Gun Digest

A Case For The Defensive Big-Bore Revolver

There was a time when only big-bore revolvers were carried for defense. Are times so different now?

In this, the 21st century, when the whole world seems enamored with the 9mm pistol, it can be difficult to remember that for a long time the world was made safe by means of big-bore revolvers.

While the author wouldn’t pick a single-action revolver first, if that’s all you’ve got, a pair of them would serve you well. A hunting big-bore revolver also serves well, just don’t feed it the hunting ammo.
While the author wouldn’t pick a single-action revolver first, if that’s all you’ve got, a pair of them would serve you well. A hunting big-bore revolver also serves well, just don’t feed it the hunting ammo.

Granted, a lot of that was done by the Colt single action when it was the sine qua non of defensive tools. I’m not saying you should go back to a brace of Colts as your defensive armory (although you wouldn’t be unarmed, were that your only option), but the big-bore double-action revolver has a lot going for it.

Are Big-Bore Revolvers Good For Self-Defense?

Case in point, my Smith & Wesson 625. The 625 is the S&W N frame in .45 ACP. It’s made of stainless steel and has a barrel with a full-length underlug so there’s mass to counter recoil. They came with your choice of 3-, 4- or 5-inch barrels. As a .45 ACP revolver, you use moon clips, half-moon or full-moons, which are simple steel clips that hold three or six rounds in an assembly. The whole assembly goes in and, once used, it all comes out.

As a double-action revolver, you can shoot by thumb-cocking it or simply trigger-stroking it. Built on the N frame—the .44 Magnum frame—the potential of the revolver is such that you could, should you wished, load it up with hotter-than-normal .45 ACP ammo, but what’s the point? If the problem facing you (perhaps literally) can’t be solved with a 230-grain JHP heading out at some 900 fps, then you have bigger problems than “do I have enough velocity?”

The author’s S&W 625, a prize gun and a prized gun.

With adjustable sights, you can tame the 625 by loading your own practice ammo, booting 185-grain plated or coated bullets at some 700 to 800 fps, and build up to the +P equivalents you’d use for defense. In my particular model, it came with a round-butt grip and a 4-inch barrel, so I used it with round-butt rubber grips for competition and daily carry. Moon clips are inexpensive. A quick check turns up an eight-pack of them from Uniquetek for $5.95.

The 625 and others like it were used extensively in USPSA, IPSC, IDPA and bowling pin competition. One big advantage was that even in “lost brass” matches (you weren’t allowed to pick up your empties), we’d get our empty brass back. The empties were still clipped into the moon clip, and no one was going to leave those behind.

This was a cause for some minor concern when I shot in the IPSC World Shoot in Rhodes in 2011. Not only was it a lost-brass match, but the law in Greece prohibited reloading ammo, and empty brass was to be scrounged up by the range and turned over to the police. Well, us revolver shooters weren’t going to abandon our moon clips. Each night we’d take the empties out and refill the clips. By the end of a 35-stage match, we each had 500 to 700 empties. What to do? Hand them off to one or another range officer, who quickly made them disappear.

Weapons Lights And Big-Bore Revolvers

One detail of the big-bore revolver for defense is that most of them have no provision for using a light. With the exception of the S&W M&P R8 or the TRR8, there’s no bolting a light to the wheelgun. So you’ll have to practice your light and handgun technique, such as the Harries technique. That isn’t a big deal, as we’re discussing home defense here and you’re not going to be conducting a house-clearing exercise. You’re going to get safely down behind the bed, with 911 on the phone, and cover the door to the bedroom. Or some similar situation. There, light management is an entirely different procedure than handling a light and a revolver.

Competition is a good way to learn skills and get comfortable with your big-bore wheelgun. You don’t have to take it all the way to the world championships, but if you do, you’ll have fun.

Ensuring A Smooth Running Defensive Revolver

One detail to be aware of when using a revolver is primer clearance. It was customary back when revolvers were common to load the cylinder and close it. Then, thumb back the hammer just enough to unlock the cylinder and give it a spin. This checked and ensured all rounds would clear the recoil shield. With moon clips, you have to test them all once they’re loaded.

