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April 15, 2022

Revolver vs Pistol

By Ryan F. Sullivan

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Opinions vary wildly on the revolver vs pistol debate. On a personal level, I’m a fan of the semi-automatic pistol, but on a professional level I take no side. I firmly believe that it’s up to the individual to decide which weapon is going to fit their needs the best, and I subscribe to the old notion that in matters of style and taste, the customer is always right.

Serial Number 21 U.S. Colt Model 1911 semi-automatic pistol (Left) and a rare Nickel Colt California Combat Python DA revolver (right).

When pitting the revolver vs pistol side by side, each gun has its pros and cons. In terms of virtues, the semi-automatic pistol provides a higher capacity, faster reloads, better natural compatibility with devices like silencers, and the option of self-cocking single action operations.

Serial Number 50 Colt Model 1911.

The revolver, meanwhile, isn't restricted in grip dimension since they don’t need to plan around the use of the grip section serving as a magazine well. The revolver has a long and complex history. Today, revolvers have developed a reputation for greater reliability, and some consider a double action trigger a benefit because its heavier trigger pull reduces the need for other safety mechanisms. But not every revolver or semi-auto pistol resides in the traditional niche, and certain models were designed to take on some of the attributes of the competition.

Matched Colt Bicentennial three revolver set.

High Capacity Revolvers

Ammo capacity and speed of reloads has always been a sticking point for revolvers. While on paper you can make a cylinder as big as you care to, the reality is that no one wants to holster a handgun with dimensions similar to a beach ball. But workarounds have been found.

An engraved J. Chaineux Brevete twelve-shot pinfire revolver, an early 'high capacity' wheelgun.

Likely the most streamlined and successful was the adoption of “moon clip” style speed loaders for convention five and six shot revolvers, where a thin piece of steel holds together part (a “half-moon”) or all (a “full-moon”) of a complete reload, with the cylinder properly “shaved” to accommodate the clip. This style of adaptation can be seen on the U.S. Model 1917 revolver (technically two different revolvers made by Colt and Smith & Wesson), which was fielded alongside the then-new Colt 1911 pistol.

In this setup, the clips doubled as adaptors and enabled the revolvers and semi-autos to share the same 45 ACP ammo, allowing the 1917 to act as a substitute weapon without cluttering the supply chain with a different handgun round.

Documented WW1 U.S. Colt Model 1917 Army DA revolver.

Another solution to revolvers' lengthy reload time was to just go ahead and make the revolver cylinder bigger, meaning it can hold more rounds. This was done by either using a small enough cartridge to keep things from becoming unwieldy or banking on material science to make the chambers thick enough to prevent tragedy, but thin enough to still be handy.

In the former category, the Iver Johnson “Supershot” revolver gives nine rounds of 22 Long Rifle in a reasonably small and light package, and in the latter category the Smith & Wesson Performance Center “Jerry Miculek” Model 627-3 packs eight rounds of 357 Magnum into the cylinder, giving firepower comparable to a standard issue 1911A1 with an extra round right to boot.

Finally, some choose a more extreme option. Options so extreme that it becomes a matter of debate if it still counts as a revolver. And that option was taken by the designer of the Dardick Model 1500, which discarded the conventional arrangement of multiple chambers in a cylinder in favor of giving each round its own disposable chamber, or “tround,” loading them into an internal magazine, and cycling them through with a triple-spaced rotor assembly.

The Dardick Model 1500 Autoloading revolver.

The resulting weapon sat dead in the middle between the semi-auto and the revolver in terms of attributes, while also bringing in some very novel features like a capability for near-instant caliber changes and an option for rapid conversion to a stocked carbine, which foreshadowed a number of modern products.

Unfortunately, these virtues weren’t enough to help the Dardick 1500 hack out a niche in a crowded market, and the experiment only lasted about four years; surviving 1500s are collector’s items, and the novel tround, a triangular shaped plastic sleeve around the brass casing that powered the system, are hard to find and cost multiple dollars apiece.

Self-Cocking Revolvers

In the revolver vs pistol debate, a big virtue that semi-auto pistols bring to the table is their ability to use excess energy from firing to prepare for the next shot. No small part of that process is the automatic cocking of a hammer or charging of a striker mechanism with each cycle of the slide (DAOs excepted).

