The Best Gun for a New Shooter: Semiautomatics vs. Revolvers

By Suzanne Wiley published on in Firearms

People new to shooting—especially women—tend to gravitate toward the smaller .38 Special lightweight revolvers and even though the myth of the “girl gun” is repeatedly proven to be untrue, many gun salesmen still steer women toward these pack-a-punch revolvers. Though revolvers do have fewer parts and are typically more reliable than semiautomatics, the snub-nosed .38 revolver is not necessarily the best choice for the first time shooter. Here’s why.

Recoil

Young, dark haired woman in yellow shirt fires the P290 at a targe.

The smaller and lighter weight the gun is, the more it is going to ‘kick.’

I get the reason why new shooters think a smaller revolver would hurt less when shot. What I don’t understand is why a gun salesman still try to sell women on snub-nosed revolvers. Gun salesmen should know better. I say “should know better” because the perception that the smaller the gun, the less kick it has is just plain wrong. Without getting into convoluted theories of physics, the basic theory goes like this—the shorter the barrel and lighter the gun, the worse felt recoil or kick it is going to have.

Simply put, the recoil is when the gun pushes back into your hand from the amount of energy and gases released when a bullet is fired. A larger gun, with a longer barrel—for example, four or more inches longer with more weight, compared to a two-inch barreled, lighter weight gun—has more mass to absorb the recoil and therefore the shooter feels less recoil when shooting it. In effect, a larger, heavier gun is more comfortable and creates less felt recoil than a compact or sub-compact, lightweight gun.

For example, the Smith & Wesson Bodyguard .38 Special revolver with a 1.9-inch barrel starts to hurt after shooting for extended periods, while the Armscor M200 .38 Special/.357 Magnum revolver with 4-inch barrel is very comfortable to shoot.

Accuracy

Randi Rogers and her GLOCK

The full-sized Glock is easy to handle.

Many expert handgun instructors agree that the revolver is not the best handgun for teaching a new shooter. Many revolvers have rudimentary sights. Generally, these sights are fixed—meaning you cannot adjust them—and have no high-visibility marks on them. These basic iron sights, in conjunction with the shorter barrel of small revolvers give the shooter a short sight radius and in turn making the small revolver harder to aim and shoot accurately.

If you look at the size difference between the GLOCK 17—a 9mm semiauto with a 4.49-inch barrel and the Smith & Wesson Model 637 with 1.87-inch barrel and no rear sight, it is easier to be more accurate with the GLOCK 17 than the 637.

Trigger

Two revolvers, the top brown handled, barrel pointing down, the bottom a black revolver, barrel pointed down on a white background

The trigger on a semiauto is generally easier to learn than on a revolver.

The majority of compact and sub-compact snub-nosed revolvers made are specifically for personal protection and concealed carry. Many of these revolvers are hammerless—the part on the back of the gun you “cock” or pull back to make the revolver ready to shoot—for a smooth, snag-free draw from a holster or pocket. A hammerless revolver will fire in double-action only. In a double-action revolver, it is not mandatory to manually pull back the hammer before firing. When you pull the trigger of a double-action revolver, the action not only cocks, but also releases the hammer. Double-action triggers take longer to pull back before the gun fires.

In my experience, though both triggers are smooth, the trigger pull on the SIG P938 9mm semiauto is 7.5-8.5 pounds while the longer 14 to 16 pound pull on the Charter Arms Pink Lady is significant. Learning the trigger on the SIG was much easier than on the Pink Lady.

Capacity and Reloading

Most small revolvers hold only five or six rounds. Because of the revolver’s design, spent cases remain inside the gun cylinder. Before reloading, you must eject those cases manually before inserting more ammunition. Revolvers can use speedloaders, which make the act of reloading quicker, however, there are definitely more steps involved in reloading a revolver than a semiautomatic pistol. Competition shooters, such as Jerry Miculek can reload a revolver in seconds. But for the beginner or even the intermediate shooter will find reloading a semiautomatic handgun faster than a revolver. Further, semiautomatic generally holds more rounds than a revolver. If you ever have to defend your life with your handgun, the adrenaline dump makes it harder to remember your fundamentals of shooting, control your fine motor skills and gives you tunnel vision. In short, it will be more difficult to hit a target—in that case, won’t you want more rounds?

RIA1911 and Ammo

Round capacity is a serious consideration when deciding between a semiautomatic and a revolver.

Though most popular subcompact .380 ACP pistols hold six to seven rounds, the Bersa Thunder 380 Plus holds 15, while snub-nosed revolvers, like the Taurus Model 85 only hold five rounds.

