Is the Revolver Dead?

Updated on October 8, 2017
LJ Bonham profile image

LJ Bonham is an author, historian, hunter, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.

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The revolver is dead. This refrain has echoed in the gun world since the first semi-automatic pistols appeared in the late 19th century. Once the German Imperial military adopted George Luger’s P.08 pistol in 1908, an inexorable tide began to sweep the revolver from the world’s battlefields. Britain, the last major power to issue revolvers to front line troops, officially retired them in 1963. It took another few decades, but even law enforcement agencies gave up their cherished wheel guns, too. It’s a semi-auto world now, who would ever need a revolver?

Many, many people it turns out. The revolver’s demise is greatly exaggerated, to borrow from Mark Twain. Almost two hundred years after its debut, the revolver is still loved both as a memento from the past and as an excellent, and relevant, tool for self-defense, target shooting, and hunting. In the U.S., almost 360,000 revolvers are still sold annually, on average. So, what’s so special about the revolver?

The iconic Luger P.08, the first auto pistol adopted as standard by a major world power.
The iconic Luger P.08, the first auto pistol adopted as standard by a major world power. | Source
British soldiers carried the dependable, powerful Webley revolver for almost a century.
British soldiers carried the dependable, powerful Webley revolver for almost a century. | Source

Six for Sure

Despite the semi-auto’s ascendancy, the revolver continues on for one, undeniable reason. It is the most reliable handgun design in existence. A revolver will never suffer a stove-pipe jam or a weak magazine spring, or fail to feed a hollow point, or succumb to any other malady which can afflict the semi-auto pistol. Revolvers do not depend on recoil energy to function. Their simple, elegant cylinder rotates by direct, user-applied mechanical action. It will operate even if it’s not cleaned for some time (not recommended) while in the field. Anyone who must draw a revolver to defend their life knows with 99.9999375% certainty the gun will fire when the trigger is squeezed. While a magazine with 13 or 17 rounds is a good idea in a fight, they are useless if the gun jams on round number three. The revolver gives you five, six, or even eight rounds you can count on no matter what. You don’t have to practice jam clearance drills everyday if you carry a revolver.

S&W Model 657 .41 Magnum with 3-inch barrel.  Perfect for "social occasions" whether you're entertaining four-legged or two-legged predators.
S&W Model 657 .41 Magnum with 3-inch barrel. Perfect for "social occasions" whether you're entertaining four-legged or two-legged predators. | Source

Variety Artist

It is a rare semi-auto which will feed every bullet style on the market, and often they are reliable with just one or two specific designs. Bullet shape and weight are irrelevant to revolvers. They will digest anything which fits the firing chambers in their cylinders whether it is flat-nosed hard cast lead, lead semi-wad cutters, frangible bullets, snake shot, hollow points, full metal jacket, lead round-nose, or anything else someone in the future may concoct. This makes revolvers far more versatile than pistols.

Semi-autos are also sensitive to bullet weight as well as configuration. Their recoil springs are calibrated for the most common weight used for a given caliber. Bullets which are much lighter or heavier may not feed reliably, or at all. A 9mm, for example, may have been set at the factory for 115 to 124 grain bullets, the standard for the caliber. It may have trouble with an 85 grain frangible or a 147 grain sub-sonic load. A revolver owner has no such worries. If it fits, it fires.

Most semi-auto pistols were originally designed to use just round-nose, fully jacketed bullets (left) and may not feed hollow points (right) reliably.
Most semi-auto pistols were originally designed to use just round-nose, fully jacketed bullets (left) and may not feed hollow points (right) reliably. | Source

Power to the People

The first magnum handgun cartridge appeared in 1935: the .357 Smith & Wesson Magnum designed for the S&W Model 27 revolver. Ever since then, revolvers have been the choice for hand gunners who want or need the most power possible. Few pistol cartridges even come close to magnum revolver loads and they are boutique rounds such as the 10mm and .50 AE. Walk into any gun or sporting goods store and you’re lucky if you can find two or three different 10mm loads on the shelf, and if you find a box of .50 AE, go buy a lotto ticket—it’s your lucky day. Those same shelves will no doubt have many .357 and .44 magnum loads from which to choose. Now, would retailers continue to stock rounds for a gun which is “dead?”

Forget the ammo for a minute, instead ask the person behind the counter if they even have a pistol chambered for 10mm or .50 AE in stock. After they stop laughing, they can show you a nice 9mm or .45, and they should have dozens of magnum revolvers available. (Lookout, here come the 10mm fan boys.)

When you need power, you get a revolver. Gun expert Evan Marshal’s ongoing research, based on real world shootouts, shows the .357 Magnum is the most effective handgun cartridge for self-defense by a significant margin above either the .45 ACP or 9mm Parabellum.

The .357 Magnum.  The first magnum handgun cartridge and still the most effective for self-defense.
The .357 Magnum. The first magnum handgun cartridge and still the most effective for self-defense. | Source
Revolvers are still the most powerful handguns in the world, as this novice shooter overwhelmed by a .500 S&W Magnum can attest.
Revolvers are still the most powerful handguns in the world, as this novice shooter overwhelmed by a .500 S&W Magnum can attest. | Source

World champion shooter, Jerry Miculek, tames the mighty .44 Mag.!

Keep it Simple (Stupid)

Revolvers are the simplest repeating handgun to use. This makes them ideal for first time shooters. Want to make a double-action revolver safe? For most designs, just press the cylinder release on the frame’s side and swing the cylinder away from the frame. In an instant, the gun cannot fire. To unload, just dump the cartridges from the cylinder. Compare this to the standard drill for a semi-auto: remove magazine, pull slide to rear to eject any round which is in the firing chamber, lock slide open with slide catch/release. All too often, novice shooters will not remove the magazine, just cycle the slide which puts a live round into the chamber, ready to fire. Yikes!

