A Gun Ownership Primer: Revolver or Semiauto? Part 2
The first portion of this section of the continuing Gun Ownership Primer Series dealt with the general differences between revolvers and semi autos. This section is devoted to the specific advantages and disadvantages of each firearm type. The first ten articles in the series are:
REVOLVER ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES:
Modern double action revolvers come, generally, in large, medium and small sizes. However, there are some revolvers made for hunting or competition with very large magnum cartridges that fall into the “huge” category. Such weapons are universally made of steel, are very heavy, and have barrels of 6” or longer. Because of the sheer size of their cartridges, many hold only five rounds. The revolver depicted above is a Smith and Wesson Model 460V. It fires the .460 S&W Magnum Cartridge from a 5” barrel, holds only five rounds, is nearly a foot long, and weighs 60.9 ounces–nearly four pounds.
On the opposite side are mini-revolvers, such as the stainless steel, derringer-like, 5 shot .22LR (Long Rifle) weapons made by Freedom Arms (my article on that little revolver can be found here). Such weapons, which fire single action only, are made primarily as back-up guns, or for circumstances that prevent the carrying of a larger weapon. Unfortunately, their barrels are very short—just over an inch in standard configuration–which can cause keyholing (for the appearance of the holes they leave in paper targets), or unstable bullets tumbling end over end. As a result, their accuracy beyond a few yards is generally poor, their penetration ability is limited, reloading requires removing the entire 5-round cylinder from the weapon–it does not swing out on an integral crane like double action revolvers, nor is there a loading/ejection gate as with single action models–and for the inexperienced, or even the average shooter, they are hard to shoot with any degree of consistent accuracy, to say nothing of the general unsuitability of the .22LR cartridge in the self-defense role. Still, if it’s the only firearm possibility, it’s better than nothing.
Large, or full-sized revolvers generally hold six rounds (though a few designs hold seven), have at least a 4” barrel, and usually have fully adjustable rear sights (adjustable for windage–side-to-side, and elevation–up and down). This class is generally considered to be “duty” revolvers of the kind some police forces still use. Unless you’re a large, strong person, concealing such weapons is difficult. They are meant to be carried in exposed holsters. It is possible to conceal them with the right holsters, but they are big, heavy handguns built to take heavy wear from powerful cartridges over the long term.
Medium framed revolvers–such as the S& W Model 66–also share barrels of the same length, but are lighter and not as solidly built. However, they will still provide many years of service for most people. Many models have barrels from 2” to 3” and some do not have adjustable rear sights. They are generally somewhat smaller and weigh somewhat less than fully sized revolvers.
Small frame revolvers commonly have barrels of around 2” length and are virtually all of only five round capacity. The Smith and Wesson Model 60 depicted above is representative. It chambers the .38 Special cartridge–only five–is about 6.5 inches long, is made in stainless steel, and weighs only 22.6 ounces. They rarely have adjustable rear sights. In fact, many rear sights are merely notches machined—or molded–in the top strap of the weapon. They commonly have small grips. Such weapons are designed in recognition of the fact that full sized revolvers are not easily concealed. Some revolvers in this class have aluminum, titanium or various exotic alloy frames for reduced weight, but their barrels and cylinders generally must be steel. Some of the newer weapons in this class, such as the Ruger LCR are being manufactured with frames and some parts made of polymer to reduce weight as much as possible.
ADVANTAGES OF MODERN, DOUBLE-ACTION REVOLVERS:
Because revolvers have no separate safety devices, they are simple; pull the trigger and they go “bang.” In fact, long, heavy double action trigger pulls are usually thought to be an inherent safety feature, requiring the shooter to really intend to shoot to discharge the weapon. Revolvers do not have mechanical safety devices that must be manipulated in order to fire the weapon. On the other hand, short, light single action trigger pulls are, with justification, thought to be dangerous because they are far more prone to unintentional discharge. It is also easy to load and unload revolvers, and one can tell at a glance if they are loaded. Properly maintained, revolvers–particularly in stainless steel–can last a lifetime. Stainless steel does rust, but is far less susceptible to rust than other steels commonly used in firearms.
