Revisiting the Role of Revolvers

Revisiting the Role of Revolvers

It’s an interesting time in the firearms industry, particularly around the subject of CCW and pocket pistols. This year’s SHOT show saw a host of weapons intended for those roles, and brought to light—at least for me—an interesting debate in the CCW community: what role do revolvers play in concealed carry and self defense with a handgun?

As one might expect, opinions abound—everyone seems to have a dearly held point of view on the issue. Based on my strictly nonscientific poll, I get the impression that revolver lovers tend to skew older, while younger shooters tend to default toward semiautomatics. That observation aside, let’s address the question by exploring the relative merits of revolvers and pistols.

Revolver fans make the argument that wheel guns reward good shooting, offer greater reliability, often have better triggers, and that the more rounded profile of the firearms reduces printing. These are all good points, and I can get behind them. I get a little iffier around some of the other oft-repeated arguments: revolvers are often available in larger calibers, and while that firepower is nice it often makes for a bulky weapon and awkward concealment. Likewise, longer barrels make for a slow and awkward draw, which presents problems for a self defense weapon.

The counter argument of course is that this point of view is outdated, and that modern handguns, ammunition and magazines mitigate any disadvantages that pistols may have once had. This is borne out by the law enforcement market: I’m struggling to think of a department that even allows revolvers as a primary weapon, let alone issues them. However, many cops advocate for a compact revolver as a pocket weapon or backup, and this, I think, is where revolvers continue to shine. Their compact and rounded design, reliability, and potential firepower fit the role perfectly and the chief advantage of a semiauto—ease of reloading—isn’t likely to become a factor.

However, semiauto advocates have another counterargument: the rise of pocket 9mm handguns has shown that they are reliable, safe for carry, and easy to conceal. Certainly they offer some advantages, as they may share a caliber with your primary handgun. Throw in a similar if not identical manual of arms and I can understand why a lot of folks like them as backups. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference, but I think we can safely say that there are good points on both sides and that at the very least the revolver isn’t obsolete just yet.

There are two points that came up in my informal polling that I do want to address. There are still some folks who seem to think that revolvers can be carried without a holster. This is plain wrong, for all sorts of reasons starting with safety and ranging into securing the weapon and ensuring that you can get a proper grip quickly. As always, investing in a good holster is a must. Secondly, I’ve read some reports of serious malfunctions occurring in 9mm revolvers: “bullet jump” causes the projectile to protrude forward past the face of the cylinder, thus preventing the cylinder from rotating. Whether or not this is a widespread issue is beyond the scope of this article, but if you have more information please share it in the comments section.

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  • uspshooter

    My backup is an airweight S&W 360 and I carry in either a pocket holster or an ankle holster depending on my outfit and what I’m doing. It’s my go-to home carry gun in my pocket while at home. Just enough to get to my primary defense weapons. I’m not a “revolver guy” but they definitely have their place!

    One other point, as a firearms instructor, I discuss the trade-off between concealability and ease of use. For instance I allow students to try various handguns I own, including the 360 with 38spl and .357 cartridges. It is always an eye opener for any of my students and gets them to think about what handgun would be best for them!

  • burns

    A 327 magnum is as powerful as a 357, and gets 6 rounds into a 17 oz gun, it will out shoot any of the 2 popular calibers and with practice reload another 6 in 3 seconds. It’s small light ,and has more power than any of the 3 most popular rounds, so there, lol

  • richardstevenhack

    Some people argue that six rounds is more than enough because the “average” gun fight uses less than six.

    “Average” is not the criteria in a survival situation. “Maximum” is the criteria.

    So, fine, you’re carrying a six-shot revolver. You now turn the corner and are faced with 50-100 rioters intent on beating your brains out because you’re [insert issue here]. Or maybe just five criminals (two shots to center mass each, oops, you’re out after number 3…)

    There are plenty of cases where police had to engage two or more criminals who were armed, who took cover and fired back, and the fight escalates into one or more magazine changes. There is no reason to believe that a civilian might not also encounter such an event, however rare.

    “Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it” remains the criteria. As such, I am utterly uninterested in revolvers.

