I don’t often write about firearms training, even though its been a big part of my adult life. But, people who know me expect me to do it. I guess this blog started off as a way to keep from being a one-trick pony. I wanted to write about random thoughts, advice, travel, and other things that was foreign knowledge to most people who do know me. I also wanted to write about things that people wouldn’t get bored reading.
Technical writing is for technical people; people who are searching for knowledge, not entertainment. This is a technical piece of writing – warning – you may get bored if you’re not interested in the topic. With the proper warnings having been made, I hope you enjoy my perspectives on the pro’s and con’s of handgun types….
In every attempt, past or present, to contrast the differences between semi-automatic handguns and revolvers, the inevitable arguments over function superiority arise. Much like the arguments over political affiliations, there are those who will always refuse to acknowledge even the most obvious and objective criticisms, especially when holding tight to long standing beliefs. In a distinct comparison such as this article, it is impossible to paint an accurate picture of each individual pro and/or con that is not void of some important contributing factor such as how the weapon will be used (i.e., target shooting or self-defense), and who will be using them (i.e., experienced or inexperienced shooters). With modern online forums these days, there is even a great deal of subjectivity concerning the issue of experience and inexperience. So, let’s skip the ego-centric BS and just get right to the issue.
My background gives me a unique perspective on the situation due to the fact that I began my law enforcement career during a time where revolvers still dominated as the standard police issue firearm. I became very proficient with the revolver and I still have a lot of love for quality made revolvers to this day. Within the span of five years, let’s say around 1990’ish, law enforcement began transitioning to the issuance of the semi-auto handgun. I had begun my career with an S&W Model 66, chambered for .38 Special, and had recently graduated to the S&W Model 686 (.357 Magnum) when I got my first department issue autoloader, a Sig Sauer P226 chambered for 9mm Luger. Although I attended my Firearms Instructor School with my Sig Sauer P226, it was still early enough in the evolution of police issue firearms that the revolver was still widely used and issued. Several of my classmates still carried revolvers.
My career took the direction of Drug Enforcement so my weapon choices became somewhat tailored to that profession and suddenly I was being issued two sidearms, a primary and a backup. During my career, I carried the Sig Sauer P226 9mm, P228 9mm, P229 .40 cal, P220 .45 ACP, and the P230 .380. I also carried the Glock 19, the S&W Mod 629 9mm, S&W 645 .45 ACP, and the Berretta Model 92F. Not to leave you completely in the dark, I will say that I did experience a weapon malfunction once with my 1st Generation Glock 19, duty related, that i’ll admit was purely human error that would likely not occur with the modern Gen. 4 handgun. While it took me several years to purchase another Glock, I will say that I currently own and occasionally teach with a Gen. 4 Glock 17 these days and I have not experienced any weapon malfunctions with it yet. My go-to handgun of choice is still my Sig Sauer P226 – like an old friend I guess. Despite all that, I will do my best to provide objective advice within the limits of my capabilities.
With that out of the way, let’s move on to the evaluation. We will primarily be discussing and evaluating the issues of reliability, maintenance, and accuracy. Handgun features such as rounds capacity, caliber, and grip size, etc., are all important considerations in the handgun selection process. That said, I will be assuming here that you, the reader, already understand those more commonly accepted attributes; foregoing those conversations for a later time and leaving room to explore and focus on what I consider to be the real meat and potatoes of handgun type selection. Within is an illustration of what I consider to be the most important aspects of the individual operational pros and cons of both revolvers and auto-loading handguns including reliability, maintenance, and accuracy, as well as my opinions on the weight I feel each of these features carry into the overall equations of where I hope you will rank them.
The majority of quarrels made between gun enthusiasts for either side of this common disagreement center around the issue of reliability. So it is this issue of reliable function that should be the focus of this process. There are some commonly held beliefs that should first be explored. In fact, it is generally taught that revolvers are more reliable and much simpler designs that semi-autos. Let us closely examine the complete issue of reliability and design-simplicity in order to challenge that conventional wisdom and also to professionally evaluate the level of subjectivity existing in the opinions we hold so confidently. If it’s true, let’s explain why it’s true; if not, let us accurately discern what actually is true.
Conversely, is it simplicity of use or simplicity of design that are being discussed when speaking about the revolver? These two features are definitely not the same thing and both qualities should be carefully studied.
