A Little History
The handheld revolver has a history dating back to the 1600’s. Around the mid 1830’s, Samuel Colt was granted patents for a mechanically operated revolver. This allowed him to create a revolver which spun the cylinder mechanically, utilizing the hammer and a pawl. This was a major milestone for what will eventually be the modern revolver. Other notable milestones include these revolvers:
- Colt Dragoon (1850): “Single Action” revolver utilizing the hammer to mechanically advance the cylinder with a pawl.
- Smith & Wesson No. 1 (1860): Had a manually operated cylinder (due to Colt’s patents), but it used a .22 rimfire cartridge, instead of a cap and ball.
- Colt Single Action Army (1873): One of the most recognized, single-action revolvers and still cloned by many manufacturers today. The SAA was a gate loaded, cartridge revolver chambered for .45 Colt.
- Colt New Army & Navy (1892): First commercially successful swing-out cylinder revolver.
Since the late 1800’s, revolvers have continued to improve. Through advancements in cartridges, manufacturing processes and materials the revolver has continued to evolve, but the basic functionality of the revolver has remained the same.
Throughout most of the 1900’s the revolver reigned supreme in military and law enforcement use. During the last decade of the 20th century, law enforcement started a shift towards semi-auto pistols; with many agencies following the lead of the FBI.
The Semi-Auto Era
Prior to the 1986 Miami Shootout, most FBI agents carried a .357 magnum revolver and some were issued the S&W 459 pistol in 9mm. Following the 1986 Miami shootout, the FBI determined that the .38 special and 9mm did not have adequate stopping power (although the Special Agents carried revolvers chambered for .357 magnum, most loaded them with .38 special +P rounds). Following a brief stint with the S&W 1076 chambered in 10mm Auto (article on the 10mm Auto), the FBI settled on the Glock 23, chambered in .40 S&W.
The semi-auto gained popularity in the 1990’s as it continued to advance. From the traditional double/single action pistols, to the new craze for striker fired, double action only pistols with light triggers. While most people reserve a full-sized pistol or revolver for home defense use, the market demand for concealed-carry pistols has risen in the past few years. Most of these newly minted permit holders want the following things: a lightweight, striker fired, slim and compact pistol, preferably chambered in 9mm (especially since the FBI has recently announced it’s return to 9mm).
Manufacturers like Kahr have been in the game for a while, but Ruger, Smith & Wesson, Kimber, Kel-Tec, Tarurs, Sig Sauer and Beretta have all recently joined the “pocket 9” craze. Unfortunately, pocket pistols can be finicky; they are often ammunition sensitive, easy to limp-wrist, have a minuscule grip and they have heavy recoil springs to compensate for less slide mass.
Although most shooters can successfully master shooting a pocket 9, for some, there are too many obstacles to overcome. Shooters with big hands generally don’t like the smaller grips and, inherent of the polymer frame, the only options are grip tape or a wrap-around rubber sleeve. The mainspring is too heavy for some to actuate the slide and the muzzle flip is difficult to control, causing misfeeds because the pistol can’t cycle properly. Keep in mind, most people can overcome the shortcomings, but how many people train under stress? Are you sure you won’t limp-wrist a pistol when drawing quickly from concealment and having to fire immediately with only a two finger grip? If your pistol malfunctions, it has essentially become a single shot derringer. I’ve trained police officers who, despite drawing a full-sized Glock 22 from an exposed duty holster, limp-wrist and cause a malfunction during annual qualification; all due to stress.
Here We Go, Again!
Oh… the age-old pistol versus revolver dilemma. Without starting thermonuclear war, I’m going to explain why I feel the revolver the better choice for concealed carry/personal defense. This applies for a comparison of similarly sized firearms. If you insist on concealing a Glock 17 with a weapon light, a holographic red-dot sight and 3 extra magazines, well… good for you, but better for your chiropractor.
The first point to discuss is capacity, an obvious disadvantage for the 5-shot snub nosed revolver, or is it? My Kahr CM9 pistol has a 6 shot magazine, plus 1 in the chamber, equals 7 shots. I carry an extra magazine, which gives me another 6 shots for a total of 13 rounds. The primary reason for carrying an extra magazine for a pistol is not capacity, but for use in case of a malfunction. If tap, roll, rack doesn’t work to clear a malfunction, your next course of action is to strip the magazine, roll, rack (clear), insert new magazine, rack and reassess (if you’re not already dead). My LCR holds 5 rounds, and I normally carry one speed-strip with it, for a total of 10 rounds versus 13 for the pistol. The three rounds isn’t a huge difference and in the event I need to reload either firearm, I’d be having a really bad day. Remember folks, we don’t live in Mogadishu; if you think you’re getting into an extended shootout with multiple armed criminals, you need to put down your X-box controller, exit your mom’s basement and rejoin reality.
