The Revolver: Unappreciated Advantages

How I Learned To Love The Wheelgun

I’m sure you’ve heard it before: someone asks, “Which is better: revolver or autoloader?” Everyone chimes in that revolvers are more reliable and simpler to operate. Over and over again. Yadda yadda yadda.

Those things are generally true, but there are some less obvious and perhaps even more compelling advantages to selecting a revolver for personal defense. Here are some factors that you may not have considered, perhaps not even known, about “those old-fashioned things at the back of the showcase.”


Let’s start with the learning curve. Yes, a revolver is simple to operate, in the sense that there are no controls that must be manipulated in order to fire it. What’s not obvious is the advantage in training to operate the gun to its maximum efficiency.

If you’re shooting an autoloader, it’s in your best interest to practice malfunction drills on a regular basis. Learning to identify and clear the most common jams takes time, both in initial training and regular practice. That’s time you’re not spending learning to actually deal with the dynamics of a critical incident, which is what’s going to keep you safe.

Training in malfunction clearing with a self defense revolver is nearly non-existent. There’s really only one common jam that will tie up a revolver, the dreaded case under extractor, and it is completely preventable by learning proper reloading technique, which you need to learn anyhow. Any of the uncommon malfunctions can be prevented through normal maintenance and using quality ammunition.

The failure to fire remedy? Pull the trigger again. No need to spend valuable training time (and money) learning some tap-rack-bang-do-the-hokey-pokey routine just to keep your gun running. That means less time monkeying with the gun and more time shooting.

Speaking of training, one of the overlooked features of the revolver is that it operates without ammunition. This means that dry firing is actually useful! Instead of interrupting your train of thought to rack a slide and reset a hammer, you can concentrate on performing a complete trigger sequence. Because the brain is able to perceive a complete cycle of events, a short dry-fire session is all that’s needed to implant proper trigger control technique in the mind.

Concealed Carry

Many people will tell you that a self defense revolver is hard to carry concealed. The cylinder, they say, is darn near impossible to hide. I’ve found that it’s just the opposite: the revolver is actually easier to conceal, despite the cylinder!

With an auto, the part that sticks out is the squared-off butt of the frame. No matter how thin the gun is, you still have that bottom corner poking through your cover garment. It’s hard to hide because it’s not organic; we don’t normally see right angles protruding from beneath clothing.

The grip of the revolver, on the other hand, is rounded. It doesn’t protrude as far because it’s typically shorter, and the smooth profile doesn’t catch clothing and scream “GUN!” The cylinder, likewise, is a round shape that easily disappears under clothing.

If you have kids, try this experiment: put on a dress shirt and grab some of your children’s Legos. Stand in front of a mirror and put a couple of Legos in your shirt pocket. Notice how the square edges stand out? Now go get a couple of marbles (or perhaps some jelly beans) and replace the Legos with them. Notice how those round shapes are less obvious, and even harder to identify? Same principle.

Image of a revolver

If you keep the gun on a nightstand, in a drawer, on the floor under your bed, or on any flat surface, you’ll find the revolver is easier to pick up. The cylinder holds the grip up and away from the supporting surface, making your grasp faster and less fumble-prone.

The same is true for a revolver carried on your person. The cylinder provides a slight amount of clearance from the body, making it easier to get a good combat grip. Again, less fumbling and surer draws are the results.

Since the grip isn’t filled with heavy ammunition, it won’t be constantly trying to move in gravity’s direction. Revolvers carried in concealment tend not to shift around as much as autos, keeping their grips in the same place all the time. When you are faced with employing your gun during an emergency, that kind of consistency is important.

Money Talks

Revolvers are economically more efficient, too. I’m not talking about initial cost, though a revolver does tend to be less expensive than an auto of equal quality. It’s all the other stuff that comes into play.

Image of revolver magazines

First, you don’t have the expense of magazines. If you’re serious about your defensive hardware, you should have five or six magazines on hand to fit any autoloader. Magazines do wear, they can be damaged (especially if you practice realistically), and therefore they need to be replaced occasionally. At today’s prices, that can add a couple hundred dollars to the initial cost of the gun, not to mention the cost of replacement. These are expenses that a revolver just doesn’t have.

Most authorities recommend extensively testing an autoloader with the quality defensive ammunition you intend to carry. While specifics vary, a commonly cited figure is 200 rounds to verify function and reliability. With ammo prices what they are, you could nearly buy a new gun with that money!

With a revolver, you’re primarily testing for point of aim—to adjust the sights or to verify that the bullet impact matches non-adjustable sights. A couple of cylinders will do it, and you can go back to shooting cheaper practice ammo. That’s a huge savings!

