This article is an update of a portion of a seven part series I wrote in 2012 on the rationale for gun ownership. While it’s a bit long, I hope it will be useful in the current debate.
The Heller decision made explicit the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment. A part of that interpretation (referring to the earlier Miller case) was:
…that the sorts of weapon protected were those ‘in common use at the time…’ We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.
It is likely this sentence that has caused contemporary gun grabbers to avoid overt handgun bans:
Whatever the reason, handguns are the most popular weapon chosen by Americans for self-defense in the home, and a complete prohibition of their use is invalid.
For now, the handguns in common use have not been broadly targeted by anti-freedom forces, however handguns bans have always been one of their most beloved and ultimate goals. Accurate knowledge of those weapons and their political use and abuse is essential for those who support liberty
I write for those whose knowledge of firearms and related terminology is limited. As the information I’m providing here is covered in a wide variety of magazines and books, both print and online, I’ll be providing primarily an overview rather than an exhaustive exposition of the issues. I recommend as a basic text The Complete Book of Combat Handgunning by Chuck Taylor. It contains the fundamentals necessary to develop essential basic skills. Full disclosure: I am one of the few certified as an instructor by Taylor’s American Small Arms Academy, and I am also certified by the NRA as a range safety and handgun instructor.
Why a handgun? There’s a venerable old story about a reporter who asked a Texas Ranger why he carried a .45. He replied in a slow drawl (of course): “Because they don’t make a .46.” The point is that one should always carry the most effective weapon they can efficiently manage. Anyone who knowingly enters a gunfight armed with less than a rifle (or submachine gun) is asking to die. Long guns are much easier to shoot accurately at much greater than handgun ranges and are far more deadly. However, since it is practically difficult or impossible to carry such weapons on a daily basis, a handgun is the best alternative.
But what about shotguns? Aren’t they more effective than handguns? Yes, particularly when employed against terrorist waterfowl. Seriously, despite what Hollywood would have one believe, they must be aimed like any firearm. The effectiveness of shotgun ammunition depends primarily on keeping the shot column together, as close to the diameter with which it left the muzzle of the shotgun as possible, which means that to be truly effective, shotgun range is essentially the same as handgun range: Out to about 25 yards, and the closer the better. Generally speaking, the shorter the barrel (16″ is the legal minimum without a federal stamp like that required to own an automatic weapon, suppressor or short barreled rifle; for shotguns the minimum is 18″) the shorter the effective range of the shotgun.
Some claim that shotguns are more flexible than handguns because they accept a greater range of ammunition, including various kinds of shot and slug cartridges. This is true to a point, but only the larger calibers of buckshot, such as the standard 00 (“double ought”) buckshot are truly effective on human beings, and while some slugs can increase reasonable shotgun range to 50 yards and perhaps a bit more with some weapons, accuracy will always be lacking compared to rifles because shotguns are, of necessity, smoothbore weapons. They have no rifling in their barrels to impart spin to a projectile, thus stabilizing it and greatly increasing accuracy. In many cases, shot can be stopped entirely, or its effectiveness greatly reduced, by nothing more than heavy winter clothing. This is particularly true at greater ranges.
Shotguns are also, like rifles, long guns. They’re simply not practical for daily carry.
I mention 25 yards as more or less a universal standard. Experts can deliver accurate handgun fire at greater ranges, but for most, 25 yards is the outer effective limit. Twenty-five yards may not sound like much, until you’re trying to place a bullet on a human-sized target that looks surprisingly small at that range. Distance can be tricky. If you’re not convinced, pace off 25 yards and see how far it actually is. It is fortunate–and frightening–that the overwhelming majority of gunfights take place at much closer ranges.
The choice of a personal, defensive handgun must take into account many factors, but ultimately one should choose a handgun that is powerful, concealable, reliable, that they can shoot well, and with which they are comfortable. That said, the choice is simpler, and more difficult, than many imagine.
REVOLVER OR SEMIAUTOMATIC?
Revolvers predate semiautomatics. Revolvers are so called because cartridges are loaded into a steel cylinder commonly holding 5-6 rounds, though some major caliber, full sized revolvers hold 7 and some .22LR revolvers hold as many as 10. Pulling the trigger and/or cocking the hammer mechanically rotates–revolves–the cylinder bringing a live round into precise alignment with the barrel. The cartridge aligned with the barrel at rest will not be the cartridge fired first. Revolvers come in two action types: single action and double action.
