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)

  • Dave

    |

    Guys, my nicest long gun is used, gorgeous TC. A friend of mine cautioned me on used HG’s since if , heaven forbid, it did come up with a questionable past during a future investigation, even if legally possessed by me, it could be confiscated. That is the kind of karma I sometimes have, so wanted to stay clear of that potential risk. In more constitutional locales, where sn#’s aren’t as closely tracked, I wouldn’t be as concerned. The place I been dealing with is so reasonable, it really doesn’t benefit me buying used. They practically gave me the 40 Pro-series, my acquaintances who only have 9 pro-series paid way more and were kinda ticked off. Positive Karma does catch me sometime too. 😉

    Reply

  • Mc Ruger

    |

    Nathan / Dave

    I bought my 686 used and they still didn’t give it away. I don’t want to come off like I know anymore than anyone else here, cause I don’t. Everything I bought years ago was new but in recent years I have started shopping used / Privately owned guns. The economy being what it is people seem to be selling guns they feel they can get by without. It really has saved me a ton of money, the quality is high if I shop and I legally eliminate gov paperwork. I have taken a number of gunsmithing classes so I know what i’m looking for and always check the blogs for reported problems before I buy. My SP101, 686, SKS and Blackhawk 44 are all used and are excellent guns. just a thought……….

    Reply

    • Nathan Lambshead

      |

      I agree. I am a big proponent of used guns. They do not lose value like cars for having a previous owner, and a good gun will be just as good a few thousands rounds later, if taken care of.

      Reply

  • Dave

    |

    Yeh, that was an investment Nathan. I wish I would have made mine earlier, just typically had no use for short arms and always believed they were over priced compared to long arms(& still are). With all the scrutiny, (especially with short arms) I decided to get them while we still could w/o mortgaging the house or needing to jump through 18 mos of red tape vs the current 6+ month short gun debacle we currently have locally, that probably only keeps us 0.01% safer. Paid a little over $600 for the 67 around 1yr ago. It may be an investment since ser # is odder than winning lottery to I (for once I’m #1). Dealer has not seen this since he got licensed in 40+ yrs ago, and I thought it was broken he stared at it so long 😉 There was a gorgeous 686 performance center (8-shot) he offered me a nice deal but was out of my budget. Dream is to add a 66, 686 SS or GP100 SS to the collection some day.

    Reply

    • Nathan Lambshead

      |

      If I had the wherewithall I would buy another 686 in a heartbeat. I think it is like the old days with houses. “Wish I had bought one 15 years ago. NOW look at the price!” The only thing with guns is it they are not subject to the crazy economy like houses are.
      The day I bought my 686 I was actually in the market for a GP100 (which I maintain is a fine gun also) and the friend who came with me said he personally would go for the 686 Classic Hunter. I took his advice. Glad I did. It is the sweetest shooting handgun i have ever experienced, never mind owned. The trigger is outstanding, and I have won 2 local Sportsmen Club shoots with it. Running deer and pin shoot. (yes, even against Semis)
      I think every gun enthusiast should own at least one 686. Unless the person can only think of Rambo shoot-em-ups and military stats. Then I say pass on it. The class of it will be lost on you.

      Reply

  • Mc Ruger

    |

    Dave

    Oh I actually just wanted to lighten up the mood a little. As you can tell I am a Ruger Guy, American Owned and American Made. I also own a Taurus 40 Slim and an S&W 686 and several others. The 686 is an outstanding wheel gun and Taurus value to quality is hard to beat. I want to add a double action 44 magnum to the collection now but like most of us there are another 20 guns I would like to add.

    Reply

  • Dave

    |

    Good plug for the Ruger, Mc Ruger. I wanted a SS GP100. Couldn’t be found because they were in demand & out of production for a while. Ended up with a nice Mod67 instead. Built like a tank. (wanted a 686 and they were sold out and of course the mod66 goes back into production a year later) Mom hates them because the 66’s & 67’s are beasts. To me it is a life investment, hope to give my great grandkids mine (assuming our freedom exists to do so). Shop handed me a Taurus, felt like a POS for my life investment intentions, said it isn’t going to happen , not to mention the cheapy used wheel Taurus’s are for sale all over and do not have great reviews. The COD ratings are a decent view to ensure not buying a POS. BTW, also have a .40 Pro-series, so not partial to wheel guns(except their reliability) either. But, for all out defense and on a budget there should be a fine .38SPL Taurus(+ side, lighter than the higher quality peers) as a great choice in a wheel gun for a female (or anyone for that matter) who hardly ever heads to a range but is proficient enough to be safe and accurate with it. In her case, why have an $600+ talk piece/paper weight in the drawer when a approx $350 unit will get the job done and will hardly be used (worn out to failure) anyhow?

