When looking for a handgun, the choice between a revolver or a semi-automatic pistol is one of the most important decisions you need to make. Whichever option you choose, it will come with both advantages and disadvantages. In this guide, I’ll explain the pros and cons of revolvers vs pistols to help you make an informed decision.
Revolver vs Pistol
Many use the term pistol and handgun interchangeably, but the majority of handgun experts make the distinction that pistols are a subset of handguns with an “integral chamber-barrel assembly.” Pistols have one (or more) stationary integral chambers, whereas revolvers have multiple chambers inside a rotating cylinder. This means that both pistols and revolvers are subsets of handguns, but revolvers are not pistols.
Don’t let the “(or more)” above throw you off. If you’re buying a modern pistol for self defense, it’s almost certainty going to have just one chamber. It’s also going to be magazine loaded, in contrast with revolvers’ cylinders. This brings us to the largest benefit of revolvers over semi auto pistols…
- Easy to Troubleshoot Malfunctions – Assuming you’re buying quality firearms and ammunition, firearm malfunctions are incredibly rare today. With that said, they do still happen. When they do happen, solving the problem is often far easier when using a revolver. In the case of bad ammunition, simply pulling the trigger again can often be a fix in a life or death situation.
- Resilient to Harsh Conditions – Most people believe revolvers perform better than pistols in harsh conditions, such as those with a lot of dirt and dust. This is thanks to revolvers’ simple designs, which lack many of the small parts of modern semi-automatic pistols.
- Simple to Use – Most modern revolvers are double action, meaning you pull the trigger to cock the hammer and then continue pulling it to fire the weapon. So all you need to know to shoot a revolver is to load it, then pull the trigger. Their simplicity can also be helpful in high-pressure self-defense situations, as they cut down on steps that you can mess up.
- Stopping Power – Revolvers are frequently chambered in the large handgun calibers, including .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and larger. These large-caliber bullets provide excellent stopping power, not only against humans, but also big game. While this may improve stopping power, it’s not without its negative consequences, which will be discuss in the section below. It’s also important to note, that while revolvers are available in some of the largest calibers, you can also find them commonly chambered in calibers as small as .22 LR.
- “Safer” Trigger – Here’s an example of what many people consider to be a negative, but can also be spun as a positive for revolvers. Due to their heavier trigger pulls, it’s far less likely you shoot a revolver when not intending to. For example, in a high-pressure situation, in which you have your finger on the trigger, it’s unlikely you fire it by accident. Many also feel more confident being able to safely unholster revolvers, as there’s less chance for accidental trigger pulls there too.
- Internal Hammer Revolvers Wont Get Caught on Cloth – In a self-defense situation in which you’re concealed carrying, there’s a chance your handgun gets caught up in your shirt while unholstering. This may lead to your exposed-hammer revolver or semi-auto pistol to fail to shoot after your first shot. A revolver with an internal hammer shouldn’t have an issue in that specific situation.
- Low Capacity – The biggest downside to “six shooters” is their low capacity. In most cases, revolver cylinders only house 6 cartridges, though 5- and 7-round capacities are also fairly common (more so 5-round capacities). While the higher caliber bullets frequently used in revolvers may be more effective when you hit your target, you better be sure to do so in your limited number of shots. This problem becomes far more worrisome in the event you face multiple attackers in a self-defense scenario.
- Slower to Reload – Revolver fans will have some arguments against this, but I feel confident in saying revolvers are a good bit slower to reload, even with speed loaders, for the vast majority of people. Of course, there are exceptional people who are able to reload revolvers incredibly quickly, but I’d feel far more confident reloading a semi-auto pistol in a high-pressure situation.
- Heavy – Many modern pistols are made of lightweight materials including polymers, whereas most revolvers are made out of steel. This allows them to handle the higher calibers that they are frequently chambered in, while also helping reduce the felt recoil of these calibers. The downside to this is that you may find a revolver less comfortable to carry.
- Wide – Due to revolvers’ cylinders, they’re typically wider than most pistols. Again, this can make them less comfortable to carry and more difficult to conceal.
- Longer, Heavy Trigger Pull – As we mentioned in the “Pros” section above, double action triggers have a longer and heavier trigger pull than most semi automatic pistols. For many shooters, this makes it more difficult to shoot fast and accurately, especially when firing multiple shots.
Semi Auto Pistol Pros
- High Capacity – The biggest benefit of semi automatic pistols, when compared to revolvers, is their magazine capacity. Pistols used for concealed carry and home defense commonly have anywhere from 10-21+ round capacities, which should be plenty for nearly all self-defense situations. For example, the Glock 19’s magazine standard capacity is 15 rounds.
- Faster Reloads – Assuming they’re reasonably familiar with a given firearm, the average person should have a far easier time quickly reloading a semi-auto pistol than a revolver. As is the case for both types of handguns, it’s always recommended to spend time practicing this (which can be done with an empty magazine).
- Lightweight – Polymer-framed pistols, made famous by Glock, are incredibly lightweight. This can make them far more comfortable for concealed carry. The downside to lightweight pistols is that their lightweight structure translates into more felt recoil. Still, recoil in common pistol calibers shouldn’t be a big problem for most shooters.
- Easier to Shoot – Now you might be thinking we said revolvers were easier to shoot, but really they are just easier to know how to use. In terms of actual effective shooting, the advantage goes to modern semi-automatic pistols. There’s a variety of factors that make this so:
- Shorter, Lighter Triggers – Many modern semi-auto pistols have excellent triggers, requiring little force over a short distance to fire. This not only helps to shoot quick, but also to shoot accurate shots, especially when firing multiple fast shots.
- Smaller Calibers – Most pistols used for self-defense are chambered in 9mm, .380 ACP, .45 ACP, or .40 S&W. These rounds offer far less recoil than many common revolver calibers.
- Ergonomic – Among pistol manufactures, much work has gone into making them as comfortable and well fitting in your hand as possible.
- Highly Customizable – With pistols like Glocks currently being so widely popular, there are seemingly endless options for aftermarket parts. This allows you to find and create the perfect pistol for you.
Semi Auto Pistol Cons
- Greater Chance of Failing – I don’t want this statement to be misconstrued, as modern pistols are incredibly reliable; but they do have more parts, which means more things that could fail. This leads some to feel more confident using a revolver for self-defense.
- Less Stopping Power – Due to semi-automatic pistols typically being chambered in smaller caliber bullets than revolvers, less energy will be transferred to your intended target. This can lead to a lower likelihood of incapacitating your target with the same number of on-target shots.
- More Complicated to Use – Generally speaking, all handguns are incredibly simple to use after doing a bit of research and spending some time at the range. With that said, using a pistol is certainly less intuitive.
So Which is Better, Pistols or Revolvers?
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide for yourself. We’ve laid out the advantages and disadvantage of pistols vs revolvers, which hopefully helps you determine which characteristics are most important to you in a handgun.
Personally, I prefer semi-automatic pistols to revolvers, as I feel it’s important to be sure you have a sufficient number of rounds to defend yourself against any realistic threat. For me this trumps what I consider to be a negligible difference in reliability. Say I was looking for a handgun to hunt or to protect myself against big game, I’d opt for a higher caliber revolver instead.
Whichever type of handgun you choose, the most important thing is to get comfortable with it and learn to shoot it accurately.