Single action revolvers are like the Colt .45 handguns of cinema westerns. The first step in firing requires cocking the large, external hammer, usually with the strong hand (the hand holding the revolver) thumb. This activates internal mechanical linkage that rotates the cylinder to align the next cartridge with the barrel while holding the hammer fully back, ready to be released to fall forward with a pull of the trigger. The resulting short and light trigger pull serves only to release the hammer to strike the primer of the cartridge (pulling the trigger does not cause the cylinder to revolve)—the firing pins of such weapons are often fixed to the hammer–firing the cartridge.
This revolver is the modern Ruger Vaquero, however it faithfully reflects the general configuration of the genre, including no real, truly useful rear sight.
Such weapons are generally inappropriate for personal defense. Experts can indeed do amazing things with these designs, which are more than a century old, and manufacturers continue to produce modern versions of these weapons that are completely safe to use with modern cartridges, have fully adjustable sights, and have some modern safety features that allow them to be safely handled with fully loaded cylinders, but they are large, cumbersome, slow to fire and even slower to reload. They’re great fun for target shooting, or western style shooting competitions, but modern weapons have greatly surpassed them in convenience and effectiveness.
One narrow exception is modern single action revolvers designed for hunting such as the handguns of Freedom Arms of Wyoming. These revolvers are truly huge, made of stainless steel, are designed to be used with optical and/or electronic sights, and fire cartridges of such size and power their cylinders hold only five rounds. Some of these cartridges rival rifle ammunition in power and recoil is impressive and punishing.
NOTE: Original single action revolvers like the famous Colt Peacemaker design should have only five out of six chambers loaded and should be carried with the hammer down on the empty chamber. This is necessary because, lacking any kind of firing pin safety (modern single action revolvers have this feature and their cylinders may be fully loaded with safety), a blow on the hammer can drive the firing pin into the primer of a cartridge, firing the weapon. Anyone owning such weapons should be absolutely certain of its safety features, or the lack thereof.
Double action revolvers are modern weapons, and can be fired in double action mode, with a long, relatively heavy trigger pull that rotates the cylinder, simultaneously cocking the hammer, and ultimately drops the hammer to strike the primer and fire the cartridge. As a result, revolvers do not have mechanical safety devices that must be manipulated in order to fire the weapon. They also have a single action mode—very much like single action only revolvers–where cocking the hammer rotates the cylinder and pulls the trigger fully back, producing a short, light trigger pull. Owners of double action revolvers should always train to use their weapon in double action mode. It is very easy indeed to accidentally fire a cocked revolver in single action mode when under great stress.
At one time, virtually all American police officers carried full-sized duty revolvers, initially in .38 Special caliber, but ultimately in .357 Magnum when that cartridge was developed. The .357 Magnum is a .38 Special cartridge with a slightly longer case, which allows greater velocity and power. This Smith and Wesson Model 686 .357 magnum is an example of a modern full-sized double action revolver. Beautifully made, it is a large and heavy revolver, which is necessary to stand years of firing full-charge .357 ammunition, which produces prodigious muzzle flash and considerable recoil.
This small revolver—the Ruger LCR in .38 special caliber—is state of the art in revolver design with its polymer frame, relatively low bore axis, relatively smooth trigger and relieved/lightened cylinder. Notice that it uses an internal hammer. It cannot be cocked, or fired, in single action mode.
Semiautomatics are sometimes incorrectly called “automatics.” An automatic weapon fires multiple rounds for each pull of the trigger. As long as the trigger is pulled and held back, the weapon will fire until the trigger is released or the ammunition supply is exhausted. Expert machine gunners can fire bursts of two-three rounds or more simply by means of manual trigger manipulation. Some automatic weapons mimic this ability with burst features that fire short–commonly three round–predetermined bursts with a single pull of the trigger. A semiautomatic weapon fires only one round for each pull of the trigger, just like a double action revolver.
Semiautomatics hold their ammunition in magazines. Magazines are often incorrectly called “clips.” The only currently manufactured, widely available firearm that actually uses clips is the M1 Garand battle rifle. Most semiautomatic pistols hold more rounds than revolvers; in many cases, a great many rounds more. The Glock 17 in 9mm, for example, is a full-sized duty-type handgun with a standard magazine capacity of 17 rounds. With one round in the chamber, the capacity of a Glock 17 is exactly three times that of a six-round revolver. With two spare magazines, nearly nine times.
