Selecting a Handgun for Defense Pt. 2: Defensive Revolvers
I've been working on this for a while so it may be a little dated as I have not reviewed or entered 2011's product offerings. I received a lot of positive feedback on Part 1 of this covering automatics and some have been asking for Part 2.
Let me say that I am not a revolver guru and my opinions here are based on a good working knowledge of revolvers and firearms in general and are not that of an expert in the area of revolvers.
When it comes to revolvers, the options are much simpler than when looking at automatics. While current trends seem to favor semi-automatic pistols for self defense use, the role of the revolver is still alive and well for defensive purposes. Some may lack the hand strength to properly manipulate the slide of an automatic which is necessary function in making the pistol ready and clearing a jam should one occur. Along with being able to manipulate the slide one must have the needed hand/arm strength to keep a firm grip on a semi-auto to ensure proper function. A poor grip/muscular control will lead to what is referred to as “limp wristing”.
While there are more makers of autos than you can shake a stick at, the number of quality revolver makers is much smaller, in this piece I am only going to cover four of them, while there are others, these four probably make up the bulk of defensive revolvers in use today. Smith & Wesson, Taurus, Ruger, and Charter Arms are pretty much your only real options. While a Colt revolver is a fine piece, they are no longer currently produced and in keeping with Part 1 I'm only covering this on the perspective of buying a new current production gun. Sure many still carry them, but they are getting harder and harder to find. Rossi is another name that keeps popping up from perspective buyers, Rossi is not what I would consider to be of decent enough quality to use in a defensive role where you will be counting on that gun with your life. I have heard many, many accounts of lost timing, broken firing pins and other issues.
What size gun do you need?
Revolvers come in four general frame sizes, small, medium, large, and ludicrously large. Along with frame size you have to take barrel length into account.
• Small Frames: Unlike autos, barrel length has not as much to do with size category. You can have a small frame revolver with a longer barrel, this must be kept in mind when making decisions about what make and model to purchase. You’re small frame revolvers generally hold five cartridges, although some small frame revolvers in “lesser” chamberings such as .22LR, .22 Winchester Magnum etc. will hold more cartridges. Generally speaking a small frame revolver is chambered in .38 Spcl. Or .357 Magnum and is the easiest to conceal due to the smaller cylinder and short grip frame.
• Medium: You’re medium frame revolver generally holds six cartridges although there are some models that hold seven to eight rounds. Medium frame revolvers can be found in a wide range of chamberings. While larger than the small frame revolver, the medium frame revolver is not impossible to conceal and prior to the wide acceptance of the semi-auto for police work, the medium frame revolver was the primarily issued sidearm for Police and Military. A good medium frame revolver with a 4” barrel is a solid platform for use as home defense gun for those unable to operate a semi-auto (or for those unwilling to learn)
• Large Frame- A large frame revolver is generally a .45LC, .44Spcl, .44Magnum, etc. It has to be big to accommodate it’s payload of six huge cartridges. These can still be carried for defense, but they are not as widely used due to risk of over penetration, size, and cost of ammunition.
• Ludicrous Frame- I use this term jokingly, different manufactures have different names for this size class, most notable is the S&W X-Frame revolvers chambered in S&W 500 Magnum and .460, while there are some short barreled versions of these models, to carry one for self defense against two-legged critters just isn't sound judgment in my opinion. The cost of ammunition is severely high, the recoil while manageable is unlike anything I’ve felt in a handgun of that type and the risk of over penetration is high.
Like anything, revolver size pros and cons are about the same pending on point of view. A smaller gun is easier to conceal, but a smaller gun in a harder hitting caliber is going to be harder to shoot rapidly with accuracy, not that it can’t be done, it just can’t be done by many simply due to lack of practice to become proficient in doing so. A larger gun will absorb more recoil, and while we’re on the topic of recoil, it should be mentioned that revolvers will recoil a little differently as there is no reciprocating slide and recoil spring to absorb some of the energy during firing. While a revolver may be chambered in a smaller caliber, it can have more felt recoil than a larger caliber semi-automatic as all the energy is being transferred in whole to the shooter. As always, felt recoil will differ from one gun/caliber to another and differ between shooters. As previously mentioned, barrel size can differ within the size class. The differences in barrel length spawns different names to go along with revolvers, most commonly are “Snub-nose” and “Service.” A snub-nose or “snubby” generally has a barrel length of 3” or less while a service revolver has a barrel length of 4”- 6” in length. There are revolvers with longer barrel lengths, but do to the size they are not as popular for on body carry.
