People will endlessly discuss the strengths and weaknesses of revolvers compared to semi-auto pistols. In fact, we’re being polite. People won’t only discuss this topic endlessly, they’ll also argue it, quite heatedly!
If you already have a strongly formed opinion one way or the other, then good for you. Skip this page. Both revolvers and semi-autos are fine pistols, and either will hopefully help you turn a dire situation into a survivable situation if called upon to do so.
But, for those of you who are yet to lock your thoughts into an immovable form, here are some quick points of differentiation.
If you choose a revolver, you’ll be getting a gun that probably has five or six rounds in its cylinder. After shooting these five or six rounds, you need to reload before you can shoot again.
Reloading a revolver is a complicated task, and very much more so if in the dark and under stress. You’ll need to practice this a very great deal, and even after becoming proficient, it will probably take you something like seven seconds to reload your gun.
If you choose a semi-auto, you’ll be getting a gun that may have as many as 20 rounds in its magazine. Some states limit you to a maximum of ten rounds per magazine, and some semi-autos have even smaller capacity magazines as a result of their design (most notably, M1911 type .45 semi-autos which typically have seven or eight rounds per magazine, and very small sub-compact pistols).
Reloading a semi-auto is a quick and simple task, even if in the dark and even if under stress. With only a little practice, you’ll be able to do this in under two seconds.
So in terms of firepower, it would seem there is a huge ‘win’ for semi-auto pistols compared to revolvers.
How Many Rounds Will You Need?
Good question. But it is a bit like asking ‘How long is a piece of string?’.
It is impossible to say how many rounds you’ll need. But if you have multiple adversaries, you’ll definitely want to be able to get more than six rounds off before needing to stop and reload, because some (probably most) shots will be misses, and you might need to land four or five hits on an adversary before they slow down and stop pressing their attack on you.
Equally for sure, if/when you do need to reload, the seven seconds it takes to reload your revolver will be much too long.
For this reason, we think the semi-auto will generally win out over a revolver in terms of the better pistol for you. You need a gun that will finish the fight for you; it is no use to you if you successfully take one adversary out of the game only to have a second one finish you off while you’re fumbling with the revolver, desperately trying to reload it.
So it seems that not only does a semi-auto have a much greater ammunition capacity, but you may also need the extra capacity of a semi-auto (and/or the ability to more quickly reload it) than is present in a revolver.
But there are some other issues. So if you’re not yet convinced, do read on.
Ease of Use
A revolver is massively easier to use than a semi-auto. All you have to do is point and pull the trigger. Nothing else. You don’t have to work a slide, cock/decock, set a safety on or off, or anything else. Just pick up, point, and pull. (Note that not all semi-auto pistols are complicated. Glock pistols in particular are very simple to use.)
If you don’t think you will be likely to take some formal training and then do refresher courses (either by yourself or in a formal training environment) on how to run your gun, an easy to use revolver that you can be sure of getting to work right might be better for you, even if you run out of ammo after five or six shots, compared to the high-tech high-capacity semi-auto which you panic over, and end up releasing the magazine instead of the safety catch, don’t work the slide properly, and end up with it taken out of your hands, still unfired, by the bad guys.
One related ‘ease of use’ issue is how easy it is to pull the trigger. Revolvers probably don’t score as well as most semi-auto pistols in this respect, because with a typical ‘double action’ revolver, you have a lot of heavy trigger pulling to do. The first part of pulling the trigger makes the hammer go back, and then only the last part of pulling the trigger releases it to fly forward, then hit the firing pin, which in turn hits and detonates the cartridge, causing the bullet to fly out the front of the gun.
It is possible with some (but not all) revolvers to pull the hammer back yourself, so you only need to pull the trigger a little bit to release the ‘sear’ that allows the hammer to fly forward to make the gun shoot. This is called a ‘single action’ type revolver. But most of the time, for reasons of speed and simplicity, you’ll want to have a double action revolver, which will have a heavy long trigger pull. This may affect your accuracy when shooting, but at very close range, it is not likely to make a lot of difference.
Most semi-autos don’t have such a hammer pull, because when the slide cycles back and forward after each shot, part of what it is doing is moving the hammer back, setting it up so all the trigger pull does is release its sear to allow the hammer to fly forward to initiate the next shot.
Some semi-autos have a big trigger pull for the first shot, where – just like with a revolver – the trigger needs to pull the hammer back, due to the way you’ve been carrying/storing the pistol (with the hammer forward rather than back). But after that more difficult first shot, all the others will be light short pulls.
