The “revolver versus semi-automatic handgun” debate is as old as semi-autos themselves. It will never be “settled” one way or the other — and that's okay, because there is no universal answer as to which is better. Both types of handguns have long lists of situational strengths and weaknesses.
In this guide, we'll do a deep dive into the properties of revolvers and semi-autos and pit them against one another in various categories. Overall, it's more or less a tie, but hopefully we can help you decide which is best for you.
In order to arrive at a clear, well-supported answer to the question of whether you should buy a revolver or a semi-auto, you first should answer a series of narrower questions.
Once you have these questions figured out, keep the answers in mind as we weigh the pros and cons of each type of handgun.
When it comes to assessing a handgun's mechanical dependability, its resistance to dirt and grime and its performance under ideal conditions are slightly different questions. A handgun that occasionally malfunctions when it's clean is more likely to do so when it's dirty, although the reverse isn't necessarily true. Either way, it's good to know the basics of gun cleaning and maintenance.
Semi-automatic handguns are much more mechanically complicated than revolvers, and when semi-autos were first invented, the general design was far from perfect. Early models were highly prone to malfunctions, which led to the rise of “six shots for sure” and other slogans intended to emphasize revolvers' much better reliability. However, in the last few decades, semi-auto design and manufacturing have come a long way. Modern, high-end semi-autos are masterfully engineered and are generally as reliable as revolvers. Still, mechanical simplicity will always confer a slight advantage in this regard, all else being roughly equal.
As far as resistance to dirt, mud and other debris, semi-autos — especially hammerless models — tend to handle these challenges better because any gaps or crevices are usually just a few millimeters wide. The outside of the gun may get filthy, but the insides stay relatively clean. Revolvers have bigger gaps in certain places, which means problematic obstructions are somewhat more likely.
Each time you fire a semi-automatic handgun, several moving parts are subjected to tremendous force. Even the barrel moves slightly as the slide travels rearward and resets. These minute movements can alter the trajectory of each bullet, particularly at long range (see our beginner's guide to long-range shooting for more on this topic).
Revolvers, by contrast, are mostly stationary; the cylinder, trigger, hammer and firing pin are the only parts that move. This gives the weapon greater overall stability and more consistent shot placement, assuming the shooter is highly skilled.
However, semi-autos are easier to shoot in terms of ergonomics (more on this later), particularly for novice and intermediate shooters. The general shape of a semi-auto makes it more conducive to an ideal grip, especially for followup shots. The FBI noticed significant improvements in agents' marksmanship scores when it began primarily issuing semi-autos in the 1980s, and many police departments across the U.S reported similar findings after following suit.
All that being said, expert shooters who are thoroughly familiar with revolvers can shoot them just as accurately as an intermediate shooter can fire a semi-auto.
Most medium and large-caliber revolvers hold five to seven rounds. Small-caliber revolvers can hold eight or more — as many as twelve in the case of .22 models.
Even the smallest semi-autos chambered in large calibers can hold five or six rounds, with full-sized models storing fifteen to twenty rounds in a single magazine.
If you're reasonably dextrous, you can learn to reload a semi-automatic handgun in under two seconds with just a few hours of practice. Doing so in under one second isn't too much harder.
Revolvers are much slower to reload, even with moon clips, speed strips and other devices which allow multiple rounds to be loaded at once. Only the most experienced wheelgun masters can reload a revolver as fast as a moderately competent shooter can reload a semi-auto.
For self-defense and home defense purposes, there's no significant difference between revolvers and semi-autos with respect to their ability to reliably fire calibers up to about .45, which is big enough to stop most attackers within a few seconds.
For truly massive calibers — .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .50, and the like — a revolver's solid steel, single-piece frame is better equipped to absorb the powerful recoil. Semi-autos chambered in these calibers do exist, but they're uncommon, and experts generally regard them as novelty “fun guns” rather than effective, reliable self-defense weapons. Because semi-autos have more moving parts, they're less capable of withstanding the extremely high pressures produced by gigantic bullets.
If you're interested in handgun hunting, especially big game hunting, you'll almost certainly want to choose a heavy, large-frame revolver. Many U.S. states limit hunting handgun capacities to about five rounds anyway, meaning you'd probably have to modify a semi-automatic to comply with the law.
For self-defense applications, there's no practical difference in stopping power between revolvers and semi-autos, unless you want to be really, really sure that a single shot will immediately drop any attacker.
Winner: Revolvers (for hunting), tie (for other applications)
“Ease of use” can be divided into two subordinate considerations: mechanical ease of operation and the extent to which the gun makes it easier (or harder) to learn and maintain good shooting fundamentals.
As far as learning how to safely handle, load, unload and fire a gun, revolvers are a clear winner. Complete novices are generally less intimidated by revolvers because wheelguns have fewer moving parts. There are only a few things to learn: how to open/close the cylinder, load/unload it and cock/decock the hammer.
Semi-autos have more mechanisms to get familiar with, such as slide release levers, magazine releases, manual safeties and takedown levers. Learning to identify and clear various malfunctions also takes time and practice, and even though modern semi-autos rarely malfunction, new shooters still need to learn how to respond if it does happen.
When it comes to maintaining good stance, grip, breathing, sight picture, trigger squeeze and follow-through, semi-autos have a clear advantage. In most cases, semi-autos fit the hand better and more naturally than revolvers do, and their designs make it easier to quickly return to a solid shooting position between shots.
With rare exceptions, wheelgun cleanings are quick and easy — just open the cylinder, clean the barrel and other exposed surfaces, and you're done.
