Revolver vs. Semi Auto: Which Is Best?

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, chosen when one has forewarning or opportunity while pistols tend to be used in reactionary circumstances.

Crisis situations tend to arise quickly and with little or no notice, and even when in the midst of a long-term disaster, the situation tends to be fluid and wrought with opportunities for unpleasant surprises.

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

Now to the controversy! Do we dare to answer the question of which handgun is better in a crisis situation? The semi-automatic or the revolver?

There are good reasons to choose either, and this often times comes down to a matter of preference, or opinion, and we all know that those can make for the most heatedly contested debates. So now 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.

Defining what a Crisis Looks Like

Before we can get into the nuts and bolts of a head-to-head comparison, again, of the revolver and the semi-automatic pistol we must properly describe the context in which it will be used.

If readers take nothing else away from this article, they should take away the understanding that the objective, their objective specifically, should drive their equipment choices.

The pistol that is best for me is not necessarily the one that is best for you, or anyone else. and your objective, depending upon things like your lifestyle, may change from day to day. The pistol that is best for you on your typical Wednesday might not be the best one for you on your typical Sunday.

Accordingly, it is imperative that we assess the attributes of these guns that we are going to discuss through that lens. one gun’s best attribute might not amount to anything worthwhile for a specific user, and likewise seemingly crippling flaws for other people might be trivial annoyances to you. It all depends on the context.

We must extend this to the definitions we use, specifically the definition of a crisis. you might define a crisis as any self-defense event where the gun needs to be drawn and fired.

Someone else might define a true crisis as a long-term survival event where society has collapsed, commerce has ground to a halt and the rule of law is no longer present or shaky at best.

The one thread they all have in common is that you will be using the pistol to protect yourself against other hostile humans, and judged by that lens alone attributes such as usability, concealability and power are pretty much all that matter.

However, if you were going to become not only the primary user but also the primary gunsmith for a firearm after society has broken down, that will further refine your choices. 

The point is, every assessment and relevant characteristic that we share with you below should be viewed as it pertains to your context, your mission, personally.It is the only way you’ll be able to make a truly informed decision.

Revolver vs. Semi-Auto: Head to Head

TraitRevolverSemi-Auto
ConcealabilitySmall revolvers represent best-in-class concealment; larger revolvers harder to conceal compared to semi-autos.Most semi-automatics are easy to conceal with proper holster.
TriggersMost self-defense guns will be DA; useable, but difficult to master.Wide array of trigger options available. Consistent action striker-fire guns are excellent overall for most users.
CapacityWith all but the smallest cartridges or largest formats revolvers suffer from greatly limited capacity compared to semi-auto pistols.Capacity is anywhere from good to excellent in most compact to fullsize guns. 15, 18 and 20 shot magazines are common. Smaller guns still equal or beat revolvers in capacity.
ReloadingRevolvers are slow to reload, and depend on comparatively fiddly speedloaders and strips to begin keeping pace with semis. Speedloaders are inconvenient to carry. Loading cartridges by hand is troubling under stress.Switching magazines is fast and easy with minimal training, even under stress. Spare magazines are convenient and easy to carry, even in a pocket.
MalfunctionsCommon failure-to-fire is reduced simply by pulling trigger again; most other typical revolver malfunctions are show-stoppers.Semi-autos can suffer from a variety of malfunctions that require specific procedures to clear quickly and surely. However, they are user-correctable at the instance with practice.
Ammo Cost & Avail.Common defensive cartridges are widely available, but more expensive than comparable semi-auto rounds.Typical service calibers are among the most common cartridges in the world. 
DurabilityRevolvers, properly maintained, are generally reliable but delicate compared to semi-auto pistols.Good semi-autos are both highly reliable and rugged. 
SpeedIn most situations, most shooters can be just as quick with a revolver as a semi-auto but revolvers require more practice to shoot very quickly.Depending on action, semi-autos will be easy or very easy to shoot quickly.
PowerNo contest: When the situation calls for a powerful handgun revolvers rule the roost. .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .45 Colt have power to spare for hunting and can still be usable for self-defense.True magnum class semi-autos are rare, specialized and finicky as a rule; not guns you would trust for serious self-defense use.
Users w/ DisabilitiesThe simplicity of a revolver’s manual of arms makes it highly attractive for users who lack hand strength or coordination.Semi-autos are often the best choice for users who lack a hand or have a hand that is totally non-functional. 
Ease of RepairRepairing revolvers requires legitimate and specialized gunsmithing skills. Most parts don’t “drop in.”Except for the most specialized tasks, modern semi-autos are easily fixed with minimal tools and the right replacement parts.

