Some of us are old enough to recall the days when “Revolver versus Semiautomatic” was debated in the gun magazines at least once a year. Others, including many of today’s younger cops, may have seen but never fired a so-called “wheelgun.”
While the same bullet fired out of a single-action revolver will do just as much damage as if it were fired out of a double-action revolver, the following discussion will be limited to the latter and will assume that such revolvers will be fired in double-action – or, more correctly, trigger-cocking – mode.
While revolvers may have more complicated mechanisms than autoloading pistols, they are simpler to operate, so long as you have the hand size and strength to work the trigger reliably. Not to be overlooked is that the fit of the gun in the hand may benefit from the substitution of aftermarket grips and that the trigger stroke may benefit from tuning by a gunsmith skilled in working on that type of gun. Given those caveats…
Many revolver users are attracted by the fact that the swing-out cylinder of most double-action revolvers allows both visual and tactile confirmation of loaded or unloaded status.
When there is sufficient illumination, this includes being able to see which primers have already been indented – normally a sign that such a round has already been fired – and which ones have not. Don’t take the chamber status too lightly; triple-check by sight and feel. Particularly with the small-frame, five-shot revolvers, the round closest to the frame may not fall free when unloading, making it possible to close the action with an unexpected round in one chamber. And, for those who find it necessary to load and unload a handgun regularly, rounds going in and out of revolver chambers are not subjected to repeated impact with a feed ramp, something that can affect the reliability of pistol ammunition.
While full wadcutter (blunt-end) bullets may not feed readily from speedloaders, the nature of a revolver’s subsequent operation does not make it dependent on bullet shape or power level of the cartridge in order to continue firing. Granted that the cartridge must be one that the revolver was designed to fire, a .357 Magnum revolver, as an example, can be used with anything from a light-recoiling .38 Special target load to a heavy-recoiling .357 Magnum hunting load. And, while reloading can usually be done faster with the use of a speedloader or a cartridge strip, unlike with an autoloader, if you lose your last of these feeding devices, you can still fully load the chambers with loose rounds from a pocket or pouch – a feature that revolvers share with lever-action carbines, available in many of the same chamberings.
Yes, revolvers are slower to reload than autoloaders and, in the case of some malfunctions, may be more troublesome to get back into action. That’s just one of the reasons that I make it a point to carry more than one. It was the predominant use of revolvers on the old NYPD Stakeout Unit that led to the term “New York reload” for the practice of going to a second gun when the first one ran out of ammo. However, my primary reason for carrying more than one is to have at least one accessible to either hand. The one time that I had to draw on a human aggressor, one hand was occupied keeping him from getting his knife into play. Whichever hand that turned out to be, I would have been able to draw and fire with either hand. Thus, before I was able to clear out a pocket for a third revolver, I still felt better equipped with two five-round revolvers on the belt than I would have with one 15-round pistol. An additional gun also provides the ability to arm a companion who may know how to shoot but who may not be carrying.
Most people who opt for a carry revolver these days select one of the five-round models, in .38 Special or .357 Magnum, with a nominally two-inch barrel. I carry three of them myself but they are not beginner’s guns and I had to limit myself to shooting just those guns for a few months in order to master them. In the latter days of revolver “issue” on the NYPD, recruits were encouraged to select one of two revolvers with a nominally three-inch barrel so that they would carry the same gun on and off duty. (It may not be coincidental that the last revolvers issued by the FBI were three-inch S&W Model 13s.)