Is The Revolver Viable for Self Defense?

Revolver Viable

With modern autoloading handguns, the viability of the revolver as a defensive weapon may fairly be called into question. Any thoughtful individual considering arming him or herself with a revolver should reflect on this question. After having spent the last year using revolvers exclusively, I have reached some conclusions, and one of them is: there are a lot of reasons you probably shouldn’t rely on revolvers for defensive purposes.

Why the Revolver might not be Viable

I don’t want to open this blog with disingenuous or shallow arguments about why revolvers are somehow “better”. As much as it pains me to write this, revolvers probably aren’t right for most people. I admit that even I have considered jumping back into the mainstream when I really think about the options available today. I want to take an intellectually honest look at what the pros and the cons of these guns are.

Capacity: The most damning fact about them: revolvers are severely capacity-limited. The most commonly carried revolvers today are five-shooters, while the vast majority of the revolvers on the planet hold only one more. Some newer models hold seven or eight centerfire rounds, but this is still only half the capacity of a modern semi-automatic. To fire an equivalent number of rounds as a Glock 19 with a full magazine would require a J-Frame revolver shooter to carry a full gun and reload TWICE.

Revolver Viable
The extremely limited capacity of the revolver should not be overlooked as a rather major consideration.

Compounding the matter, revolver reloads are complicated – much more complicated than reloading a semi-automatic handgun. You aren’t moving a pre-loaded box of ammunition into the gun (i.e. the magazine), you’re aligning five or six cartridges with a corresponding number of charge holes and letting gravity pull them in. Because gravity plays such a crucial role (even if you’re using spring-loaded speedloaders) you have to get the gun vertical to reload it. There’s a awful lot that can go wrong.

Making this matter trickier still is the fact that the best revolver speedloaders are hard to carry. They are large, round objects that don’t lend themselves well to pocket carry. Many revolver shooters will rely on the “six is enough” school of thought, or carry reloads in the flatter, easier packing speed strips. While they carry more easily, they are much slower to use.

Bulk/Width: The limited capacity of revolvers can be improved upon. Smith and Wesson offers .357 Magnum revolvers holding up to eight rounds. Unfortunately, each round added also adds an increase in the girth to the cylinder. This is not a problem if the gun is to reside in a nightstand, but a major one if you intend to carry it. The round, thick cylinder resides right under the belt if you carry IWB. This is not a problem that is strictly limited to “hi-cap” wheelguns, either. The cylinder on a medium-frame revolver is dangerously close to 2″ in diameter.

Revolver Viable
Getting a revolver that is easily carried and tolerable to shoot can cost some money. Three shootable – but pricey – revolvers, from top to bottom: Wiley Clapp-edition Ruger SP101, Kimber K6S, S&W 640 Pro Series.

Malfunctions: When revolvers go down, they’re down hard. You’ve probably read that revolvers don’t malfunction. Having witnessed and experienced a few, I’ll tell you different. If yours hasn’t malfunctioned, it’s because you haven’t shot it enough. On the other hand, though, so do semi-autos. The difference is, when revolvers malfunction, it’s not generally something that you can clear on the spot with nothing but your two sandwich clamps. The exception to that rule would be the light strike (which I’ve personally experienced in at least a half-dozen different guns over the years). The malfunction clearance drill for a light strike is simple and instictive: pull the trigger again. If you still don’t get a bang it’s probably time for a reload.

Expense: This is a purely practical consideration that really has nothing to do with the revolver or its mechanics. However, it is also a very “real-world” consideration that most of us can’t overlook. Today’s semi-autos are about as affordable as they’ve ever been. Take a look at a Smith & Wesson M&P Shield, for instance. If you shop around this gun can be had for under $400.  You’d be hard pressed to find a new or used high-quality revolver from a reputable manufacturer for this price.

There is also the cost of ammunition to consider. The cost of 1,000 rounds of 9mm is far below that of comparable quality bulk .357 Magnum or even 38 Special. Though it may not seem like it, this is a serious consideration. Training takes ammunition, and the ability to buy more of it means you can spend more time on the range. If you don’t have much experience with revolvers, you should plan to invest in a pretty considerable quantity of ammunition to develop your skill.

Why the Revolver might be Viable

On the other hand, there are also a lot of good things going for revolvers.

