Revolver vs. Automatic

S&W_625JMMany of my students are civilians who will take a CCW class to learn the law in regards to self defense, or a basic pistol class to enhance their marksmanship skills. Many of them are not involved in apprehending bad guys or offing terrorists for a living. When it comes to firearms selection they have many questions as to what the “best” handgun to use is.

The reality is that the “best” handgun to use to defend yourself is one that will go “bang” every time you pull the trigger. Beyond that, there are a number of practical considerations involved in selecting the right handgun. O.K. so which is better, revolver or semi auto?
Better for what? A firearm is a tool, and tools are selected to perform various functions based on the need. So what is your need?

• Are you a soldier who may have to defend yourself from multiple armed attackers?
• Are you a police officer attempting to apprehend a twice convicted felon in an apartment complex?
• Are you a single mom and you need to defend yourself from someone breaking into your apartment at 3AM?

Each of the above has different handgun needs. I will avoid talking about caliber and limit this to action types: revolver or semi-automatic. So which type of pistol do each of the above need? Let’s see, and answer why.

Soldier: He needs a high capacity magazine semi-automatic pistol as he is in situations where he may face multiple armed aggressors at close range and his immediate need may revolve around the concept of “firepower”.
Police Officer: For many of the same reasons as the soldier, he needs a high capacity magazine semi-auto pistol.
Single mom (or other “average” civilian): It depends. Let’s consider some questions:
1. How much experience do you have with handguns?
2. How much time and effort are you going to invest in your defensive marksmanship training?
3. Are you actually going to carry this handgun around, or will it stay in your nightstand?
4. What is your hand size and level of strength?

Let’s look at some advantages of each action type:



• Easier to learn to manipulate, because there is generally fewer functions than a typical semi-auto.
• Easier for weaker handed persons to operate as there is no slide to retract against a strong spring.
• More reliable and not as dependent on ammunition quality.
• Will function with wider variety of ammunition power levels, and is not dependent on the ammunition for reliable function.
• Typically more accurate out of the box (some will argue with this)Colt_1911_01


• Holds more rounds than a revolver. Normally a semi-auto magazine holds 8 to 15 rounds, but there are magazines capable of holding up to 33.
• Faster reloads from previously loaded magazines.
• Due to popularity, there is a wider choice of accessories such as holsters and lights available.
• Easy carrying of spare ammunition via preloaded magazines.
• Usually easier to conceal for a similar caliber gun due to thinner action than a normal revolver.

O.K. now that I have thoroughly confused you let me try to simplify this:
If you are a person with smaller or weaker hands, limited in either your budget or desire to frequently train, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with a quality double action revolver for self-defense.
If you are serious about spending the time effort and money to thoroughly train yourself in defensive handgun arts, then a quality semi-automatic handgun is what you want.
So, should it be a single action, double action, or safe action type of semi-auto?
That is the subject for another article.

15 thoughts on “Revolver vs. Automatic

  1. If I had a revolver handy, I could check, but I vaguely remember that a loaded cylinder just barely cleared the frame when closing it, so it would seem if the cartridges were further out of the cylinder, they might scrape on the frame or even not allow the cylinder to close. If the clip is thin enough, this might not be a problem, but then how rigid could it be?

    If S&W says it will work, it will. However, note that the clips say “Performance Center” guns only, so perhaps those are modified so the clips work.

    It would be great if they did work for rimmed cartridges; I won combat matches with a .45 ACP revolver and full moon clips; they are much better than speedloaders. I would be comfortable using that setup for defense, but it would not be optimal for hunting. A .357 or .44 with full moon clips should be decent for defense and great for hunting (as long as you had clips of various ammo in segregated carry pouches so you could get defense, small game or big game ammo quickly as needed)

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  2. The 44 magnum revolver is indeed the ultimate “all around” handgun. With the proper selection of ammunition, it can do pretty much anything a handgun can do, and some things a rifle or shotgun can do. The problem is, that “proper selection” of ammo. This would include classes of shot (birds), very light loads (small game), medium loads (defense) and full power loads (large or dangerous game, and barrier penetration). Assuming one can afford an appropriate amount of these (and probably is set up to reload), then there is the problem that each significantly different load will probably require recalibrating the sights. And having the “correct” load ready to fire for an unexpected situation.