    • rustyknight17

      richardstevenhack, if you’re facing 50-100 rioters that’s not a fight you can win with any handgun; you’d need a automatic weapon , grenades and plenty of spare mags. That’s not what handguns are designed for but they can help you get away…
      As for criminals who dig in and engage in a extended firefight with you , I’ve been in a somewhat similar​ situation but suçh situations are very rare indeed!
      Multiple assailants, been there too ; in one case I was outnumbered 9 to 1 . That’s one reason I always have a backup! If you’re using a revolver in such a case and you run out of ammo , that’s when you execute a New York reload, e.g. pull out your backup and resume shooting, then a tactical reload using speedloaders. Again though such situations tend to be rare.

      • richardstevenhack

        If you kill enough rioters, you might make the others back off. 15 – or 30 – rounds may or may not be better than six in that case, but the odds are definitely more in your favor with more. Whether or not you have enough will depend on the situation, but more is always better to the degree that you can carry and reload it. Everything is a trade-off.

        Arguing for a backup is the same as saying you need more ammo.

        The point stands: revolvers have their uses but in almost every scenario one can cite, an automatic with more rounds would be better to improve the odds even if the rounds end up not being used.

        When it comes to planning to survive, you assume worst case – and all cases in between – and plan accordingly. As someone said elsewhere, if you plan for the average, all you need is a two-shot derringer because most use in self-defense (as opposed to police gunfights) averages two shots, according to one study.

        Planning for one magazine of 15, even with a reload, could still get you killed. But that’s true of any plan. The point is bettering the odds to the degree possible under the existing constraints.

        My biggest problem is that many .45s don’t hold hold much more than a revolver. But at least a reload takes half the time and is easier to carry.

        • When was the last time you read about a person using any gun to defend against an onslaught by rioters or a mob in this country? People worry too much about having enough firepower and don’t worry enough about being effective with whatever they have, meaning hitting the target with hits that could incapacity with the fewest expenditures of ammunition. To put it another way, more capacity usually means worse shooting and more civilian/bystander casualties. Just ask the NYPD.

          • richardstevenhack

            As usual, everyone climbs on the riot issue, rather than deal with the multiple attacker issue I raised. The fact remains that if you have more than two attackers, six rounds is not enough. Six rounds may not be enough for ONE attacker depending on the circumstances of the incident.

            To say more capacity means worse shooting is completely backwards and is irrelevant to the issue. If you’re a “spray ‘n pray” type, it probably doesn’t matter how many rounds you have.

            But under the stress of an incident, do you assume you’ll hit the target with every shot? You have two assailants – which IS a common home invasion scenario. People don’t stand still to be shot once you’ve fired at them. Incidents occur in all sorts of lighting. Your hand is trembling and you MISS with two rounds, that barely leaves you with enough to double tap the assailants. You don’t want some “spares”?

            People who THINK they’re master gunfighters only carry six rounds. Yes, it’s quite possible that misconception will get them killed. But until they do, they assume everything is fine.

            This isn’t planning to survive. It’s ego.

          • Maybe I don’t like pistols with the ergonomics of a 2×2. Maybe I like venerable and reliable guns. Whatever the case, it’s my preference. It’s not about arguing who’s right. I just think the tactitards are paranoid and off the hook, sometimes batshit crazy. Considering most cops never unholster their gun, I’d say it’s a risk I’m willing to take. It you want to carry a pistol that has 17+ round magazines, have at it. Carry 10 magazines as backup. It’s your choice.

        • rustyknight17

          Backup isn’t necessarily arguing for more ammo. You may not be able to access your primary gun for whatever reason. In such a case having a backup is a life saver.BTDT
          I’ve used revolvers extensively and samiautos as well.Must disagree that semis are better . I’ve been in several confrontations and was always outnumbered. I used revolvers in 3 of those and I’m still here.
          But I always carry at least 2 reloads per gun . Even for revolvers (Ruger GP-100 and Taurus 85 )that’s 22 extra shots, 33 total. That’s enough for any likely scenario.
          As for speedof reloading revolvers, if you use speedloaders and practice using them extensively, reloads are quite fast! BTDT.

