I’ve been playing with handguns for years, and I’ve enjoyed shooting for far longer, and one of the common comparisons that come up is the choice of revolver vs semi-auto.
While many people might be quick to jump to one conclusion or another, I can assure you there is much more to consider than you realize.
Both revolvers and semi-automatic handguns have their fan loyalty, and each has distinct advantages and disadvantages.
We’re going to dig into those points here, we’ll dissect all of the key differences and compare the specs, ammo, and more to give you all of the valuable information you need to make an educated decision on your next firearm type.
Overview of Revolvers
Timeless Wheelgun Wonder
Revolvers are the quintessential handguns of yore. They have a design that’s been around since the 19th century, and they have a rotating cylinder that commonly holds 5-6 rounds of ammo. They are well-known for their simplicity, reliability, and durability and are still popular to this day for their use in sport shooting and self-defense.
Examples of Revolvers
Overview of Semi-Auto Handguns
Modern Firepower Efficiency
Semi-automatic handguns, usually just called semi-autos, use a self-loading mechanism that automatically chambers a new round after each shot, rather than having the shooter advance the cylinder.
They will generally have higher ammo capacities than revolvers, as well as faster reloading times. Semi-autos are the default choice for military and law enforcement due to their versatility.
Examples of Semi-Automatic Handguns
Specification Chart for Revolver and Semi-Auto
|Ammunition||.38, .357, .44, .45 ACP||9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP|
|Capacity||5-6 rounds||7-17 rounds|
Key Differences Between Revolver and Semi-Auto
One of the biggest differences between revolvers and semi-autos is the ammo capacity.
Generally speaking, most revolvers are limited to just 5 or 6 rounds in the cylinder before they need to be reloaded. Semi-autos, on the other hand, can hold anywhere from 7 to 17 rounds in the magazine, with one more in the chamber. This means semi-autos have the edge where more ammo is needed.
Another advantage that semi-autos have over revolvers is their speed in reloading. Semi-autos have removable magazines, which means they can be reloaded by simply ejecting the empty one and replacing it with a full one, in just a matter of seconds.
Revolvers, however, have a more involved process for reloading. The cylinder must be opened, the spent shells removed, and the new rounds inserted. The new rounds must be inserted one by one unless the shooter has a speedloader.
Shooters that are looking for a reliable firearm should pay close attention here.
Revolvers have far fewer moving parts than semi-autos and are less prone to malfunctions or breakage. This simply means that things like failure-to-feed or failure-to-eject errors are essentially eliminated.
Semi-autos, while reliable, can be at risk for more frequent jams, feed issues, or similar failures if they are not maintained properly.
Size & Weight
Revolvers tend to be heavier and bulkier than semi-autos due to their cylinder design. This has the potential to make them less comfortable for situations where you may carry or concealed carry them for extended periods.
Semi-autos are frequently lighter, slimmer, and more compact, making them more comfortable for extended wearing scenarios. Additionally, the slimmer profile of many semi-autos makes them harder to detect while being worn, while revolvers may be more noticeable.
Revolvers are known for having a much longer, heavier trigger pull, particularly when being used in double-action mode. Without sufficient practice, this can significantly affect accuracy.
Semi-autos will often have lighter, smoother trigger pulls, allowing them to be more precisely controlled.
Additionally, many semi-autos can be disassembled and customized, so if you like a lighter pull, you can install a lighter pull spring, one of the rare benefits of the more complex nature of the semi-autos.
Semi-autos utilize recoil energy to chamber the next round, typically resulting in far less felt recoil. This will often lead to benefits like better accuracy overall, faster follow-up shots, and greater accuracy during rapid-fire situations.
Revolvers transfer more of the recoil energy directly to the shooter’s hand, which can be challenging for some shooters, particularly when shooting larger calibers.
Customization and Accessories
This is one of the differences that semi-auto fans go to first, but we can’t blame them. Semi-autos usually have much more accessibility to options for customization and aftermarket accessories.
Some of the accessories available for semi-autos include lasers, lights, optics, grips, and other modifications.
For revolvers, there are far fewer options, even though many modern revolver manufacturers are adding short rails for attachments like optics and lasers.
To the surprise of many shooters, revolvers offer a wider range of caliber options, including massively-powerful options like the .44 Magnum and the .500 S&W Magnum, which can even be used for bear defense.
Semi-autos, while available in a range of caliber options, tend to focus mostly on the most popular options, like 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP. Some specialty calibers, like 10mm, can be found in semi-automatic, but in most cases, revolvers will offer more diversity in their selection.
For those who prefer firearms with more manual safety devices, semi-autos are likely going to be the best choice.
They frequently come with devices like grip safeties and trigger safeties, which can help many shooters to feel reassured. Revolvers, on the other hand, generally lack those safety features and rely on the design of the gun and the heavier trigger pull to prevent accidental discharges.
Ease of Maintenance
For shooters looking to cut down on the time they spend maintaining their firearms after a day of shooting, revolvers are where it’s at. They are simpler to maintain than semi-autos in just about every way.
They only have a couple of moving parts and don’t need to be disassembled for a basic cleaning. Semi-autos require more attention to maintenance and can be much more complex to take apart and put back together.
Aesthetics and Collectability
Even if you have never shot a revolver, there are probably some that you love the look of. There are nostalgic old long-barreled cowboy revolvers, snub-nosed models that a detective would carry in a hard-boiled crime story, and more futuristic types.
Semi-autos tend to be seen as more utilitarian, even when highly customized.
Training and Learning Curve
For those new to shooting, revolvers can be less intimidating and easier to learn than semi-autos due to the simpler operation. One drawback, however, is that revolvers transfer more recoil energy to the shooter, so they can be more intimidating to fire.
Revolver Pros & Cons
- Simple design
- High reliability
- Time-tested durability
- Limited capacity
- Slower reloads
- Heavier trigger pull
Semi-Auto Pros & Cons
- Higher capacity
- Faster reloading
- Lighter and more compact
- More moving parts
- Potential for malfunctions
- May require more maintenance
Other Alternatives to Consider
In practical terms, there aren’t any viable alternatives if you don’t want a revolver or semi-auto.
Sure, there are Derringers, single-shot pistols, and even bolt-action handguns for niche uses or the true collector, but if you’re looking for something that you can grab ammo for easily and hit the range, it’s semi-auto or wheelgun, that’s it.
Are revolvers more powerful than semi-autos?
Not necessarily. The power of a firearm depends on the caliber of the ammunition. Some revolver calibers, like the .44 Magnum, are incredibly powerful and stronger than many semi-auto rounds. However, there are wildly powerful semi-auto calibers as well, like the 10mm.
Is a revolver a good first gun?
Yes. Revolvers are great choices for a first gun due to their simplicity and reliability. They have fewer moving parts and are easier to maintain than many semi-autos.
Why do police still use revolvers?
In most cases, modern police forces have migrated to semi-autos, but many individual officers still prefer a revolver for their reliability and simplicity. They are an ideal backup for a duty weapon.
When it comes to choosing between a revolver and a semi-auto, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Each firearm type offers unique advantages and specific drawbacks, making them each suitable for a different range of uses and situations.
Be sure you carefully consider your intended use and personal preferences, as well as your level of experience or potential lack of experience, and everything you’ve read here before deciding which handgun is going to be best for you.
If possible, spend a few hours at the range one day trying out several different types of guns, and see if something pulls your trigger. Ultimately, the right choice for you is the one you determine feels right.