The Revolver in the 21st Century

By Scott Wagner published on in Firearms

Contrary to what you may see in a lot of the popular firearms media these days, the revolver as a self-defense tool is not dead. In fact, there are quite a few options available for those seeking a revolver for home defense, concealed carry, or recreational shooting. But why would you choose a revolver when there are so many semi-automatic pistols available?

The first handguns I used when learning to shoot were revolvers. The first gun was my dad’s—who inherited it from my grandpa. It was a blued steel, six-shot .22 LR Smith and Wesson .22/32 Kit Gun with a four-inch barrel. This compact J-frame .22 LR revolver is still available today in two different iterations—the AirLite Model 317 Kitgun with aluminum alloy frame and cylinder and the all stainless steel Model 63. Both have eight-shot cylinders. The Kit Gun was just right for learning to shoot at age 14 since the small-frame wood grips fit my hands just right.

Scott Wagner shooting a revolver outdoors

A two-handed grip is great for the range, but seldom will you get that opportunity in a confrontation.

The second revolver I shot was a major step up. A friend of our family—who was a serious firearms enthusiast—took me, my brother and dad to the shooting range to shoot some of his guns. I was probably 15 at the time. I don’t remember what other guns we shot, but I do remember shooting his relatively new Ruger Blackhawk single-action revolver in .41 Magnum. We fired the reduced-power police loading, so recoil was tolerable. From then on, I was hooked on revolvers.

Throughout my 36-year law enforcement career, I often carried revolvers on duty—Colt Agent, Smith and Wesson Model 19, Model 10, the Model 65 and Model 686— before being required to carry a semi-automatic pistol. However, I never gave up on the revolver for off-duty concealed carry or backup, and still carry one nearly every day. I tell you all this to explain my bias in favor of the revolver for concealed carry or home defense. But it’s more than familiarity that drives my preference for revolvers.

The 21st Century revolver has a lot going for it. Let’s start with the foundational advantages it has over semi-automatic pistols, and then discuss the modern improvements which increase those advantages even further.

First and foremost, the double-action revolver is pretty hard to screw up as long as it is reasonably maintained. Its reliability in undeniable. The old advertising slogan “six for sure” is no joke. It is easy to know if your revolver is loaded simply by looking at the side of the gun for the gap between the rear of the cylinder and the frame for the cartridge rims. Unless you are very careless, you likely will not unknowingly face someone with an unloaded gun. This characteristic of the revolver also works in reverse—there should be no reason that you accidently fired a revolver because you didn’t know it was loaded!

Speaking of accidental discharges, there is also little excuse for having one with a DA revolver due to the 10-12 pound trigger pull, which also acts as the primary safety for the gun. It would be extremely difficult to accidentally catch and pull the trigger of a DA revolver. The same thing can’t be said of modern trigger-safety pistols.

Unlike semi-automatic pistols, revolvers are not particular about the cartridges that are loaded into the cylinder—as long as the caliber is correct. Anything from flat wadcutters to polymer tipped hollowpoint bullets will run—and the .357 Magnum revolver is the most versatile defensive revolver of all, because it can fire both .357 Magnum and .38 Special cartridges.

The revolver has advantages over the automatic when it comes to close quarter combat. The revolver is not as sensitive to being fired from odd (read that “any”) angles, nor will it jam from being fired with an unlocked wrist. In CQB, there is a very high probability that you will not be able to fire from the good two-hand firing position you practice with at the range.

Scott Wagner holding a revolver for home defense.

The revolver has many advantages over the semi-automatic for home defense.

Perhaps the most important CQB advantage of the revolver over the semi-automatic pistol is in the area of contact shots, i.e., when the muzzle of the handgun is actually pressed against the body of the attacker because the fight has become a hand-to-hand affair. Pressing the muzzle of an autoloader against the body of an attacker is likely to result in the slide being moved into an “out of battery” state, meaning that it won’t fire and is likely jammed. Not good. The revolver barrel is fixed and does not move, which also makes it more intrinsically accurate than the average semi-auto.

The revolver has come a long way in the 21st Century. Improvements include the availability of new lighter weight alloy frames that can resist the pounding of .357 or even .44 Magnum rounds, rust resistant coatings that reduce maintenance compared to the old, blue steel models, increased cylinder capacity due to improved metallurgy, the use of weight saving polymer in some revolver frames, improved sighting systems that use tritium, light gathering pipes or lasers, and multiple styles of reloading that make it easier to make up for limited cylinder capacity. All these improvements combined with a myriad of holster and carrying systems from pocket to shoulder make the modern revolver ready for modern combat.

Reloading a revolver can be much faster than one imagines when using speedloaders—either the cylindrical type or inline strip type loaders—with a bit of practice. The Smith and Wesson Performance Center 686 offers a third reloading option in the form of the full moon clip. The cylinder of this particular .357 holds seven rounds and is relieved to also allow the use of full moon clips, which drops all seven rounds into the cylinder with one motion, and ejects them in the same fashion. This is the fastest reload of all. Keep in mind too that the days of high-cap concealed carry handguns are waning. Single stack autos with magazine capacities of 6 or 7 rounds are all the rage. Single stack autos have virtually no advantage over revolvers in terms of ammo capacity.