          • richardstevenhack

            In this context, backups are arguing for more ammo. A backup has two primary purposes: 1) to handle a malfunction of the primary weapon, and 2) to provide for when the primary weapon is out of ammo. I do recommend carrying a backup even if the backup has less ammo capacity than the primary weapon. I also recommend carrying a reload (or two!) for the backup if feasible.

            Carrying two (or more) reloads is a good idea if feasible. MOST revolver reloads are going to be six, not ten, giving you a total of 18 rounds. Whereas ONE magazine reload can give you 10-17 depending on the firearm (except for most .45’s as I mentioned although there are exceptions.) More convenient to carry one reload than two (although I’d still recommend two if feasible.)

            As an aside, the trend to single-stack, lower-capacity nines is probably not a good thing.

            Reloads from speedloaders are somewhere in the neighborhood of three seconds for a well-trained person. Reloads from magazines can be done in one-and-a-half seconds – half the time – for a trained person. Seconds count in a conflict if one is not behind adequate cover.

            Again, the use of the term “likely scenario” is planning to fail. Anecdotal evidence and average conflicts doesn’t change that.

            Granted, we’d all like to be carrying an AR or AK – or a 30mm minigun – with a bandoleer of ten to sixteen magazines on an armor plate carrier in a confrontation, but constraints prevent this. That said, the more ammo, the better remains an absolute fact even if you’ve never used more than two rounds in your life.

            It is of course a personal choice. But that choice has to be informed by the fact that you can’t predict the nature and outcome of a confrontation, regardless of the statistics. So it behooves one to be as ready as possible under the constraints.

            That means the highest-capacity firearm possible under the constraints of ability to use and carry. If for some reason you’re restricted to carrying a six-shot revolver, then by all means do so. But it’s not an argument for choosing one over a higher-capacity semi-auto.

          • Most things in life are a compromise. Wouldn’t I like a Dodge Hellcat or Demon, sure, or even on a more reasonable note, a Suburban. Whatever. Lots of factors dictate that choice that go beyond money. Same with just about everything else. Most of the time I don’t even carry as one, where I work all weapons are illegal and several months out of the year it’s uncomfortable. If a LCP or LCP II works best when it’s 115 out, that’s the compromise I make because concealing a 17 round double stack is a pain in the ass, as is a 1911. It all depends. The other thing that I think is missing by the paranoid crowd too is that the best weapon is between the ears. Maybe carrying a bunch of high capacity magazines for that high capacity pistol makes up for lack of mental capacity. Who knows. Whatever gets you through the night.

          • richardstevenhack

            I’d say carrying more rounds than usually needed is a sign of superior mental capacity. And smart ones don’t get in fights at all. People who carry at all are the ones who are considered paranoid by everyone who doesn’t carry.

            But shit happens. And that’s why you carry more rounds than LIKELY to be needed. AND a backup. AND a knife. AND a multitool. AND a flashlight.

          • I’d say it’s confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.

          • rustyknight17

            Wrong . There’s a third purpose for a backup, in case you can’t access your primary gun for whatever reason.
            Second, as I stated , I speak from experience, having survived 3 confrontations armed with revolvers , a Ruger GP-100 and a Taurus 85,with 2 reloads per gun. That adds up to 33rounds , the same as carrying a Glock 19 with a spare mag. If you can’t either resolve the situation or get out of there with 33 rounds you need a better plan bub .
            Sure if you want to survive, you plan for unlikely scenarios; that’s why I always carry a backup and 2 reloads per gun. But the primary criterion isn’t the amount of ammo but the OSS ( One Shot Stop). Critical is shot placement. If you can’t get those rounds on target, carrying a lot of ammo isn’t going to help.
            Ammo design and caliber are part of the equation too. Fact is .38 Special and .357 Magnum have long records as effective manstoppers, Certain rounds more so.
            As for speed of reloads , if I’ve fired 11 rounds of either be. 357 Magnum or .38 Special +P and it hasn’t stopped the threat , I’m either gonna be under cover or out of there! Either way speed of reloads isn’t a issue!

          • richardstevenhack

            I agree with the third purpose of a backup, but it’s a lot rarer than the first two purposes. Accessing a backup is usually harder than accessing the primary, by definition, so if you’re in that situation, you’ve obviously messed up somewhere.