This is a significant factor that has caused–in part–most American police agencies to transition to semiautomatic pistols. While the majority of police shootings are resolved with few rounds fired, the necessity of having a great many rounds at hand is very real. So it is for civilians–as the police call non-police officers.
NOTE: Those that claim that any magazine over 10 rounds–7 rounds in New York–is a “large capacity magazine”, are uninformed or deceptive. A substantial number of commonly available semiautomatic handguns have standard capacity magazines of substantially greater capacity, which is nothing new or unusual.
All semiautomatic pistols work on the same principle: Firing a cartridge uses the energy of firing to push a heavy metal slide back against a powerful spring. On its backward travel, the slide extracts the fired case from the chamber and ejects it through the ejection port on the slide. When the slide hits the rear stop, it is propelled forward under spring tension, picks up a fresh cartridge from the magazine and inserts it into the chamber. This process is very fast and appears as a blur to most. A powerful spring in the magazine pushes each fresh cartridge upward, ready to be fed into the chamber. In most designs, when the last round has been fired, the magazine spring pushes the magazine follower upward to engage the slide lock, forcing the slide to lock fully open (back) to notify the shooter he has shot his weapon dry. This cycling may be accomplished by a blowback system (the most common in contemporary handguns; there are several variations of the basic principal), or a gas system. Many semiautomatic pistols have an external, manual safety device of some kind.
This You Tube video animation of the direct blowback cycling of a Glock pistol is illustrative of the process, which is virtually identical for all semiautomatic pistols, allowing for slight variations in mechanical design. Warning: The music accompanying the video is most annoying.
Semiautos, like revolvers, come in several more or less standardized sizes. Full sized pistols like the Colt M1911 and the Glock 17 are generally considered duty pistols, though even they may be carried concealed by most people. Smaller pistols, such as the Glock 19 with a 15 round magazine, are meant to be lighter and more easily concealed. And finally, there are what are commonly called “pocket pistols,” normally in .380 ACP caliber (essentially a shorter and less powerful 9mm cartridge) or smaller. These pistols like the Ruger LCP or the S&W Bodyguard actually do fit in a pocket and are quite small, light and easily concealable.
Semiautomatic pistols, however, have a greater number of trigger mechanisms than revolvers.
Single Action: This is the oldest currently available pistol mechanism, characterized by John Moses Browning designs, and is the mechanism employed on the Model 1911 .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) and the Browning Hi-Power (1935) in 9mm Parabellum (From the Latin: “ii vis pacem, para bellum”–if you wish peace, prepare for war). In these pistols, an exposed hammer is manually fully cocked and a safety lever mounted on the left side of the frame engaged. To fire, the shooter clicks off (pushes down on) the safety and pulls the trigger, which commonly has a light and short travel.
This 1911 is a much-modified model by Springfield Armory known as the “Range Officer.”
This means of carrying these pistols, commonly known as “cocked and locked,” frightens the uninitiated, but is perfectly safe when done by those properly trained who use proper holsters. With this action type, each trigger pull is short, light and consistent, significantly contributing to ease of use and accuracy. Such weapons employ the manufacturing methods and materials–-heavy steel–-available a century ago and are expensive and labor intensive to make. Like everything designed by Browning, they are effective, reliable and mechanically brilliant designs, but they can be expensive.
Double Action: A second action type is the double action mechanism that mimics the trigger and hammer action of the double action revolver. European weapons such as various Walther pistols with this mechanism (the P-38, the PP and PPK) were in use before WWII. American manufacturers, most notably Smith and Wesson, produced double action pistols in large numbers beginning in the 1970s to increase sales of semiautomatics to police forces which at the time almost exclusively used double action revolvers. Col. Jeff Cooper called this invention “an ingenious solution to a non-existent problem.” He was referring to the fact that double action semiautomatics are not designed to be carried “cocked and locked,” which was a selling point to uninformed and skittish police executives horrified by the sight of cocked hammers.
This double action semiautomatic pistol is a Walther P-22 in .22 LR caliber. While the caliber is generally inappropriate as a self-defense gun, its action is identical to its larger caliber cousins. My recent article on that handgun can be found here.
