Are Revolvers Still Relevant for Self Defense?

Handguns play an essential part in the overall self-defense plans of many Americans. Whether as just a gun for in-home protection or a full-time concealed carry gun as part of a culture of preparedness and readiness, the handgun is in many ways the quintessential firearm of personal protection for civilians.

Only handguns are small enough to go pretty much everywhere without drawing attention, and they can serve as both primary and secondary weapons.

Naturally, everyone has an idea of what the ideal handgun looks like, and though there is no truly, empirically definitive answer this has not stopped shooters and gun owners of all stripes from arguing about it. At the core of that argument lays one of the perennial, evergreen and divisive questions of this and last century: semi-auto, or revolver?

We know for sure that all the varied breeds of semi-autos have almost totally supplanted the venerable wheelgun in police, military and even a considerable portion of civilian holsters but is the wheelgun truly obsolete?

Based on what you see in the market they aren’t; revolvers continue to be cranked out in greater numbers and in more variations by several major manufacturers, and revolvers remain a strong and steady seller.

But popularity does not necessarily align with best practices. Should you consider a revolver at all for your self-defense or survival gun? Does it have inherent qualities to recommend it, or is it half-ancient tech that is ready for pasture? In this article, I’ll make a case both for and against the revolver depending on what kind of shooter you are.

Considering Self-Defense Realities

It is easy to compare a gun’s salient characteristics on paper and declare it superior or inferior to another- capacity, caliber, action, general reliability and reputation, etc.- but that simple analysis omits so much of the most important factors in the fight, namely the human ones, and also the statistical realities of what a deadly force self-defense encounter looks like.

Now, touching on the “statistical likelihood” of how an attack will most likely occur can be a, let’s say, triggering event for some. No later than you bring up statistics as a justification for a revolver or low-capacity gun being entirely adequate for self-defense than a zealous shooter will quickly jump in and argue that “if we trust to statistics we statistically won’t need the gun at all, ever.”

I myself have used similar impassioned rhetoric for arguing the case for choosing the most capable gun one can carry, always, with no exceptions.

I don’t regret or apologize for that, and my reasoning still stands up: in a fight for my life, as a civilian, where I will almost certainly not have the advantage of a partner as a police officer would or my squadmates as member of our military would, I want every single advantage conceivable.

Obviously my training, experience and my skill is advantage number one, but my firearm is going to help me exercise them to good effect against my foes. I want that firearm to be powerful, carry plenty of ammo, shoot like a fast, loud dream and be as reliable as mechanically possible.

Consider that, statistically, we are plenty likely to face multiple attackers, that we know we will need more than one shot to effectively stop our attacker(s) and that misses are a reality.

We know the average self-defense encounter is concluded, win or lose, in seconds. The stakes will be high. Ammo and time are resources I can never have enough of in a fight. Sounds a lot like a semi-auto is the way to go, right?

It sure does, but the other half of the story in our “average” self-defense encounter is that the majority of attackers, being garden variety predators, generally care very much about encountering significant resistance from their marks, not only because of the risk of injury but because a botched attack increases the likelihood that they will be caught.

Even a single decent hit (and in many cases even the firing of the first shot in resistance) is enough to end the attack, or at least buy enough opportunity for the good guy or good gal to escape. This is not to say that all scumbags are afraid of being injured, many of them being well acquainted with violence, but it is tallied as a professional risk.

As far as on-paper advantages go, the semi-auto seems unbeatable compared against a revolver. But the whole truth is that the user, people, are different when it comes to what they need and desire their handgun to do.

Not every shooter has the same skill level, or even the same desire to attain a higher skill level. It is all too easy for us professional shooters and dedicated hobby shooters to decry that admission as less-than or simply bugged thinking. I have been guilty of that in the past, even though I argued for what is quantifiably a superior tool from a position of wanting clients and friends to have the best gun possible.

