This “revolver versus semi-auto” debate has, believe it or not, been going on for more than 100 years. Today, the advent of new technology for both revolvers and semi-autos has served as an equalizer, reducing many of the distinctions between them, such as choices in caliber and ease of use. New engineering and materials are enabling larger-caliber pistols to scale down in size and weight, to dimensions once limited only to small-caliber semi-automatics. These smaller-sized larger-caliber guns have brought many more options to the table and given semi-autos a decided edge with shooters—particularly women, who make up a sizable percentage of new CCW permit holders.
Throughout much of the early to mid 20th century, women tended to favor small-caliber (mostly .25 ACP and .32 ACP) semi-autos for concealed carry or self-protection, while men leaned toward .38-caliber revolvers like the Colt Detective Special and Colt Agent (both long gone) and the S&W J-Frame models, which are still in production and have retained a solid following. Obviously, if the inherent advantages of a revolver were not evergreen, we wouldn’t have modern variants chambered for typical semi-auto calibers like .380 ACP, 9mm and .40 S&W, or new models with composite frames, or ultra-light alloy constructions like S&W’s Scandium series guns.
Easy Safeties: The fundamental advantages of a small-frame double-action revolver begin with ease of use. A revolver has no manual safety—you draw, aim and, if the situation demands, pull the trigger. With most revolvers, you can cock the hammer manually, and firing single-action generally increases accuracy and greatly reduces trigger pull. Also, there is no question as to whether a round is chambered in a revolver—if the gun is loaded, there is a chambered round. Even if you take the ultimate safety precaution (aside from a trigger lock) and do as shooters often did in the Old West (keep the hammer resting on an empty chamber), when you pull the trigger on a DA revolver or manually cock its hammer, the cylinder will rotate to the next chamber, which is loaded.
The question of a chambered round is also addressed by many semi-autos, which have loaded-chamber indicators, but only those with very obvious and easily seen or felt indicators are of value in a tense situation where there is precious little time to go looking for a more subtle difference. Guns with obvious loaded-chamber flags, like the 9mm Ruger LC9, are an excellent choice, especially for first-time handgun owners.
Semi-autos were originally designed with a manually operated safety mechanism to prevent accidental discharge, thus the process (of the wise) was to carry a gun with a chambered round and the safety engaged (the proverbial cocked-and-locked method), draw, release the safety, aim, and pull the trigger, thus adding one additional step to the process. Conversely, one could carry the gun without a chambered round and, after drawing, manually cycle the slide and load the first cartridge. A vast majority of semi-autos still use the traditional manual safety design, but not all. In the early 1980s with the G17, Glock was one of the first arms-makers to eliminate that distinction. More than a quarter-century later, Glock has an entire line of various calibers and frame sizes, all utilizing the Safe Action Trigger, which essentially puts the semi-auto into the same ease-of-use category with the revolver. The trigger pull is the sole discretionary safety. But Glocks, other semi-autos employing similar designs and nearly all revolvers incorporate internal (passive) safety mechanisms to prevent accidental discharge if the gun is inadvertently dropped. With a Glock-style system, a secondary safety mechanism incorporated into the face of the trigger requires a direct and positive linear pull along with the trigger, to disengage internal safeties and allow the firearm to discharge. With the Glock system it is draw and fire, so scratch the manual safety, one very big distinction between revolvers and many modern-day semi-autos.
Capacity And Reloads: Cartridge capacity and ease of reloading are the next most important considerations. Revolvers, with very few exceptions, limit capacity to six rounds and five in most small-frame snub-nose (2-inch barrel) models chambered in .38 Special, .38 Special +P or .357 Magnum. This limit also applies to revolvers chambered in semi-auto calibers like .380 ACP, 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. Any question of accuracy between a revolver and semi-auto has little merit, as both guns in comparable calibers and barrel lengths are generally identical.
It is in reloading where the semi-auto quickly excels. Even shooters most proficient with revolvers have to follow the same steps when reloading: Depress the thumb release with the right thumb, push the cylinder outward with the first three fingers of the off-hand, thrust the ejector rod back to expel spent shell cases, and reload the empty chambers either singularly or using a speed strip or speedloader. With a semi-auto, the reload requires activating the magazine release to drop the empty magazine, inserting a loaded magazine and releasing the slide to chamber the first round. (Note that on semi-autos that don’t lock open after the last round is fired, the slide must be manually cycled to chamber a round.)