Revolvers represent well-developed technology and manufacturing methods and are relatively free of inherent malfunctions. With speed loaders–like the Safariland Comp II depicted above–they can be reloaded reasonably quickly, though experts can reload with amazing speed even without speed loaders. High quality revolvers are also potentially more accurate than many semiautomatic pistols, though relatively few shooters are skilled enough to notice any actual difference at common handgun ranges. There is a difference between intrinsic accuracy—the accuracy potential of the design–and practical accuracy, which is what a given person can hope to accomplish with a given handgun. Some people are just better shots than others.
With the wide range of different materials and shapes available, most people can adapt a given revolver to their unique hand by simply exchanging factory for aftermarket grips. Revolvers are also capable of handling the largest, most powerful pistol cartridges, but only with very large, heavy and hard-recoiling weapons.
DISADVANTAGES OF REVOLVERS:
The higher the bore axis (the barrel) of a handgun is above the hand, the greater the recoil effect on the shooter. All revolvers, by design, suffer from this inherent problem, a problem made worse by more powerful cartridges and lighter weapons. It is ironic that in an attempt to make some revolvers more easily carried and concealed, manufacturers have also greatly increased the recoil effect (from light weight and small grips), muzzle blast and report (from short barrels), and lessened accuracy (by means of shorter barrels, small grips and small, non-adjustable sights). Small .38 caliber revolvers are notorious for their brutal—even painful—recoil and dazzling muzzle flash and report.
While speedloaders greatly reduce reloading times, they tend to be inconvenient for most people for concealed carry, generally being as wide as and longer than the cylinders they recharge. In addition, many grips interfere with speedloaders and often have to be “relieved,” which consists of removing any grip material in the way. This is not particularly difficult, but does take some skill and specialized materials and/or tools.
Some suggest that revolvers are utterly reliable, but revolvers are very dirt sensitive and can malfunction. This is one of the primary reasons that virtually every military issues semi-automatic pistols rather than revolvers. Even with well-maintained revolvers a tiny piece of grit under the ejector “star” can actually jam the cylinder, preventing the gun from firing. Remember that the round aligned with the barrel at rest will not be fired. When the trigger is pulled (or the hammer is cocked to single action mode), the cylinder rotates to the next cartridge, so if the cylinder won’t rotate, the shooter will not be able to fire a single round. Unfortunately, virtually anything other than grit under an ejector star–or anything that prevents complete closure and latching of the crane–that causes a malfunction in a revolver is due to breakage of, or damage to, mechanical parts and cannot be quickly repaired in the field without tools. If one is under fire, this is a significant weakness indeed. Revolvers must be kept scrupulously clean, but many designs are ironically time consuming and demanding to clean thoroughly and properly.
Even expensive, top of the line revolvers have the same potential weaknesses. In my early days of police work, I carried Colt Pythons, very expensive–each was hand assembled and fitted at the factory–very accurate, expensive, high quality weapons, as did several of my police shooting buddies. One day at a range session, one of my friend’s brand new Pythons suddenly started sending bullets down and to the side of the target. He couldn’t figure it out and asked me to take a look. I peered down the sights and was amazed to find that the barrel had come unpinned and was, under the recoil of .357 duty (fully-charged) magnum ammunition, unscrewing itself from the frame. The front sight was cocked at a 30° angle! I simply opened the cylinder, unscrewed the barrel with my bare hands, and handed my amazed pal the two parts, announcing deadpan that I was reasonably sure I’d identified the problem. A good gunsmith quickly and cheaply fixed the gun, but even the best handguns can experience unexpected problems.
Cylinder cranes and ejector rods are likewise prone to damage. The crane is the moving part that allows the cylinder to be moved out of the frame so that all empty brass can be simultaneously ejected. Anyone flipping out a cylinder or violently snapping it back into place with the flick of a wrist ala TV gunslingers is looking for a bent crane and a lengthy, expensive visit to a gunsmith. Whenever the cylinder is out of the frame–-as in ejecting spent rounds from the cylinder and/or reloading–-those parts must be handled with gentle care. The kind of idiotic handling of revolvers one sees in movies or on TV is highly likely to result in damage that can immediately render a revolver an expensive paperweight. Don’t get me started on people who “spin” cylinders. Not only is such foolishness utterly unnecessary, at the least it causes accelerated wear on fragile parts, and at worst, can damage the weapon.