It has been said that you cannot make the mistake of thinking you and anyone else share the same value system, and that is what I did, and plenty of other otherwise high-level shooters and trainers have done and continue to do.

For some people, preppers among them, the semi-auto is simply not the best tool for the job. Even for some skilled and capable shooters a revolver does have inherent advantages that make it worth consideration.

smith and wesson revolvers

Wheelgun Advantages

Revolvers offer a host of advantages compared to semi-autos, even though these advantages don’t seem as impressive since they are not directly influential for firing a bunch of bullets quickly and accurately. Double-action revolvers are among the simplest, if not the simplest of firearms to use, being very simple to load, unload and shoot.

This administrative simplicity is a boon for shooters who are new to guns, or those who simply do not care for the intricacies of a semi-auto pistol. A revolver’s cylinder, swung clear of the frame, will reveal all chambers to the shooter for inspection at a glance; loaded, or not.

A revolver’s chambers are its ammunition reservoir; there is no chamber separate from the rest of the ammunition supply where a lone round may lurk able to cause a disaster as with a semi-auto.

Loading and unloading is likewise very easy to perform, at least administratively. Cases out, rounds in, shut cylinder, pull trigger. No running of slide, safety levers or decockers to worry about.

A DA revolver’s trigger, often maligned for being heavy and difficult to manage, is not a major hindrance to practical accuracy so long as the gun has a smooth pull with a clean break and the user cares to put in a little time to practice proper use.

Of equal importance and often unrealized is that the long, heavier pull of a DA revolver is much more forgiving of wandering trigger fingers and foreign objects entering the trigger guard when they shouldn’t.

Here is one of revolver’s major advantages, one it shares with the DA/SA or DAO semi-auto: handguns will be drawn and pointed far more than they are actually fired in the course of self-defense.

Even among well-trained professional users, there is a disturbing instance that often occurs in times of stress and uncertainty, and it is that of the “feelie” or trigger check, where the user will, with no conscious thought, move their trigger finger down to the trigger seemingly to ascertain that it is still there.

In the case of a very light trigger with short travel or a startle-response to some surprise, we wind up with a negligent discharge. Guns with longer trigger pulls are far more forgiving of this occurrence since there is more feedback to the shooter prior to the breaking of the shot.

This same mechanic saves the day when something like a coat pull bungee, strap, flap, lipstick or similar object winds up inside the gun’s trigger guard when in a bag or being reholstered.

It is too easy to dismissively say “get good and be safer” but you may as well howl at the moon for all the good it does; things, accidental or negligent, happen, and are more apt to happen in high-stress situations.

A gun that requires more deliberation to move the trigger is less likely to facilitate a discharge in the same set of circumstances than one with a light, short trigger.

In short, revolvers (and DA semi-autos) are more forgiving of negligent or unintended discharges when being handled in high stress situations, both before, during and after the fight.

Combined with their simple administrative characteristics, they make for a handgun than can be carried with a very high degree of confidence in any conditions fully loaded.

Revolvers are also more forgiving of benign neglect than semi-autos. I say benign neglect to indicate the procrastination of its owner when it comes to lubricating and maintaining the gun.

Compared to a semi-auto, a revolver left for months on end in the sock drawer with no attention is more likely to run reliably through successive shots. Do not take this mean that revolvers are more reliable than semi-autos in field conditions, as they are not. More on that in the next section.

Revolvers also have a leg up on semi-autos in the power department if power is what you are after. While service calibers like the .38 Special, .357 Magnum and, arguably, the .44 Special are roughly equivalent to their semi-auto equivalents of 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP, revolvers can be had in chamberings that leave semi-auto’s in the dust.

More on that in the next section.

Revolvers also have a leg up on semi-autos in the power department if power is what you are after. While service calibers like the .38 Special, .357 Magnum and, arguably, the .44 Special are roughly equivalent to their semi-auto equivalents of 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP, revolvers can be had in chamberings that leave semi-auto’s in the dust.

