S&W 686 SSR

In the history of the development of firearms technology, there’s a good chunk of the timeline between the debut of Sam Colt’s famous invention and the early 20th century where revolvers were clearly the tool best suited for personal protection. But then semi-automatic pistols came onto the scene and challenged the place of the revolver as the dominant firearm for self-defense. Of course at first, there really was no contest. The early semi-autos weren’t exactly user-friendly, and reliability was a major concern. At least in the U.S., the revolver would remain the favorite for a long time to come.

But gradually, the technology and engineering behind autoloaders improved and now 100 years later, there are fewer obvious advantages to being armed with a revolver over a modern semi-auto. So the same question keeps coming up: “Are semi-autos better than revolvers?” Or phrased another way, “Are revolvers still relevant?” or “Are revolvers obsolete?”

The topic is worth discussing, but I think these are the wrong questions. They’re wrong because they’re vague and overly broad and lead to answers that don’t help anybody. These kinds of questions ask us to focus on the tools and the technology and tell us nothing about the people that will be using them.

For example, a fan of semi-autos might take the question and consider merely the mechanical and technological merits of the options at hand. Taken that way, of course semi-autos are superior.  They recoil less. The triggers are easier to manipulate. The sights are usually much bigger and better. Today’s semi-autos are more reliable than ever and no more prone to malfunction and failure than the average wheel gun. And most importantly, semi-autos have two to three times the ammo capacity of a revolver of equal size and weight. More bullets is more better. Game over, autoloaders win.

Ruger LCR 357
Ruger LCR 357 with some very dirty Speer Gold Dot .38 Special +P ammo.

Revolver aficionados tend to side-step these kinds of arguments and come back with counter-examples that are much more contextualized or personal. They’ll tell you all about Jerry Miculek’s sub 1-second reloads or how many gun fights Jim Cirillo won with six shooters. They’ll point to stories about poorly trained police officers bullet-hosing innocent bystanders during a shootout on a crowded city street as evidence that revolvers are better since they require the shooter to practice more discretion with his shots. And you’ll hear all about how they personally shoot revolvers better or that they don’t “feel under gunned” when they carry a j-frame snub.

In the end nobody changes their mind and nobody learns anything. Fortunately, there are better ways to attack this question of “semi-autos versus revolvers”.

First, we’ll have to get over the assumption that this kind of discussion is the Handgun Super Bowl. There doesn’t have to be a winner and a loser. We can compare these two technologies without implying that the gun with the less optimal “pros and cons” list is completely useless and that everybody who carries one is ignorant.

Similarly, we also have to remember that a new technology doesn’t always completely displace what came before it, even if the new tool is better in many ways. Firearms were a big upgrade over swords and bows but they didn’t completely eliminate the usefulness of hand to hand weapons. To this day, blades are still frequently used as a last ditch self-defense tool when the firearm fails or is not accessible.

Without a doubt, modern semi-auto pistols provide many mechanical advantages over revolvers. High ammo capacity in particular really does provide an edge that at least has the potential to increase your odds of coming out of a fight alive. That fact doesn’t at all contradict the idea that revolvers can still be viable for self-defense today, and may even excel in some areas that semi-autos do not.

S&W Model 28-2 .357 magnum
Smith and Wesson’s 28-2 Highway Patrolman, chambered in .357 Magnum.

Finally, we’ll have an easier time framing the discussion if we keep in mind the human factor — that the right tool for the job depends on the person using the tool. I don’t mean that “it’s the Indian and not the arrow”. In reality, both matter. What I mean is that asking “are semi-autos objectively better self defense tools than revolvers?” can’t be answered in a general sense without a lot of “most of the time” and “probably” and “the average person” kind of assumptions. It’s a vastly different and much more difficult question than “Is a revolver/semi-auto the right tool for person x in situation y.”

So instead of assuming that revolvers have to either enjoy equal status with semi-autos or be completely banished to museums, I’d like to hear a debate that explores the middle ground. If there are some less obvious benefits offered by revolvers, what are they, and in what circumstances do they come into play? What kind of person is better off being armed with a revolver than a semi-auto? Are there ways to overcome some of the major shortcomings of revolvers? What new technologies could be applied to revolvers to make them better?

Of course, I don’t expect the internet to provide the platform for balanced and reasonable debate on these nuanced issues — I’ll have to head out into the “real world” for that. So over the next few months, I’m diving head first into the realm of round guns. I’ll be carrying them, shooting them, and finding out everything there is to know about revolvers and their role as modern self-defense tools. Every once and a while, I’ll pop back in to let you know what I’ve found, so stay tuned…

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