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Semi-Automatic (top) Revolver (bottom)

Semi-Automatic (top)
Revolver (bottom)

In a previous blog I addressed the basics of a revolver as a personal defense tool. In this article we’re going to look at the other type of handgun: the semi-automatic.

If you’re new to guns, most of what you know (or you think you know) comes from movies, TV, and the news. These are probably the three worst sources of information about firearms. Prepare to unlearn most of what you’ve picked up from them.

Semi-Automatics: What They’re Not

If you say “semi-automatic” to newbies, they think “machine gun.” Pull the trigger and a stream of bullets erupts from the gun, continuing to fire until either you manage to get your finger off the trigger or you run out of ammunition. Right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong!

Because this is the mental picture that many people get when the term “semi-automatic gun” is used, it’s no wonder that so many well-meaning but misinformed people are in favor of more strict gun control. I would be too — if it were true.

The “machine gun” that we’ve just described is not a semi-automatic. Machine guns are fully automatic. They exist, but they’ve been illegal for civilians to own since the 1930s. This is one of the many reasons why responsible gun owners say that we don’t need new gun laws; we just need to enforce the laws that we already have.

Semi-Automatics: What They Are

What makes a handgun a semi-automatic is that when a bullet is fired from the gun, it loads the next available round into the chamber to be ready to be fired. The recoil from the gun pushes the “slide” (the top part of the gun) to the back and ejects the empty casing of the bullet that was just fired, allowing the next round to be moved into place to be ready to fire. Here’s a pretty good YouTube video that demonstrates how a semi-automatic handgun “cycles” from firing a bullet to reloading the next available round. Watch as the entire process of pulling the trigger, cocking and releasing the hammer, firing the bullet, ejecting the spent bullet casing, and loading the next round is repeated through several trigger pulls of the trigger.

To repeat, semi-automatics are not machine guns. Only one bullet is fired each time you pull the trigger, no matter how long you hold the trigger back. If you want another bullet to fire, you’re going to have to do something to make it happen. After the last bullet is fired, with most semi-autos the slide will lock in the back position, showing you that the gun is now completely empty.

Semi-autos are a bit more complicated to operate and maintain than a revolver because of all the moving parts that are involved in cycling the gun to eject the fired bullet casing and to move the next round into firing position. Nevertheless, they are simple enough that a responsible and mature child of about age ten can be trained to use one safely with responsible adult supervision.

The Advantages of a Semi-Automatic

So if a semi-automatic handgun is more difficult to operate and maintain than a revolver, and if your misinformed family and friends would think that you own a dangerous machine gun that should be banned (helpful reminder: machine guns have been banned for almost 80 years), why would anyone choose to own one instead of just buying a trusty revolver?

I think the biggest advantage is ammunition capacity — one of the very factors that the gun control advocates has such a problem with. Semi-auto magazines come in a wide variety of capacities, based on the physical size of the gun and the caliber of ammunition used in it. The larger the gun the more bullets it can hold (generally), but the higher the caliber the less it can hold. If you want a small gun for concealed carry, you’re going to have to live with less rounds of ammunition. There’s just no place to put a lot of bullets in a sub-compact gun. If you want to carry a high-caliber gun, such as a .45, you’re going to have to live with less ammo. Those big bullets take up a lot of space, so a .45 generally doesn’t carry many. For both of these options (small gun or large caliber), you’ll be looking at guns that hold seven or eight rounds. But with all the variations of gun size and calibers, there are plenty of choices. The highest standard ammo capacity of any handgun that I’m aware of is the Kel-Tec PMR-30. It holds 30 rounds of .22 Magnum. I want one. It’s a gun you load on Sunday and shoot all week long. By comparison, a typical full-sized 9mm semi-auto will hold about 15 to 17 rounds of ammo.

Why is a higher ammo capacity such a plus? Because handguns are hard to shoot well. You need training before you ever consider buying and using one, and then you need regular practice to maintain your skills. A low-powered rifle, such as a .22, is very accurate at a range of 100 yards or more with very little practice. With a handgun, you have to practice a lot to become a good shot at 10 yards. This is why some folks define a handgun as a tool that you use to fight your way back to your rifle (which you shouldn’t have put down in the first place).

If you’re in a situation where you need to use a handgun for self-defense, you will be under the greatest stress of your life. Even though you’ll be at close range (most self-defense shootings occur within seven yards), the stress can cause you to miss your target unless you are highly trained. Even police officers average a first-round accuracy rating of only something like 50%. If you’re carrying a 5-shot revolver, you’re going to have very little margin of error for stopping your assailant. Forget a warning shot — you’ve just thrown away 20% of your ammunition. (Warning shots are a very bad idea for a number of reasons, which we’ll go into in a future article.) And if you’re defending yourself from more than one assailant, you’ll need to be packing more ammo than a revolver can hold. The weight of fifteen rounds in a semi-auto may not be comfortable to carry, but it’s very comforting to carry.

To Be Continued…

This is running long, so I’m going to wrap it up here, but in my next article on semi-autos I’m going to discuss why a semi-auto can be more accurate than a revolver. This is another reason why someone would choose a semi-auto over a revolver.