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Choosing the Best Revolver for Self-Defense

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There are several types of revolvers on the market today. Choosing between single-action and double-action is the easier part of purchasing. Single-action revolvers are used primarily for recreation, hunting and Cowboy Action Shooting. Double-action revolvers are often recommended for self-defense. Which type of double-action revolver is best depends on preference.

How Do Revolvers Work?

The cylinder’s rotation is powered by finger pressure on the trigger. As the trigger finger presses the trigger, the pawl moves the cylinder, indexing it for the shot to be fired. The bolt stop locks the cylinder in the firing position. The spring-loaded hammer moves to the rear, is released and breaks against the sear to run forward and strike the firing pin, firing the cartridge. Some revolvers have hammer-mounted firing pins, and some have frame-mounted firing pins. Some use a transfer bar ignition. While all modern double-action revolvers use a swing-out cylinder for loading and unloading, there are important differences in hammer configuration that affect a revolver’s utility for personal defense. The specifics pertain to the action but also to the hammer.

Double-Action vs. Double-Action-Only

The double-action revolver is available in two basic types: double-action and double-action-only (DAO). The trigger of each type cocks and drops the hammer to fire. Most revolvers have an exposed hammer and may also be fired in the single-action mode. This allows for a more accurate and deliberate shot at longer range.

Hammers on various revolvers

Left to right: concealed-hammer DAO, spurless-hammer DAO and Bodyguard-type with single-action option.

A smooth double-action trigger will run anywhere from 9 to 15 pounds. A crisp single-action trigger will run 3 to 6 pounds of compression before the hammer drops. While the single-action trigger has a crisp let off, it should not be used for personal defense. The double-action trigger is much faster into action.

When using a powerful revolver, the shooter will find that a double-action trigger also helps combat flinch. While a quality double-action revolver may be accurate well past 25 yards in the single-action mode, it isn’t wise to cock the hammer in a personal-defense situation, as you are much more likely to press the trigger when you do not intend to. Keep your finger off the trigger until you have made the decision to fire. Just the same, the double-action trigger is superior for control during a personal-defense situation. You won’t want to have to lower a hammer during an adrenaline rush.

Pros and Cons of Different Types of Revolvers

Perfected Double Action and Safety Hammerless .39 revolvers

That is the Perfected Double Action (top) and the first Safety Hammerless .38. These basic types — conventional and concealed hammer — have been around for at least 138 years.

A revolver with a 4-inch barrel, exposed hammer and double-action trigger was the standard in police service for many years. Among the advantages is modest recoil. And the revolver doesn’t challenge the occasional shooter. For safety concerns, many agencies converted their revolvers to double-action-only. There was no single-action notch in the hammer to allow thumb cocking. Revolvers were also available from the factory in DAO format. Many retained the hammer spur to allow the holster safety strap to be used in the conventional manner.

Most of us use medium- to small-frame revolvers for concealed carry. Examples include the Smith & Wesson J-frame, Colt Cobra, Charter Arms Undercover and Ruger SP101. Most small revolvers are conventional configuration, with an exposed hammer and single-action capability. I believe these are the least useful of small revolvers for personal defense. The exposed hammer is prone to snag on clothing during the draw. These handguns, often carried under a T-shirt or in a pocket, leave the hammer protruding. While keeping the thumb over the hammer during the draw helps, this isn’t a perfect solution because of breaking up the firing grip. Conventional revolvers are most useful for belt carry.

Conventional and concealed-hammer revolvers

A conventional revolver (top) makes a fine belt gun, while the concealed-hammer revolver (below) is a better choice for pocket carry.

Spurless Hammer

The next type of revolver is the bobbed-hammer or spurless-hammer revolver. These are available from Taurus and Ruger at last look. The hammer spur is completely absent, and the hammer is smooth, making for an excellent and smooth draw. These handguns are double-action-only. It is not a good idea, however, to convert revolvers to a spurless-hammer configuration.

Factory revolvers come with a DAO trigger. It isn’t wise to remove the single-action notch yourself (and less wise to remove the hammer spur and not the single-action notch). Factory revolvers are fitted with a mainspring with the proper spring weight for a hammer spur. If you remove some weight, chances are the hammer may be too light for proper ignition. The factory spurless-hammer revolvers are pretty much snagproof and offer a good choice for personal defense. The Ruger SP101 .357 Magnum, as an example, is a great all-around concealed carry revolver with good features.

Spurless hammer

The factory spurless hammer is a flush fit. You cannot modify a conventional hammer to this configuration and maintain reliable ignition.

Humpback Revolvers 

S&W’s Safety Hammerless was among the early development of double-action revolvers. The hammer is completely hidden in the frame. The frame rises high from the grip frame and encloses a spurless, geometrically designed hammer. The result is a revolver that cannot be cocked and is snag-free if carried in the pocket. Some of these revolvers were designed with a grip safety that prevents the action from operating unless the grip safety is pressed flat against the grip.

A modern concealed-hammer revolver is the S&W 442. The 442 revolver offers a considerable advantage in this regard. The grip design makes for greater recoil control than with other J-frame revolvers. The result is less felt recoil and a grip frame that makes for greater purchase than the conventional J-frame grip. A final advantage is more than theoretical. The concealed-hammer revolver may be fired from inside a pocket. At close range in a worst-case scenario, this is a great advantage. A hammer would become caught in pocket material, and a self-loader would jam after the first shot. For most of us, the concealed-hammer humpback-type revolver is the best choice for concealed carry.

Three different revolvers

Left to right: semi-concealed-hammer revolver, concealed-hammer revolver and bobbed-hammer revolver.

A subtype is the S&W Bodyguard or those similar. These revolvers feature an opening in the frame that allows thumb cocking the hammer for single-action fire. I don’t like these as much, as lowering the hammer could be precarious. They are a fit compromise between a concealed carry handgun and an outdoors revolver.

Consider which of the three types of revolvers are best-suited to your scenario. For home defense, a conventional revolver may be ideal. A spurless-hammer, medium-frame revolver is a good concealed carry handgun. For maximum concealment and good control for the size, the hidden-hammer revolver is best.

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