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Revolver vs. Semi-Auto

Last Updated: 2/1/2012

Showdown For Beginners: Revolver Vs. Semi-Automatic

By Tara Dixon Engel

 So you have decided to buy a handgun , but you don't have the faintest idea what to look for and where to start? Don't be embarrassed. We see folks just like you every day at Olde English. And, believe me, the folks who ask “dumb questions” (your words, not ours) are precious indeed. You are a sponge. You know how much you don't know and, as a result, you listen and you learn.

We thought you might like to have a little primer on the two types of handguns you will encounter – and the pros and cons of each style.

As you browse the counters at your local gun shops, you will see two main handgun designs – pistols (aka semi-automatics) and revolvers (sometimes referred to as wheel guns).

If you are a newcomer to handguns, you may be wondering which one is better...and what the differences are.

Well, the truth is, what's “better” is what works best for you. How does the gun feel in your hand? Can you safely and easily operate it? Is it in your price range? Does it do what you need  it to do? These are all questions that will help you decide whether a semi-automatic or a revolver is the gun of your dreams (if, indeed, you dream about guns...)

Let's discuss what each style is and what it does.


A revolver has a circular cylinder toward the back end of the gun's frame that rotates as the trigger is pulled (or the hammer is cocked) to line up each chamber (the holes in the cylinder, where you place the ammunition) with the barrel. As the hammer drops after you pull the trigger, the gun's firing pin strikes the primer at the bottom of the bullet casing and a projectile (bullet) speeds down the barrel of the gun and out muzzle, courtesy of pressure generated by the hot gasses that fill the ammo cartridge once the primer ignites and burns the powder charge.

Really and truly, my goal is not to subject you to a high school science class – but it is kind of interesting what goes on inside a gun when you pull the trigger.

Once a bullet is fired from one chamber of the cylinder, the shooter may cock the hammer again, which rotates the cylinder to the next chamber. Another yank on the trigger and you repeat the process. Typically, a revolver will have five or six chambers in its cylinder, depending on the type of ammunition it uses (smaller caliber revolvers – like .22s – may have more chambers (holes) in the cylinder simply because the ammunition is much smaller than a .38 or a .45 cartridge.)

The cowboys of the old west used revolvers. The old style revolvers worked much the same as  today's revolvers do...although far less safely or consistently. But the basics were the same. Original revolver designs  were “Single Action Only” or “SAO” which means the shooter had to cock the hammer manually (with his or her thumb) each time he/she wanted to fire it.

The term single action means, literally, that pulling the trigger performs only one action: it drops the hammer. Talented gunslingers supposedly learned to “fan the hammer” in order to achieve rapid fire. That is, they would sweep the hammer repeatedly with the palm of their hand, cocking and releasing it in quick succession. It is doubtful that this practice was used for much of anything but wowing crowds of city slickers. To do this regularly would have damaged the gun's firing pin not mention the tender flesh in the palm of your hand. But it makes for a colorful vision of old west gunplay. 

More recently, “Double Action” triggers were invented, allowing the shooter to fire a round AND rotate the cylinder simply by pulling the trigger. The Double Action triggers have a longer, heavier pull (because they are performing TWO functions – cocking the hammer and firing the bullet, hence the term double action), but the user can shoot in rapid succession with the DAO design, without ever manually cocking the hammer. NOTE: All revolvers without visible hammers are double-action and, therefore, have heavier trigger pulls than those with exposed hammers that can be “single-actioned.”

Semi-Automatic (also known simply as a pistol)

A semi-automatic pistol (technically both a revolver and a semi-automatic are pistols but modern terminology has separated the revolver from the pistol) is magazine-fed vertically through a hollow space in the “grip” (the part you hold onto when firing) of the gun.

The device that feeds ammunition into the chamber of the gun is called a “magazine.” A coiled spring inside the magazine pushes the cartridges upward as each bullet is fired and the spent casing is ejected from the “ejection port” (a rectangular hole) at the top of the slide.

The “action” (the mechanism in the interior of the gun) cycles after firing and ejecting the spent cartridge. The action of the slide slapping backwards resets the external or internal hammer (or striker), readying the pistol to fire again. Although some pistols are referred to as “single action” that does not mean that you have to rack the slide each time you fire the gun. It simply refers to the function of the trigger mechanism.

