In this installment of the series (the first four are available here, here, here and here), I’ll discuss the primary differences, advantages and disadvantages between revolvers and semi-automatic handguns. In the next installment, which will be posted March 5, 2015, I’ll get into caliber choices, methods of carrying, and several other items of interest. I’m making the assumption that readers contemplating what I’ve had to say in the first four installments intend to do more than purchase a firearm exclusively for home defense. After all, our lives don’t lose their value outside the home, and one is, depending on a variety of factors, arguably more rather than less likely to need to defend their life—or the lives of others–outside their home.
I’m also going to be writing 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–print and online–and books, 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 an old story about a reporter who asked a Texas Ranger why he carried a .45. He replied–of course–in a slow drawl: “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. Carbines such as the AR-15 family can also serve as excellent home defense firearms. However, since it is practically difficult or impossible to carry such weapons on a daily basis, a handgun is the best alternative.
NOTE: My primer on the AR-15 is available here, and a related article is available here.
But what about shotguns? Aren’t they more effective than handguns? Yes, particularly when employed against enraged waterfowl. Seriously, despite what Hollywood (and Vice President Biden) 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 (18″ is the legal minimum without a federal stamp similar to that required to own an automatic weapon, suppressor or short barreled rifle) the shorter the effective range of the shotgun.
Some claim that shotguns are more flexible than handguns because they accept a greater range of potential cartridges, 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, 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. Ultimately, the most effective handgun is one with which one regularly practices and that one is willing and able to carry each and every day. 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 fresh round into precise alignment with the barrel. Revolvers come in two action types: double action and single action.
Single action revolvers are like the Colt .45 handguns of cinema westerns. Cocking the large, exposed hammer, usually with the thumb of the strong (the same hand holding the revolver) hand, rotates the cylinder. Internal mechanical linkage simultaneously rotates the cylinder to line up 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 (the trigger moves backward as the hammer is cocked) 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, particularly in original or older designs, 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 carried and handled with fully loaded cylinders, but they are large, cumbersome, slow to fire and even slower to reload. They’re wonderful for target shooting, handgun hunting in the larger calibers, or western style shooting competitions, but modern weapons have greatly surpassed them in convenience and effectiveness.
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, 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 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.
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.
This is a Smith & Wesson Model 66 .357 Magnum revolver. Produced in stainless steel, this–and it’s non-stainless sibling–was once a very common duty handgun for American police officers. It is a medium framed revolver, substantially larger and heavier than the Ruger LCR or similar revolvers, and is generally intended to be carried on a duty belt on the hip. A very well made weapon, the MSRP for this revolver is $849.00 (circa February, 2014). Virtually all revolver manufacturers make models in this general size/caliber range.
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 continue to fire until the trigger is released or its 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, predetermined bursts–usually three rounds–with a single pull of the trigger. A semiautomatic weapon fires only one round for each pull of the trigger. Semiautomatics hold their ammunition in magazines. Magazines are often incorrectly called “clips.” The only currently manufactured, widely available firearm that actually uses ammunition 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 normal 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.
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 slide action also cocks the hammer or internal striker. 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 of several kinds (the most common in contemporary handguns), a gas system, or some combination of the two. Many semiautomatic pistols have an external, manual safety device of some kind.
This You Tube video animation of the 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.
Semiautomatic pistols, however, have a greater number of trigger types 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 (Latin: “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) the safety and pulls the trigger, which commonly has a light and short travel, greatly enhancing accuracy.
NOTE: The study of John Moses Browning is fascinating in and of itself. Browning was an authentic American genius, though much neglected in contemporary history classrooms because he invented firearms. Browning’s contributions to winning WWII, for example, cannot be too highly touted.
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, high-quality 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 (such as 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 in caliber cousins. My 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. In this case, manufacturers produce weapons incapable of single action fire, so that 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 (Automatic Colt Pistol)—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 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 quite as light (Glocks can be reduced to a 3.5 pound trigger pull), 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 which must 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. The only two additions beyond the out of the box handgun are a Pearce Grip magazine finger rest and a Crimson Trace laser sight. My recent article on that laser sight is available here, and my article on the original Glock handgun, the Glock 17, is available here.