When teaching a new shooter, besides safety, the way a gun shoots and feels is the most important aspect in the decision for that shooter to continue the sport. Believe me, if I had given some of my girlfriends a snub-nosed, lightweight .38 Special revolver to shoot for their very first time, I would have likely turned them off guns forever. This isn’t to say the revolver isn’t a bad gun. Quite the contrary. I know many experienced women shooters who choose a revolver for every day carry. However, for new shooters, the semiautomatic pistol has plenty of merit and is often overlooked—especially when it comes to selling firearms to females.

Buying a handgun is a highly personal and individual decision. Start with a full-sized semiautomatic handgun in .22 Long Rifle, such as the Smith & Wesson M&P 22 and learn the fundamentals of safety, sight alignment, trigger control, grip and stance and then move on to bigger calibers such as the .380 ACP, 9mm, .38 Special, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. As you get more comfortable shooting, try the revolvers—just don’t rule out the semiautos because of the myth of the “girl gun.”

For more guidance on buying and shooting semiautomatic handguns for women, read the following articles:

What gun did you learn to shoot with? Tell us about it in the comment section.

SLRule

Introduced to shooting at young age by her older brother, Suzanne Wiley took to the shooting sports and developed a deep love for it over the years. Today, she enjoys plinking with her S&W M&P 15-22, loves revolvers, the 1911, short-barreled AR-15s, and shooting full auto when she gets the chance. Suzanne specializes in writing for the female shooter, beginner shooter, and the modern-day prepper. Suzanne is a staff writer for Cheaper Than Dirt!

View all articles by CTD Suzanne

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Comments (106)

  • Louise

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    I was so!d a Taurus model 85 ultralite not having done research and trusting the gun GUY! Turns out a light gun with a short barrel has a lot of snap to it and it hurts! I should have studied up more, but the gun felt good in my hand, so I bought it! I still love my revolver, but will learn to grip it better next time! But it seems some men really do think we need a light, short barrelled gun….which we may not! My next gun’s going to be heavier!

    Reply

  • Robert

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    I think you’re article is a bit biased. You entitled it “best gun for a new shooter: Semiautomatics vs revolvers”, but you limited your discussion of revolvers to snubnose models. An airweight snubnose is a very poor choice for a new shooter, but that does’t mean other revolvers are.

    For a new shooter, the primary focus is on learning to shoot. In this setting, there are four prime factors – sights, recoil, size (in terms of fitting the shooters hand) and trigger.

    Contrary to what your article suggests, revolver with a three inch or longer barrel typically has very good, adjustable sights, which are often better than what can be found on a semiautomatic.

    Recoil is important primarily because of flinching. You want to avoid flinching and anything that can induce flinching. With a longer barrel is reduced. Also a revolver does not discharge a spent round which often will also cause flinching.

    Fitting whatever weapon to the shooters hand is important for all shooters. For women, a J-frame revolver or SP101 sized revolver often works better than the larger models. For men, the opposite – J frames can be too small to shoot comfortably. Appropriate size is true for semiautos, so I see no difference her. But size is really related ot operation and operation can also be a problem with semiautos if they are not strong enough to rack the slide easily.

    Trigger in a double action revolver is excellent when cocked, which is where one should start when first learning. As an added benefit, a spent round or two can be left in the cylinder, which will instantly reveal flinch. You can’t do this with a semiautomatic. Once they learn to hit on single action, then they can progress to double action.

    Everyone is different, but I find it much easier to teach a first time shooter to shoot on a revolver, than on a semiautomatic.

    Perhaps that’s the real answer: go get lessons first. Learn to shoot well. Once you’ve learne to shoot proficiently, try out several different revolvers and semiautomatics in variouse calibres. Then get the gun that fits your needs and desires. But then you won’t be a new shooter. You’ll be on your way to being an experienced one!

    Reply

  • Gary

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    I think the main reason they are touted as a good gun for females if because you can fire them easily from a purse. A slide won’t function when shot from inside a bag. Obviously, not all women carry purses or even carry their guns in their purses, but that’s the reason they are generally so popular.

    Reply

  • Michael

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    Assuming snub nose revolvers are “the” gun for women, does seem to be a trend in my experience. I understand the argument but it’s quite assuming. I’ve been hunting/shooting for 18 years and just got my gf in to it. It’s been a lot of fun finding the right gun for her and we’ve shot about everything out there. She settled on the ruger sp101 357 and will grow in to that caliber shooting 38’s. My gf did not enjoy the 38 j frame either.

