Handgun Selection: Revolver or Self-Loader?

By Bob Campbell published on in Concealed Carry, Firearms

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.

Black SIG Equinox Autoloader on a leaf covered gray background, barrel pointed to the left

While revolvers are businesslike, some auto-loaders such as this SIG Equinox are very attractive, a point that cannot be overlooked.

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.

Reliability

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.

Man in yellow t-shirt points shoots a Smith and Wesson .357 Magum with trees in the background

My friend, Mike Ho, does the business with his Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum.

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.

Price

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.

Ruger, Smith and Wesson and Taurus revolvers  do the business for less, but you also need to consider cost and operating expenses.

Black .38 in a black holster on a white background

This .38 in a versa-carry rig is pretty simple and works.

A quality revolver chambered in the affordable .38 Special is not as likely to put a permanent dent in the purse.

Recoil Control

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.

Magazine Capacity

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.

Two men in light colored t-shirts practice loading their handguns during a training session

The ability to quickly swing the cylinder open and make certain the revolver is not loaded is a real advantage in training.

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

Transparent diagram in blue outlining the complicated autoloader

This diagram shows that the auto-loader is indeed complicated.

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:

  1. Load the cylinder.
  2. Close the cylinder.
  3. 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.

Power

Para Ordnance LDA with black barrel and brown, wood-grained grip, barrel pointed to the right on a white background

The Para Ordnance LDA is a fine pistol. The action is almost revolver simple.

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.

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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.

SLRule

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 Shooter’s 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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Comments (25)

  • Hunter301

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    I have recently purchased a S&W .357 686+ 3″ barrel for one very simple reason…”I don’t trust semi-autos to work every time.” 10 and 15 round magazines are nothing but dead weight if the first round fired stove pipes on you or the second one coming off the mag feed jams.
    Both of my coveted semi-autos recently gave me a real eye opening experience.
    I have a Beretta 92 stainless brigadier that I keep in the house and a Para-Ordnance C6 that used to be EDC gun. My son and I went shooting at the local range for Father’s Day to shoot my recently purchased AR-15. My son asked if we could bring along the Beretta. I keep this in a quick access digital safe in the house that I use all the time.
    To make a long story short while at the range the Beretta was continually feed jamming and the C6 was feed jamming and stove-piping.
    The Beretta feed jamming really threw me for a loop. I have had this gun for 20 years and never had a problem running hundreds of round thru it.
    Now all of a sudden here I am with my son shooting it and it’s feed jamming. The C6 always had issues trying feed hollow point rounds into it because of the short 3″ barrel has such a steep angle feed ramp on it so I started keeping ball rounds in it. They to were jamming and it was stove-piping. It got me thinking do I really want to trust my life and my families life to something I’m not even sure will work properly when I need it.
    I decided to weigh the pro and cons and came up with the following for switching to a revolver.
    For my EDC I was using the Para-Ordnance C6 which has 6 round single stack magazines. I always kept 2 spare mags in my EDC bag not that I ever expected to need all 3 mags.
    By switching to the 686+ 3″ barrel revolver I was not only keeping the minimum 6 rounds I had in the C6 mag but I was gaining a 7th round. I was also matching the same 3″ barrel that my C6 has. Did not want to go to the more popular 4″ barrel 686 because for concealment purposes I felt the barrel was to long. I wear loose non tuck-in shirts and I can hide a 3″ with no problem but I might have a problem with the 4″. Besides if I can’t hit it with a 3″ barrel than it’s not close enough to be considered an immediate threat.
    The 686 is also chambered in .357 which I find comparable to the C6 that was chambered in .45 cal. Now I have always thought the .45 was the best man stopper there was in a pistol except for the .44 magnum which is to big of a gun to carry around in a Florida environment. Having said that I have since put the .44 in the small house gun safe to replace the Beretta until I can find out why it’s jamming. I don’t like my guns laying out around the house and 4 quick pushes on the digital pad and I have access to the gun. I use this safe all the time for extra money storage so getting into it is second nature to me. Can have that door open as quick as opening a night stand drawer.
    I have always been concerned with being proficient with the semi-autos because I don’t have near enough time to practice with them as with the revolver it is such old school for me as I am now 56 and have grown up with them all my life. My 6″ 629 stays on me anytime I am out in the woods. While I understand the reloading isn’t near as fast as the autos my feeling is if I need more than 7 rounds I got bigger troubles anyway.

    Reply

  • Stan

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    Personally I use a XD-9 with night-sights and Glasers trying to prevent
    over penetrating my thin apartment walls. With tactical loaded-chamber
    indicator and striker-cocked indicator and a grip-safety this beats the
    famed Glock for safety/practicality.

    I got my Mother a S&W 64-3 38 special; she’s over 90 and cannot jack
    the slide on my Ruger Mark I 22 let alone my 9mm or 40cal guns.
    Of course I am loaning her the gun (no transfer after she passes);
    being stainless she can handle it and I don’t have to refinish it or worry
    about it rusting shut under her pillow (so to speak). I work a odd
    schedule in security and she rests better with protection she can use…
    she used to shoot a S/A revolver so this was easy to pick up. With her
    limited strength she cocks the hammer S/A to shoot at the targets at
    our local handgun range; I take her there once a month. Think I’ll get
    her a laser sight or gun mounted flashlight. I also added her to my ACN
    legal defense plan.

