For the past few months we’ve been using Wheel Gun Wednesdays to explore issues related to self-defense revolvers and their viability in the modern world. A theme throughout the series has been whether revolvers offer any advantages to make up for their low ammo capacity. Up to this point, we’ve more or less assumed that being armed with only five or six shots in a revolver is a bad thing when you could have double that or more in a comparably sized semi-auto. But is the lower ammo capacity really a problem? After all, six shots is usually enough to get the job done.
Most of the time.
At least that’s the impression you get from looking at the majority of defensive gun use stories.
There are solid reasons for some people to consider a wheel gun over a bottom feeder for self-defense. But there are also some lousy reasons I’ve often heard that sound less like arguments in favor of revolvers and more like condemnation for anyone who is fool enough to think they need a semi-auto. It’s not uncommon to run across revolver apologists who insist that semi-autos are overkill or only for “spray and pray” shooting. After all, if you know how to use the gun, you shouldn’t need more than a couple of shots, right? The experience of others shows us that’s not always the case.
But if you prefer revolvers for whatever reason, it can be tempting to buy into illogical arguments like these because they validate choices we’ve already made. Unfortunately, believing myths that don’t match up to reality has consequences. It can prevent us from confronting the uncomfortable downsides of carrying a gun with lower capacity, which in turn makes us less likely to train and plan to overcome them.
So here are three of the more popular myths about the low capacity of revolvers along with some real life examples that challenge their veracity, and practical advice for how to prepare for these realities.
Myth 1 – “Six is enough if you know how to shoot”
Like most of these myths, this one has a kernel of truth to it. Almost everyone in the shooting world agrees that shot placement is a key aspect of self-defense. This myth takes that to an extreme, declaring that shot placement is all that is needed. It’s a sentiment that’s expressed in different forms, but I’m talking about any variation of the idea that if one is a competent and accurate shooter, five or six rounds should be more than enough to end any violent attack.
There are actually two myths here. The first is that a “good” shooter will always be able to make a solid vital zone hit with every shot fired in a gun fight. I don’t think that’s even remotely true, but I’ll concede that point for now. Let’s focus on the second part of the myth here — that six well placed shots will be enough to stop any attack on an armed citizen.
That might be almost true, but you’d have to ignore the possibility of multiple attackers. It is not at all uncommon for armed robberies or home invasions to involve two or more suspects working together. If you’re lucky, you’ll only have to shoot one of them before the others run. But then there’s what we call a “determined attacker” — the ones who refuse to back down.
Maybe you’re familiar with the famous example of Lance Thomas, a watchmaker in California who survived four shootouts in his shop between 1989 and 1991. In the second of these fights, Lance was attacked by three armed men. They started the fight by shooting Lance four times with a .25 ACP pistol. Lance returned fire with a Ruger Security-Six .357 magnum. He hit the first suspect with five out of six shots, dropping him. But the other two guys stuck around and kept shooting. Lance emptied two more revolvers before the fight was over, with a second suspect dead and the third retreating outside to a waiting getaway car.
In total, Lance connected with 11 of the 17 shots he fired in that fight. By most gunfight standards, that could be considered phenomenal accuracy. And yet, if he only had those first six shots, he would likely not have survived the encounter. Accuracy is often the deciding factor in these incidents, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that more than a handful of rounds will be necessary in addition to accurate shooting.
It’s no substitute for having more ammo at your disposal, but shot placement is important, and it becomes progressively more important the fewer rounds you have in your gun. Being armed with a six shooter in the face of multiple attackers, you can’t afford to empty the whole cylinder into the “vital zone” of the first guy until he stops. Lance Thomas had the foresight to place multiple revolvers within arms reach of his workbench. If, like most people, you only carry a single handgun, you’ll need to train to get maximum effectiveness out of each and every round. Practice the Failure Drill and master the double action trigger so you can reliably hit small targets with speed and precision.
Myth 2 – “Use a bigger bullet and you won’t need that many of them”
“It’ll only take one shot if you use magnum ammo”. Or a 45. Or 44. Fill in the blank with the caliber of your choice. Knowing that bad guys have an annoying habit of stubbornly shrugging off bullets from time to time, some people are convinced that the solution is not more bullets, but bigger ones.
We’ll set aside for a moment the fact that magnum loads and big bore calibers are more difficult to shoot quickly and accurately under stress. Let’s once again assume for the sake of argument that the hypothetical armed citizen always hits his intended target in a timely manner. Surely a handful of slugs from the mighty [insert your favorite caliber] will stop any miscreant, no matter how determined. Right?
In a shootout with an armed bank robber, Sergeant Timothy Gramins fired 33 rounds of .45 ACP over the course of 56 seconds. Even with no drugs or alcohol in his system, the suspect was able to keep firing at the officer after sustaining six hits to vital organs in addition to 8 non-vital hits. It wasn’t until Gramins fired a series of shots that struck the suspect’s head that he was taken out of the fight.
