If we want to get nitty-gritty with terminology, a revolver has chambers that are not integrated with the barrel itself. A pistol’s chamber is actually part of the barrel. The significance of that is that a revolver has multiple chambers where cartridges hang out until they are rotated into alignment with the barrel prior to shooting. A pistol feeds cartridges from a magazine one by one into the single chamber that’s part of the barrel. Clear as mud?
Here’s why that’s significant in terms of expectations for your first revolver experience. The loading and unloading processes differ greatly from that of a semi-automatic pistol. The trigger operation is different too. We’ll talk about that in more detail in a moment.
Loading and Unloading
One nice feature of revolvers is that most are easy to load and unload. Double-action revolvers allow the entire cylinder to swing open so you can clearly see and access the chambers. If that cylinder is open, the gun can’t fire, and you can verify that the revolver is unloaded.
Loading a revolver is simple. If you see an empty hole, drop a cartridge in. When finished, swing the cylinder shut and you’re ready to go. Unloading is also simple, but it requires one extra step. Once you swing open the cylinder, you must remove the spent cases. Most double-action revolvers have an ejector rod under the barrel. Push that and the extractor pushes out all the empty cartridge cases at once. If you point the muzzle up (and downrange) while doing this, the cases will normally just fall out onto the ground.
There are single-action revolvers (think cowboy guns) that operate a little differently. Most of those have cylinders that don’t swing open. You have to load and unload each cartridge through a single loading port as you rotate the cylinder. Since we’re talking about all of this in a concealed carry context, we’ll stay out of the details for single-action revolvers. For now, just know there are differences in how they operate.
How It Works
Since a revolver has to rotate its cylinder in advance of each shot, something has to drive that motion. With a double-action revolver like the Smith & Wesson snubby shown here, that’s the trigger. Pressing the trigger does three things. It rotates the cylinder as you draw the trigger back. At the same time, this trigger motion cocks the hammer. When the trigger reaches the end of its travel, it releases the internal hammer to fire the cartridge. Since the trigger motion has to do all of these things, you’ll notice it’s a longer and heavier sensation than you’ll experience with most semi-automatic pistols. On average, it might require 10 to 12 pounds of force to operate the trigger on a double-action revolver.
What About the Hammer?
Some double-action revolvers have a hammer you can cock manually with your thumb. This action performs two of the three steps previously described — rotating the cylinder and, obviously, cocking the hammer. That means the only work the trigger has to do is release the hammer. On a revolver like this, when you cock the hammer in advance, the trigger press will be much shorter and lighter, perhaps in the 2- to 4-pound range.
While this may sound like a good idea, and can be for certain types of precision shooting, it’s not the ideal way to operate a revolver in the context of concealed carry. Too light of a trigger is undesirable for concealed carry. Physiological responses like adrenaline dump can cause you to fire inadvertently. When using a revolver for self-defense purposes, always shoot it in double-action — without cocking the hammer manually. It’s generally a good practice to shoot a revolver like this all the time for practice.
A revolver does not have more pure recoil than any other type of gun that shoots the same cartridge. However, you might feel that recoil energy differently. Since there are parts that move during the firing sequence of a revolver, the recoil energy is transmitted directly to the frame and then to your hand and body. With a semi-automatic pistol, some of that recoil energy is redirected into moving parts that cycle the action during each shot. As a result, a revolver of the same weight as a pistol and shooting the exact same ammunition may feel like it has more recoil.
There’s something special about shooting revolvers. To me, they’re classic firearms and can be exceedingly elegant in their design and construction. They’ve been working just fine for more than 150 years, so I figure they’re good enough for me. Revolvers are also simple to learn and operate. They don’t have all the controls inherent to semi-automatic pistol designs.