I’ve had the revolver vs semi-auto for concealed carry debate more times than I can count when I worked as a manager (and gunsmith) at a local gun store.
I won’t pretend this article will solve the debate, but hopefully it gives you a good perspective to help your decision. It’ll probably become clear which I prefer as you read, but I don’t have an ax to grind.
I’m a man of strong opinions (read my Why the .308 Sucks – And the Military Knew It article if you don’t agree.) But, I truly don’t care which one you carry. In a gunfight I care about accuracy not the weapon because you can’t miss fast enough to win a gunfight.
So whichever one you choose, just make sure you spend a LOT of time practicing with it. In the end, that will make a bigger difference than picking a revolver or semi-auto.
NOTE: since this article is about self defense, I will be talking about double action revolvers only. In this article, when I say “revolver” just assume I mean “double action revolver”.
If you don’t know the difference, here’s a quick breakdown:
- Single Action Revolvers only perform a single action when you pull the trigger, and that action is releasing the hammer. You must manually cock the hammer for the trigger to work. Think cowboy gun, you have to cock the hammer before every shot. Single action revolvers are slow to fire I would NEVER recommend them for self defense (unless you’re Bob Munden)
- Double Action Revolvers perform two actions when you pull the trigger. First they cock the hammer, then they release it to fire the round. Because of this, you can keep pulling the trigger and the revolver will keep firing until all the rounds have been fired.
NOTE #2: I have an article on The Best Concealed Carry Pistols for Any Budget which has recommendations for both revolvers and semi-autos for concealed carry.
Revolver vs Semi-Auto for Concealed Carry:
Obviously both revolvers and semi-autos come in just about any size imaginable. However, revolvers will always be wider than semi-autos.
The most popular revolver cartridge for concealed carry is the 38 special. The cylinder diameter of a common 5-shot 38 special revolver is around 1.30″ inches (plus or minus depending on make and model.) If you want a 6-shot revolver you need to go wider, about 1.40″-1.450″ inches depending on make & model. But all that width only gives you 6 rounds of 38 special.
For comparison, most modern concealed carry semi-autos in 9mm or 40 S&W are around 1.2″, though a few might be as wide as 1.25″. Some of the smaller single stack semi-autos are only 0.9″ wide or as thin as 0.8″ inches. At that point, the revolver is 0.4″ to 0.5″ wider than the semi-auto.
Keep in mind the wider 1.20″-1.25″ inch semi-autos will be double stack pistols sporting at least 10 rounds and more likely 12-17. The thinner semi-autos will easily hold 6 rounds of 9mm or 380.
With the vast array of revolvers and semi-autos sold today, comparing weights might seem a little silly. At the heavy end, both can weight a couple pounds. At the lightweight end the semi-autos do have a slight advantage, but the weights are both so low that comfort is guaranteed.
The lightest revolver that I would consider suitable for concealed carry (the Ruger LCR) weighs 13.5 ounces. The lightest semi-auto I consider suitable for concealed carry (the Ruger LCP) is a 1/4 pound lighter at 9.4 ounces.
Does that weight difference matter very much since they’re both so light?
My concealed carry pistol weighs almost 2 pounds loaded and I can carry it all day comfortably. Anything under a pound is very comfortable for almost anyone.
First, we need to distinguish between “actual recoil” and “felt recoil”. Actual recoil can’t change because it’s a function of physics. Sir Issac Newton’s third law of motion states: “For every action there is an equal and opposing reaction“.
We can’t change that, but we can cheat it a little bit.
The “cheating” is where felt recoil comes into play. We can reduce the feeling of recoil in several ways, but the most relevant way is time. If you spread a force over a longer period of time, it feels weaker even though it technically isn’t.
With a revolver, there’s almost nothing we can do to reduce felt recoil. A different grip can help, but that’s about it.
With a semi-auto, part of the recoil is used to operate the slide. Further, as the slide moves to the rear, the recoil spring slows it’s motion down and saps some of it’s inertia. This spreads the recoil force over a longer time and slows the slide, both of which reduce felt recoil.
Ease of Use
Here, revolvers win hands down… But only for new shooters or those with weak arms/hands
When I managed a gun shop, I could see a new shooter’s eyes glaze over when I started describing how to operate a semi-auto. By comparison, everyone understood a revolver right away.
It takes less than a minute to explain how to use a revolver. Semi-autos take longer for new shooters, sometimes even a couple trips to the range. But it really doesn’t take that long. And for those of us who have been shooting since we were six, it’s a complete non-issue.
