If you’ve been around the shooting sports and self defense community for any length of time, you’ve probably heard at least one person say that you should get a revolver for self defense because “revolvers don’t jam.”
While it’s true in the technical sense that revolvers are not plagued by the same common issues as semi-automatic pistols, like any machine, revolvers can and do fail. If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who shoots a revolver competitively, and they’ll be sure to tell you horror stories.
But that’s not the only myth that pops up in the self defense world. With the advent of modern communication technology it’s now more possible than ever for myths to spread. Formerly confined to gun store counters, gun myths are now readily available with a click of the mouse. Here are some of the most common firearms myths you may have heard.
Revolvers Don’t Jam
Most often uttered by seasoned shooters, the belief is that unlike a modern semi-automatic pistol, a revolver is a foolproof piece of engineering. It’s a nice thought, and it is true that if your revolver doesn’t set off a cartridge a simple pull of the trigger brings a new round under the hammer.
The problem is that like any other piece of machinery, a revolver can fail. The disadvantage to a revolver is that when it fails it usually requires tools to fix! Like a semi-automatic pistol, the most common point of failure in a revolver is the ammunition. If you have a dud primer, it’s simple to pull the trigger and bring a fresh round under the hammer.
But what if your malfunction is something else? Probably the most common problem with revolvers is extracting the spent cases. The more a wheelgun is shot, the dirtier the chambers become; over time, this can foul extraction and lead to a gun that you can’t reload. Worse yet, you can have a case fail, as I did once. The steel case of a round of Wolf 230 gr. FMJ cracked in the gun and couldn’t be extracted without banging the ejector rod with a mallet.
The second most common type of failure in a revolver also involves extraction of cases. The critical component of ejecting spent cases from a revolver is the ejector star, which pushes the cases free and then snaps back to its original position for reloading—unless you get a flake of unburned powder under the star! Then you won’t be able to close the cylinder and get your gun back into action without first brushing out the area under the star. Revolvers can also suffer from parts breakages just like semiautomatic pistols, as things like springs and screws are just as susceptible to wear and tear in a wheelgun as they are in a 1911.
Other maladies are unique to revolver shooters. One of the most interesting is “pulled bullets,” which occurs generally when shooting extremely lightweight revolvers such as a scandium framed J-frame with potent ammunition such as full-power .357 Magnum loads. If the bullet crimp isn’t tight enough, the obscene recoil can actually cause the bullet to move forward in the case which will lock up the cylinder.
Also unique to revolvers is the “bent moonclip” situation. This occurs primarily on competition guns, where a moonclip which holds six rounds of .45 ACP together for use in a revolver is slightly bent. The rounds load just fine, but eventually the bent clip will prevent the cylinder from advancing. While most common in competition guns, there are quite a few models of defensive revolver from Smith & Wesson that also use moonclips.
Of course the most infamous revolver malfunction is unique to Smith & Wesson revolvers, the notorious internal lock. The debate about this lock has raged back and forth on the internet as to whether or not the lock can unintentionally engage and turn the gun into a useless lump of steel. As a note of personal disclosure, all of my Smith & Wesson revolvers have locks on them, and I’ve fired thousands of rounds through these revolvers with no issues. However, all of my Smiths are heavy, steel-framed revolvers. To my knowledge, these revolvers have not had issues with the internal lock engaging. On lighter-framed revolvers such as the ultra lightweight models offered by Smith & Wesson in various calibers, reliable sources such as Michael Bane of the Outdoor Channel have documented instances of the lock engaging without shooter input.
Revolvers do jam. It’s important to remember that our guns, be it a .357 Magnum revolver, a .45 ACP 1911, or a 9mm Beretta, are all machines. There are no magic swords out there! But believing in magic swords isn’t the only gun related myth we’re dealing with. Some of them can be even more unusual than others, such as our next example.
The “Best” Gun for a New Shooter …
There isn’t one. We’re all individuals, with different body sizes, hand strengths, visual acuity, and reaction times. There is no best gun for any large group of people; there are only guns that fit the individual who is going to be carrying that gun. For some people, that gun will be a small frame revolver, while others might choose a different firearm entirely. That’s a determination that each shooter needs to make on their own.