Unlike traditional double action revolvers where pulling the trigger simultaneously advances a cylinder and cocks a hammer, semi-autos require no such work to be performed by their triggers. This allows them to use lighter and more precise triggers with the sole function of dropping the hammer/striker, and letting the recoil or waste gas do the rest of the work.

Fine Webley Fosbery Model 1903 automatic revolver.

A few revolver models have tried to steal this self-cocking bit of thunder from the semi-automatic pistol, mostly by splitting the revolver into a grip section which remains stationary in the operator’s hand, and an upper section that is allowed to reciprocate in a manner similar to a pistol slide.

The first of these was the Webley-Fosbury revolver. Born into a time when the semi-auto was just beginning to rise in public esteem (and garner more attention from potential military buyers), the Webley-Fosbury tried to bridge the gap between the old reliable revolver and the new semi-automatic hotness.

The Webley-Fosbury automatic revolver combined traditional top-break British revolver design with a railed mechanism that allowed the barrel, cylinder, and hammer assembly to recoil backwards on discharge and an integral spring to reset the assembly for the next shot, giving that semi-auto trigger in a revolver package.

Webley Fosbery Model 1902 automatic revolver.

Of course, we can look back with the power of hindsight and see that the Webley-Fosbury revolver design was too novel for folks who wanted to be revolver traditionalists, and still lacked the rapid reload capacity that helped sell the semi-auto, leaving it to a similar niche as the Dardick 1500; a weapon too cool to live.

Many years later, another design followed similar principles, though did so while leaning in to the virtues of the revolver a bit harder. Developed by Mateba of Pavia, Italy, the Model 6 Unica used a similar reciprocating upper assembly, but also retained the option for double action fire and included the novel feature of firing off of the lower chamber instead of the more common upper chamber.

The Mateba 6 Unica Auto-Revolver.

Lowering the bore closer to the level of the hand reduced recoil in the process, while also giving the option of heavyweight cartridges like the 44 Magnum and 454 Casull, providing a heavy striking power for its weight. The Unica 6 gives all the power of a magnum revolver with greater relative control, and while production was limited it managed to make a very good name for itself.

Silenced Revolvers

The ability to use silencers often comes up in revolver vs pistol discussions, and the conventional wisdom is that revolvers and silencers go together about as well as fish and bicycles. The big issue is the presence of the gap between the rear of the barrel and the face of the cylinder, which permits the escape of gas and still-burning powder very early in the ignition cycle, guaranteeing that at least some of the blast of discharge has no opportunity to be baffled or dampened by a silencer out at the muzzle. Conventional silencers have limited effectiveness, but sometimes a fish manages to get a flipper or two on the pedals.

The Model 1895 Nagant DA revolver used a special 7.62mm cartridge with the casing extending out past the bullet and a cylinder that cams forward in the moments before full lockup and discharge to seal the gap when fired, making it one of the few revolver designs that can truly be silenced.

A few revolvers were designed to address the gas gap issue, using a more complex mechanism to ensure maximum engagement between the cylinder and barrel at the time of discharge. The most famous of these is the Model 1895 Nagant double action revolver. A workhorse military handgun from the fading days of Imperial Russia into World War II, the Nagant used a special 7.62mm cartridge with the casing extending out past the bullet and a cylinder that cams forward in the moments before full lockup and discharge to seal the gap when fired, then automatically unlock when preparing for the next round. The designers weren’t considering the prospect of mounting a can on the revolver when it was made, Maxim’s genre-defining silencer wouldn’t hit the market for several years, but they did inadvertently produce a weapon that would play very well with the technology.

Silenced Nagants provide a compromise between the excellent suppression of a dedicated single shot pistol like a Welrod or the slide locking “Hush Puppy” designs of the Vietnam era and the speed of fire of a repeating arm. Anecdotal reports put silencer-equipped Nagants in the inventory of Soviet Russia and associates like North Vietnam, while modern enthusiasts have been known to mate up the 100-plus year old revolver with modern cans for a novel shooting experience.