This type of situation is not typical of armed encounters involving private citizens, but for our purposes the moral of the story isn’t about the tactics used or overall number of shots fired, but the amount of damage the suspect was able to absorb. Half a dozen rounds from what is normally considered a “big caliber” hit some pretty important stuff inside this bad guy, but he was able to keep throwing bullets back at the cop.
If you read about enough shootings, you’ll run across numerous odd examples of people taking rounds to the chest and face from all kinds of big bore handguns (as well as rifles, buckshot, and shotgun slugs) that don’t result in immediate incapacitation. It’s not that caliber is inconsequential, but bullets do weird and unpredictable things. And handgun bullets in particular can’t be counted on to do what you want them to do the first time, regardless of what number is etched on the headstamp.
As with the previous example, shot placement is key, and to complement that goal you should choose your self-defense ammo wisely. Rather than counting on big bore calibers and magnum loads, choose a load that allows you to control the gun effectively so you can get multiple hits in the same spot. For revolvers, my self-defense load of choice is .38 +P Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel, which has moderate recoil and a respectable track record for reliable penetration and expansion, but there are plenty of other viable options. Give yourself the best possible chance of getting quick and accurate hits, even if that means using a smaller caliber or “less powerful” ammunition.
Myth 3 – “You can always just reload”
Just carry a speed loader or speed strip, and if things really go South and the wheel gun goes “click” instead of “bang”, load up another six.
That’s easier said than done. A few weeks ago, I covered some techniques for reloading a revolver. If you watched the video, you may have noticed that all of the different reloading methods have multiple potential failure points. Reloading a revolver requires a great deal of manual dexterity and well maintained equipment. Even then, the most skilled of revolver shooters will spend around 2.5 seconds getting an empty revolver back into action. That’s a long time when bullets are flying your way.
It may not be impossible to reload a revolver during a gunfight, but you’ll have a tough time finding any examples of it happening in the real world. Tom Givens, one of the most experienced and respected firearms instructors in the country, has been quoted as saying, “In 40 years I’ve been doing this, I have never found a case where someone successfully reloaded a revolver in a close range gunfight.” Since 90-95% of armed civilian gun fights happen inside the “close range” of 7 yards, I’d say your chances of pulling off that revolver reload are slim to none.
On the other hand, we have plenty of examples of botched revolver reload attempts under fire. To be fair, most of them occurred during police-involved shootings from the last century like the Newhall Massacre and the 1986 FBI Miami Shootout where the officers were not equipped with speed loaders. With good technique and modern loading devices, performing the revolver reload under stress today seems more feasible than fumbling with a handful of lose cartridges from a dump pouch. But the fact remains that it’s a relatively slow process that’s easy to screw up.
I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t attempt a reload if you find yourself in the unfortunate position of holding an empty revolver while being shot at. But maybe that shouldn’t be plan A. If you prefer revolvers but believe there is some likelihood of needing more ammo than what your cylinder can hold, you might want to consider carrying a second revolver as a backup gun.
I don’t think he ever reloaded until after a firefight was over… When they ran one gun dry, they’d drop it and grab another.
That may sound like an extreme solution to some, but it’s a proven strategy. In addition to the above example of Lance Thomas, if you carried a backup revolver you’d also be in good company with the late Jim Cirillo of the NYPD who probably survived more gunfights than any other cop in the latter half of 20th century. In Tales of the Stakeout Squad, Massad Ayoob relates that Cirillo did carry spare ammo in belt loops and speed loaders. However, Ayoob also says, “I don’t think he ever reloaded until after a firefight was over. He and his favorite partner, Bill Allard, both told me that when they ran one gun dry, they’d drop it and grab another. It was from that that I coined the term ‘New York reload.'” At times, Cirillo would carry three six-shot revolvers and a Walther PPK while on duty (though it’s worth noting that he completely switched over to semi-autos of various calibers in his later years).
Of course, hunting thieves and killers in the slums of New York City in the 1970s comes with some job hazards that probably don’t apply to the average armed citizen. Nevertheless, we can see a track record of success for the multi-gun approach whereas the historical support for success with a revolver reload is slim.
I hope it’s clear that my goal isn’t to discourage anyone from carrying a revolver if that’s the choice they’ve made, or that you’re for sure dead if you don’t carry some arbitrary number of rounds on you at all times. What I am saying is that carrying a gun with a lower ammo capacity does come with some risks, and you should understand those risks and make a calculated decision accordingly. And if you still find yourself scratching your head over the capacity issue, here’s a great article on how to decide if you’re carrying “enough gun”. Whatever your carry gun of choice, train hard and keep your perspective grounded in reality, not rhetoric.