After many years of carrying a defensive handgun, I find the same formula works today that worked as when I began studying handguns decades ago. The equation isn’t terribly complicated, but requires attention to the variables. Quick access and speed, combined with a reasonably powerful cartridge is the solution. Skill is the most important thing. Speed to acquisition of the front sight and good shot placement are up to the user. A choice I made some time ago for defense against both bipedal and quadruped threats is the big bore revolver.
Big Bore: Still Relevant
While the majority of concealed carry handgun shooters deploy a self-loading handgun, I would say that well over half of the handguns carried are not something I find suitable for personal defense. This opinion is based upon reliability, quality of manufacture, cartridge efficiency, and the ability to use the handgun well in a defensive situation. While prepared Americans may not deploy a second-rate .380 ACP pistol, many others do. They are in the unenviable position of being armed with a deadly weapon, but are unable to defend themselves well.
A big bore revolver has certain advantages over even a full-size, big bore self-loader. One of these advantages is that in a worst-case scenario such as an animal attack, the revolver may be pressed into the adversary’s body and fired repeatedly. The self-loader would malfunction after the first shot. Even with a less-than-perfect grip, the revolver will continue to function.
What About Concealed Carry?
One of the best revolvers for concealed carry use is what is often referred to as the pencil-barrel revolver. These are fixed-sight revolvers without adjustable sights or heavy underlug barrels. Oversized or target-style hammer and trigger options are not included with these revolvers. The grips are not target-style stocks. These are service-grade revolvers, instead of target-grade revolvers. These revolvers are ideal for those working or playing in the woods, as well as those that prefer the revolver.
As an example, some years ago a colleague working plainclothes carried a Smith and Wesson Model 1917 revolver. He had had the barrel professionally shortened from five to four inches, re-crowned, and a proper front sight added. The revolver wore custom grips and rode in a crossdraw holster. I asked this experienced officer why he did not simply carry a Commander .45. He stated he did not wish to engage in field-stripping and lubrication on a weekly basis, and elaborated further.
His practice schedule was slight to nonexistent. He had grown up on the revolver, did not trust the .38 due to harsh experience, did not like the blast and recoil of the .357 Magnum, and ‘on any day when I have a cold,’ the revolver fit his hand and came up firing. He spent more time in the legal library and in court than on the range, and was a good officer by any standard. His logic was cop logic for decades and it worked for him.
Best Big Bore Options
Smith and Wesson double-action revolvers feature excellent fit, finish, and reliability. The action has proven reliable in millions of examples over one hundred years of use in two World Wars and innumerable personal defense incidents.
Among the finest modern revolvers for defensive use is the Model 69. While this Smith and Wesson is chambered in .44 Magnum, a lightweight revolver is best charged with the .44 Special cartridge. The action is the smoothest Smith and Wesson has ever manufactured in my opinion. The sights are an excellent combination for good accuracy and fast work. The floating firing pin will withstand high pressures better and is less likely to suffer a stoppage from primer setback.
The action is smooth and a trained shooter may deliver accurate double-action fire well past twenty-five yards. The single-action option allows precise fire with a barely perceptible trigger movement and a clean break of 2.5 pounds on average. This class of revolver invites practice. I am not able to fire up to the accuracy potential of the revolver illustrated but have done good work during many drills.
This revolver isn’t too heavy for constant carry in a properly designed holster. As my colleague pointed out, they are safe, fast, and come up firing when we need them. This revolver is a five-shot version. Heavy frame, six-shot big bores are too large for most of us to conceal. The L-frame and the slightly larger GP100, when offered in five-shot .44 versions, are good choices. The Ruger GP100 is a .44 Special, not a bad place to be.
Another credible defense revolver is the Taurus 450, a fixed sight short barrel revolver chambered in .45 Colt. This is a fast-handling, easy-packing revolver. The barrel also features ports that help reduce recoil. This revolver is less expensive than the Model 69 and, while not as smooth or accurate, it is a fine choice for close-range personal defense. Another alternative is the Taurus Tracker five-shot .44 Magnum with adjustable sights and underlug barrel. This is a great shooting and fairly compact revolver.
Choosing a Caliber
The primary choices in big bore revolver calibers are .44 Special and .45 Colt. Compared to Magnum calibers, recovery time is faster and recoil and muzzle blast are less. Since defense use may require a rapid follow-up shot, speed and control cannot be compromised. High velocity increases energy, but actual damage is what matters. A flatter trajectory is important when hunting, but is less of an advantage in personal defense.
I am not a fan of changing loads for different scenarios, but the big bore revolver offers several urban and rural options. As an example, Buffalo Bore offers quality lead hollow-point bullets for personal defense, while each of these calibers is available with a hard-cast semi-wadcutter bullet. Sectional density of rifle bullets is used to measure long-range performance, while sectional density pushes bullet diameter for penetration in handgun calibers.
The .44 Special was intended as a mild-mannered and highly accurate big bore cartridge. The cartridge still holds this promise. The Hornady 180-grain XTP offers a good balance of penetration and expansion, coupled with good accuracy for personal defense. The lighter .44 Special Critical Defense load may be chosen for urban use. The Buffalo Bore 190-grain lead SWC-HP makes use of the expansion properties of unjacketed lead with good results.