Revolvers don’t require magazines. A couple of advantages are inherent in that fact. First, it means you don’t have to purchase dozens of magazines. Magazines are expendable items – once they don’t work, they don’t work. Any prudent gun owner with a box-fed repeater should own at least a half a dozen if replacements are readily available, and more if not. This also means that if you don’t have magazines – because of loss, damage, unavailability or whatever other reason – a semi-auto is reduced to being a really fancy single-shot. This is one reason my “hell or high water” handgun is a revolver. There are no magazines to stock, carry, or maintain, and I don’t have to worry about losing them.

Magazines are also the most common cause of malfunctions in semi-auto handguns. There is also a lot of (maybe overblown) anxiety about keeping magazines loaded too long, changing carry magazines, etc. This is one less consideration in my mind when using revolvers.

Is the Revolver Still Viable?
Despite their shortcomings, if I had to have only one, make it S&W 686!

Revolvers are reliable. I know this is at odds with what I said earlier in the “cons” list. When revolvers go down, they are really down but the good news is, this doesn’t happen very often. If you have a six-shot revolver, you can pretty much count on six shots going off without any fuss. Of course this requires maintaining your revolver and keeping an eye on little things so they don’t become big things. I’ll address this in a future post.

I should point out that this point is pretty much a draw. Most modern, high-quality semi-automatics from Glock, H&K, Sig Sauer, Smith & Wesson, and the like are also incredibly reliable. I honestly can’t remember the last time I had a malfunction with a Glock or M&P (1911s are a different story). Provided the gun is well-maintained and is loaded with a decent brand of ammunition that has been tested in the gun it will almost certainly work reliably.

Revolvers don’t suffer from ammunition sensitivity. Pick your bullet shape, from rounded-ogive FMJ to yawning JHPs to clunky wide-flat noses or full-on wadcutters. It doesn’t matter, because they don’t have to feed. Because your revolver is mechanically powered, you can also choose your power level. This can range from (literally) blanks to bleeding-edge magnum loads. If your revolver is rated for it, it can shoot anything up to that level. This lends a level of versatility that is extremely uncommon in autoloading handguns.

Revolvers are legal anywhere you are. If you can legally possess a handgun there, it can almost certainly* be a revolver. Revolvers aren’t limited by hi-cap bans, assault weapons bans, or any similar nonsense. This might not be a big deal for all of you, but for the millions who live in states with such laws it is. It also is for me because I travel a great deal and need to be able to pass through states that restrict hi-capacity magazines.

*I say “almost certainly” to leave myself a little wiggle room. I don’t pretend to know the laws in every jurisdiction.

Revolvers are very neglect-tolerant. You’ve probably read that you can load a revolver, stick in the nightstand, and forty years later it will still fire. As long as the action hasn’t corroded shut and the ammunition hasn’t been damaged this is on the money. Compared to the their reciprocating-slide counterparts, revolvers are fairly well-sealed against dust, dirt, grit, and grime. A properly cleaned and lubricated revolver can lay quietly in wait for decades.

They’re cool. Ok, this isn’t really a benefit, but this is one reason I’ve chosen to arm myself with wheelguns – there’s just something about them that I really like. And ultimately that is what this article boils down to: if you want to go with revolvers, cool. I’m not pushing revolvers on anyone. In fact, I think semi-automatics are probably a better option for most people. But if you are willing to train hard and take the time to truly learn the platform and – for lack of a better term – develop a relationship with the gun, revolvers might be for you, too.

So, is the Revolver viable for self-defense?

Depending on who you talk to, revolvers are either experts’ guns or the perfect entry-level piece. I think there is merit to each side of this argument with some important caveats. First, I think a larger (K- or L-Frame, GP100) revolver is a fine nightstand gun for most. As Chris Baker of the Lucky Gunner Lounge points out in this excellent article, a mid-sized revolver is well suited to casual gun owners who are primarily concerned with home defense and don’t train a lot. The logic: it is easy to ascertain whether a wheelgun is loaded or unloaded. The gun will survive years of neglect. There are no safety mechanisms to negotiate, no slide to pull back, no controls, buttons, or levers that seem complicated to the uninitiated.

Revolver Viable
Two full-size handguns. Though heavy and clunky by modern auto-loader standards, this S&W 5906 holds 15+1 rounds of 9mm, has less recoil, reloads faster, and is quite a bit smaller than the 686. On the other hand, it is also more complicated to operate.

