Once upon a time, the revolver was the premier handgun for self defense and battle. Police departments and military units used revolvers – usually of the double action variety – in all sorts of calibers, with the .38 Special being normally the low end of the power spectrum. Even when semi-autos had begun to replace the revolver for most “combat” uses, in WWII the military found itself running short of 1911’s in .45ACP and commissioned a large number of double action revolvers from Smith & Wesson and Colt chambered for .45ACP, so they could stick with the same caliber of ammo.
Because civilian self defense weapons very often mirror those most in use by Law Enforcement and the military, when these organizations began switching to semi-autos – especially non-1911 semi-autos – so did the average Joe.
Personally, I think the 1911 semi-auto pistol ranks with the automobile and the outboard engine as one of the greatest inventions of all time, and John Browning therefore as definitely one of the greatest inventors of all time. Having said that, the revolving cylinder hand gun is my all-time favorite firearm! There all all sorts of reasons NOT to select a revolver – especially a single action revolver – for self or home defense, but an objective examination just might reveal most or all of these reasons to be a bit shaky.
First, the advantages of a semi-auto. Normally, a semi will have more cartridge capacity, is faster to reload, easier to operate, and its shape lends itself better to concealed carry. Actually, except for the capacity, the other points are debatable. And on capacity, rarely will a defensive situation involve a long, drawn-out gun battle. Even a 5 shot revolver can make a strong statement when used by an experienced shooter – and there are now 7 – 9 shot double action revolvers available in several calibers including the hard hitting .357 magnum. With a double action using speed loaders, reloading can be almost as quick as changing magazines with a semi – and there is no need to worry about the possibility of a jam or failure-to-feed.
With a semi-auto, or auto-loading pistol, the shooter only need to keep squeezing the trigger to fire as many rounds as the magazine holds. Except that if the pistol is not a “double action” model that both cocks and loads the first round when the trigger is pulled the first time, the slide must be “racked” to load a cartridge in the chamber before it can be fired, and not all models can be safely carried or even stored in a “cocked and locked” condition. 1911’s are the best for this, striker-fired pistols such as Glocks the worst in my opinion.
A double action revolver, in most cases, can be safely carried fully loaded in an uncocked condition, and the first pull of the trigger both cocks the hammer and rotates a full round into firing position. Each additional round is fired by pulling the trigger successive times. There is no safety except the action itself, and a double action revolver can be fired almost as fast as a semi-auto. I would consider a double action revolver the safest of all hand gun actions, except maybe a singe shot. For a less than experienced hand gunner, the DA revolver is the easiest to learn to operate properly and safely. Although a .41 or .44 magnum DA revolver is more powerful than normally recommended for self defense, most popular semi-auto defense calibers – such as the afore-mentioned .45 ACP, .380 ACP, 9mm, .40 S&W, and 10mm can now be had in double action revolvers, if a .357 magnum isn’t prefferable for your needs. Double actions can be concealed almost as easily as a “full-sized” semi-auto, and barring an ammunition malfunction, there really isn’t much that can put one out of operation.
At this point, some readers might be agreeing with me that a DA revolver could actually be a very good defensive hand gun choice, but surely the “out-dated” single action has no place in the personal defense world? In my opinion, again, in this you are wrong. Besides my firm belief in the saying that ANY gun you have is better than a gun you don’t have, a single action – in which the hammer must be manually cocked before firing each shot – is safer even than a DA revolver, and for that all-important first shot (if we are talking about taking a gun from uncocked to ready to fire) pretty much nothing is faster, since the cylinder on modern single actions can safely be kept fully loaded, requiring only a hammer “click” to be ready. Ruger pioneered the “Transfer bar” safety system in single actions that requires the trigger to be pulled before the transfer bar is moved into a position between the hammer and the firing pin. Until this happens, the hammer cannot strike the pin, and the gun cannot fire, so dropping or jarring the revolver will not result in an accidental discharge. After the first shot, fast “spray and pray” shooting will not take the place of careful, aimed shots. So you have only six shots, perhaps only five? If the “problem” is not resolved in the time it takes to discharge those rounds, the situation should at least be patterned well enough to allow for a sheltered reload. Six rounds of well-placed .38 Special +P ammo – or even more powerful rounds – can do a lot of damage.
I have been giving this subject some thought lately. I have several semi-auto pistols, and 3 of them are for defense and recreation shooting only. I also have several single action revolvers, in such “hunting” calibers as .44 Special, .44 magnum, .45 Colt, and .480 Ruger. Any of these would be devastating at “repelling” an intruder. Between my wife and I, we have 2 double action .38 revolvers – mine is a .38/.357 magnum. These could be more than just bedside guns – they could be carried comfortably with the right holsters. Right now I am working on a deal to trade my Charter Arms Bulldog .38/.357 for an older single action .44 magnum. I could load the .44 with .44 Special ammo to reduce recoil and power – still dwarfing the .38 in power – but better would be to load .44 Special level rounds in .44 magnum cases. This would equal or surpass the power level of a .45 ACP. Either way, I prefer a big, heavy bullet to a smaller, higher velocity one MOST of the time. The .44 could be kept handy and fully loaded, requiring only a pull on the hammer to arm it. If this trade does not go through, I already often keep my Ruger .44 Special with its 4 5/8″ barrel handy at night.
Of course, Texas now allows (permitted) open carry of handguns, and for that use a revolver – even a single action – in a belt or shoulder holster is a fine choice. I personally do not see the need to open carry in public, and probably never will, but I have a custom shoulder holster I bought from someone a couple of years ago that I have never used – because I did not like it and felt it was vastly over-priced, especially considering how long I had to wait for it. My .44 Special fits this holster perfectly, and although it would not offer a particularly fast draw, it could be used to carry the single action “concealed” beneath a jacket or coat.
One undeniable fact is that large caliber revolvers will be very LOUD when discharged inside a building, and there might not be time in a defense situation to don hearing protection. Suppressors do not work well on revolvers, due to the barrel/cylinder gap – despite what the movies sometimes show us. A more powerful round also raises the worry of shooting through walls and other “barricades”, and these factors should be considered when selecting a home defense gun. Of course, shotguns are not quiet, nor are the other alternatives, like AR type rifles.
Whether you agree with me or not, and apologies to Herr Glock, but I do not think a high capacity semi-auto is necessary for home defense. As Jeff Cooper said, a pistol is only good for fighting your way to your rifle. If more firepower is needed than a 6 shot revolver can provide, keep an AR or shotgun handy – or better yet, another revolver!
I am possibly the only person I know somewhat wearing the title of “gun writer” who has advocated semi-auto pistols for handgun hunting, and both double and single action revolvers for self defense! In my “defense”, pardon the pun, I may have been reading too many articles and shooting forum posts about bear defense lately!