A Revolver for Self-Defense?

A couple walks into a gun store to buy their first gun. They leave with a revolver. There’s a good chance that the person at the counter said something like “Get a revolver. It never jams and it’s small”.  Is choosing a revolver for self-defense a valid choice in the 21st century? The short answer is a qualified yes, but there is a lot more to it than just yes or no. Let’s look at the myths, truth, pros and cons of choosing a revolver for self-defense…or not choosing one.

The Scope of Comparison

The range of revolver options is as wide as semi-automatics pistols. They can be as small as the diminutive North American Arms .22 up to the Smith & Wesson .500 Magnum. Both of those are not just extremes for size, but for caliber as well. However, like automatics, not every caliber or size is suitable for every task.

For the purposes of this discussion, we’re going to look at one of the most common choices when someone purchases a revolver for self-defense, a .38 Special (38 Spl) with a 2-inch barrel. We’ll compare it to a similar size gun that is currently the most popular selling semi-auto, the Sig Sauer P365.

MetricSmith & Wesson 442Sig P365
Overall length- inches5.85.8
Barrel length- inches1.883.1
Width- inches1.31.06
Height- inches4.34.3
Weight- ounces14.717.8
Capacity510 (12 as carried)

Even if you’ve never held a gun before, you have seen the small revolver in a thousand movies and TV shows. Carried by detectives and bad guys alike, the “snub nose” is a common sight.

Buy the Smith & Wesson 442 here.

One other thing to mention is that the 442 is an “Airweight”. The alloys make it lighter than the 17-ounce Taurus pictured with it. Some alloys are even lighter.

Smith & Wesson 442 (L) and Taurus Model 85 (R)

What Do We Carry?

Ease of Use

One of the big selling points for revolvers is their ease of use. But is that difference really that great?

  • To load and fire a revolver, you push the cylinder release, open the cylinder, load the chambers (5 to 8 depending on the gun), close the cylinder and it’s ready to fire.
  • To load the auto, you load the magazine, insert it into the gun, pull the slide back and let it go forward. Ready to fire.

Is one that much more in-depth than the other? The truth is, once you are shown how to do it, neither is a complicated procedure.

Reliability

This is one of the drums that the revolver salesman will beat the loudest. It’s true that there is a lower frequency of malfunctions with revolvers. This is especially true with the most common malfunctions, failure to extract and failure to feed. However, like any mechanical device, revolvers can malfunction. And when they do, the malfunction can often be a catastrophic failure that makes it completely inoperable.

Revolvers do, however, tend to be pickier about cleanliness. The tolerances on revolvers are generally tighter, so the build-up of carbon and soot affects them faster. You won’t notice this shooting a box of 50 rounds, but if you’re in a class shooting 250-400 rounds, you will likely notice it. I don’t clean most of my autos until between 500 and 750 rounds, but that’s usually not the case with a revolver.

As a side note, many malfunctions that happen in autos are magazine-related. This is one reason I always advocate carrying a spare magazine. Clearing the old magazine and putting a new one in is often the fastest way to fix the error.

Shooting Smaller Guns

Smaller guns are usually more difficult to shoot than larger ones. There’s less grip to control and less weight to mitigate the recoil. This is even more pronounced with revolvers because the autos use the gases of the shot to function the slide, lessening the recoil to one degree or another. But, revolver or automatic, the smaller size will have an effect on ease, comfort and speed of shooting.

This is one of the things that I see so often with new gun owners, especially women. Gun makers will put pink grips on them and pretend this is a great idea. The salesman will talk about how it’s so small and easy to conceal. That part may be true, but giving a small gun with considerable recoil to a new shooter isn’t a roadmap to success. More often than not, they’ll shoot it a few times, not like it, and not practice again. That doesn’t help them get better. It also doesn’t help them get into the sport.

My own wife is a good example. She carried a Glock 43 for a couple of years. She could shoot it well, but she didn’t love shooting it. The gun was snappy and not pleasant to shoot. She did, however, love shooting bigger guns like the Springfield Echelon, in the same caliber. Eventually, she opted to change to the Ruger Security 380 as her carry gun and thoroughly enjoys shooting it.

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Hand Strength and Skill

As a corollary, there is an issue of hand strength that probably needs to be mentioned. Sometimes a salesman will talk about how revolvers don’t need the slide pulled back and mention how that is good for people with reduced grip strength. What they fail to mention is the very long, fairly heavy trigger weight of the revolver.

True, on many double-action revolvers, you can pull the hammer back and the trigger weight is much lighter. The photo of a Taurus Model 85 below shows that. But revolvers like the Smith & Wesson 442 don’t have an exposed hammer. This means each trigger pull is long and heavy. Also, under stress, thumbing the hammer back is not as intuitive as it sounds and can be pretty slow for someone who isn’t practicing it. (Yes, I know about cowboy action shooters….and they practice that skill a ton to be fast) With most automatics, the trigger is much lighter and the length of the pull is shorter.