Cartridges like the .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum and modern .45 Colt loads can produce excellent performance even at extended ranges, making revolvers more suited to hunting while also still being formidable self-defense weapons.

One nice perk is the revolvers general freedom from ammunition sensitivity compared to semi-autos: a mid-size .45 Colt revolver could be loaded with barn-burning heavy loads for bagging game and later with sedate self-defense rounds with zero adjustments or changes being necessary.

The difference between standard and near-maximum hot loads being so great that it feels like shooting a different gun entirely. This versatility is a boon for someone who wants one gun to do everything.

Getting the same performance from a semi-auto often results in a huge, ungainly monstrosity like the popular Desert Eagle, or the shoehorning of a cartridge meant for a revolver into a semi-auto, ala the Coonan .357 Magnum.

The end result is usually the same: expensive, awkward semis that commonly have problems with premature wear, breakage of parts and general reliability issues. If you need stomping performance from a handgun, and don’t want a giant hog leg, revolvers are still the undisputed kings.

Small revolvers arguably carry better than most compact semi-autos, especially in a pocket, and can even be fired multiple times while within the pocket in an emergency, a feat that no semi-auto could be expected to replicate.

Lastly, revolvers easily digest one of the most common shooting related malfunctions, that of a failure to fire, or the common dud round. If you pull the trigger on a revolver and get a “click” when there should be a bang, you need only to pull the trigger again to swing a fresh camber with a fresh round behind the barrel and try again.

A semi-auto user is presented with a choice: either take the time to try firing that same round in the chamber again, if their pistol has restrike capability, or perform an immediate action drill (tap-rack-bang) to recycle the gun manually and load a fresh round in the chamber. Both can be done quickly, but the revolver’s remedial method in this instance is sublimely easy.

Revolver Shortcomings

It isn’t all good with revolvers. They as a class have some definite drawbacks, a few of them significant, that you should be aware of.

The most commonly cited, though not the most crucial to me, is their lack of capacity. A large frame revolver will commonly hold six rounds in the most common calibers, though seven-shot guns are becoming common and even a few eight-shot guns. .22 Caliber revolvers can hold ten rounds or even a few more in the same sized cylinder. Compact snubbies hold five or six rounds max as a rule.

While enough to solve nearly any practical problem you are likely to encounter, your problem may not be practical. If dealing with multiple, motivated attackers, factoring in the need to hit each at least twice for good effect and the near certainty of misses, you’ll burn through six or eight round capacity in no time flat, and unless your foes are making tracks at that point, you’ll be facing a reload.

Reloading a revolver quickly and certainly flat-out sucks. Loading single rounds is very slow and fiddly under stress, and so this necessitated the invention of speedloaders and other devices to load revolvers fully, quickly and with greater efficiency.

Even with these gadgets, loading is much slower and less sure than simply replacing a magazine in a semi-auto gun, with the semi-auto also benefitting from its greater capacity. More rounds available in less time means a huge efficiency boost for the semi-auto.

While the average self-defense shooting will probably not see you guzzling ammo like candy corn on Halloween night, no one has ever, ever wished for less ammo in a gun fight.

In the event of a major societal disruption complete with massively overwhelmed or ineffectual law enforcement, you may be confronted with a large group of nefarious people that could not be reduced by the six or seven shots you have in a revolver. For major fights with multiple opponents, the semi-auto is always going to beat the revolver.

The revolver’s other major drawback for use is that it is tougher to shoot well even though it is easier to use, if that makes sense.

The long, double action trigger that makes it so safe and certain to handle under stress is a detriment when it is time to deliver rounds accurately, so much so that even major police departments have seen significantly enhanced hit rates in training and live encounters after they switched from DA revolvers to most breeds of semi-auto.

It simply takes a fair bit of practice to shoot a DA revolver well and quickly, and that assumes it has a pretty good trigger.