The exposed hammers of small revolvers are prone to hanging up in pockets or clothing. Many manufacturers have designed smaller, or “bobbed” hammers, made shrouds around external hammers, or have even made internal hammer designs to address this well-known problem. The aforementioned Ruger LCR, which represents contemporary state of the art small revolver design, has an internal hammer and cannot be fired single action. Careful holster design can minimize this unfortunate snagging tendency.
The largest problem with revolvers remains their long, often rough double action triggers. This factor makes revolvers much more difficult to shoot with consistent accuracy than semi-automatic pistols, though with proper training and consistent practice, it is possible to shoot revolvers with considerable accuracy. This problem can be addressed, to a degree, with an action job by a competent gunsmith, but that’s additional expense, commonly in the $100+ range. Some revolvers now come from the factory with much better triggers than one would have found in the recent past, but this is still an issue to be considered.
It should also be noted that this problem is exacerbated with smaller, lighter more concealable weapons, and made even worse by the recoil effects of full-powered, as opposed to lighter loaded target, ammunition. Smaller men and many women often find long shooting sessions to be actually painful, and any weapon that is painful to shoot will dramatically degrade accuracy and effectiveness to say nothing of confidence. It is ironic that even full-sized, heavy revolvers that are poor choices for concealment can suffer from this problem, though to a lesser degree and requiring more rounds fired.
Consider the experience of a police department for which I once worked. In the mid-90’s that agency was run by an anti-gun chief, and the issued department weapon was the S&W model 686 (depicted above), a large frame, stainless steel, 4” barrel .357 magnum revolver (9.56” long/39.7 ounces). As an issued weapon–the only weapon allowed for every police officer–it was a mediocre choice. On one hand, it was–-and is–-a high quality, reliable and expensive ($829.00 suggested retail) weapon. Its stainless steel construction made it easier to maintain, and the Federal 125 grain hollowpoint duty cartridge was an excellent, effective choice.
On the other hand, the revolver was very large, heavy, had substantial muzzle blast and report, substantial real and felt recoil, was difficult to conceal, and the only concession allowed the individual officer was the choice of a few different styles of rubberized grips. Female officers, because of their generally smaller hands and less upper body musculature, had a hell of a time with the weapon. We used to joke–sort of–that even if we missed, the bad guys would be incinerated by the muzzle blast. Night-firing qualifications were truly wonders to behold. I had no difficulty with the weapon, but I became a police shooter in a time with few reliable semiautomatic pistol choices. I was also willing to reload and devoted considerable time to developing my skills. As a result, I became adept with the revolver, even earning the top shooter honor in my first basic academy class (shooting a 6” Python).
I’m also a 6’, 200+ pound man with larger than average hands and greater than average strength. Consider too that I was–and am–an avid shooter, so I was far more practiced than most of my compatriots (most cops aren’t shooters–really). Even so, after 50 rounds of qualification with full-charge cartridges, I was feeling the effects of fatigue in my hands and forearms and glad to be done. Many of my smaller, less experienced colleagues absolutely hated to shoot their handguns, wincing with each report and actually experiencing bruises and abrasions on their hands. Their qualification scores reflected this reality. Still, if my only option for a duty weapon had to be a stainless steel Smith and Wesson in .357 caliber, the 686 would probably be my choice.
Because of the necessary width of their cylinders the general configuration of revolvers, and their weight distribution, revolvers are generally wider and more difficult to conceal than semiautos. One final observation is that because of their designs, revolvers can become “out of time.” In other words, the cylinder no longer precisely aligns cartridges with the barrel. This can cause splashback of portions of a bullet, or in extreme cases, injure the shooter or bystanders in a variety of explosive ways. While this is usually not seen outside of significant mechanical failure or significantly worn (as in mechanically degraded) weapons, it is something about which to always be aware with revolvers.
