Firearms are a basic tool for self-reliance and home or personal defense. Today, I’m going to speak to readers who don’t know much about firearms, but have a growing awareness that having one and knowing how to use it might be a good idea.
Let’s start with handguns — revolvers in particular. This might not be the best place to start from a training perspective, because handguns are much more difficult to shoot well than rifles, but they have a number of benefits going for them that lead many people to acquire a handgun before they move on to rifles.
Many of the advantages of a handgun have to do with their smaller size and weight. Handguns are lighter, more portable, and more concealable, meaning that they can go with you wherever you need to go. You can carry a handgun on your body or store it away in places that a long gun wouldn’t fit.
The Pros and Cons of the Revolver
There are two basic styles of handguns: revolvers and semi-automatics. So what is a “revolver”? I’ve included a picture of one here. Think of the old-style cowboy handguns. A revolver has a big cylinder in the middle of the gun that holds all the bullets. When you cock the hammer, the cylinder rotates (or “revolves”) and puts the next bullet in line with the barrel, ready to be shot. There aren’t a lot of mechanical things going on with a revolver, which contributes greatly to its reliability.
Between revolvers and semi-automatics, revolvers are generally regarded as being more reliable. That means they go “bang!” every time you pull the trigger. Revolvers are also easier to operate. With a revolver it’s just point and shoot. You don’t have to fuss with a manual safety. (Is it on or is it off? How can I tell?) You don’t have to “rack” the gun to get a bullet in position to shoot like you do with a semi-auto. Revolvers don’t jam like semi-automatics do. Semi-automatics have to mechanically feed a bullet into the chamber to get it ready to fire, then eject the empty cartridge after the bullet has been fired to get the next bullet ready to shoot. When the gun fails to do either of those functions properly the gun “jams.” You have to fix the problem before you can fire the next shot with a semi-auto. Revolvers don’t feed and eject bullets like that, so they don’t jam.
The disadvantages of a revolver are that they’re thicker than a semi-auto (and thus harder to conceal), they don’t carry as many bullets as a semi-auto, and they can be much slower and more difficult to reload.
How Do These Things Work?
Revolvers come in two different designs, “single-action” and “double-action.”
A “single-action” revolver requires you to manually pull the hammer back with your thumb to cock it. Once the hammer is cocked, pulling the trigger performs a single action — it releases the hammer, causing the gun to fire. This design is very safe because you can’t pull the trigger at all until you have cocked the hammer. Once you’ve cocked the hammer, it only requires a light pull of the trigger to fire the gun, but the process of cocking the hammer is a very deliberate one, not likely to happen by accident, making a single-action revolver a very safe device even though it doesn’t have a manual safety like many semi-automatic handguns.
A “double-action” revolver doesn’t require you to cock the hammer as a separate step. Pulling the trigger will perform two actions — it cocks the hammer and then releases it to fire the gun. This design is also very safe because the trigger pull on a double-action revolver is much longer and stiffer than with a single-action revolver. The long, stiff trigger pull is a deliberate action that becomes the built-in safety.
At the risk of confusing someone who hasn’t used any revolver, a double-action can be used in either double- or single-action mode. You pick ’em. Just pull the trigger and it will cock and fire the gun (double-action). But the trigger pull is long and stiff, so it’s harder to keep the gun aimed while you’re pulling the trigger. So if you want a lighter trigger pull, you can cock the hammer with your thumb and pull the trigger to fire it (single-action). The trigger pull in single action mode is always much lighter, making it easier to stay on target.
[ FYI — Any idea why we used a drawing of someone cocking the hammer on a revolver rather than using a photo? We purchase and use professional “stock” photos for these blogs. In every photo of someone cocking a revolver hammer, they also had their finger on the trigger at the same time. Unless you are in a combat situation, DON’T DO THAT! It’s not safe. The photographer may have been a professional, but the model that they used to hold the gun wasn’t knowledgeable of safe gun handling habits. We don’t want to show improper safety practices, so this drawing was the only image I could find where the shooter had their finger off the trigger. ]
Suggestions for Buying a Revolver
- As with all guns, get one that fits your hand. I good fit will feel comfortable in your hand and allow you to reach and operate all controls (trigger, hammer, cylinder release) easily.
- Revolvers come in many different calibers. The higher the caliber, the more powerful the gun. The most common calibers for revolvers are .22, .38, .357 magnum, and .44 magnum. There are several others, but these are the most common, and therefore the most practical to consider.
- If you’re buying a revolver for personal defense, don’t even consider a single-action gun. The process of cocking it with your thumb before every shot takes so long that it will get you killed. A double-action revolver can be operated in either single- or double-action, giving you the best of both worlds. When you need speed, just pull the trigger and shoot (double-action). When you have the luxury of time to take a carefully aimed shot, cock the hammer with your thumb and pull the trigger (single-action).
- Determine how you are going to carry it before you commit to buying it. Will you do concealed carry in a hip holster or purse? Barrel length may become an issue.
- The shorter the barrel, the more difficult to aim accurately. Snub-nosed revolvers are “cute,” but they’re only practical for shooting at very short range (as in about 10 feet or so). But they make great back-up guns if your primary piece jams or runs out of ammo.
- The lighter the gun, the greater the recoil. Recoil makes a gun hard to control. It will buck after every shot and you will have to re-acquire the target. That takes time that you may not have. Excessive recoil can also make the gun very uncomfortable to shoot. If your gun is uncomfortable for you to shoot, you are less likely to practice with it. If you don’t practice with it regularly, you won’t be able to deploy it competently if the need arises. So a light-weight gun will be easier to carry and conceal, but it has the serious trade-offs of controllability and increased recoil that have to be considered. Find a gun that does the best job for you of balancing weight, control, and recoil.
- What about brands? Go with a good one. In my opinion, you can’t go wrong with a Ruger or a Smith & Wesson (if you keep the considerations of the previous point in mind). Both are great brand, but I think the Rugers are a better value. If you don’t find a Ruger that meets your needs, look at the Smith & Wessons. They’re more money, but they make great guns. Colts can be nice, too, but they’re prohibitively expensive (for my pocketbook, at least). Taurus makes a broad line of popular revolvers, but there is a long-running debate about the reliability of Taurus products. Those who have had a good experience say they’re great. Those with a bad experience perpetuate the notion that Tauruses are junk. Personally, I’ve never used a Taurus, but if I found one that had everything I was looking for in a gun, I’d buy it.
Having just laid out the case for a revolver as an excellent choice for a beginning handgunner, I must now confess that I’m not a revolver kind of guy. I own one and I love it. It’s an old .22 that was made in the 1960s. I bought it from a friend at church. (That kind of transaction would be illegal if the newly proposed gun control legislation gets passed which would require a background check for every sale of a gun. Since private owners don’t have the ability to run background checks, the sale of guns between friends and family members would become a crime.) I have a wish list of future guns and I have a revolver on the list. It’s a Ruger GP100 in .357 magnum. That’s the gun in the photo near the top of this blog. Ain’t she a beauty? If you’re in the market for a good revolver, this is a fabulous one to take a look at. Or if you just really, really want to be nice to me…
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