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Revolver vs Semi Auto in a Crisis Situation

It has been said that a rifle’s purpose is projecting your will across a distance while a pistol is for controlling your immediate surroundings in unforeseen or only vaguely foreseen situations. In other words, a rifle is a deliberate weapon, while pistols tend to be spur of the moment. Crisis situations tend to arise quickly and with little or no notice, and even when in the midst of a longer term crisis, the situation tends to be fluid and wrought with opportunities for… surprises.

Unless you want to spend all your time with a rifle or shotgun slung off of you, handguns are clearly invaluable tools when the situation goes into uncharted territory. The reality that having a long gun on your person at all times will be as impractical in a long term crisis as it is today.

Now to introduce some controversy! We are going to dare to ask the question- which is better in a crisis situation? A semi-automatic pistol, or a revolver. This often times comes down to a matter of preference and opinion, and we all know that those can be the most heatedly contested debates. So we’re going to run through a list of pros and cons for each, and let everyone make their own choice. There is no wrong answer, no matter what some experts may tell you.

Capacity

The issue of magazine (or cylinder, in the case of revolvers) is a hands down win for most full size semi autos. Large frame semis in most popular calibers and with double stack magazines provide you with between 10 and 17 rounds loaded in your weapon, and the ability to double your ready supply with a single extra mag in your pocket. Revolvers, on the other hand, give you six rounds, in a few cases 7, and in the case of .22s up to 9 or even 12, rounds in the cylinder.

The issue of capacity becomes closer to a draw when smaller framed automatics are considered, and when other single stack magazine weapons (such as 1911s) are entered into the debate. Small and medium frame carry guns often utilize a single stack magazine providing for 7 or 8 rounds. This narrows the fire power gap considerably.

I often tell students that if they are in deeper than 6 rounds worth, they are probably in too deep anyway and a little extras magazine capacity may well be irrelevant. I also like to point out that 6 rounds on target is generally more useful than 17 fired too quickly. A large magazine capacity could have the unwanted side effect of making you reckless, which is a matter of training and discipline.

Reloading

Many believe that the ability to reload quickly is an advantage for semiautomatics. A quick magazine change is certainly faster than feeding shells one at a time into a cylinder. However, there are a variety of revolver speed loaders on the market which allow you to reload all 6 (or more) chambers of your revolver simultaneously. Speed loaders are as easy to carry as extra magazines, and with a bit of practice are just a quick. Speed loaders really narrow the gap in reloading speed, so functionally this matter becomes pretty much of a draw as well.

I will note that if your chosen revolver is an old school, gate loaded single action, you are pretty much stuck with a relatively slow reloading process. Only practice can narrow the gap, and odds are real good that even with that you aren’t going to beat a magazine swap or a quick dump with a speed loader.

One of my favorite all around handguns for outdoor activities and wearing around my property is a Pietta knock off of the 1873 Colt, and I’ve just had to learn to live with the fact that reloading is not going to be lightning quick. The best way to counter this is to end any confrontations decisively before anyone has a chance to reload. Practice, accuracy and discipline are key once again.

revolver

Jams and Misfires

Here’s one area where the revolver gains a clear win. You can’t jam a revolver! Furthermore, if you have a misfire, the only procedure required is to pull the trigger again, or cock the hammer as usual and pull the trigger again. Revolvers are pretty much unstoppable in this regard.

Not so semi Automatics. There are a lot of factors that can cause a mis-feed, a stovepipe, or other form of failure to feed. Depending on the severity of a jam, they can at times be a bear to clear, and even if they are simple they require a multi-step procedure to get your weapon up and running again. Even a misfire resulting from old or faulty ammunition requires racking the slide, which requires altering your grip and taking your weapon off target.

This is never a good thing in a gunfight! Proper maintenance, proper ammo storage, and religious inspection will cut the odds of an issue, but we live in a stuff happens world, and Murphy’s Law is a big part of the standing orders for the universe. Practice, training, and discipline are the key to overcoming these issues in a high stress situation.

Ammunition cost and availability.

This is probably out of sequence, but I figured I’d throw one in where the Semiautomatic pistol beats the revolver just to keep things fair.

Semiautomatics are far more prevalent in professional circles these days. This includes Law enforcement, military, and security professionals. This means that the ammunition for these guns is more readily available in larger quantities and at better prices. In many instances, it means that there is a wider range of purpose specific ammunition available for these calibers as well. Specialty ammo, such as frangible rounds that prevent over penetration in home settings, a mind boggling array of personal defense rounds, and even inexpensive training ammo are readily available and relatively inexpensive in the most common semiautomatic calibers( specifically 9mm and .40 which are the standard chambering for most western militaries and Law Enforcement). The same can be said for magazines, if you choose a model that is widely used by military and police, there are more magazines available on the market.

