T HE REVOLVER WAS the preeminent handgun for well over a hundred years, but in the late-1980s or early ‘90s, the semi-auto caught up and then passed the revolver as the most likely to succeed.
There were many reasons for the transcendence of the semi-auto. I suppose the most important was the fact that the manufacturers finally figured out how to make an auto that was trustworthy enough to satisfy police officers when used with expanding ammunition.
Up until then the vast majority of semi-autos on the market were dependable only with hardball bullets, which were not all that good for self-defense purposes.
Second was probably the introduction of factory ammunition that really performed as it was supposed to; that is, soft-points and hollow-points, such as the “flying ashtray,” that really did expand at handgun velocities. Last, I think, was that our economy finally reached a point where the average shooter could afford to buy factory ammunition instead of having to cast his own bullets and load his own ammo. There are probably many other factors that could be included, but those are the most prominent.
Now I will be the first to admit that I generally carry a semi-auto for self-defense. However, there are many other uses for a handgun. I think ruling out the revolver just because it doesn’t carry a large supply of ammunition is a mistake.
Many people who are now carrying semi-autos would be better served with a revolver. I still on occasion carry a 2½-inch Model 19 Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, or a little Model 36 Chief’s Special with a bobbed hammer.
When I first began shooting handguns, revolvers firing cast bullets were the sine qua non of hand gunning. I scrounged brass, cast bullets by the thousands from reclaimed wheel weights, and loaded my ammo on an old single-stage RCBS Jr. press.
I spent much more time casting and reloading than I did shooting. But by doing this I learned a lot about what made a handgun tick, and I learned the most important rules of hand gunning—sight alignment and trigger control. This means you simply cannot yank the shot off as the sights wobble by the target. You must hold a good sight picture and squeeze the trigger until Roscoe fires.
Instead of spraying bullets from a semi-auto with a magazine holding 15 or more rounds, I carefully fired my six, checked the target, and fired six more, trying to keep my groups as tight as possible, because I knew that if I really needed that handgun, those six rounds were probably all I would have to settle the problem.
If I fired six rounds and couldn’t cover them all with my hand at 25 yards, I knew I had done something wrong. At closer ranges my wad cutters usually just left a ragged hole in the X-ring.
In those days I was an active member of the Uvalde Gun Club. The club held several types of handgun matches, and I participated in all of them, National Match bulls eye, combat, and registered International Handgun Metallic Silhouette Association (IHMSA) matches were held monthly. The IHMSA matches were fired at steel silhouettes of chickens, javelinas, turkeys, and rams at ranges of 50, 100, 150 and 200 meters. These matches were all fired with open sights.
My gun for the IHMSA matches was a Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum with an 8 3/8-inch barrel. At first I shot 240-grain jacketed bullets. Eventually, I found that 250-grain cast bullets of the Keith-type were just as accurate and tended to knock over the targets better than the jacketed bullets.
I had practiced until I knew just exactly how many clicks of elevation I needed to make for each series of shots. Sadly, I do not now remember what the adjustments were. What I do remember is that it was surprising how often you could knock over a steel ram at 200 meters with a handgun. The hardest targets were the turkeys at 150 meters.
This was something that no commonly available semi-auto could do. After some practice I could hit the pigs at 100 meters with a .45 automatic, but beyond that range it was pretty much hopeless. This, I think, demonstrates the advantages and disadvantages of both types of handguns. The .45 auto is a wonderful gun for self-defense, but the long-barreled revolver is a very poor choice for that use. A powerful revolver is, however, much superior to the .45 auto for IHMSA or for hunting, and a short-barreled revolver is still a fine choice for self-defense.
As for cast bullets, they are great for use in revolvers, but perform poorly in some automatics. I still cast most of my own bullets for use in revolvers, but do not use them in autos. The reason is manifold, but mostly because a revolver will fire almost any ammunition you can cram in the chambers, although a semi-auto requires perfect ammunition or it will fail to function. Some autos, particularly Glocks, will be damaged by the use of lead bullets. The reason for this is, I understand, the type of rifling used in the autos.
As far as which is better, the answer is, neither. Both are very good. A high quality revolver is a bit more reliable than a semi-auto and is easier to clear if a misfire occurs. However, most semi-autos are easier to conceal than a revolver of equal barrel length and generally hold more ammo. For concealed carry or for a uniformed officer, the semi-auto is probably a better choice, for most other uses the revolver is at least as good as an auto and probably better. In the end it is, as my granddad used to say, “whatever trips your trigger.”
Email Steve LaMascus at [email protected]