Revolver or Semi-Auto for Concealed Carry?


A .38 revolver and .380 semi-auto, both in the S&W Bodyguard series, reviewed on this site

You have different considerations when choosing a concealed carry gun, compared to when choosing a home defense (or plinking/range) gun.

Probably the biggest factor in your pistol selection process for a concealed carry gun is its size (and by direct implication, its weight), along with related issues such as ‘how much power and how many rounds can I get in a given size?’.

You will need to make greater compromises in choosing a concealed carry gun than you need to make for a gun that spends most of its life in your bedroom.

Comparative Sizes

It used to be that revolvers were smaller than semi-autos, but these days, that is decidedly no longer the case.  Their cylinder makes a bigger bulge than any part of a slim semi-auto.  For example, a modern Ruger LCR (five shot .38 caliber lightweight revolver) has a 1.3″ diameter cylinder.  It is the same thickness in the widest part of its stock as well.  And, measured on a maximum diagonal, it is 7.7″ long.

Compare that to, for example, a tiny Seecamp .32 or .380 semi-auto.  It is 0.9″ thick and its maximum diagonal length is 5.0″.

In other words, the Ruger is 50% wider and 50% diagonally longer (but note the Seecamp is also very much less powerful – that’s one example of the compromises you need to make when choosing a concealed carry pistol).

In terms of weight, the Ruger with five .38 rounds loaded weighs 15.7 ounces.  The Seecamp with seven rounds (one in the chamber, six in the magazine) weighs 13.0 ounces.

If concealability is the most important attribute, it would seem that the semi-auto these days triumphs over the revolver.

Caliber and Capacity

There are two more major factors.  How powerful a round does the gun fire, and how many rounds does it hold?

Most small concealable revolvers will be chambered for either the .38 SPL or the .357 MAG cartridge.  Small concealable pistols come in a greater range of sizes, but for this discussion we’ll consider only two – .380 ACP and 9MM.  There is no longer any need to accept a semi-auto with a less powerful cartridge, because modern .380 pistols are every bit as small and light as the previous generation of .32 pistols (and, before them, most of the various .25 and .22 pistols).

It is very hard to succinctly answer the question ‘which is the best cartridge’, even when limiting the choices to only these four calibers (.38, .357, .380 and 9MM).  You need to consider not only the absolute power delivered by each of these cartridges, but also the associated controlability/recoil of shooting it.

Helpfully, all four rounds are almost exactly the same diameter, so that is not so much a variable.  But there is a big difference in muzzle energy, bullet weight, and velocity, as can be seen in this table.

CaliberBullet WeightVelocityEnergy
.38 SPL110 – 200 gr680 – 1100 fps160 – 300 ft lbf
.357 Mag125 – 200 gr1200 – 1600 fps575 – 775 ft lbf
.380 ACP85 – 100 gr900 – 1050 fps180 – 220 ft lbf
9MM115 – 1471000 – 1430 fps380 – 520 ft lbf


The more powerful revolver cartridge is about twice the power of the less powerful, and the same for the semi-auto pair of cartridges.  In each case, the lesser cartridge is more powerful in its revolver form, as is also the more powerful.

So semi-autos might be smaller and lighter, but the cartridges they fire are generally less powerful.

Quantity/Quality Trade-off

Which brings us to the quantity/quality tradeoff.  While it is clear that, for example, a .38 SPL round is usually more powerful than a .380 ACP round, the revolver probably has a capacity for only five rounds, whereas most small semi-autos will carry 7 or possibly 8 rounds (one in the chamber, the rest in the magazine).

Furthermore, if the 7 or 8 rounds in the semi-auto is insufficient, it only takes you a couple of seconds to swap to a fresh magazine with another 6 or 7 rounds.  But once you’ve fired the five rounds out of your revolver, you’re out of the fight for probably more than seven seconds before you have emptied and reloaded your revolver’s cylinder.

