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!

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Comments (106)

  • Mc Ruger

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    Secundius

    Apparently you don’t know much about shooting a short barrel revolver. It is much more than Liberator.

    Reply

  • Martin Pierce

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    Thats about it.

    Reply

  • Secundius

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    With a 2-inch barrel, Your strictly “Shoot and Scoot” It would be like having a WW2 “Liberator” pistol.

    Reply

  • Martin Pierce

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    I don’t think anyone is aiming a “2 or so .38spl. @ a target down range. Strictly a point shooter–it Really is. Jack Ruby did his thing to Oswald and he wasn’t aiming either. At a few ft’ or so, if you miss; “Shame On You”.

    Reply

  • Peter

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    Nothing like an “unbiased” discussion about sub-2″ barrel snub-nosed,wheel guns versus 4.5″ to 5″ barrel semi-automatics.

    Also, I didn’t see a single “CON” listed for semis vis-a-vis the revolver.

    In fact, some of youyr statements I’d like for you to put some money down on them like this one:

    “Many expert handgun instructors agree that the revolver is not the best handgun for teaching a new shooter.”

    I have heard the exact opposite if you include the rest of the revolver market you deliberately avoided. Likje about 95% of the revolver world, to be exact,

    There’s a YouTube video that lists 25 reasons why revolvers are better than semi-autos for everyone, and not just first time shooters. But, the recommendations would be stronger for newbies.

    Revolvers are easier to load, easier to aim, easier to shoot, and safer to shoot.

    Revolvers are true point-and-shoot guns. The bullet is in line with the barrel and the distance from a person’s line-of-sight and the bullet’s path of exit (aka, the height of the bore sight) is much shorter.

    Revolvers don';t suffer from failures to feed, failures to eject, failures to fire, stovepipes, and all the machinations required to clear them,.

    In a revolver, if a round does not go off, simply pull the trigger and you get a new round. If the round didn’t fire the first time, you will automatical;ly get “second strike” capability when it comes around again.

    You don’t need a 16 round magazine to learn how to shoot. The extra capacity is an advantage of the GUN, butg NOT an advantage in taining a newbie to shoot a gun.

    Here’s a BIG PLUS for using a revolver – no slide bites to your newbie’s thumbs. Nothing is as disconcerting to a new shooter as getting their thubls sliced up like a Cuisinart and then bleeding out all over that new gun you let them try.

    Glocks are well-known for that – what with their lower bore axis than everyone else. I was a victim of a Glockodile bite – shooting one-handed!

    I was firing a G22 in .40SW and the muzzle flip was so strong, it flipped the back of the slide onto my shooting hand which was well below the curve of the back strap.

    Revlvers are much easier to reload. After your hi-cap mags go empty, even with a magloader, it’s going to take awhilew to load it back up. Revolvers have moon clips, speedl loaders, and speed trips to speed up the reload process – PLUS you can carry pocket full of ammo and simply grab a handful and reload.

    You can always tell if a revolver’s loaded. Much less chance for an accidental discharge.when the hammer is physically blocked from the bullets. Carrying it “cocked and loaded,” can get you in trouble but newbies would not be firing single action for awhile.

    Those “rudamentary sights” you claim were on revolvers only apply to rudamentary, old-school .38’s. Have you seen the Ruger LCR snub nose with fiber optic sights? Even a no frills 4″ barrel S&W had a big bladed front sight, and when it comes right down to it, it is the front sight that is the one most necessary to see at all times.

    Those standrard 3-dot sights allow for a lot of latitude in sighting because the front dot is no bigger than the back dots and is often visually smaller..

    Ask Jerry Mulicek which he would recommend.

    Reply

  • Iam

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    New shooters (male or female) are better served with a revolver over a striker fired handgun for two reasons: 1. The revolver (exposed hammer) has a second-strike ability that the striker fired fors not. In an emergency, a misfire will cripple a semi in the hands of someone who cannot clear it quickly. Clearing takes experience that a new shooter does not have. 2. Trigger discipline. Most striker fires have a lower trigger pull weight, and new shooters are more prone to ADs because of it. Revolvers have a more significant pull, and act as a safety reminder of where they are resting their finger.

    Reply

  • Mc Ruger

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    “Beware of the man carrying a revolver, he likely knows how to use it”. I forget where I heard that but I always liked it. I man confident enough to defend himself knowing he only has 5-6 shots against 12 or 15.
    I do carry a 40 cal semi and love the gun however I own several wheel guns and I must admit each time I take them to the range I consider replacing my semi auto carry with my 2 inch Ruger SP 101. It is such a thrill putting 357 mag through it, so accurate and so comfortable. I did change to Hogue grips and it fits my hand like a glove.

    Having spent way to much time at gun counters I can say that I think the women shoppers appear to come in looking for a revolver. I assume it is a recommendation from the husband or boyfriend. The salesman is going to take a sale regardless but the least he can do is make sure the buyer knows all the pros and cons.

    The times I have taken a new shooter to the range which has just been a few family members I take several guns so they can get a good idea of differences. Most like the feel of a full size 9mm but end up buying a compact 9. None ever liked my 40. and usually when shooting a revolver they make a comment about having to reload so soon.

    going back to my quote above comfort and confidence are the most important thing. A new shooter, male or female should be at the range trying several guns before the go to the gun counter.