There is some variety of ammunition available in revolver calibers, but it isn’t stocked to the same degree in gun shops and sporting goods stores, and it is generally more expensive.

Should there be a long term crisis situation, the more common your ammunition is, the more likely it is that you will be able to find a way to resupply should the need arise. The same is true for acquiring additional magazines, if you get a Glock for instance, you can be assured that there are a lot of magazines floating around out there.

Durability and reliability

In terms of durability and reliability, I like my 1873 above all others. It has a simple action, not a lot of moving parts, even fewer small parts and springs, and is about as rugged as you can get. There isn’t a lot to go wrong with this gun. If you look at many old Colts carried by actual cowboys back in the day, you are infinitely more likely to find dents in the butt from pounding fence stales than you are to find notches carved to commemorate victorious gun fights. Any pistol that can do double duty as a hammer is OK in my book.

Revolvers in general are simpler than Semi Automatics. Even the advent of the double action didn’t add a lot to their complexity, and all the moving parts are well protected within the grip and frame. There is a lot less to gum up if you miss a cleaning, or carry it for days on a dusty or muddy trail. Where long term durability in harsh conditions is concerned, simpler is almost always better.

semi-auto
Photo: Smith & Wesson M&P9 9mm semi-auto pistol

But, this is not a clear win for the revolver. Most modern semiautomatic pistols are very reliable in their own right (though I don’t recommend using them to pound fence staples!). If you are diligent in your cleaning and maintenance, you will get many decades of trouble free use from a good semiautomatic pistol. I have a Taurus PT92 that I have been carrying as my primary weapon, where a full size is appropriate, since 1986. I had to replace the extractor last year, but other than that it is completely original and fully functional after untold thousands of rounds and thousands of often rugged miles in a holster.

Speed

There are those that will argue that semis are faster shooting. I’m not sold on that notion, a double action revolver can put rounds down range accurately at a pretty high rate. In either case, it’s a how fast you can re-acquire your target and pull the trigger issue. This is going to have a lot to do with training, practice, and discipline (again!).

As a side note, if you’ve ever watched Cowboy Action Shooting, you know that in the right hands a Single Action Army revolver can sound like a Machinegun ant print every round in the center of mass. But, this is some next level stuff that takes years to achieve!

Power

When I’m out in the woods, especially where there are large predators that might want to eat me, I favor a large revolver in a large caliber. My gun in this instance is my 1873 in .45 Colt. A .44 or .357 magnum might edge the old .45 out a bit, but I’m a stickler for tradition. In terms of practical handguns with affordable ammunition, in BIG calibers, the revolver takes it. There are a few Semiautomatics that shoot big calibers, but they are fairly exotic or at least rare, and their ammo is priced accordingly.

So, in my book, in bear country the revolver wins.

For those with limited grip strength

On numerous occasions, I have had older people in my shooting classes. Quite often, for older women in particular and men with arthritis, loading magazines and racking the slide can be difficult for them. In all other respects, they are perfectly capable of shooting well, but if you can’t load your weapon its going to be tough to shoot. For these folks, a revolver is often the answer.

Conclusions?

I don’t know if I’ve accomplished much here or not. I am not going to declare one type of handgun victorious over the other, or tell anyone “This is what you gotta have”! The reality is, both semiautomatic pistols and revolvers have a lot to recommend them, and the areas in which one wins are offset by the areas in which it loses.

What is the best handgun for you in a crisis situation? The best handgun for you is the one that you are comfortable, proficient, and confident to use. It is the one that feels best to you, in the holster and in your hand. It is the one that has been at the center of your practice, training, and discipline.

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About Pat Bellew

I live on a 40 acre homestead in the Missouri Ozarks with my 5 kids. I do the whole homesteading thing, livestock, poultry, fruit trees, big vegetable gardens, and so on. I am also an avid prepper, as well as a Certified firearms instructorm range safety officer, and CCW instructor.

5 comments

  1. Absolutely correct in all regards. One shot on target is worth 17 near misses. How accurate you are in a crisis situation counts more than how many rounds you can spray. I have both types and enjoy shooting both. Practice until muscle memory makes hitting your target easy. Then practice more to refine that.

  2. One aspect of the revolver/semi auto argument that no one ever mentions is the problem of EVIDENCE! Revolvers leave none. Autos leave allot. Don’t ever forget that.

  3. You CAN jam a revolver, especially with non-factory loads. I’ve had it happen to me and it is a MAJOR pain to clear. I was using hand loaded rounds and one was under powered and the bullet jammed the action completely.

    • Had this happen with a factory load too. Had to use a cleaning rod and a hammer to clear it.
      Also, a ruptured case can jam in the cylinder preventing easy removal in a crisis situation.

  4. A factor rarely thought about is physical ability. My left hand no longer works and can no longer rack back a slide, went with a revolver for EDC along with sport shooting and am still able to participate in the hobby I love.

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