Concealability

When it comes to handguns, concealment is a big, big deal. If you don’t work a job professionally that requires you to open carry or you are puttering around hunting or on your large property, you are generally well advised to keep your handgun concealed.

Keeping your business your business, and allowing for the element of surprise, is a huge advantage in a self-defense encounter. Not for nothing, guns that are open carried are routinely targets for snatch and grab robbery. Don’t kid yourself: open carry does not meaningfully deter crime or criminality.

In this regard, we sort of have an inverted graph comparing revolvers and semi autos head-to-head. Among midsize and large handguns, the flat, regular profile of the average semi-automatic lends itself far better to easy concealment.

A semi-automatic pistol with a 3-in or even 4-in barrel can be quite svelte and easy to carry, whereas a revolver with a barrel of the same length is likely going to feel like a boat anchor and be about as tough to hide except under large outer garments.

However, once we get towards the smallest category of guns, subcompact semi-autos and snub nose revolvers with barrels measuring 2 inches or less the scales tip the other way.

There is hardly a better gun on the consumment versus performance matrix for fighting then a snub nose revolver if the gun is going to be deeply concealed. Snub nose revolvers are extremely easy to hide, even in a pocket, while remaining powerful and reliable enough for serious defensive use.

Most subcompact semi-automatic pistols begin to suffer in regards to reliability even if they are quite easy to conceal.

When considering the smallest guns, revolvers have a definite advantage. For everything larger, the semi-automatic gets the nod.

Triggers

The trigger is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to the interface of shooter to firearm, and the way the trigger operates as well as it’s ease of operation will influence everything from mode of carry to the way you train with the gun. Accordingly, this characteristic requires considerable thought.

When we examine semi-automatic pistols we are confronted with a bewildering variety these days. Striker-fired, single-action, traditional double-action (TDA), double-action only and handfuls of seemingly proprietary modes advertised as the next best thing by manufacturers.

When we boil all of these modes down, we are left with triggers that operate consistently from one shot to the next, as exemplified by the vast majority of striker fired guns and single-action pistols along with double action only guns, or triggers that change mode from the first shot to subsequent shots, as exemplified by the traditional double action pistol or DA/SA.

Generally speaking, one of the best triggers from a useless standpoint is going to be had by going with some form of striker-fired pistol.

The trigger does not change modes or behavior from the first shot to the last and is typically of intermediate weight, not too heavy and not too light. There is a reason these guns are taking over the world!

On the other hand, a double-action single-action pistol, while difficult to master and presenting many speed bumps especially for new users, can provide assurance against a negligent discharge thanks to a heavy, initial double-action pull while helping the shooter do their best for all subsequent shots thanks to the light, crisp single-action.

Switching to revolvers, you have two practical modes of operation. Double-action revolvers and single-action revolvers.

Single action revolvers as exemplified by the old six shooters of yesteryear are easy to shoot well when you aren’t under pressure, but very easy to fumble since they must be manually cocked for each shot. Far from the best choice for serious self-defense today although I would not pass on one if it is all I had.

Double-action revolvers are the type that most people are familiar with, and require a heavy, long trigger press each and every shot in order to fire the gun unless the user opts to manually cock the hammer prior to shooting.

Some double-action revolvers lack the capability for manual cocking of the hammer, either because the hammer is internal or because the single-action mechanism has been blocked or removed. 

Generally, the vast majority of shooters will perform their best with a consistent trigger, and particularly one that is of modest or light weight for each shot.