When you search for a concealed carry or home defense gun, don’t overlook the revolver. More than adequate power and controllability, rock solid reliability, and excellent accuracy continue to be the hallmark of this weapon system. The modern double-action revolver has been around since the turn of the previous century. I expect it to be around for the turn of the next one.

What model was the first revolver you ever fired? Do you carry or rely on one now for self-defense? Share your revolver story in the comment section.

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Comments (61)

  • Gary

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    Blow-back or locked breech makes no difference. Any relatively modern semi-auto has a built-in safety to prevent the gun from firing if it is out of battery so that the high pressure gasses will not blow out of the side of the brass case of the round when it fires.

    Reply

    • Trapper

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      You missed his point. Pressure against the muzzle on a 22 with a fixed barl as in his examples will NOT take the gun out of battery leaving it with the same advantage as a revolver. Your statement is actually correct but it did not address his question correctly. Any modern gun should not fire out of battery. I do remember the Kaboom problem some early Glocks had however. Trapper

      Reply

  • Steven Stein

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    I understand what you are saying regarding a semi-auto not firing when the muzzle is pressed against the miscreant and preventing the slide from freely moving. My question regards a blowback type action in a semi-auto handgun (i.e.: Ruger Standard – Mark IV and the Browning in blowback configuration, to name two). It seems to me that this type of setup shouldn’t suffer from that issue. Granted, they are only .22 caliber, but the point remains.

    Reply

    • Trapper

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      You are absolutely correct the type of 22 auto that has a fixed barrel and only the bolt blows back when firing would not be affected by pressure on the muzzle. However there are several styles of action and for this to be true the barrel must be fixed
      To further explain – if the entire slide moves rearward on pressure contact then it moves the gun out of battery and it will not fire. Many of the really fine 22 autos have fixed barrels Trapper

      Reply

  • Tim

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    I have carried the Ruger LCR 357 with 38 special along with two speed loaders with a concealment vest. Also I have started carrying the Charter Arms Bull Dog Boomer in 44 Special. Also with two speed loaders. Both revolvers have Crimson Trace laser grips

    Reply

  • Norm

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    First firearm fired was a .22 LR semiauto rifle. Second was my DAd’s WW2 1911 .45 acp. First revolver fired was a S&W Mod 15 as a Security Policeman in USAF..My first firearm I bought was a S&W mod 10, super accurate. now, I have several revolvers and semiauto pistols ranging in caliber from .22LR to .45acp. I carried a LCR for a while, but now carry a semi auto compact 9mm. I love them all.

    Reply

  • Norm

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    First firearm fired was a .22 LR semiauto rifle. Second was my DAd’s WW2 1911 .45 acp. First revolver was a S&W Mod 15 as a Security Policeman in USAF..now, I have seversl revolvers and semisuto pistols ranging in caliber from .22LR to .45acp. I love them all.

    Reply

  • Gary

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    First firearm was a 12 ga. double that I got by trading a compressor to an old redneck when I was a teenager. The first revolver I shot was a Ruger Bearcat owned by a friend. Today, my normal carry gun is a stainless steel Charter Arms Bulldog. Yes, I could carry my customized Glock 23 or my 1911 in .45 ACP. But, I too have a fondness for the “wheel guns.”

    Reply

  • Wolf

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    Although I only carry semi-automatics, I believe that a revolver is a good weapon to keep at home for self defense. If six shots from a 38 spec. or larger have not stopped the intruder, you’re probably already dead or at least beaten up and disarmed.

    Reply

  • mike

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    my first handgun was a ruger single six 22. I bought it in newport rl. I was stationed there in the navy in 1963. I was only 19 so the gun store could not give it to me. what they did was sent it home where my mother lived.phoenix az. so I never saw the gun until I got out 1967.show you how much gun laws have changed.

    Reply

  • Shawn

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    Although not really a conceal option, I LOVE my Judge. Have it set up as a chest carry for a back up hunting option/damn bears/ when fishing no problem handgun. Fires flawlessly, accurate as all get out and felt recoil isn’t that bad for a 45 LC. considering all the options for caliber loads, home defense and shot gun loads, all I can say is “its the tits”!

    Reply

  • Bill

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    1st weapon fired at age 10 was a 12 gauge. I will never forget that. Now
    70 yrs later after 21 years military and 18 years law enforcement I have a
    9mm Hi Power, SW Model 19-4, Mode 686dd, well you know, Auto are nice but I still carry my model 19….Love the revolver. 1st Job I had in the Air Force was cleaning new S&W 38s with 2″ barrels for flight crews. The 1st Sgt told me when I was finished I could leave for the day after he inspected the ones cleaned. I counted 60 to be cleaned. I was late for dinner that day. Flight crews were exchanging their model 1911 45’s. Colts. Wonder what ever happened to those………………….

    Reply

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