One of the many and significant advantages 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. Glocks and copycat weapons are 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 firing 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 allows the trigger to move forward until an audible and easily felt “click” occurs. This allows the next shot to have a much shorter and lighter 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. Small Glocks like the 26 also have the advantage of small size and light weight while still retaining substantial magazine capacity.
REVOLVER ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES:
Modern double action revolvers come, generally, in large, medium and small sizes. However, 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 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 5-round 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 meant to be carried in exposed holsters. It is possible to conceal them with the right holsters, but they are big, heavy handguns built to take heavy wear from powerful cartridges over the long term.
Medium framed revolvers–such as the S& W Model 66–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 and small grips), muzzle blast and report (from short barrels), and lessened accuracy (by means of shorter barrels, small grips and small, non-adjustable sights). Small .38 caliber revolvers are notorious for their brutal—even painful—recoil and dazzling muzzle flash and report.
While speedloaders greatly lessen reloading times, they tend to be inconvenient for most people for concealed carry. In addition, many grips interfere with speedloaders 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 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.
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–each was hand assembled and fitted at the factory–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 a 30° angle! I simply opened the cylinder, unscrewed the barrel with my bare hands, and 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 likely immediately 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 recent 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 to say nothing of confidence. 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 large frame, 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 excellent, 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 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 truly wonders to behold. I had no difficulty with the weapon, but I became a police shooter in a time with few reliable semiautomatic pistol choices. I was also willing to reload and devoted 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 in a variety of explosive ways. 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 and function assurance 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 somewhat 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 while actually absorbing some recoil energy that would otherwise be felt by the shooter.
Because of their very nature, semiautos are subject to a somewhat greater number of 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. Note: A “malfunction” is a stoppage that can be rapidly cleared by hand without tools. A “jam” is a stoppage that requires tools to clear/repair. Thus, a gun that “jams” is a gun that cannot fire and cannot be made to fire on the spot. 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. Some semiautos have magazine safeties that prevent the weapon from firing if a magazine is not fully inserted or removed. Such weapons should not be carried for self defense.
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 you believe–because of the gas that escapes through the gap between the cylinder and the barrel. Suppressing firearms is all about gas control. Citizens can purchase suppressors, but they are subject to the same federal registration paperwork–including a $200.00 fee for the stamp–as fully automatic weapons and short barreled rifles or shotguns. These days, fewer and fewer citizens are comfortable with the federal government knowing anything about their firearm choices, or about any other aspect of their lives.
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. Fourth generation Glocks have replaceable backstraps, allowing some adjustability in grip size.
One cannot normally tell whether a semiauto is loaded merely by looking at it, though some do have mechanical loaded chamber indicators (Glocks), 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 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, through fatigue or damage, won’t properly feed, 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, and to routine, proper maintenance.
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. Some smaller handguns, such as .380 pocket pistols, might also be a bit finicky. Mrs. Manor’s S&W .380 Bodyguard won’t reliably fire inexpensive Russian ammunition with steel cases, but mine will fire anything. 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.
I’m sure that gun buffs can easily make various points, pro and con, regarding what I’ve had to say, and comments are always welcome and appreciated, however, I believe I’ve provided a good general overview of the relevant issues. Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you here again next week.
Great series – Please keep it up!!
My daily carry is a Kimber Pro-Carry in .45ACP and I love it. Trained extensively with it and feel completely confident in the weapon. This series is not only an excellent refresher for me, I can pass it on to my shooting friends and non-shooting friends alike!
Mike McDaniel said:
Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, and for your kind compliment. Kimber does indeed make fine handguns. Thanks too for sharing it with others.
My wife and I have been following this series and really appreciate your insights. Part 2 on justified killing gave me the impetus to hold a discussion on the topic in our adult Sunday School class last Sunday. A number of people in our congregation have obtained their concealed carry licenses, so it made for good discussion– especially from the Christian perspective.
An aside: my wife is a teacher, and she appreciates your writings on education as well. Keep up the good work!
Mike McDaniel said:
Thanks so much for taking the time to read the series, and for your kind comments. I’m very glad my scribblings have been useful to you and to those in your sunday school class. It would have been great fun–and interesting–to have been there, I’m sure.
Please give my sincere thanks to your wife too, and thank her for her service to our future.