Tactical Advantages

During an actual encounter, you’ll find that the revolver has some definite tactical advantages as well. A revolver isn’t dependent on having just the right grip in order to run, and “limp wristing” malfunctions simply don’t exist. This means that shooting from awkward positions or while injured won’t result in a jammed gun, as can happen with an autoloader. Strong side or weak side, pulling the trigger will fire the revolver every time.

In close-quarters fights, the revolver is more resistant to induced failures. While both autos and revolvers can be deliberately rendered inoperable by a very determined assailant, the revolver won’t be sidelined by inadvertent occurrences: clothing that fouls the slide, ejected casings that get knocked back into the ejection port, or slight contact that slows the slide enough to induce a malfunction. The shrouded or concealed hammer revolvers in particular are about as immune to induced malfunctions as can be imagined.

Resting My Case

When all is said and done, the revolver remains the quintessential personal defensive tool. It’s best in one-on-one fights in close quarters, where its strength as a reactive device can best be utilized. I’d never suggest that it’s the right tool for a SWAT callout serving a warrant on a drug house, or a SEAL team taking out a hive of Tangos. Those are proactive fights that call on the strengths of the autoloading sidearm.

Image of bullets in a revolver

But you and I live in a different world. While it’s fun to play Walter Mitty and imagine ourselves defeating an entire street gang singlehandedly, the reality is that one-on-one violent crime is still the most common type encountered by legally armed citizens. In that reality, the revolver’s unappreciated advantages make it a viable choice for self-defense.

Categories: All Articles, Defensive Firearms, and Handguns.

Tags: autoloader, carrying concealed, ccw, conceal and carry, concealed carry, concealed weapons, Firearms, handgun, personal defense, revolver, revolvers, and shooting.

56 Responses to “The Revolver: Unappreciated Advantages”

  1. jvaneaton says:

    Thats a J Frame in my pocket.

  2. Saber says:

    Good article that explains why some former semi-auto die-hards have reverted back to the basics. Also, it helps to reinforce the safety benefits for new comers.

    I cringe when a young new person wants to start carrying a semi-auto and they may have zero experience with firearms. Part of it comes from the ‘Hollywood factor’ and cool the looking space-age guns available today.

  3. cshoff says:

    Great read, Grant!

  4. micko77 says:

    Long live the round gun! As mentioned, maintenance is a must (had a backed-out ejector rod once–once), but no brass to chase, handles any in-spec load, etc. Wish my kids would get that concept.

  5. marine-mp says:

    Mr Cunningham,
    I’ve read several articles why we “wheelgunners” are behind the curve if we are in a SD situation with just 5 or 6 rounds on tap. I’ve used the .45 and 9 mm (military) and when you need me on your 6, I’ll be packing a J-frame and several dade reloads. Thanks for the great article. Semper-fi Mike

  6. Wilson says:

    A snubnose revolver is probably the hardest gun to do a disarm against. I have a S&W J-Frame “Red Gun” as well a Semi-Auto one that I use in my self-defense classes and the J-frame proves time & time again to be more difficult to take away from whoever is wielding it.
    Stats show that the vast majority of self-defense situations occur within 3 feet distance, are resolved in 3 shots or less and end within 3 seconds.That tells me that a shrouded hammer J-Frame is a very effective & good overall choice for CCW.

  7. Doc "J", USN says:

    Have to say that my Ruger Security Six .357 is my primary. My .45 Starfire is easier to conceal (miniscule frame) but it’s my backup.

  8. Dirty Harry says:

    I know what you’re thinking….”Did he fire 6 shots, or only five? Do I feel lucky?” Well, DO YOU, PUNK!”

  9. Brent says:

    Everything old is new again and I think in this age of “another blocky polymer autoloader” that there is something beautifully intrinsic and hardcore about a revolver. I agree with the review that for many applications there is no substitute for a a good semi auto pistol. However, just from a pure appreciation and full experience of firing a firearm, nothing beats the ceremony of flipping out the cylinder to hand load each bullet, and then feeling the smooth trigger pull of a double-action (my preference) .357. Every shot counts.

  10. micko77 says:

    Wow, it’s been a year since my last post! Anyway, I convinced my sons when I took a beat-up ol jacket and put 5 rounds on a paper plate at 5 yards, with the gun upside down in the pocket using my pinkie—we never know how a fight will go down, and may only have part of a hand. Airweight Bodyguard, always runs.

  11. Medicineball says:

    Great article!

  12. Goombaman says:

    Common sense arguments which are ignored by many, especially
    young males who fantasize about extended shootouts. Keep is simple stupid (KISS) applies to many things in life, even guns.

