“God Created Men and Sam Colt Made Them Equal”
In 1835 Samuel Colt developed what was the first successful revolving action firearm. The Paterson Revolver set the stage for what was then considered rapid fire and the eventual development of metal-cased cartridges.
Why A Revolver Today?
In a world of high-capacity semi-auto handguns why would anyone consider owning, let alone carrying an old-fashioned revolver? Good question.
With a modern revolver you likely only have 6 or 7 shots available instead of 15. In some cases, as with a single- action, you have to cock the hammer before every shot. A double-action revolver has a long and often heavy trigger pull. Revolvers are almost always made entirely of steel so they are heavy.
And a reload requires dumping the spent cases, and then thumbing in individual cartridges or using a speed loader to recharge your cylinder. Finally, the cylinder on a revolver is fat. Revolvers are hard to make narrow and svelte like the classic 1911, so may be a little harder to conceal if you choose to carry a revolver as a defensive tool.
So we’ve uncovered 6 reasons not to consider a revolver. Let’s take a look at why revolvers make a lot of sense for shooters today.
First, revolvers are extremely reliable. There are fewer moving parts than on a semi auto handgun and those that do move are not moving at high speed to fire, eject and load the next round. The likelihood of a revolver not firing when you need it to is very slim.
Second, all that steel that makes revolvers heavy also allows revolvers to house much more powerful cartridges than an autoloader and the additional weight allows us to manage the heavier recoil a bit better.
Third, the revolver has no safety to manipulate. Modern revolvers almost always have a transfer bar safety system or a hammer block. This means that the trigger has to be fully depressed in order for the hammer to fall forward and transfer the energy through the transfer bar to the firing pin or to fall forward far enough to fire a cartridge. It also allows modern revolvers to be carried with live round in the cylinder hole beneath the hammer. (Old six guns were always carried with an empty chamber to prevent accidental firing if the hammer was bumped or forced forward.
Fourth, the ability to practice with lower powered loads. Take the .357 Magnum for instance. Full throttle .357 loads are fast, loud and have considerable muzzle flash. While OK for defensive carry and hunting, you may want to limit yourself to shooting 38 Special for practice and training. 38 is easier on the wallet, ears and in the recoil department. The same is true for the 44 Magnum, where you can choose the lesser powered 44 Special for practice.
Fifth, reloads are easily carried in a Speed Loader or a Tuff-Strip, if you need it. If you read through enough research you will find that in the majority of defensive shooting situations the average shots fired were 2. In ½ of 1% percent of the time was a reload required. So, while those 15 rounds of 9mm in your favorite Glock or Springfield is a warm-fuzzy, you’ll likely be just as prepared to defend yourself with 5 or 6 shot revolver.
Finally, for some folks a revolver may be easier to operate due to hand strength or arthritic conditions. I know my own father is no longer able to reliably grip the slide on compact or subcompact semi-autos. For him, a smaller revolver is easier to grip and he doesn’t have to rack the slide to cock the firearm. He also doesn’t have to worry about manipulating a safety or the possibility of squeezing off a shot before he intends with a striker-fired handgun.
In short, we have three types of revolvers to consider.
A single action revolver must be manually cocked before each shot. When you pull the hammer back the cylinder rotates and brings a live round in line with the barrel and the hammer. When all rounds have been fired there is a gate, usually on the right side of the frame at the rear of the cylinder.
On modern single actions when the gate is opened the cylinder can be rotated to line up with the ejector rod. The ejector rod is then depressed to push the empty case out of the cylinder. Rotate the cylinder and continue to unload until all cylinder holes are empty. You can now reload the cylinder.
The double action can be fired by cocking the hammer and then firing. In this fashion you have a very short and often very crisp trigger pull. You can also fire the handgun by pulling the trigger which will begin to rotate the cylinder, cock the hammer, release the hammer and fire the gun. The trigger pull is much longer and heavier when fired in double action mode.
To load and unload the double action the cylinder usually swings out of the gun on the left side after you depress the cylinder release latch. Tip the gun up, with the rear of the cylinder facing down, press the ejector rod and watch the cases fall free. You can now reload the gun.
When firing a revolver you are generally dealing with cartridges with more power and therefore more recoil than the cartridges usually found in an autoloader. The single action will tend to ‘roll’ back in your hand while the muzzle flips up. Double action revolvers tend to recoil more straight back and the entire gun rises when fired.
Grip consistency and tension with revolvers is critical and it takes practice and training to shoot revolvers well. You will need to experiment with the grip that works best for you and the loads you choose to shoot.
Note: there is a very small gap between the rear of the barrel and the face of the cylinder. This cylinder gap allows hot gas, powder and sometimes very small pieces of bullet shaved by the forcing cone to escape to the side of the gun. It is advisable not to run your revolver with a thumbs forward or high grip like you would with a semi auto.
Double Action Only
In a revolver this most often means there is no visible or accessible hammer spur with which to cock the revolver. These guns are built for concealed carry and self defense purposes and are usually fairly compact.
Choosing Your First Revolver
So, you’re ready to go revolver shopping. We live in a great time as it relates to firearms, technology and variety. Sorting out where to start can be mind boggling. Hopefully, the following suggestions will give you a place start and move down the trail to being a happy six-gunner.
Like choosing any handgun, you need to define what you want to do most with your revolver. Will it spend most of its life at the range or plinking for fun?
