Should I Buy a Revolver or Semi-Automatic?

Should I Buy a Revolver or Semi-Automatic?

The number of new guns purchased in the United States has reached an all-time high. According to the FBI, by the beginning of September, new gun purchases in 2020 had reached nearly 28 million. In comparison, only 14.4 million sales were recorded in the entire year of 2010.Should I Buy a Revolver or Semi-Automatic?

It’s unlikely that big game hunting and target shooting have suddenly become popular enough to more than double the number of background checks performed across the country. It’s a safe bet that the majority of new gun sales are for self-defense, and that many people choose handguns as their first firearms. That means that potentially millions of Americans are now confronted with an old shooter’s favorite argument:

Which is Best for Self-Defense, Revolvers or Semi-Automatics?

How Handguns Work

Handguns are guns that can be fired with one hand. Handguns are classified into two types: revolvers and semi-automatics (also called pistols). Each has advantages and disadvantages, as millions of internet commenters will tell you in ALL CAPS, but each also has limitations. Here’s a quick rundown of what each gun is like for new and aspiring shooters. Should I Buy a Revolver or Semi-Automatic?


Revolvers are the traditional wheel-guns seen in Westerns. A revolver is made up of a steel frame that houses a revolving cylinder where the rounds are stored. The cylinder rotates into battery as the hammer is pulled, placing a round directly behind the barrel. When you pull the trigger, it goes off. Except for single-action revolvers, the cylinders of most revolvers swing out to the side for reloading.


Semi-automatic pistols are the guns for the cool kids. John Wick employs to divert attention away from the fact that he is, in fact, a skinny actor named Keanu Reeves. They keep their ammunition in a detachable compartment called a magazine (not a clip; that’s something else) that slides into the gun’s handgrip. When a round is fired, the magazine’s spring forces the next round into battery, where it is ready to fire as soon as the gun’s slide racks forward into position.Should I Buy a Revolver or Semi-Automatic?

Strengths and Weaknesses

Each handgun is good for something different, and which one is right for you depends on what you’re looking for. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of each gun’s features.


Whether you use your handgun for hunting or self-defense, it must have “knock-down power.” This is a gun’s ability to hit a target hard enough to knock it down in a few shots. Higher caliber handguns have more stopping power than lower caliber guns as a general rule, but there are as many exceptions to that rule as you can imagine.

The high-power market was once dominated by revolvers. Many revolvers can be built with massive steel frames that eat up high-pressure magnum rounds and hit like a freight train due to their mechanical simplicity. All of the traditional tough-guy calibers, from.357 Magnum to the Dirty Harry.44 Magnum, are available in rimmed revolver cartridges.

Semi-autos have been making inroads into the high-power market for some time. Auto-loader rounds have become more powerful since an infamous FBI shootout in the 1980s, when a slightly stronger 9mm round might have stopped a bank robber. This is difficult to accomplish because the complex cycling mechanism of a typical pistol makes high-pressure rounds more difficult to manage than in revolvers.

There are plenty of powerful rounds available today, ranging from a Glock chambered in 10mm, which is considered a magnum round, to calibers like the.357 Sig, which has a reputation for punching right through barriers like glass and thick clothing.


You don’t buy a handgun for the sake of power. Even medium-strength rifles and shotguns have a significant stopping power advantage over handguns. Rather, you purchase a handgun to strike a balance between concealability and being unarmed. The ability to carry the gun you purchase is critical to how well it performs for you.

The geometry of revolvers makes them difficult to conceal. No matter how clever the engineers at Colt and Smith & Wesson get, your revolver will always have a rotating cylinder in the middle, making it a little bulky. Designers of revolvers have responded to the concealment dilemma by making their wheel guns smaller and lighter.

Unfortunately, this almost always means reducing the number of rounds from six to five, and possibly switching from a.357 Magnum to a.38 Special.

Pistols have an advantage in terms of concealment. There are single- and double-stacked magazines available, with singles being slimmer, as well as some very lightweight frames that can fit in an ankle holster. Taurus and Glock both make excellent subcompact 9mm pistols, and Bersa makes an excellent Thunder clone of James Bond’s Walther PPK.

Ease of Use

Things have probably gone to hell and you’re freaking out if you’re reaching for your handgun. So, revolvers or pistols, which is easier to use in an emergency?

Because revolvers are so simple to use, it’s difficult to get them wrong in a defensive situation. Except for single-action guns, which take a long time to load and require a separate hammer pull for each shot, most revolvers are point-and-click. Many guns, including the Smith & Wesson 642, have shrouded hammers to prevent snags when pulling it from your pocket in a hurry.

Pistols come in a variety of configurations, and while some are simple to use in a pinch, others aren’t. For example, the venerable 1911 has multiple safeties built into the frame and requires the hammer to be cocked before the first shot. Striker-fired guns, such as the Smith & Wesson SD9VE and SD40VE, are easier to use, but if you don’t have a firm grip, the slide may not cycle with enough power to chamber a second round, resulting in unexpected — and unpleasant — jams.

The biggest X-factor here, as with everything that goes “bang,” is practice. Overall, you’re probably better off with a ridiculously complicated gun that you practice with every week than a simple double-action.


Many, if not most, new gun owners inquire about the safety features of any given firearm from their sales representative. It’s natural for first-time gun buyers to be concerned about the shooting machine going off when they didn’t intend for it to, and no one wants to spend money on a new TV to replace the one their new gun shot through an hour after they got it home.

Many experienced shooters dismiss mechanical safeties, which surprises new buyers. It is almost a religious principle among gun owners that you should never trust a mechanical safety and that the only real safety feature is to keep your finger off the trigger.

This may sound like a joke, especially since one out of every five Hollywood movies features a gun that shoots recklessly every time it’s dropped, but virtually none of the handguns available for purchase new today have that issue. To be clear, your new gun will not fire unless you pull the trigger or open it up and fiddle with its parts in some way. You’re fine.

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