Should I Buy a Revolver or Semi-Automatic?
New gun purchases in the United States are at an all-time high. According to the FBI, new gun purchases in 2020 reached nearly 28 million by the beginning of September. For comparison, the entire year 2010 saw just 14.4 million sales in 12 months.
It's unlikely that big game hunting and target shooting have suddenly gotten popular enough to more than double the number of background checks being run nationwide. It's a fair bet that most of the new gun sales are for self-defense, and that a lot of people are choosing handguns for their first firearms. That means that potentially millions of Americans are now grappling with an argument that old shooters never tire of: Which is best for self-defense, revolvers or semi-automatics?
How Handguns Work
Handguns are loosely defined as guns you can shoot one-handed. There are basically two types of handguns: revolvers and semi-automatics (also called pistols). Each has its strengths, as millions of commenters on the internet will tell you in ALL CAPS, but each also has limitations. Here's a quick rundown for new and future shooters as to what each gun is like.
Revolvers are the classic wheel-guns you see in Westerns. The basic design of a revolver is that of a steel frame which carries a revolving cylinder where the rounds are stored. As the hammer is pulled, the cylinder rotates into battery, placing a round right behind the barrel. Pulling the trigger fires it off. Apart from single-action models, most revolvers' cylinders swing out to the side for reloading.
Semi-automatic pistols are the cool-guy guns John Wick uses to distract you from the fact that he's really a skinny actor named Keanu Reeves. They carry their ammo in a detachable compartment called a magazine (please don't call it a clip; that's something different) that slides into the handgrip of the gun. When a round is fired, the spring in the magazine pushes the next round into battery where it's ready to fire as soon as the gun's slide racks forward into position.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Each handgun is good for something different, and which one is right for you depends on what you're looking for. Here's a side-by-side comparison of each gun's features.
Whether your handgun is for hunting or personal defense, it needs to have what's called "knock-down power." This is the ability of a gun to hit the target hard enough to drop it in very few shots. As an extremely general rule, higher caliber handguns have more stopping power than lower-caliber guns, but there are as many exceptions to that rule as you can imagine.
Revolvers used to own the high-power market. Because of their mechanical simplicity, many revolvers can be built with massive steel frames that eat up high-pressure magnum rounds and hit like a freight train. All the classic tough-guy calibers, from .357 Magnum to the Dirty Harry .44 Magnum, are available in rimmed revolver cartridges.
Semi-autos have been creeping into the high-power market for a while now. Ever since an infamous FBI shootout in the 1980s, when a slightly stronger 9mm round might have stopped a bank robber, auto-loader rounds have been getting more powerful. This is tricky to do, since the complex cycling mechanism of a typical pistol makes high-pressure rounds a bit harder to manage than in revolvers.
You can definitely find lots of powerful rounds today though, from a Glock chambered in 10mm, which is considered a magnum round, to calibers like the .357 Sig, which goes really fast on a flat trajectory and has a reputation for punching right through barriers like glass and thick clothing.
You don't buy a handgun for power. Even medium-strength rifles and shotguns have a massive edge over handguns for their stopping power. Rather, you buy a handgun as a compromise between concealability and being unarmed. The ability to carry the gun you buy matters a lot to how well it works out for you.
Revolvers have a geometry that makes them hard to conceal. No matter how clever the engineers at Colt and Smith & Wesson get, your revolver still has to have a rotating cylinder in the middle, which makes it a bit bulky no matter what. Revolver designers have answered the concealment dilemma by making their wheel guns smaller and lighter. Unfortunately, that almost always means going down from six rounds to five, and maybe dropping from a .357 Magnum to a .38 Special.
Pistols have the edge for concealment. You have a choice between single- and double-stacked magazines, with singles being slimmer, and some very lightweight frames you can pack in an ankle holster. Taurus and Glock both make fine subcompact 9mm pistols, and Bersa makes an excellent clone of James Bond's Walther PPK, called the Thunder.
Ease of Use
If you're grabbing for your handgun, things have probably gone to hell and you're freaking out. So. . . which is easier to use in an emergency, revolvers or pistols?
Revolvers are supremely simple to operate, which makes it hard to screw up a defensive use. Apart from single-action guns, which take a long time to load and require a separate hammer pull for every shot, most revolvers are point-and-click for ease of use. Many guns, such as the Smith & Wesson 642, even have shrouded hammers to prevent snags when you have to fish it out of your pocket in a hurry.
