing and grasping at straws. Whatever the reasons, I want to focus on the “misleading” for a second because I don’t think the “misleading” that does occur a fair bit is intentional or malicious. In fact, I’d place a large wager that the misleading is unintentional and well meaning because there are a number of myths around the revolver that are prevalent among many gun owners. These myths include the idea that a revolver will never fail, is more reliable than a semi auto, is easier to operate, maintain, or learn. Like most myths, these are based on something that is often true, but only in a very specific and limited context.
I’ve gone on a couple of tangents now with the hope of providing a bit of context for the purpose of this post. Let’s see if I can bring things together as we look at some other reasons one might opt for carrying a revolver over a modern semi-automatic pistol and explore the realities of revolvers without the myths that surround them. That’s a tall order, but I’ll do my very best to be as brief as possible.
If one has a revolver, regardless of how it was obtained, and one has no means of acquiring a modern semi-automatic pistol, then it is what it is and one has to work with what they have. Again, revolvers are viable defensive tools, but they do have some limitations, which I will get to shortly, that we should be aware of and learn to work with.
There are other reasons to consider carrying a revolver other than being simply stuck with one.
For example, an injury, a disability, or simply father time taking its toll on somebody where they are limited to only being able to practice with or handle the lightest recoiling cartridges that are commercially available. That’s right, I’m talking about the .22 Long Rifle (22LR for short). Sure there are plenty of 22LR semi-automatic pistols. However, rimfire cartridges like the 22LR sometimes fail to fire. This is an inherent problem with the design of rimfire cartridges. They are simply going to have a higher dud rate than centerfire cartridges regardless of how good the quality control in the manufacturing process is. A dud in a semi auto requires a corrective action. Tap, rack, bang. That’s not a big deal if one is well practiced, but even if one is well practiced it’s a lot more complicated and more work than… pulling the trigger again. In this case, a double action revolver makes a lot of sense. Some of you may be thinking that a double-action/single-action (DA/SA) would also work. However, when a rimfire round goes click it’s usually because the firing pin crushed the rim in an area that lacks priming compound. This means that another strike in the same part of the rim isn’t gonna change anything. It’s just another click before needing or resorting to a tap, rack, bang. I get it. It’s a niche use case, but it exists. My mentor and friend, John Daub, and his wrist injury are a classic a case study for this use case.
Another reason to consider a revolver is deep concealment and comfort. This was my use case for the event I mentioned earlier. In the world of deep comfortable concealment, the smallest semi-automatic pistols leave a lot to be desired. Especially when talking about smaller and more comfortable options than something like a P365, which puts us in the territory of micro compact pocket pistols that are often chambered for anemic cartridges like .380 ACP using low capacity single stack magazines. These tiny pocket rockets are often very snappy and difficult to hang on to which makes them incredibly difficult pistols to shoot well and no one in their right mind looks forward to practicing with. A small J or K frame resolver has comparable capacity and is far easier to shoot even with long and heavy double action triggers. Notwithstanding, these revolvers allow the use of more capable cartridges like .38 Special or .357 Magnum. Granted, .357 Magnum may negate the “easier to shoot” attribute. Once again, I get it. Deep comfortable concealment is another niche use case, but it does exist. If it didn’t there wouldn’t be a market for those micro single-stack semi-auto .380 ACP pistols I mentioned.
Revolvers chambered for and carried with larger magnum cartridges make a lot of sense for defense against wildlife or for handgun hunting. There are certainly viable semi-automatic platforms chambered for more power cartridges that are also viable for this use case. However, suitable ammo availability and price are something to consider which may differ from one locale to another. In my experience, finding suitable .357 or .44 Magnum ammunition for this use case is easier and more affordable than finding similarly suitable 10mm Auto ammunition. The same can be said about finding a suitable gun for this use case.
The last use case I will mention is the “I like revolvers better” use case. I understand this use case. I’m a big revolver fan. In fact, I’m sometimes considered the revolver guy in my circles even though nine times out of ten, if not more, I compete with or carry a semi-automatic pistol. There is nothing wrong with preferring wheel guns. Whether it is because of the aesthetics, the nostalgia, or something else, it doesn’t matter. Carry what you want to carry. The only thing here that I think really matters is that one is honest about that being a personal preference without deluding themselves that the revolver is a functionally superior platform as is often the case due to the myths that surround revolvers (which we will get into next).
Now that we have covered some use cases, let us delve into the realities of revolvers.
Revolvers fail. Just like all other mechanical equipment, it will eventually fail. When revolvers do have a malfunction, it generally requires the assistance of a competent gunsmith to get the revolver back in working order. Not always, but often enough for it to be the rule. Put enough wear and tear on the revolver and it will start to have timing issues or internal spring failures. They also require a fair amount of cleaning to keep running. Unburnt powder often ends up under the extractor and builds up quickly causing problems with lock up. This is why avid revolver competitors do some light cleaning between each stage. I suspect that the “revolvers never fail” is rooted in the fact that a revolver that left in storage for an extended period of time is likely to work the next time it is used as it can work it’s way through a full cylinder of ammo a few times completely dry of lubrication without a hitch. Nevertheless, if the revolver is used regularly or extensively without proper maintenance it will fail. I saw this first hand during the revolver module of the Rangemaster Master Instructor development course. More revolvers went down in that three to four hour module than semi-automatic pistols went down in the remainder of the three day course.
Revolver reloads are slow. It doesn’t matter if we compare hand feeding single rounds, using speed strips, or speed loaders to a magazine. Revolver reloads are slower than dropping a magazine and inserting a full one. The exception here might be Jerry Miculek in his prime, but even then I’d wager his magazine reloads were faster than his revolver reloads and still are. The good news is given what we know about defensive gun fights, thanks to the work that John Correia at Active Self Protection has done along with several other defensive gun use studies, reloads in a defensive encounter are a statistical anomaly. Granted I would hands down prefer a magazine reload to a revolver reload in the event of a statistically anomalous self defensive encounter. Either way, revolvers are slower to reload an aspect of reality we should be aware of. Furthermore, performing a revolver reload properly is more complicated than a magazine reload which means it is a skill that takes more effort to develop.
Mastering a double action revolver trigger pull is the most difficult trigger pull to master. It’s a long and heavy trigger pull. Learning to pull this type of trigger without disturbing the sights takes a fair bit more work than any other trigger pull. Unlike a DA/SA pistol, the double action trigger pull remains present shot after shot. A common counter argument that I hear to this is that one can thumb cock the hammer and perform a single action trigger pull for those difficult shots that require utmost precision. While it’s true that shooting precisely with a revolver is easier with the single action trigger press that follows a thumb cocked hammer, this is something that virtually never happens under time pressure and stress. I could be wrong, but I a, certain that if thumb cocking was viable under time pressure then we would see a whole lot more of it happening in practical shooting competitions. The bottom line is that a revolver takes more effort to learn to shoot well.
Even with these limitations, the revolver is viable for self defense. It’s simply just not the reliability panacea that’s easier to learn that revolver myths claim, but it can and does work. Moreover, there are valid use cases for one as we have discussed. Despite the reason one is carrying a revolver and the realities of the revolver, it behooves us to learn to use it competently and safely. Above else make an investment in developing the proper defensive mindset and adopt the armed defender lifestyle. Those two things also are far more important than the mechanical differences between a wheel gun and semi-auto.