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)

  • Didi

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    If I can’t wound/kill an attacker after emptying my 38 snub nosed special, then I deserve what I get!

    Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ Didi.

      Look, basically a .38Special (9.1×29.3mm), is a 9-millimeter round. The .357Sig (9.02×21.97), .357Magnum (9.1x33mm), 9x19Parabellum/Luger. Are all 9-millimeter rounds, each have a varying degree of stopping power and recoil. Go to a Gun Range, and ask to test each caliber, each model guns. To find the right model for your, because in the long run, what ever GUN or CALIBER you choose, it’s going too be you gun. We in the Forum can make suggestions to you. Because, there ALL GOING TO BE SUGGESTIONS. Choose the right model for yourself and the model you can afford, within your price means. Then LEARN the gun inside and out, Learn how to take it apart and put-it back together in the dark. Get to know each working piece of the gun. Because the gun is going to be a extension of YOU, Got-It.

      Reply

  • RPK

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    I have spent the last 36 consecutive years in the law enforcement and corrections professions. Started with a wheel gun, a revolver, the S&W Model 15 Combat Masterpiece .38 Caliber pistol and a total of 18 rounds being carried. That was the “standard carry load” for most law enforcement agencies in 1979. In my opinion, although outdated in comparison to today’s modern firearms, the Model 15 was a superb shooting platform for that era. As crime increased, the illegal drug trade exploded on the streets of America and criminals moved on to larger weapons with more capacity and after the infamous F.B.I. shooting in Florida, the winds of change blew swiftly to arm law enforcement adequately to counter the threats. Kudo’s to Ms. Wiley, as this was a well thought out and accurate article.

    Reply

  • John Russell

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    It’s all about simplicity and function…women are intelligent but they lack the series of steps to arm most slide action weapons in a life threatening situation and feel extremely comfortable with a weapon that is not only ready to go ie most revolvers today are double action but just plain simple and not to over powerful but deadly enough? Also has tons to do with feel and just appearance as well. Most slide action good handguns look very military and complicated to women so again they usually want something that fits their hand ie COMFORTABLE and still somewhat fashionable ie the stainless steel frames usually go very in hand with ie THE T-FAL cookware they are so used to day in day out?

    Reply

  • Mc Ruger

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    Joe Hathaway
    Did I say that somewhere?

    Reply

  • McR

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    Nathan Lambshead
    AGREED

    Reply

    • Joe Hathaway

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      As the teacher said many times, two negatives make a positive: “This isn’t to say the revolver isn’t a bad gun.” says that the revolver IS a bad gun!

      Reply

  • EdH

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    Simple is best. But then again, to have and not need is better to need and not have. Be comfortable and proficient with what you carry.

    Reply

  • Mc Ruger

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    Nathan Lambshead
    I absolutely agree. I admit I have been swayed by magazine capacity for my carry but for accuracy and comfort you can’t beat a good wheel gun. I happen to be a Ruger and S&W and as mentioned in a prior post I am pondering a change. A 357 magnum at 10-15 feet placed anywhere near center mass will end any further decision so why pack another 12 chunks of lead?

    Reply

    • Nathan Lambshead

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      True enough McRuger. (and I have some of those too) Real self defense happens up close. A never-fail-to-fire revolver with 35 caliber 125 gr JHPs is more than enough. If you are a cop in a combat /drug zone, or in the military dealing with ‘varmints’ wearing towels, that is a different story. Like i first stated in this thread, you can’t bring a sports car to a tractor pull and expect to get anywhere. There is no such thing as one gun for all situations. I just think that most shooters today ignore the solid virtues of the revolver. (and they miss out on the joy of shooting one)

      Reply

  • Mc Ruger

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    Although I am a firm believer in practicing with the gun you plan to depend on, you make some excellent points not previously mentioned. I am considering in fact changing my carry to a revolver just because of the distance statistics and overall dependability. Capacity seems to be a big concern here. I wonder, all statics considered, the chances of needing a gun for an Assailant within 10 feet as apposed to needing 10 or 12 or 15 shots for a gunfight even on the street.
    More closely related to the subject is relating potential need to women. I am sure that a woman’s need for a gun inside 10 feet is massively greater than getting into a gun fight on the street and if that is true it seems a revolver is the way to go. A revolver always says bang and lets face it, a semi auto may not be in the mood….. click.

    Reply

  • Nathan Lambshead

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    While I think the 357 Sig is a great round, there is no way anyone can shoot it anywhere near as accurately or comfortably than a 6 inch Colt Python. It is the only gun I hold in higher regard than my 686 S&W Classic Hunter. Like I say, there is a time and place for all guns, but I wish people who are die hard semi users would give a good revolver a try at the range.

    Reply

  • Don Pardo

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    I am an NRA pistol instructor and teach CCW courses. I do not “sell” guns but I do make a lot of recommendations to female students. The writer makes some good points but seems to have confused “first gun” (which should be comfortable and fun to shoot a lot on the range) and a “carry gun” that has to be 100% reliable while living in a purse, car console, or pocket. Self defense encounters typical occur at distances inside ten feet and often arms length contact range, and printing precision groups at 10-15 yards is not needed. The lady can train with her range gun and need only shoot her carry gun occasionally to stay familiar with its pointing characteristics and trigger feel but not so much that it hurts. A gun that is bulky and/or heavy may get left behind when going to the grocery store. Any gun is better than no gun. Further a gun which goes “click” when it absolutely positively has to go “bang” right now, is not effective for its purpose. That purpose and use is entirely different then a range gun.

    Reply

    • Jay Manges

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      Don,

      As a career LEO, I have to say your points are spot on. The fact is, a predator is not going to stand 15ft away and let you shoot at them and give you all day to do it. Realistically, they will take you by surprise and be in direct physical contact trying to overpower a someone who is smaller and weaker. At that point it will take more wherewithal than can be imagined just to get the weapon into the hand and pulling the trigger. Adding safeties, slides, and magazines into the equation when split seconds matter most is a sure way to get your loved one raped or murdered. This is why my lady packs a S&W Airlite .38 snub nose revolver.

      Reply

    • Dave

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      Spot on Jay. This article also forgets to mention snubby 8 shot revolvers with short barrels and small grips. Revolvers can click typically 6 times and a shot should work eventually. One click and you are likely toast with a semi-auto in a defense situation. Mags are beast to load with brass, whereas the revolver is painless and is way less subject to jamming especially when neglected/ignored in storage. I well take the point not to discount semi-autos, but will say the last time @ the used counter, 0.380’s semi’s were the only ones there.

      Reply

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