Like semi-automatics, there are some areas of debate regarding revolvers
•Caliber / Knock Down Power and Capacity
•With or Without External Safeties
•Common Revolver Myths
•Carrying a Revolver
Again, when it comes to handgun calibers for general carry, none of them are guaranteed instant man-stoppers and with modern hollow points the gaps between calibers are a little smaller. .38Spcl is generally the smallest caliber recommended for self defense use (and also the minimum in IDPA); however there are many chamberings available for revolvers and some revolvers are offered in what are normally semi-auto firearms. The new revolver caliber on the block is the .327 Federal Magnums which makes it possible to increase capacity in revolvers. In the small frame category this means that it is still possible to have six rounds on board instead of the normal five. It’s been around a couple years now and has a mild fan base. Revolvers come in any thing from .22 to .500. A lot of people still favor the .357 Magnum and in the right platform it is very effective. In the wrong platform it is pure misery to fire.
My father took his CCW class a couple years back and related to me the story of a friend of his trying to qualify with a Smith & Wesson Scandium J-Frame in .357. The poor guy touched off two rounds and was not too enthused with his choice of firearms. I read one account where the author claims that while trying out his new .357 Airlite revolver that his hand started bleeding during the range session. This masochist then admitted that he kept firing the rest of the box of fifty cartridges. Now I can speculate that this narrative was maybe a little less than truthful, but the fact is that super light guns in hard hitting calibers are not range guns and that if you plan on really practicing this with this gun you should be wise in what you select.
Another advantage of revolvers regarding caliber is that in some cases you can shoot two different calibers in the same gun. With a .357 Magnum you can also shoot .38Spcl, .38Spcl +P. With a .44Magnum you can also shoot .44Spcl. With a model that shoots 10mm you can also shoot .40S&W. Going into larger revolvers there are some that will allow .460, .454 Casull, and .45LC. There are some things that need to be addressed with this, shooting the lesser cartridges will leave build up in the chamber walls that can inhibit extraction of the longer cartridges.
This is another debate that is unwinnable; there is no right answer to this. Some people feel comfortable with a five shot snub-nosed revolver, others favor six, and some will make accommodations to carry a larger gun that holds seven or eight cartridges of .357Magnum. I will say that the “average” gun fight is supposed to be three to five shots fired. That is average, some or more, some are less. If you have a five shot revolver, expect to have to fire the gun empty. Some revolver shooters advocate carrying two revolvers and refer to them as a “New York Reload”, rather than try a more complicated reload, just draw another firearm.
2: Frame Material
Revolvers can be found in a variety of materials:
Steel, aluminum alloy, scandium alloy, and now polymer hybrids that have steel frames coupled to a polymer grip frame. The main differences are of course weight. A small frame, steel revolver is not the lightest package available and if one desires to carry via the pocket or ankle holster a lighter alternative may be the better choice for those applications. Be advised that with the decreased weight, felt recoil will increase exponentially. I’ve had two light weight revolvers, a S&W 642 (Aluminum frame, .38Spcl, DAO) and a S&W 360PD (Scandium Alloy, .357Magnum, DA) and let me tell you that while the 642 with +P loads was no slouch, the 360PD with a full power, hard hitting magnum load is a handful and NOT the most fun thing to shoot as well. Anecdotes range from bleeding hands to failed CCW courses due to “the lack of respect” shown to the feather weight models of increased caliber. If you plan on shooting your carry gun often, I would suggest sticking with aluminum or better yet, the steel framed option.
3: Trigger Type: Commonly referred to as “Action” this identifies the way the trigger setup of the gun works:
Single Action Only (SAO or SA):"Western" revolvers" such as the Colt Single Action Army (SAA), Ruger Blackhawk etc. are examples of a single action revolver. The hammer must be manually cocked in order for the gun to fire. Pulling the trigger causes one action, that of the hammer to fall and make contact with the firing pin. Looking at this example, the SA revolver must be cocked manually for every shot. The cocking of the hammer rotates the cylinder, pulling the trigger releases the hammer.
