More elegant weapons for simpler times? Semi-auto pistols get most of the love and a lot of the ink these days. With their (typically) higher capacity, lighter weight, faster reloads and positively staggering amount of choice in the market it is easy to think that pistols rule and revolvers have seen their day. So, are revolvers outdated, is their usefulness limited? Are the only people who would want one crotchety old men with Wilford Brimley mustaches hopelessly stuck in the 19th century? I don’t believe so.
A revolver still has redeeming qualities, and a philosophy of use that applies in this day and age. Let’s talk revolvers for self defense. Why would a person choose to carry a revolver? It is a fact that adrenaline does really weird things to the body. Vision tunnels, you lose almost all peripheral vision, your heart rate spikes, your hearing goes wonky, but the worst is that your delicate nimble hands turn into seal flippers. Most folks who carry do not train enough, me included. Many families only have one or two people who really know how to use a semi auto. A double action revolver does not require a tap-rack-bang drill for a misfire, it only requires a person to pull the trigger again. It is arguable and anecdotal that a revolver has less issues with loaded long term storage than a pistol. This makes a revolver an excellent back up gun or for home protection where not everyone spends much time with firearms, mostly for their ease of use and perhaps because of the reliability.
Another area that Revolvers excel over semi-autos is for sporting use. This has more to do with ammunition chamberings than a revolver’s innate superiority for hunting. But the fact is there are only a few semi-auto pistol cartridges that are worthy of being purposely used for hunting, and a very few semi-autos capable of firing common hunting cartridges… .45 ACP and 10mm are the two traditionally semi-auto cartridges that spring most readily to mind, although there are others. Revolvers however are more regularly made to handle firepower common in handgun hunting uses. The .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and the truly large calibers are all made to be used in revolvers. For all but the biggest meanest critters it is tough to beat carrying a .357 in the woods.
Speaking of the .357 Magnum, it was the first of the “Magnum” cartridges, designed primarily by the legendary Elmer Keith. Introduced in 1934 as a means of creating a more powerful handgun cartridge for police use than the .38 S&W Special. It is based on that venerable cartridge, but put in a lengthened case to prevent people from blowing up their older, weaker, .38 special revolvers. This creates a neat side effect in that any revolver chambered for .357 will chamber and safely fire a .38 special. The .357 is, without a doubt, the most useful centerfire pistol round. Sure the .44 magnum is way more powerful and if you like to stroll where the bears live you might need one. But a .357 is the best choice for an all purpose revolver round. There is a new kid on the block that is also pretty cool, the .327 Magnum, but it is not as popular or as affordable to shoot. What it does offer is higher capacity in the same size revolver with almost the same power level.
As far as the .44 Remington Magnum (.44 Mag) it was introduced in 1956. It was a further development of the .44 Special also tinkered with by Elmer Keith in a story similar to what he had achieved with the .357. Keith loved high powered firearms, and the higher powered the better. Keith dreamed up the .44 mag to provide more velocity and energy than any other cartridge at the time. Eventually, Smith & Wesson and Remington began commercially producing these custom rounds and producing firearms that were chambered for the cartridge. From that point, the .44 Mag was headed for fame as an American cultural icon forever associated with Dirty Harry Callahan. While there are more powerful handgun cartridges available now, there are limits to what can be comfortably shot and the .44 mag is just barely over that line for most people, leaving the REALLY big cartridges beyond that. Even though the the .44.Mag isn’t still “the most powerful handgun in the world” it still offers extremely high power from a handgun. Like the .357 Mag, the .44 Mag can also be used in carbines and is a great option for hunting purposes where the recoil will be less of a concern. The .44 mag’s relationship to the .44 special is similar to the .357 mag./.38 spcl combination, in fact if you listened to Inspector Callahan, this is what he did, at the range at least. The .44 Mag can accept and propel much heavier grain bullets than the .357 Mag, that said, it is tough to beat the .357.
