I loves me revolvers. For many years I was (and still somewhat am) a fan of the Smith and Wesson handguns. (Actually, Im a fan of their revolvers…I think their autos are just horrible.) Its become trendy to badmouth the revolver as archaic and hopelessly outdated for modern needs. With the exception of the big bore magnums for use in the outdoors, revolvers have been all but declared dead for use as a serious self-defense tool.
Tappan, in his books ‘Survival Guns’, prefers the 1911 (heavily modified, of course) to be the superior self defense arm and that anything else is tantamount to tying one hand behind your back.
The revolver carries less ammo, is more difficult to shoot accurately, slow to reload, cannot be easily repaired compared to the auto, and is best relegated to tasks such as dispatching wounded animals, taking potshots at varmints and plinking.
The truth, in my opinion, is somewhere in between. And, like a lot of truths, is fairly subjective.
I normally carry a Glock 9mm of some kind. I like its large capacity, durability, reliability and low cost. I don’t care if the gun gets wet, snowed on, dropped, or banged around.
However, I have a goodly supply of 4” revolvers in .38/.357 Mag. and I think they have a definite place in my plans.
Ballistically, as good as the 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45 Acp are they all take a back seat, statistically, to the .357 magnum 125 gr. JHP in terms of efficacy in bringing vigorous violence to a standstill. That’s not guesswork (not my guesswork, anyway) that’s the findings of a couple guys who spent a good deal of effort reviewing various shootings and tallying up the numbers. (Marshall and Sanow, I believe.)
The revolvers have only a couple advantages over autos and all of those advantages relate to the ammunition. Bullet design is not critical for reliable functioning as it is in the autos. That is to say, a revolver will ‘feed’ even empty cases whereas most autos have to have the finished cartridges maintain a particular profile to feed reliably. (A few exceptions, such as the bottleneck .357 Sig exist, but those are rare exceptions.) The revolvers ability to function is completely independent of the power level of the ammunition in a revolver. That means that a lightweight ‘plinking’ load will function in the gun as reliably as a ‘full house’ magnum load. Autos require a certain amount of ‘oomph’ in their ammo to ensure reliable cycling of the moving parts. Revolvers can function with shot cartridges, plastic bullets or even blanks. Autos, by and large, cannot.
So should we all march to war with Colt Pythons on our hip? Of course not. Revolvers are slow to reload. Sure a professional gunner like Jerry Miculeck can reload a revolver in less than a second…with full moon clips..after training for years. Generally speaking, a revolver is going to be a lot slower to reload than an auto. Speedloaders of various types decrease reload times immensely over one-at-a-time cartridge loading but its still slower than the auto. The 5-,6-,7-,or even 8-shot revolvers are still less than half the capacity of your average double-stack automatic. A broken part in a revolver is more than just a parts replacement exercise…often there’s a bit of hand fitting involved using files, polishing stones and the like. Tappan said you could fix an auto as fast as you could swap parts, and that you could fix a revolver as fast as you could get it to a gunsmith. Theres a bit of truth to that.
As I said, Im a Smith and Wesson fan but I have, as of late, come to admire the Ruger revolvers. Not for their appearance, which is usually rather unattractive, nor for their ergonomics which is also usually at the bottom of the list. No, the Rugers, to me, have one quality that makes their ungainly looks and awkward ergonomics acceptable. It’s the same quality that makes the ungainly AK acceptable to me – rugged, brutal reliability. The Rugers are ungainly and ugly because they are built like tanks. As much as I love my Smiths I know that after a steady diet of magnum loads the smaller guns (K frames) will start to shoot loose. Even Smiths flagship .44 Magnums had issues and had a few redesigns back in the late 80’s/early 90’s. On the other hand, the Rugers tend to just eat whatever you put in them and keep going. This is the big attraction to me.
When do I carry a revolver as opposed to an auto? Usually just when the mood strikes. I never really see it as a huge tactical disadvantage. I grab a Model 10 or Model 27, a few speedloaders and walk out the door. I shoot doubleaction pretty well and feel I shoot the revolvers more accurately than the autos.
