Revolvers and semi-automatic pistols are among the most popular types of handguns in use today. Both originated in the 19th century — although revolver-type firearms have existed since the 16th century — and have undergone considerable development. Understanding the differences between them can help you determine what type of weapon you need for your purposes.
The revolver is a handgun that typically has a single barrel and a rotating cylinder containing multiple firing chambers. By cocking the hammer or pressing the trigger, the revolver mechanism indexes the cylinder, rotating it one position. This aligns the topmost chamber — i.e., at the 12-o’clock position — with the barrel.
How to Operate a Revolver
Most revolvers fall into one of three action types:
Single action only (SAO)
In a single-action-only revolver (commonly referred to as just a “single action revolver”), such as the Colt Single Action Army, the trigger performs one action — it releases the hammer. To index the cylinder and fire the gun, you have to manually cock the hammer with your thumb. The reloading process for a weapon of this type typically consists of unloading the cylinder manually by placing the hammer on half-cock and rotating the cylinder by hand, aligning each chamber with the ejector rod, and unloading the chambers one cartridge at a time.
Double action/single action (DA/SA)
In a double-action/single-action revolver (commonly referred to as simply double action revolvers), you can either fire the gun single action by first cocking the hammer or double action by pressing the trigger. In double-action mode, the trigger pull is necessarily longer and heavier, as it must perform two actions, compressing the mainspring. In single-action mode, the trigger pull is shorter and lighter, allowing for a more precise shot.
Double action only (DAO)
In a double-action-only revolver (also commonly referred to as simply “dual action revolvers”), there is no provision for single-action operation. The hammer may be shrouded or concealed inside the frame. The lack of an exposed hammer spur reduces the number of surfaces that could snag on clothing when concealed carrying. DAO is common in snub-nosed revolvers designed for concealed carry.
In a modern revolver, you load and unload the cylinder by activating the cylinder latch to unlock the cylinder from the frame. You then swing the cylinder out to the side, exposing the chambers. Depending on the manufacturer, the cylinder latch may move in different ways. In Colt revolvers, for example, you slide the cylinder latch to the rear. In Smith & Wesson and Taurus revolvers, you slide the latch forward. In Ruger revolvers, the cylinder latch is a button that you depress.
The Semi-Automatic Pistol
A semi-automatic or self-loading pistol (commonly referred to as simply “pistol”) is a single-barreled handheld firearm fed from an integral or detachable magazine. The main difference between revolvers vs pistols is the way the next round is loaded. Pistols have fixed chambers, while revolvers have chambers that rotate in a cylinder. Pistols use a reciprocating slide that serves as the bolt, sealing the breech on ignition. Unlike revolvers, pistols use the bolt thrust or gas pressure generated by the fired cartridge to perform the cycle of operation.
How to Operate a Semi-Automatic Pistol
The same trigger mechanisms apply to many semi-automatic pistols. However, unlike revolvers, which are fired using a hammer, pistols may use either a hammer or striker mechanism to initiate primer ignition.
Feeding Systems — Clips or Magazines?
The Small Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI) defines a magazine as “[a] receptacle for a firearm that holds a plurality of cartridges or shells under spring pressure preparatory for feeding into the chamber.” Semi-automatic pistols are usually fed from detachable box magazines, which hold cartridges in a single or double feeding column. By staggering the feeding column, the manufacturer can increase the capacity while also reducing the length.
A clip (commonly referred to as “stripper clips”), in contrast, holds cartridges in sequence for rapid insertion into a magazine. In summary, clips feed magazines and magazines feed firearms. A clip does not contain a feeding spring. Clips are rarely used in semi-automatic pistols but have been used to reload rifles and rifle magazines for more than a century.
Revolvers, however, can use half and full-moon clips. These can serve the same purpose as speedloaders, allowing you to insert three or six cartridges at a time. If your revolver is chambered in a rimless cartridge, such as 9mm or .45 ACP, the moon clip acts as a substitute revolver rim for the extractor star to press again, snapping into the cartridge’s extractor groove.
Revolver vs Pistol
Both revolvers and pistols have their advantages and disadvantages.
Revolvers are prized for their mechanical reliability and simplicity of use. As the revolver is not dependent on the ammunition to index the cylinder and fire, it can fire various ammunition types, ranging from low-pressure target loads to full-power combat loads. In addition, because the bullet doesn’t have to climb a feeding ramp to enter the chamber, revolvers are not limited regarding bullet shape. Pistols, on the other hand, are often capable of holding much more ammo and facilitating much faster reloading with their detachable magazines.