Despite this litany of potential problems, modern, quality revolvers are generally quite safe and reliable and will usually fire every round without fail right out of the box. However, no one should carry or rely on any firearm for self-defense without familiarization training and function assurance consisting of firing several hundred rounds through the weapon (and complete cleaning and function checks thereafter). Interestingly, firing revolvers a great deal generally helps to somewhat smooth the action, not to the level of an action job done by a competent gunsmith, but it tends to help.
Police experience is revealing. Police agencies transitioning from revolvers to semiautos have commonly found that the hit ratio of their officers, on the range and in actual gunfights, significantly improves. This was my experience when an agency of some 100 officers for which I worked transitioned to Glocks (models 22 and 23 ) in .40 S&W caliber. Officers who struggled to make minimum passing scores with their .357 revolvers were suddenly and consistently scoring much higher with much less effort. Officers who were highly skilled demonstrated far less variation. One hundred percent shooters are 100% shooters for a reason. In other words, semiautos are generally easier to shoot accurately (practical accuracy) than revolvers despite the fact that revolvers may generally have somewhat greater intrinsic accuracy due to the rigid attachment of the barrel to the frame.
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ADVANTAGES OF SEMIAUTOS:
The primary advantages of semiautos are that they are more easily concealable, tend to have lighter triggers, have greater ammunition capacity than revolvers–in many cases, much greater–and are more quickly and easily reloaded than revolvers. Semiautos also, in most common calibers, have much less recoil effect and muzzle blast than revolvers, and have a bore axis much lower than revolvers. Notice how close to the hand the barrel of the Glock 17 blue gun–an exact size polymer replica–depicted above is. With polymer frame construction, some semiautos can be substantially lighter than revolvers yet hold substantially more ammunition while actually absorbing some recoil energy that would otherwise be felt by the shooter.
Because of their very nature, semiautos are subject to a somewhat greater number of common malfunctions than revolvers, but each of these common malfunctions can be cleared in the field, without tools, in four seconds or less by those without expert levels of knowledge and skill. Note: A “malfunction” is a stoppage that can be rapidly cleared by hand without tools. A “jam” is a stoppage that requires tools to clear/repair. Thus, a gun that “jams” is a gun that cannot fire and cannot be made to fire on the spot. Because they do not have cylinders, as long as there is a round in the chamber–and this is the way modern semiautos should be carried–semiautos will virtually always fire at least one round even if they malfunction thereafter. Some semiautos have magazine safeties that prevent the weapon from firing if a magazine is not fully inserted or removed. Such weapons should not be carried for self-defense.
One interesting advantage that is of little use to most shooters is that semiautos can accept suppressors (there is no such thing as a “silencer”), such as the Yankee Hill Machine YHM-4370A suppressor mounted on a Walther P22 above. Suppressors are not the tiny little tubes often depicted in the movies, and are commonly longer than the handguns to which they are attached.
Suppressors are useless on revolvers–despite what Hollywood would have one believe–because of the gas that escapes through the gap between the cylinder and the barrel. Suppressing firearms is all about gas control. Citizens can purchase suppressors, but they are subject to the same federal registration paperwork–including a $200.00 fee for the stamp–as fully automatic weapons and short-barreled rifles or shotguns. These days, fewer and fewer citizens are comfortable with the federal government knowing anything about their firearm choices, or about any other aspect of their lives, but even so, there is a contemporary renaissance of interest in suppressors, if for no reasons other than hearing protection and noise control on ranges near habitations.
Semiautos, many of which are designed with military service in mind, usually break down without tools and are easy to clean. Even non-military designs are generally easy to break down, clean and reassemble, and virtually always without tools. They also tend to have few parts to disassemble. Glocks, for example, break down into the frame, barrel, recoil spring/guide rod assembly, and slide. No further disassembly is required for normal cleaning
As previously mentioned, semiauto trigger mechanisms—even double action mechanisms—tend to be much lighter and more easily manipulated than revolver triggers.