Which would you prefer?  Five moderately powerful rounds, or 7 (maybe 8) less powerful rounds, with the option on another 6 or 7 to follow?

If you’re sure you’ll never be confronting more than one adversary, five rounds are probably enough.  But you can’t be sure of that, and you need to plan on having at least two adversaries.  Assume you miss at least half the shots you fire, and that means with two adversaries, you’re lucky to hit each of them once.  And that could well be insufficient to end the threat.

Controllability and Recoil

How easy is it to accurately and quickly shoot your concealed handgun?  By their very nature, a powerful but light and small framed revolver is going to be a much more unpleasant pistol to shoot than a similarly (or less) powerful semi-auto.  There are two main reasons for this.

The first is ease of pulling the trigger.  Your revolver will be ‘double action’ and will require a long heavy trigger pull each time you want to fire a round.  Your semi-auto may be double action or single action or a combination of double action first shot/single action subsequent shots, and it is much easier to pull the trigger on a single action pistol than on a double action one, making it easier to get your rounds landing where you want them to.

The second is felt recoil.  The slide in a semi-auto pistol acts as a recoil absorber/dampener.  It soaks up some of the recoil and transfers it more gradually and gently to you; whereas with the revolver, all the recoil is delivered nearly instantly to you in a single hard shock.

You’ll flinch less when firing the semi-auto, and you’ll bring the pistol back on target more quickly for a second and subsequent shot.

Other things being equal, you’ll simply shoot better with a small semi-auto than with a small revolver.

Ease of Use/Reliability

One more thing to consider.  A revolver is very simple to use.  You point it, you pull the trigger.  You repeat four more times.

A semi-auto is more complicated.  Do you need to toggle a safety lever on/off before firing?  Do you need to work the slide to load a round into the chamber, or pull the hammer back, or something, before then pulling the trigger repeatedly?

The simplicity of the revolver also translates into slightly greater reliability.  If nothing happens when you pull the trigger, you simply release the trigger, then pull again.  99% or more of the time, that solves your problem (don’t ask about the last 1%!).

But if you pull the trigger on a semi-auto and nothing happens, you need to urgently determine if you have a Type 1, 2, or 3 failure (some people add a Type 4 to this list as well – failure to go into battery) and then work the appropriate clearance routine to get your gun running again.

To put it another way, you need appreciably more training and competence to work a semi-auto well.

Summing Up

So, a semi-auto is lighter, smaller, carries more rounds, and can be more quickly reloaded.

On the other hand, a revolver probably has more powerful cartridges, is simpler to use, and slightly more reliable.

But the semi-auto is easier to fire than the revolver.

So – which will you choose?  Revolver or Semi-auto?  Oh – what’s that?  No, we’re not going to help you any more.  You have to choose which of factors are the most important to you and which are least important, and then make your choice accordingly.

Of course, there is another option.  Get both a revolver and a semi-auto, and selectively carry whichever one of them is most suited for your dress and style of possible concealed carry, and the threat level you anticipate.

Is this excessive?  Well, think upon it like this.  Do you only have one kitchen knife, one cooking pot?  Does your car only have one gear (and no spare tires)?  Your television one channel?

It is perfectly valid to have multiple guns and to selectively carry whichever one is best suited to each situation.  That’s what we do, ourselves.

Please Also See

You might find it interesting/helpful to also read our page that compares semi-autos and revolvers for home defense.  We cover some similar issues and some different issues too from this other perspective, and you’ll probably end up choosing a different gun for home defense than for carrying outside the home.

The Next Step

Now that you’ve decided, please click the appropriate link to read about either choosing a revolver for concealed carry or choosing a semi-auto for concealed carry [Note – these sections not yet added].

If you’d like to return to the first page of this guide to choosing a pistol, please click the link in this sentence.

If you’d like to return to choosing a pistol for concealed carry, please click the back button or link in this sentence.




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