Revolvers: What Are They and How Do They Work

Preceding semi-automatic guns, revolvers hold (usually) five or six rounds in a rotating cylinder. The frames are typically steel or aluminum. These firearms can sometimes be called wheelguns. Revolvers tend to be double-action/single-actionA double-action/single-action (DA/SA) firearm combines the features of both double- and single-action mechanisms. When the firearm discharges, the cycling slide will automatically cock the hammer to the rear. The rest of the shots fired will be in single-action mode, unless the hammer is manually lowered again. or double-action-only.

When pulling a double-action (DA) revolver trigger, you are operating a system that does two things. It cocks and releases the hammer as it cycles. The trigger-pull weight is around 10 pounds and is generally smooth. That long trigger pull functions as the primary safety mechanism. The hammer on most DA revolvers can be thumb-cocked to fire in single-action (SA) mode, resulting in a 5-pound pull weight. One should work to master the DA pull first, however.

Semi-Automatics: What Are They and How Do They Work

Semi-automatic handguns work as the name implies: semi-automatically. When the trigger of a semi-auto firearm is pulled, the spent cartridgeA cartridge is a single unit of ammunition. Modern ammunition is a self-contained capsule incorporating a projectile (the bullet), propellant (the powder), a primer and a case. is removed and a fresh one is loaded, along with firing a single round. Some may refer to semi-autos as self-loading. Much like a DA revolver, DA/SA semi-automatic pistols like the Beretta 92 have a heavier trigger pull in DA mode.

Is a Semi-Automatic Gun or a Revolver Better?

I admit that I am a major revolver fan. For the first 11 years of my 40-year law enforcement career, my duty handguns were revolvers. Even after the law enforcement agencies I worked for transitioned to semi-automatic pistols, I frequently carried revolvers like the Colt Agent, Detective Special or Cobra as off-duty guns. I still have seven revolvers in my gun safe. And I still carry most of them from time to time. I think a good double-action revolver should be every new shooter’s starting point.

However, I’ve also found that I have been carrying semi-automatic pistols much more frequently in the past year due to the potential civil unrest. Because of this, I feel now I am a little less biased toward revolvers than I once was and can maybe give a more balanced opinion.

Revolver Pros

DA revolvers are about as safe and foolproof a firearm as one could want. An old Colt firearms ad proclaims their revolver provides “Six for Sure.” In terms of safety, a revolver’s loaded/unloaded status is easily observed at the rear of the cylinder when it is closed. And a gentle shake will give you an audible loading indicator. The DA trigger makes it difficult to make the revolver go “boom” accidentally but is very sure to make it go “boom” when you want it to.

It may surprise some, but the revolver’s limited capacity is also an advantage for the new shooter. It can help develop practical accuracy and fire control discipline. One tends to learn to make each shot count when there are fewer. Every CCW permitholder and home-defender should learn and maintain fire discipline, whether carrying a six-gun or semi-automatic.

Revolvers also are inherently more accurate than most semi-automatic pistols because the barrels are affixed to the frame. Most semi-autos have barrels that are in motion during the firing cycle but “locked” into place at the point of firing. No matter how tight the lockup, there is still a small amount of play in the firing cycle.

Pros of the Semi-Automatic Pistol

If it sounds like I am bashing semi-auto pistols, I’m not. I’m simply explaining they need more attention and dedication to operational detail than does a quality revolver. There are two advantages of semi-automatic pistols over revolvers that are significant and usually draw people to them. The first is high magazine capacityDefinitions vary, but several states identify magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, 15 rounds or 20 rounds of ammunition as “high capacity,” while other states do not regulate magazine sizes.. The second is ease and speed of reloading. It is much easier to teach someone how to quickly reload a semi-automatic pistol since the technique for reloading a revolver is more involved.

Cons to Using a Revolver for Self-Defense

In the interest of fairness, the revolver has one big disadvantage over the semi-auto. It does not do well if dropped in heavy mud. That’s why the U.S. last issued revolvers as a combat handgun in WWII. Yes, there are plenty of photos from the Vietnam war of troops carrying revolvers they personally obtained as backup weapons. (And even some very cool photos of revolvers being used by the legendary “Tunnel Rats.”) But there is no arguing that it is much easier to keep a semiautomatic pistol clean and functional under muddy combat conditions.

Semi-Auto Cons

The biggest disadvantage to owning a semi-auto pistol vs revolver is the potential to jam. Though they are quicker to reload, one has to be careful to do so correctly to avoid issues when seconds matter. Semi-automatics also tend to be more complicated to shoot, and their slides hard to rack.

Winner: Semi-Automatic vs. Revolver

In my opinion, the semi-automatic pistol is the overall winner of which handgun is best — with one caveat — you must be willing to accept the more complex operating issues. If you want to keep things as simple as possible, go with the revolver. For now, at least, you will most often find me packing a semi-automatic pistol as my primary defensive armament — chambered for 9mm, .38 Super or .45 ACP in high-risk areas.

Related Reads

Choosing the Best Revolver for Self-Defense
Which 9mm Is Best?
What to Expect the First Time You Shoot a Handgun