I know what you’re thinking—“Ugh…not another rehash of the most trite and hackneyed argument in the history of gun magazines!” Yup. I’m afraid so. Why? Because the argument has not been settled yet.
The “revolver versus auto” argument has gone on for more than a century. The auto quickly won on the military side, but not until the last quarter of the 20th century did the American police establishment make the same decision. On the armed citizen side of the house, things were a lot more fungible. For most of the 20th century, the snub-nose revolver was the most popular concealed carry handgun among “civilians.” Today, the autoloader collectively outsells it, but you’ll still find Concealed Carry Weapon (CCW) classes where more armed citizens bring snubby revolvers than semi-automatic pistols.
Go to a high-speed defensive shooting class, however, and you’ll see predominantly, if not entirely, “square” guns instead of “round” ones.
The reason the debate persists is that there are some very solid arguments on either side of the debate. Anyone who thinks the matter is cut and dried for everyone has probably oversimplified the matter and missed a few points.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of each. In many ways, the strength of one platform is the weakness of the other, and vice versa.
Why The Revolver Remains
Even taking the auto advantages into consideration, there are reasons why the revolver not only has yet to disappear into museums, but remains a strong seller—particularly in the personal defense-oriented small handgun market.
Simplicity of administrative handling remains a strong advantage of the double-action revolver, particularly the double-action-only style. From new shooters to the elderly and/or debilitated, it is easier to swing out a cylinder than to rack a slide against strong spring pressure. When that cylinder swings out naked, all its chambers are easy to check by sight and feel. It’s easier for a live cartridge to be left un-noticed in an autoloader’s firing chamber.
Reliability was the cardinal advantage of the revolver for most of the duration of the long-standing argument, though the super-reliable autoloaders of today, typified by the Glock, have largely lev-eled that side of the playing field. Even today, though, the revolver will run with everything from blanks to snakeshot loads to light “granny rounds” to Elmer Keith Memorial Magnums. The autopistol has a more finite window of reliability with this broad array of ammunition, being geared to the pressure curves of a limited range of power levels. Moreover, a revolver will fire if held in a limp-wristed grasp, and that’s not true of most of even the most highly evolved semi-automatics.
Faster handling is sometimes a re-volver advantage, depending how it’s carried. When the gun is hidden tight to the body—ankle holsters, belly bands and particularly pocket carry—the flat-sided grip frame of the auto requires the drawing hand to dig a little bit to get a secure drawing grasp. The rounded shape of a revolver’s grip-frame allows the hand to slide more easily onto the stocks, allowing for faster access from the pocket and some other carry locations.
CQB muzzle contact shots definitely favor the revolver, as a rule of thumb. When the gun’s muzzle must be pressed against the attacker’s body in a truly desperate self-defense situation, most autopistols will have their barrel-slide assemblies pushed out of battery, and will not fire. (The service-size Springfield Armory XD and the pocket size Beretta Nano are rare exceptions to this.) Any modern revolver, however, will fire five for five or six for six in that situation, and the only side effect will be that the muzzle blast will be directed into our would-be murder-er’s body, magnifying his wound(s) and stopping him all the sooner.
Accuracy out of the box will, dollar for dollar, generally favor the revolver. Back in 1988, the police department I then served traded in its Smith & Wesson Model 13 .357 Mag service revolvers for the same manufacturer’s Model 4506 .45 caliber semi-automatics. The .45 ACPs proved to be satisfyingly accurate: they averaged about 2.5-inch groups at 25 yards. That was nice, but the revolvers we traded them in for could shoot about the same groups at twice the distance, 50 yards. This fine-point difference in accuracy is usually not decisive, but in rare instances, it can be. It becomes more important to the rural dweller whose sidearm might be used at a distance on a four-legged target, and not just “typical self-defense distance” against a two-legged deadly threat.
Lack of maintenance (as opposed to abuse, a different thing) is a situation that a revolver survives better than an auto. With most autopistols, manufacturers recommend that springs be changed every 3,000 to 5,000 rounds. By contrast, most revolvers in heavy use today are still running with the same springs that were in them when they were shipped new from the factory. Autos need regular lubrication on their slide/frame contact surfaces; even if they haven’t been fired lately, lubricant can drain from its own weight in carrying, or evaporate. The revolver can run just fine with its innards completely dry. Thus, while losing to the auto in terms of resisting abuse, the revolver has a clear advantage in surviving lack of routine maintenance.
Revolvers have advantages in ankle carry. The upper rear edge of an auto’s slide generally bulges the trouser cuff area; the revolver has no bulge in that area. Carried close to the ground where dust and dirt are stirred up with every step, an ankle-holstered gun quickly gets covered with a fine film of grit. Many small pocket autos can jam on that accumulated crud. Revolvers, even when coated with a film of dust and cobwebs, will still fire reliably.