Both autos and revolvers have plusses, which triggers debate

One of the staples of gun magazines back in my day was the automatic vs. revolver debate.

Up until the late ’70s or so, there was no debate; the double-action revolver was king of the holster guns. Virtually every law enforcement officer carried a wheel gun and it was rare to see a civilian not carrying a round handgun as well.

In the 1980s the square gun came on strong and when Gaston Glock started importing his “wonernine” to these shores in the mid-’80s, the debate was settled: the self-loading pistol was anointed king.

The idea of the revolver once again taking the honored place in coppers’ holsters is unfathomable. Of course, the militaries of the world switched to the shell shuckers over 100 years ago.

Yep, the revolver offers no advantages over the semi-auto whatsoever … or does it?

Actually, it offers many, not the least of which is simplicity.

Every newbie hand-gunner should buy a double-action revolver (probably in .22 caliber) as their first pistol. Learning to handle and shoot a revolver well is the first logical step. It is very easy to handle safely, as just opening the cylinder will make it very obvious if the handgun is stoked with any live ammo.

With an automatic, the magazine must be removed and the chamber checked as well. Many a poor soul has forgotten the last step and put a hole in something they didn’t intend to. Unfortunately, that something is sometimes a person.

Of course, flipping open the cylinder and “dumping” out the rounds has been the first step of many accidents too with revolvers – when a round has hung up in the cylinder and been unintentionally fired, but I would hazard a guess that it is much less common.

Many self loaders also have two distinct trigger pulls.

The first shot of a double-action pistol is a long, stiff pull. After this, the hammer is cocked for each subsequent shot by the reciprocating slide and put into single-action mode. Now a light, short pull is present. Learning to control both of these distinctly different pulls of the trigger is hard to master, impossible for some.

This is one reason the Glock pistol became so popular, as the trigger feel is essentially the same for each shot. There is also a lot going on with the functioning of the auto-loader, with all of the loading and ejecting as the slide reciprocates. New shooters often find this distracting.

That slide movement can also be hampered by improper handling. If the support hand thumb is placed around and above the strong hand thumb, it will most likely be bloodied and bruised by the slide when it is forced back by the cartridge firing. This, or pinching the slide with the fingers, can impede the functioning of the pistol and give a short stroking of the action which will jam the pistol.

Another phenomenon often encountered is “limp wristing” the pistol. This is always a bad habit but will not at all keep a revolver from functioning.

With a semi-auto, however, the slide MUST work AGAINST the frame or the cycling of the slide, or bolt, cannot be completed. Either the fired case will not eject, or the loaded round will not chamber (very common with Glocks and Lugers).

Along these same lines, the slide of the pistol cannot be rested against a barricade like a door frame to steady the gun or a malfunction is also possible, even likely. Resting the revolver’s barrel against said barricade will only scratch the finish, at worst.

Revolvers are also much more ammo-friendly. Repeatedly loading and unloading a revolver is easy and leaves the ammunition virtually undamaged. Ramming a cartridge through a semi-auto many times will render it unsuitable for carry/self defense purposes. The battering it takes will seat the bullet into the case too far (which makes the chamber pressures too high), damage the case mouth (which is needed for proper head spacing), chew up the rim (which is needed for extraction) and just beat the rounds up in general.

    The revolver also doesn’t care how wimpy the ammunition it’s fed is, as long as it exits the barrel. Trying to feed a semi very light ammunition causes the same problems as limp wristing does:  The action will not cycle.

The revolver also doesn’t care what the bullet profile is; if you can stuff the ammunition in the chamber, it’ll fire it. Most autos very  much care about what ammo they are stoked with! If loaded with cartridges that are too hot for them, they may jam, if loaded with ammo too weak for them, they will short-stroke.

Revolvers can even be loaded with different kinds of ammunition in the same cylinder.

One of my favorite combinations out in the “sticks” is to load two shot shells to come up first and the rest of the cylinder loaded with appropriate “hard” rounds.

Shot shells are perfect for pests around camp, especially the long, skinny kind. If you run up against something more substantial, you just fire through those first one or two rounds of shot and let ’em have it with the real stuff.

I don’t think the first bursts of shot are doing the mauler any good either.

Most of the really well-informed revolver carriers of old carried a couple of speed loaders to fully recharge their sidearm when shot empty, as just about everyone else did. But they would also usually have a belt loop system that normally held six more rounds in loops, much like a cowboy would have done. Many times these carriers were three sets of two rounds with a space between each pair.

The reason was that it was not wise to fire a couple of rounds in a fire fight, dump out four loaded rounds and then reload all six again. The revolver is already handicapped in the capacity department to begin with.

The professional’s technique was to push the extractor star up a short distance and then let it fall back down to battery. Most of the time the fired cases would not reseat themselves and would be standing proud off the cylinder’s face.