Are you looking for an additional sidearm to add to your concealed carry options?
Are you going hunt with it?
Lots of questions. Lots of potential solutions.
In my humble opinion I would look at the following features in a revolver for someone new to the platform:
- Double Action
- Adjustable Sights
- Quality Adjustable Sights are Critical for Good Shooting
- 4”-6” Barrel
- .38 Special/357 Magnum
Open up the Smith & Wesson website and you’ll find 132 revolvers to choose from. I believe Smith & Wesson revolvers are the cream of the crop when it comes to smooth actions, accuracy and finish. If we look at the above criteria, a few Smith’s stand out as great choices for you first revolver.
The 686 is a staple in the S&W lineup. When I purchased my 686 in 1987 I was looking for power and performance. Back then it was called the Distinguished Combat Magnum. This is an all stainless handgun with a 6” barrel and a full underlug. A 4” barreled version is also available. A red ramp front sight and white outline adjustable rear sight allows you to sight in near or far.
This is a heavy gun designed for continuous use with full power .357 Magnum loads.
Total weight is 44.8oz.
The longer sight radius allows for precise shooting at ranges near or far. When I first purchased my gun and my eyes were younger, it was no trouble hitting a coffee can 100 yards away with boring regularity. Currently the grips supplied are a synthetic black rubber.
The 686 is available for around $755 retail.
The 686 series is also available in a Plus configuration, meaning the cylinder is bored with 7 chambers instead of 6.
If you are looking for a dependable and accurate carry revolver perhaps the 686 Plus with a 3” barrel is worth a look. It has all the features of the classic model, but in a 7-round revolver.
Weight is 36.8oz.
Retail price is about $732.
What’s your take on the 686?
I believe that Ruger is synonymous with rugged. Nearly everything Ruger builds is overbuilt to stand up to the rigors of hunting, competition and defensive use. Ruger revolvers are no different.
While the fit and finish is sometimes a little less ‘complete’ as compared to a Smith, the Ruger will make up for it in digesting heavy loads for a lifetime and providing complete confidence for you in putting rounds on target.
The LCRx lineup at Ruger is an interesting departure from heavy and overbuilt steel guns to lightweight, easy to handle aluminum framed revolvers. The trim little gun weighs in at only 15.7 oz. This is double action revolver chambered in .38 Special +P.
While not a 357 Mag, it still offers a potent cartridge for self defense work and the luxury of shooting light 38 loads for practice and training. The barrel is 3” long and features a pinned and replaceable front sight as well as an adjustable rear sight. The cylinder is stainless steel and holds five rounds.
Because this gun is so light, recoil will be noticeable, but the Hogue Tamer grips should help. The grip frame is constructed such that you can easily swap out the grips for ones that work best for you. This revolver would be a great starter for ladies or smaller statured shooters because it is lightweight and trim, making it easier to hold and making range time more enjoyable.
Retail on the LCRx is $499.
The GP100 is a Ruger workhorse. This is an all stainless gun with a 4.2” barrel and a full underlug. There is a fiber optic front sight and adjustable rear sight. This model has a 6-shot cylinder and will handle .38 Special/.357 Mag with no problem. Because of its all stainless construction, the gun is heavy, weighing in at 40oz. The grips on this model are a cushioned rubber with a handsome hardwood insert. The grip frame does accommodate aftermarket and custom grips of many styles.
Retail price on the GP100 is $739.
Ruger’s SP101 is another solid choice for an all stainless double action revolver. In .38 Special/.357 Mag this gun weighs in at 29.5oz with a 4.2” barrel. This gun has a 5-shot cylinder so the profile will be a bit narrower if concealed carry is on the menu.
Sights are fiber optic up front and adjustable rear. The grips are rubber with a hardwood insert and easily changeable if you choose to try something different.
Price on this SP101 is $679.
The SP101 also comes in a very handsome and compact carry version with Novak sights. Again, it’s a 38/357, but with a 2.25” barrel and weighing only 26oz. This is a special Talo version, but might be worth tracking down if you’re looking for a great carry revolver.
Retail on this model is about $640.
As you can see, the revolvers discussed above come from the two big manufacturers of single action and double action guns today. While there are other manufacturers, I believe, dollar for dollar your best bet is with a Smith or Ruger.
Why? A variety of barrel lengths, adjustable sights and quality workmanship. I also believe a double action gun is better for new shooters because of the recoil impulse. Felt recoil is much higher in single actions and many times will lead to flinching.
There are many other quality revolvers on the market, but for a new revolver shooter I don’t think they are the right guns. Why? Primarily because the guns are dedicated concealed carry or hunting firearms. The concealed carry models don’t have adjustable sights and in many cases it is just the notch in the top strap for a rear sight.
They also have very short barrels which makes shooting them very difficult. The hunting guns are generally longer barreled, and in many cases ported. Ported guns are no fun for anyone, let alone someone new to revolvers.
Like any gun, to be consistently accurate you need to shoot a revolve. A lot. It is a different animal than a semi auto.
If your local range has some rental guns, buy a few boxes of ammo and see if the revolver game is right for you. If you’re like me, you’ll find the more powerful cartridges to your liking. The range at which you can learn to hit consistently with a revolver is simply amazing.
Regardless, if you haven’t jumped into the revolver game yet, give it a try. You’ll like it! And if you’re specifically looking for some .357 Magnum goodness…check out our 9 Best .357 Magnum Revolvers.