The "obsolete" revolver
At the turn of the last century, the old single
action revolver was rapidly being replaced by the newly designed double
action revolvers, which are still in widespread use today. To many, it
seemed as if the days ofthe old single action guns were
numbered. The double action guns could be fired by merely pulling
their triggers. Though this resulted in a much longer and heavier trigger
pull, it greatly increased the rate of fire. For those who preferred
the single action style of trigger pull, the new series of double action
revolvers could still be fired in single action mode. No one has taken the
old style single action revolver seriously as a combat arm for decades,
though they are still as deadly as they ever had been. There has been a
great resurgence in interest among hunters, and cowboy action shooters.
Everyone knows that revolvers are
obsolete, at least as far as combat use is concerned. All one has to
do, to prove this, is to look at television, and the movies. If revolvers
are carried by any of the featured players, they are usually for hunting,
or target practice, or else it is an older character, set in his ways,
and not amenable to the more advanced weapons of the day. If this is not
enough, surely the example of the military, which abandoned the revolver,
in favor of the semi auto at the turn of the century, should prove the point.
Even the police, long a great supporter of the revolver, are flagging in
their loyalties. For the past several decades, American law enforcement
agencies have been divesting themselves of their trusty revolvers, in
favor of a new breed of enhanced automatics.
In particular, the introduction of a competing
series of "wonder nine" semi auto pistols has pounded several nails into
casket of the revolver, for police and military use. The wonder
nines are popular, nine millimeter automatics with large double column
magazines, and generally feature double action triggers. In many cases,
since the introduction of the trend setting Glock, these pistols are constructed
partially out of polymer. The pattern was set in 1935 by the Browning P-35
(Hi power) pistol. This was a 9mm handgun with a double column magazine,
a fully supported chamber, and a cam system for tipping the barrel. In
future years, features, such as a double action trigger, and alloy frame,
would be added. These additions further defined the breed.
When I first became interested in firearms,
and particularly in pistols, revolvers held no particular attraction
for me. I have, for years, been a great believer in the semi automatic
handgun, particularly as embodied in the 45 A.C.P., and the 1911 pattern
pistol. Despite these prejudices, I am not totally blind to the merits
of the revolver. They had always struck me as being nice traditional
firearms, slow to load, and limited in capacity, but sturdy and dependable.
The real romance, and excitement was in the cutting edge of handgun development.
This was, of course, the domain of the semi auto. Like many young gun
enthusiasts of the time, I had no desire to tread the back waters of handgun
shooting, by using a revolver. Funny thing though, my first pistol was
a revolver (a Police Positive), as were my third, and fourth. Many years
passed, before I was to buy another revolver, though I made many purchases
of semi autos during the intervening years.
Being a confirmed semi auto shooter, for many
years, I owned a number of .45, and 9mm automatics. Despite this, I
always seemed to do just a little bit better, shooting one of my
revolvers. It also seemed that a revolver tended to come along with
me for sport and recreational shooting. The automatics were saved for
"serious" shooting. Ironically, the lack of esteem in which I held revolvers,
meant that I tended to use them more often, bringing one along as a knock
around, or carry gun, on travels or camping trips. I have always found
a trusty revolver to be dependable, simple to use, and forgiving of spotty
Despite their virtues, revolvers do have some
significant disadvantages. They are heavy, and bulky, particularly
cylinder. They are limited in capacity, usually to six rounds, though
there are some which hold as many as eight rounds. Some .22 rimfire
revolvers can hold as many as ten. They are slow to reload. They are difficult
to repair, and though durable, the internal lockwork is quite delicate,
if it should ever be exposed or contaminated. These things can make the
revolver tactically, and logistically limited, when viewed on a large
scale. In light of these considerations, the military abandoned general
issue of the revolver, just around the time of the First World War, though
there was still large scale use of wheelguns up until Viet Nam (and smaller
scale use, even today). In general though, the weaknesses of the revolver
outweigh the strengths, in military use.
Police were a bit more hesitant than the military,
to take up the automatic, in place of the revolver, for what were latter
discovered to be some pretty good reasons. Unlike the military, the police
force is not primarily considered to be an armed force. Though police
officers do carry firearms, and are trained, and expected to use them
if needed, they are not an offensive force. Most police officers, even
in today's crime ridden streets, will never draw their guns. The vast
majority will never have to shoot another human being. While the military
and police both receive weapons, and self defense training, that of the
police is given far less emphasis than that of the military. Most police
administrators did not consider the firepower advantage of the semi auto
to be as important as the simplicity and safety advantages of the revolver.
