Saturday, May 23, 2009

Handgun Buying Consideration: Revolver Or Semi-Automatic

A prospective handgun purchaser must make a decision as to which type of pistol he wants to buy: revolver or semi-automatic. This article will explore the differences between the types, so that a buyer will make an informed decision as to which suits him better. In general, I advise my CCW Class students to avail themselves of my training session before buying a handgun because I cover handgun buying considerations in great detail. Of course, it is not necessary to do so, but it can help a person from making an unwise purchasing choice.

Ease of Use
A revolver is clearly easier to use than a semi-automatic. All that it takes to use a revolver is to pick it up, aim it a target, and pull the trigger. It has the ultimate "point-and-click" interface. In contrast, a semi-automatic is more complicated. A semi-automatic may have safeties that have to be negotiated before discharging the firearm. These safeties may be located along the backstrap, along the slide, and on the trigger. Revolvers rarely have safeties. In addition, there are other controls which, if present, must also be mastered: magazine detach button, slide release lever, de-cocking lever, and etc.

Action Design
The action of a handgun is all of the parts that are used to load and unload the the firearm. The action on a revolver includes the cylinder release button which allows the cylinder to fold out away from the frame. Within the cylinder are several chambers where rounds of ammunition cartridges are loaded. The loading of the gun is completed when the cylinder is closed back into the frame. A revolver is unloaded by opening the cylinder and using the ejection rod to expel empty cartridge casings or live ammunition rounds from the chambers.

A semi-automatic handgun is loaded and unloaded differently. Ammunition rounds are first loaded into a magazine which is then placed into the magazine well in pistol's frame. The handgun is not ready for firing until a round has been cycled from the magazine into the gun's only chamber by pulling the slide completely back and releasing it like a slingshot. A semi-automatic is unloaded by first removing the magazine - via the magazine detach button - and then pulling the slide back to either unload a chambered round of ammunition or to verify that the gun is unloaded.

Firing Reliability
Through popular media, such as TV shows and movies, nearly everyone knows that a semi-automatic handgun can jam and fail to fire. Jams can occur because of 'limp-wristing' - a failure to properly hold the firearm such that the physics involved in the discharge of the gun do not allow it to fully expel a spent cartridge casing and 'auto-load' another round from the magazine. Proper instruction from a qualified firearms trainer can eliminate this cause of gun jams.

A jam with a semi-automatic can also occur as a result of not properly cleaning and maintaining it. All ownership manuals distributed along with the handgun at the time of purchase will state that you should clean your handgun after every time you shoot it. In truth, you could probably 'get away with' shooting your handgun for a while without cleaning it and not experience a failure to fire (FTF). However, each shooting session without cleaning your gun will lead to a greater possibility of a jam.

In contrast, revolvers are more forgiving with respect to cleaning. A manual for a revolver will also tell you to clean it after using it, but revolvers rarely jam due to poor maintenance. In extreme cases, a revolvers cylinder can in fact seize and cause a FTF.

In both cases - revolver or a semi-automatic - your handgun should be routinely maintained according to the schedule suggested in your owner's manual. If a fear of a jam is causing you to feel uneasy about purchasing an autoloader, don't worry. Semi-automatic jams are, for the most, overblown. Maintain your handgun and it will properly function.

Ease Of Maintaining
Most students in my Concealed Pistol License Training Class are surprised to learn that a semi-automatic handgun, despite the fact that it is more complicated to operate, is easier to clean and maintain than a revolver.

Without going into a lot of detail, cleaning a handgun is not that big of a deal; it takes me at the most only 10 - 15 minutes to perform on my autoloader: disassemble handgun into its four major components (frame, slide, barrel, and recoil spring), clean out my barrel with bore cleaner, clean up the slide area, clean up the chamber area, apply gun oil, and reassemble my handgun.

As mentioned before, an autoloader has only one chamber whereas a revolver has several chambers in the cylinder. The math is clear. A revolver has more chambers to clean than an autoloader. Thus, a revolver takes longer to clean.

Ammunition Capacity
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between revolvers and autoloaders is ammo capacity. Essentially, ammo capacity is the amount or quantity of cartridges that it takes to fully load the firearm. Revolvers are limited by the number of chambers that it has in its cylinder. Accordingly, most revolvers can only contain five or six ammunition cartridges. I will also add that this limit is not etched in stone, as caliber size of the firearm can influence maximum capacity. As an example, a Taurus Model 94 Revolver is a .22LR caliber handgun that has a maximum capacity of nine rounds.

Semi-automatic handguns, in general, have a larger ammunition capacity than revolvers. Autoloaders are limited only by the size of the magazine. For example, my Smith & Wesson Model SW9VE 9mm handgun has a total ammo capacity of 17 - that's with a fully loaded magazine of 16 rounds and a cartridge loaded in 'the pipe' (chamber). It should be noted that other factors can influence autoloader ammo capacity: handgun size, caliber size, magazine design, and etc.

Cartridge Casing Disposition
When I cover the differences between revolvers and autoloaders in my CCW Training Class, I always get at least one student who brings up the fact that the disposition of the casings are different. In a semi-automatic, when a discharge occurs the resultant blow-back force causes the slide to retract backwards which engages the ejection pin to remove the spent casing. The casing falls to the ground. In contrast, casings in a revolver stay in the cylinder until they are manually removed.

Ease of Reloading
This article already covered how to load and unload both revolvers and autoloaders. However, a distinction was not made as to which handgun was easier to load and unload. In my opinion, both are relatively easy to operate, if you know how.

I want to add an additional consideration: operating a firearm under stress. A stressful event such a home invasion or a robbery attempt can cause a victim to undergo physiological reactions: loss of fine motor skills, time distortion, tunnel vision, and etc. In my opinion, the loss of fine motor skills may make reloading a revolver impractical.

To load a revolver, a cartridge has to be placed into each chamber by hand. I doubt that someone under stress can reliably do that function, even with a speed loader device - a tool to facilitate loading a revolver. In contrast, an autoloader can be reloaded by inserting another loaded magazine into the handgun. Some manual manipulation is needed but it is easier to do than to reload a revolver.

Cool Factor
As a matter of personal preference, some buyers may favor a handgun style because it is more cool. Some people think that an old-school .357 Magnum is the ultimate must own firearm. Other folks think that autoloaders are the ultimate handgun style. With respect to cool, beauty is truly in the eye of the holder. There are no wrongs answers.

Bottom Line:
Buying a handgun is not a trivial purchase. Many factors should be considered before investing several hundreds of dollars before making a final decision. Deciding which handgun style - revolver versus autoloader - is better for you is dependent upon several factors: ease of use, action design, firing reliability, ease of maintaining, ammunition capacity, cartridge casing disposition, ease of reloading, and cool factor.
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