Next we’ll address size, weight and shape. As you can see from the photo above, the Kahr CM9 and Ruger LCR are similarly sized, but keep in mind the CM9 is one of the smallest 9mm pistols currently manufactured; I’m not going to bore you with height, length and width numbers because a picture speaks a thousand words and we’re not directly comparing the two, just similarly sized handguns. The CM9 is about 33% heavier, but different pistols and revolvers are going to be of different weights and sizes; the lighter and smaller the handgun, the more likely it is going to be carried. Remember, more ammo = more weight. The biggest benefit the revolver has over the semi-auto pistol is shape. For concealed carry (especially inside-the-waistband), the shape of the revolver prints less, and more naturally. The biggest culprit of printing from the pistol is the back corner of the slide and the bottom, rear corner of the grip. The revolver’s rounded shape also means it’s more comfortable against your body. It doesn’t have any squared corners to jab you as you’re bending over or leaning in a seat.
So far, the comparison is pretty even. The revolver has less capacity, but it is more comfortable to carry. The semi-auto pistol can generally carry more ammunition, but they are going to be heavier and shaped awkwardly for concealed-carry. So the question that remains unanswered: what makes the revolver, a firearm design conceived about 400 years ago, a good choice for self defense?
The mechanical operation of a revolver remains largely unchanged since the latter part of the 1800’s and the biggest advantage of a revolver is due to its mechanics. Revolvers are simple, they are loaded by inserting cartridges into a cylinder (containing multiple chambers), then the cylinder is closed and locked. When you squeeze the trigger, a chamber is lined up with the barrel, then the hammer falls onto the firing pin, which subsequently ignites the cartridge. It all boils down to: open cylinder, load cylinder, close cylinder, shoot. The two parts you need to actuate with a revolver are the cylinder release and trigger.
With a revolver there is no de-cocker, slide stop lever, magazine release, safety or takedown latch adorning its frame. It’s simpler to learn and easier to master. There are a lot of people with different physical limitations which prevent them from operating the heavy slide on a semi-auto pocket pistol. I have some students who simply can’t do it. With only two fingers fitting on the grip of most modern pocket pistols, many folks experience feeding problems due to the snappy recoil.
Pocket pistols are also extremely ammunition sensitive: bullet shape, bullet weight and the velocity all play a factor in reliable feeding. Even the venerable Glock, known for reliability, has had feeding issues with their G42 .380 pistol; if the ammunition is too powerful, it was causing the slide to lock back and if the ammunition wasn’t powerful enough or the bullet weight was too light, the pistol wouldn’t cycle properly. Even if you find the perfect self-defense round, one which cycles flawlessly, a single undercharged load can cause a malfunction at a most critical time. If you have an undercharged cartridge or one with a bad primer in a revolver, it won’t cause a malfunction, just squeeze the trigger again to skip to the next round. As for bullet shape, the revolver is like a fat guy at a buffet, it’ll eat anything you feed it.
Some might find fault with the revolver’s trigger. Smaller carry revolvers generally have heavy triggers, especially newer Smith & Wesson J-frame revolvers. Fortunately this can be remedied with a trigger job, making the trigger pull smoother and lighter if desired. (Even owners of the Smith’s semi-auto M&P pistol complain of its terrible trigger until an APEX trigger kit is installed.) The Ruger LCR, another popular carry revolver uses a different trigger geometry to create a trigger pull deceptively lighter than it actually is. For those complaining about the .38 special’s power, the LCR is also chambered in .357 Mag as well as 9mm.
The only pre-requisites for shooting a revolver is that you can hold onto the grip, [aim] and squeeze the trigger. Revolvers aren’t know for having feeding or ejection problems caused by a slightly dirty pistol, a weak wrist or your choice of ammunition. For the most part, revolvers just GO!
Many people don’t understand the significance of the revolver in the history of handguns. Those in their early 20’s to early 30’s have grown up as the generation of Glock, and even some older folks who didn’t start shooting until later in their life gravitated towards semi-auto pistols because they’re the latest and greatest.
The first handgun (non-BB gun) I shot was a Smith & Wesson Model 34-1 .22LR revolver. Although my stint in LE was during the semi-auto pistol era and I do like Glocks, I’ve found myself returning to a revolver as my everyday carry gun in civilian life. There’s nothing wrong with carrying a semi-auto pistol, but I don’t have a need to do so. Unless you have been through a stressful self-defense situation, you won’t know how you’re going to perform or react in that kind of situation. Why not carry a handgun that doesn’t depend so much on human performance, external factors, the alignment of the moon with the sun, etc… but instead, relies on 400 years of mechanical innovation?
You make a great case for REVOLVERS for concealed carry & self defense. And statistics prove most civilian SD shootings are 2 to 3 shots max, if shots are even fired. And you clearly make the point that most self defense situations are lightning fast & highly stressful – so your “tool” had best be simple / reliable / effective in stopping the unprovoked threat.
LikeLiked by 1 person