The inherent problem with this type of trigger mechanism is the first trigger pull is long and heavy, but because the first, and every subsequent shot fired causes the cycling of the slide to cock the hammer, the second and every subsequent shot requires only a single action trigger pull, in other words, a much shorter, lighter pull of the trigger. This commonly results in widely varying impact points between at least the first two shots on any target, and while experienced, capable shooters can overcome this “feature,” double action mechanisms are a less than optimum option, just as Col. Cooper suggested.
Double Action Only: Another action type is a hybrid of the double action mechanism that seeks to address the inherent shot to shot accuracy problem of such actions. These weapons are incapable of single action fire; each pull of the trigger must be double action. In other words the trigger recycles fully forward after each shot–it does not cock the hammer–making a long, relatively heavy trigger pull necessary for each shot. While this method might be a theoretical improvement on double action mechanisms, any action that requires a long, heavy trigger pull will be inherently less accurate and harder to consistently shoot than a lighter, shorter trigger.
This double action only handgun—a Smith & Wesson Bodyguard in .380 ACP—is representative of the genre. My recent article on that handgun is available here. An interesting feature of this weapon is its integral laser sight, activated by the ambidextrous gray button on both sides of the front of the frame.
Striker Fired: The most modern mechanism is the striker-fired pistol, typified by the Glock design as illustrated by the aforementioned video. These weapons do not have an exposed external hammer or an internal hammer, but instead employ what is essentially a larger than usual, heavier firing pin driven by a strong spring. When recoil cycles the slide, the striker spring is compressed—cocked–until it is released by the next activation of the trigger. Trigger pulls with this type of weapon are shorter and lighter than those of double action pistols, and are consistent from shot to shot. While the triggers do not have the very short travel of a single action mechanism and they are not as light, they are far superior to any double action or double action only mechanism, and are also superior to double action revolver triggers. Glocks employ a unique system of three independent integral safety devices. There is no external safety to be manipulated by the shooter. As with revolvers, one must really want to fire a Glock to make it discharge.
This particular Glock is my daily carry handgun, a Glock 26 in 9mm (commonly called the “baby” Glock). The only two additions beyond the out of the box handgun are a Pearce Grip magazine finger rest and a Laserlyte Rear Sight laser.
One advantage of the Glock design is that trigger pull weight can be easily changed from seven to five pounds, for example, merely by changing drop-in parts, an easy process with the modular Glock which uses not a single screw. Such weapons are often made with polymer (plastic) frames and many other polymer parts. This method of manufacture has many advantages, such as low cost, speed of manufacture, long life, no rusting, and the ability to absorb some recoil energy that would otherwise be imparted directly to the shooter. To contain the inherent pressures and recoil forces, however, such weapons must have steel barrels, slides, and slide rails. There is no such thing as a “plastic gun” that can’t be seen on x-ray machines. A Glock under x-ray looks exactly like what it is, and most of its weight is, in fact, steel.
Another interesting Glock feature is the ability to “catch the link.” When firing a round, the shooter holds the trigger fully back as the slide cycles and after the slide has returned to battery (is fully forward and closed) slowly releases the trigger until an audible and easily felt “click” occurs. This allows the next shot to have a much shorter trigger pull, enhancing long-range accuracy. But this is not a true single action mode as it does not function in the same way, and it requires a conscious effort on the part of the shooter to make the weapon function in this way for each shot. The primary advantage of the Glock-–and similar—mechanisms remains their relatively short trigger travel, light pull weight, and shot to shot consistency.
REVOLVER ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES:
Modern double action revolvers come, generally, in large, medium and small sizes. However, as I previously noted, there are some revolvers made for hunting or competition with very large magnum cartridges that fall into the “huge” category. Such weapons are universally made of steel, are very heavy, and have barrels of 6” or longer. On the opposite side are mini-revolvers, such as the stainless steel, derringer-like, 5 shot .22LR (Long Rifle) weapons made by Freedom Arms (my recent article on that little revolver can be found here). Such weapons, which fire single action only, are made primarily as back-up guns, or for circumstances that prevent the carrying of a larger weapon. Unfortunately, their barrels are very short—just over an inch in standard configuration–which can cause keyholing (for the appearance of the holes they leave in paper targets), or unstable bullets tumbling end over end. As a result, their accuracy beyond a few yards is generally poor, their penetration ability is limited, reloading requires removing the entire cylinder from the weapon, and for the inexperienced, or even the average shooter, they are hard to shoot with any degree of consistent accuracy, to say nothing of the general unsuitability of the .22LR cartridge in the self-defense role.
