LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
Who in this day and age carries a revolver for personal protection? After all, there are a gazillion high-capacity auto pistols out there, so who needs a wheel gun whose basic design goes back to the 1830s and only holds five or six rounds and perhaps seven or eight if you’re lucky?
Truth is, the revolver’s demise is greatly exaggerated, to borrow from Mark Twain. Many people, both law enforcement and legally armed civilians, depend on revolvers either as a primary weapon or for backup. They like the revolver’s simplicity and reliability. While any mechanical device can break, revolvers seldom fail to go “bang” when commanded. No stoppage drills, no finicky ammo appetites, just point and shoot.
If you happen to live in a state with draconian magazine capacity laws, such as New York which limits gun owners to no more than seven rounds in a center-fire gun, a revolver with five, six, or in some cases seven rounds is perhaps the better choice compared to a semi-auto with similar capacity.
Perhaps the real question is not whether to carry a revolver, but which is the best one? This is further divided into which is the best revolver for primary carry and which is best for backup. Can one particular gun do it all?
Jerry Miculek Shows Just What a Wheel-Gun Can Do
Primary Carry Revolvers
Primary carry, sometimes referred to as “everyday carry,” or EDC, means a weapon which you have on your person at all, or most times. It is the first thing you’ll reach for in a deadly force encounter. Over the past few years, EDC has become code for the most convenient gun to carry, not the best to use in a fight, per se.
The EDC issue aside, here are the main features a primary carry handgun should possess.
- Usable sights and/or good instinctive pointer
- Reasonable weight to reduce carry fatigue but still dampen recoil
- Chambered for a proven self-defense cartridge
- Sufficient barrel length to provide reasonable bullet velocity
- Compact, yet comfortable grips, which allow the shooter to get a fast, positive hold on the weapon
All these are self-explanatory and just make sense. Notice the word “concealable” did not make the list—I’ll address it later.
Revolvers meet all these criteria. Most have excellent instinctive point characteristics. In other words, they align with a target as though the shooter pointed their index finger at it. Either fixed or adjustable sights found on most revolvers are user friendly, even the rudimentary ones found on older guns work just fine for close range engagements.
A-List Primary Carry Revolvers
Almost any medium or large frame revolver with a three to six-inch barrel qualifies as a good primary carry wheel-gun. With the right holster and wardrobe, they are concealable. Shorter barrels equal lower bullet velocities. Lower velocity means reduced energy on target which yields less effective wounds (physics wins every time). Handgun cartridges have little energy to spare.
A defensive firearm is something which is seldom needed, but when it is needed, it is under the direst circumstance. Yes, the old argument about the .22 you have with you is superior to the .357 you left at home makes a certain sense, but real life or death combat requires you to bring the most effective weapon possible.
This is the principle which should drive the primary carry gun argument—not convenience. A primary weapon is the first one called upon to end a fight, and the sooner you win the fight, the better. Remember, every second in a shootout is one more second an assailant’s bullet might find you. Such combat requires decisive action with decisive tools.
With this in mind, here are a few revolvers which make good primary weapons.
- S&W K-Frame (Model 10, 19, etc.), .38 Special or .357 Magnum
- S&W L-Frame (Model 586, 686, etc.), .357 Magnum or .44 Special
- Ruger GP-100, .357 Magnum or .44 Special
- Taurus medium frame, .357 Magnum
- Colt medium frame (Python, Trooper, etc.), .38 Special or .357 Magnum
- S&W N-Frame (Model 27, 57, etc.), .357 Magnum, .45 ACP, .45 Colt, .41 Magnum, .44 Special, .44 Magnum (reduced loads)
For more insights on the wonderful .41 Magnum, read my article: .41 Magnum (The Perfect Revolver Cartridge?).
Note: .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum revolvers can also fire .38 Special (and +P) or .44 Special, respectively.
Don't Think You Can Carry Some Serious Power? Think Again!
Revolvers make excellent backup guns. Their near absolute reliability means they will work in the most desperate moments when your primary gun won’t run. They have no safety to fumble with, and you can punch them into an assailant’s body and fire without driving them out of battery. In some circumstances, it is faster to deploy a second weapon than to reload the first, what’s called a “New York reload.” This holds true in particular if your primary gun is also a revolver. While wheel-guns are great, they are slow to reload—unless you’re Jerry Miculek.
Backup revolvers are, in most cases, ultra-compact, small frame models; the quintessential “snubbies.”. All the major revolver makers offer (or did offer) these guns. Snubbies are more concealable in unorthodox places on your body than their bigger brothers. They can fit into overcoat pockets and deep concealment holsters or garments. As an aside, avoid ankle holsters, it’s just too difficult reach them in a hurry.
The biggest disadvantage to most backup revolvers is they are not well suited to protracted gun fights. They often carry five rounds rather than six or seven, and they tend to fire less powerful cartridges. Although, this second point has changed with small-frame guns upgraded to fire magnum and big-bore loads. The fierce recoil generated with such powerful rounds in so small a gun is not a major issue in general, since they are employed in very close quarters and against a single assailant, in most cases.
However, there is a real possibility you may have to use one in a protracted fight against multiple antagonists. Several FBI agents involved in the infamous 1986 Miami shootout with two robbers had to switch to their backup weapons for various reasons. In fact, the last shots fired, which also stopped the engagement, came from Agent Mireles’ backup gun.