Here’s what I like in revolvers and why…
.357 Mag. and .38 revolvers are usually pretty cheap (used police guns are huge bargains) and can be reloaded for at tremendous savings. I usually shoot 125 gr. Gold Dot hollowpoints although out of the snubbies I shoot lighter bullets to keep velocity high. If I’m going to be afield I usually carry 170 gr. (or even 200 gr.) hard cast bullets for penetration. I like 4” barrels on most belt guns although I would carry 5” barrels if they were more common. I feel the 5” is the best compromise for concealibility and performance.
As I mentioned, Ruger revolvers get the nod for ‘Mad Max’ type situations but I still buy the Smith and Wessons if the price is right. Those are pretty much the only two revolvers I personally recommend. There are cheaper guns (Astra, Rossi, etc) but their quality leaves much to be desired. A strong candidate is the modern Taurus revolver. (I would stay away from any old Taurus from, say, pre-1988 or so) They tend to be excellent guns at good prices. Also, Taurus is very responsive in terms of coming up with models that the public wants. Their Titanium Tracker guns are excellent examples of innovation and responding to the market. While I would usually not buy a new Smith (cost, absurd locking mechanism, new barrel system, etc) I would not hesitate to buy a good used one.
Smith has made a couple innovative guns lately, one of which would almost make me rethink my position on their new direction. The Model 327 is an 8-shot .357 with a light rail mount. This is an excellent platform for the wheelgun fan but I do not like alloy-framed revolvers. If they made it out of steel I’d be first in line to buy one. (I dislike alloy framed guns as being too light for the .357 cartridge. Additionally, and this is just a personal opinion with no basis in fact or experience, I don’t think they last as long.) The K-frames are a bit light for a steady diet of heavy .357 loads but easy to carry, the L-frame guns are a better choice (I think the old 686 and especially the 681 guns are excellent examples of a combat-worthy revolver) and if you don’t mind the weight the N-frame .357’s (esp. the glorious Model 27’s) will give a lifetime of service. J-frame .357’s are handy hideout guns but I wouldn’t shoot .357’s through them any more than I needed to.
In Rugers, I think the GP100 as a belt gun, the SP101 as a snubby, and the massive .44 Alaskan are about the most durable guns you can get for their purpose. Im preferring stainless over blued for most of my revolver needs but with proper care a blued finish can be just as good.
A few words about ammo….
Good performing ammo for the .38 and .357 are probably cheapest of all calibers to buy and reload. The .357 especially lends itself to reloading. Bullet weights can go from 95 gr. at around 1500+ fps (Lyman 47th, pg 390, 4” bbl.) to a 200 gr. Bullet at 1200+ fps (also Lyman) making the .357 Mag an extremely versatile cartridge. For economy, shooting cast bullet .38 loads will save you huge amounts of money and still give good performance.
So why do I keep the revolvers around? How exactly do they fit into my needs? They’re cheap enough that I can stick a revolver, a couple speedloaders, a box of ammo, and a holster into a .30 cal. ammo can for less than $200. As much as I like my Glocks for their $370~ price tag (police trade-ins) that’s still around about twice what I can usually find a decent used .38 for. So, for me the .38 and .357 revolvers fit into my plans in the following ways:
- They are cheap enough to have several and to be ‘disposable’ if need be. (Leaving one in the truck, hiding one at an offsite location, etc.)
- Extremely cheap to feed
- Ballistically adequate for most self-defense tasks
- Excellent as tertiary level backup/extra guns
- Good choice for trading material
Lastly, I want to mention calibers. The .45 ACP revolvers are quite handy and simplify logistics by shooting the same ammo as your 1911. Ditto for the 9mm revolvers. And the .44 Mag and .41 Mag beat the .357 hands down. And while I love revolvers in all those calibers (except .41 and .45 Colt which both don’t impress me) from a preparedness standpoint the .38/.357 has the edge on ammo availability, affordability (which can never be underrated), versatility. If you don’t want to add another cartridge to your logistics planning then by all means get the 9mm or .45 ACP revolvers. I try to keep my list of calibers to a minimum but I feel the .38/.357 is too good, too common and too valuable to leave off my list.