Large, or full-sized revolvers generally hold six rounds (though a few designs hold seven), have at least a 4” barrel, and usually have fully adjustable rear sights (adjustable for windage–side-to-side, and elevation–up and down). This class is generally considered to be “duty” revolvers of the kind some police forces still use. Unless you’re a large, strong person, concealing such weapons is difficult. They are best carried in exposed holsters on substantial belts. It is possible to conceal them with the right holsters, but they are big, heavy handguns built to take substantial wear from powerful cartridges over the long term.
Medium framed revolvers also share barrels of the same length, but are lighter and not as solidly built. However, they will still provide many years of service for most people. Many models have barrels from 2” to 3” and some do not have adjustable rear sights. They are generally somewhat smaller and weigh somewhat less than fully sized revolvers.
Small frame revolvers commonly have barrels of around 2” length and are of only five round capacity. They rarely have adjustable rear sights. In fact, many rear sights are merely notches machined—or molded–in the top strap of the weapon. They commonly have small grips. Such weapons are designed in recognition of the fact that full sized revolvers are not easily concealed. Some revolvers in this class have aluminum, titanium or alloy frames for reduced weight, but their barrels and cylinders generally must be steel. Some of the newer weapons in this class, such as the Ruger LCR are being manufactured with frames and some parts made of polymer to reduce weight as much as possible.
ADVANTAGES OF MODERN, DOUBLE-ACTION REVOLVERS: Because they have no separate safety devices, they are simple; pull the trigger and they go “bang.” In fact, long, heavy double action trigger pulls are usually thought to be an inherent safety feature, requiring the shooter to really intend to shoot to discharge the weapon. Revolvers do not have mechanical safety devices that must be manipulated in order to fire the weapon. On the other hand, short, light single action trigger pulls are, with justification, thought to be dangerous because they are far more prone to unintentional discharge. It is also easy to load and unload revolvers, and one can tell at a glance if they are loaded. Properly maintained, revolvers–particularly in stainless steel–can last a lifetime. Stainless steel does rust, but is far less susceptible to rust than other steels commonly used in firearms.
Revolvers represent well-developed technology and manufacturing methods and are relatively free of inherent malfunctions. With speed loaders, they can be reloaded reasonably quickly, though experts can reload with amazing speed even without speed loaders. High quality revolvers are also potentially more accurate than many semiautomatic pistols, though relatively few shooters are skilled enough to notice any actual difference at common handgun ranges. There is a difference between intrinsic accuracy—the accuracy potential of the design–and practical accuracy, which is what a given person can hope to accomplish with a given handgun.
With the wide range of different materials and shapes available, most people can adapt a given revolver to their unique hand by simply exchanging factory for aftermarket grips. Revolvers are also capable of handling the largest, most powerful pistol cartridges, but only with very large, heavy and hard-recoiling weapons.
DISADVANTAGES OF REVOLVERS: The higher the bore axis (the barrel) of a handgun is above the hand, the greater the recoil effect on the shooter. All revolvers, by design, suffer from this inherent problem, a problem made worse by more powerful cartridges and lighter weapons. It is ironic that in an attempt to make some revolvers more easily carried and concealed, manufacturers have also greatly increased the recoil effect (from light weight), muzzle blast and report (from short barrels), small grips, and lessened accuracy (by means of shorter barrels and small, non-adjustable sights). Small .38 caliber revolvers are notorious for their brutal—even painful—recoil and dazzling muzzle flash and report.
While speed loaders greatly lessen reloading times, they tend to be inconvenient for most people for concealed carry. In addition, many grips interfere with speed loaders and often have to be “relieved,” which consists of removing any grip material in the way. This is not particularly difficult, but does take some skill and specialized materials and/or tools.
Some suggest that revolvers are utterly reliable, but revolvers are very dirt sensitive and can and do malfunction. This is one of the primary reasons that virtually every military issues semi-automatic pistols rather than revolvers. Even with well-maintained revolvers a tiny piece of grit under the ejector “star” can actually jam the cylinder, preventing the gun from firing. Remember that the round aligned with the barrel at rest will not be fired. When the trigger is pulled (or the hammer is cocked to single action mode), the cylinder rotates to the next cartridge, so if the cylinder won’t rotate, the shooter will not be able to fire a single round. Unfortunately, virtually anything other than grit under an ejector star that causes a malfunction in a revolver is due to breakage of or damage to mechanical parts and cannot be quickly repaired in the field without tools. If one is under fire, this is a significant weakness indeed. Revolvers much be kept scrupulously clean, but many designs are ironically time consuming and demanding to clean thoroughly and properly.