DISADVANTAGES OF SEMIAUTOS:
There are two primary types of malfunctions common to semiautos: failures to feed and failures to eject. Each has several commonly known variations, but as previously mentioned, proper training will show anyone how, within mere seconds, to clear such malfunctions. One of the most common problems with semiautos is “limp wristing,” or not giving the handgun a firm grip with a straight, rigid wrist. Semiautos need a solid grip against which to recoil to completely cycle the slide. If the weapon is held limply, it may lack the force to complete the cycle and may not fully eject an empty casing, or may not fully chamber a fresh round. Proper technique can easily sort out this common problem.
Semiautos generally come in only one grip size, so some may simply be too large for smaller hands. However, an increasing number of major manufacturers are now shipping models with easily switched backstraps to address what may or may not be a problem. In addition, weapons with polymer frames like Glocks allow magazines with substantial capacity while still keeping the grip relatively small. Fourth generation Glocks have replaceable backstraps, allowing some adjustability in grip size, and other manufacturers are following suit.
One cannot normally tell whether a semiauto is loaded merely by looking at it, though some do have mechanical loaded chamber indicators (Glocks), or like the S&W Bodyguard, a small notch cut in the breach that allows a chambered cartridge to be seen. However, this can be addressed with a simple “pinch-check” (depicted agove), or retracting the slide just enough to see brass in the chamber. Some people also experience accidental discharges when, after removing the magazine, assume that the weapon is empty and fire the round in the chamber. This too can be easily addressed by using the proper manual of arms of always removing the magazine, cycling the slide several times, locking it back, and looking and using a finger to verify that the magazine well and chamber are empty.
Some semiautos, due to their unique design, have very stiff recoil springs. Some people with weak hands or limited strength may have difficulty cycling their slides. My article on correct technique in dealing with stiff recoil springs may greatly simplify this issue for most people.
Another common problem is loading magazines with stiff springs. In such magazines, the last 4-5 rounds can be very hard to load, and so can loading multiple magazines. However, inexpensive magazine loading tools that essentially eliminate this problem are widely available–Glock includes one with every handgun sold–and it is a very small percentage of the population that cannot learn how to use what strength they have to cycle a slide, or with proper tools, to load a magazine. Even so, some people, due to disability or illness may find such tasks daunting.
The greatest single weakness of semiautos is the magazine. They are generally easier to damage than the guns themselves, and if a magazine, through fatigue or damage, won’t properly feed, the shooter suddenly has a very hard to load single-shot handgun. To address this problem, at least one spare magazine should always be carried, and all magazines should be regularly rotated with a complete set of spares to allow the springs to “rest.” I grant that this may be an old shooter’s superstition, but it surely cannot hurt anything, and in more than three decades of daily carrying handguns and following this procedure, I’ve yet to have a magazine malfunction. This may be attributable to nothing more than my care in ensuring my magazines aren’t exposed to damaging conditions, and to routine, proper maintenance.
Though this is a much smaller issue than it was only a decade ago, some semiautos are ammunition sensitive; some brands and/or configurations of ammunition may make some guns more prone to malfunctions. Most guns designed for self-defense will fire just about anything with little or no difficulty, but some guns, particularly those built to very tight tolerances, such as guns intended for competition, may take a bit of trial and error to find ammunition that is completely reliable. Some smaller handguns, such as .380 pocket pistols, might also be a bit finicky. My wife’s S&W .380 Bodyguard won’t reliably fire inexpensive Russian ammunition with steel cases, but mine will fire anything. On the other hand, brands such as Glock have a well-deserved reputation for reliability right out of the box and require no alteration or modification at all.
There is no question that semiautos are, by their very nature, more complex to operate than revolvers. This makes accidental discharges somewhat more likely for some people. However, learning the proper manual of arms is far from rocket science, and I’m tempted to wonder about the fitness of anyone unable to safely handle a semiautomatic handgun—given proper training–-to handle any kind of firearm.
I’m sure that gun buffs can easily make various points, pro and con, regarding what I’ve had to say, and comments are always welcome and appreciated, however, I believe I’ve provided a good general overview of the relevant issues. Next weeks article in this continuing series will focus on cartridge types and choice.