If the gun has a middling or poor trigger, which by the way is common on cheap revolvers and snubbies of all stripes, you will have to redouble your efforts to attain proficiency. And don’t think about cheating by cocking the hammer to single-action mode; that’s fine for hunting and target shooting, but there will be no time for that in a fight for your life unless your assailant is very far away.

The other, and in my mind the biggest flaw of revolvers in general is that they are more delicate and susceptible to damage and environmental contamination than semi-autos. Contrary to popular theory and belief, revolvers do, in fact, “jam” and this can happen in any number of intricate ways compared to a semi-auto.

The open action of a revolver is vulnerable to all kinds of dust, dirt, grit and other detritus getting where it shouldn’t be. Anything that impinges on the cylinder is likely to retard or snarl the action, and is anything that works its way into the space between crane and frame. The bolt and hand are similarly susceptible to fine debris interfering with their operation, as are numerous other parts of the revolver’s anatomy.

I have myself seen unburned powder granules work their way beneath the ejector star of a revolver on more than one occasion, leaving the star standing slightly proud from its recess and preventing the cylinder from either going into battery or rotating smoothly, impairing the action.

Hard to stomach so small a thing causing a problem when semi-autos are routinely subjected to abuse that would stop a revolver cold and do so with no ill effect. Don’t believe the myth that revolvers are somehow invincibly reliable; they may be extremely reliable, but the best revolver is still inferior to an equivalent semi-auto in really nasty field conditions.

Revolvers also, like any other gun, suffer from malfunctions beyond a failure to fire that must be dealt with, only these malfunctions are of a different stripe entirely than a semi. Under recoil, bullets can be pulled forward slightly from their cases, impeding or stopping the rotation of the cylinder entirely.

A bent or loosened ejector rod can prevent the cylinder from getting into battery. A mistimed gun can fire intermittently or not at all. There are others, but these are the most common, and any of them can hard-lock the gun completely, and necessitates tools in many instances to remediate. Obviously not something you can do in the middle of a fight.

Any malfunction beyond the simple failure to fire mentioned in the previous section will be a major showstopper for a revolver. Barring a broken part, even the gnarliest malfunction occurring in a semi-auto can be remediated fairly rapidly if its reduction procedure is practiced.

Simply stated, any malfunction in a revolver that cannot be solved by just pulling the trigger again is probably not going to be solved without taking the gun apart. Semi-autos do suffer from a variety of malfunctions, but they can be cured quickly to get the gun running again.

This brings up another quirk of revolvers: they are harder to service and keep running compared to more modern semi-autos.

If you have never taken the sideplate off of a Smith & Wesson or Colt or seen an exploded diagram of their innards, you will have missed the fact that revolvers are amalgams of tiny, precisely fitted parts, the interplay of which are more complex and always requires a modicum of hand-fitting to ensure best function.

This total of this interplay is the “timing” of the revolver, which ideally means that a firing chamber will be precisely in line with the barrel and the cylinder locked as the hammer falls to fire the cartridge.

When a revolver starts to misbehave, or has a part wear out, unless you have legit gunsmithing skills you had better hope you can get it to a ‘smith who knows what he is doing.

You generally cannot hope to simply drop a replacement part into any revolver and take off again with no ill effects. These are skills you can acquire now, ahead of time, if you are inclined to do it yourself, but it is more skilled work, plainly.

This is of more concern to those who are serious shooters that might choose a revolver as a long-term SHTF gun, because revolvers, when shot often require tune-ups more regularly than a comparable semi-auto.

The timing of the gun will start to falter with higher round counts, and this necessitates some repair or replacement and testing of the gun to restore the timing. This is not an issue in even several thousand rounds if you have a good wheelgun, and different makes and models of gun are more or less susceptible to this, but it is something you should be aware of.

Larger revolvers are also, generally, harder to carry comfortably and a little harder to conceal compared to semi-autos due to their shape; a wide, chunky cylinder, especially a big one stuffed with seven or eight .357’s, does not lend itself to easy hiding.