            Your anecdotal experience is not relevant, because we’re talking possibility here. Same goes for the statistics of actual gun fights.

            I agree that if you can’t resolve the situation with two reloads, you’re in a bad situation. Nonetheless, getting under cover or running away isn’t always an option, either. Once again, we’re talking possibilities here.

            Never said the primary criteria was amount of ammo. I agree that speed AND accuracy are the primary criteria, with accuracy more important than speed.

            And One-Shot-Stop can’t be predicted. One guy got shot 33 times with 9mm and ran 100 feet before collapsing. If you assume you have three assailants and assume you’re going to drop all three with two shots each, you could end up mistaken. So a reload will be necessary with your six-shot revolver – and that could get you killed by the survivor.

            My point stands: More rounds equals better survivability. That’s why US soldiers carry 6-16 magazines of 30 rounds each, regardless of the weight. And that’s what we’d all carry if we thought we could. Obviously we can’t. But the fact that you carry two reloads proves my point. You’ve already acknowledged the need for more than six (or ten) rounds.

            And again, most revolvers carry six, NOT ten. So citing higher-capacity revolvers misses the point. Also, carrying two ten-round revolver reloads is bulkier than carrying two magazines (a minor point, of course, since it can be done.).

            And yes, speed of reload counts – when it counts. Which is a good reason for a backup, although usually accessing a second weapon is as slow as reloading – if you’re trained at reloading (1.5 seconds for both.)

            Oh, and for those who think carrying an auto with two reloads is “paranoid” – keep in mind WHY you carry at all. Probably 90% or higher of concealed carry users will NEVER be in a gunfight or experience ANY criminal activity where they need to use a firearm. (Most cops never get in gunfights. A few never even draw their guns through their careers.) They’re ALREADY planning for something that will never happen to THEM. And everyone ELSE thinks THEY’RE paranoid for carrying at all. So why is someone with an auto and two reloads any more paranoid than any other concealed carrier?

            Sorry, but everyone who thinks revolvers are better – or even equal –
            than semi-autos in a combat situation is wrong. If that’s all you have
            available, then so be it. But you don’t PLAN that way.

            People who believe otherwise are planning to fail – or just lazy – or prefer
            revolvers to autos out of prejudice. Not valid in either case.

          • rustyknight17

            Wrong again . First the stats don’t lie; the vast majority of confrontations are resolved with maximum of 5 rounds. Revolvers in such cases are just as effective as semis. Next the examples you cite ,except two, involve LEOs and soldiers. If I were either,yes I ‘d carry as much ammo as possible. As for rioters ,seriously, 50-100 people making lots of noise and you didn’t hear them ? As for criminals who engage in extended gun fights BTDT . But such incidents are rare indeed! Which brings us to my next point. My personal experiences are indeed relevant because they’re very unusual cases and I ‘ve been in several plus I was always outnumbered. Either is quite unusual; both together… Yes I plan for unlikely scenarios but I also practice conflict avoidance; works very well! You seem to be the dig in and fight sort . For us civilians that’s usually not wise to say the least.

  • rustyknight17

    Mr. Jenkins I would​and have felt well armed with revolvers . But then I always carry a backup and 2 reloads per gun .

  • Revolvers were effective before and after the dawn of semi-automatic pistols. While I don’t own a revolver now, I wouldn’t necessarily feel bad or be worried if I had to carry one.

  • You guys should read about the exploits of Jim Cirillo, Bill Jordan, Elmer Keith and Skeeter Skelton. They worked before the high capacity Mattel® craze and lived to talk about it. It’s what you do with what you have that matters. Always has been. More misses won’t help.

  • Fred Miller

    I own both wheel guns and semis. I’m comfortable and proficient with both. I REALLY want a S&W 686 Plus, stainless, 3 https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3e06e171f331d992fe9c12dd4ace201cbba2d13a4eaf3448e34476dd305e08bd.jpg ” .357. Buuutt…at around $900+ per copy, the ‘boss’ is, let’s say….resistant. Sometimes the old rule “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission” no longer applies, I guess.

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