The .45 Colt is a grand old cartridge with an excellent reputation in personal defense. The .44 Special and .45 Colt use straight-walled cartridge cases that are a joy to handload. Using efficient and affordable cast bullets, they offer real economy. For personal defense, there are reasonable loads, such as the Hornady Critical Defense, that make for good wound potential for personal defense. For outdoors use, the Buffalo Bore SWC loads are useful. The Taurus revolver’s gripper grips help with recoil, but expect some muzzle flip.
Using a Big Bore Effectively
A small group on target never saved a life. I believe that a hard blow delivered quickly is the key to personal defense. As any boxer will tell you, a series of light blows never equals a single heavy blow. Mastering a double-action revolver is much the same as mastering any other handgun.
The stance, grip, sight picture, and sight alignment are the same. The revolver trigger must be smoothly pressed to the rear. As the revolver fires, the same amount of time is allowed for reset as the trigger press, the sights are regained and you are prepared to fire again.
At short range, using only the front sight superimposed on the target gives excellent results. When an attacking member of our protein-fed, ex-con criminal class is filled with cocaine and a quart of whiskey, the big bore revolver is a great asset.
The big bore revolver isn’t for everyone. The type remains valuable to those that understand the system and have specific needs. While I deploy a variety of viable handguns, I would hate to be without my .44 and .45 caliber revolvers. To end this article, I’ll leave you with their average velocities:
|.44 Special loads|
|Hornady 165-grain Critical Defense||980 fps|
|Hornady 180-grain XTP||920 fps|
|Buffalo Bore 190-grain LSCWHP||1,101 fps|
|Buffalo Bore 255-grain SWC||1,020 fps|
|.45 Colt Loads (Taurus 450)|
|Blazer 200-grain Gold Dot||714 fps|
|Hornady 255-grain Cowboy Load||680 fps|
|Buffalo Bore 225-grain LSWCHP||809 fps|
What’s your favorite big bore firearm? Let us know in the comments section below!
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in April of 2020. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.
Not a big bore but I quite like my M206 in .38spl. Standard pressure 125gr Federal Nyclads in it are more than pleasant to shoot. Very accurate with hardly any recoil. With the trigger cleaned up it’s really not too bad for a $250 piece. It’s no S&W but double action is reasonably smooth although you can feel/hear two distinct clicks from where the lock is engaging in the cylinder stops but no big deal. Lockup is pretty tight. Timing is good. Single action is incredible light. It’s a bit heavy but that’s what really helps on the recoil. Carried an S&W 686 4″ on duty for a long time before we switched over to the then new M&P 40. Liked it a lot but it’s not exaclty a concealed piece. Buddy of mine had a Ruger Redhawk in .44 something… long ago, think it was magnum… for me it was just too much but it was a nice one. Couldn’t imagine popping off one of those S&W 500 or 460s… don’t exactly live in big bear country, just smaller black bears so no real need for me to carry a big bore. Still a pretty good article though.
My favorite for concealed carry is the Ruger SP101 .357 with a 2 inch barrel. It is small, easily concealable, well made, shoots like a dream and packs a punch. It is a little uncomfortable to hold with stock grips, so I switched the stock grips for a Hogue 81000 rubber grip with finger grooves. Made a big difference.
I’m surprised to see you include the Taurus 450 in this article as they were discontinued WELL over a decade ago now, maybe 15 years. But I appreciate the fact that you did, as I have one and I absolutely LOVE IT! It will be one of the very last to go. I carry mine regularly in an off-body apparatus that I’ll not discuss here–HA! I don’t know if I just lucked up and got a good one or if they’re all like this. Mine shoots dead on POI/POA. While the trigger isn’t as good as a Smith, it’s not terrible either. It smoothed out quite nicely over time & use. It shoots just about any range ammo well from wadcutters to cowboy loads. But it really (surprisingly) shines in the accuracy dept. with high $$ modern self-defense loads. I keep Winchester PDX1 250gr Flying Ashtrays loaded in mine and to 25 yds. (even with ME behind the gun) it’ll easily keep them inside 3″. Heck, with more range time than I currently get, I have no doubt that it’s a 2″ gun. It’s just as you said, with those Ribber grips and the porting, muzzle flip is a breeze to control, even in so light a gun. I’m STILL surprised and amazed every time I get to shoot it. I wish any of you luck finding one…cuz mine’s NOT FOR SALE!!
I own the Taurus Judge public defender model with the 3″ barrel. It’s a bit bulky and heavy for summer carry, but in winter with heavy jacket’s on it is easier to conceal. The thing is an absolute blast to shoot and there are several great options in ammunition for both self defense and training or range time. I’ve even used the 410 bore options for small game hunting.
I have the S&W 629-4 old style “Backpacker” with the Wiegand, “Tame the Beast Modification.” With .44 Special rounds, it has very little recoil and muzzle flip. Moderate with .44 Magnum ammo, too. OWB leather holster and it doesn’t “print” under a coat, jacket or vest. It fires, everytime!