    I also disagree with the author’s opinion on recoil and reloading. My gf and my own experience, is that semi’s have a tendency to pop up significantly more so than revolvers. As long as your comfortable with the caliber/recoil in general, I think revolvers are more comfortable shooting. This is our opinion at least. As far as reloading, I’m sorry but I can get 6 rounds in a revolver faster than six rounds in a semi. That’s just not a strong argument. Capacity is the argument, not how long it takes to load a cylinder or magazine.

    New shooters, shoot every type of handgun you can and then decide. Buy what’s comfortable and what you like. As long as it loosely meets the criteria for your intentions you don’t have to defend that decision to anyone. You just have to love your first gun and be excited. You can always get another. Gun enthusiast love to argue!! :)

    Reply

    • Marissa

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      Thank you for posting your response, Michael. I am new to owning my very own gun and shooting. I like your last paragraph, I happen to be excited about my new gun and plan on learning through shooting with other handguns….And with this in mind, then I may decide to graduate to a semi automatic. My husband owns a 9mm and my brother has many guns. I plan on going to the shooting ranges with both my hubby & my brother. I know they will be a huge help.

      Reply

  • John Russell

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    This is just lends itself to one thing WOMAN want “””SIMPLICITY period””” ..they do not spend anywhere the time at ranges as men and not as mechanically inclined as well they panic so they need PURE SIMPLICITY and some what small handguns not having to do anything in a CRISIS situation ..reason they chose revolvers? Met very sweet nice young lady at the show and she asked me what would be best for protection of course revolver or should I hand….. her a .45 Colt or Para ordinance………..what do you think? Parris Hillton probably has one I am sure IN PINK >>>all PINK and it;s a revolver ..woman could buy a Mini gun but there you go

    Reply

    • EdH

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      The article isn’t only about women shooters. It is about new shooters. People new to guns who are looking for their first defensive firearm. They can be any sex and any age. The more simple the firarmis to use the more likley a new shooter is to feel comfortable with it. A complicated firearm (to newbs) with safeties and buttons for mags, with night sights and ported slides will freak some people out. They’ll never pick the thing up to practice or take a course.
      Caliber is a big issue because the less recoil you’ve got the more control a new shooter or any shooter for that matter has over the firearm.
      The simplest gun out there may just be a two shot derringer. Personally I’d want a new shooter to have a little more capacity so I recommend a revolver.
      As far as caliber goes, for a first time shooter I recommend they get a 357 magnum chambered revolver and start off shooting 38 spl rounds. Once theyare comfortable they can switch up to the magnum load. Or not.

      Reply

  • TyrannyOfEvilMen

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    I agree with the author. Generally speaking, I believe that snubnose revolvers — for most people — are expert guns.

    There are always exceptions and since I have been shooting for several years now I have occasionally gotten THE question from new shooters: “Which gun is best for me?” My response is always the same: “I have no idea.” But I am always happy to help them discover for themselves which gun is best for them by taking them to the range and renting a few. From my experience, this is the best way to settle this argument, hands down.

    Reply

  • Secundius

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    @ Martin Pierce.

    Is there a Martin Pierce, Phrase Book available. Because, I’m trying very hard to follow your “Speech/Writing”. But, I keep getting lost.

    Reply

  • Secundius

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    @ Semiautomatics vs. Revolvers.

    Some of you have the MIND-SET, the the article is about Revolvers ONLY. And, especially Snub Nose Revolvers with 2-inch barrels. They also have the, MIND-SET that ALL WOMEN have Small Dainty Little Hands. That are only useful for grasping the Handles of Snub-Nose Revolvers with 2-inch barrels. A women fighting for her life, using a Revolver has SIX-rounds in the cylinder. Unless she has her Muscle-Reflex Memory, tuned to where she can grab her Speedloader. She’s SCREWED after she’s spent the 6th-round. At least with a 10+1 shot, or 12+1 shot Semiautomatic. She has a fighting chance. And it far easier for a women without Muscle Reflex Memory, to find a Loaded Magazine, the it is too fined a Speedloader in the DARK. I thing its up to the young ladies in this forum to decide for themselves, and NOT for use to decide for them. Its their LIVES that are at RISK, not OURS. We can give advice, but, its not our call to CHOOSE FOR THEM, ITS THEIRS. There a lot of good compact Semiautomatics out their too, lets remember that

    Reply

  • Jake D

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    Who’s trying to push snub-nose 38s? I don’t thing anyone is pushing anything. Short barrel revolvers are very good guns and excellent for first time shooters. As far as female cops. I’ve worked with dozens and found most to be power hungry and a real pain. I did a lot of range shooting with them and found most to be poor shots. In fact one of the PDs I worked with issued 40s to male cops and made 9mm available to female cops because they found 40s to snappy.

    Reply

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