    Reply

  • Edh

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    As has been said, there is no perfect gun for everyone. I’ve found that the ability to manipulate a slide is a major issue for some people. Whether it is apprehension, lack of strength or lack of dexterity, some people just can’t get it. I’ve often told people to start out with a .357 magnum shooting 38spl ammo and move up from there. “BABY STEPS”.
    You’ve got to make the shooting sports fun to get more non-shooters in to it.
    I recently sold an old, surplus Taurus revolver to an elderly man. He was unable to work the slide on a number of modern semis. The biggest issue for him was technique. Once he picked up the revolver you could see the calm in his face. He’s taking some private lessons and loving the 38 spl.
    I’ve been shooting semi autos since I was 17 and I’m closing in on 49. I still like to pull my old Dan Wesson out of the safe. Daily carry is one of three Glock models in 45acp.

    Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ Edh.

      I wouldn’t exactly call it “Baby Steps”. The Virginia State Police, concluded that a Single .357SIG (9.02×21.97mm) round would drop a large attacking dog. Whereas it took several 9x19mmParabellum rounds to do the same job, by comparison.

      Reply

    • EdH

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      Your point?

      Reply

    • Nathan Lambshead

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      I was going to ask that myself EdH. This is not a caliber post. There are plenty of effective calibers in both semi’s and wheel guns.

      Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ EdH.

      My point is the .38Special is a near 9×29.5mm/9.1x29mm or 357′ (9.1×29.3mm) round, a close approximation to the .357Magnum (9x33mmRemington) round. Even though their very different rounds in performance, technically you should be able too shoot the 38Special or 9x19mmParabellum from a .357Magnum Hand Gun Revolver.

      Its like shooting a .30-06Sprngfld (7.62x63mm) through a .308Win. (7.62x51mm Nato) Rifle, Its possible!!!

      Reply

    • EdH

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      I believe you missed the subject matter of the thread.

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

      The thread is more about weapon type. Not about what caliber or variation of calibers.

      And, I believe I did mention that you can shoot 38spl in a 357 magnum. Although you’d need a special chamber that would accept moon clips in order to shoot 9mm in the same revolver.

      Reply

    • Steve

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      Geez, are you SERIOUS??!!You absolutely CANNOT shoot a 30-06 cartridge from a 308 chambered weapon!!! The ’06 cartridge case is LONGER than the 308’s…so how do you think that the bolt will close and go fully into battery with a ’06 round in a weapon chambered for 308???!!! The answer is…IT WON’T!! Secundius, nearly EVERY TIME you open your “mouth” (via your fingers), you prove yourself an ignoramus. If you choose to argue this fact, you’ll only show your complete lack of knowledge. ‘Nuff said

      Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ Steve.

      Yes you can. The bore pressure of a .308Win. (7.62x51mm Nato), is 62,000-psi. The bore pressure of a .30-06Sprnfld. (7.62x63mm) is 50,000-psi. While you can fire a .30-06Sprnfld. in a .308Win.-caliber rifle, you can’t fire a .308 in a .30-06Sprnfld.-caliber rifle. The difference in the over-pressure, the .308Win. may cause damage to the barrel of the.30-06Sprnfld. rifle. The propellant charge in the 308Win., is greater than the propellant charge in the .30-06Sprnfld. The problem is because of the size difference of the .30-06Sprnfld. is a bigger in length then the .308Win. You going to have too Hand Feed, every .30.06Sprnfld. round into the firing-chamber of the .308Win. rifle.

      Reply

  • G-Man

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    Even though we only own automatics, and so my wife trains with and carries one, she still always gravitates to the revolvers when we browse the gun stores and shows.

    She is aware that an automatic will provide her more rounds should she need them, but she fears the possibility of a malfunction, clearing procedures, and charging the weapon (which is hard for her).

    The bottom line is a revolver’s simplistic impression on her provides her more confidence. So if confidence will aid her reaction time during an actual emergency, I think a revolver is worth looking into.

    And thus after many years of her carrying an automatic, we have begun to shop around and make the transition to a revolver for her.

    Our daughters – on the other hand, so far appear to want to keep their automatics. So as usual, it comes down to personal preference and whatever platform makes a person feel most confident so they can get the job done.

    Reply

  • Nathan Lambshead

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    There is no ‘perfect’ gun for all situations, just like there is no perfect car. If you want to race, a station wagon won’t do. if you want to haul cord wood, a sports car won’t do. Guns are no different.
    I find the vast majority of opinions when it comes to guns, handguns in particular, have to do with self defense and killing power.
    While there is that aspect to them, I happen to be a lover of all types of shooting, especially handguns. Plinking, target shooting, gun club competitions, professional competitions, long range precision, or blasting away ammo faster you you can afford it at ‘bad guy’ cut outs, are all aspects of hand gunning. For me, nothing beats a revolver for accuracy, precision, fun, reloading variations, as well as home or self defense. Unless you are in the military or police, i still love revolvers the most. They just ‘feel’ right, and I shoot them better. I have semis, but they are purely utilitarian. My love affair is with the wheel gun. Probably my age, but my 18 year old son feels the same after I have taken him shooting for many years.

    Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ Nathan Lambshead.

      I also like the “Wheel” gun. But, my interest is somewhat larger in size. I like the Mauser 1.063-inch (2.7×14.5cm) Bordkanone, Auto-Revolver Cannon. And similar Auto-Cannons and Gatling-Type Revolving-Auto-Guns/Cannons.

      Reply

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