    Reply

    • Nathan Lambshead

      |

      I am an S&W and Ruger revolver fan all the way, but I have no problem with every-day carrying my Taurus 85SS in 5 shot .38 in the my front pocket. Got it new for 287.00, and it works flawlessly. Every bit as accurate as any other 2 inch 38. I just don’t consider it an ‘investment’ or anything, like I do my 686 S&W Classic Hunter. (Boy am I glad i bought one of those for 375.00 new back then) Now that is something to pass on.

      Reply

  • Mc Ruger

    |

    Ya want to know the best gun for a new shooter. I’ll can settle this. The best gun for a new shooter is the one they are most comfortable with.
    If you consider that a copout I’ll be more specific ……………………

    The 2 inch Ruger SP101.

    But why that gun McRuger.
    Well I’ll tell ya my boy.

    -Huge selection of grips so it will fit anyone
    -very accurate
    -5 shot cylinder make it very concealable
    -easy to load, easy to operate, easy to maintain,
    -very safe
    -double or single action operation
    -huge selection of loads from heavy 357 magnum to light load 38 special
    -and last but not least, having only 5 initial shots may instill on a new shooter the importance of being accurate.

    Now someone is going to come back and say YEAH BUT, Colt, S&W, Charter, Taurus, blah, blah, blah. No I said Ruger!

    Thanks for listening…. hehe

    Reply

  • John R.

    |

    Look– most woman even POLICE woman are practical creatures and want something that is simple and works but DEFENSIVELY ? Woman do not have the mass strength and aggressiveness to shoot and kill somebody as most men do in a crisis situation…They want a simple and working devise and I would too in a life threatening situation ….Good .38 or .44 magnum or .45 Colt which are not that common anymore work as revolvers …Woman feel comfortable with a good .38 +P and good for them …?

    Reply

  • Nathan Lambshead

    |

    Funny how it always works around to calibers and killing power, no matter what the topic is. Do we have too many Rambo wannabes out there? The post was about the gun style. There are wimpy revolvers and wimpy Semis. There are potent Semis, and even MORE potent revolvers, if that is what a person really wants.
    The question is the functionality and useability. At least to my mind it is. I think a beginner, and/or someone who does not intend to do much range time, is far better off with a wheel gun. Hands down. And for anyone who has disdain for the revolver, I invite you to our local range where I pop off clay targets set up on a sand bank at about 105 yards, offhand, with my 6 inch S&W 686, using low powered 38 spcls.
    Yes, I can hit them. Well, half the time. The rest of the time the dirt from a close miss covers them. I have never come close to that with any Semi, including a friend of mine’s beautiful Gold Cup .45
    Nobody seems to be addressing the different aspects of shooting. It is all about self defense and ballistics. Well, sorry to say it, but a snubby 38 is what I carry, and I am very happy to have it with me. My Colt Officers .45 I usually leave home in a drawer. I want pull-out-of-front-pocket-and-pull-trigger ability, even though I DO spend time on the range.

    Reply

  • EdH

    |

    @Secundius

    WTF?
    This thread is “SPECIFICALLY” about the best gun for a new shooter: Revolver or Semi. Why do you have to keep hijacking a thread with decent opinions to soew a bunch of crap about your favorite caliber, the 357 Sig? When it comes right down to it the 357 sig is crap. It shows no real ballistic improvement over the 9mm and is nothing but a necked dow 40 S&W. It has been dropped by any major police departments that began using it because the ammo is too expensive compared to the 9mm, 40 S&W and 45acp. No one in a “First Gun” thread cares about the length of the brass so your blathering on dimensions isn’t adding anything to a “FIRST GUN” thread. Can you not keep on subject? Which is better for a “FIRST GUN” in your opinion, a REVOLVER OR A SEMI AUTO?

    Reply

    • Secundius

      |

      @ Edh.

      That’s just you opinion??? I also have my Opinion! AND EVERYBODY ELSE HAS THEIR OPINION, AS WELL!!! If the lady buys a gun, IT’S GOING TO BE HER CHOOSE!!! Not, Yours, Mine, or Anybody Else’s!!!

      Reply

    • EdH

      |

      That’s right. It is the new shooter’s choice. Revolver or Semi.

      And the 357 Sig shows no substantially better numbers then the 9mm or the 40 S&W. That isn’t opinion, that’s fact. Dispute it if you like but not in this thread.

      What is your opinion on the best first gun, a revolver or a semi?

      Reply

    • Secundius

      |

      @ EdH.

      SEMI, Minimally, .357SIG (9.02x22mm), P239. Maximally, either the .45ACP (11.43x23mm), M1911 Commander/P227 or .455Webley (11.5×19.6mm), BSM1911.

      Reply

  • Secundius

    |

    HEY SHOOTER’S LOG. SOMEBODY ASLEEP BACK THERE. GET RID OF THE “CAPTCHA”, IT KEEP’S LOCKING-UP OR RESET-IT!!!!!

    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: