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

Tags: , ,

Trackback from your site.

The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, "The Shooter's Log," is to provide information-not opinions-to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (106)

  • Sheri

    |

    All of the comments about revolvers are well taken. My husband taught me to shoot with a Colt Python .357 Magnum. The recoil is minimal, and it’s easy to be fairly accurate right away with that long barrel.

    My DH is very smart! He knew that I would never have gone to the range again if expected to shoot a .22 or a pink gun. It’s embarrassing enough being a beginner at any sport without looking like one. (As a side note, I think that women are more likely to buy “pretty” guns than “girly” guns. I would never be seen in public shooting a pink gun.)

    When we bought my first semi-automatic, I liked the feel of the Beretta .380 Cheetah, but I absolutely could not work the slide. We have horses, and my hands are pretty strong. Nonetheless, to compensate for my limited female hand strength, I needed a bigger slide to grab onto.

    The Glock is a biter . . . bled on it at the store, which was highly embarrassing. (To this day, I can’t stand a Glock, probably because of having been embarrassed that one time.) I ended up with an H&K P30 9mm. The H&K P30 still is my favorite gun to use at the range, today.

    For concealed carry, I have a Sig P238 Nitron Sport, which I love, love, love. Normally, you need training and experience to work your way into being comfortable with a small gun, but the Sig P238 Nitron Sport might be the exception to that rule. I know two other women who carry and love the Sig P238, one of whom learned to shoot with the P238 as her first and only handgun.

    Of note is that it probably is no coincidence that — out of all of our handguns — my two favorites have contoured hand grips. The grips must help with that pesky hand strength issue.

    My husband taught our niece to shoot on a Beretta .40 caliber, and she loved it. But, she’s quite a bit bigger than I am. Despite the merits of revolver over semi-automatic, if shooting a handgun that looks like the most recent movie favorite gets her to the range, then go with it. This sport should be fun, not just practical.

    Remember that even though your wife or daughter is a girl and a beginner, she doesn’t want to look like one at the range.

    Reply

    • Secundius

      |

      @ Sheri.

      If you ever decide to go semi-automatic. Try .357Sig (9.02×21.97mm) which is a .357Magnum/Short (9.1x33mm)-round. It has the same stopping power as a .357Magnum, but with less of a kick. And you can carry twice the ammunition load. Then a standard .357Magnum revolver.

      Reply

  • HTU

    |

    One major difference between a semiautomatic and a revolver is the ability to use it from inside a coat pocket or purse or pressed up against a would be assailant. Many inexperienced shooters don’t realize that a semiautomatic’s slide pressed back even little bit will prevent the gun from firing and an attacker may use that to gain the upper hand during an assault. That being said the issues are now ammo capacity, ease of use, and stopping power right? I would say a nice ultralight revolver in a smaller caliber would prove to be user friendly enough and have a manageable recoil. So a 7 to 10 round wheel gun in .22 LR or .22 Magnum or 9 mm etc might be a good place to start. Just Sayin

    Reply

  • Mc Ruger

    |

    All debatable but I think revolvers are safer, accurate, easier to use and maintain and a damn fine defense tool. Just a thought … perhaps if more people started out having to bet their lives on 5 shots instead of 15 there would be a lot more owners out there that are better shots….. Maybe not… I know it’s not the same thing but I hit a lot more bad shots on the driving range with 100 balls to waste then I do on the course when I know I have 1 shot to get it right. Maybe an instructor could chime in here.

    This discussion makes me think of a scene from dumb and dumber where the guy empties his gun at the bad guy at about 10 feet and misses every time.

    Reply

  • Secundius

    |

    @ Anyone interested in a CHEAP IN COST, but well made “Tool Steel” Cold Steel Drop Forged P226 Clone-Copy in 9x19mmParabellum/Luger. Its made in Slovenia by REX Firearms, called Rex Zero 1 and for ~$499.USD. Magazine/Clip options are, 15, 18 and 20-rounds.

    Reply

  • adam

    |

    I actually learned to shoot in Texas with my dad. I started my love of guns with a double barreled 12 gauge. That day we shot the 12 gauge, FN Fal, uzi, 45, and a colt AR.