However, I think small revolvers like the Smith & Wesson J-Frames are poor choices for most users (especially in the ultra-lightweight configurations). These revolvers are difficult to master for a variety of reasons including heavy triggers, tiny sights, small grips, pronounced recoil, and intense muzzle blast. These guns are, in my opinion, best reserved for the experienced or those with the determination to become experienced through regular training.

The bottom line, after all my equivocation is this: can you defend your life and those of your loved ones with a revolver? Absolutely. Revolvers have been defending lives for a very long time. Are there better options out there that are less expensive, more easily carried, and hold more ammunition? The answer again is absolutely. This is an intensely personal decision. Choose what you are confident in and comfortable with. If that choice is a revolver, you haven’t made the wrong decision.

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14 thoughts on “Is The Revolver Viable for Self Defense?”

  1. Thanks so much for your blog. I’m enjoying it very much,. I am a huge fan of the wheelgun, and have a few other suggestions for the “pro” side of the pro/con list:

    – Service size revolvers, if carried in an IWB holster, can be more concealable than service size pistols. I think the best example is the Ruger GP100. With the Ruger compact Lett grip and in an IWB holster, it can be concealed under any cover garment, even a t-shirt and carried at 3:00. There are no corners anywhere on it to print through a shirt, regardless of bending over, twisting, etc.

    – Most of the time, I get better accuracy with that long, smooth double action pull, than with a striker-type trigger. I think it has something to do with not being able to anticipate exactly when the gun will fire during that long pull. When I’m having a good day, I can shoot well with a striker fired or single action semi-auto, but I always shoot well with a revolver.

    – Dry firing a revolver allows one to practice more than one shot in a string before having to do something to reset the trigger. Additionally, when the dry fire session is over, there is less concern about bullet set-back when loading a previously loaded cartridge in a revolver.

    – I can draw and fire a revolver, from normal concealment used in normal life, more quickly than any semi-auto. With it’s round profile, I’ve never had a revolver snag while drawing, regardless if I didn’t get the cover garment fully out of the way. Can’t say the same for a semi-auto.

    1. Joe,

      That is a really thoughtful list. Thank you for sharing! I have a few other things that have come up since I wrote that piece and will probably do a re-visit before too long. If I do I”ll definitely mention these things.

      Thank you also for letting me know you’re enjoying the blog! It is sincerely appreciated!

      Justin

  2. Just found your blog from a link on Active Response Training which has become my favorite gun blog.

    I was introduced to the 1911 in the Army 46 years ago. So after the Army that was my weapon of choice.

    Always loved S&W revolvers. First shoulder surgery Nov 2014 I went to the revolver. After surgery on the other shoulder Jan 2017 I now carry revolvers pretty much exclusively.

    I carry a S&W model 21, 44 special that I have bobbed the hammer on and added the S&W grips that came on the nightguard. Buffalo Bore ammo. I also carry a S&W M&P 340 and added crimson trace S&W grips. Gold-dot 38 special + p, 135 grain. The load that was developed for the NYPD.

    This combination works best for me. Can’t beat the accuracy and ballistic. As you mentioned so many think revolvers are for beginners. Not so. Great blog.

    As a note my son Marine, Infantry & Security Forces. I was FDC Field Artillery. I know support position & Army, aren’t ready to be Marines yet.

    1. Jack,

      It sounds like you have some pretty nice wheelguns and a setup that works well for you. I’ve never messed with the .44 Special but I am intrigued by the new 5-shot .44 GP100.

      Thanks to both you and your son for your service!

      Justin

  3. Thank you for a great blog. There is so little out there from folks who actually carry wheels.
    My daily (most of the time) is an SP101 2.25″. I love this gun and trust it implicitly.
    I do sometimes carry autos, and in fact even when i have my SP on my hip, I often have my Sig P238 in my pocket as a bug.
    This is a great article for the pros and cons of carrying a wheel. Keep up the great work.

  4. Sorry for the late comment, but just found the article.

    Anyway, I think capacity is way overblown. I see it everywhere, even at gun shows, tactical and capacity. For the police, I can see the need for a box of bullets in the gun. Maybe. My point is, just because you have a lot of rounds doesn’t mean you will be effective. See the Miami Dade shootout. Capacity does not equal power. (I have seen that a lot too)
    Revolvers can have much stronger rounds per so one just might not need the capacity. (I always say if you need twice as many rounds to do the same thing as one 357 mag round, capacity has just been neutralized. At any rate, I much rather have a revolver due to the versatility. It can handle a lot of jobs including self defense. And do it well.