A misfire in a semi-automatic pistol often requires retracting the slide to extract and eject the defective cartridge, especially as modern combat handguns typically lack second-strike capability. In a DAO or DA/SA revolver, you can simply press the trigger a second time to index the cylinder and fire the successive cartridge.
Most semi-automatic pistols designed for combat or self-defense use a type of short recoil operation in which the barrel reciprocates. If you press the muzzle against an assailant to perform a contact shot, there is a risk that the weapon will be taken out of battery, rendering it inoperable. Most revolvers have fixed barrels pinned to the frame, eliminating this risk. Furthermore, another benefit of the fixed barrel is that revolvers are inherently more accurate than many pistols.
In the revolver vs pistol debate, the primary advantage of the pistol is capacity. Most revolvers have a cartridge capacity of between five and seven rounds. Some wheelguns have cylinders holding eight or nine rounds, but these are comparatively uncommon. Semi-automatic pistols, however, hold anywhere between six rounds (in subcompact handguns designed for concealed carry) and more than 20 in large-framed hand guns.
Although a skilled combat revolver shooter can reload a revolver rapidly, the reloading process requires aligning the speedloader with the cartridge chambers, rotating the release mechanism, and closing the cylinder. Depending on the type of ammunition that you’re using, this can require more dexterity than inserting a box magazine into the frame of a pistol and either depressing the slide stop or retracting the slide with your support hand.
Best Home Defense Pistol
The best home-defense pistol need not be an ultra-compact weapon. The Glock 43, SIG Sauer P365, and Springfield Armory Hellcat are reliable, ergonomic, and effective firearms for concealed carry. However, for a home-defense weapon, a larger and heavier handgun becomes more viable, increasing magazine capacity and controllability.
The polymer-framed, striker-fired Glock 17 and compact Glock 19 — or equivalent models in .357 SIG, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and 10mm Auto — are a good place to start. The Glock series of firearms took the shooting world by storm due to the company’s reputation for reliability, durability, and simplicity at an affordable price.
The HK VP9 and FN 509 are two modern, modular combat handguns and direct competitors to the Glock series. Polymer-framed and striker-fired, these handguns have replaceable grip panels and backstraps to allow you to customize the grip to suit your preferences.
If you’re more old school, several companies manufacture M1911-pattern handguns in a variety of configurations.
Best Revolver for Home Defense
Many American gun owners purchase a snub-nosed revolver for home defense. Optimal for concealed carry, these revolvers typically hold five or six rounds of ammunition. While lightweight and highly concealable, snub-nosed revolvers also provide less gripping surface and generate more recoil, all else being equal, resulting in a less controllable firearm. In addition, the short barrel may not allow the ammunition to achieve sufficient velocity to meet the expansion threshold of defensive loads.
In a home-defense context, a full-size revolver with a 4–6” barrel is preferable. This type of revolver provides additional gripping surface and weight, minimizing felt recoil. Ideally, the revolver that you select for self-defense should be capable of handling +P loads.
The Ruger GP100 is a stainless-steel or blued alloy-steel revolver chambered in .357 Magnum — among other calibers — and one of the best revolvers for home defense. Using a 6- or 7-round cylinder, depending on the variant, this revolver is a reliable, ruggedly constructed workhorse. Equipped with a 4.2–6” barrel, the GP100 weighs 40–45 oz. — more than enough to manage the recoil of full-power .357 Magnum loads. If you decide to load the GP100 with .38 Special cartridges, whether for target shooting or practical purposes, the revolver is even more controllable.
Most revolvers use rimmed cartridges. A rimmed cartridge has a rim or extractor flange that exceeds the diameter of the base. The purpose of the rim is twofold: 1) it provides the extractor star with a surface to impinge against for unloading; 2) it acts as the headspacing point. Some of the most common revolver calibers include the following:
- .38 Special
- .357 Magnum
- .44 Special
- .44 Magnum
- .45 Colt
Pistol cartridges tend to be rimless or semi-rimmed, allowing for reliable cycling and feeding from detachable box magazines. Some of the most common semi-auto pistol calibers are the following:
- .380 ACP
- .40 S&W
- .45 ACP
When you’re searching for a suitable handgun for home defense, concealed carry, or competition shooting, the sheer volume of choices can be overwhelming. What shouldn’t be difficult to choose is a holster. At We the People Holsters, we manufacture high-quality holsters for a wide variety of handguns, ensuring that you always have the proper fit and feel for any situation.