It's time to grab your torch and pitchfork ‘cause we are going to tackle the big one today! No, not 9mm vs .45, that's an old argument. Today, we are talking about revolvers and semi-autos! Which one is really better for concealed carry?
Whatever you believe, it’s not as cut and dry as you think. There are somewhere north of 16 million concealed carry holders in the U.S right now and you can bet more than a few carry the pistol you don’t like.
So, let’s break this down into the Pros and Cons, get into the nuts and bolts, and the nitty gritty and see what we can figure out.
Both revolvers and semi-auto handguns are capable of defending your life. Does one come out on top in one of the areas that is most important to you? Which Pros are a must...and which Cons can you live with? Those are the questions you should be asking yourself when reading this article.
The old tried and true, been carried since the cowboy days. If old Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday did ok with them, why can’t we?
- Reliable: Even cheap ones fare well in the reliability category. There are some unique cases (See Cons) but for the most part, a revolver runs well.
- Easy to shoot: Revolvers are the original point and click interface. For a first timer, they are easy to understand and use but don’t get too stuck up about it.
- Revolvers are always ready: Most revolvers have no external safety, instead relying on a hammer block or transfer bar as an internal safety so they are always ready to go, provided they are double-action.
- Greater caliber selection: If you can get a caliber in an automatic, you can get it in a revolver plus about any other caliber you want. You can also get them in a variety of sizes, colors, and materials to fit your needs and style.
- Concealability: The bulk of the cylinder on a revolver does make it hard for a conventional carry, but they work great with a pocket holster. IWB or appendix carry is pretty tough.
- Ergonomics: It’s especially better for people with smaller hands. The fact that the grip doesn’t have a magwell right in the middle means that the grip can be slimmer and have a better contour.
- Longevity: A good revolver will last multiple lifetimes. The fact they have few parts that move under pressure means less wear and tear on the parts that matter. Most anything that will wear out over time is easy to replace unlike wear on the slide of a semi-auto.
- More forgiving of bad ammo: With a semi-auto, a squib load is a bad time requiring you to cycle the gun by hand to clear it. If you are shooting a revolver under stress you will often go past the bad round without even noticing the lack of a bang.
- Ease of maintenance: This is arguable I suppose since issues with a revolver tend to be harder for a layperson to deal with, but for standard cleaning I will take a revolver any day. No field stripping, no difficult springs, less moving parts.
- Limited ammo: There are some .22 revolvers that hold 9 rounds and can be carried without much issue, but most high caliber revolvers are only going to give you 5 or 6 shots at best.
- Slow to reload: Piggybacking on the ammo situation, when you run out, it will take you more time to reload. Speed loaders are hard to carry and speed strips are a nightmare under stress. Carrying a pocket full of shells is a no go for a speed reload.
- Recoil mitigation: The spring and slide on an auto helps to buffer the shooter, but a revolver has no such mechanism. That’s why the Desert Eagle is comparatively easier to shoot than grandpappy’s .44 though you shouldn’t try to conceal carry either one.
- When they jam, it’s bad: A revolver jam isn’t a tap/rack situation. It’s going to take time and tools to sort out. In a bad jam, it may take a gunsmith. If your revolver goes down in a fight, you might as well chuck it at the other fellow ‘cause it ain’t shootin’ till you take it apart.
- Trigger pull: In a self-defense situation, you aren’t going to be taking the time to cock the hammer for every shot. Some revolvers, I would say most, have hard double action trigger pulls and can drastically affect accuracy.
The primary downside of a revolver is the lack of ammo. Hands down it is the greatest handicap of any defensive tool. A gun without ammo is an expensive club. If you choose to carry a revolver you need to plan for this and practice your reloads.
The greatest strength of a revolver is their pretty much rock-solid reliability. If you take care of your gun and choose an appropriate ammo, it should never have a problem. If you carry an air weight gun, don’t shoot +P ammo and keep the .375 out of the .38 unless it has enough mass to handle it.
I suppose if revolvers are the old tried and true, then semi-autos must be the new upstarts, but it’s been a long time since the advent of the Hugo C93 so maybe it’s not so new. Still, they are the cutting edge of handgun technology, even if they are more than 120 years old.
- Ammo Capacity: This is the big one with modern semi-automatic handguns holding more than 15 shots and even the compact models pushing 10 or more.
- Easier / Quicker Reloads: Jumping off from the last point, not only does a semi-auto hold more ammunition, but it’s easier and faster to get more ammo in when you run dry.
- Accessory availability: Items like holsters, lights, and other pieces of firearm kit are more available for modern semi-autos than for revolvers.
- Concealability: I know this is a pro for the revolver as well, but both have their ups and down. For a semi-auto, the generally narrower profile lends itself well to carry IWB or appendix, the two most popular carry positions.
- Malfunction correction: Yes, semi-autos do jam, fail-to-feed, and a variety of other issues, but clearing these issues is relatively easy unless you get into some of the really crazy things that can happen.
- Trigger Pull: Depending on whether you have a double or single action automatic, the trigger pull is often easier. Even on a double action pistol, only the first shot has a hard trigger pull.
- Recoil Mitigation: For a given caliber, you will experience less recoil and less shift in point of aim out of a semi-auto than you will out of a revolver. That’s why a 9mm stays on target better than a .38 of equal weight.