    Can this variety be reduced? Of course. You could theoretically go with the full loads only, which would be good for large game, dangerous game and defense against a single attacker. The recoil would make it a challenge to effectively engage multiple attackers.


    • Good points. There are companys that now make moon clips that work in various revolvers. I am not sure if the Ruger Blackhawk is one of them. But if so, one could have full moon clips with various loads that could conceivably be quickly changed. Those of us who still fancy the 1917 S&W or Colt in .45acp have learned to do that pretty well. Using a single action revolver as a defensive weapon takes a lot of practice, but can be done ( I just violated “Gun Press: dogma). When I was a kid in Colorado, there was this really old deputy sherrif that carried a Colt Single Action in .45 Colt. He used to get teased a lot by younger Officers he ran into. Until they saw him shoot multiple targets at gunfight range.


      • Don’t “moon” clips (full, half, 1/3) only work with “rimless” ammo?

        Yes, having a form of speedloader filled with various loads increase versatility, although one would have to practice extensively to be able to compensate for the differing points of aim of differing loads. Plus, risk losing the loads currently in the cylinder.


  3. I myself prefer the Ruger Super Redhawk in .44 magnum with 7.5 ” bbl and hogue grips. For hunting the same but with the 9.5 ” bbl. .44 is a versatile round more than one would think.The SR can use hot rounds an S and W person would never dream about. The wall a bad guy hides behind may stop a 9mm, or a .40 cal. but will it stop a .44 magnum? False sense of security can lead to the downfall of a bad guy. PRVI Partizan and Buffalo Bore have the hottest factory ammo I have seen so far for the .44 magnum. Yes, it is only 6 shots. But how effective is a 9mm, or a .40 cal in real use? Is it capable of always getting the job done with one shot? Your life and your families’ lives may depend on this factor.A non lethal wound from a 9mm, or a .40 cal. may not stop a perp. A ” non lethal hit ” from a .44 magnum will put perp out of commision with most likely a loss of limb , or worse. Things to think about. I can drop a wild hog with one shot with a .44. Versatility is key here. A 9mm, or a .40 cal. will just anger a wild hog. I don’t want to have to carry several guns for different jobs in a scenario where I may need different uses. Over all a .44 is more versatile compared to the 9mm, 40 and .45 cal. You will never have a jam or spring fail on a revolver. As for recoil, the men that complain about this should rethink that. My girlfriend who is short and petite uses the SR with a 9.5″ bbl. with no problem and hits target every time. In a bad situation, ease of use and reliability are vital. Every second counts. Semi auto if not carried loaded you will have to chamber a round before use. That is a second wasted you may not have time for.


  4. The revolver does have one further advantage over the automatic. It does not rely on a compressed spring to feed the ammo. Leaving a magazine loaded for long periods of time can result in the feed spring “taking a set” and failing to feed reliably.

    My favorite is the .45acp revolver with full moon clips. All the advantages of the revolver with a reload speed approaching that of an automatic.


    • The revolver pictured in the article is my S&W 1917 in .45acp. It now has black rubber grips. I use full moon clips in it, and have learned to reload it about as rapidly as I can my Glock 19 or 1911a1. I consider it a viable defense/field gun.


        • The .45acp does what it was designed to do very well. To stop human attackers at close range as quickly as possible. In reality, the handgun is a poor defensive weapon due to caliber(energy on target) limitations. Rifle or shotgun ends the argument much quicker. The handguns advantage is portability and conceal ability. The .44 magnum, in trained hands, can be an effective hunting round if you can stalk close enough to get a clean shot at most large game. With a pissed off grizzly, you had better be a damned good shot. With nerves of steel. Or a damned fast runner. Or better yet, don’t piss off grizzles.


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