Pros and Cons

Many beginners choose a revolver because it is easier to use: fewer working parts and no need to yank back on the slide in order to initiate the firing sequence. But, while a semi-automatic tends to have more working parts than a revolver, there is also a greater variety of sizes, weights, styles, and calibers to choose from.

Another reason to choose a revolver relates to the dependability of ammunition. Ammo can fail – it can have too little propellant or inadequate primer. If a bad round of ammo makes its way into a semi-automatic magazine then you must remove the magazine and eject the round from the chamber, reload the magazine, and re-chamber a new round before you can resume shooting.

However, if a bad round of ammo is chambered in a revolver cylinder, you simply pull the trigger again which advances the cylinder to the next chamber and, presumably, to a good round of ammo. This is a definite advantage in any self-defense situation.

Revolvers are also easier to load (although they hold fewer rounds than many of the larger semi-automatics.) Anyone who has ever struggled to push a round into a stiff-springed pistol magazine can attest to that.

Unlike the revolvers of the old west, most of today's self-defense revolvers are hammerless (because an exposed hammer can snag on clothing or a purse) and chamber either .38 special or .357 magnum (which can shoot either .357 or .38 special rounds.) They also tend to be small and light-weight because it is easier to carry them. BUT don’t make the mistake of thinking that small and light-weight means easy to shoot. A small, light-weight .38 (and especially a .357) can pack a wallop in recoil to the hand.

If you have weak or arthritic hands, a small, light revolver might not be the best choice. You might be better off carrying something that is easier to shoot, even something a little heavier (heavier and bigger tend to mean less recoil i.e. more fun to shoot.)

You should also check the weight and difficulty of the trigger pull on any revolver (or any pistol for that matter) you may want to buy. The long, double-action trigger pull could be tough for you if you have weak hands.

While there are some compelling arguments in favor of starting off with a revolver, that is by no means the only option. Most of today's semi-automatics are dependable, safe, powerful, and easy to conceal and carry.

No matter what your limitations are, there is a semi-automatic out there that can accommodate you. It may be something basic and light-weight like a Walther P-22 or the new Ruger SR-22, or you may decide to dive right into a larger caliber by purchasing something like the Springfield XD9 or XD40 or a sturdy little Glock. By talking to your friendly local gun salesman, you can find out more about the advantages and disadvantages of each model. They can also school you in the “hidden” cost of buying a gun...the cost of the ammunition.

I tend to prefer the semi-automatics over the revolvers. Why? I have absolutely no idea. I have made a great case for owning nothing but revolvers, but, the fact is, I love a good 1911 or a poly-framed XD, or even my little Walther 22. They fit hand, my wallet, and my lifestyle. In the end, buying a gun is like buying a car (only a little cheaper, thank goodness): you will have very specific needs and wants related to the product and you will have to weigh all the options and “test drive” a variety of models before you find the one that truly suits you.

However, don't discount the likelihood of a visceral gut response when you come face to face with the gun of your dreams. Like falling in love, there is no accounting for taste, and every rational argument flies out the window in the face of “the one.” My Sig Sauer 1911 was definitely not in my price range, but, once I held it, I knew it was the gun for me! I saved my pennies for months and finally, joyfully, I took home my very first 1911. As I drove away from the gun store, I kicked myself for such a foolish expense. I continued to kick myself until I actually pulled the trigger for the first time. Nirvana. Pure and simple. Angels sang, poets wept, and a shaft of sunlight glistened off the barrel of my Parkerized Sig. 

As my fellow "gun goobers" told me during my first week at Olde English: “you'll get used to dealing with all kinds of guns every day. It will become old hat and the guns will all blur together, until, when you are least expecting it, 'the one' will walk through the door and you'll just have to have it.”

Your best bet is to do your homework, try out a variety of guns – both pistols and revolvers –  talk to your fellow gun owners (but bear in mind that we all have our biases) and think seriously about what you want and need. Do this and, as with cars, mates, and houses, you may be lucky enough to find “the one” that suits you perfectly, lives up to all your expectations, and doesn't cost too much to maintain.

Happy hunting!

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