If you shoot a couple hundred rounds out of a semi-auto, you’ll have it down pat. I also think you should have at least a couple hundred rounds downrange before you carry concealed, so is harder to learn really an issue…
If you have weaker hands or wrists, the revolver is the obvious choice… Sort of.
Some people don’t have the hand/arm strength to rack the slide on most semi-autos. The revolver is the obvious choice for them, but not the only one. A few modern semi-auto pistols have slides that are VERY easy to operate.
I think the slightly reduced felt recoil of a semi-auto would be an advantage if arm and/or hand strength is an issue. Of course, that assumes you pick a semi-auto who’s slide is very easy to operate. (I have a recommendation for such a pistol in my Best Concealed Carry Pistols for Any Budget article.)
Also, we have to consider the user interface (sight and trigger) when we talk about ease of use. So that leads us to the next section.
Accuracy, Shootability and Triggers.
Mechanically, neither has an advantage in accuracy. The build quality is far more important for accuracy than revolver vs semi-auto. That said, there’s more to accuracy than simply the gun’s mechanical ability to shoot small groups.
The sights and trigger are the two most important places that the shooter interacts with the gun. Here again the semi-auto has the advantage because Double action revolver triggers are notorious for being very heavy.
Most double action revolver triggers take between 10-14 pounds to fire. Even some of the lighter factory triggers (like the Ruger LCR) are around 9 pounds.
Here’s the problem with that. Most concealed carry revolvers are the small J-frame size and weigh around a pound (depending on the manufacturer). So think about this, you’re trying to hold a 1 pound gun steady while pulling the 9-14 pound trigger.
It is, but it gets worse. A double action revolver trigger usually has 3/4 to 1 inch of travel to make it fire.
A double action revolver requires pulling a 9-14 pound trigger over 3/4 to 1 inch of travel – with one finger – while trying to keep a 1 pound gun steady.
Without significant practice, it’s very hard. You can shoot a double action revolver VERY well if you practice but they’re harder to shoot well, especially for new shooters.
Semi-autos are usually (not always) better. The trigger pull weights are usually in the 5-7 pound range vs 9-14 pounds and the trigger travel is usually half or less, which makes a big difference. The same problems apply, but with 30%-60% less pull weight and travel they get easier.
(I should mention that custom or upgraded revolver triggers are much better. However, you can upgrade a semi-auto trigger too…)
The other big problem with Revolvers is the sights.
This is what the typical snub-nosed, concealed carry revolver’s sight picture looks like.
Does it work?
But is it ideal?
Usually a concealed carry revolver’s iron sights are part of the gun’s frame which means you can’t change them. Sometimes you can swap the front sight out, but usually the rear sights are part of the frame. (like the picture)
This is good for being low-profile and low snag, but not so good for the sight picture.
By comparison, the vast majority of semi-auto pistols have changeable front and rear sights.
That’s standard on all but the smallest semi-autos.
You can upgrade a semi-auto with glow-in-the-dark tritium sights, high visibility fiber optic sights, or any of the dozens of other options on the market. You don’t really have that option with most concealed carry revolvers. Some give you that option, but most don’t.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are people who can bust clay pigeons at 50 yards with a snub nose revolver. It’s not that revolvers are inaccurate, (they aren’t) but I would argue they are harder to shoot well.
For concealed carry, semi-autos easily beat revolvers out in the sights and triggers category in my opinion. That said, with enough practice you can be absolutely deadly with a double action revolver… It’s just easier and faster to learn a semi-auto. (in my opinion)
Complexity of Design
This section is more to correct a common myth than as part of the actual comparison. However, the myth is so widespread I had to tackle it here.
They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. Given my tendency to ramble a bit, I’ll lean on a picture this time. Below is an exploded view that shows all the parts of a Smith and Wesson model 642 revolver. (One of the most common concealed carry revolvers.)
There’s a LOT more parts in a revolver than you thought isn’t there? (This drawing has adjustable sights, which adds about 10 parts vs a typical concealed carry revolver.)
I used to work as a gunsmith (and manager) in a local gun shop. Literally every double action revolver I’ve taken apart is that complex.
Now, lets compare that to the most popular semi-auto on the market:
The “35 parts” number is a bit misleading because they don’t include sub-assemblies. However, there’s only 7 or 8 more parts if you if you break those down too. That brings the total parts count up to a whopping 42-43 parts compared to the revolver’s 60- 70.
The Glock is in good company too. The 1911 has 44 parts, The Springfield XD series has 47, and the M&P series has 48. Most modern semi-autos are between 40 and 50 parts.