I’ll do my best to live up to your expectations.
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I have a high regard for my Ruger p345. It is a slim, single stack .45 ACP with which I can hit the target about as well as any handgun I have ever owned.
It has a magazine cut-off.
It locks open with the last round.
Thanks in advance for explaining where the problem is.
Is it that important to count rounds and keep something in the chamber? I am not sure I can do that at the range, much less at the bottom of the pit.
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Hey Mike, great post. I thought I’d mention that the links for 2 and 3 don’t work (and they didn’t on the last post either).
Mike McDaniel said:
Thanks for the catch. I believe they’re fixed.
I have a Taurus copycat of the Beretta 92. It is a semi-automatic double action firearm. I was taught to, as you say, “catch the link.” when firing it, which results in a smaller and smooth trigger pull. I was wondering why you consider this a disadvantage with double action pistols, but an advantage with striker fire pistols?
Mike McDaniel said:
“Catching the link,” as I’ve described it, is a feature of Glock pistols due to their unique striker design. I don’t believe the Beretta 92 or its Taurus clones is capable of the same mode of firing. Because they are double action designs, they may be fired in single action mode–by manually cocking the hammer or cocking the hammer by movement of the slide after the first double action round is fired–which results in a much shorter and lighter trigger pull. This is similar to “catching the link” in a Glock, but not the same thing practically or mechanically.
The issue of disadvantage has to do with firing the pistol under stress. Glocks have consistently lighter and shorter-traveling triggers than double action designs, not only for the first shot, but for every shot. The problem with double actions is always the enormous difference between the first double action shot and the second single action shot. “Catching the link” is not something one would normally do under fire, but it is a handy trick on the range.
Good gun, good ammo, good holster, and just a lot of practice.
I’d mention that there’s good value in shopping around for a handgun that fits your individual ergonomics best; e.g., I know that Mr. McDaniel is a big fan of the Glock 26, but I find that the slightly longer grip on the 23 fits my hand better and lets me get my ‘second shot’ off faster and more accurately.
Mike McDaniel said:
Thanks for your comment. I am indeed a fan of the Glock 26, but only because it well meets my needs and I have not found anything better. I carried the Glock 19 for many years before the G26 was invented and liked it very much despite its tendency to painfully pinch my hand when I rapidly inserted magazines. The point is always to carry a handgun that works for one’s unique anatomy and that one will find comfortable carrying day after day.
my first carry (many – many years ago) was an old 3 screw single action .357 Ruger – difficult to conceal or reload but otherwise worked just fine and I figured after 5 shots if I hadn’t taken care of the problem it was my fault.
my experience with GI 1911’s turned me off semi’s (although I would love to have my old grease gun) and didn’t like the trigger of DA’s
When Glock came out with the 36 it became my primary carry for many years (after a bit of work – 3.5lb trigger, compensated barrel, +1 mag extenders and a guide rod LaserMax and from first hand experience I can attest to the effectiveness of a laser sight in saving lives!) and appreciate the fact that all I need to remember is to “keep the booger hook off the bang stick” and is still my bedside goto – although after channeling my inner Walter Mitty playing IDPA and trying tuned 1911’s – my daily carry these days is a Kimber UC II with a few extra things like visible sights and a grip laser
Konrad Arflane said:
JMB and Hi Power fan here. Can you go into more detail about carrying cocked and locked/holster selection, or link me to where you’ve discussed this in more detail?
Normal carry for me is my PPK/s (subject of course to the DA/SA conundrum you’ve described so well). Not a Glock fan (pointability isn’t working for me)…would like to carry the HP more often, but safely, and in ready for action mode.
Mike McDaniel said:
Dear Konrad Arflane:
The Hi Power may be carried safely in any holster that covers the trigger/trigger guard, and that will not allow the safety to be unknowingly manipulated. As you know, the Hi-power has a pretty stiff safety, so that’s really more of an issue for those of us who are extra-careful. Apart from that, following standard safety protocols–keeping the trigger finger out of the trigger guard and off the trigger until milliseconds before firing, and removing it immediately thereafter, etc.–will handle the rest. There really is no magic holster.
I’ll be discussing holsters in more detail in next week’s final article in the series.
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