Don’t discount a revolver as a defensive firearm


Following on from my post yesterday about our local gun show, I’m struck by how many younger shooters don’t seem to think of revolvers as defensive weapons.  They’ve been brought up on a movie and TV diet of “plastic fantastic” high-capacity pistols, that never run out of ammo and always drive the bad guy backward and spin him around a few times before he crumples lifeless to the floor.

That’s not quite how things work in reality, of course.

I think mastery of the double-action revolver is a very important step towards becoming a competent all-round handgun shooter.  The long, deliberate pull, the awareness of how spring tension is “stacking” under your trigger finger, the need to keep the sights aligned during the trigger stroke – they all demand dedication and practice.  If you can shoot a double-action revolver well, you can shoot almost any handgun well, in my experience.  I daresay many older shooters will agree with me.

There’s also the fact that revolvers eliminate a couple of common causes of firearms malfunctions.  You can’t “limp-wrist” a revolver, so that’s one failure mode out of the way.  Also, ammunition malfunctions that will tie up a pistol, requiring a clearance drill and a quick reload of the chamber, normally aren’t a factor with a revolver – you simply pull the trigger again to turn the defective round past the barrel and line up the next one under the hammer.  You can also put on a different set of handgun grips, offered by many vendors, to make the revolver fit your hand better.  That’s more difficult to accomplish with a semi-auto pistol, because the magazine inside the pistol grip makes it difficult to alter its shape and/or size to any great extent.

What’s more, revolvers can handle almost any bullet configuration, from flat wadcutters, to semiwadcutters, to WFN (wide flat nose) and LFN (long flat nose – more streamlined) heavy-for-caliber bullets, to hollowpoint and softpoint rounds, to full metal jacket loads.  Unlike pistols, a revolver doesn’t use a feed ramp to move the cartridge from the magazine into the chamber.  Therefore, bullet shapes that might “hang up” on that feed ramp will work just fine in the older, simpler mechanism of a revolver.

If you’re so inclined, you can also load more powerful ammo in a revolver than in most semi-auto pistols.  I use a S&W Model 69 Combat Magnum revolver chambered in .44 Magnum as a general-purpose sidearm for walking through the brush, as a backup to my hunting rifle.  I use the same revolver on occasion with .44 Special ammunition as an urban defensive gun, and feel very comfortable with it.  I wouldn’t use .44 Magnum loads in town due to the risk of over-penetration (remember, you’re legally responsible for every round you fire, and legally liable for any innocent persons or property it strikes), but with the lower-powered Special load, that’s not as much of a problem.

The revolver does, of course, have certain drawbacks compared to semi-auto pistols.  It’s typically a bit bulkier and heavier than a “plastic fantastic”, being made of steel or alloys.  It holds relatively few cartridges;  5-7 rounds, with a few 8-rounders, versus the average 9mm. pistol holding 15-19 rounds.  It requires more effort to master it, and to stay in practice.  It’s more difficult to reload in a hurry, requiring speedloaders or speed strips, and training in their use.

In particular, small so-called “snubnosed” revolvers are hard to control in accurate rapid fire, so much so that I regard them as counter-productive for a novice shooter.  I’ve found more beginners put off, and actually becoming scared of guns, by being sold a snubnose and finding themselves unable to shoot it well, than almost any other cause – in particular the ultra-lightweight titanium and scandium revolvers.  Those are an invitation to carpal tunnel syndrome if you shoot them a lot!  Heavier medium- and large-frame revolvers are much easier to handle, and should be a first choice until sufficient mastery is built up.

Despite those disadvantages, the revolver remains entirely viable as a defensive firearm.  Remember, according to statistics provided by the FBI, for decades the “average” gunfight has required 3-4 rounds, fired at a range of a few feet, in the space of a few seconds, to resolve matters.  It’s not always as simple as that, as the linked article points out, but under “normal” circumstances (whatever they are!), the revolver can (and often does) prevail just as easily as a pistol.  Put a bullet or three in the right place, and your problem is likely to cease being a problem.

There’s another factor at times like these, when quality defensive handguns are hard to find.  In some (not all) areas, revolvers may be more readily available than pistols, because of their “old-fashioned” image, and because people want the latest and greatest pistol they’ve seen in the movies.  I’ve profited from that attitude to pick up a couple of nice specimens over the past few months.  I have over a dozen defensive revolvers in my gun safe, ranging in caliber from .38 Special all the way up to .44 Magnum.  I’ll gladly trust my life to any of them, particularly those firing more powerful or bigger-bore rounds.