Reliability – Common Malfunctions
First, let’s look closely at typical and non-typical handgun malfunctions. We can break them down into two distinct types or categories; jams and stoppages. A jam is a major malfunction that ties the gun up so tight that there is no way that the shooter can swiftly restore the weapon to its functional state. A stoppage, however, is a minor malfunction that can be quickly and easily cleared by the shooter in seconds, using only his or her hands.
Jams are usually caused by breakages, tolerance issues, lack of maintenance and operational limitations. They can also be caused by human error. Stoppages on the other hand are almost always caused by either human error or ammunition malfunctions. They can sometimes also be caused by worn or poorly maintained equipment.
A jam in a deadly force confrontation would spell disaster. A stoppage might cause the shooter a slight delay but if you train properly and include stoppage drills in your training scenarios, a stoppage could simply be a hiccup in a deadly force encounter that may not affect the outcome whatsoever.
Common Semi-Auto Malfunctions
The most common problems that occur with auto-loaders are stoppages. The reason for this is actually pretty simple. Auto-loaders require that the shooter do his/her part; becoming part of the machine itself so-to-speak. Revolvers are different in that way and do not require the shooter to do anything other than hold it and pull the trigger. The shooter of a semi-auto, by virtue of a firm grip, provides the resistance needed for the weapons recoil spring to do its job. A shooter actually has to hold the semi-auto properly and with a firm grip or the recoil spring will not function as it is engineered to do. Little did you know that the resistance you provide by your grip is actually engineered into the design of the firearm. Thus, it is generally inexperienced shooters, who do not understand the mechanics of the semi-auto handgun, that account for the majority of the most common auto-loader malfunctions.
Gripping the semi-auto improperly can result in the slide not moving rearward far enough to pick up the next available round in the magazine. Upon firing a round already chambered, the slide moves rearward and returns to battery ejecting the spent round (sometimes not fully) but without picking up and loading the next round of ammunition from the magazine. The gun is thereby rendered inoperable unless the shooter manually cycles a round from the magazine using his/her hand by pulling or moving the slide all the way rearward and releasing the slide to return to battery loaded.
Another common stoppage in an auto-loader is a failure of the extractor to fully extract the spent round. Sometimes the spent case returns to the chamber of the barrel and sometimes it will be left sandwiched inside the ejection port between the rear of the port opening and the barrel. In either case, the shooter must firmly and quickly pull the slide rearward then abruptly let go, which allows the spent cartridge to be expelled from the weapon and for a new round to be loaded into the chamber.
Added to that, I often see people pull the slides rearward on their semi-auto handguns and gently allow the slide to move forward into battery with a live round – loading the handgun. This, in rare cases, can sometimes put the handgun into a condition where the slide is not fully into battery. If it’s not, nothing will happen when you pull the trigger. The spring tension of that slide is engineered perfectly to return that slide into battery. When loading the weapon, pull the slide all the way rearward and let it go. This is the best way to ensure that it returns fully into battery.
Another problem for semi-autos that can occur is when a magazine become old and the magazine spring begins to lose its tension. Revolvers, of course, do not have magazines which can be dropped and bent or which stay loaded under tension and unused for months or years at a time. In this condition, a sprung magazine can lack sufficient power to lift the next round into position quickly enough for the slide to pick up the next round and property seat it into the chamber. Either the round stays in the magazine or the tip (bullet end) of the cartridge rotates up from the magazine and the slide drives it forward sideways.
Jams and mechanical problems are very rare with quality-made autoloaders and some makes of auto-loading handguns such as the H&K P7 unequivocally state that their unique blow-back operated semi-auto can actually continue to function reliably with a broken extractor. That weapon of course carries a very high price tag. There are, of course, dozens of individual parts, pins, and springs in both revolvers and auto-loaders; some moving and some non-moving. That said, any of those parts have the potential of breaking or becoming dislodged from the weapon due to recoil or abuse. Broken parts are among the rarest of all weapon malfunctions.
Speaking of extractors, a serious but very rare condition for a semi-auto handgun will be a broken extractor which normally leaves the weapon incapable of extracting a spent cartridge. The weapon may try to load another round into the back of a spent round causing a malfunction which cannot always be repaired simply or without the help of an armorer or gunsmith.