Double Action: When used to describe a revolver, the term means that the revolver can be fired solely by trigger manipulation or by the manual cocking of the hammer followed by the pulling of the trigger.
Double Action Only (DAO): DAO guns can not be manually cocked; they are cocked and released by trigger manipulation, often referred to as “hammer-less” as some revolvers of this type have the hammer enclosed to prevent snagging from the draw. Not all DAO revolvers feature enclosed hammers.
4: With or Without External Safeties: This is almost a moot point, there are very, very, few revolver models that incorporate an external safety as it is widely viewed that the long, stiff trigger pull of a DA revolver is a more than adequate measure of safety. The number of guns available with this option is extremely limited. To my knowledge, the only current offering (Remember I don’t cover used/out of production guns) that has an external safety is the S&W model 42 which has a long lever of sorts on the rear portion of the grip frame that must be pressed in for the gun to be fired.
5: Reloading: With an auto the reloading process is rather straight forward and easy to accomplish with your “weak hand” or non-firing hand, simply drop the spent magazine, insert new magazine, close slide if needed and proceed to fire. Revolvers on the other hand are a little more complicated. Most revolvers have cylinders that swing out to the left; the spent casings need to be ejected from the cylinder using your left hand, then one must hold the firearm by the cylinder while reloading the cylinder by a variety of methods/devices. There are some left handed revolvers and the procedures is the same, just reverse what hand is doing what procedure.
There are half moon clips, full moon clips, speed loaders, speed strips, and manually loading loose cartridges. The half and full moon clips are mainly used in revolvers chambered in a caliber usually reserved for a semi-auto, as there is no rim to rest on the ejector, the cartridges are inserted in a metal clip and that clip containing the cartridges is ejected. I like moon clips as they can provide a straight forward, less complicated reload and are mechanically simple. No springs, no latches, a little less bulky and fast. Moon clips can be used on regular revolver cartridges, but the firearm must have a cylinder capable of accepting the clip either from the factory or from a gunsmith. Speed loaders come in a variety of types, from a couple different makers, most popular seems to be the HKS model speed loader for their size, they are not too large, and not too small (Depending on caliber of course) and are sold in almost every gun store I’ve ever been to. These have a rotary release knob, the cartridges are held in place by a mechanism that is released into the cylinder when the knob is turned. Other models such as the Safariland Speed loaders are available with different size knobs or a larger spring loaded version.
I have also recently been made aware that another type of speed loader, the S.L. Speed loader which is reportedly one of the best on the market. I plan on picking some up in the near future and seeing how they perform. At first I was a little put off on the price, but in retrospect a good 1911 magazine costs more than this speed loader and if the quality is as good as they say it's worth it.
My best advice if you choose to use a speed loader type device is to get a couple different types and see which you like better. Also be advised that certain grip types may need to be replaced with a pair that has a relief cut to allow the speed loader a smooth path to the cylinder. A speed strip is kind of a poorly named device in my opinion, they are not that speedy, but can be with practice. A speed strip is a piece of flexible urethane that holds a given number of cartridges all in a row, they earn points on being easy to conceal but are not as fast loading as a speed loader as you have to manually load each chamber but are much better than carrying loose cartridges in your pocket. A variety of carriers are available for the different types of loading devices. Shop around and try different options or at a bare minimum just buy a pack of speed strips or the newer “Tuff Strips” and just work on your reloading skills with those methods.
6: Common Revolver Myths
Just like everything else in the firearms industry, there are plenty of myths surrounding the revolver, the largest one being that “Revolvers don’t jam.” Revolvers can and do jam, and when they do it’s usually a very bad thing that could require a gun smith to fix. One problem or jam is the result of a “High primer”, this is when either as result of using improperly reloaded ammunition or even an out of specification cartridge from a box of new factory ammunition, if the primer of a cartridge is not fully seating it can lock the cylinder in place rendering the gun useless. Another issue is if during shooting a projectile of a yet to be fired cartridge separates from the case “noses out” past the cylinder preventing the cylinder from being able to rotate. Other circumstances can lead to a mechanical failure as well such as a bent ejection rod. All man made devices can and will fail eventually if certain circumstances occur.