    Reply

  • Nathan Lambshead

    |

    I’m with you EdH
    My ex (when we were married) was small, but very strong for a girl. However, no matter how she tried she could not master the short, double-spring slide of my Colt Officers .45. Not reliably anyway.
    I bought her a Ruger SP101 .357 and supplied her .38 spcl +P Hydroshoks, and she is quite lethal with it. I don’t think she is ‘underpowered’ at all, and I know she can work the gun comfortably, and confidently. (truth be told, as much a fan of my 45 as I am, I prefer to take the SP101 revolver with me when I take a walk out in our woods)

    Reply

    • Nathan Lambshead

      |

      I actually think it interesting how many of today’s younger shooters do not even have ‘revolver’ in their vocabulary. It is all semi’s, high capacity, etc.
      I think so many would have a shooting world opened up to them if they would just try it, and maybe get past the spray and pray mode of Rambo/military thinking. The vast majority of shooting, for most people, is target shooting, plinking, hunting, and maybe some local gun club contests. Nothing beats a good 6 inch S&W 686 for hitting what you are aiming at, (at more than 15 yards) A pleasure to shoot.
      Not everything is about killing people. (and a revolver can do that just fine also)

      Reply

    • EdH

      |

      I chalk it up to the video-game aficionados. I tend to have a few different type of handguns for sale. I’ve had HK USP 45s, Glock 21’s, FNH FNP9s, S&W mode 36, Taurus PT 738 and Glock 27’s to name a few. You can almost always tell who the Gamers are. They go for the big guns that are prevalent in the games. They tend to know nothing about how to manipulate the guns. Before letting someone look at a gun I’ll clear it and I leave the slide locked back on semis. Ill hand the pistol to them and am more surprised when a potential customer knows how to release the slide then with those who don’t. I wouldn’t trust some of these people with a loaded air-soft let alone a loaded handgun. I often wonder if they’re looking for the A,B,C or # buttons to reload.

      Reply

  • Luke

    |

    My first gun was a used HK USP 9mm. Although my selection was video game biased, I’ve never regretted the decision. Unfortunately it spoiled my taste and subsequent purchases were from Sig, Kimber, another HK, and Ruger.

    For first time shooters I suggest the Springfield XD series. They’re reasonably priced, shoot reliably, are easy to use, and will last as long as the shooter maintains the hobby.

    Reply

    • EdH

      |

      I’ve sold many guns in the short time I’ve had an FFL. I do about a half dozen gun shows a year and sell to a number of new shooters. Many of these shooters are women. I mentioned earlier and another poster mentioned that many people don’t have the ability to work a slide. Most times it’s because the lack of hand strength. I get older people who are buying their first gun in decades who either don’t have the strength or the dexterity to work a slide. Although a revolver doesn’t have the capacity, it serves these folks well.

      There is a big difference in the hand strength of a male vs female and a young person vs and elderly person. The owner has to be able to manipulate the functions of the weapon they will choose.

      Each person is different. Each use is different. Some guns will be on the range several times a month. Others will see the light of day in an emergency only. When I’ve got someone looking to purchase I make sure they know what they are looking for.

      What was good for you will not be good for someone else. In general a revolver is the safest and easiest bet.

      Reply

    • Nancy

      |

      I first learned on a revolver and ended up with a flinch I’m still fighting. There are easy ways to use leverage on racking a slide that require very little hand strength. I’ve taught them to a number of my girlfriends. Yes, a revolver has fewer things that can go wrong, but I’d rather have a softer trigger, more ammo and faster reloads.

      Reply

    • EdH

      |

      You can beat the flinch easily with a revolver. Check out a video on dry firing. I does wonders. Works with semi-autos too. Dry firing took me from the 9 ring to the X ring at 25 yards.

      Leverage and technique is the way to get around lack of hand strength. When doing drills in which you simulate one hand being disabled you’ve got to find other ways to get it done. Most times you’ve got to sling-shot the slide off something solid using the rear sight for leverage.

      Where there’s a will there’s a way and practice makes perfect but I’d still start of new owners with a revolver.

      Reply

  • Mc Ruger

    |

    Yeah just a bit.

    Reply

    • Secundius

      |

      @ EdH & Mc Ruger.

      Naugh??? You just have too stay up nights like we do!!!

      Reply

    • EdH

      |

      he caliber thread is at the other end of the hall.

      Reply

  • Mc Ruger

    |

    Boy there are a couple people here that really think there experts and go out of there way to impress people but don’t have a clue. They are obviously clueless on this subject so they move on to impressing each other on a different subject.
    I is entertaining though.

    Reply

    • EdH

      |

      The thread kind of got hijacked, didn’t it?

      Reply

  • Martin Pierce

    |

    Great Idea! I’ll have to go to Mesa, Ariz. though to the Gun Trust. Can’t leave the State with it or transfer it to her anyway. Not in CA. anyway. But when we move to Nevada sooner than later I hope ; I will pursue that venue.

    Reply

Leave a comment

Your discussions, feedback and comments are welcome here as long as they are relevant and insightful. Please be respectful of others. We reserve the right to edit as appropriate, delete profane, harassing, abusive and spam comments or posts, and block repeat offenders. All comments are held for moderation and will appear after approval.

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.

%d bloggers like this: