Many members of the firearm community say the revolver is past its prime. I’ll agree with them there.
Many others add to that, saying no one should carry the revolver. If you do, you’ll be so spectacularly undergunned that you’re guaranteed to leave your wife a widow and your children orphaned.
That, friends, is just plain silly.
The Reality of Using a Revolver for Personal Defense
You’re equally armed whether you carry a Glock 19 or a S&W 649. There just isn’t enough of a difference in performance from the civilian perspective.
I’m sure at least a handful of basic gun nuts are dying to scroll down and leave angsty moaning comments about that remark. I don’t care.
What I do care about is separating marketing and reality.
If there’s a broke young man out there having to decide between carrying Grandpappy’s old .38 (which costs him $0) and saving up to afford a brand new piece of tactical tupperware, I’m not going to lie to him.
I wouldn’t tell him to wait until he can afford a $1350 brand new M1911, just because I like the 1911. I won’t tell him he needs Glock Perfection, even though I love my Glocks.
Here’s the dirty truth:
The most important things in any situation involving a civilian and a gun are actually having a gun and having skill with that gun. Everything else is a side note.
I’ve carried, shot, and lived with examples of every action type and every common caliber. I spent a lot of money doing it. Now I can pass what I’ve learned on to others, to save them that expense.
My Experience With The Revolver
I’ve carried all types of revolvers. I’ve carried single action, double action, and black powder revolvers of all the common calibers. For the purposes of this article, however, we’re only looking at the double action revolver.
It’s true that the revolver I’ve carried most is a single action cartridge gun. The Ruger Blackhawk in .44 Special pictured has seen many miles. I never recommend single action revolvers because they’re not easy to get good with.
Double action revolvers, on the other hand, are.
I fired a double action revolver for the first time when I was a young boy. It was a S&W Combat Masterpiece, now known as the Model 15. It had belonged to my Grandfather, and my Dad got it out to teach me how to shoot a handgun.
That’s when I started to appreciate the elegance and simplicity of a good revolver. I carried that appreciation into adulthood. Sadly, that gun was stolen out of my Dad’s truck back when folks still thought it was safe to keep a gun in your truck.
I got my own revolver in 2012, a S&W Airweight Model 442. It was the third gun I bought, and I carried it every single day for years. The wear on the gun’s finish speaks for itself.
I might have learned how to shoot from my Dad, but I learned how to shoot well on my own. I taught myself on that S&W 442. Today, I’m as confident with that little aluminum framed .38 as I am with a pair of full size 1911s.
I’ve been carrying revolvers every day of the past 5 years, and I’ve learned a few things. Today, I’m going to share them with you.
Perceived Problems With The Revolver
There are a few “problems” that people often have with the revolver. Funny thing about that is that most of these people have never carried one. That makes their opinion absolutely worthless, but we’ll address it nonetheless.
Here are some of the most common perceived problems with revolvers:
- Low Ammunition Capacity
- Cylinder Width Reduces Concealability
- Inefficient Ammunition
I’ll address these issues now and we’ll be done with them.
Low Ammunition Capacity
Revolvers ARE lower capacity than most all semi-automatics. That’s a fact, Jack. But how important of a fact is it?
The mission of a civilian’s concealed carry handgun is to get him out of trouble he didn’t expect. The mission is not to go into a gunfight. If you knew you were going into a gun fight, you wouldn’t use a handgun at all.
You’d grab a rifle and call all your friends who have rifles.
Simply put, Average Joe Concealed Carry Civilian is not a bad ass. The chances of an untrained individual surviving a prolonged shoot-out alone are very, very slim.
The amount of ammunition your gun holds isn’t going to matter anywhere near as much as your skill level.
Cylinder Width Reduces Concealability
The idea that the cylinder bulge on your gun will make it print more is just that – an idea. It has little basis in reality. Here’s my revolver carry method as an example.
When you carry a well designed holster for your revolver, the cylinder is at the belt line. If you carry inside the waistband (which is how most people carry any type of gun) that means the cylinder is behind your belt.
This perceived disadvantage is actually a real advantage. Having the cylinder behind your belt moves the grip frame of your revolver ever so slightly away from your body. There’s just enough space to slip your fingers between the gun and your body.
That speeds up your draw stroke. With most semi-automatics, the gun is held very close to the body. That prevents your thumb from getting into proper position until you’ve already cleared the holster.
Having a full hand on the gun before it even leaves the holster has another benefit – extra retention if someone tries to disarm you as you draw.
The idea that revolver cartridges, even ones that were originally designed for black powder, are somehow less efficient than pistol cartridges is insanity. There’s no other word for it.
With pistol cartridges, there is a very specific window that allows reliable function. The slide has to blow back just hard enough, stay open just long enough, and close just quickly enough and with the right amount of force.
If anything is even a little too slow or too fast, you’ll experience a malfunction. Improperly loaded ammunition accounts for most semi-automatic handgun malfunctions nowadays.
Then there’s the length of the cartridge to consider. If a pistol cartridge is too long or too short, it won’t function reliably in the gun. That limits the weight of bullets that can be used in a particular gun.
Absolutely none of that matters with revolvers.
While it’s true that the cartridge still has to fit the cylinder, there’s a bigger variety of bullet weights available. For example, common 9mm loads run from 115 grains to 147 grains. .38 Special is about the same size as 9mm, but can be found with bullets going up to 200 grains!
As for pressure, as long as there is enough pressure for the bullet to exit the barrel, the revolver will function. That gives you a much wider spectrum of performance out of the same gun.
When you consider that premium bullet design didn’t exclusively improve pistol cartridges, you realize there’s no basis for this argument.
Now let’s look at some ACTUAL problems with revolvers.
Actual Problems with The Revolver
The following are problems I’ve actually experienced. They aren’t theoretical problems from some keyboard commando.
These problems include:
- Gas Bleed-Off
- Bullet Jump
- Cleaning Damage
We’ll likewise address these in order.
Look at the barrel of a revolver. Trace the line back to the frame. The back part of the barrel that protrudes into the frame is called the forcing cone.
There’s a gap between the end of the cylinder and the forcing cone. That’s called the forcing cone gap.
The forcing cone gap is very, very small. We’re talking thousandths of an inch. But it’s still a gap, and it’s still a problem with the revolver.
Think about how a cartridge gun works.
You pull the trigger of a loaded cartridge gun. The hammer or striker contacts the primer of the loaded cartridge. This creates a spark that ignites the gun powder and causes it to burn.
As the gun powder burns, the chemical reaction produces hot gasses. The hot gasses expand until they force the soft brass at the mouth of the cartridge to open up. This hot gas then pushes the bullet out of the cartridge and down the barrel.
That hot gas is what makes your gun work.
Instead of 100% of the gas being used to drive your bullet down the barrel, some of it is lost. How much is lost and how much that matters is another discussion for another day.
I’ll tell you one thing, though. You don’t want your hand anywhere near that forcing cone gap. The bleed-off will scorch your hand.
Certain techniques like firing from a retention position and the thumbs-forward grip simply don’t work with a revolver. You’d burn yourself.
While they aren’t inadequate, revolver rounds are still inefficient due to bleed-off and bullet jump.
Bullet jump is another problem caused by the forcing cone gap. In some cases, it’s compounded by cylinder length.
Either way, your bullet will have to “jump” to the rifling in the barrel.
You fire your revolver. The gasses send the bullet out of the cartridge case. It must then jump from the case mouth, through the cylinder mouth, through the forcing cone gap, and into the forcing cone. Then it must engage the rifling at the appropriate angle.
All of this happens before the bullet can start to spin. That spinning is the purpose of rifling in a barrel – it spins the bullet like a football. This causes it to build additional velocity and to stabilize.
The forcing cone gap (and possibly your cylinder’s length) makes it so your bullet absolutely can not start to stabilize until it has jumped that gap. If there is anything mechanically wrong with your gun, this jump will exacerbate the problem.
If your cylinder’s timing is off, or if your cartridge’s bullet was seated and crimped improperly, that means the bullet won’t be at the proper angle. It’ll shave lead off, and the gas bleed-off will conveniently spray it to the sides of the cylinder.
If you have a gun with a long cylinder and a shorter round (like firing a .45 Colt in a .410 shotshell revolver) then that bullet has several inches to jump before it even reaches the forcing cone gap! Then it will bleed off gasses that could’ve been propelling it. After all that, it will start to spin and possibly stabilize.
How much of a problem is it? Again, a topic for another day. But it’s still a problem with the design of all revolvers.
This is not a problem in using a revolver. It’s a problem in maintenance, and definitely one to watch for when buying a used revolver.
The most effective way to clean the bore of a gun is from the chamber to the muzzle.
Unless a pistol is a blowback design like the Walther PPK, the barrel comes completely out of the gun. You can clean it however you want.
With a revolver, though, the barrel doesn’t come off. The barrel is threaded into the frame, which means you have to clean it from the muzzle to the chamber.
Why is this a problem?
Because the most important part of your barrel’s rifling is the muzzle end, not the chamber end. So if you had to pick a part to damage, you’d rather it be on the chamber end.
If some hillbilly was cleaning this revolver without using a jag for his patches, chances are good he’s scrubbed the rifling on the muzzle end of the barrel. I’ve seen barrels so bad they were miniature smooth bores.
Always use a jag, use a plastic cleaning rod, and watch for this if you’re buying a used revolver.
Now that we’ve covered some perceived and real disadvantages of the revolver, let’s look at a few perceived advantages that aren’t quite right.
Perceived Advantages of the Revolver
I’ve heard folks say that a revolver can’t malfunction. Well, maybe not in the sense a semi-automatic can, but they can still malfunction.
One way they can malfunction is if a cartridge gets stuck under the ejector star.
This can only happen when your ejector rod is longer than your cartridge case. It’s also what we call an “operator induced malfunction”.
That’s a fancy way of saying you screwed up. Practice loading and reloading so you don’t screw up when your life is on the line.
Another way revolvers can malfunction is accumulation of dust, lint, and rust.
Revolvers don’t need the level of maintenance that most semi-automatic pistols do, but they are still machines. Machines need oil and don’t like debris.
Yes, that means you DO have to clean your revolver. This applies to other guns that aren’t maintenance intensive, like the Glock. A rusty, dirty Glock or Revolver WILL still fire…for a few shots at least.
The Revolver, like all guns, is a complex machine. It can malfunction, parts can fail, and it does need to be cleaned and lubricated.
Being a negligent owner and operator of a firearm doesn’t translate to that firearm having some kind of design advantage. That’s just not how it works. Don’t be lazy – learn to use your gun and keep it clean.
Additional Advantages of the Revolver
There are situations that make any action type shine. The Double Action Revolver shines in a civilian concealed carry context and in a home defense context.
We’ve already covered several advantages of the revolver for concealed carry. There’s nothing unexpected about them.
If you have to hand the gun off to an untrained but responsible individual, there are more advantages. Maybe you’re critically wounded, or you’re arming another person with your backup gun.
Even if they’re not a “gun person”, the odds of them flinching are low. People who aren’t “gun people” will almost always flinch when firing a pistol – maybe due to the reciprocating slide. With the revolver, it’s point and click.
Another advantage comes if your now-armed friend is old or infirm. They might not have the hand strength to rack the slide of a pistol, but can easily reload a revolver. They also don’t have to worry about “limp wristing” the gun and causing malfunctions.
Finally, there’s the advantage of ergonomics for shooters with small hands. Unless you’ve put oversized stocks on your revolver, I can guarantee it’s got a slim gripping surface. Many shooters can’t wrap their hand around a 1911, much less a Glock or other double stack pistol.
Situations Where I Wouldn’t Carry a Revolver
With everything I’ve said, you probably think I recommend a revolver above anything else. Sorry Jack, you’ve got me pegged wrong.
My universal recommendations are either a small framed .38 revolver OR a mid-sized pistol like a Glock 19. The difference comes down to personal situation.
If a shooter has longer fingers, a small framed revolver isn’t going to fit them very well. If they have short fingers, they won’t be able to grip a Glock properly.
Then there’s the issue of likeliest threat. Most people don’t even need a gun – the threat is mental masturbation. Some people genuinely do live in what is practically a war zone.
If I lived in an area that was that bad, I wouldn’t be worried about a gun, though. I’d be looking into moving somewhere decent.
The revolver makes a perfectly good personal defense weapon. Then again, so does everything else.
It ultimately comes down to personal preference. You’ll shoot and carry what you want to shoot and carry. You’ll get good with what you have, and that’s all that matters.
Just don’t forget that packing iron is a distant third priority. It comes last for a reason. What you carry will never matter more than being free and your ability to stay that way.