Fortunately, entry-level revolvers such as the Philippine-made Armscor M200 (a copy of the Colt, that can accept Colt grips for a better fit to your hand) and Brazilian-made Rossi’s (models R85104 and R97104) can still be had brand-new for $300-$350, if dealers have stock.  I’ve fired several of them, and they’re not bad for the price.  Middle-of-the-road brands such as Taurus (models 65 and 66, particularly used examples) and Charter Arms (particularly its .44 Special Bulldog model) can be found in the $350-$550 range in this part of the world.  None of the aforementioned will meet the “snob value” test applied by many shooters who should know better.  They’re not collector’s pieces, and they’re not the greatest quality, and they won’t all stand up to high hundreds or thousands of rounds expended in training.  Nevertheless, they’ll keep you alive in a pinch, which is precisely what they’re intended for.  Sadly, used Smith & Wessons and Colts are much more expensive, and (along with new examples) have almost priced themselves out of the market.  For lower-cost training, you can look to a revolver chambered in .22LR for practice and plinking purposes.

One word of caution:  beware of revolvers with ported or compensated barrels.  Taurus is particularly egregious about this.  In some models, they drill a line of holes on either side of the front sight (shown below), to divert propellant gases upward and minimize felt recoil.

They accomplish that goal, but in a tactically unsound way, IMHO.  The holes magnify the muzzle flash above the gun in low light levels, which can destroy your night vision.  If you happen to hold it anywhere near someone (for example, a member of your family whom you’re trying to protect) the high-velocity upward-directed gases can inflict injury.  Firearms so equipped are also much louder in confined quarters, such as indoors.  Rather go for a standard barrel configuration, without ports or compensators.

Revolvers make easy-to-teach “loaner guns” for those who might need a firearm in a hurry, but have never handled one.  It’s relatively straightforward to show them how to load, unload and operate the gun.  There are no safety catches or magazine catches or slide release catches to worry about – just a cylinder release.  Revolvers have been called “the original point-and-click interface” for that reason.  I’ve taught many beginners to shoot, and I almost always start them off with revolvers, so they can master a gun in short order and discover for themselves that they can, indeed, control it.  They seldom need more than one 50-round box of ammo to learn how to handle it safely and get hits on target at short range (unlike semi-auto pistols, which usually require more than that).  In an era of ammo shortages and high prices, that’s not a bad thing.

You’ll often come across longer-barreled revolvers (typically 6″ and upward) designed for hunting or target shooting, which are too large to easily conceal beneath urban clothing for defensive carry purposes.  Here’s a tip:  look at vendors such as Numrich Gun Parts and others.  Many of them have in stock used, shorter barrels for your make and model of revolver, often at very reasonable prices.  Buy one;  have your friendly gunsmith unscrew the long barrel, screw in the short one, and adjust the cylinder gap;  and you’ve got a much more easily concealed weapon.  That can save you money, too, because longer-barreled revolvers are harder to sell in a market looking for smaller defensive firearms.  They typically bring lower prices than the latter.  I have on my desk as I write these words a used 6″-barreled revolver, bought at a more-affordable-than-usual price, with a used-but-in-great-condition 4″ barrel lying next to it.  That’s the next project for my gunsmith.

If you can’t find a semi-auto pistol to suit your needs or your budget, don’t rule out a revolver.  They’ve been saving the lives of good guys since Samuel Colt invented the first practical revolver, his Paterson Model, back in 1836.  As he said in his advertising:

Be not afraid of any man
No matter what your size.
When danger threatens, call on me
And I will equalize.

Revolvers are continuing that tradition to this day.



  1. Since I'm not a "gun" person, gun people I know have told me that I should get a revolver if I were to buy a gun.

  2. You are so right about ported pistol barrels. I have grown to hate firing them because the ejecta seems especially attracted to me.

  3. No, I'm not putting a 4" barrel on my 6" Python but then she's a safe queen and has been one since she was new. My 4" Ruger Security Six on the other hand is not. With Pachmayr grips and a Wolfe spring kit she is a handy, controllable package with 6 rounds of 357 oomph on tap I, don't feel the least undergunned.

