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The Revolver in the 21st Century

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Article first appeared at Cheaper than Dirt.

Contrary to what you may see in a lot of the popular firearms media these days, the revolver as a self-defense tool is not dead. In fact, there are quite a few options available for those seeking a revolver for home defense, concealed carry, or recreational shooting. But why would you choose a revolver when there are so many semi-automatic pistols available?

The first handguns I used when learning to shoot were revolvers. The first gun was my dad’s—who inherited it from my grandpa. It was a blued steel, six-shot .22 LR Smith and Wesson .22/32 Kit Gun with a four-inch barrel. This compact J-frame .22 LR revolver is still available today in two different iterations—the AirLite Model 317 Kitgun with aluminum alloy frame and cylinder and the all stainless steel Model 63. Both have eight-shot cylinders. The Kit Gun was just right for learning to shoot at age 14 since the small-frame wood grips fit my hands just right.

Scott Wagner shooting a revolver outdoors

A two-handed grip is great for the range, but seldom will you get that opportunity in a confrontation.

The second revolver I shot was a major step up. A friend of our family—who was a serious firearms enthusiast—took me, my brother and dad to the shooting range to shoot some of his guns. I was probably 15 at the time. I don’t remember what other guns we shot, but I do remember shooting his relatively new Ruger Blackhawk single-action revolver in .41 Magnum. We fired the reduced-power police loading, so recoil was tolerable. From then on, I was hooked on revolvers.

Throughout my 36-year law enforcement career, I often carried revolvers on duty—Colt Agent, Smith and Wesson Model 19, Model 10, the Model 65 and Model 686— before being required to carry a semi-automatic pistol. However, I never gave up on the revolver for off-duty concealed carry or backup, and still carry one nearly every day. I tell you all this to explain my bias in favor of the revolver for concealed carry or home defense. But it’s more than familiarity that drives my preference for revolvers.

The 21st Century revolver has a lot going for it. Let’s start with the foundational advantages it has over semi-automatic pistols, and then discuss the modern improvements which increase those advantages even further.

First and foremost, the double-action revolver is pretty hard to screw up as long as it is reasonably maintained. Its reliability in undeniable. The old advertising slogan “six for sure” is no joke. It is easy to know if your revolver is loaded simply by looking at the side of the gun for the gap between the rear of the cylinder and the frame for the cartridge rims. Unless you are very careless, you likely will not unknowingly face someone with an unloaded gun. This characteristic of the revolver also works in reverse—there should be no reason that you accidently fired a revolver because you didn’t know it was loaded!

Speaking of accidental discharges, there is also little excuse for having one with a DA revolver due to the 10-12 pound trigger pull, which also acts as the primary safety for the gun. It would be extremely difficult to accidentally catch and pull the trigger of a DA revolver. The same thing can’t be said of modern trigger-safety pistols.

Unlike semi-automatic pistols, revolvers are not particular about the cartridges that are loaded into the cylinder—as long as the caliber is correct. Anything from flat wadcutters to polymer tipped hollowpoint bullets will run—and the .357 Magnum revolver is the most versatile defensive revolver of all, because it can fire both .357 Magnum and .38 Special cartridges.

The revolver has advantages over the automatic when it comes to close quarter combat. The revolver is not as sensitive to being fired from odd (read that “any”) angles, nor will it jam from being fired with an unlocked wrist. In CQB, there is a very high probability that you will not be able to fire from the good two-hand firing position you practice with at the range.

Scott Wagner holding a revolver for home defense.

The revolver has many advantages over the semi-automatic for home defense.

Perhaps the most important CQB advantage of the revolver over the semi-automatic pistol is in the area of contact shots, i.e., when the muzzle of the handgun is actually pressed against the body of the attacker because the fight has become a hand-to-hand affair. Pressing the muzzle of an autoloader against the body of an attacker is likely to result in the slide being moved into an “out of battery” state, meaning that it won’t fire and is likely jammed. Not good. The revolver barrel is fixed and does not move, which also makes it more intrinsically accurate than the average semi-auto.

The revolver has come a long way in the 21st Century. Improvements include the availability of new lighter weight alloy frames that can resist the pounding of .357 or even .44 Magnum rounds, rust resistant coatings that reduce maintenance compared to the old, blue steel models, increased cylinder capacity due to improved metallurgy, the use of weight saving polymer in some revolver frames, improved sighting systems that use tritium, light gathering pipes or lasers, and multiple styles of reloading that make it easier to make up for limited cylinder capacity. All these improvements combined with a myriad of holster and carrying systems from pocket to shoulder make the modern revolver ready for modern combat.

Reloading a revolver can be much faster than one imagines when using speedloaders—either the cylindrical type or inline strip type loaders—with a bit of practice. The Smith and Wesson Performance Center 686 offers a third reloading option in the form of the full moon clip. The cylinder of this particular .357 holds seven rounds and is relieved to also allow the use of full moon clips, which drops all seven rounds into the cylinder with one motion, and ejects them in the same fashion. This is the fastest reload of all. Keep in mind too that the days of high-cap concealed carry handguns are waning. Single stack autos with magazine capacities of 6 or 7 rounds are all the rage. Single stack autos have virtually no advantage over revolvers in terms of ammo capacity.

When you search for a concealed carry or home defense gun, don’t overlook the revolver. More than adequate power and controllability, rock solid reliability, and excellent accuracy continue to be the hallmark of this weapon system. The modern double-action revolver has been around since the turn of the previous century. I expect it to be around for the turn of the next one.

What model was the first revolver you ever fired? Do you carry or rely on one now for self-defense? Share your revolver story in the comment section.

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