An alternative approach to the gas gap is to attack it at the true source; the gas gap can’t release burning powder if no burning powder escapes the cartridge. Both the Soviet Union and the Americans played around with the concept of a fully self-contained cartridge, using a captive piston assembly to propel the bullet. The pistol would wedge in the front of the casing after the bullet left but before significant gas could escape. The American version of the project used a specially customized Smith & Wesson Model 29, dubbed the Quiet Special Purpose Revolver, which was essentially a compact 10mm smoothbore shotgun that would blast a target with a load of tungsten pellets.

The intended audience of the Quiet Special Purpose Revolver were the “tunnel rat” engineers and infantrymen who had to deal with the infamous underground bunker structures of the North Vietnamese, where the muzzle blast of a conventional handgun would blind and deafen the wielder. Rumor has it that following the end of American involvement in Vietnam the Central Intelligence Agency got their hands on them.

The OTs-38 Stechkin revolver is a 5-shot, double-action revolver, in production and service since 2002, one of the few firearms chambered in 7.62×41mm SP-4 cartridge designed for noiseless and flash-less firing.

A similar Soviet endeavor for a sealed piston round (though using a more conventional bullet) would take place in the 1980s. The round was first used in a series of compact double barreled pistols, and then employed by the OTs-38 Stechkin revolver introduced in 2002.

Double Action Only Semis

When shooting for precision, a light and crisp trigger is typically seen as a virtue, though one that needs to be balanced against the practical needs of the user. A dedicated target pistol or rifle could get away with a trigger setting that would be flat out dangerous on a firearm intended for the field. In the case of handguns meant for defensive use, the heavier pull of a double action revolver can be seen as a virtue in disguise, as that heavy, deliberate pull can be considered a safety mechanism that automatically turns itself off when the operator needs it, simplifying the manual of arms and reducing the chances of a mishandled manual safety.

Engraved Walther PP pistol with a combination decocker/safety.

While the typical operating mode for a semi-auto pistol is to automatically cock the weapon when the slide is cycled (either during initial loading or in the normal sequence of fire), a number have been designed with decocking mechanisms integrated into or in lieu of a manual safety. This allows a hammer-down carry on a loaded chamber, a double action first shot with single action follow up shots, and then the ability to safely return to a hammer-down posture before holstering the weapon.

Factory engraved silver-plated Walther P38 pistol.

The Walther-designed PP line of law enforcement-oriented handguns used a combination decocker/safety, with a similar mechanism on the military-oriented Armee Pistole/P-38 handgun and on the later Beretta line of handguns. SIG’s famed P226 uses a decocker-only mechanism, entirely banking on the trigger as the chief safety mechanism when in operation.

A classic Sig Sauer P226 in the decocker-only configuration.

Some designs take the principle a step farther, by decocking the hammer between each shot or setting the internal striker up with heavier springs to produce a heavier felt trigger pull. This removes the option of single action follow up shots, but does allow consistency in felt trigger pull through the entire string of fire. With single action fire removed, this is known as "double action only" or DAO. During the period where police agencies were transitioning from revolvers to semi-automatic pistols, this feature permitted a degree of familiarity.

St. Etienne Le Francais Model 28 "Type Armee" pistol.

An early example of this was the French-made St. Etienne Le Francais line of handguns, which used a heavy striker mechanism and a novel charging method. Instead of racking the slide, the user would hit a lever to pop up the barrel and manually load the first round, with some models integrating a small cartridge holder on the bottom of the magazine to keep that first round close at hand for empty chamber carry. Both Beretta and SIG offered DAO trigger options on their Model 92 and P226 pistols alongside the aforementioned examples.

SIG Sauer P226 semi-automatic pistol, with desert digital camouflage textured grips. Availible this May as part of a two gun combo.

Since the 1990s, the New York Police Department issued a 3rd Generation Glock 9mm equipped with special mechanisms with heavier pulls, with a “NY-1” model measuring around eight pounds and a “NY-2/New York Plus” configuration that takes it up to about 11 or 12 pounds. As of this writing, the NYPD has began issuing new recruits a pistol with a lighter trigger pull to improve accuracy, according to the New York Daily News.

Semi-Autos with Magazines outside the Grip Frame

When the revolver vs pistol topic comes up, wheelgun fans often bring up the custom grips. There’s no rule that says you need to have your magazine well and your grip frame be the same part of your pistol (barring the 1994 Assault Weapon Ban and state-level copycats), but you wouldn’t know it looking at a gun store shelf.