NOTE: A malfunction is a stoppage that can be fixed in the field, by hand, usually within a few seconds. A jam is a stoppage that cannot be fixed quickly by hand and which usually requires tools and/or replacement parts.
Even expensive, top of the line revolvers have the same potential weaknesses. In my early days of police work, I carried Colt Pythons, very expensive, very accurate, high quality weapons, as did several of my police shooting buddies. One day at a range session, one of my friend’s brand new Pythons suddenly started sending bullets down and to the side of the target. He couldn’t figure it out and asked me to take a look. I peered down the sights and was amazed to find that the barrel had come unpinned and was, under the recoil of .357 duty (fully-charged) magnum ammunition, unscrewing itself from the frame. The front sight was cocked at an angle! I simply unscrewed the barrel with my bare hands, handed my amazed pal the two parts, announcing deadpan that I was reasonably sure I’d identified the problem. A good gunsmith quickly and cheaply fixed the gun, but even the best handguns can experience unexpected problems.
Cylinder cranes and ejector rods are likewise prone to damage. Anyone flipping out a cylinder or violently snapping it back into place with the flip of a hand ala TV gunslingers is looking for a bent crane and a lengthy, expensive visit to a gunsmith. Whenever the cylinder is out of the frame–as in ejecting spent rounds from the cylinder and/or reloading–those parts must be handled with gentle care. The kind of idiotic handling of revolvers one sees in movies or on TV is highly likely to result in damage that will quickly render a revolver an expensive paperweight. Don’t get me started on people who “spin” cylinders. Not only is such foolishness utterly unnecessary, at the least it causes accelerated wear on fragile parts, and at worst, can damage the weapon.
The exposed hammers of small revolvers are prone to hanging up in pockets or clothing. Many manufacturers have designed smaller, or “bobbed” hammers, made shrouds around external hammers, or have even made internal hammer designs to address this well-known problem. The aforementioned Ruger LCR, which represents contemporary state of the art small revolver design, has an internal hammer and cannot be fired single action. Careful holster design can minimize this unfortunate snagging tendency.
The largest problem with revolvers remains their long, often rough double action triggers. This factor makes revolvers much more difficult to shoot with consistent accuracy than semi-automatic pistols, though with proper training and consistent practice, it is possible to shoot revolvers with considerable accuracy. This problem can be addressed, to a degree, with an action job by a competent gunsmith, but that’s additional expense, commonly in the $100+ range. Some revolvers now come from the factory with much better triggers than one would have found in the past, but this is still an issue to be considered.
It should also be noted that this problem is exacerbated with smaller, lighter more concealable weapons, and made even worse by the recoil effects of full-powered, as opposed to lighter loaded target, ammunition. Smaller men and many women often find long shooting sessions to be actually painful, and any weapon that is painful to shoot will dramatically degrade accuracy and effectiveness. It is ironic that even full-sized, heavy revolvers that are poor choices for concealment can suffer from this problem, though to a lesser degree and requiring more rounds fired.
Consider the experience of a police department for which I once worked. In the mid-90’s that agency was run by an anti-gun chief, and the issued department weapon was the S&W model 686, a stainless steel, 4” barrel, .357 magnum revolver. As an issued weapon–the only weapon allowed for every police officer–it was a mediocre choice. On one hand, it was–and is–a high quality, reliable weapon. Its stainless steel construction made it easier to maintain, and the 125 grain hollowpoint duty cartridge was an effective choice. On the other, the revolver was very large, heavy, had substantial muzzle blast and report, substantial real and felt recoil, was difficult to conceal, and the only concession allowed to the individual officer was the choice of a few different styles of rubberized grips. Female officers had a hell of a time with the weapon. We used to joke-–sort of-–that even if we missed, the bad guys would be incinerated by the muzzle blast. Night-firing qualifications were wonders to behold, each round fired illuminating the area like lightning strikes. I had no difficulty with revolvers, but I became a police shooter in a time with few reliable semiautomatic pistol choices. I was also willing to reload and devote considerable time to developing my skills. As a result, I became adept with the revolver, even earning the top shooter honor in my first basic academy class.
