Handguns come in two general types, revolvers and semi-automatic pistols. Most everyone has seen both types and can identify them but very simply, a revolver (below at right) has a round cylinder drilled with a number of holes, usually five to seven that hold individual cartridges. As the gun is fired, the mechanism rotates the cylinder and brings a fresh cartridge up under the hammer and firing pin. On a modern double action revolver, the only type truly suitable for defensive use, the cylinder may be swung out to load and reload. Cartridges can be loaded one at a time or all at once using a separate device called a speedloader (see end of article). A speedloader holds a full compliment of ammo securely, then when activated drops all of the rounds into the cylinder's chambers at once.
A semi-automatic pistol (below), often called a semi-auto, or auto*, or just pistol for short, does not use a cylinder. The cartridges are loaded into a long narrow box called a magazine (below and right) that usually fits into the hollow butt of the pistol and locks in place. As the pistol fires, the mechanism reciprocates, throws the empty case out of the gun and strips a fresh cartridge into the single chamber (which is part of the barrel). To reload the pistol the empty magazine is removed and a full magazine is inserted to replace it.
Which is the better of the two basic types? In truth neither is truly better. Let's consider the pluses and minuses of each.
The pistol holds more ammunition at one time than the revolver and is quicker to reload. Many also believe the pistol is easier to learn to shoot well. For these reasons the pistol is normally the choice of police agencies and the military. And for the same reasons the pistol is a good choice for the private citizen. In general the pistol will fire sufficiently powerful ammunition without being abusive to shoot. Today's modern designs are also very reliable, which is the number one requirement of the defensive handgun. The military likes pistols because they will take abuse and keep on working. Tolerances of pistols used in military service are normally kept loose enough that mud and rain and snow and dirt will not stop the pistol from working. Don't assume this is true for all pistols though.
Some pistol generalities
Reliability is based on the design and by the quality of manufacture. In general newer pistol designs are more reliable than older designs. Full-size or "service" pistols will be more reliable than smaller pistols, especially subcompact pistols. Pistols built by well-known reputable companies will be more reliable than pistols built by small companies that may be operating on a shoestring. Pistols built in the USA, Canada, Germany, The Czech Republic, Italy, Brazil, and increasingly, in Argentina and Hungary are generally among the most reliable. Does this mean pistols built in those countries will be more reliable than pistols built in other countries of the world? No, like all generalizations, there are exceptions to the rule.
The pistol is faster to reload, holds more ammunition in the gun itself, is very tolerant of abuse, and comes in plenty powerful chamberings (the ammunition for which it is made).
The revolver on the other hand is capable of holding the most powerful ammo, such as the .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum cartridges. Are these powerful rounds reason to choose the revolver? No, at least not on their own. For defensive use some of these chamberings are actually more powerful than most of us need or can use for self-defense. Other benefits? The revolver is better at handling benign neglect than the pistol. By this I mean you can put a loaded revolver in a drawer, not touch it for ten years, pull it out, and fully expect it to fire. Lubricants dry out over time, but the revolver will fire in a dry condition better than the pistol, which because of a number of large, reciprocating parts, generally needs to be kept oiled. Because of this ability to be generally ignored-though I don't recommend it--the revolver is well--suited to be a home defense handgun. Kept loaded, it will be ready when you need it for years to come.
Probably the biggest perceived benefit of the revolver is the fact that it is simple to learn and simple to use. One can look at a revolver and see whether or not it is loaded because the cartridges are visible. It takes moving a simple latch to load and unload. Every round in the gun is right there and never hidden from sight. With the pistol, cartridges are moved from the magazine into the chamber, and it is easy for a beginner to remove the magazine without even checking the pistol's chamber and assume the gun is safe. This cannot happen with a revolver.
There is one more benefit of the revolver. Again a generalization but one that holds true most of the time, a quality revolver is less expensive than a similar quality pistol. One can save even two hundred dollars by choosing a revolver over a pistol. Even if money is not an issue, that $200 will buy a lot of practice ammunition.**
So am I willing to commit to preferring one handgun type over the other? In truth I like both, and I own both types for self-defense. Still, about 98% of the time I choose a pistol. My reasons include the fact that pistols are flatter in profile and conceal very well. I also find them easier to shoot well, even though I was originally trained with revolvers. But what I choose should not be what you choose. You need to weigh the benefits of each type, consider your needs and intended uses carefully, and go from there.
* Auto has been casually used to designate the semi-auto for a century, but it has caused a lot of confusion. A true auto keeps firing when you hold down the trigger until it is empty. True automatic weapons are heavily regulated in the United States and have been since the National Firearms Act of 1935 came into being. The Volkmer-McClure Act of 1984 further regulated true autos (also called machine guns), by making it illegal to register any new guns with private citizens. All new autos must be for the military or the police, period. There are collectors of machine guns, but the only guns they may circulate are guns registered prior to 1984.
** Update, 2020. At the time this was written revolvers were much lass expensive, but today, 15 years later, quality pistols are now LESS expensive than revolvers of equal quality, so that benefit has gone by the wayside.
copyright 2006 by the author