It was a simple matter to withdraw these rounds, cast them aside, pull two rounds out of the loops and replace the empties. It is just as easy to load two rounds in a double action revolver as it is one if the technique is practiced at all, with out even looking at what you were doing.

As a hunting or large-caliber sidearm, the revolver simply can’t be equaled by the auto.

If you want a .44 Magnum, .454 Cassull or bigger, the auto is a no-go. Yes, there is the Desert Eagle and the LAR Grizzly, but I personally don’t know anyone who actually carries one of these giant, heavy beasts. They are completely impractical as a convenient arm or as a back-up weapon.

The 10 mm in an auto comes very close and is probably adequate for anything in the “lower 48,” but when you need REAL power in a handgun, it has a wheel in it.

So what’s the square gun good for? A whole buncha’ stuff. You’ll notice that I didn’t give the revolver the nod for reliability that it is often granted. The reason is because it’s a bunch of HOG WASH!

I unequivocally challenge that point, which is often given to the revolver by default. I submit that the revolver is much more fragile than the self-loader. In point of fact, this is the real reason that the semi took over in military use.

Yes, capacity was a deciding factor too but good semi-autos are more reliable than good revolvers. I have worked on thousands of handguns and, if fed the right ammunition and operator error is thrown out of the equation, semi-automatic pistols WORK.

The violence of the pistol’s action will throw away foreign objects and substances, the force of the recoil spring acting to return the slide to battery will load and chamber all but the most grossly over-sized cartridges and the substantial individual parts of modern pistols just don’t give, or break very often.

Something as simple as a grain of powder, a shard of bullet lead, a chunk of shell casing etc. can either tie up a revolver or not allow the cylinder to seat into the frame window. You might be able to throw a Ruger revolver off a building, then pick it up and fire it reliably. Then again, maybe not.

Colt, S&W, Taurus? No way.

Polymer framed pistol? Almost definitely.

Even dropped from more realistic heights, the revolver stands a much bigger chance of suffering debilitating injuries than even a 100 -year-old pistol. Semi-automatic pistols are just more durable. Don’t like to clean your guns? Better get an auto; revolvers don’t like dirt and crud. The difference between how much grime a modern auto can tolerate and what any revolver can slough off is worlds apart.

Obviously, the biggest advantage of the auto-loading pistol is its capacity. Standard automatics are easily capable of housing 15 to 20 rounds on board. That is the standard payload of the police officer of yesteryear with his/her loaded gun and ALL of their reloads.

What’s more, a fully loaded 16-round G, S&W etc. .40 caliber weighs about the same as a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum stoked with only six. When carrying concealed, the advantages are even more pronounced.

The flatness of the pistol, along with its weight advantages from the use of modern polymers and aluminum alloys, has almost put the revolver out of play.

I say “almost” because the revolver still holds a decisive edge in the teeny-tiny little pocket guns so in vogue today. A full-size duty pistol and a pocket pistol are two decidedly different things.

Shrinking the semi-auto down has reduced its reliability substantially. There is just too much going on in too small of a package. Pocket lint, dust and dander hamper the tiny auto much more than they do the little revolver. Keep those little ones clean and prove their function with your selected carry ammo well. This is good advice of course with the small frame revolvers as well but definitely less crucial.

One last advantage to the automatic: recoil. It takes a goodly amount of energy to unlock and cycle the action on a semi-automatic and to compress all of the associated springs in the mechanism. This energy is stored in said springs and then used to return the slide home and feed a fresh cartridge into the chamber.

The revolver has none of these advantages; all of the recoil not off-set by the weight of the gun goes directly into the shooter’s hand. Equal and opposite reaction. The early/old blow-back operated pistols like the Walthers, Mausers etc. were not as good at quelling recoil as the new breed of locked breech guns but the equivalently powerful round fired out of a self-loader is MUCH LESS than when fired out of a similar weight revolver.

I almost never carry a revolver for self defense, mostly because of the lack of efficiency of the wheel gun.

In reality, I should carry them most of the time, as the capacity advantage is really a moot point for the average gun-toting civilian and I generally shoot revolvers more accurately.

In the end, THAT is the most important thing. You are responsible for every round you launch out of your handgun. Misses are potentially lethal to innocents and are USELESS against aggressors.

The mass switch to autos by civilians and law enforcement has absolutely fostered the “spray and pray” method of self defense. This is NOT a good thing and is a software problem, not a hardware one, and not the fault of a superior arm.

Really, whether your gun goes around in a circle or back and forth doesn’t matter – if you choose rationally.

 – Jeff Hutchins writes monthly about firearms-related topics for Lebanon Local.  He owns and operates Rangemaster Gunworks at 1144 Tangent St. in Lebanon.