Here in the United States, the revolver has a legendary aura through its association with cowboys and private eyes, and many people in the west still carry wheelguns to this day. I would like to share my opinions on the pros and cons of revolvers, but I should note that I am not a gunsmith or otherwise an expert on the subject. My statements are largely restricted to common makes, models, and calibers in the United States. This is also necessarily a brief overview, so Wikipedia is your friend if you want further information.
Various multi-chamber firearms were designed during the black powder era, but Samuel Colt's patent in 1836 is arguably the beginning of modern revolver design. These first revolvers were cap-and-ball models loaded like other black powder single-shot firearms of the era. Reproductions of early revolvers are widely available, and are often less regulated than modern cartridge designs. but I don't recommend a cap-and-ball revolver for self-defense due to their cumbersome loading process, but I certainly wouldn't want to be shot by one either.
Metallic cartridges led to improved revolvers that were far easier to load, and improvements in metallurgy and firearm design led to a rapid development. Smith & Wesson pioneered metallic cartridge revolvers loaded from the rear of the cylinder due to buying the license to use Roland White's patent, and thus established their brand in the market. In 1873 the Colt Single Action Army was released using metallic cartridges, and became an iconic design still imitated to this day. Double-action revolvers were also refined by the end of the 19th century, resulting in the modern revolver.
Single Action vs. Double Action
A single-action revolver, whether loaded with cap-and-ball or cartridges, requires the hammer to be manually cocked before the trigger can be pulled to release the hammer and fire the round. This single trigger action of dropping the hammer gives this design its name. A double-action revolver can cock and release the hammer as part of the trigger operation, thus performing two actions in a single trigger press. Most double-action revolvers can also be fired in single action mode by manually cocking the hammer.
Cocking the hammer of a revolver requires some dexterity, and can be difficult under the stress of a self-defense situation against man or beast, On the other hand, single action triggers are lighter since they only release the hammer, and do not fight the hammer spring tension, which can make precision shooting easier. A double-action trigger press is longer and more difficult, but simpler to perform under stress. In either instance, practice is necessary.
Single-action revolvers are usually emptied and loaded one chamber at a time through a loading gate behind the cylinder, while double-action revolvers are usually loaded by swinging the entire cylinder out of the frame so all empty cartridges can be ejected at once, and various speed-loading techniques and tools are available. This faster loading process gives double-action revolvers a major advantage. For self-defense, it is also generally better to have a double-action revolver and fire it in double action mode. With practice the longer and heavier trigger pull isn't a significant encumbrance to accurate shooting.
Revolvers are made in myriad calibers, so I will limit this to the most popular cartridges in the United States.
The .22 Long Rifle (LR) may be the most common round in the world, and a .22LR revolver can fire .22 Long, .22 Short, and .22 CB as well due to their shorter cases and lower chamber pressures, although accuracy may suffer due to the longer jump the bullet must make before reaching the rifled barrel.
A .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire (WMR)revolver is more powerful, but is not interchangeable with the other .22 rounds, and those rounds should not be fired in a .22 WMR firearm due to differing cartridge dimensions. This reduced versatility is offset by greater effectiveness due to the higher power of this round.
These rounds are ideal for target shooting and small game hunting due to low cost and recoil, but are not ideal for self-defense due to their relatively low power. Nonetheless, always treat every firearm with the same respect. These may be weak cartridges, but negligence can still result in death or injury.
The .32 caliber family is less ubiquitous, but still has a presence in modern revolvers. Starting with the .32 S&W in 1878, the cartridge was lengthened in 1896 and released as the .32 Long alongside the Smith & Wesson Hand Ejector, which established the pattern for most double-action revolvers. In 1984, this case was lengthened again as the .32 H&R Magnum, and yet again in 2007 as the .327 Federal Magnum. This last version was intended to bring the .32 family up toward the power levels of a .357 Magnum (see below) while keeping the higher 6-round capacity of a .32 cylinder instead of the 5-round capacity of a comparable .357. As such, the .32 H&R or the .327 Magnum can be considered sound options for self-defense, albeit with the drawback of being somewhat more obscure.
The .38 Smith & Wesson Special was the standard service revolver cartridge for most police departments throughout most of the 20th century until the adoption of semi-automatic sidearms. It is named for the case diameter rather than the bullet diameter, which is approximately .357 inches. As far as I know, this odd naming convention is a holdover from when cap-and-ball revolvers were rechambered for metallic cartridges, and a .36 revolver cylinder would be re-bored to .38 for the cartridge that contained a slightly smaller .36 bullet. I could be wrong, though.