Generally, in terms of trigger control (a key part of overall accuracy, but not essential at short home defense distances) a semi-auto will be better for most people than a revolver.
The cousin of the ‘easy to use’ issue is reliability. Some people claim that revolvers are 100% reliable, with nothing that can go wrong. That is not true, but they are definitely way better than 99% reliable.
On the other hand, some (different!) people say that modern semi-auto pistols are also 100% reliable, with nothing that can go wrong. Alas, that too is not true, but a modern semi-auto should be better than 99% reliable.
If you do some training, you’ll also be able to quickly resolve the most common type of problem with a semi-auto (a ‘stovepipe’ or ‘Type 2’ or ‘failure to eject’) and will be able to do this in 1.5 seconds or maybe even less.
But Murphy’s Law is a constant companion in a gun fight, and even if you have a 99.8% reliable semi-auto, you might decide that you’d prefer a 99.9% reliable revolver. Again, your choice is between six rounds that almost certainly will go down range as you wish them to, compared to maybe 18 or more that may or may not ever leave your gun.
With modern semi-auto pistols, we don’t think there’s a significant difference in reliability between them and revolvers.
If you get a revolver, you’ll typically choose between .38 special or .357 magnum rounds, although there are other calibers, including the .44 magnum made famous in the Dirty Harry movies and other calibers, both more and less powerful than the .38 and .357.
You have more choices in semi-autos. Common calibers to consider would be the 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. There are other calibers, too, but there is no reason to be considering smaller calibers in a home defense gun, and you don’t really need larger calibers.
It is a great over-simplification, but for the purpose of this discussion it is acceptable to say that 9mm is about as powerful as .38 SPL and .45 ACP is about the same as .357 magnum, with .40 S&W similar to .45 ACP.
One more point about stopping power. No pistol round is very ‘good’ at guaranteeing a ‘single shot stop’. All pistol rounds are ballistically inadequate and do a poor job of stopping any threat you are confronted with.
As such, it makes little sense to judge the different calibers by their ‘stopping power’ – because there is little difference between ‘close to useless’ and ‘grossly inadequate’. In all cases, your ability to stop a threat is more a function of both luck and your ability to get multiple shots accurately on target in a short period of time, and as regards that issue, many people find it easier to shoot quickly and accurately with a less powerful round that has less recoil, blast, and flash.
In other words, maybe the less powerful round ends up being a better choice, because you can shoot a gun chambered for the less powerful round more confidently, quickly and accurately. That might seem a counter-intuitive conclusion, but we suggest it is also a valid conclusion. To put it another way, choose the most ‘powerful’ round you are comfortable and competent at shooting. Don’t choose a more powerful round than you can easily handle.
So in terms of stopping power, there’s not a lot between revolvers and semi-autos.
Oh – we’re not even going to go there. You’re thinking of buying something you’re trusting the life and safety of yourself and your loved ones to, and you’re also wondering which is the cheapest option? Shame on you!
In reality, there’s not a huge difference in cost between revolvers and semi-autos, anyway.
So Which is Best
If you’re going to train regularly and well with your chosen gun, there’s no doubt at all. Go for a semi-auto, every time.
But if you don’t want to so actively embrace the whole gun owning thing, and especially if you’re not mechanically minded, maybe a revolver is better for you. Does ease of use and slightly more reliability trump larger capacity and faster reloading?
There’s one other issue as well. Operating a semi-auto requires a small amount of upper body strength, so as to be able to work the gun’s slide properly. Even the daintiest of women can learn to do this, but that too takes some training to become competent at.
We’ve seen people struggling to learn how to control a semi-auto – don’t get us wrong. They’ve succeeded, and succeeded brilliantly, but it has taken them 10 – 20 hours of good quality training to get to a point of competency, and they need to continue returning to a range to do some basic drills, every 3 – 6 months, to remain competent.
Perhaps the best thing for you to do next is to take a class (or arrange a private lesson) to better understand how to operate both revolvers and semi-autos so you can decide whether you’d prefer the greater simplicity of the revolver or the greater capacity of the semi-auto.
Please Also See
You might find it interesting and helpful to also read our page about choosing between revolvers and semi-autos for concealed carry purposes. The right gun for home defense is probably not also the right gun to carry with you outside the home.
In that article, we discuss similar issues but from the different perspectives and constraints associated with concealed carry.
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