Wow! Where to start? How about with a very basic question: Revolver vs. Semi-auto. Both are very well suited to self defense. American military and law enforcement both carried revolvers for decades and were well-served by their choice. Today, it seems that everyone wants a semi-auto.
Since revolvers are the older technology, let’s start there. Most early revolvers from the 1800’s are ‘single action’ guns. That means that the trigger performs a single action when it is pulled. Of course this necessitates the shooter cock the hammer for each shot. With enough practice (a lot) one can thumb the hammer back to cock the gun and then pull the trigger very quickly. Most folks never reach that level of expertise. So when ‘double action’ revolvers were introduced and refined enough to be very reliable, they cornered the handgun market. On a ‘double-action’ revolver pulling the trigger performs 2 functions (or a double action). Pulling the trigger both cocks the hammer and drops it onto the cartridge, thus firing the gun.
Nostalgia has brought a resurgence of single action guns, along with shooting competitions that limit pistols to single action guns. As far a a daily carry self -defense pistol, single actions are pretty much unknown. One of the main factors involved is the adrenaline dump and loss of small motor skills that accompany a self-defense situation. This is why a ‘combat’ pistol has the least amount small motor skill functions you need to accomplish to fire the weapon.
A revolver holds its rounds in a cylinder that rotates when the hammer is cocked, bringing a round into alignment with the barrel for firing. This is a great design with little that can malfunction, so reliability is a big pro point for revolvers. The down side is that the cylinder is bulky and adds width to the gun though only in a small area. A revolver usually holds 6 rounds, giving rise to the nickname of a ‘six-shooter, a term often heard in western movies. This does vary and I carried a 5 shot revolver as a backup gun at one time. Some manufacturers have expanded the cylinder capacity to 7 or more. The truth is that in a self defense gunfight the normal expenditure of rounds is 2 – 3, so a limit of 6 in the cylinder is usually OK. A running gunfight or attempting to get away from multiple assailants could require more rounds. Over the years I have owned several revolvers (and still do) and they are great guns.
So my list of revolver pros are these:
Very reliable – Minimal parts to break or wear out
Fairly easily concealed – Except for the cylinder bulge
Easy to operate – A point and click interface
My cons are:
Limited ammunition on board
Slow to reload – There are some ways to help such as speedloaders. Practice, practice, practice.
May have a heavy trigger pull – I have a Smith & Wesson revolver made in the early 60’s when S&W turned out guns that were hand-fitted and really smooth actions. In other words, when you pull the trigger it is not like weight lifting. If you are going to shoot double-action either revolver or semi-auto I suggest you get a strength training device for your hands and work out a few minutes every day.
I’m sure I forgot lots of things, but you can always ask questions. There are lots of good instructors out there, but beware of the macho cowboy types that have shot for years, though neither safely nor properly.
I am a former deputy sheriff, U.S. Army Infantry, and lifelong shooter. I am an NRA instructor in multiple disciplines and a Certified Range Safety Officer. Former Class C Small-bore Rifle Coach and former DCM competitor. I love to teach firearms classes and see people get excited about guns; watching the fear and trepidation disappear and the enjoyment of shooting take its place.
So let’s talk about semi-automatic pistols. This is what I have carried on and off duty for 23+ years. Got my first one at age 15 and I love them. Semi-autos are nothing new, having been around well over 100 years. I still shoot my Colt Government Model 1911 that was made in 1917. It is perfectly safe and reliable.
Like revolvers, semi-autos come in both single and double action. A pull of the single action trigger simply fires the gun. A pull of the double action trigger cocks the gun and then fires it. Single action lends itself to more accurate shooting as the weight required to pull the trigger is less and so there is less tendency to pull the pistol off target while pulling the trigger. The down side here is that the trigger pull may be set so light that the gun is unsafe when it is cocked. This goes for a revolver also.
When the trigger is pulled on either a single or double action semi-auto, the round is fired and the gun then ejects the empty cartridge and loads another by stripping it off the top of a spring loaded magazine held inside the pistol’s grip.
Pet peeve time. The part that holds the rounds is a Detachable Box Magazine. NOT a clip! It’s a box that holds cartridges and it can be detached from the firearm. Detachable Box Magazine. A clip is a metal piece that holds several rounds together ready for firing, but almost never used in a pistol. Half moon clips for revolvers are an exception. Never say clip unless you are referring to a haircut.
A side note: Some real sticklers will not refer to a revolver as a pistol, reserving that term for semi-autos only. Whatever.
So the semi auto with one pull of the trigger will fire a round, eject the empty cartridge, and load a new round into the chamber of the gun, ready to fire. As you can understand, there are a lot of moving parts required to perform these functions, and even more if the gun is a double action.
As you can imagine, you can shoot pretty fast with a semi-auto, though a well-tuned (adjusted) revolver is just as fast. The big speed advantage is reloading. My county-issued duty weapon is a Glock 17. No external safeties, just the one in your head. It is a 17 shot pistol, and we carry the gun fully loaded with 1 in the chamber, so 18 rounds ready to go. Then we add at least 2 spare magazine (the detachable box kind) so we have a capability of putting 52 rounds downrange pretty quickly. That sounds like a lot, but I remember when I first started combat pistol training, we used a video projected on a screen and special guns tethered to the computer that ran the whole scenario. In one scenario (back in the academy) I entered a bank and was immediately engaged by a shooter on the screen. I dumped my 18 rounds at him and missed with every one. The adrenaline will mess you up every time. I have learned from those scenarios and can now handle the adrenaline dump and stress. One scenario had a guy exiting a car and shooting at me with an 8 inch barrel stainless steel revolver. I put him down, but he popped back up with a full-auto AK-47 so I had to engage him again. I won, but I just about filled my shorts and this was just a video training exercise. Lots of other lessons learned in those videos. Great video game to have, but the cheap ones started at $60,000 20 years ago.
A big lesson to learn is this from Wyatt Earp. ‘Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.’ You can’t miss fast enough to win. Only hits count.
My pros for semi-autos
Lots of ammo – Don’t waste it or think that it makes you a better shot
The new generations of guns are reliable. – If you shoot while the gun is in your pocket, it will probably jam after the first shot.
Easy to conceal – The flatter design without the revolver’s cylinder is nice
Usually more difficult to operate than revolvers – The Glock revolution has negated this somewhat as there are no external switches and buttons except the magazine release. It’s basically a point and click interface.
The finer points of understanding the revolver and semi-auto should be taught hands-on, and since there is no shooting involved it can be accomplished in a living room, dining room, basement, etc.
A good instructor will have both the guns and inert dummy rounds for teaching.
Once you have decided to own a gun, the first step is familiarization with the type(s) of guns you are considering, and immediately begin safety training. Then continue safety training for the rest of your life.
If you have any questions about the terms I used in this piece, please ask a knowledgeable instructor or check the internet. YouTube can be good.