The modern double action revolver is still around 60-70 though.
So when people say that Revolvers are “so simple there’s nothing to go wrong” I roll my eyes. Revolvers have more parts than semi-autos in the vast majority of cases.
Revolvers don’t just have more parts though, they are mechanically more complex and require more precision to function properly.
Yes revolvers are more simple to operate, but they’re also far more complex mechanically.
Boy, I’m going to catch a lot of flack in the comments section for this. Oh well…
There is ZERO real world difference in reliability between quality Revolvers and Semi-autos.
EVERY mechanical device can fail. Period.
Revolver are not an exception to this.
No mechanical device is an exception, especially when they are complex. However, the “Revolvers Don’t Jam Myth” is so deeply embedded into the minds of the gun culture it’s almost like a cult.
But the truth is this:
It’s the Quality of the gun that matters, NOT the type of gun.
If you buy a Smith & Wesson, Ruger or other top quality revolver, it will almost certainly be VERY reliable. However, if you buy a cheap revolver and expect top tier reliability, you’ll be disappointed.
The same is true of semi-autos too.
Glocks, the M&P series, and the XD series are great examples, but hardly the only ones. Any of the top tier semi-autos will be very reliable unless you abuse them beyond reason.
Again, it’s the QUALITY of the gun, NOT the type.
Most of the semi-autos I fixed in the shop where cheaper guns, or guns with aftermarket parts causing problems. Often top tier semi-autos could come in for swapping sights or upgrades, but almost never for malfunctions.
The whole time I was a gunsmith, I had VERY few top tier semi-autos with an actual problem. In fact, (and I didn’t count so take this with a grain of salt) but I’d bet I repaired more top tier revolvers than semi-autos.
If not the numbers were very close.
Again, there is ZERO real world difference in reliability between QUALITY Revolvers and Semi-autos.
If you buy a good quality handgun (revolver or semi-auto) it will be very reliable.
If you don’t, it won’t.
Isn’t that simple?
Clearing Malfunctions & Repair
If the problem is ammo related, then revolvers do have an advantage. If the round doesn’t fire, simply pull the trigger again to fire the next round.
And obviously if a part breaks you have a major problem regardless of whether it’s a revolver or Semi-auto.
Other than that though…
Whenever a customer would bring in a revolver for repair I would inwardly groan. They are harder to work on, harder to diagnose, and often harder to repair. The problem is there are a LOT of parts that MUST be in perfect sync or they won’t work.
It doesn’t take much to thrown a revolver off either. Two of the worst revolver repairs I’ve seen only had a tiny burr(s) on the crane. It made the cylinder so stiff you had to turn it by hand. (And I missed the burs they were so small, a more experienced gunsmith found and fixed them.)
When a QUALITY semi-auto has a malfunction, the solution is fast and simple:
(That’s not me btw.)
But when a revolver goes down, it goes down hard. They are a pain in the butt to fix with a workbench, lots of tools and good lighting.
If your revolver goes down in the field, you’re pretty much screwed.
As for repairing them, I’ve fixed plenty of both and would rather fix a semi-auto ANY day. There are fewer parts, fewer parts under spring tension, they’re easier to take apart, easier to diagnose, and (usually) much easier to repair.
Revolvers are very complex, and it seems like every piece is under spring tension just waiting to fly across the room. If you’ve never completely disassembled a revolver, my recommendation is don’t.
It’s not worth the headache.
By comparison, most modern semi-autos are designed to be field stripped easily.
Most of those only a require a small hammer and a punch or two for full disassembly. Some need even fewer tools. (Like a Glock or 1911).
Most of the internal parts aren’t under heavy spring tension either. The few that are (extractors usually) won’t fly across the room because of the way they are designed. You may utter a few choice four-letter words reassembling them, but you’re not likely to lose parts.
Capacity & Reloading
This is a hands down win for the semi-auto. Most people who carry a revolver use a small 5-shot (often called a J-frame). Some carry a larger 6-shot, but almost no one carries anything bigger because the cylinder would get too large.
So basically, revolvers are limited to 5 or 6 shots.
The smallest and slimmest semi-autos have a 6 round capacity. You can get 10-12 rounds in a semi-auto and still be smaller in every dimension than a revolver.
Some of you might say “but you only need a couple of rounds anyway, so 5 or 6 is plenty“. I have an article on How Many Rounds Do I Need For Concealed Carry? and it discusses some real world statistics that might make you rethink that position.
