In my youth I was one cutting-edge dude. IPSC was hot and I had a sweet custom Detonics Scoremaster .45. The 1911A1 and it’s variants were king among serious combat pistoleros. I went from that to a custom CZ75 clone with a slide-profile compensator, stippled grips and frame and all the bells and whistles. Cutting-edge stuff, and I was the first police officer in the state to carry a comp-gun on duty. I was also one of the first people to run a Glock 17. Yet even then I respected and recognized the utility of the revolver; my back-up was a custom Chief’s Special, DAO with a bobbed hammer and a trigger-job by Tim Bacus. The main reason was that in a pinch I could hand it to any other cop and they’d be able to operate it.
Over the years I’ve owned and fired a lot of guns. Seriously, a lot. The 1911A1 in it’s various incarnations has remained a favorite- I’ve probably put over forty-thousand rounds through different versions. I’ve had Browning High Powers, CZ52s (in both 7.62 and 9mm,) PPKs, PPs, Makarovs, Glocks, CZ75 clones etc. but I always came back to the 1911s.
I’ve never been a ‘revolver guy’ or a ‘semi-auto guy;’ I’ve always been a ‘gun guy.’ Along the way I have owned and carried numerous other guns in different circumstances, many of them revolvers ranging from .32 to .44 Magnum. I absolutely love the Single-Action Army (in .45 Colt, thank you very much.) I still remember my Ruger Speed Six .357 fondly, and though I’m embarrassed to admit it I’d love to have my Astra Jovino Terminator .44 Magnum snubby back.
I stopped carrying daily many years ago (for reasons we need not go into,) but now I am going to renew my Carry Concealed Pistol permit (for reasons we also need not go into.) I own a number of fine modern handguns and a quite nice 1911A1, yet I find myself leaning towards revolvers as carry pieces. What am I, some kind of dinosaur? Well, yes, but that’s not entirely why I find myself considering the revolver. There are many reasons, and some of them actually make sense.
In all honesty I am good enough with handguns that pretty much anything that fires an adequate bullet will do for me. That being said the first reason for a revolver is simple; I like them. That’s a compelling reason, but it’s not the only reason.
Then there is the manual of arms. All modern revolvers (and most antiques) share a common manual of arms. A very simple one at that. Open gun, dump empties (if any,) fill the holes with cartridges, close and you are ready to go. All speed loaders and strip-loaders operate identically. Regardless of the size and details of the gun you go through exactly the same motions. Even with weird guns like the Chiappa Rhino it’s the same set of motions. Yes, the manual of arms for a 1911a1 is so deeply burned into my brain it’s practically a reflex at this point. Modern automatics are all at least broadly similar and I can easily train to accommodate their individual quirks. But with revolvers I pretty much don’t have to- there really aren’t any real differences. Taurus revolvers work like S&W revolvers work like Ruger revolvers work like Colt revolvers etc. OK, the Colt’s and Rugers have very slightly different cylinder releases. No prob- I wasn’t planning on a Colt or Ruger in the stable any time soon.
Another issue is reliability, and this applies on a number of levels. Yes, I know the drill for clearing an auto like it’s second nature- but isn’t it better not to need that drill? With a revolver you pull the trigger and it goes BANG. If it doesn’t you have the fastest possible method of proceeding; simply pull the trigger again. Revolvers do malfunction- but the odds of having a malfunction serious enough to disable the gun are statistically insignificant. Modern semi-autos are very good and very reliable but they still do occasionally malfunction.
An area of reliability that most people don’t think of is operation. Revolvers are dead-simple. In the ham-fisted moment of waking, or when fine motor control dissolves under the lash of an adrenaline dump you can’t accidentally drop the magazine, or fumble a safety, or grip the gun badly and cause a limp-wrist malfunction or get your hand caught by the slide. Training will relieve these issues it’s true; but with the revolver they aren’t issues. If you get the gun in your hand and a finger on the trigger it will go boom. They can also be reliably fired from inside a coat or jacket pocket. Yeah, you aren’t going to get target accuracy, but most civilian self-defense scenarios happen at contact distance. Speaking of contact distance you can fire a revolver even with it jammed into your assailant’s body.
Revolvers are also available in potent calibers in compact packages. This is more true of autos than it was even a decade ago; really compact 9mms, .40 S&W and .45 are readily available and not expensive these days, but still. Wait a minute Tinker- are you saying that .38 Special is a ‘potent’ caliber? Yes, I am. For a long time .38 Special has been the ‘weak sister’ of service calibers. But in recent years bullet design has come a long way, and standardized tests with modern .38 Special, even in standard velocity loadings, show performance very comparable to other service calibers. Funnily one of the best performers from snub-nosed .38 Specials is a load that has been around for decades- the 158gr. lead SWCHP. With soft-lead standard velocity loads it’s performance is impressive from a 2″ barrel. In +P form hard-cast lead works even better- though at the cost of slower follow-up shots in a light-weight gun. Of course revolver calibers aren’t limited to .38 Special- they can commonly be had in .357 Magnum, or rather less commonly in calibers ranging from .22 Magnum to 9mm to .45 ACP.
Another beauty of the revolver is that when it comes to ammunition they are thoroughly agnostic. FMC, hollow-points, soft-points, high-powered, low-powered, they just don’t care. If it fits it will go bang. Hollow points for self defense, soft-points for wildlife or game, cheap fmc or cast lead for target practice– it’s all good.
OK, but what about capacity? Even most of the smallest compact service-caliber guns carry six rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber. Some carry as many as ten to twelve rounds. OK, ya got me there. Semi-autos carry usually carry more shots. They reload faster too. Maybe not a lot faster, but faster. What about that, Tinker?
I don’t care.
No really, I don’t care. When I was a cop the trade-off of a potential for slightly less reliability was offset by the need for a lot of shots. I was part of a rural police department and could not count on my back-up arriving in a timely manner. We also had survivalists, white supremacists, pot farmers and all manner of unsavory sorts within our jurisdiction; a protracted fire-fight was actually a possibility. By choice I carried a 16-shot 9mm comp-gun with two spare magazines of hollow-points and an extra magazine (carried separately) full of some potent armor-piercing ammunition. For a while I also carried the compact version of the comp-gun (which held another twelve hollow-points and could use the same magazines as the comp-gun) as a back-up before I switched to the Chief’s Special. If I were police officer today I’d probably carry a Glock. But I am not a cop or a soldier anymore.
I’m a civilian. For civilians the overwhelming majority of uses of a gun for self-defense do not result in a shooting. When shooting does happen an average of three shots are fired. These encounters generally occur at ranges of three to five feet. I’ve reviewed rather a lot of accounts of civilian self-defense shootings and I honestly cannot recall a single one where the shooter needed to reload. I’m sure it has happened but the odds seem to be overwhelmingly against it. So five to eight primary shots without reloading seems adequate for any situation I’m likely to encounter. If it isn’t I’ll take cover and reload. Let’s face reality though- I will most likely live out my days without ever having to fire another shot in defense of an innocent life, mine or another’s. This begs the question, ‘Then why carry at all?’ That, my friends, is a whole ‘nuther question for a whole other post.
So do I recommend everyone and their sister Sally dump their semi-auto in favor of a revolver? Of course not, nor am I saying that it is foolish or risky to bet your life on a semi-auto. I’m simply pointing out that it’s not insane to choose to carry a revolver. They have been, and remain, a valid and effective tool for self-defense. It’s up to the individual to determine what works for them, and to train with it so that they are an asset rather than a danger to themselves and others.
Hey, speaking of the twenty-first century where’s my damn jet-pack?! There were supposed to be jet-packs!