Revolver in single-action (SA) mode

Earlier this year, I had a student who was sold a 2-inch .38 revolver for self-defense for some of the reasons we have mentioned that salesmen use. She simply did not have the hand strength to shoot it double action. It became frustrating for her, and she wanted to give up. We got her on a different gun, an automatic, and she was able to run that gun.

How much difference are we talking about?

GunDouble actionSingle Action
Taurus 8510-11.5 pounds2.5-3 pounds
Smith & Wesson 4428.5-10 poundsn/a
Sig P3654-5 poundsn/a

Trigger Control

While we’re talking about triggers, let’s talk about the differences. Aside from the weight and length of travel, there is a difference in how they reset. The reset is the distance a trigger travels back out after a shot until it can shoot again. On a gun like the P365, the reset is less than ½ inch. For revolvers, the trigger has to be let all the way back out. Experienced auto pistol shooters sometimes run into this issue when they shoot revolvers.

That is where a common revolver malfunction happens. If the shooter doesn’t let the trigger all the way out, it doesn’t reset, and the gun won’t fire. Similarly, if a trigger pull goes far enough to unlock the cylinder and allow it to start to rotate, then gets interrupted, the gun is out of battery and the next attempt to pull the trigger won’t work. The cylinder will need to be rotated by hand.

Why does a short reset matter? That helps you shoot faster and more accurately. Guns like the Walther PDP or the Canik SFx Rival have very short resets and can be very accurate and fast.

Capacity and Reloading

Revolvers range between 5 and 8 rounds. Most smaller ones are 5 shots, full sizes are 6. If you compare that to a small gun like the Glock 43 or Ruger LCP that holds 6 rounds, that 1 shot difference doesn’t seem like a lot. But when you compare it to the Sig P365 that holds 10 in the flush fit mags and more (12+) in extended ones, it starts to be a bigger contrast. When I carry my P365, I typically carry 12-round magazines.

5 rounds in the revolver or 12 rounds in the semi-auto?

Read a Comparison of Popular Small Pistols

Capacity is one thing, reloading is another. Reloading an automatic is faster. Period. Sure, there are guys like Jerry Miculek who can reload a revolver faster than you can see it happen. But for the rest of us mere mortals, autos are faster and simpler. In addition, the spare magazine is easier to carry than a revolver speed loader. If you look, you’ll see a bit of difference in bulk as well.

10 rounds of .38 or 12 rounds of 9mm. You decide.

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Sights

It’s probably worth mentioning that the sights on revolvers this size are typically not great. There are revolver sights that are quite good, but most revolvers in this class have the same style: a front ramp sight and a notch for the rear sight. Both of the revolvers you see pictured in this article use those sights. Larger, better sights are usually avoided because they add size to the small gun and can potentially snag when attempting to draw the gun.

While automatics may offer a wide range of sights, they are all typically more usable. The sights on our sample P365 are Sig’s excellent X-ray sights. These are 3 dot-style sights with green night sight inserts.

Can I use the revolver sights? Sure, at reasonable distances. But they are a lot more difficult to use fast or at further distances.

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One Narrow Niche

There is one narrow segment where a revolver beats an auto, at zero feet. Some people prefer a revolver for self-defense because if they are at contact distance (like fighting and pushing the gun into the person) it won’t matter to a revolver. It will still fire. An automatic can, if pushed hard enough, be pushed out of battery (the slide is partially back) and this can lead to the gun not firing. This is a reason many auto shooters cite for wanting a weapon-mounted light as that will prevent the malfunction.

Related to that, a hammerless revolver like the 442 can be fired from inside a coat pocket. While I am not advocating that as your norm, for a person out on a walk being able to put their hand in their jacket pocket and be ready to shoot (finger off the trigger) when they see an approaching threat without exposing the gun may appeal to some people.

A Revolver for Self-Defense?

As I said in the opening paragraph, a revolver for self-defense can be a perfectly valid choice. Both of the revolvers you see in these pictures were backup guns that I carried on duty. If you look closely, you’ll see a lot of wear on the finish of the Smith & Wesson 442 from riding in an ankle holster. So, I have literally trusted my life to them. I would still, but they would not be my first choice. Or my top 5.

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However, I recommend shooters make those decisions based on facts, not because some random dude in a gun store told them some of the things we’ve talked about. Shoot both and see what works for you. You could be surprised. We love taking new shooters to the range and giving them some options to try before they buy something they end up hating. Schedule a class with us and get help finding what works for you in the context of your life, not what we’re getting a commission on.

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