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)

  • Martin Pierce

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    I think you arrived at the right conclusion.

    Reply

  • Martin Pierce

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    100% right on all counts. If your goingt to wear the boots, choose the right socks.

    Reply

  • Martin Pierce

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    Lots of things that are 2″, but brains are weighed by the once, As for the rest of it, Bull Shit, I Say.

    Reply

  • Secundius

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    @ CTD, ATTN: Suzanne. (Another Reason, Why Not To Buy Pink!!!)

    Must read World War Two, Project YEHUDI, under Operation ARCHERY.
    “Mountbatten Pink” or “Plymouth Pink”. Interesting reading.

    Reply

  • Secundius

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    @ Martin Pierce.

    I read somewhere that they pushed the Maximum Flat Trajectory Range of the .30-06Sprnfld. from 3,150-meters to 5,030-meters. I can’t remember what kind of rifle was used, or even the brand of ammunition.

    Reply

  • Martin Pierce

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    Its all about Velocity and Cross-section bullet Mass. The higher the velocity and bullet cross-section + hp for example=more shock, wound channel, etc., etc., and so on. I like the 10mm reloads with Hornady 165 grn XTP’s myself

    Reply

  • Secundius

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    I don’t know why almost everybody in this forum is trying to push snub-nose .38Specials on women. I don’t know of any women, in their right minds. Who are willing to own one.

    Reply

    • EdH

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      A snub nose 38 or 357 is an unimposing, simple to use firearm. It is concealable and uncomplicated. it is a good idea for a “FIRST FIEARM”. There are no safeties to worry about. You point and you shoot. Most shootings occur within 21 feet. You don’t need a 5 inch barrel to hit at 21 feet. You don’t need big fancy sights to hit at 21 feet. The 38spl is an adequate defense round without a lot of recoil. For a “FIRST FIREARM” for anyone it is a decent tool.

      Reply

  • Martin Pierce

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    Well, 2″ is OK, but .357 max loads or even .38 spcl.+p out of a blow pipe. You need Sunglasses in the dark and the Rolling Stones playing in your hearing protectors.

    Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ Martin Pierce.

      How’s the toe??? Everything go well!

      Reply

  • Martin Pierce

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    I disagree with the statement that women Police Officers–or most Women are not agressive enough–for that matter will shoot you quicker than a Man. Reason: They have more to Loose. Lets debate it;I know a couple of—.

    Reply

  • Mc Ruger

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    Dave / Nathan

    VERY valid point. How ever I do record DL information and maintain in the safe for future reference. Of course if there is no record of me having the gun it is hard to confiscated.

    Reply

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