Many revolvers have been made in this caliber over the years, and it remains popular and widely available to this day. Here in the western US, even drug stores, hardware stores, and grocery stores often have ammunition available in this caliber. It was designed at the end of the black powder era, and was quickly updated to smokeless powder shortly after being introduced. However, the change to smokeless powder meant the case was not being used as effectively, so a far higher power could be achieved using the volume available. The development of the higher-pressure .357 Magnum led to the case being lengthened so the round would not load properly in a .38 Special revolver that could not handle it. A .357 Magnum revolver can safely chamber the lighter .38 Special, but not vice-versa. However, the point of impact may shift significantly when changing bullet velocity and weight.
The .41 Remington Magnum is a bit of an outlier in this list, as it was based on the .41 Special "Wildcat" round that was never officially adopted by forearm and ammunition manufacturers. The .41 Magnum enjoys some niche popularity, but is not especially common.
Like the .38 Special/.357 Magnum pairing, the .44 Special and .44 Magnum are one-way interchangeable. The .44 Special is less common nowadays, but while a .44 magnum is not the "most powerful handgun in the world," it is favored for hunting and self-defense against hostile wildlife due to its significant power. Like the .38 Special, this round is named for its case diameter, and fires a bullet that is closer to .43 caliber because these rounds are the descendants of older .44 black powder loads that are now largely obsolete.
The classic .45 Colt, sometimes called Long Colt nowadays to differentiate it from the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP), is still a fairly common revolver round. Some .45s can even fire the .45 ACP by using a moon clip to hold the more modern rimless cartridges. While not quite as powerful as the .44 Magnum, this round is still a popular choice in single-action revolvers. The .454 Casull is effectively a .45 Colt Magnum, and is often used for hunting and predator defense. It was also lengthened again to create the .460 Smith & Wesson Magnum in 2005.
There are various rounds being manufactured now to serve the handgun hunting market. These are all less common, and thus not recommended to anyone outside these niche markets. If you're seriously interested in them, you're not the target audience for this article.
Why a revolver and not a semi-automatic?
There may be several reasons, including but not limited to the following:
- Availability. Perhaps you already own a revolver, and can't afford another gun.
- Legality. It may be difficult or impossible to buy a modern combat pistol in your jurisdiction.
- Preference. Familiarity, aesthetics, ergonomics, or the mechanical simplicity of revolvers may make them a favored sidearm for many shooters.
- Public Relations. Hoplophobes may be less triggered at the sight of an old-fashioned firearm. Modern handguns and rifles are perceived as extra scary, and carrying one may result in ignorant bystanders calling the police about someone carrying an assault weapon, while someone with a revolver may be perceived as less dangerous.
- Probable need. Accurate statistics for defensive firearm use are impossible to gather, but anecdote and available data suggest that many defensive firearm uses do not require any shots fired at all, and when shots are fired, the matter is usually resolved with less than six rounds. As such, a revolver may be deemed adequate.
Which should I buy?
I can't tell you which revolver is best for you. Sorry. My general advice would be a good double-action .357 Magnum with a 4" barrel. A Ruger SP101 in .327 Magnum or a J-frame Smith & Wesson snubnose in .38 Special may be better for concealed carry, though, and various other makes, models, and calibers may suit other circumstances, too. I can only advise against a few specific things:
- Don't buy something that isn't made by a reputable manufacturer, and avoid uncommon calibers.
- Don't buy a single-action revolver, and especially don't buy a black powder cap-and-ball revolver. These models are fun at the range, but I don't personally recommend them as a first firearm for anyone.
- Don't buy a Taurus Judge or Smith & Wesson Governor. They are cumbersome, and the option to fire .410 shotshells is more gimmick than useful.
- Don't buy a Chiappa Rhino. I have fired one, and I like this gun, but it's too mechanically weird for me to recommend it. The controls are very different from other revolvers, and the process for safely lowering a cocked hammer is a recipe for accidental discharge if you are at all unfamiliar with it.
- Don't buy a Nagant revolver. The weird caliber, single-action-style loading gate, and an indescribably terrible heavy trigger all count against this design. The single action trigger is at least as heavy as most double-action triggers, and while it is a double-action revolver, I defy anyone to accurately and effectively fire it in double action. It is beastly. This is a novelty, not a practical hunting or self-defense gun. Yes, you could theoretically use a silencer on it, but that's just a new legal hassle on top of still using a terrible gun. If you want to shoot suppressed, start with a decent semi-auto pistol in the first place.
I like revolvers. I like the engineering and manufacturing genius it took to design and make them. I enjoy shooting them. They're not my ideal choice should I ever need to defend myself, but a revolver can be a good option for recreational shooting, hunting, and self-defense. Visit your local range to take a firearm safety class and rent some revolvers. Talk to other gun owners. Read gun blogs, and keep a sceptical eye out for hyperbole or sponsored content. Paul Harrell on Youtube seems like a levelheaded guy to follow.
As I said at the beginning, I don't claim to be an expert or gun guru. If you disagree with anything here, or wish to add your input, please comment below.
EDIT Apologies for the newsteem tag. I didn't notice that Steemit left behind an autofilled tag list from my previous post when I wrote this.