Even today, as attitudes are changing, and many departments are adapting
the semi auto, there are calls for double action only triggers, mimicking
the action of the old revolvers.
The revolver, and the newly armed citizen
So the decision is made. You are going to
get yourself a firearm, and learn to use it (do not even consider doing
the first, without also making a commitment to doing the second).
The question is, what to get. For those who are involved in the sport,
have some military experience, or have been exposed to firearms through
hunting, collecting , or whatever, you probably already know what you
want. In the case of the experienced shooter, it is more a situation of
what to narrow the field down to, rather than what constitutes a suitable
As more states become firearm friendly, and
the number which institute "shall Issue" carry permits increase, a
large number of people are expected to become firearms owners, and users.
The problem here, is that many of the newcomers had no previous interest
in guns. The more restrictive laws of a few decades ago, tended to confine
interest to hobbyists, collectors, military buffs, and competitive shooters.
These types of people are gun savvy, safety conscious, and are very aware
of what had once been called "the way of the gun." The new influx of users,
by and large, are not, and have no wish to be. It may be, that you are
one of these people, and have no real interest in guns, but do have a strong
interest in your own well being, and defense. Though many gun enthusiasts
look down on this type of thing, I see it as being no worse than the average
car owner, who has little interest in the mechanics of automobiles, and is
not involved in motor sports, but does wish to be able to drive to work,
get to the store, and take the occasional trip by car.
For the beginner, just starting out in the
sport, or the householder desiring a bit of protection, but not certain
about the amount of skill and involvement which will be developed, the
traditional suggestion is to purchase a medium frame revolver, in 38
(or better yet, 357) caliber. I can make no better recommendation than
this, for several reasons. They are:
Once some interest has been generated, or
some skills attained, other types of firearms may be selected instead,
but for the beginner, I can think of few better choices. While there are
some gun enthusiasts who will disagree strongly with the following, it
is close enough to the truth to be useful to the beginner. The best revolvers
are made by Smith and Wesson, also by Colt. There are companies like
Korth, Freedom arms, and Dan Wesson, which make very high quality revolvers,
but they are not really a consideration for beginners. Colt, S&W,
Ruger, and Taurus, all make a great line of duty quality revolvers. These
would include the Colt Trooper, the S&W K series, and most of the Taurus
line. There are companies like Charter Arms, H&R, and High Standard,
which make good quality guns, but do not quite match those of Colt, S&W,
and the other first line companies. Then there are "those other" gun manufacturers,
which make "pot metal" guns of dubious quality. I will not list them by
name; there is no reason to know them.
- Low cost. There is a real glut of used revolvers,
right now, in the gun market, and the situation will likely remain
so for years. In large measure, this is due to the efforts of US police
departments to replace the traditional revolver with the new breed of
semi auto pistol. Good quality, used revolvers can be picked up for
around $200, more or less. New, good quality revolvers, may be had for
less than $300, from, companies like Taurus. The cheaper models can be
had in the $100 range, or less, but I do not recommend their purchase.
- Ease of use. There is no gun easier for the novice
user to learn, than the double action revolver.
- Always ready. A loaded revolver only requires a
pull on the trigger, in order to fire. There are no safeties to take off,
no slide to pull back, and no magazine to seat.
- Safe. An uncocked, double action revolver, of modern
design, can not be made to fire, except by a long pull of the trigger.
- Dependable. A misfire (rare though they are) will
not disable a revolver, there is no such thing as a failure to feed,
no such thing as a jam or a stovepipe. A revolver is not affected by the
stiffness of the user's grip, or by the method of gun handling.
- Powerful. In 38/357, the shooter has the option
of employing the very powerful .357 Magnum, or easing into the development
of shooting skills with the more forgiving .38. The .38 itself is no
slouch. Comparison of ballistic tables shows the .38 to equal, or slightly
surpass (heavier bullets) the over rated 9mm.