  5. A well-written and thought-provoking piece, on a topic that I’ve debated and gone back and forth on more than I can remember. Ultimately, I’ve pretty much settled on revolvers for my needs, and I fully acknowledge my biases. One of those biases, without a doubt, is that I simply “like” them a lot more.

    But there are a few points listed under the supposed ‘disadvantages’ of a revolver that I feel the need to comment on:

    1) “Capacity” – This always comes up in regards to revolvers. Still, I have yet to find any recorded example in modern times of an armed private citizen encounter in which capacity (regardless of what type of firearm the individual was actually using) ended up being a liability or a deciding factor. Of course, you should carry whatever you feel you need to in order to feel adequately prepared for what is likely to happen. If you are a night manager of a liquor store in the inner city, your definition of ‘adequate capacity’ may be very different than mine, living in a small rural town in which crime rates are very low in general and violent crime, armed home invasions, etc. are very rare. Context is a complicated, slippery and polarizing topic, which I think is why it is often avoided, but I think it can certainly play into one’s decision-making, at least on some levels.

    2) “Complicated reloads” – See above. How many documented examples exist – again, in armed private citizen encounters – in which the individual had to reload at all? If we are preparing ourselves based on what is overwhelmingly statistically likely to happen, rather than far-fetched scenarios that are extremely rare or virtually non-existent, then this should be a very minor concern, at best. But also, as with the above, I think context – where you live, where you work, etc. are all factors that don’t tend to get as much attention in these conversations as they should.

    3) “Expense” – Another common factor often cited as a drawback of choosing a revolver, and one that I don’t think really holds up. If you are practicing regularly with a semi-auto (as you should be) then you should have at least 5-6 magazines in regular rotation, and you will no doubt damage some of them over time, requiring replacement. The average mag these days is anywhere from $25 – $40. So yeah, most semi-autos may be cheaper than a good revolver these days, but when you add up several hundred dollars (or more) in magazines over the useful life of the firearm, I’m willing to be it’s a wash, at best. The point about more expensive ammo is certainly a valid one, though. It kills me when I see how cheap 9mm is these days!

    I would, however, also agree with the point that “reliability” is overblown as an argument in favor of revolvers these days. Thirty or forty years ago I think this argument held water, but not so much today. Still, they are more complicated by nature, and essentially useless if you damage the mag, so choose accordingly.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Justin, and I hope you’ll keep sharing them. And I hope I’m not coming off as too argumentative – that’s definitely not my intention. I’m seriously impressed by the content I’ve found on this site, and am following avidly. It’s hard to find a source for good comprehensive info about wheelguns these days.

    1. Great stuff, Hammer! We’re excited to see the readers getting so engaged on these topics. We’re all friends here, and the open exchange of ideas is what it’s all about. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. All I can say is wow! I just found this site and I’ve been reading through it all day. The first gun I ever bought was a Smith and Wesson 686-4 and I still have it. It was my first duty handgun but never got to carry it on the street because my department transitioned to glocks while I was in the academy. If I had to choose just one handgun it would be my 686 and you are the first I’ve seen with the same opinion. I love wheel guns and I’m glad to find a place that has good info about them. Well done sir!

    1. Charlie,
      Thanks so much for the comment! I’m glad you share my passion for the 686 – to me the prelock models represent revolver perfection!
      Keep coming back; we have a lot more content planned!
      Justin

  7. I have a bunch (16? 17?) of revolvers. I like shooting them a lot! I shoot PPC using a custom 6″ S&W model 15. Besides being fun, I find them to be great training tools. But not for the common reasons of being simpler to operate, or more accurate while shooting them in single action.
    Nope, for me, it is the trigger. I find that if one can learn to shoot a DA revolver well, they will be able to shoot (most) semi auto pistols 10x better than before they perfected their wheel gun trigger pull. It’s all about keeping the sights aligned thru the long pull of the DA revolver. After that, most semi auto pistols are a piece of cake to shoot even marginally well. Sure, it takes time, and a lot of practice. But once it’s done, every shooter that I know of, that shoots revolvers really well, are almost always excellent shots with their semi auto pistols. To the point that they are always being asked “how did you learn to shoot so well?”
    Myself, I have been able to take two marginal pistol shooters, and improve their proficiency 3 to 4 fold, by having shoot several hundred rounds (300-400, over a few trips to the range) thru my revolvers.

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