In addition to simple loading/unloading, revolvers are also easy for novices to learn to shoot. They do not have to manipulate a safety on a revolver, merely point the gun at the intended target and squeeze the trigger. Granted, striker fired autos are similar to shoot, which is one reason they have been so popular among law enforcement agencies who had to transition revolver trained officers to pistols. Unlike said pistols, revolvers are still safer in novice hands because the long, deliberate double-action trigger pull resists nervous or inattentive manipulation.

Magnum revolvers chambered for the .357 Magnum, and .44 Remington Magnum can fire the lower powered cartridges the magnums are based on: .38 Special, and .44 Special, respectively. This allows their owners to practice with less expensive, lighter recoiling loads and save the heavy hitters for when needed. It also means if you couldn’t find magnum ammunition, you could substitute the low power parents and keep on shooting. A real advantage if ammo gets scarce, as it did in the early 2000s.

The S&W Model 29, made famous by the "Dirty Harry" movies, can fire either mild .44 Specials or wrist cracking .44 Magnums.  Try that with a semi-auto.
The S&W Model 29, made famous by the "Dirty Harry" movies, can fire either mild .44 Specials or wrist cracking .44 Magnums. Try that with a semi-auto. | Source

Basic Instinct

Hold a revolver in your hand and stand a few yards away from a suitable target. Now, close your eyes and stretch out your arm as though you wish to fire the gun at the target, then open your eyes. Most people will find the revolver’s sights aligned with the target. Revolvers are perfect for instinctive shooting, a trait which has endeared them to anyone who has ever used one to defend their life. At the close distances common to most handgun shootouts there is little to no time for precise sight alignment; it is imperative to have a gun which lines up naturally on target.

Gunfight experts such as William Fairbairn, Rex Applegate, and Jim Cirillo all insisted a handgun must have this quality. Jim Cirillo, who worked the NYPD’s famous stakeout squad, recalled he never saw his gun’s sights during his first shootout. His revolver’s instinctive point, combined with his training, allowed him to kill an armed robber and save the lives of several people in a drug store.

The author once asked a Vietnam combat veteran (101st AB, LRRP), who had significant experience with the U.S. issued M1911A1 pistol, what he considered the best all-round self-defense handgun. He replied a medium framed revolver in .38 Special. It always went "bang" and had controllable recoil. In his experience, accurate shots were more important than powerful ones.

Medium framed revolvers such as Smith & Wesson’s Model 19 and Colt’s Official Police; and the larger framed Colt Trooper and Python, are among the best close quarters defensive handguns ever made. They come up on target with fluidity and their smooth triggers allow for fast, accurate fire at close range. Combine these features with .357 Magnum power and you have a near perfect defensive implement.

Even the U.S. Army admits revolvers point better than pistols.

Smith & Wesson Model 19 Combat Masterpiece. Perhaps the best pointing handgun ever made and loved by police around the world for decades.
Smith & Wesson Model 19 Combat Masterpiece. Perhaps the best pointing handgun ever made and loved by police around the world for decades. | Source

Down and Dirty

When it comes to self-defense at arm’s length, or closer, the revolver is much better than the pistol for one important reason. If you jam a semi-auto pistol against an assailant’s body, the pressure can, and often does, push the slide back enough to take the gun out of battery and prevent it from firing. A revolver doesn’t have this problem, which makes it the better choice for a last ditch backup gun or for defense against wild animals such as bears. Some people who have successfully defended themselves against bears with a handgun did so while in the animal's grasp—they had to shove the gun against the bear’s face or body and fire.

An assailant who knows a thing or two about guns can render your semi-auto pistol ineffective if they are close enough. They just pull the old drill sergeant’s trick: reach out and shove their palm against the pistol’s slide hard enough to move it out of battery, then wrench the gun from your hand. Can’t do it to a revolver, though.

The revolver has one more feature which is important in the real world. Unlike a semi-auto, a revolver does not require the shooter to keep his or her wrist and arm in a straight line for it to operate. If you have been wounded and are too weak to keep you wrist and arm aligned, you can still fire multiple shots with a revolver, whereas a pistol’s action may not cycle and become jammed. Something to think about because things seldom go according to plan in a fire fight. Just ask FBI Special Agent Mireles who did just that with his S&W Model 13 to end the infamous Miami shootout in 1986.

It doesn't take much to push a pistol's slide out of battery.

Snub-nosed revolvers like this S&W Model 36 Chief's Special are called "belly guns" for good reason.  Shoved against an assailant's body, they can still fire a life saving shot, unlike a semi-auto.
Snub-nosed revolvers like this S&W Model 36 Chief's Special are called "belly guns" for good reason. Shoved against an assailant's body, they can still fire a life saving shot, unlike a semi-auto. | Source
During the 1980s drug wars, many narcotics officers carried cut down big-bore "raid guns" such as this S&W M29 .44 Magnum.  They wanted an edge over their standard issue 9mm pistols when shooting it out with drug crazed suspects.
During the 1980s drug wars, many narcotics officers carried cut down big-bore "raid guns" such as this S&W M29 .44 Magnum. They wanted an edge over their standard issue 9mm pistols when shooting it out with drug crazed suspects. | Source

The Defense Rests

Is the revolver dead? Far from it. It has qualities which make it an ideal self-defense and hunting weapon. Qualities which semi-auto pistols cannot match. The revolver is alive and well, and will remain with us for as long as firearms are in use. Long live the wheel gun!

Seems somebody forgot to tell Jerry Miculek the revolver is dead.

Some basic revolver skills.

© 2017 LJ Bonham

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      Chuck Cobb 2 months ago

      I'd love to own a model 29 and a 27 but never had the money to treat myself to these beauties... maybe someday?

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