  4. I carried a 4" Python for years as a 'truck gun', and I carry a new Colt Cobra as a defensive weapon routinely. But I'm also an old fart that grew up with revolvers…

  5. As someone who's been around the edge of gun culture, but not gotten into it (been shooting a handful of times with friends), what are reasonable entry level prices to consider for different types (rough categories, not trying to get prices on specific models)

    i.e. the "if you see something cheaper than this, there's probably something wrong" type of prices (recognizing that this will steer me away from some bargains, but more likely will keep me clear of lemons)

    David Lang

  6. David –
    Peter listed a range of $300 – $550 in the 11th paragraph. I just googled those two Rossi models he listed, and his listed prices were consistent with what I was seeing. Pricing on-line is one thing. Availability on-line is another. Both of those Rossi models he listed are 4-6" models. As a relative newbie, stay away from snub-nose (2-2.5" or less) revolvers. Yes, they're easier to carry. They're also harder to shoot accurately, and the extremely lightweight ones can have brutally painful recoil. I once shot a friend's S&W Bodyguard snubby in .38 Special with light practice ammo, and it was worse than shooting my .357 Magnum Ruger LCR snubby with full power self-defense 158 grain ammo.

  7. living in California, I'm unlikely to be trying to carry anything much. I have large enough hands that when shooting with friends, I've been more comfortable with the double-stack automatics than the single stack one. My eyes are not great, and my hands have a shake, so I'm not going to be a precision shooter with anything.

    I'm not going to rush out and buy something now, because the demand (and therefor the prices) are high.

    But I needed toget an idea as to what a reasonable starter pistol would run.

    David Lang

  8. Peter –
    I totally agree that snubbies are not for novices. But with practice, they can be a good choice for an experienced shooter. "With practice" being a key phrase. A smooth trigger also helps immensely.

    I remember the write-up from one of the first, if not the very first, Blogorado. I think it was Lawdog who posted it. As I recall, he and either MattG or JPG were shooting at a 55 gallon drum at 500 yards with snubbies. Hitting it occasionally, too.

    My local range puts on outdoor bowling pin matches during the decent weather months. I'll frequently run the table with my Ruger LCR. But I practiced with it a lot before I tried it. Even though it's double-action only, it has a very smooth trigger, and I used to practice on a steel ram silhouette at 60 yards. Seated with a rest I could usually hit it two out of five, and the other three weren't off by much. Standing unsupported that rate cut in half to only one out of five. Still, not bad for a sub-2" barrel. After that, 12 yards for the bowling pins is much more manageable.


  9. David –

    Sorry, missed that you were asking price ranges on all categories, not just revolvers. Used, nothing special, semi-autos (at least in my area – north of you), before the panic buying, were running in the $300-$400 range. Fancier/rarer/better made guns – more.


  10. My 50 year old .44 Special Bulldog has never failed to go "bang" when the trigger is pulled. Probably has had 1,000 rounds through it. Even faulty ammo works, or at least clears the barrel. Since at my very best with a handgun, I was mediocre, in my old age it will do.

  11. The weekend before Thanksgiving I attended two days of revolver training and discussion in Dallas at the Pat Rogers Memorial Revolver Roundup. Several high caliber (snerk) trainers who are trying to keep the art of combat revolver shooting alive were present, and it was a great time. The point was made repeatedly that revolvers still have their place and are still viable for self defense, but they also have limitations. Quite a few of those limitations were discussed in detail at the conference, and some are described in this post by one of the attending trainers, Greg Ellifritz.

    (BTW, the dropped speedloader in Greg's pic was mine – I am now hanging my head in shame…)(and we noted that with the amount of shooting we did, there were several guns that had malfunctions due to either powder flakes getting under the extractor star or the ejector rod backing out a bit, both of which locked up the cylinder and downed the gun. There's a reason revolver toters regularly carried two or three of them!)

    Just tonight I had an older women (late 50's I would estimate, so younger than me!) come to the range with some friends. She had not shot much at all before, and she had a nice Ruger LCR in .38 Special. However, I started her off shooting her friend's Glock 17 since I wanted her to enjoy the experience more than she would have with the snubbie. She did just fine, and within 50 rounds she was hitting with acceptable accuracy and performing manipulations pretty well. She'll come back and have a go with her revolver at a later date.