I can’t tell you how fun it is to sit and read through these comments while our protectors of another era share stories of the fondness and actual relationships they developed over the years with their EDC. Thank you Gentlemen for sharing your ingesting perspectives. I’m relatively new to carrying and appreciate your experience and insight.
Practice is important for good shot placement. Revolver ammo is very pricey now relative to 9mm. Also most everyone is far more accurate with pistols instead of revolvers. I started with revolvers and had dozens in the 80s and 90s and slowly moved to pistols. I have 25 handguns. Only 1 is revolver,,. 38 special and I only kept it since I have fair amount of ammo for it still. Pistols are the way to go now.
I carried an S & W 629 4″ barrel while living in Alaska. I handloaded Norma 240 gr. Today, stateside, I carry a Springfield XDm Elite in 10 mm. I would feel comfortable carrying it in Alaska were I to return.
So how would the recoil of one of these revolvers compare with a semi-auto. I like the idea of the .44 special, but would it have more recoil than a 9MM? Right now I’m down to a .22.
Remember that for over 100 years revolvers were THE handgun. While plastic fantastic autos are the most popular type sold today, revolvers have their place. They are super reliable, simple to run and can fire big rounds that would shake an auto apart plus feed any manufacturer’s type. I have many and my permit legal is a S&W 44. You can get a little 5 shot J frame snubby in 38+P for a pocket, a 7 shot .357 magnum K frame for an IWB holster. No auto has a more powerful round than a magnum (save the giant Desert Eagle in .357). Older hands like mine might have a hard time loading a mag, cycling a slide, clearing a jam etc on an auto, but a revolver is simple to use. Practice speed loading and you will be well served by a revolver as an EDC.
I have been thinking of adding a revolver to my EDC, but with arthritis attacking my hands, I’m not sure whether or not one of these would be helpful. Any thoughts?
I have moved from .357 snubbies to .44 “Bulldog” types: 3” barreled, 5 shot compact revolvers in .44 or .45. The magnums (357 and 44) are too hard to maintain rapid target acquisition so I find the .44 Special ideal as a target and defensive round…plus my hand is not in pain after 50-100 rounds. I have a Taurus 431, a S&W 969 and a small, lightweight CA Bulldog…love ‘‘em all.
I have both a S&W 625-8 JM .45 ACP custom Apex Tactical Inc. revolver and a Springfield XD .45. They both have there places pluses and minuses. I would definitely pick up the S&W 625 if I hear a bump in the night over the auto because I don’t have to worry about how long the rounds have been in the magazine. As in when was the last time I rotated my magazine and ammo in them. The revolver is always ready to go and the trigger pull is better on my custom revolver than on my auto. Since the S&W 625 uses full moon clips I can reload it if need be as fast as I can my auto also.
While working as a deputy/patrol/detective in a coastal county in Washington State I was issued a .38 cal “chief’s special” as a back up to my main duty weapon, the old standby Security Six. I was good to go re: qualifications with the Security Six but that little .38 cal went everywhere but where I wanted, though I hit the target enough to qualify each time. I talked the Sheriff into letting me buy/carry a Charter Arms .44 spl (Bulldog) and he was good to go with it so long as I qualified with it as my secondary weapon.
I loved that gun! It BARKED and meant business. During a night quals with secondary weapons I once had a range master friend of mine accuse me of shooting handloads because he said a ball of flame seemed to engulf the entire gun. I never fired a handload through that particular pistol. I finally had to retire it after about ten years of concealed carry (when the semi autos came into vogue). I don’t know how many rounds I fired through that particular revolver but it was always fun to shoot. Eventually it started shaving lead so I had to pull the beast from duty and over time I sold it to an old, retired cop friend of mine who was one heckuva gunsmith. He’s since passed on but he was beside himself when I sold it to him. He carried it everywhere.
I prefer the 357 and have several Smith & Wesson and the Tarus tracker 4″. Also have airweight 38spl. that sees a lot of use.
Own the Charter Arms .44 spl. and the Taurus Tracker .44 Mag. “Hot” .44 spl. reloads (~25,000 psi) or “Mild” .44 Mag. reloads (~25,000 psi) and the Tracker are enough for almost any wild animal in North America.
Charter Arms .44 spl., specially in the 3″ version, with “Cowboy” loads, is still effective against two legged vermin, but may not be enough for a bear.
Amusingly, to me at least, this article is similar to one I read in the 1974 Guns & Ammo Annual titled “Best Law Enforcement Handgun Yet?” Both dwelled on the virtues of big-bore short-barreled revolvers as defensive firearms. That article featured a 1914 S&W New Century that was cut down to 3″ and rechambered to 45 Colt. Like most of the “cool guns” I saw in the 1973 and 1974 G&A Annuals I eventually acquired one of them or something similar. In the case of that “Best” gun I got a 3″ S&W 629-4 Backpacker in about 1994. It carries well but but doesn’t conceal well in the warm months… as do my 1911s. As such a S&W Model 37 Airweight loaded with +P .38 Specials, riding in a horsehide Galco pocket holster, experiences far more carry. After all, the first rule of carrying a defensive handgun is actually having a handgun with you.