I hesitate to suggest particular models, because
condition, and availability vary from place to place. However, I have
put together a sort of a guideline to work from. I assume that the beginner
does not expect to pay a great deal of money, and so I advocate the purchase
of a used revolver. This is where the greatest savings can be made, since
production of new revolvers can cost as much or more than that of the more
popular semi automatics. There are exceptions of course, as with heavy
magnum, or target guns. The guns below, are all high quality weapons which
will remain serviceable longer than most of us will be alive. Unlike small
cheap pistols, used by many beginners, most shooters will still find the
guns listed below, to be satisfactory for use, even after their skills have
Used guns for the novice shooter. Prices can vary by location, and are
approximate at the time of this writing ( mid 2002):
- S&W K frame revolvers (M-10, 15, 13, 19) These
have been the traditional police guns for decades, and have much to recommend
- S&W stainless K frames (M-64, 65, 66, 67) These
are stainless versions of the classic duty guns. Expect to pay $50 or
so more (used) than the cost of similar models rendered in standard blue
- Colt Police positive A classic, medium frame gun
by Colt. This is comparable to the medium frame Smith, and is the same
frame, as that used by the Detective Special. ($200-$400)
- Colt Lawman or trooper The Colt entry in the duty
gun market. These were a bit heavier than the Police Positive, but not
quite up to the level of the Python. These guns had simplified actions
- Ruger medium frame series These
guns are of more modern design than the classic S&W, Colt, or others,
like the Taurus, which are close copies. The Rugers use modular components,
and were designed with CNC production methods in mind. Ruger was one
of the earlier manufacturers to make extensive use of stainless steels.($175-$300)
- Any Taurus in 38 or 357 The Taurus duty guns are
clones of the S&W revolvers and are of similar quality to that of
the S&W duty guns. ($150-$300)
- Know what you want Like most things, choosing a
firearm is better, if you have a logical plan, and stick with it.
- Be aware of legal requirements This is mostly a
problem in california, new jersey, illinois, and new york, though there
can be difficulties in other places which are Constitution impaired, or
where lawmakers are ignorant of the values of the nation they presume to
- Be patient, or be willing to spend a bit more. This
is true in most things, but is particularly applicable to the used gun
buyer. We have a wonderful, free market, in which anyone can buy nearly
anything for a price. This can work for the patient buyer, but will work
against those who are in a hurry.
- Look used guns over carefully, and test fire them,
if you can. This is less of a problem with a dealer, than with a
private seller. It is also less of a consideration with standard calibers,
than with magnums.
- Do not buy a gun which has been altered, or has obviously
been owner serviced. You are just asking for problems, if you ignore
this one. Unlike cars, firearms should rarely need service, and should
never be owner modified, unless the owner possesses gunsmithing skills.
This could also get you into legal trouble, if you should ever end up
shooting in self defense.
- Stay away from the .25 auto I mention
this in particular, because it is such a common mistake among frugal
gun buyers. Though there are a few high quality 25 autos out there, most
are just plain trash, and you don't want to stake your life on them. Even
in quality guns, such as the Browning or Beretta, the cartridge itself
is a poor stopper, and not very accurate. On top of everything else, 25
ammunition is expensive, generally costing more than .38 special cartridges.
If you are determined to buy a compact, small caliber pistol, go with the
.22 Long rifle instead.
The reborn revolver
Though I have mostly dwelled on the ways
in which the revolver can suit the needs of the novice or casual shooter,
it is not without attraction to the more experienced sportsman. While
a veteran gun enthusiast can certainly appreciate the safety, ease of use,
and readiness which make these weapons such a good choice for the novice,
there are some some qualities that have a unique appeal to the more experienced
shooter. Most of these advantages are centered around the fact that the
revolver is powered by springs, and human muscle, rather than by the cartridge
One big advantage that revolvers ought to
have, is in the configuration of the grips. The design of the grips,
on a semiautomatic pistol, is constrained a bit by the need to have
a proper housing to contain the magazine, and allow it to feed properly.
Some of the very early automatic pistol designs had a grip that was at
nearly a 90 degree angle to the barrel. These guns were notoriously hard
to shoot, and even in experienced hands, generally shot low. Besides the
proper angle, automatic grips must also be of the right size, and must be
straight along enough of their length, to contain the magazine. Still, many
designs, like the German Luger, and the more recent Glock, do quite well
at selecting a good grip angle and shape. Revolver designers have a bit
more of a free hand in the style of the grip, so it would seem that a
revolver grip would be capable of the ideal shape for fitting the hand
and taking aim.
- Easy to reload for: The reloader has a variety of
loads to choose from, everything from squib loads (very light, for
practice or recreation) to high pressure loads, driving a variety of
bullet weights. Semi auto pistols do not offer this degree of flexibility,
since a balance must be maintained between loads with enough power to
drive the springs, but not enough to batter the slide against the frame.
Revolvers are also not as sensitive to crimping, since they do not headspace
on the crimp, as do automatics.