On my competition revolvers, where the spur had been removed, I simply used a length of tape to hold the cylinder lock down. Then, I could spin the cylinder to test, not pulling the hammer back, and removing the tape once I was done. The checked moon clips would get stacked in the range bag, ready for the next day’s competition. You can do the same with yours for defensive use. Check your ammo or moon clips; then, keep the checked ammo next to the revolver wherever you keep it each day. When you settle in for the night, deploy the wheelgun and its ammo, secure in the knowledge it’ll all work.

Big-Bore Revolver's Terminal Advantage

What does a big-bore revolver get you, something like the 625? Horsepower. As in, displacement, like an engine. You can do a lot with a V-8 that’s loafing along in low rpm that’d take a smaller engine spinning a lot faster to do. As I mentioned, a 230 JHP, even at a relatively sedate 825 fps, is going to do an exemplary job. If you halve the weight, you’d have to greatly increase the velocity to do the same.

The speedloader, here an HKS, is the best way to get more ammo into a revolver that doesn’t use moon clips.

And yes, 9mm Parabellum, I’m looking at you. A lot of 9mm, loaded with a 115 JHP (exactly half the weight of our .45), is going to be hard-pressed to break 1,200 fps. So that’s the trade-off for more ammo: less horsepower. And the radically increased muzzle blast of a 9mm or 9mm+P, compared to the big-bore thumper. “But, 9mm pistols can be shot faster.” Yes, but while speed is good, hits are final and speedy hitting with a revolver has never been a problem. You just practice. And with a revolver, you can even dry-fire double action and get even faster.

Big-Bore Revolver Capacity And Reloading

One drawback we have to address is capacity: Wheelguns only have six rounds. But reloading can be fast, if you practice. And you should practice with dummy rounds. Long winter nights are conducive to speedy reloading skills.

Reloading the .45 ACP 625 is the fastest any revolver will ever be. If you have any doubts about how fast it can be done, simply look up my friend Jerry Miculek. Yes, he’s a wizard, but a competent full moon clip reload can be done as fast as or faster than the average high-capacity 9mm magazine exchange.

Some of your options in big bores, left to right: .44 Special, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum and .45 ACP. Avoid the hunting loads and
you’ll be fine.

The .45 ACP is the paragon on reloading speed, but you don’t have to limit yourself to the .45 ACP. Speedloaders, like the HKS, let you get six more thumpers into your wheelgun quickly. So, anything above .357 Magnum becomes a viable choice. That means 10mm (which also uses full moon clips) .44 Special, .44 Magnum and .45 Colt.

Oh, and the 10mm revolver, if it uses full moon clips, also lets you use .40 S&W ammo in moon clips. Not that you have to go out and hunt one down, but if you already have a big-bore revolver, you need not sell it in order to finance the same polymer-framed 9mm everyone else has. You already have a tool suitable for defense. And ammo? Ammo companies make defensive ammo for all of those calibers. You don’t need max-pressure heavyweight hunting ammo, and when you can find ammo again, you’ll be able to get the less-obnoxious defensive loads for your big bore. If you have a .44 Magnum, a .44 Special load using 200-grain JHPs like the one from Sig would be an excellent choice.


My 625 is special to me. It was on the prize table at Second Chance, and I was the first guy “out of the guns” in the prize order. We were called up in order to pick what we wanted. I watched the shooter ahead of me walk up and paw through the prizes, until he finally picked something—not a gun—and walk off. When my name was called, I walked up, pawed through the gear, found the gun and took it to registry as my prize.

Jess Christiansen, reloading his wheelgun against the clock at The Pin Shoot. Reloading quickly in competition will train you to reload quickly in a self-defense situation … were it really matters.

The next morning, with the match over, I recounted the tale over breakfast at a restaurant in Central Lake. From the next booth over, a shooter piped up, “That was me. I couldn’t find it in all the other prizes.” We all had a good laugh. Outside, after we finished eating, one of the new shooters asked why I hadn’t offered the gun to the other shooter. One of the other old hands explained some of the customs and social niceties of pin shooting: “Because of the 30-second rule. He’d had his time to find what he wanted or settle for what he could find. If he wanted the gun now, he had to ask. If Pat had offered it to him, he’d be announcing to the restaurant that the other guy couldn’t find a gun inside the prize table. That would have been an insult.”

After winning that gun, I took it back to the pin shoot to compete and win more loot. I also used it as a daily carry gun. Loot, memories and an eminently suitable defensive tool. Some guns are more than just hunks of steel.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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