I’m also a 6’, 200+ pound man with larger than average hands and greater than average strength. Consider too that I was–and am–an avid shooter, so I was far more practiced than most of my compatriots (most cops aren’t shooters–really). Even so, after 50 rounds of qualification with full-charge cartridges, I was feeling the effects of fatigue in my hands and arms and glad to be done. Many of my smaller, less experienced colleagues absolutely hated to shoot their handguns, wincing with each report and actually experiencing bruises and abrasions on their hands. Their qualification scores reflected this reality. Still, if my only option for a duty weapon had to be a stainless steel Smith and Wesson in .357 caliber, the 686 would probably be my choice.
Because of the necessary width of their cylinders and their weight distribution, revolvers are generally wider and more difficult to conceal than semiautos. One final observation is that because of their designs, revolvers can become “out of time.” In other words, the cylinder no longer precisely aligns cartridges with the barrel. This can cause splashback of portions of a bullet, or in extreme cases, injure the shooter or bystanders. While this is usually not seen outside of significant mechanical failure or significantly worn (as in mechanically degraded) weapons, it is something about which to always be aware with revolvers.
Despite this litany of potential problems, modern, quality revolvers are generally quite safe and reliable and will usually fire every round without fail right out of the box. However, no one should carry or rely on any firearm for self-defense without familiarization training consisting of firing several hundred rounds through the weapon.
Police experience is revealing. Police agencies transitioning from revolvers to semiautos have commonly found that the hit ratio of their officers, on the range and in actual gunfights, significantly improves. This was my experience when an agency of some 100 officers for which I worked transitioned to Glocks in .40 S&W caliber. Officers who struggled to make minimum passing scores with their .357 revolvers were consistently scoring much higher with much less effort. Officers who were highly skilled demonstrated far less variation. One hundred percent shooters are 100% shooters for a reason. In other words, semiautos are generally easier to shoot accurately (practical accuracy) than revolvers despite the fact that revolvers may have greater intrinsic accuracy.
ADVANTAGES OF SEMIAUTOS:
The primary advantages of semiautos are that they are more easily concealable, tend to have lighter triggers, have greater ammunition capacity than revolvers–in many cases, much greater–and are more quickly and easily reloaded than revolvers. Semiautos also, in most common calibers, have much less recoil effect and muzzle blast than revolvers, and have a bore axis much lower than revolvers. With polymer frame construction, some semiautos can be substantially lighter than revolvers yet hold substantially more ammunition.
Because of their very nature, semiautos are subject to more common malfunctions than revolvers, but each of these common malfunctions can be cleared in the field, without tools, in four seconds or less by those without expert levels of knowledge and skill. Because they do not have cylinders, as long as there is a round in the chamber–and this is the way modern semiautos should be carried–semiautos will virtually always fire at least one round even if they malfunction thereafter.
One interesting advantage that is of little use to most shooters is that semiautos can accept suppressors (there is no such thing as a “silencer”). Suppressors are useless on revolvers–despite what Hollywood would have one believe–because of the gas that escapes through the gap between the cylinder and the barrel. Suppressing firearms is all about gas control.
Semiautos, many of which are designed with military service in mind, usually break down without tools and are easy to clean. Even non-military designs are generally easy to break down, clean and reassemble, and virtually always without tools. They also tend to have few parts to disassemble. Glocks, for example, break down into the frame, barrel, recoil spring/guide rod assembly and slide. No further disassembly is required for normal cleaning
As previously mentioned, semiauto trigger mechanisms—even double action mechanisms—tend to be much lighter and more easily manipulated than revolver triggers.
DISADVANTAGES OF SEMIAUTOS:
There are two primary types of malfunctions common to semiautos: failures to feed and failures to eject. Each has several commonly known variations, but as previously mentioned, proper training will show anyone how, within mere seconds, to clear such malfunctions. One of the most common problems with semiautos is “limp wristing,” or not giving the handgun a firm grip with a straight, rigid wrist. Semiautos need a solid grip against which to cycle the slide. If the weapon is held limply, it may lack the force to complete the cycle and may not fully eject an empty casing, or may not fully chamber a fresh round. Proper technique can easily sort out this common problem.
Semiautos generally come in only one grip size, so some may simply be too large for smaller hands. However, some manufacturers are now shipping models with easily switched backstraps to address what may or may not be a problem. In addition, weapons with polymer frames like Glocks allow magazines with substantial capacity while still keeping the grip relatively small.