Here’s the backup revolver A-List:
- S&W J-Frame (Model 36, etc.), 2 or 3-inch barrel, .38 Special, .38 Special +P, .357 Magnum
- Colt small frame (Detective Special, Agent, Cobra), 2-inch barrel, .38 Special
- Taurus small frame, 2-inch barrel, .38 special, .357 Magnum, .327 Federal Magnum, 32. H&R Magnum, 9mm Luger, .40 S&W, .44 Special
- Ruger SP-101, 2 or 3-inch barrel, 9mm Luger, .327 Federal Magnum, .357 Magnum
- Ruger LCR, 2-inch barrel, .327 Federal Magnum, .38 Special and+P, 9mm Luger, .357 Magnum
- S&W K-Frame (Model 10, 19, etc.) 2.5 to 3-inch barrel, .38 Special and +P, .357 Magnum
- Charter Arms Bull Dog, 2 or 3-inch barrel, 38 Special and +P, .357 Magnum, .44 Special
Note: .357 Magnum and .327 Federal Magnum guns can fire .38 Special or .38 Special +P, and .32 H&R Magnum cartridges, respectively.
Barrel length—up to a certain point—seldom determines whether a particular revolver conceals well. The whole barrel fetish started before inside-the waistband (IWB) holsters became common place. Back then, a person carried their handgun in a proper belt holster; a barrel longer than two or three inches would protrude from beneath a business jacket’s hem (folks just dressed better back then, too).
With an IWB holster, the barrel slips down into the trousers which makes the outer garment’s length irrelevant. Although, a barrel longer than 4-inches can make it uncomfortable to sit. In fact, I’ve found the two-inch barrels on snubbies dig into the hip and are much less comfortable to carry IWB than a three or four-inch weapon. The longer barrel also acts as a lever. It presses against the wearer’s hip and forces the gun’s butt closer into the body. Grip size is the real problems when it comes to concealment, but many grip makers offer excellent compact carry grips.
With the proper gear, even a four-inch S&W Model 29 in an IWB rig will stay invisible, so there’s no excuse to not carry a proper fighting revolver as your primary weapon. Snubbies are best left to the backup role, or ultra-deep concealment when circumstances dictate you just can’t carry a larger piece.
Barrel length does play a role with shoulder holsters, the horizontal “Miami Vice” style in particular. Guns with tubes longer than four inches tend to poke out the holster’s back too far and can print through an outer garment when the wearer extends their arms forward. If you want to carry your large framed, six-inch “Dirty Harry” magnum, you’ll want a vertical shoulder holster.
The Best All-Round Carry Revolver
Is there a best carry revolver, and if so, which is it? The good news is almost any revolver is a good carry gun, even the large frames. All it takes is some planning, good leather, and good wardrobe—some dedication doesn’t hurt either. Still, if it comes down to just one gun, which should you choose?
Despite all the great choices out there, it’s hard to go wrong with Smith & Wesson’s tried and true K-frames, and ones chambered for .357 Magnum in particular. These guns point as though they came attached to your hand at birth. They are light enough to wear all day. Their cylinders are narrow enough to provide reasonable comfort with IWB holsters. Compared to the larger L and N-frames, the K-frames’ smaller, lighter cylinder translates into a smoother, lighter double-action trigger stroke and faster follow up shots.
While full-pressure magnums fired from a K-frame have energetic recoil, the heavy barrel versions such as the Model 13 or 65 can tamp it down to controllable levels. While the magnums are manageable, .38’s, either standard or +P, are a joy to shoot in the heavy barrel guns. Reduced recoil means less muzzle flip and more shots on target in rapid fire shooting.
If the K-frame has weak point it is they can shoot loose with a steady magnum diet. Although, Smith has remedied this with their updated, modern K-frames. Perhaps the best compromise with the older guns is to use high-quality .38 +P rather than the magnums. Their increased accuracy due to lower recoil will make up for the small power reduction. Remember, in a fight, you can’t miss fast enough to win. The +Ps shallower penetration might also save you from a massive law suit since 158 grain and heavier .357 loads tend to over-penetrate.
The ideal set up is perhaps the fixed-sight, stainless steel Model 65 with a 3-inch barrel. The smooth top strap’s sight notch won’t snag on clothes. Compared to its 2-inch barreled snubby brethren, it absorbs more recoil, has a longer sight radius, and takes up just a little more room on a gun belt, yet it is better for concealment with a horizontal shoulder holster than a 4-inch gun. The exterior ballistics are a bit better than the two-inchers, as well.
The 3-inch barrel also has a full-length ejector rod, something the 2 and 2.5-inch guns lack. I once owned a 2.5-inch Model 19 Combat Magnum; it often struggled to dislodge stubborn cases, aluminum ones in particular. I’ve yet to have any Smith with a full-length ejector malfunction. Oh, the backup gun to pair with the Model 65? Why, another 3-inch Model 65, of course! Yes, one revolver can do it all when it comes to concealed carry.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2019 LJ Bonham
Kelly Ann Christensen from Overland Park, Johnson County, Kansas on January 25, 2020:
Why would you pack heat when we have law enforcement so diligently protecting us?