On to the guns themselves. Revolver terminology is a bit different than Semi auto pistol terminology. There are two basic action styles for revolvers. Single and Double. Think of these as describing what the trigger does when pressed. In a single action the trigger only does one action. It drops the hammer, and the revolver goes bang. The hammer has to be cocked first by hand. This is like every gun you have seen in a Western. In a double action revolver the trigger does two things. Pulling the trigger cocks and then drops the hammer. There is a trade off with this double action design, generally it creates a stiffer longer trigger press. This can be detrimental to accuracy. If the hammer is exposed where you can manipulate it, then you can almost always fire a double action revolver in single action mode by cocking it first with your thumb. The other thing about revolvers is understanding that there are different frame sizes. In Semi-auto pistols we generally think of sub-compact, compact, double stack compact, and then full size. Revolvers come in different frame sizes and different barrel length combinations.
Currently there are three companies that lead the market in modern revolvers: Smith and Wesson (S&W), Ruger, and Taurus; and one legend that has to be mentioned.
Colt – The brand that really made revolvers what they are. Colt is just now starting to produce more than one model of revolver again. But, by reputation, Colt has produced some of the finest revolvers made. The Colt Single Action Army (SAA) chambered in .45 Colt is the granddaddy of all modern revolvers. The .45 colt can still get it done, especially with handloads. The Colt Python (.357 Magnum) is widely regarded as the finest revolver ever made, and that is the real reason they are in the list. Colt re-released the Colt Cobra in 2017. The cobra is a short barreled double action 6 shot .38 special revolver suitable for self defense and concealed carry. You may desire a Python or an Anaconda (.44 Magnum), they are available used and they are at Rolls Royce pricing. You may run across a Colt Trooper model used, and if in good shape, might be a great buy.
S&W- was right there in the beginning with Colt. Due to business philosophy (starting in the 60’s Colt focused on Military contracts while S&W focused on Law enforcement and civilian sales) S&W revolvers have become much more common and available. S&W makes exceptionally nice revolvers. The most common varieties for home and self defense would be model 37 (J Frame) and its’ variants in .38 special , and the model 686 (L Frame) and its’ variants in .357 Magnum. The 686 probably rivals the Python in quality (sacrilege! blasphemy!) and is much easier to own. The snub nose .38 S&W is still very very popular as a concealed carry handgun, and the S&W version is the one most copied by other manufacturers. In your minds eye, if you picture a snubby .38 revolver, what you see is probably a S&W J frame.
Ruger – Bill Ruger liked to overbuild things and Ruger has always been known for rugged firearms. I have to admit I like rugged reliability. Ruger also has a bit of a reputation for not being quite as …refined…as the S&W and Colt offerings. Perhaps a good analogy is S&W might be a fine German sports sedan and the Ruger is more akin to a Ford Mustang. Both are very fast, both are pleasurable to drive, but one is more luxurious, while the other is probably less expensive and more durable while still being very nice. The current Ruger offerings are the SP101 which is the all steel compact revolver; the LCR which is the modern steel and polymer carry revolver, and the GP100 which is the larger framed option. If you do a little looking you can buy an excellent used Ruger Security Six which splits the difference in size and weight between the SP101 and the GP100 revolvers. The Security Six has a loyal dedicated following, but it has been discontinued for a number of years. The rumored reason for this is although the GP100 is a bit bigger, it is also cheaper to build than the Security Six and therefore a better business decision for Ruger. Ruger also makes excellent hunting revolvers primarily the Redhawk (D.A.) and Blackhawk (S.A.).
Taurus – a Brazilian manufacturer of a wide variety of firearms. They have a bit of a deserved and also undeserved reputation. The internet tends to amplify issues and polarize opinions. The fact is, Taurus revolvers are less expensive than a S&W for instance, and they are imported guns. Those two facts alone will cause a certain person to think that the lower cost and imported nature means lower quality by itself. It is true Taurus has had quality issues at times in the past. Taurus also has made some really good firearms. I believe that today, Taurus makes an affordable, reasonable quality firearm. Some of their previous designs are rather closely inspired by S&W, like identical cousins similar. Use a bit of caution when buying used, but do not be unduly concerned.
Revolvers make great self defense weapons. The S&W J frames are fantastic wheel guns. And now with the integrated Crimson Trace Laser options, they are hard to beat.