  13. FtDefiance says:

    One other point. With limited training time round guns make sense. Less time training on malfunctions drills and de- xxxxing. More times on the basics of the draw stroke and marksmanship.

  14. Strap says:

    Revolvers all the way for me, but they have issues sometimes (rarely)
    yes, the ‘dreaded case under extractor’. Indeed, anything that gets under the extractor…
    But there’s more…
    As micko77 posted, a backed-out cylinder rod is a problem – you can’t open the cylinder. Happened to me. w/ a S&W.
    Also dreadful is the squib load that stops the bullet between cylinder and barrel, preventing rotation, also happened to me – once (altho that’s better than one that gets stuck up further in the barrel!)
    But squibs affect both auto and revolver, to be fair.

    My father, rest his soul, was an old school Deputy Sheriff who carried a J-frame in his front pocket w/out benefit of a pocket holster and one day found a paperclip jamming it.

    Your point on magazine necessity in an autoloader is a good one…as Elmer Kieth once said “…if you have any part of a revolver, you have it all…”

  15. w. s. marble says:

    This article is brilliant–thanks for posting it! You just sealed a decision I was leaning towards, with aspects I had not even considered. May I ask, which caliber is “best” (most universally available, sufficient lethality, yet not too costly) for a personal defense revolver?

  16. Kathy says:

    The one you can best handle when it comes to trigger pull, recoil muzzle flip, and weight. Just about all calibers have proven leathal, including the .22 caliber that killed John Lennon For me trigger pull is the most important aspect of a defense weapon. Personally I like Ruger LCR with Tamer or Boot grip and 38 special and XS titium front sight

  17. eric says:

    @kathy ,that was a charter arms .38 special that killed john lennon ,FYI

    1. Kathy says:

      My bad, however I stand by .22 lr as an accepable self defence caliber.

      Ask an EMT, was discussed at Ladies Shooting Group, with one of the members, is one and said,
      “a .22lr is a nasty little round, goes in and tumbles around creating lots of damage to major organs. As with any caliber, shot placement is key. I’m an older woman & shoot S & W 3″ .22lr revolver, 8 rounds. Wouldn’t go bear hunting with it but !st. rule of self defence is have a gun 2nd.
      rule is shoot what you are accurate with.
      BTW, my carry gun is a Ruger .38 spl. LCR but
      practice with .22lr.revolver CCI mini mags

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  49. dalton says:

    one thing i have seen is people using wheelguns with blackpowder i would rather have a gun with any ammo than no ammo. lead worked for the cowboys.

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  51. Richard says:

    As with forks and spoons both revolvers and semiautos are useful depending on circumstances and I have carried 1 either / or, OR both, including1911, J frame S&W, and D frame Colt. The late Col. Jeff Cooper, revered Dean of the 1911 was said to have always carried a S&W Chief, as backup or sole arm. Today probably a Glock with some sort of .380 would be equilivent. We rediscover the tried and true.

  52. John says:

    I can see the benefits of each, that is why I carry a Taurus .327 magnum as my backup gun to my Glock 10mm. I don’t shoot a Glock because it is tacticool or because I am a wannabe seal. I served in the military and have been shooting for 30 years. I appreciate the magazine capacity and reliability of my Glock. I have never had it let me down. However it is faster to grab my backup gun than to try to reload in adrenalized defense situation. The key for me is to practice with each, A LOT. The nice thing about the Taurus is what the author mentioned, it hides very easily as opposed to my full size Glock. I am 6’3″ and 225 so hiding the Glock is a little easier for me that my petite wife. She carries a Bersa thunder .45 which is more compact and hides better with her figure. The best thing to do is pick what you like and practice using it as much as you can and practice realistically not just shooting 10 rings at 5 yards.

  53. yogesh says:

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  54. TaxpayerX says:

    I claim no special expertise. But, I’ve concealed carry regularly for a number of decades. I find that I CC a revolver far more often these days than semi autos. I’ve come to especially disfavor striker fired semi autos. YMMV, but you younger folk, who may have less familiarity with them, should seriously consider the virtues of revolver.

  55. bdizzle says:

    This is obviously for fans of the revolver, I really get tired of the “if lightning strikes theory”, first off who’s ever been in a shoot out? And out of that one in a million that have, has their gun malfunctioned in that moment? yeah if you have a club thumb and someone breaks in your home and your gun is laying on your night stand (you most likely have a mental issues or live in the worst neighborhood in America if you have a gun laying on your night stand) you might have trouble picking up an automatic. Let’s try and be a little more realistic with our post’s.

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