Heavy triggers, or ones that change mode after the first shot, can still be shot to a high level but they require a considerable investment of training and practice from the shooter. They are generally safer for untrained or minimally trained users, however, as they do provide a hedge against a negligent discharge.

In this regard, revolver and semi-automatic are both viable choices for self-defense, but the striker fired semi-auto pistol provides huge gains in efficiency and consistency.

Capacity

The issue of capacity is a hands down win for most fullsize or compact semi autos.

Large frame semis chambered in one of the most popular calibers and featuring a double-stack magazine provides you with between 10 and 17 rounds in your weapon, and the ability to double your ready supply by carrying a single extra mag in your pocket.

Modern semi-auto pistols of compact size or larger routinely carry 15 rounds or more aboard and 9 mm, and 10 shot 45 are far from out of the question. Full size semis often carry 18, 20 or more rounds in a single magazine.

Comparing this to the revolver, typical medium or large frame revolvers still often only hold six rounds of .38 special, .357 Magnum or any other cartridge all the way up to .44 Magnum or .45 Colt. .22LR revolvers might hold nine or even 12 rounds in the same size format, but at that point one is obviously giving up a considerable amount of ballistic performance.

Compact revolvers fare even worse, with most that are truly suited for concealed carry holding only five rounds.

For most shooters who become embroiled in an average self-defense situation, three to five rounds is usually enough to take care of the problem but this is far from a hard and fast rule or any kind of certainty.

If you carry a firearm to solve such problems, remind yourself that every cartridge on board is an opportunity to solve the problem quickly enough to prevent a bad outcome for yourself. In this regard, the semi-automatic pistol far outstrips any revolver.

Here, the semi-automatic pistol is the clear winner when it comes to payload on board. Only revolvers chambered in tiny cartridges can even hope to rival the capacity of the modern semi-automatic pistol, and even then it will be a small semi-auto or a single stack gun.

Reloading

Here again the semi-automatic pistol proves its superiority. Exchanging a magazine for another before running the slide home is the picture of speed and simplicity compared to reloading a revolver and even on tiny, awkward guns can be done in a matter of seconds with just a little bit of practice.

Revolvers are difficult to reload quickly and require specialized implements to do so.

Speed loaders might be able to reload a revolver completely and do so quickly enough to remain competitive with a semi-automatic pistol on paper, but the task is far more delicate and error-prone, and speed loaders themselves are rarely 100% reliable, with fit and sizing issues common.

Speed loaders are also more difficult to carry concealed compared to spare magazines.

Ultimately, one might reload a revolver using a strip type cartridge holder, but this is even slower and still prone to error. These strips do have the advantage of being easy to carry and conceal, however.

Lacking any such devices, the revolver shooter must slowly, painfully load each fresh cartridge one at a time by hand. Doable, but far, far from ideal when you need your gun reloaded right damn now.

No contest: the semi-auto wins this one, though it is of practical consequence only if one uses more ammo than is stored onboard.

revolver

Malfunctions and Misfires

This is a contentious topic. Detractors of semi-automatic pistols are quick to point out that they can malfunction whereas revolvers never jam.

This is preposterous, of course, but the manual of arms for dealing with typical malfunctions, and the nature of the malfunctions themselves, occurring in semi-autos and revolvers are quite different.

Semi-automatic pistols that are properly maintained and utilize good magazines with good ammunition are generally highly reliable, especially in austere environments, and particularly high quality semi autos will prove to be phenomenally reliable.

However, each type of malfunction requires its own prescription for reducing or clearing it to get the gun back in operation.

Although some fans of the revolver lacking in training, education and practical experience might think that revolvers do not malfunction this is patently untrue.

However, the most common type of malfunction experienced with a handgun, that of a defective cartridge, is simply and easily reduced in a revolver by doing nothing more than pulling the trigger again, swinging a fresh chamber containing a fresh cartridge into battery.

This is definitely an advantage, because the same malfunction in a semi-auto requires the manual cycling of the slide to extract and eject the dud and replace it with the next cartridge from the magazine.