“Get her a J-Frame .38” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this and it makes me cringe. For some unfathomable reason some men just can’t believe that their spouse, girlfriend, or daughter can handle an automatic and decide that what their lady needs is a “hammerless” revolver. What they don’t take into account is the heavy trigger pull, stout recoil, stubby sights and it’s not a very fun gun to shoot. The accuracy issues born of a new shooter mixed with a stiff DAO with tiny sights is one of the most discouraging things I’ve ever come across. You want new shooters to be confident and enthused. Guys, do yourselves a favor and do not just go out and buy your wife a J-Frame and expect her to either fall in love with it and become Annie Oakley. Now some ladies do prefer a revolver but let them choose it on their own.
7: Carrying a Revolver
One of the arguments made about the revolver is that the wider cylinder will make it uncomfortable for carry in an inside the waistband (IWB) holster which is what many consider to be the most concealable method of carry. This may or may not be the case; I’ve often carried a J-Frame IWB with no real issues. This is a person to person issue and may or may not be a factor. The center of gravity of a shorter barreled revolver is nice and centered instead of in the rear of an auto where the center of gravity usually is. This makes for a nice carry set up, in my limited experience with revolver carry I will say that it doesn’t seem to shift around as much, and if you decide that an ankle holster is the choice for you, you won’t be disappointed in the way a light revolver carries. Also, the round shape of a revolver doesn’t leave as many sharp corners or edges to poke and prod one in various places and makes for a good appendix carry gun, especially for women in the hollow of the pelvis point of the hip.
As mentioned earlier, I’m only going to cover four makers of revolvers.
Charter Arms: Currently Charter arms has a decent reputation for a lower cost revolver and has an attractive offering for you persons of wrong handedness aka left handed, a revolver made for left handed operation. Previously Charter Arms did not have a stunning reputation for quality; however in the last few years they have cleaned things up a bit and by all accounts are making pretty good guns. They are available in .32, .38Spcl, .44Spcl., .327 Federal Magnum, and .22 in different frame materials. They also offer some very “unique” color schemes that you won’t find elsewhere.
Smith & Wesson: Of those listed here S&W is generally the most popular among gun enthusiasts looking for a revolver. Of the manufacturers covered in this piece, S&W has been around the longest and offers a fine product. While S&W has a good reputation, there are some things to be aware of when selecting a S&W revolver. Frame material. As previously mentioned there are several available frame materials if you don’t plan on carrying the gun, I would suggest an all steel gun as if will handle better in learning hands. If you do plan on carrying the gun I would suggest the aluminum framed option if available.
While S&W offers three different materials, not all three are available across all frame sizes. While there are aluminum options for carry in the small frame (S&W lists theses as J-Frames) category as well as stainless steel and scandium, these options may not be available in the medium frame (K&L Frames), large frame (N Frame) or insanely large frame (X Frame). There are some scandium options in the K & L Frame category but as I have mentioned, the felt recoil characteristics of a hard hitting caliber like .357Mag, .45ACP, or .44Mag in a scandium framed revolver are not user friendly and are not the best choices for new shooters to learn their pistol craft on. Moving forward, some time ago S&W began incorporating a keyed locking mechanism just above the cylinder release latch, in the higher caliber scandium revolvers there have been instances of these locks failing while firing and rendering the gun useless. S&W does offer new run models minus the lock, but they are few and far between and are highly sought after when available and they tend to sell fast.
When it comes to S&W revolvers, I prefer the older models that don’t have the lock. I don’t like a lot of added extras on a revolver that can render it useless in a time of need. In most cases a new in box (NIB) S&W will cost more than the other brand covered in this piece. The model numbers for S&W products can be daunting, your best bet during research is to pick up a catalog and see what is available in the different configurations.
Ruger: If I were looking for a revolver for carry or home defense, I’d have a real hard time not buying a Ruger. Ruger offers two materials for revolvers, steel and a polymer framed/steel/aluminum hybrid (the first to do this I might add and is now being copied by S&W and Taurus). While Ruger makes single action revolvers as well, we are going to stick with DA revolvers as the SA revolver is not what I would consider to be a serious self defense piece, sure some people carry them but I see no reason to carry a SA revolver when DA revolvers are available. Ruger’s three main lines of DA revolvers are the SP101, GP100, and Red Hawk/Super Red Hawk. The SP101 is a smaller framed revolver similar to S&W’s J-Frame and is available in three calibers; .38Spcl, .357Mag, and .327Federal and is available in two action styles, DA and DAO and are available in several barrel lengths.