One cannot normally tell whether a semiauto is loaded merely by looking at it, though some do have mechanical loaded chamber indicators, or like the S&W Bodyguard, a small notch cut in the breach that allows a chambered cartridge to be seen. However, this can be addressed with a simple “pinch-check,” or retracting the slide just enough to see brass in the chamber. Some people also experience accidental discharges when, after removing the magazine, assume that the weapon is empty and fire the round in the chamber. This too can be easily addressed by using the proper manual of arms of always removing the magazine, cycling the slide several times, locking it back, and looking and using a finger to verify that the magazine well and chamber are empty.
Some semiautos, due to their unique design, have very stiff recoil springs. Some people with weak hands or limited strength may have difficulty cycling their slides. My recent article on correct technique in dealing with stiff recoil springs may greatly simplify this issue for most people.
Another common problem is loading magazines with stiff springs. However, inexpensive magazine loading tools that essentially eliminate this problem are widely available–Glock includes one with every handgun sold–and it is a very small percentage of the population that cannot learn how to use what strength they have to cycle a slide, or with proper tools, to load a magazine. Even so, some few people, due to disability or illness may find such tasks daunting.
The greatest single weakness of semiautos is the magazine. They are generally easier to damage than the guns themselves, and if a magazine won’t properly feed through fatigue or damage, the shooter suddenly has a very hard to load single-shot handgun. To address this problem, at least one spare magazine should always be carried, and all magazines should be regularly rotated with a complete set of spares to allow the springs to “rest.” I grant that this may be an old shooter’s superstition, but it surely cannot hurt anything, and in more than three decades of daily carrying handguns and following this procedure, I’ve yet to have a magazine malfunction. This may be attributed to nothing more than my care in ensuring my magazines aren’t exposed to damaging conditions.
Though this is a much smaller issue than it was only a decade ago, some semiautos are ammunition sensitive; some brands and/or configurations of ammunition may make some guns more prone to malfunctions. Most guns designed for self-defense will fire just about anything with little or no difficulty, but some guns, particularly those built to very tight tolerances, such as guns intended for competition, may take a bit of trial and error to find ammunition that is completely reliable. On the other hand, brands such as Glock have a well-deserved reputation for reliability right out of the box and require no alteration or modification at all.
There is no question that semiautos are, by their very nature, more complex to operate than revolvers. This makes accidental discharges somewhat more likely for some people. However, learning the proper manual of arms is far from rocket science, and I’m tempted to wonder about the fitness of anyone unable to safely handle a semiautomatic handgun—given proper training–-to handle any kind of firearm.
Glock 18: There is such a thing as a fully automatic handgun. The Glock 18 is perhaps the most modern version. It differs from the Glock 17 only in that it has a selector switch on the left side of the slide. Because of its relatively light weight slide, it fires with a cyclic rate of from 1100-1300 rounds per minute. That is very fast for any automatic weapon. Beretta also makes an automatic pistol, the 92R, with an extended magazine and a folding front grip. Its rate of fire is similar to that of the Glock. Both weapons are controlled under Federal law and are therefore, relatively rare.
Remington XP-100: The XP-100 is a hunting handgun, which is essentially a bolt action rifle cut down and mounted in a stylized handgun stock. These weapons are designed for hunting and completion and are commonly mounted with optical or electronic sights.
AR-15 Based Pistols: This is the Bushmaster Carbon 15 Type 21S pistol. The lower and upper receivers are made of carbon fiber. It fires the same .223/5.56mm cartridge as other AR-15 rifle/carbines. It exists primarily because the same federal law that regulates ownership of machine guns also requires all rifles to have barrels at least 16” long. One may own a rifle with a shorter barrel, but it must be registered and approved by the federal government just as a machine gun. Remove the stock, and a rifle becomes a pistol. Such weapons are rather odd, being unwieldy as handguns, and lacking most of the good qualities of rifles.
Recent arguments about magazine size limitations are ill-informed at best. They have nothing to do with crime control or with safety. Any magazine can be changed within 1-4 seconds, rendering the idea of safety through removing a few rounds from magazines nonsense.
The point, of course, is to establish a legal precedent for magazine size regulation so that more and more rounds can be squeezed out of magazines. They’re already down to seven rounds in New York State. The future will surely see demands for more, and indeed, legislators across the country are already talking about five round magazines.
While anti-freedom activists are currently focusing on “assault weapons,” no one should doubt their intention to go after common handguns when they feel the time is right.