However, all other types of common malfunctions with revolvers are more likely to be show stopping events compared to a semi-auto.

Everything from the ejector rod unscrewing and locking the crane and subsequently the cylinder in place to bullets jumping their crimp under recoil to bind the cylinder from rotating.

The bottom line is, when revolvers experience a malfunction that is anything other than a dud round it is usually a showstopper. Most semi-auto malfunctions may be user reduced in very short order.

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 task-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, which is the standard chambering for most western militaries, and .40 S&W, the darling of American law enforcement.

The same can be said for magazines: if you choose a model that is widely used by military and police, you will find 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 will be a ton of magazines floating around out there.

Durability

When it comes to durability, most folks that aren’t in the know immediately claim revolvers are more durable, sort of ascribing the conventional wisdom of revolvers’ “legendary reliability” to the durability of the guns.

This is flat out wrong, as nearly any revolver will prove to be considerably more delicate under harsh abuse or in hostile environments than comparable semi-autos.

The reason why is easy to understand: Revolvers are delicate, precise mechanisms, comparatively speaking. They rely on finally fitted and precisely timed parts interacting with each other in a very specific way in order for the guns to function.

Ask anyone who has used a revolver in harsh conditions or after dropping it in a loose or sandy soil and they will tell you that it does not take much to start fouling these guns up.

What’s more, sharp impacts can damage a revolver into uselessness in any number of ways. Ejector rods may be bent, either tying up the cylinder or preventing easy extraction and ejection of spent cases.

A tweaked frame or barrel could ruin accuracy or alignment of the chamber with the forcing cone. Infiltration of dirt, dust and other debris will severely impede the trigger pull and possibly the rotation of the cylinder in kind.

The semi-automatic pistol is the clear choice when it comes to operation in most hostile environments or defense situations. There are a few instances where the revolver makes more sense, but these are few indeed.

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

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 about how fast you can re-acquire your target and pull the trigger again.

This is going to have a lot to do with training, practice, and discipline (again!). The double action revolver is harder to shoot well than most semis owing to its long, heavy trigger pull for every shot. It will take practice, but you can become fast and accurate with it.

As a side note, if you’ve ever watched Cowboy Action Shooting, you know that in the right hands even a Single Action Army revolver can sound like a machinegun and place every round in the center of mass.

But honestly this is some next level stuff that takes years of dedicated practice to achieve! Your time is best spent on mastering a double-action revolver or semi-auto for self defense.

Power

When it comes to chambering powerful cartridges, there’s absolutely no contest. The revolver is still the once and future king.

Both revolver and semi-auto pistols have at their disposal an abundance of chamberings that are entirely adequate for self-defense against human beings, but when maximum power is required for other purposes, say hunting, the revolver wins hands down with an abundance of magnum cartridges widely available in a variety of formats.

These cartridges are available and semi-auto pistols, but with scarce few exceptions they are gargantuan, ungainly and finicky beasts. That makes them ill-suited at best to self-defense purposes, and most of these guns reside firmly in the realm of novelty.

If one desires true magnum or near magnum performance from a semi-auto pistol the best choice is generally the 10mm Auto which can be loaded quite hot and effectively for hunting while still remaining viable for self-defense.

On the other hand, revolvers can choose from the .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum and .45 Colt while more esoteric options include the 10mm Auto again and the .41 magnum.

For crushing power and extreme range against large or dangerous game mammoth loads like the .454 Casull, and .460 and .500 S&W Magnums can do the job.

The older, smaller magnums, particularly the .357 and .44, also benefit from being had in revolvers that are still more than capable in a self-defense role and can be further optimized for such by downloading them with no modifications to .38 Special and .44 Special loads respectively.

If power is what you seek, get a revolver in an appropriate chambering. So, in my book, in bear country the revolver wins hands down.

For Users With Disabilites

On numerous occasions, I have had older people in my shooting classes. Quite often, for older women in particular or men with arthritis, loading magazines and racking the slide can be difficult or impossible for them.