While these differences in handling may seem to be stating the obvious, the virtues of a revolver cannot be overlooked. It has a simplicity and ease in function that has not been surpassed since Samuel Colt patented the single-action revolver in the mid 1830s. A modern double-action revolver (most of which can also be fired single-action) is the easiest handgun to operate, with far less potential for mechanical failures or jams.
There is one basic rule here: Newton’s Law, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, the bigger the caliber, the greater the recoil. This is where training time is essential. If there is a shooting range nearby that has certified instructors and rents guns for training and target practice, avail yourself of this opportunity to try both revolvers and semi-autos, in calibers ranging from .380 ACP up to .45 ACP for semi-autos and .38 Special to .357 Magnum (or .44 Magnum) for revolvers.
Carry Small or Big?
The most popular concealed-carry guns on the market are .380 autos. These are all small, easy-to-carry sidearms, of which the Ruger LCP is a good example. Capacity is six in the magazine plus one chambered. Seven rounds of .380 in a defensive cartridge like the Hornady Critical Defense 90-grain FTX, the Federal Premium Personal Defense Low Recoil 90-grain Hydra-Shok JHP or the Speer Gold Dot 90-grain HP offer greater velocities, bullet penetration and expansion than older, traditional FMJ .380 rounds. These vast improvements in ballistic performance have given the .380 a new life as a 21st century defensive cartridge. The ease with which a .380 can be carried allows options from traditional belt and paddle holsters to inside-the-waistband (IWB) rigs and, for the vast majority of users, pocket holsters that provide excellent concealment, ease of carry and reasonably quick access.
While many with CCW permits are satisfied with a small-caliber revolver or semi-auto as their only carry gun, others subscribe to a firearms interpretation of an old automotive saying: “There is no substitute for cubic inches.” In the world of handguns the minimum standard here is 9mm, a global staple for military, law enforcement and personal protection for over 100 years. The 9mm, like the .380, has been enhanced with commensurate increases in velocity, penetration and expansion capabilities. This is more than a logical progression because a .380 is a 9mm Short—improve one, improve both. A .38 Special +P is also in the same ballistic range, and all the aforementioned improvements are similarly available for revolver ammunition, though only applicable and safe to use in guns clearly rated for .38 Special +P or .357 Magnum loads.
The 9mm was traditionally a large handgun suitable for multiple uses but less easily concealed due to frame size, barrel length, slide length and weight. That all began to change in recent years with new technology, which has made it possible to build a 9mm that is barely larger than the shadow cast by a .380 pocket pistol. The tradeoff has been for somewhat harsher recoil, due to reduced weight, frame and barrel dimensions, and for reduction in standard capacity. Among the leaders in the field of subcompact 9mm semi-automatic pistols are Ruger (LC9), Kahr (CM9), Beretta (Nano), Sig Sauer (P938) and Kimber (Solo), all offering guns with 6+1 capacities, except for the Ruger, which has 7+1. These guns are excellent choices for a 9mm concealed-carry sidearm, and all of the various holsters available for .380s are also available for these scaled-down 9mm pistols. The Beretta Nano will also soon be chambered in the more powerful .40 S&W, and Glock offers two subcompacts in either 9mm or .40 S&W.
Stepping up to the venerable .45 ACP, the most historic of all semi-auto calibers for size and blunt-force stopping power, we have a load that has been a staple of the American military since 1911. Even though the 9mm became the standard cartridge for the U.S. military in 1985, special ops units still defer to the .45 ACP. For civilian use, the best options for concealed carry have been the Commander-sized 1911s, which have shorter frames and barrels. There are dozens of .45 autopistols in this category, from the custom-built Wilson Combat line to excellent production models from Colt, S&W, Kimber, Springfield Armory and many others. Springfield raised the bar in 2012 with the introduction of the XD-S, the first micro-compact .45 ACP truly in the pocket-pistol category. This singular semi-auto places 5+1 capacity into a package that will discretely disappear into a trouser pocket.
Slightly larger in size but designed for concealed carry in a belt or IWB rig are Glock’s compact and subcompact models chambered in 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP and other popular calibers. All of these guns are smaller in dimension than Commander or Officer Model 1911s and offer higher standard capacities.
Basic choices between revolver and semi-auto remain. Select the size, shape and caliber of handgun that is most suited to your height, weight and gun-handling ability. Consider all the factors, and when possible, test the exact style and caliber you want before making a purchase.