- Can be chambered for magnum cartridges: The most
powerful pistol cartridges, the magnums, are all revolver rounds. Though
it is true, that some automatics (notably the desert eagle) are chambered
for magnums, these are still revolver rounds, and designing an automatic
to fire them, results in a very large, expensive, heavy, and complex
- Are not particular about bullet type, and shape: There
is no such thing as a failure to feed in a revolver. This is regardless
of bullet weight, cartridge length, or bullet style.
- Are not sensitive to variations in powder charges:
This has already been alluded to above, but bears specific mention.
These guns are amazingly flexible, in the ammunition they digest, compared
to the rather fussy appetite of the auto loading pistol.
- Are not rendered useless by dirt or poor lubrication
(though I wouldn't make a habit of it): Though poor cleaning and
lubrication will eventually render any gun useless, the revolver is
a bit more hardy. A gummed up revolver might develop a heavy trigger
pull, and a filthy cylinder will make reloading a bit more difficult,
but the gun will still fire.
Unfortunately, firearms designers have stuck
to some outdated design concepts. At the turn of the century, there was
nothing like today's science of ergonomics. While some designers seemed
to have a sense about how things should look, feel, and work, there was
no methodical study of how humans should interact with mechanical devices.
These turn of the century grips were designed wide at the base, with a bit
of a taper towards the top. This does not really fit the anatomy of the
hand. We tend to have a wider grip at the top of the hand, which narrows
toward the bottom, as the palm and fingers get smaller. The designers of
such items as joysticks, and baseball bats, have taken this to heart, and
generally design their products to taper towards the base. Many gun designers,
as well as a number of target, and combat shooters are aware of this, and
a series of custom grips has been marketed. These after market grips are
well worth the price, and WILL improve your shooting, if properly
selected. The best design is the reverse wedge. These generally have finger
cut outs, but more importantly, they are narrower at the base, and increase
in width towards the top. When I skeptically tried my first set, I couldn't
believe the difference. The gun seemed to automatically home in on the target.
They were also very comfortable to shoot, making the gun feel like an extension
of the hand. Though I do not generally recommend custom grips for automatics
(they tend to harm the handling qualities of the gun), I recommend them
without hesitation for the revolver.
Still, nothing is without it's drawbacks;
there is no perfection in the world. If the revolver had been the final
answer in hand gun development, the semi auto pistol would never have
gone into production. The main drawbacks of the revolver are:
So, am I a revolver man? No, not really.
I am a strong enthusiast of the semi automatic pistol, particularly
the 45 with a double column magazine. Actually, the question shows
a short sighted view of the purpose of a handgun, which is why the
argument over whether the revolver or the automatic pistol is the superior
design, will never be laid to rest. This is an argument which has already
been raging for a century. The two action types should not be considered
as being in competition with each other. A better way to look at them
would be as a complimentary set of actions, each with it's own set of
strengths and weaknesses. It's like arguing over whether a pick up truck,
or a sports car is a better vehicle, without considering the uses to which
it will be put, or the driving habits of the owner.
- Firepower: The revolver is generally limited to
- Bulk: Though a revolver can be made very short,
the width of the cylinder makes it difficult to keep these guns from
being a bit too thick for easy concealment.
- Double action pull: The only way to fire a revolver
quickly, is by a full stroke of the double action trigger.
- Slow to reload: Not being magazine fed, the chambers
of a revolver must all be emptied, and then refilled. Speed loaders
can make this process almost as fast as with a magazine fed firearm,
but are not in widespread use.
- Difficult to repair and tune: Though revolvers
are generally more dependable, and hardy in the field, than the semi
auto, a malfunctioning revolver is much more difficult to repair than
a semi automatic. Revolvers can also go out of tune, a situation in
which the cylinder is not exactly lined up with the barrel at the moment
of firing. Even a minuscule error in tune can destroy accuracy, and
cause the revolver to spit lead shavings in the face of the shooter.
Revolvers are likely to be around for a great
number of years to come. If our grandchildren are still permitted to
own guns (to say nothing of sports cars, and pick up trucks), by whatever
form their government takes, it is likely that there will still be arguments
over the strengths and weaknesses of revolvers, and automatics. It is
an argument which will never be settled, because it is a question with
no one right answer.
Comparative measurements of various revolver frames
Caliper measurements taken from my personal collection.
|S&W N Frame (m29)
|S&W K Frame (m13)
|S&W J Frame (m49)
|Ruger Redhawk (44)
|Dan Wesson medium (357)
|Dan Wesson Large (44)
|Colt D frame (det special)
|Tauras Raging Bull (454)