    Reply

  • jim peacher

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    practice,practice,practice!I had a friend empty a 44 mag revolver at a burglar at the short distance of 12 FEET and he missed with 6 shots.His rounds wound up in other folks homes in the neighborhood after penetrating his thin apartment walls.Try as he might,his shaking hands could not reload his Ruger revolver under stress.lucky for him,the burglar lay prone on his rug until the police arrived.If I can’t get to the range,I practice changing magazines while watching TV.Muscle memory build up exercise.I prefer an auto over a revolver.Buy what fits your hand and practice.Buy extra magazines and switch out loaded and unloaded magazines to give the mag springs a rest.Don’t buy something shiny,the first inkling that a perp has that you are armed is when he sees a muzzle flash,and that isn’t long hopefully.

    Reply

  • Number1buck

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    All Wheel Guns All Day Here :) Everyday boot carry is 2 snubnose S&W .22 revolvers, I can shoot that gun more accurately with 1 hand than 2 ! Not to mention that with a New York reload I have 16 shots ! Besides I have a Laser Guided S&W Governor Loaded for Bear in my Briefcase if I need to hit something with 4 shots per trigger pull… e.g. 24 projectiles per cylinder, that qualifies as High Cap does it not? Lastly, I agree with everyone’s points about the benefits of magazines vs reloading a revolver, but moon clips with .45acp in my Governor (after those 1st 24 projectiles from the shotshells) are almost as good as mags…almost

    Reply

    • Stephen

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      How wide is your pattern of “4 projectiles” at 20′ or 30’? If you can hit with a revolver with one hand, why would you us shotshells? .410 in a handgun and .22 are about the last loads I’d ever choose. You could miss center of mass with 4) .410 projectiles even with your aim on target not to mention striking the unintended. I carry a snubnose revolver. Practice with it 2/3 times a month. A smooth motion and good front sight hits with .38spl +p or .357 makes a lot more sense to me. Defensive scenarios rarely, rarely ever get to reloading or BUG’s. Police use BUG’s. So unless you are fighting it out with police or are the one on offense and have multiple targets, I can’t ever see carrying 3 guns. I feel good with 5 in the cylinder on my hip and 5 more on a strip. Smooth is fast. Accurate hits (not scatter ball) will end the conflict.

      Reply

    • Number1buck

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      Fair Questions Stephen. At inside the house (or car-jacking) distances I can score multiple hits with the shotshell or my LehighDefense multi-projectile 45 Long Colt…my marksmanship with high caliber isn’t what it should be, but in a high stress situation I can aim for center mass & get all if not most projectiles on target, now for more surgical work that’s where the .22 boot carried revolvers come in, those weapons I can shoot accurately with 1 or 2 hands…most will laugh at .22, but I found they were the only guns that I ended up comfortably carrying everyday EVERYWHERE so with the thought that the best gun in a gunfight is the one you have… I carry them for defense. My true BUG is the iPhone sized .45 DoubleTap, the most painful gun I own, the one that even the best shooters I know take 1 of its 2 shots & hand it back to me, that gun to me is last ditch on the ground scrum, body contact shooting. I think the bottom line is that one should carry what they are proficient at & what is comfortable enough to carry 24 x 7 (when my wife is away on her overnight shift the Governor sleeps in her spot & that’s 1 gun that I know I could shoot half asleep (laser) at an end of bed target) All the Best!

      Reply

    • Number1buck

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      Stephen, I should provide some backstory on how I ended up carrying the 2 extremes, .22 & .410 My 1st defensive carry was a S&W model 686 in .357 too big / too much for me to handle & couldn’t hit a damn thing, then I traded down to a S&W model 60 in .38 & could barely hit my target & I didn’t like the limited 5 shot capacity but the J-frame carried nicely… meanwhile both my wife & I were enjoying her S&W model 317 in .22 so I bought a snub nose version & loved it & then bought a 2nd for symmetrical carry in each boot so 8 shots each, accuracy using 1 or 2 hands (in that particular gun I’m better single handed) plus great comfortable concealment lead me to carrying those weapons all waking hours :) so that’s all well-n-good but I knew at times I might find myself underpowered & since I carry a locking briefcase everyday with me, I decided to put the unused laptop compartment to good use with spare ammunition & higher powered weapons, specifically a S&W Governor (loaded w/ .410 federal handgun buckshot & reloaded with full moons clips of .45acp or .45 Long Colt) And just because I Love them I also threw in the briefcase a Bond Arms Derringer in .410/45LC Hopefully all this detail helps explain my defensive carry evolution & don’t worry the gun safes at work, home & in the truck are equipped with proper .308/7.62 rifles 12/20/410 shotguns on the theory that the handguns in hand are for fighting a way back to those bigger better weapons… Take Care

      Reply

    • Stephen

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      N1b- Your logic is sound in that what works best for one can be much different in what works best for another. You seem to have a thought system and progression which is probably more in depth than most.