Extractors are essentially spring loaded hooks which claw around the rim of a chambered round of ammunition upon the slide∣bolt being closed against it. Then, upon firing and subsequent rearward movement of the slide∣bolt, pulls the fired case from the chamber rearward until the empty case comes into contact with the ejector which pushes the opposite side of the case while the extractor, still pulling, causes the empty case to be flipped or ejected from the weapon by means of the ejection port. That said, extractors have springs which can, over time, lose their tension causing the ejector to lose its reliability.
Another rare cause of weapon malfunction is a broken firing pin. Of course, firing pins do break occasionally in both the revolver and the semi-auto but broken firing pins are exceedingly rare malfunctions for either of these weapon types. Another rare malfunction which is equally common with both handgun types are broken or weakened main springs. The result of which causes the hammer to either not function at all or to strike the firing pin so lightly that the ammunition primer is not ignited. It is far more common for these springs to be intentionally shortened or filed down by novice gunsmiths, so as to lighten the double-action trigger pull on revolvers and semi-auto’s, and unintentionally render the weapon un-serviceable or unreliable than it is for the spring to break or loosen on its own.
As I initially stated, auto-loading handguns are commonly touted as being more complex machines than revolvers. Is this true? As we move to examine the common revolver malfunctions, let’s put this one away for now and pick it back up after we more closely examine the revolver.
Common Revolver Malfunctions
Now that we have learned the difference from a jam and stoppage, can you now see the significance in defining them in the way I have done? As I move into the realm of the revolver malfunction I think you will clearly see that most revolver malfunctions tend to be actual jams instead of simple stoppages. There is a very good reason for this too. Revolvers are more prone to jams due primarily to the fragility and close mechanical tolerances of the revolver mechanisms.
The swing out cylinder of the double-action revolver is, by its very nature, a somewhat fragile and finely fitted instrument; so, the alignment of the revolver’s cylinder, crane, yoke, and ejector rod must be perfect or the action will bind up. A blow to the gun that probably wouldn’t affect an auto-loader, such as accidentally dropping it on a hard surface, could easily spring a revolver’s cylinder in the crane, rendering it completely un-serviceable. Many police officers have had the occasion to use their side arms as field-expedient night sticks in years past, and revolvers are notorious for being seriously damaged after that kind of treatment. It sounds horrible on paper but when you’re fighting for your life, you do what you gotta do.
Minute sized grains of gunpowder or brass shavings from spent cartridges in one or more of the chambers, a high primer on an unfired round, or an over-long cartridge can all create a condition of insufficient headspace that will bind a revolvers cylinder so badly that it will take a few whacks with a rubber mallet just to open the action. One of the most common revolver malfunctions, a shell casing stuck under the extractor star, is a jam that requires tools, time, and a great deal of patience to clear.
When fouling from gunpowder residue begins to accumulate inside the finely fitted revolver mechanism, tolerances swiftly plunge below operational levels. For instance, powder buildup on the front of the cylinder and the forcing cone will cause the two pieces to drag against each other, interfering with cylinder rotation. Grains of powder in the crane/yoke area can prevent the action from being closed. Fouling in the chambers can prevent rounds from fully chambering which can create a condition of insufficient headspace that will not allow the weapon’s cylinder to rotate.
Have you ever watched an action movie where the hero loads the cylinder of his trusty blue-steel companion then abruptly swings shut the cylinder with a flick of his hairy armed wrist? Most of you probably have; if you’re old enough to be interested in the revolver/semi-auto comparison you’re reading right now. Well, in so doing, the hero would likely have bent the crane and caused the cylinder to be out of time. He might even have gotten some lead shavings in his face while firing at the bad guys 12 times with his 6 shot pistol – with a silencer.
When we were talking about those pesky parts of the semi-auto that don’t exist in the revolver such as the extractor, you revolver fans may have had a moment of relaxation but the revolver has important parts such as the cylinder hand which can and sometimes does break or become damaged causing the cylinder not to be rotated into the proper position. A potential nightmare. Another tiny little unseen part is the cylinder stop which pops up into the cylinder detent when the cylinder rotates into the correct alignment with the forcing cone. Either of these tiny little parts not only can render the weapon inoperable but can also allow the revolver to continue to function in a way which could kill, blind or maim its operator.