This can be mitigated somewhat with a good holster, but you should expect to have to pay more attention to concealing a fullsize revolver compared to a similar semi-auto.

Bottom Line: Is a Revolver a Valid Choice?

In spite of the long laundry list of complaints, I say yes, a revolver certainly remains a viable choice for a self-defense gun in peaceful times, and chosen with some care can even be a fine SHTF gun for general readiness.

The most important characteristics of a self-defense handgun are that it be reliable, powerful enough, safe and easy enough to shoot well. Any good revolver will certainly meet these criteria, and there are plenty of good ones to choose from. In the following sections, I’ll make a case for where revolvers of different types fit into your preparations, what makes of revolver you should consider and what support equipment you should be choosing to go along with them.

The Revolver Taxonomy for Long-Term Readiness

Before you set out to pick up a revolver for your SHTF plans, or lay in a ton of ammo for the one you already have, understand what role you have in mind for this gun.

Meaning, do you want several basic pistols to equip your family or survival group with, or are you shopping for your go-to sidearm? Do you want a spare gun or two as handouts for other people you know who are in need? Things like that.

Generally, disaster or no, I plan on concealing my weapons unless I have no choice. If that’s the case, and you live anywhere but a very cold environment that affords you fulltime wear of a coat or jacket, this means you’ll probably want a revolver besides a long-barreled pocket howitzer.

Consider midsize or fullsize revolvers, but go with shorter barrels. Depending on your preference and comfort tolerances, a 4” barrel is probably the very longest you should consider, and 3” barrel is better while remaining a good all around choice.

Before you pile in on barrel length and its effect on cartridge performance, understand that cartridge technology has come a long way since the 1960’s and 1970’s and you no longer need a honkin’ 6” pipe to get a .357 Magnum up to hotrod velocity.

Additionally, several major manufacturers make ammunition optimized for use in shorter barrels that feature little to no loss of performance.

Larger framed revolvers as a rule have better triggers than smaller framed guns, all things being equal. Take care before choosing a snubbie for any role outside of a dedicated backup gun: these little squirts are handy, concealable and powerful, but among the hardest guns to handle and shoot well. Many trainers consider them experts’ guns, and with good reason. Snubbies work great if work very hard with them.

Cartridge choice should be .38 Special or .357 Magnum, period, unless you think you can justify a larger Magnum for hunting purposes. .38 and .357 are by far the most common, and make the most sense for self-defense, especially when .357 Magnum revolvers are compatible with .38 Special ammo.

You can save yourself a lot of grief by choosing to carry a modern revolver versus a vintage one. Revolvers made with modern manufacture last longer and are more reliable than our beloved vintage pieces, and that includes withstanding steady diets of high pressure modern ammo.

The two defacto choices for serious work are Smith and Wesson and Ruger. Both make solid, dependable guns but here you are faced with a choice. On one hand, S&W has stuck overwhelmingly to their traditional design, with all the perks and flaws that entails; a superb trigger and action, but one that is not as strong or as long-lasting as Ruger’s tanky, modernized actions.

It is the rare Ruger that comes out of the factory with a trigger to equal a S&W, but they are bombproof guns, and easier to work on than S&W’s. Both guns can be tuned to a high level of performance, and both are so common that you’ll have no trouble getting parts and accessories for them.

If you are considering a “to Hell and back” gun from either maker, both offer fullsize .357 Magnum revolvers with 7- and 8-shot capacities, Smith & Wesson’s being their 686 Plus and TRR8 series, and Ruger’s being the GP100 and classic Redhawk now chambered in .357 Mag. All are refined, reliable guns and the added capacity is a perk. Read my comparison between the 686 and the GP100 here.

Do not dismiss the idea of keeping a classic 6-shot .38 handy as a no-frills gun that you can equip a “non-gun” family member, neighbor or friend with in an emergency. While it is never a good idea to hand a complete neophyte a gun, a revolver is a far, far better choice in desperate circumstances, especially if you have even a short time to conduct a crash course with them.

