The Cornered Cat

This is a contentious topic on firearms boards. Every gun owner seems to have an opinion about it, and some get quite irate if you don’t agree with theirs.

The truth is that every gun is a compromise. Neither revolvers nor semi-automatics are perfect in all respects. Which one is right for you depends upon what your priorities are, and upon what you are willing to give up in order to achieve those priorities.

The list below is alphabetized. It isn’t in order of what I think is most important, because what’s most important to me may not be as important to you.

Ammunition: Semi-automatics carry more ammunition, and they are easier to reload. While no one envisages having to fight off a horde of invading barbarians, a determined attacker may need to be shot multiple times before he goes down. And that determined attacker might have gang buddies with him, too.

A revolver will often allow the user to load two different calibers of ammunition (.38 Special and .357 Magnum, for example), allowing greater flexibility for the user.

A lightweight revolver can often carry more powerful ammunition than a semi-automatic of equal weight.

Budget: All other things being equal, because it is a simpler machine, a quality revolver will cost less than a semi-automatic of similar quality.

At the low end of the scale, really cheap revolvers are usually more reliable than really cheap semi-automatics. Again, this is because revolvers are simpler machines.

When buying a used gun, it is somewhat easier to check out a used revolver than it is to inspect a semi-automatic, and revolvers are somewhat less likely to suffer non-obvious problems that affect function. 1

Cleaning: There’s no major disassembly required in order to clean a revolver, but you have to learn how to take the semi-auto apart and put it back together again in order to clean it properly.

However, once you’ve learned to do that, even with the disassembly/reassembly process, it’s usually faster and easier to clean a semi-auto than it is to clean a revolver.

Concealability: Which one is more concealable depends upon what method you are using to carry it. But generally speaking, if you plan to use one of the non-conventional carry methods (a belly band, for example), revolvers have a slight advantage.

Ease of use: Revolvers are undeniably simpler mechanical objects than semi-automatics are. Their operation is easy to understand. They have fewer moving parts.

However, it isn’t that hard to learn the basic operation of a semi-auto. A semi-automatic handgun is less complicated than a washing machine or a car, and every normal adult in America is able to understand both of those complex machines at least well enough to run them. 2Well, maybe not the washing machine. Some men never do master that one…


  1. For a thorough discussion of this, check out Jim March’s revolver inspection post on TFL.