… is a Snubnose Revolver
If I had a dime for every time I’ve been in a gun shop and have seen a well-meaning store employee recommend a lightweight, small-frame snubnose revolver to a customer looking to get their first carry gun, I would be writing this from a beach in Tahiti. This myth gets constant repetition across the internet and even in print, despite flying in the face of advice given by top trainers and professionals. What is even worse is that the person giving the advice always means well, which makes it even harder to disabuse the recipient of that particular notion.
The problem with the snubnose revolvers isn’t that they’re bad guns. In fact, they generally posses far more mechanical accuracy than most shooters are capable of producing from that platform … which is the problem! These guns suffer from three major faults: Short sight radius, heavy trigger pull, and significant recoil. When you add those three factors together, the result is a gun that may be light and easy to carry, but is difficult for the neophyte to shoot well.
The core of this discussion is shootability, a made up word that describes the ease with which a new shooter can learn a shooting platform and employ it with the necessary accuracy and speed required in a defensive handgun. Revolvers often get more points for shootability because they’re extremely simple to operate: open the cylinder, insert cartridges, close cylinder, press trigger.
But they’re not as shootable in many cases as semi-automatic pistols, which benefit from lighter trigger pulls, shorter trigger reaches, and slimmer profile, which make them easier to carry. Take care to not interpret this to mean that a 1911 or a Glock is automatically the best choice for a new shooter, though. It’s not about the gun, it’s about what you as the shooter are going to realistically carry and practice with.
And that leads us to our final myth, which concerns a common argument heard among people who choose to carry a semi-automatic pistol.
I Don’t Need to Carry a Spare Magazine
You carry a Beretta with a 15-round magazine plus one in the pipe, so what do you need another 15 rounds for? Most violent encounters stop without a shot ever being fired anyway. Why carry more ammo?
The answer doesn’t really have anything to do with the number of people that could attack you or post apocalyptic gunfights against hordes of zombies, but rather goes back to the reason behind the first myth: there are no magic swords. In a semi-automatic pistol, the weakest link in your ability to reliably place rounds downrange at a threat is the ammunition feeding system—the magazine.
Tamara Keel, the author of a popular gun blog (www.booksbikesboomsticks.blogspot.com) who has worked in the firearms industry for more than 16 years, once told me that more than 90 percent of malfunctions in a semi-auto pistol can be remedied by ripping out the existing magazine, running the slide, and inserting a fresh magazine. Short of a serious parts breakage, the most common failures in a semi-automatic pistol are all ammunition or magazine related.
It’s important to investigate things that we hear so that we can ensure we’re getting the best information possible.
Having extra ammunition is never a bad thing. No one who has ever been in a gunfight came away from it wishing they had brought less ammo with them. While the odds of having to engage in a running gunfight are pretty low for you and me, if it does happen, your day has already taken a rather unlikely statistical turn. A spare magazine (or a spare speedloader or speedstrip for a revolver) gives you an opportunity to top off your gun after a self defense encounter. It’s better to have a full pistol if the bad guys come back.
The truth is that most people will never have to fire their carry gun in anger, and that’s a good thing. However, we don’t carry guns for self defense because we’re optimists, so it makes sense to carry a spare magazine if for no other reason than to treat it like a screwdriver. It’s a tool for fixing your gun if something bad happens in an already bad moment. After all, that’s why we practice malfunction drills at the range, right?
Don’t Bet Your Life on It
There are countless other myths about firearms, stopping power, holsters, guns, and gear out there. The point of this article isn’t to address all of them, as I could spend a lifetime doing that and not even make a dent in the pile. The point of this article is to encourage you not to believe everything you hear or read–even this article! It’s important to investigate things that we hear so that we can ensure we’re getting the best information possible. After all, you don’t want to bet your life on someone else’s word.
[ Caleb Giddings is the author of GunNuts.Net (www.gunnuts.net) and host of Gun Nuts Radio (www.blogtalkradio.com/gunnuts). He’s a dedicated competition shooter and shoots revolvers exclusively in those matches. ]