Society changes slowly, although tools change often. Since about 1900, the subject of revolvers and automatics (yes, I know, we call them automatics anyway) has been beaten to death every time a novice looks at a handgun. So, I suppose it is worth another discussion. Likewise, with the introduction of new handguns, the situation warrants attention. I sometimes feel a pang of sympathy for new shooters.
When I was growing up, the majority of police officers carried revolvers, and the world was simpler. I came into my prime in a shooting world undergoing many interesting changes. I formed opinions the old way by combining personal experience with research. Those whose opinions I trusted were real. They could not hide experience any more than others could hide a lack of experience.
I understand that each shooter must choose the handgun that suits him or her best, and there are certain baselines we should consider. Let’s look at some of the misconceptions about handguns and the strong points of each type: the revolver and automatic pistol.
Which type is the most reliable? Reliability takes many forms. If you are going to leave your handgun at ready for many months without firing or any type of maintenance, the revolver is most likely to come up shooting. After all, there are no springs under pressure, and the action is not likely to take a set.
On the other hand, if reliability is the propensity of the handgun to fire with every press of the trigger, the types may be equal, given a quality example. In years of training, I have seen as many cheap revolvers as cheap automatics fail to function.
Another basis for reliability is which type would you expect to stand up to a rigorous training program with thousands of rounds a year?
- The automatic pistol will withstand a lot of use.
- A quality .45 automatic will go thousands of rounds in use.
- A .357 Magnum with full-power loads might shoot itself out of time long before the automatic malfunctions.
So, depending on your goal and mission, the two are equally reliable; it depends on what you expect.
I have found that, given quality ammunition, the major makers’ products are very, very reliable. And the bottom line is, more often, quality ammunition and good magazines make the difference.
Let’s choose the handgun that really suits our lifestyles.
In a perfect world, the handgun’s cost would not matter, but it does. A quality revolver is not always pricey, although the best automatics (Kimber, Smith and Wesson E Class and Heckler and Koch) are expensive.
A quality revolver chambered in the affordable .38 Special is not as likely to put a permanent dent in the purse.
The revolver has a higher bore axis. That means the centerline of the barrel sets a bit higher over the hand than the automatic. The operating mechanism of the automatic pistol soaks up some of the recoil. The slide recoils and compresses the recoil spring, storing energy in the spring. The recoil spring then jolts the slide back into battery.
Weight for weight, firing similar loads, the automatic is easier on the hand. That is particularly evident with the compact 9mm handgun versus the .38 snub-nose revolver.
A 115-grain 9mm at 1100 fps kicks less than a 110-grain .38 at 950 fps (in the same handgun weight class). The .45 automatic seems to exhibit less recoil energy than a .44 Special revolver of similar weight. It is simply physics.
The revolver is often said to have less firepower. I believe that careful shot placement of a big-bore projectile carries the day. I own several quality 9mm handguns with magazine capacities of up to 17 rounds. While this is a good reserve of ammunition, I prefer eight rounds of .45 ACP. Looking at six rounds of .357 Magnum, I still feel comfortable.
The snub nose .38 carries five .38s, and it is slow to reload. A compact 9mm handgun may deploy 12 rounds. A revolver with a cylinder holding more than seven rounds becomes pretty bulky, and only the five-shot .44s are truly compact.
How much weight should you give capacity? For most uses, including home defense, accurate shot placement is far more important than magazine or cylinder capacity.
However, if you work in an at-risk environment and a take-over robbery or gang problem is part of the scenario, high capacity may become more important. As time goes by and I study more and more incidents, I find a compact self-loader and a spare magazine make sense.
On the other hand, when carrying the five-shot .44, I am well protected.
The Manual of Arms
To all who are smart enough to correctly operate the self-loader, they are simply more complex than the revolver. The slide lock, safety and magazine release are added complications the occasional shooter does not want or need.
If you adopt a high-tech firearm, be certain you are high tech as well. The revolver requires only that you:
- Load the cylinder.
- Close the cylinder.
- Pull the trigger.
The automatic demands you understand how to:
- Safely load the piece.
- Make it safe.
- Carry it safely.
- Fire it safely.
In the case of the double-action, first-shot automatic pistol, there is more than one trigger action to learn. For simplicity, speed into action and operation without complication, the revolver wins hands down.
That is food for thought.
As for power, there really is not much from which to choose. It is how that power is harnessed that matters.
- The .38 Special and 9mm are comparable. You could do a lot of comparison with different loads, but the basic power of each cartridge is comparable in common defense loads.
- The .357 Magnum outstrips the 9mm, .38 Super and .357 SIG at the expense of heavy recoil and muzzle blast.
- There really is not a revolver alternative to the .40 Smith and Wesson. The .38-.40 is a pretty hoary old round to compare to the .40. Likewise, the .44-40 WCF is similar in power to the 10mm.
- The .44 Special and .45 ACP are comparable, although the .45 ACP has every advantage since the self-loader may be compact, relatively light and deploy seven to eight rounds, versus five in a compact revolver. While the relative merits of the individual cartridges make for interesting campfire discussion, there really is not anything one will do that the other will not.
- The .357 Magnum is a formidable cartridge, true, but so is the 10mm automatic. The 9mm is very controllable, considering the ballistics it shoots. Both the .44 and the .45 have adherents.
Choosing the type of handgun you need and which best suits you involves handling and firing several examples.
- If you believe the revolver is the most reliable and it suits your needs, check out a self-loader just in case.
- If you believe the automatic is high speed and low drag, check out a wheel gun just for the hell of it.
Sometimes practical considerations and daily routine make a compromise evident.
Which to Choose?
There is an excellent chance you will discover that both types are useful for different missions. The snub-nose .38 is a great hideout, while the high-capacity 9mm pistol is an appropriate home defense pistol.
Some handguns demand more training and skill to master. The 4-inch-barrel .357 Magnum is an all-around, go-anywhere, do-anything handgun, and so is the Commander-length .45 automatic.
There are many good handguns to explore, and by limiting yourself to one type, you may miss the handgun that suits your needs best.
What is your favorite handgun? Did you test different options before you bought it, or do you have several in your arsenal? Share in the comments section.
Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooters Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.
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