The case for revolvers.

by Steve Davis, Esq.
Guns Save Life President
Not too many years ago, relatively speaking, did the revolver rule the defensive handgun universe.  Today though, almost everyone carries the semi-auto.  But don’t discount the revolver’s strong advantages for self-defense.

Obviously, many reasons factor into this sea change over the last forty years.  Marketing and Hollywood plays a role in buying patterns.  After all, who didn’t see Mel Gibson in the first Lethal Weapon?  After watching that movie, only a crazy person would still want a revolver, right?  

More pratically speaking, semi-autos tend to sell themselves with their increased capacity and ease of reloads.  Some full size pistols pack as many as 17+1 rounds, or the equivalent of the total number of rounds most police carried on their person for decades.  And that’s without a reload.  

Additionally, with so many widely diverse models and calibers, almost anyone can find a semi-auto that fits their needs and most of their wants at the same time.  

Again, most folks, including most novices, see semi-autos in entertainment and the glossy ads, along with ease of reloads and think, “this is for me!”

Well, not so fast, Kemosabe!  As a seasoned instructor and a long-time shooter, I know the revolver has its place.  The wheel gun, particularly the .38 Special, continues to provide a viable platform for personal defense, and here’s why…

The 100-plus-year-old .38 Special cartridge has proved incredibly versatile and effective.  What’s more, for many decades it filled the role of the preferred carry gun for law enforcement across America.  Uniformed officers routinely carried a 4” or 6” Smith & Wesson or Colt revolvers.  Those carrying off-duty – or plainclothes detectives – typically would pack a 2-inch snub-nose like the Colt Detective Special or the Smith & Wesson J-Frame.

So, what prompted police agencies to arm their officers with .38 Special revolvers for so long?  Two reasons: cost and training.  

Years ago, compared to semi-autos, revolvers came with more affordable pricetags for departments.  Some departments, notably Chicago, held onto their revolvers even into the 1990s to avoid both the financial cost and the political “cost” of switching to those dreaded semi-autos.

More significantly, training officers to proficiency on a .38 came relatively easily.  Loading and unloading came easily with the swing-out cylinder. Firing a double action revolver is as easy as aim and squeeze. The whole system of operating a revolver is simple and intuitive for cadets with little shooting experience.  And those cadets who already knew how to shoot could really drill their shots in, even at 50 yards or more.
For many of these same reasons, today’s civilians with little or no handgun shooting experience should consider a revolver.  Ditto for those who do not practice regularly.  

One can find good police trade-ins for under $400.  Also, some new revolvers by manufacturers like Taurus can also provide affordable options for those on a tight budget.

The revolver will allow the inexperienced civilian user to quickly become proficient without worries about slide-stops, safeties, magazine releases, racking the slide, thumb injuries from the slide, stovepipes, or failure to feed, double feeds or a host of other malfunctions.  If a revolver fails to fire, just stroke the trigger again.

This simplicity and ease of operation makes the wheelgun a great choice for most in a stress situation.  In fact, it’s the ultimate point-and-click interface.  

I cannot begin to tell you how many students I have seen have trouble getting their semi-auto into operation when under stress. I would ask each reader to realistically ask themselves if they train enough with a semi-auto for its operation to be second nature under stress. If not, then buy a revolver or train a lot more.
Furthermore, in my opinion, concealed carry of a revolver has other distinct advantages.  A 15 ounce Smith & Wesson J-frame or Ruger LCR carries comfortably, discreetly, and in a pocket for men and women.  It makes the handgun accessible no matter how many coats and sweaters you wear.

For women, purse carry of a hammerless revolver comes naturally since the revolver will function perfectly while still in the purse. For those who have reservations about the range and capacity of a “snubby”’ I would respond with the Tom Givens’ rule of threes: the average defensive shooting happens in three shots at three yards in three seconds. The “snubby” can cover that.
Finally, a word about .38 Special stopping power:  Most .38 Special +P defensive loads are very comparable to the popular 9mm. Yes, over the years there were many anecdotal stories of the .38 Special 158 grain round nose load not performing adequately.  However, the FBI’s chosen load, the 158 grain semi-wadcutter hollowpoint performed well for general use against bad guys.

Like all defensive handguns, I would advise getting the best defensive load that you can find.  As with the much criticized .556 Rifle cartridge, there are a lot of bad guys who are no longer waste perfectly good oxygen because of the .38 Special.

For these reasons, plenty of savvy shooters and novices alike live well-protected today by the “old fashioned” revolver in their daily lives.

4 thoughts on “GSL President’s Column: The Case for Revolvers”
  1. I know your website is Illinois-centric (I used to see your Burma Shave signs on I-80 when I lived in the Land of Lincoln), but another plus for revolvers is, if you live or travel in a magazine-restricted state.

    I am supposedly covered by LEOSA, but I travel a lot in the Northeast, where my daughter lives. There is no real rule of law in the Northeast. New York restricts magazines to 10 rounds, but you can only have 7 in the magazine. Or maybe not. It depends on where you happen to be, and which PD or SO you're dealing with. Massachusetts bans pistols "capable of accepting" magazines of over 10 rounds. What does that mean? Well, in practice it means whatever the current AG thought it meant when she woke up this morning, because the meaning isn't codified anywhere.

    So a revolver is the way to go in the benighted states, in my opinion. Yeah, you're screwed if you get caught in the middle of a flash-mob riot, but at least for now the chances of that happening are lower than the chances of getting entangled in magazine-restriction hell.

  2. Every semi auto has a chance of malfunctioning at the worst time.  Feed issues, magazine not all the way in, jamming in clothing, not firing if pressed up against a body, etc.  Revolvers do not suffer those issues.  Revolvers like the .357 Magnum can use more powerful loads than semi auto pistols can–yes there is a Desert Eagle .357, but that is not very practical to carry.  You can even use .38 Special and .38 Special +P rounds in a .357 Magnum revolver.  I usually pocket carry a Taurus 617 with a 2" barrel which has 7 shots, and a speed loader with 7 more.  If I am not carring that, I have a Diamondback DB9 which is a semi auto but can only use 115 or 124 gr. ammo as 147 gives it feed issues and it cannot use 9mm +P rounds.

  3. Well I guess you just  reassured me I did the right thing    I recently got a 38 police positive in  s&w. 38.   That was different for  me  but Darnells had some. So I went home and started  getting used to this new beast   ..  at first I started shooting bulls eyes so I thought iam  to close so I backed up.  More bulls eyes  farther back still hitting.  This colt is awesomely  accurate. And fun to shoot   And yes  it’s my new carry gun   Thanks Steve!

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