While the revolver does seem to handle neglect better than the auto-loader, it is far less able to survive abuse, which is the primary reason auto-loaders were adopted by most of the world’s armies early in our previous century. In my opinion, the auto-loader is far superior in this category due to its near indestructibility and propensity to keep functioning long after the revolver would be rendered unusable.
Ammunition malfunctions cannot be predicted nor adjusted for. The three types of ammunition malfunctions are misfires, hang fires and squib loads. Neither are desirable in any circumstance or weapon but in the case of the revolver, I personally believe there is a higher inherent danger present to the shooter when squib loads or hang fires occur because the weapons cylinder will continue to rotate and the shooter thus could rotate a cylinder on a hang fire, believing it to be a misfire, then the round could have a delayed detonation outside of the chamber/forcing cone alignment. Such a detonation could result in serious injury or even death to the shooter.
Also, in the case of a squib load, the shooter could inadvertently fire a round into the rear of a bullet lodged inside the barrel. Of course the shooter of an auto-loader could also fire a live round into the back of a squibbed bullet but there is a strong chance that an under-powered squib load would not have been powerful enough to push the slide of an auto-loader rearward far enough to pick up the next live round from the magazine thus negating that argument. Similarly, a hang fire would render an auto-loader inoperable without human intervention to manually eject the round and the only danger to the shooter would be if the shooter were to eject the round too quickly then the round detonate outside of the weapon. While neither scenario is good, the delayed detonation inside the cylinder of a revolver with nowhere for the bullet to go is a much more dangerous situation than for a round to detonate in the air with no containment.
So, while auto-loaders are susceptible to malfunctions based solely on bad ammunition and revolvers will continue to function flawlessly with ammunition malfunctions, I personally would much prefer that my weapon stop me from doing something stupid when an ammunition malfunction occurs, especially considering that these malfunctions in auto-loaders are simple stoppages which can easily and quickly be corrected. Contemporary ammunition malfunctions are becoming a thing of the past unless you are buying and shooting a great deal of reloads but when you really put some thought into the whole “only as reliable as your ammo” argument that some revolver aficionados are prone to employ, one has to ponder whether you’re better off with a gun which will flawlessly fail under those circumstances.
Care, Cleaning & Maintenance
What about regular care, cleaning, and maintenance? What are the primary issues of reliability for both handgun types that can be directly attributed to firearm maintenance and regular care? For the record, a person should clean their handguns every time they fire them regardless of whether it is a revolver or an autoloader. You should also clean them in regularly occurring intervals such as once per quarter to ensure they are not rusting or accumulating dust and/or debris to ensure that the weapon will function properly when it is needed. However, there are some specific issues relating to the revolver and autoloader that I want to share.
Revolvers are particularly sensitive to the accumulation of fouling. Much more sensitive than a typical auto-loader. The revolver, by its design, is like a Swiss watch; it’s a finely tuned and fitted machine with very close tolerances. Any amount of drag or resistance in the area of the cylinder and forcing cone will interfere with cylinder rotation. Additionally, the chambers in the cylinder are prone to fouling as well. When this type of fouling is allowed to accumulate, it becomes difficult to extract spent casings from the cylinder which increases reloading time. This type of fouling can also make it difficult or impossible to fully chamber a live round inside the cylinder chambers which can leave the cartridge case rim slightly protruded. In most cases, the protrusion would leave insufficient head-space for the cylinder to properly rotate. That condition also puts more pressure on the cylinder hand.
In contrast, an auto-loader can be fired for many more rounds before cleaning than a revolver before excessive fouling interferes with normal functioning. Auto-loaders are a closed system. There are no open gaps between the chamber and forcing cone like on a revolver. Therefore most of the fouling occurs inside the barrel of an auto-loader or out the end of the barrel. On the contrary, revolvers have an air gap where the bullet jumps from the cylinder’s chamber to the barrel’s forcing cone. When a revolver is fired, hot gasses carrying burnt and unburnt powder along with lead particles that exit the gun from that air gap and coat the front of the cylinder and forcing cone with residue. That residue builds up over time and will cumulatively contribute to a malfunction.
Owning a private firing range and being a firearms instructor for 25+ years, I personally witness and I am guilty myself of firing between eight hundred to a thousand rounds of ammunition through autoloaders without any cleaning and experience no problems or malfunctions whatsoever. You would be very lucky to get two-hundred rounds through a revolver without experiencing some type of operational irregularity.