The next category, the GP100 is a six shot (seven if chambered in .327 Federal) midsize revolver chambered in .357Magnum and .327 Federal. The GP100 is probably one of the top two .357 Magnum revolvers, competing against the S&W 686 for the top spot. It’s built like a tank and comes with a full under-lug barrel somewhat helps to reduce muzzle climb and you don’t have to worry about the gun being worn out by heavy loads. Of course with all this durability comes a drawback…weight. The GP100 is a couple ounces heavier than the 686, usually an ounce or two doesn’t matter, but these are not light guns to begin with. Personally, I find the GP100 to have the better trigger out of the box, but a well broken in or smithed S&W is a sweet thing to behold. The lasted innovation from Ruger was their Lightweight Compact Revolver (LCR) which is the polymer framed hybrid revolver I mentioned earlier on, but don’t get too excited, it’s still about the same weight as an aluminum or scandium S&W J-Frame, but as Ruger does not offer an aluminum or scandium model, it’s a great option for those that are put off by the price of a S&W. the LCR is new, but getting good feedback.
The other lines from Ruger, the Redhawk, Super Redhawk and Alaskan are a little on the large side for carry in my opinion, but if you’re looking for a big bore carry gun, the Alaskan and 4” Redhawk .44Magnum or .45LC are good choices, I’ve been lusting for the 4” Redhawk for some time now…why I don’t have one yet is a mystery to me, I think I need to correct that. The Alaskan is available in .44Magnum and .454Casull which will also fire .45LC. The Super Redhawk is more of a hunting gun with a long barrel and given the large projectile and high velocity of the .44Mag, I would not use one for home protection.
Taurus: In the previous piece on selecting an automatic, I said that I would not recommend Taurus (much to the dismay of some), and that still stands. This piece is on revolvers and I am only slightly less leery of Taurus if you are looking for a decent revolver, they would not be my first choice. They are modeled after S&W and according to Taurus’ website:
“…Smith &; Wesson had been purchased by a conglomerate named Bangor Punta. In 1970, Bangor Punta also purchased 54% of Taurus. Thus, the two companies became "sisters". Smith &; Wesson never owned Taurus. They were both independent companies. However, during the next seven years, a great deal of technology and methodology was passed between the two. What may come as a surprise to some is that more of what was "right" in Porto Alegre was sent to Springfield than was sent from Springfield to south of the equator.”
They are generally a good gun for the money however the S&W models appear to be cleaner in terms of fit and finish and materials. While Taurus has a better reputation for their revolvers, it’s still not the best reputation as their customer service is not well known for expedience in fixing a problem if one exists.
Taurus, like S&W has multiple frame sizes and materials to choose from and has such a wide variety to choose from in terms of models/packages/features that I will not cover them in detail. The few items I will talk about are some of the newer “fad” guns that some are showing interest in. I see lots of people asking about the Judge as it will shoot .410 shotgun shells (*Note .410 is not a gauge, it is the actual diameter of the projectile. Spread the word) and the .45 LC. I will say the following regarding this gun; If you want a .45LC, buy a .45LC. The .410 even at shotgun velocities has trouble taking out squirrels and small mammals let alone a determined attacker. If you are worried that much about snakes that you want a shot load, just get some snake shot and load your first and maybe second chamber of your revolver with snake shot and load the other chambers with a good defensive load. The Judge has a long cylinder increasing the sized of the gun; I am of the opinion that the increased size would be better suited if applied to barrel length where it would do some good in terms of recoil reduction and sight radius. Like S&W, Taurus has more model numbers and packages than you can shake a stick at, if you’re interested in a Taurus, check out their website or get a catalog from your local firearms retailer.
In summary, the revolver is not in moth balls yet and should not be overlooked in selecting a handgun and for some may be a better choice than an auto, but they are not necessarily the best choice available right out of the gate. While they do have a role to fill, in my opinion their shortcomings of low capacity and a more complicated reload process makes autos the better choice for those willing to put in the work to proficiently operate an automatic.