Even the simplest semi-autos disassemble into at least four parts: frame, slide, barrel and recoil spring. Some have many more; some 1911s, for instance, break down into more than fifty parts.
Handgun holsters come in model-specific (fitted) and universal variants (read more about how to choose a gun holster). In general, universal holsters will loosely fit handguns of a certain approximate size, but won't perfectly fit any model. They're comparatively inexpensive and less effective than fitted holsters, and in some cases, they can even present safety concerns if they don't securely retain your firearm.
Fitted semi-auto holsters rarely fit any model other than the exact one they're designed for. Fitted revolver holsters, on the other hand, are more widely compatible because they're usually designed for one of a few standardized frame sizes. Most K-frame revolvers, for instance, will fit well in a generic K-frame holster.
For most people, the two most important considerations of choosing a concealed-carry handgun are concealability and draw speed. Again, revolvers and semi-autos each dominate one of these categories.
In general, compact and subcompact semi-autos can pack “more gun” into a smaller package, making them easier to conceal than revolvers chambered in comparable calibers. Because semi-autos don't have round cylinders, they also tend to be slimmer, which further increases hideability.
A revolver's wider, rounder shape may make it slightly harder to hide on your person, but it does make it a little easier to draw, particularly from inside-the-waistband holsters. Whereas a semi-auto sits flush against your body, a revolver's grip will protrude slightly, meaning you don't have to “dig” as much to get a good grip while drawing it.
If you've ever fired a revolver and thought that it was ever so slightly awkward to hold, you're not alone. Even the most well-designed wheelguns, by virtue of their overall shape, don't contour flawlessly to most human hands. Shooters often find that, although a “very good” shooting grip is readily attainable, a perfect one is more elusive.
Expertly engineered semi-autos are at least a little more conducive to a perfect grip. Further, a semi-auto's shape is more effective at channeling recoil energy rearward rather than upward, making the gun easier to control. This difference tends to be more noticeable with medium and large calibers.
The vast majority of modern revolvers don't have external safety mechanisms (unless you consider heavy double-action trigger pulls or single-action-only designs to be safety mechanisms). This section will examine whether safety mechanisms on handguns are necessary at all.
Like the broader “revolver versus semi-auto” debate, this question has no universal answer. Safety mechanisms can be effective and helpful or unnecessary and dangerous, depending on your needs, experience and context.
Arguments against safeties include:
Arguments in favor of safeties include:
The thing about these arguments is that they're all true, so it's not a matter of countering one side's points. Rather, the question is: which of these factors are most relevant to your current and future needs? If you're an experienced shooter with no kids and you regularly train on how to stop an attacker from disarming you, then you'll likely prefer a handgun with no safety. If you're a parent who doesn't have time for weekly close-quarters battle (CQB) training, a gun with a safety may be the smarter choice.
Winner: Not Applicable (This choice is highly contextual)
Some handguns are great out of the box, but others need a bit of custom work, and some already-great guns get even better with modification. If you're interested in making your handgun uniquely yours, you'll have more options on the semi-auto side of the fence.
Because revolvers have fewer moving parts, there's less to modify. For the most part, revolver customizations are limited to grips, sights, scopes, lasers, trigger jobs and aesthetic improvements, such as engraving. Of course, if you're willing to pay enough, a master gunsmith can do almost anything you want to a revolver.
The first and third-party markets for semi-auto customizations are much bigger. Milled slides, ported barrels, rail-mounted accessories — the list goes on, and most of the tweaks you can make to revolvers can be made to semi-autos as well.
Making an apples-to-apples comparison between revolvers and semi-autos is tricky to begin with, but assuming you can do that, revolvers tend to be less expensive, largely because they're easier to design and manufacture. In some cases, you can get a well-made wheelgun for half the price of a roughly comparable semi-auto.
Self-defense is a broad concept encompassing all of the previously discussed factors, which is why we've saved it for last. Revolvers and semi-autos both have pronounced tactical strengths and weaknesses, so you'll need to think carefully about (and train for) the particular kinds of self-defense situations you're most likely to encounter.
Law enforcement officers know that attackers can close on you in the blink of an eye, which is why recruits are trained to consider even unarmed aggressors potentially lethal as far away as ten yards. In fact, most self-defense shootings occur at even shorter distances, which means you need to consider how your preferred handgun performs at melee range.
At such short ranges, you're likely to be firing from a compressed stance, with your hands and elbows tucked in close to your torso (believe it or not, John Wick's moves are at least partly based on real-world tactics). In such conditions, flying brass ejected by a semi-auto is likely to hit you in the face, which could be distracting enough to get you killed if you're not used to it. In the event of an actual grappling match, the attacker's body pressed against the muzzle of your semi-auto could push the slide out of battery and prevent the gun from firing, especially if the attacker is overweight.
Revolvers don't have these particular problems, but they do have different shortfalls — namely capacity, rate of fire and reload speed. A medium or large-caliber revolver is often highly effective against a single attacker, but if you find yourself facing multiple assailants, or if a single attacker isn't down by the time your wheelgun runs empty, you could be in real trouble. Some people elect to carry two handguns — one semi-auto and one revolver — in order to get the best of both worlds.
The topic of revolvers versus semi-autos in the context of self-defense is a deep and complicated one, but hopefully, this section has indicated how many variables there are to consider.
We think we've made a strong case for why revolvers and semi-autos are both excellent handguns. Both can serve you well in a variety of situations, and the relationship between wheelgun fans and semi-auto lovers certainly doesn't have to be antagonistic. We hope this guide has given you some clarity if you were on the fence about which kind of handgun to buy.
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