  12. In my experience, the main problem with small revolvers, snubbies, etc, is the makers put tiny grips on them. This makes practice painful and accuracy doubtful. If the grips don't cover and cushion the backstrap/grip frame, replace them with a good rubber type. Frankly, ALL original grips on small revolvers are too small.

    The second problem seems to be a focus on carrying +P or +P+ or Magnum ammo, but practicing with standard pressure ammo. This is foolish. You must practice with the same power ammo you will use for "serious social purposes". The claim that you won't notice the difference in a gunfight is idiotic. Muzzle recovery from recoil will slow down your time between shots, and you may discover that you can't hit what you NEED to hit to solve your problem.

    With good, slightly larger than original grips, a ~2" snubbie should be accurate enough to hit an adversary at 100 yards in double action. I suggest using normal pressure ammo for general carry, especially if it is a lightweight or airweight type.

  13. Hey Peter;

    I had posted a revolver post on my blog today …Go figure, LOL. I had taken a new shooter earlier in the year shooting, she had bought a snubbie 8 years ago and had no experience with firearms. I started her out with the .22LR using the NRA instruction standards, then moving her target farther out. Once she was good with the fundamentals, I switched her to my .32 ACP then to my .38 revolver and she got really got comfortable with the revolver.Per Macks at recommendation, I got her some Hornandy Critical Defense 110 Grn FTX, perfect for short barrel revolvers, hers will be coming up from her folk's house and she will have the proper ammo for it. I was happy to show her how to shoot, the Lady is a class act and a pleasure to deal with.

  14. I have the Rock Island Armory (Armscor) .38 Spl revolvers with both the snubby (2"?) and 4" barrels. I've shot the heck out of them and they always do the job. I don't like the Colt-style cylinder release mechanism on them as much as the S&W one, but that's merely because I carried a S&W Model 15 .38 Spl for four years, so that's what I'm used to. My wife and I tried a S&W Airweight in .38 Spl and we both hated it. The light weight made the recoil unpleasant. I love shooting solid steel wheelguns.

    One caveat about the Armscor revolvers–they aren't *exactly* like the Colts. Pachmeyer grips don't quite fit without a little touching-up, and the clearance for a Colt Detective Special speedloader is slightly less than on the Colt.

  15. The nightstand pistols in my house are all revolvers. My daughter has Dad's Sentinel 22 revolver, my son has a Ruger GP100 357 and I have a Ruger Super Blackhawk 44 thumb-buster. No worries about magazine springs becoming weak over time, no problem with forgetting about safeties, pull the trigger and it will go bang. If you are waking up to an intruder, reach for the revolver, no thought required. Every six months they get an oil patch and a light oiling, then wiped off.

  16. I love my snubbies. Generally carry my LCR in Hogue IWB holster, appendix-style for easier access while seated, i.e., driving. I find it's short and light enough to carry thusly with less "irritation" than on the hip. Used to carry my Beretta .32ACP Tomcat in similar fashion, and still do on the occasion when greater concealability outranks caliber. The LCR is stuffed with five .38 special rounds, target loads, 148 grain wadcutters over 2.7 grains of Bullseye. Really nothing hotter is called for; can't build significantly greater velocity out of that miniscule barrel, but hotter loads and heavier bullets do make the discharge significantly less comfortable, affecting aim on follow-up shots problematic. Bought a Kimber K6 for the nightstand, but still load only those target wadcutters. I find that expansion of hot hollowpoints is negligible, so don't load them for defensive purposes, even though the K6 is magnum rated. And for greater peace of mind in the home, my Mossberg 590 Mariner sits close by, loaded with eight somewhat more potent projectiles, just in case things come to the gravest extreme, as the great Massad Ayoob so succinctly phrased it.

  17. Hi Peter, in your warning about ported barrels being dangerous you failed to mention the gases from in front of the cylinder. Pressure from the gases as the bullet is sent into the forcing cone and down the barrel are also a very real danger. There is quite a bit of spread too. I demonstrated this to a young shooter once by looping a sheet of paper over the gun, carefully showing my fingers safe at the trigger guard. When the revolver was fired, down range, the paper exploded from the gases.

    I should also add, myth busters, did a show on that danger a few years back.


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