No one needed to twist the gun industry’s arm to make this the de-facto standard, because it just works so well in terms of maximizing barrel length relative to overall length and having one less thing sticking out perpendicular to the line of the bore. But this wasn’t always the case, and many early developments in semi-auto pistols used alternate magazine placements.

Antique Mauser Model 1896 cone hammer Broomhandle pistol.

Most famous of the semi-auto handguns would be the Mauser C96 Broomhandle pistol, which was equipped with an internal magazine ahead of the trigger guard and the namesake thin and rounded grip. An early hit in the field, the Broomhandle saw great success as an export item to China, where it was heavily flattered via imitation, both in the form of crude backyard copies to proper arsenal reproductions, as well as beefed up .45 ACP and machine pistol variants.

These Mauser pistols were found on both sides of the Chinese Civil War and in criminal hands, with noted Close Quarter Battle experts Fairbairn and Sykes, then of the Shanghai Municipal Police, noting the 7.63mm Broomhandle as capable of incredible damage to human flesh in their book, ‘Shooting to Live with the One Hand Gun.’

Chinese Shansei Arsenal Type 17 Broomhandle pistol in .45 ACP.

For several decades after the Broomhandle’s heyday the externally placed magazine became something of a novelty, chiefly reserved for high-quality target pistols to allow maximum customization and fitting of the grip for the individual shooter in the quest to get every possible advantage in a field where a few millimeters might be the difference between a gold medal and not even getting on the podium.

Pardini Model SP-1 Semi-Automatic target pistol with external magazine.

These pistols often went to even greater extremes than any revolver in terms of customization, often integrating elaborate rests for the thumb, heel, and even wrist of the shooting hand, or being individually sculpted for the sole use of one person’s dominant hand. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a few “tactical” handguns with alternate magazine placements reached the market, taking their design cues more from submachine guns and machine pistols, like the Tec-9 semi-auto, which was shut down by the passage of the 1994 Assault Weapon Ban.

Heckler & Koch SP5 semi-automatic pistol.

The idea has had something of a renaissance as of late, with large-framed pistols built around receivers like the AR-15. This receiver style allows maximum customization of the grip area (both hand-made and off-the-shelf from a variety of parts manufacturers) to fit the ergonomic needs of the user, as well as permitting a wide array of ammo types that would be unthinkable in any grip frame that needed to be held in the hand. While quite a bit bulkier than a normal handgun, they do permit new extremes of range and hitting power over what one would demand of a conventional semi-automatic pistol, or even a magnum revolver.

Revolver vs Pistol Debate

The arms market is diverse enough to keep whole genres afloat, and barring a massive shift in weapons technology this isn’t going to change. A cop who is going to spend much of their working life transitioning in and out of a squad car with a full sized gear belt has very different needs from a citizen trying to exercise their right to concealed carry in a hotter climate, and neither of them is going to want the same thing as someone whose main concern is stepping out the door and getting jumped by a polar bear. No one makes a single handgun that will make all three of those hypothetical people happy.

The S333 Thunderstruck, a double-barreled pocket revolver and a modern day volley gun example, as each pull of the trigger simultaneously fires two .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire cartridges.

So the revolver vs pistol debate in many cases comes down to preference and intended use. While the semi-automatic pistol has more or less shoved the revolver out of its place in the sun as the chief sidearm of military and law enforcement, the old wheelgun still has its adherents, and more options for gun enthusiasts is never a bad thing.

Unique and unusual guns carry a fascinating history, and you can subscribe to the weekly Rock Island Auction newsletter to receive new gun blogs and gun videos each week that dive deeper into the stories behind your favorite firearms. From pieces on the evolution of the Colt Gatling gun, the Volcanic pistol, the Colt Paterson and its early revolver predecessors, and the Gyrojet pistol, a 20th-century experiment in self-contained cartridges, we thoroughly explore the history of the gun and the inventors who pushed the boundaries of firearms technology and shaped our world today.

In the 19th century, before the revolver vs pistol debate, the only question was how much sixgun made sense to carry.

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