Pistols come in a variety of configurations, and while some are easy to use when you're in a tight spot, some definitely aren't. The venerable 1911, for example, has multiple safeties built into the frame and requires the hammer to be cocked before the first shot. Striker-fired guns, such as the Smith & Wesson SD9VE and SD40VE, are simpler, but if you don't have a firm grip, the slide might not cycle with enough power to chamber a second round, leading to sudden — and unwelcome — jams.
As with everything that goes "bang," the biggest X-factor here is practice. All told, you're probably a lot better off with an absurdly complicated gun you practice with every week than a simple double-action revolver you haven't touched in years.
Many — most — virtually all — new gun owners ask their sales rep about safety features on any given gun. It's normal for first-time gun buyers to feel jittery about the shooting machine going off when they didn't mean it to, and nobody wants to buy a new TV to replace the one their new gun shot through an hour after they got it home.
It comes as a surprise for new buyers that many experienced shooters scoff at mechanical safeties. It is almost a religious principle among gun owners that you never trust a mechanical safety, and that the only real safety feature is keeping your finger off the trigger. This sounds like a joke, especially since one out of five Hollywood movies have a gun shooting recklessly every time it's dropped, but virtually none of the handguns you can buy new today have that problem. To be as clear as possible: Your new gun will not go off unless you pull the trigger or open it up and fiddle with its parts somehow. You're good.
That said, here are some of the more common safety features you see on guns:
- Thumb safety: The most basic type of mechanical safety is a little button or switch that's usually positioned close to the trigger. Push it one way and the trigger won't move back far enough to fire. Push it the other way, and you're ready to shoot. The 1911 style is meant to be carried with a round in the chamber, hammer down and safety engaged. This understandably freaks people out, so many people carry with the hammer down.
- Grip safety: 1911s have another safety feature, which has been copied by a few other gun designs — the grip safety. A grip safety is basically a flat lever on the back of the grip that has to be pressed in before the gun can fire. You can do this by squeezing the grip as you normally would. . . assuming you're not holding the gun in an odd position or anything.
- Trigger safety: Glocks have a trigger safety that's basically a trigger inside of the trigger. In order to shoot the gun, you need to press in the middle trigger first, which is part of the normal trigger pull, and then continue pulling until the trigger breaks. This (theoretically) prevents negligent discharges while you're holstering the gun.
- Magazine disconnect: Many modern handguns have a magazine disconnect, which means they can't shoot if the magazine has been ejected. Parents often prefer this design, since they can keep a round chambered in their defensive gun, which can be left on the nightstand overnight without the magazine. If the trigger is pulled without a mag, nothing happens. When something goes bump, the parent can slap a loaded magazine into the gun and be ready to go.
- Trigger locks (and other garbage): Some guns have built-in locks that you turn with a key. This prevents the trigger from pulling until the internal mechanism is unlocked. Researchers have scoured historical archives in search of a single human being who has ever used this feature, but so far they've come up empty. Long-time gun owners would actually appreciate it if Smith & Wesson would stop vandalizing their revolvers with these pointless locks, but no luck.
- Owning a Hi-Point: Hi-Point pistols are the '78 Caprice Classics of the gun world. Literally the only reason to buy a $125 YEET Cannon is that you can't afford a $280 SD9VE. To defend your home, take a picture of the Hi-Point and display it in the window. Potential burglars will understand that you don't own nice things and will probably avoid breaking in, thus saving you the trouble of having to fire the gun at all, so you can keep it unloaded and in the safe where it can't hurt anybody.
Apart from the thumb safety on the Heritage Arms Rough Rider and the awful frame locks on modern S&Ws, revolvers generally don't bother with mechanical safeties. Seriously, just keep your finger off the trigger and don't point the gun at anything you don't intend to shoot. You should be fine.
Ammo Capacity and Reload Speed
Ammunition carry capacity is one place where revolvers and semi-automatics really are different. The classic revolver holds six rounds, with maybe a one- or two-shot variance depending on the size of the gun. Automatics, on the other hand, run from the 7-shot Bersa Thunder to the 31-round Glock 17. If you're concerned about bumping into a problem you can't solve with six rounds, but that you might solve with 20, then the semi-auto is the better bet.
Unless you live in California. Nine states (plus the District of Columbia) place maximum limits on magazine capacity. That means that any advantage you might have gotten from the 16-round SD9VE are mostly nullified. State law thus leaves you with a choice between a 10-round auto loader and a 6-round magnum revolver, which could easily change your self-defense math.