For support equipment, aside from the usual lot of ammunition and quality holsters and belts, you’ll need reloading devices. There are quite a few gadgets on the market that claim to help revolver shooters refresh their smokewagons quickly and effortlessly. Of these, speedloaders, moon clips, and speed strips are the most common.

Moon clips, tiny, circular or semi-circular bands of metal that hold cartridges together and are dumped into the gun whole, are popular for revolvers that can accept them, but I dislike them heartily for defensive work; the thin clips are frail and once bent they will not go into the gun or, worse, insert enough to tie up the gun when you close the cylinder. When they work, they are very fast, but disregard them entirely for defense.

Speedloaders are the most popular option, and good ones work well and reliably. These drum shaped devices hold an entire cylinder’s worth of ammo ready.

The tips of the cartridges are inserted into the chambers, the speedloader’s knob or button is actuated and the cartridges are released all at once to fall into their chambers. For reloading an empty gun, speedloaders are great, but they are bulky, and your gun’s grips may need to be relieved to allow the speedloader clearance.

Speed strips are thin, flexible plastic holders that secure cartridges in single column. To use a speed strip, you grip the device and insert, two at a time, cartridges into their chambers before peeling the strip off the bases.

While not as fast as a speedloader, speed strips facilitate partial reloads and are also far more convenient to carry and conceal than speedloaders. Make room for and practice with both speed strips and speedloaders for your revolver.

Lastly, if you are serious about going the distance with your wheelgun, seek out revolver specific training classes and start brushing up on revolver maintenance and repair procedures.

This is, sadly, a dying art in our time, but the skills are out there and available for those who would learn. If you are in a long-term survival situation, you cannot count on running your trusty revolver down to the local gunsmith to get it back in action if something breaks.

Conclusion

While the revolver, in all its guises, is arguably obsolescent today, there are too many good revolvers out there, and shooters who prefer them, to ignore.

If you are one of those shooters and want to rely on revolvers for your self-defense and disaster readiness guns, make sure you are boning up on the skills you need in order to prevail with them.

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About Charles Yor

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Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.

5 comments

  1. Avatar

    some of your reasons are why I favor Ruger revolvers. I can pull the gun down with out dealing with side plates and totally clean the action. And I have found that replacement part fit with out any problems.

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    Of course it all depends on what you are comfortable with. I carry a S&W shield in 9mm IWB the wife carries in a concealed purse and carry’s a S&W bodyguard in 38 plus P. She prefers this in case she needs to just star pulling the trigger before she can get the weapon out of the purse. No Hammer no Slide to jam up just start firing. Both of us are right.

  3. Avatar

    A full size .357 Magnum revolver loaded with 6 or 7 125 grain SJHP is still strong medicine.

  4. Avatar

    Do not over look the intimidation factor. My mother always liked her .357 Python 4″ revolver loaded with 125 gr Silvertips so you could see the BIG hollow points when she pointed it at you with the hammer back. She did this several times when she had lowlifes that were trying to break-in when she was alive living in Ky. And she was a real hard case and would have shot them if she had to.

  5. Avatar

    I’ve shot competition with .45 ACP full moon clips, and never had a problem with them getting bent or not working. And they are nearly as fast a reload as a magazine (although it does take 2 hands to eject the empties other than one hand for a semi-auto). Another plus it keeps the brass nicely together to recover it.

    One time out practicing with my buddy, I was showing off and just tossed the full moon clip at the cylinder and it fell in. My buddy was astonished and bet me I couldn’t do it again. I did. Fortunately he didn’t require a 3rd example, as I was never again able to repeat it.

    I also had 1/3 moon clips (holds 2 rounds) which I never actually shot with, but it was nice to carry spares in a 2+2+2 spare ammo carrier. They were pretty flimsy, but should be just fine until after the first use. They are not going to bend or distort on their own, but hitting the ground after a speed load could do them in, which is why I only planned to use them at most one time and then discard them.

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