In all other respects they are perfectly capable of shooting well, but if you can’t load your weapon it’s going to be tough to get shooting in the first place. For these folks, a revolver is often the answer.

For users with disabilities, firearm selection and optimization must always be handled on a case-by-case basis.

This is a highly involved topic that is generally beyond the confines of this article, but generally speaking a modern double action revolver is an excellent choice for those who lack the strength or coordination to effectively load a semi-auto pistol, with handling of the slide usually being the lion’s share of the challenge in that regard.

But for users who have either lost one of their hands or have a hand rendered nearly useless by injury or disease, the semi-auto pistol is almost always the better choice, being much easier to load, unload and operate using only a single hand.

Ease of Repair

Considering long-term usage of a handgun in a post collapse situation the ease of repair and depot level maintenance must be considered. This is a facet commonly overlooked by many preppers.

In this regard, the vast majority of modern semi-auto pistols once again prove superior to revolvers. Not only do semi autos routinely prove to be far more durable and hard use, withstanding rigorous firing schedules that would prove detrimental to many revolvers, but they are far easier for a user with basic tools to service.

Switching out pins, levers, springs and so forth is easy enough with a little bit of know-how and a rudimentary workbench.

Revolvers, on the other hand, require skills which are becoming rarer and rarer every day, except the most basic parts.

Revolvers are intricate devices that rely on a precise arrangement and interaction of parts to ensure they operate within nominal tolerances. This is known as the timing of the revolver.

When the timing of a revolver starts to go out, it will usually start igniting the primer before the chamber containing the cartridge being fired is completely in line with the bore. This can lead to the shaving of copper or lead from bullets and accelerated wear and tear, to say nothing of degraded accuracy.

Fixing this condition, and even replacing seemingly simple parts, can require laborious hand fitting through the use of stones and other tools, a delicate operation that is easy to mess up. lacking these skills already, you might want to think twice before relying upon a revolver as a so-called doomsday gun.

A semi-auto pistol with a small cache of the most commonly needed spare parts can be expected to function and function well for a very long time to come in the aftermath of a society collapsing event, if the gun is given even a little bit of routine maintenance.

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 offer, 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 is reliable, that you are comfortable, proficient, and confident using.

It is the one that feels best to you, in your holster and in your hand when you need it. It is the one that has been at the center of your practice, training, and discipline.

So what is your preference, revolver or semi? Do you like one for certain situations only? Let us know below!

updated 01/10/2022

6 thoughts on “Revolver vs. Semi Auto: Which Is Best?”

  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.

    1. 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.

  5. Although I am not a firearms expert, I *DID* sleep at a Holiday Inn last night. 🙂 A long time ago, a friend asked me “What are the best firearms for any and all emergencies. Just give me the guns that I need for anything that comes…” Well, it’s not THAT simple, but I’ll try to answer the question anyway. The easy answer is this one: You already own your favorite firearms—now start buying truckloads of ammo for them. In addition to your favorite firearms, please consider the following weapons: 1) A .40 caliber pistol 2) A 12 gauge shotgun 3) A 9mm pistol 4) An AR-15 5) MAYBE an AK-47, if you really want one My friend asked me to tell him WHY I chose those four weapons. Because those weapons are (most often) the weapons used by local police and military. No matter what happens, from Alien Invasion to Red Dawn to the Zombie Apocalypse, the police and the military will have ammunition. Even if the Second Amendment is repealed, the police and the military will always have ammunition. If you already have the guns that fire their ammo, then all you need is to get their ammo. THAT ammo will always be produced and it will always be available. Get the weapons that fire the ammo that will ALWAYS be around. The AK-47 is the rifle most often used by enemies of the US, so there is a good chance that an invading army would be carrying that weapon and the ammo for it. If you already have one of their weapons, all you need is to take their ammo. Those are my choices for the firearms that preppers “need.” Happy Holidays.
    https://jacksonvillegunrunners.com/2018/07/16/top-10-best-revolver-2018-bestextensive-revolver-guide/

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