      My snubnose was difficult for me from the time it was new until about 700 rounds. My hand hurt for a week after the first time out. A very tight one handed grip changed that. I will use 2 hands quite a bit during practice but that is not while in “defense mode”. The first time I ran .357’s through it, my 2 handed grip was split by recoil. My dry fire in home includes things like one handed grip, no lights on (tritium front sight) and flashlights. I think having an arm free for combatives is important. My 2 handed grip is real good and would be used if a situation allows. My go to home defense gun is the one I use in production class USPPSA. (Walther PPQ M2 9mm). I still do the dry fire with the snubnose as it is most likely the gun I’ll have on me if ever in a nasty situation. I have my muscle memory fairly tuned that when I raise my snub (Ruger LCR .357) my point of aim is pretty close right on. (short distances) Proficiency started with pain and came in with practice. I now would not trade my LCR for any other -20oz (17oz) gun except maybe a Boberg (at 2 1/2 x’s the price).

      Reply

  • Ron

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    I think you miss the most important question of all when choosing a handgun for home or personal defense. If I were helping a person decide between calibers and auto vs revolver I would ask; “Realistically, how often are you going to practice in order to become competent with your handgun?; weekly, monthly, or figure out how it works, load it and put it away figuring that you are ready to use it”. Maybe actually fire it twice a year for a total of a hundred rounds or so?

    That is the real world and unless a person has grown up with guns or has a real immediate need for protection I’ll bet that a good 75% of the new owners of handguns in the last few years have fired no more than 100 rounds, ok make it 200, and I’m stretching it now.

    So, the dread scenario occurs and the need for deadly defense is at hand. if the novice gun owner can get their hands on their weapon in time and that’s big if, can they remember if there’s a round in the chamber? Remember to rack the slide and get the safety off? Where is that dang safety? Should it be up or down? I can’t see the red dot in the dark.
    Or maybe she pulls out a double action revolver with no hammer and just pulls the trigger. She or he know nothing about saftys and slides and hammers and magazines and loaded or not as they have never had to worry about that. Just keep your revolver loaded and pull the dang trigger.
    I’ve been around guns and hunting, personal defense all my many decades, I own many 1911’s, 380’s and 9mm’s, tactical shotguns, .223’s and I love them all. But if there is a bad guy in my hallway he’ll answer to my 357 mag S&W Mod 65 on my nightstand. I’ll be plenty occupied with trying to wake up, that’s all I’ll have time for. My advice to a new gun owner will always be get a good double-action revolver preferably with no hammer, like the excellent Ruger LCR,, probably a 38 +p and learn to shoot it accurately and keep it loaded. Don’t even learn about autos unless you’re willing to practice at least monthly, fire hundreds of rounds annually, learn how to strip it, clean and lube it properly, learn how to tell if it’s in single action mode or double, etc. Autos are simply complicated at a time when the slightest complication can kill you. . .

    Reply

    • AZARCHANGEL55

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      You just did a great job selling a Glock!! LOL

      Reply

    • Ron

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      No question that a Glock and many other double action autos are superior in many ways to a revolver in the hands of an experienced shooter. But I maintain that, to a novice shooter, the revolver will instill confidence necessary at a time when mini-seconds are crucial. .

      Reply

    • John Martin

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      After reading Ron';s reply, I agree with you about his effectively selling a Glock… I had to respond directly to his post, to add my comments about safety’s…

      Reply

    • John Martin

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      After reading Ron’;s reply, I agree with you about his effectively selling a Glock… I had to respond directly to his post, to add my comments..
      ***************
      I meant for that reply to go to Azarchangel55. Failed to check before I shot (sorry)

      Reply

    • John Martin

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      I do not understand WHY you think a revolver owner does not need to practice as much as a semiauto pistol guy ? At least that is the image I get as I read your blog. Also, I do NOT keep a round in the chamber, so the safety is NOT on, so when I rack in a round I KNOW it is ready to shoot. “Just keep your revolver loaded and pull the dang trigger” huh ? Or shoot yourself when you pick it up in a hurry ? Also, don';t you clean your revolver ? You intent is good, but you are just TOO biased toward revolvers, sir. I have taught novices how to SAFELY load, shoot and clean an auto in VERY little time. Some autos are just simpler to break down than others. Loading in an extra mag is faster and easier for a novice than reloading a revolver in a hurry.

      Reply

  • Kyle

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    Whenever this discussion comes up it is pretty easy to see which type of pistol the author prefers. Thank you for staying mostly neutral. I have been involved with and shooting all types of guns for over 39 years. I retired from the Army, been an Arizona Ranger, security guard, prison guard, Border Patrol Agent, and I have teaching certificates as a rifle and pistol instructor. So I have a little knowledge on the subject. I use a variety of pistols to help people obtain a complete knowledge of options. As a basic rule with those who cannot decide which pistol they prefer, I tell them “Shoot the largest caliber you can shoot accurately, in the pistol that is most comfortable.” After all, if you cannot hit your target it doesn’t matter what you carry!

    Reply

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