Are revolvers obsolete? Yes…
…and at the same time very much No. Because real life is never simple. On the one hand for many people a light-weight polymer-framed high-capacity semi auto is an excellent choice for self defense, and as a duty weapon it has many unquestionable advantages. There’s a reason that autos have been far and away the most common military sidearms for over a century. With improvements to the weapons and ammunition in recent decades they have attained similar dominance in law enforcement.
Modern semi-autos are light, reliable and carry a lot of ammunition. They reload quickly and easily compared to a revolver. Yes, you can get pretty good with a speed-loader, but unless you’re Jerry Miculek it’s just not going to be as fast as an autoloader.
For many reasons and in many ways revolvers are obsolete compared to modern semi-auto pistols. But this does not mean they are useless or irrelevant, and there are a still a few things they do better than semi-autos.
I’m listing this first because it’s the first thing most people think of. Yes, revolvers can and do jam, and unlike a semi-auto when they do you aren’t going to fix it easily in the field. But it’s a vanishingly rare occurrence; some folks have shot revolvers all their life and never encountered a jam. If it’s loaded and you pull the trigger it’s most likely going to go bang… and if it doesn’t a simple trigger pull gives you another chance. As FTF drills go pulling the trigger again is pretty simple.
They also are ammunition-agnostic. They aren’t picky; if it fits it shoots. Powder-puff target loads to +P screamers, the revolver just doesn’t care. Given the shoddy state of a lot of rimfire ammunition these days this is especially relevant for rimfire revolvers used for plinking, small-game hunting and even self-defense.
Would I personally choose a revolver over a semi-auto on this basis alone? No. But it’s something to think about.
I once heard the manual-of-arms for a revolver described thusly:
‘Open the cylinder, fill the holes with cartridges. Pull the trigger until it stops going bang. Open the cylinder and dump the empties. Repeat.
It doesn’t get a lot simpler than that. No loading magazines, no safeties, no releasing the slide, no clearing jams. Of course the latter is because if it does jam you probably can’t clear it.
Yes, I know that learning the manual-of-arms for a semi-auto isn’t rocket science, but sometimes it’s just easier for a beginner to use a revolver.
I’ve introduced a lot of people to handgun shooting over the years, and around half of them have found the relative simplicity of revolvers appealing. Not being experienced shooters they didn’t realize that the heavy double-action pull was supposed to be a problem and did just fine with them. My ex-wife, at 5’2″ and 100lbs soaking wet, handled my Model 36 like a pro in her Women’s Armed Self-Defense class.
A lot of them went on to semi-autos in time, but the revolver was their gateway-drug. If a new shooter wants to shoot a wheel-gun don’t explain to them why you think it’s a bad choice; it’s certainly better than nothing and it gets them shooting.
By and large revolvers are available in more powerful cartridges than semi-autos. Yes, there are magnum semi-autos, but they’re rare and expensive beasts. If you want a powerful repeating handgun for hunting or long-range target shooting the revolver remains the weapon of choice.
.44 Magnum and .454 Casull are both popular choices for big-game hunting and self-defense against dangerous game, and the revolvers that chamber these rounds are lighter, cheaper and more reliable than their semi-auto counterparts. We can argue all day about the real-world utility of handguns chambered in .45-70 or .500 S&W, but at the end of the day if you want that level of power and more than one shot revolvers are where it’s at.
An alloy-frame S&W J-frame is lighter than any of the popular service-caliber polymer semi-autos used for self-defense. In some seasons and places minimal clothing is necessary for comfort and to blend in. In those cases dropping an air-weight J-frame in a pocket can be a lot easier to manage than a similarly sized semi-auto. Yes, it’s only five shots, but five is infinitely better than none.
In fact you can buy an ultra-light revolver in nearly any caliber you’re masochistic enough to shoot. In activities like hiking, deep-woods hunting and similar activities weight can matter a lot.
People Like Them
This may seem a silly basis for choosing a weapon to bet your life on, but is it? A gun you like is a gun you’ll practice with, and a gun you practice with is more likely to save your life when you need it.
It’s axiomatic that the gun you have with you when you need it is the right gun, and a gun you find comfortable, convenient and that you like is more likely to be there when you need it.
Suited to Purpose
For special applications like hunting a revolver is still the weapon of choice. Even in applications like civilian self-defense it can be a valid choice depending on the individuals life, anticipated threats and circumstances. Most self-defense shootings are at point-blank range and are resolved in 2-3 shots, and a revolver will deliver those shots with great reliability.
For many applications they very much are. There are good and valid reasons police and militaries have overwhelmingly chosen semi-automatics for duty use. There is simply no arguing that for them more shots are better, semi-autos reload faster and are more resistant to extreme environmental conditions. Modern semi-auto pistols are the go-to choice for professionals who rely on their weapons every day, and they should be. But…
Revolvers are inarguably still relevant, and not just to ‘Fudds’ and old farts like me; a lot of younger folks find their qualities serve their needs well. There are good reasons why companies like Colt, Kimber and others keep introducing new models, and people keep buying them. Despite the proliferation of excellent, reliable and affordable semi-autos people still find revolvers attractive and useful, and they just keep chugging along.
Do I carry a revolver? Pretty often, though I do carry semi-automatics frequently as well. I’m confident in my abilities with them and they suit the sort of needs I feel I am most likely to encounter in day-to-day life. At the end of the day that’s what they need to do.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 17 September 2021