In spite of all of this, accuracy tends to be the great equalizer of handguns. Most, but not all, auto-loading handguns have a floating barrel that rocks back and tilts the feed ramp of the barrel downward while in rear battery which helps in feeding and chambering a new live-round. This very small amount of potential movement along with a typically stronger and stiffer trigger pull create a more challenging condition for auto-loading handguns to be fired as accurately as revolvers. Revolvers have fixed, and in most cases longer, barrels with crisp and light trigger pulls. These features allow revolver’s to possess a higher degree of accuracy over that of most auto-loaders. It also becomes especially important if the weapon is used more for target practice or competition rather than for self-defense.
Another aspect of accuracy can be directly attributed to grip. A proper grip for an auto-loading handgun requires the shooter to actually become part of the machine itself. If the shooter holds or grips the weapon too loosely, the slide will not travel rearward far enough to pick up the next round from the magazine – returning to battery with an empty chamber. The shooter must provide the resistance required to make that machine operation work properly. That increased hand pressure, for some, undermines finger dexterity. Fortunately, this is a situation that can be helped through experience and training.
In comparison, the revolver is a machine that only relies on the shooter to make it fire ACCURATELY. Thus, the revolver can be fired with a much more relaxed and less tense grip while the auto-loader will not work unless the shooter uses a firm grip. Some novice shooters have a difficult time learning the difference from a firm grip and a death grip, which can also lead to inaccuracy.
Subsequently, the revolver is a much easier gun to learn and manipulate. Its design renders it a weapon which can be easily deployed and fired by novices. Quite a few women have a difficult time manipulating the slide of an auto-loader as some models, especially the smaller and more concealable models, have very tight recoil springs. Thus, the revolver has gained a reputation of simplicity. Sometimes people misunderstand or misinterpret what that simplicity really means and mistake the weapon as being more simplistic than an auto-loader.
Going back to that original question, is the revolver really a more simple machine design? In my opinion no. If you research exploded diagrams and parts lists for most modern revolvers and auto-loaders, what you will find is that revolvers typically have significantly higher numbers of parts than the typical auto-loaders. And that number includes the magazines which usually have four separate parts each. An example would be a classic Colt 1911 which has 51 total parts while a Smith & Wesson model 19 has 93 total parts. If you compare only the moving parts, the revolvers still exceed the number of moving parts than in a typical auto-loader.
That said, I still believe that though the revolver is a much more complex machine, the learning curve to fire it accurately is shorter for most people. Revolvers are very simplistic to use and fire but they are incredibly complex and fragile machines. Auto-loaders, however, require more training to fire properly but are in essence very simplistic designs with few moving parts. It is this phenomenon that encourages folks to believe that the revolver design itself is simpler and that less can go wrong with a revolver. I hope we have put that issue to rest.
In the beginning of this article I said I would forgo discussions about rounds capacity, caliber, and grip size to move on the “meat and potatoes” and I believe I have. When you forgo a discussion on rounds capacity you also leave out the obvious which is the autoloaders feature of multiple loaded magazines which give the autoloader a distinct advantage in firepower and ease of reloading.
But, those are the most obvious features and frankly get written about incessantly. What I intended to offer in this article were the less known and discussed pros and cons which address the reliability and usability of each pistol type. I hope I have done that.
In closing, both revolver’s and auto-loading handguns have their place in contemporary times. Each have their strengths and weaknesses and each can certainly fit the needs and requirements of most gun owners. It is important, however, to know the limits of your weapon of choice. Each system has its inherent deficits and vulnerabilities and each has unique performance characteristics. Guns that cost more are like toilet paper that costs more. They do the job better. If you are rappelling off a 600’ cliff, would you buy a rope on sale at a flea market or would you research the best ropes, made specifically for rappelling? If my life hangs on the rope, you better believe I’m going for the best rope I can buy. Gun selection is about making the same choices and so is ammunition selection. If it is your life or the lives of your family that motivate you to own a firearm, then please choose wisely.
Some of you should definitely consider the purchase of a revolver, especially if you have poor hand strength, or just want a target-shooting pistol. Others of you, however, would better benefit from purchasing or transitioning to a good quality semi-automatic handgun. I say this particularly to the people who will be using it for self-defense. Your decision on what type of handgun to purchase is just as important as your decision on whether to go armed or not to go armed – its personal and its relative to a very specific set of circumstances called life.