- More Variations: There are a lot more “styles” of semi-auto than revolver and that means a greater ability to choose a firearm that really fits your needs.
- Reliability: Since this is the oft-quoted reason for carrying a revolver, let’s get it out of the way. Yes, there are issues that happen with autos, but a good quality one will have fewer issues. Most of the issues with jams are user error. Yup, I said it. It’s all your fault… well mostly…
- Price: For a similar quality carry gun, a semi-auto will average about $150.00 more. You can get the S&W Bodyguard for under $400.00, but a M&P 9mm will cost you a bit over $500.00. This is not universal but its common.
- More Complicated: There is an upfront learning curve for semi-autos. They have all kinds of buttons, switches, and levers to sort out. There are also more moving parts that can wear over time.
- Bad ammo = bad day: Semi-autos are prone to have trouble eating bad ammo. Some are downright finicky. If you have a quality handgun, this is the third most likely reason you will have an issue with jams.
- Fewer Caliber Choices: There are only four common caliber choices for a carry gun, .380, 9mm, .40, and .45 ACP. Yes, you have 10mm, .45 GAP, .357 SIG, and a few others, but they are hardly common.
- Maintenance: With all the moving parts, semi-autos do take some tender love and care to run at their peak. But it’s not hard, just hard to learn at first. The reliability and life of your pistol is in how well you care for it. This is the second most common issue with reliability.
The greatest strength of the semi-auto is the ammo capacity. Having double-digit rounds at your disposal eases the mind. Under stress, your accuracy will suffer so having a few extra shots is a good idea.
The greatest downfall of the semi-auto is the reliability. However, most issues arise from one of three things:
- Improper technique
- Improper ammo selection
- Improper maintenance and cleaning
Which Should You Choose
Which Is Better
The reason this question has plagued modern concealed carry practitioners is that it’s so narrow. It fails to take into consideration the situation, lifestyle, and stature of the carrier. There are no universals in the world of firearms.
You can’t say a .22 is better than a .30-06 without knowing the context. A .22 is great for squirrel, but terrible for bear. The .30-06 is the opposite. Getting these confused is the difference in having squirrel gravy with a dead bear and having roast squirrel while being mauled by an angry bear.
But fear not, I am going to take a crack at the real question here, and it won’t be that “The one you carry” crap either. All things equal, which is never the case, a semi-auto is a better weapon for one reason only. Ammo capacity.
Studies of gunfights from the old west, military, police, and civilian encounters have shown one fact: Ammo in Gun = Time in Fight. The last person with a bullet is often the victor and in a true life or death situation, I want to be the one who fires the first and last shots. We can deal with the ones that fell in between when the smoke clears.
If a semi-auto fits your lifestyle, method of carry, you are comfortable with it, and can afford a quality one, that is what you should carry. If not, consider the revolver, as a solid option and far better than no gun at all.
Women and Revolvers
If you are the type of person who bought your wife a revolver because they are simpler for a woman to use...get your butt up, go get her flowers and a box of chocolates, and tell her you are sorry for thinking so poorly of her.
I have watched women drive a car while putting on makeup and talking on a cell phone. I am not condoning that behavior, but it is infinitely more complicated than operating a semi-auto. Even a smartphone is more complicated and just about every woman I know uses one of those.
I have watched dozens of women in self-defense classes run handguns with the best of them. They are perfectly capable, provided they are taught properly. That means that it probably shouldn’t be you doing the teaching. Get her some proper training and she will probably run a Glock better than you do.
If there is an issue with women and semi-autos, it’s a lack of physical strength which can be overcome with proper form. A woman may be prone to limp wristing a gun that recoils too hard for her, causing feed malfunctions. She may also lack the strength to manipulate the slide, but there are techniques that can be used to overcome that.
The day I wrote this, I watched a 105lb girl with little in the way of muscle rack the slide on a Glock 19 with no issue. For the proper technique, check out this video.
Type of Gun
To conclude, the type of gun you carry isn’t the most important factor in concealed carry. It is viable to carry any gun you choose or that fits your needs provided you follow a few rules:
Buy quality guns and do your due diligence to make sure what you get is really worth trusting with your life. We would never opt to go to a second-rate hospital in the middle of a heart attack if we could choose a better one. It’s your life, and the life of your loved ones, make sure you take that into consideration.
If you are looking to buy a carry gun, make sure to check out our article 21 Best Concealed Carry Guns. While most listed are semi-auto, we do list some revolvers at the end.
Train With Your Gun
Don’t be that guy. Even if you have shot every day of your life, there is a big difference in shooting, shooting under stress, and shooting under duress. Take a solid and reputable course in handguns. Even if you are the best to ever hold a gun in the history of firearms, you will still improve.
This is the one key factor that most people leave out that will drastically improve your chances of winning a gunfight. Train like your life depends on it, so you are ready when it does. Next time you go to buy a gun, save your money for training, ammo, or better yet, for a defensive firearms class.
You can only use one pistol at a time, no matter what Hollywood says. Make it a good one. Make it one you know how to run well and are trained in using. Keep it clean and in proper order. Carry it like you may need it, one day you just might!