Also, Semi-Auto pistols are much easier and faster to reload than Revolvers.
(Unless you’re Jerry Miculek… which most of us aren’t.)
Slapping in a fresh mag is faster, easier, and harder to mess up than manually reloading a revolver or using speed loaders.
Also – since we are talking about concealed carry – magazines are significantly flatter and easier to conceal then speed loaders or full/half moon clips because of their size and shape.
I tackled handgun cartridges in my 9 vs 40 vs 45 article and touched on it again in my How Many Rounds Do I Need For Concealed Carry? article. I also have a complete look at how bullets do their damage in my “Stopping Power” – The Simple Truth of Terminal Ballistics article.
The short version is almost all common self defense calibers have almost identical effectiveness in stopping a threat.
380, 9mm, 38 Special, and 357 Magnum all shoot bullets that are within 0.002″ inches in diameter. The 40 and 45 make slightly bigger holes. The 357 Magnum can do slightly more damage thanks to it’s weight and speed. (but only if you have the 4+ inch barrel needed to get that speed.)
However, they all still just poke holes.
There is a very slight advantage in the larger cartridges, but it’s very slight. I won’t cover all the statistics again in this article (check the links above to learn more) But I do want to cover two: Accuracy and damage.
The FBI recently decided to switch back to 9mm from 40 S&W. Here are two bullet points (pun intended 😉 ) mentioned in the FBI’s Justification for going back to 9mm.
- “The majority of FBI shooters are both FASTER in shot strings fired and more ACCURATE with shooting a 9mm Luger vs shooting a .40 S&W (similar sized weapons)“
- “There is little to no noticeable difference in the wound tracks between premium line law Auto enforcement projectiles from 9mm Luger through the .45 Auto“
Like I said, there’s almost no difference in effectiveness.
Perhaps that’s why the 38 Special and 9mm are preferred (in their respective platforms) by a HUGE margin. 380 is also quite popular in a semi-auto. (The shop I managed sold at least 3-5 times more 9mm concealed carry pistols than 40 and 45 combined.)
I will point out that the larger, heavier recoil cartridges (40, 45, and 357 magnum) are harder to shoot both fast and accurately. Wyatt Earp once said:
“Fast is fine, but accuracy is final.“
(I found an old interview with Wyatt Earp on gunfighting here BTW)
Nothing beats accuracy. Nothing ever has, nothing ever will because you can’t miss fast enough to win a gunfight.
So carry any cartridge you like.
I truly don’t care what you carry as long as you’re deadly accurate with it. It’s accuracy that will decide a gunfight, not cartridge X vs Y.
Anyway, moving on…
Lets start with the obvious, when you clean a revolver you’re essentially cleaning the frame plus 6 barrels. I say 6 barrels because cleaning the 5 cylinders is done the same way as cleaning the barrel. Then you need to get the carbon that caked around the gap between the cylinder and the barrel. (It gets pretty caked on too.)
You need to be careful when cleaning a blued revolver because you can take the finish off getting that area clean. Brushed stainless or alloy isn’t too bad, but anything gloss is hard to clean without scratching the finish.
To be honest, I hate cleaning revolvers. It’s a pain in the but.
Cleaning a semi-auto is much easier.
Pro tip for a “quick and dirty” way to get a semi-auto clean. Spray your cleaning product of choice (I use CLP) all over the inside of the frame and let it sit for a minute or two. Then hit it with compressed air at 60-80 PSI. It does a wonderful job of cleaning all the loose carbon fouling. It won’t touch the caked on stuff, but it gets the rest. Then you just have to clean the barrel and wipe down the places where the carbon sticks.
In my opinion, it’s a lot harder to clean a revolver vs a semi-auto. But that’s just me. I know people who think revolvers are easier. I think they’re nuts, but I digress.
There’s a reason that semi-autos have largely replaced revolvers for almost every application. They offer higher capacity in a smaller size, faster and easier reloading, better recoil management, better triggers, plus better sights and sight options. Semi-autos are just as reliable, but it’s easier to clear a malfunction.
Very few militaries and very few police forces still use revolvers because of the advantages of semi-auto pistols.
If you are going to concealed carry, my recommendation (if it’s not obvious by now) is to use a semi-auto.
However, more important than revolver vs semi-auto for concealed carry is that you actually carry a gun. So if you prefer a revolver, get a revolver. If you prefer a semi-auto, get a semi-auto. But whatever you carry, make sure you’re a great shot with it because you can’t miss fast enough to win a gunfight.