The semi-automatic has the following features going for it as a concealed weapon: flatness, greater number of rounds between reloadings, faster reloading (when spare loaded magazines are available to hand), the potential for better accuracy in average hands (although that point is more or less moot at average man on man confrontation distances) and enhanced reliability when neglected or subjected to dirt.
The revolver has the following features going for it as a concealed weapon: less ammunition sensitivity, simplicity of operation and less physical strength required from the operator.
Looking first at the revolver, although double action revolvers are more complicated, watch-like mechanisms in their operation, nothing else is usually required – assuming the gun is loaded, which is simpler than loading an automatic – than to point the weapon and pull the trigger.
Certainly, most double action revolvers can be manually cocked and, if not fired, the hammer must be lowered. But, if the operator is taught to use the weapon properly in the defensive context, most of the time the weapon will – hopefully – never be manually cocked unless at the target range. So, to make the gun go bang, the cylinder is swung out, cartridges are loaded into the cylinder (they can only be loaded bullet end first) and it’s usually pretty obvious if a cartridge is too big, small, long or short for the cylinder’s charging holes.
The cylinder is closed (even flicking the cylinder closed, a potentially damaging practice in which some movie private eyes of old were wont to indulge, would have to be done a lot in order to render the revolver inoperable) and the gun is pointed and the double action trigger is pulled.
If the operator changes his or her mind while squeezing (more like pulling) the trigger, easing trigger pressure will let the hammer down with insufficient force to ignite the primer; and, anyway, hopefully the revolver was originally pointed at something or someone that needed to be shot. When the gun has been fired five or six (or more, these days) times, it will click, just like in the movies, but no bullets will come out and there will be no noise other than the click. Our inexperienced operator realizes that the weapon is empty and elects to reload or leave the gun empty.
The double action revolver is simple.
No great level of physical strength is required – especially hand strength. If the operator has trouble with recoil from something as mild as a standard velocity .38 Special or a .32 S&W Long, .22 Magnum revolvers exist. Even a .22 Long Rifle double action revolver can serve, when needed. So perceived recoil becomes a non-issue, one way or the other.
As long as the operator can lift the double action revolver into a firing position, even an extremely weak person who could not successfully complete a double action pull can, out of necessity, cock the hammer of the typical double action revolver and exert the miniscule amount of finger pressure required to pull the single action trigger and fire a defensive shot. In short, double action revolvers are a no-brainer to operate and can be successfully manipulated by almost anyone, regardless of sex, age or physical health. And, under normal circumstances, they are ridiculously dependable, despite their greater degree of mechanical complexity.
Whenever I am asked, for example, what sort of weapon I would recommend for a woman (not someone sufficiently experienced or knowledgeable to select her own firearm), I always suggest a S&W two-inch J-frame .38 Special (not .357 Magnum) with a steel frame. The 640 in .38 Special (which means finding one on the used gun market) is, unequivocally, the very best choice of all. After that, any good S&W or Taurus would be an excellent choice.
Although I carry semi-autos almost exclusively, I keep a .38 Special Model 640 with Crimson Trace LaserGrips handy at all times when I am at home (and I work from home). I acquired one of these for our daughter as her 21st birthday present and got one for Sharon, as well. Both of their revolvers have Crimson Trace LaserGrips, as an aftermarket accesssory. One of the most well-known semi-automatic pistol designers in the United States keeps a Crimson Trace LaserGripped two-inch J-frame .38 as his bedside handgun.
First among the semi-automatic’s attributes is flatness. Even my pet Model 640 S&W is five-rounds chubby at the midsection – its cylinder. With five rounds, it is almost identical in thickness – side to side width – to a .45 auto matic. A gun like a Walther PP series auto is thinner still. Not only thinness, but size overall is a consideration when discussing the relative virtues of revolvers versus automatics.
Everyone who follows my writings, whether magazine articles or Sharon’s and my novels, knows I’m a fan of the Detonics CombatMaster. The basic S&W two-inch J-frame, regardless of model, is about the same length and thickness as the CombatMaster, which is a .45 capable of six rounds in the magazine and one round in the chamber (I only carry 5+1, stripping the top round from the magazine into the chamber), as compared to five rounds in the cylinder.
Those rounds – in my CombatMaster – are 230-grain Federal Hydra-Shoks, as opposed to five 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter .38 Special +Ps. I would not volunteer to be shot with either, and the .45s will not realize their full potential out of a three and one-half-inch barrel. Suffice it to say, you can pack more into a semi-automatic, when it comes to size, than you can in a revolver.
There is a greater number of rounds between reloadings, even despite the flatness issue. Most knowledgeable handgunners would concede that, although somewhat an apples-to-oranges comparison, a .380 ACP is a close equivalent to the better standard velocity .38 Special rounds. Let’s take two of my favorite handguns, my S&W Model 640 .38 Special and my Walther PP .32 ACP. But let’s say the Walther is a .380, instead. In that chambering, the PP (or PPK/S) holds seven .380s in the magazine and one in the chamber. The S&W still only holds five.
Well, say I get into it hot and heavy with an arch-enemy or two and I burn through the five rounds in my 640. I have to open the cylinder, hit the ejector rod (with the revolver oriented properly for the empty cases to fall out), use a speedloader or manually load one or two charging holes at a time, close that cylinder and resume firing as needed. In an alternate universe, I blow my eight rounds of .380 from the Walther PP. In the properly functioning pistol and magazine combination, the slide remains open after the last shot has been fired and the last piece of empty brass is ejected.
If I have a typical PP-series weapon, it has a push button magazine release (rather than heel-of-the-butt as some comparative few runs of the Walthers had). I hit that button with my thumb and the empty magazine falls clear (if it were a Glock, the magazine might have to be withdrawn after partially ejecting, but I’d have lots more rounds). Assuming that I have a spare magazine previously loaded, I ram that new magazine up the butt of the weapon, draw the slide back just a tad and let it go. The slide strips the first round from the magazine and I’m ready to continue shooting for another seven rounds, with a nice, smooth, single action pull for the first and subsequent shots, I might add. If I don’t have a spare, previously loaded magazine, reloading is much slower than with a revolver.
When we turn to a more modern weapon than a Walther PP series pistol, we can have far greater firepower between reloadings. The Glock 26, for example, a 9mm Parabellum caliber pistol somewhat fatter than the Walther, but more or less the same size otherwise, holds ten rounds in its magazine, exactly twice the capacity of the J-Frame S&W, eleven rounds when carried with one round in the chamber and a full magazine. For a greater number of rounds between reloadings and faster reloadings, the semi-automatic is the obvious winner.
What about accuracy? Many people will say that, because of the grip shape of the typical semi-automatic, and in some cases the grip angle (the Luger, the Glock, etc.), semi-autos are more natural feeling in the hand and, because of this, point more naturally at the intended target than do revolvers. More to the point, though, is the fact that pinpoint accuracy – the sort of thing high-end target semi-auto pistols can produce with low-recoil-impulse target ammunition – is not important in the context of concealed carry. Certainly, it’s always good to strive for accuracy, but any quality handgun in proper working order, whether revolver or semi-automatic, is capable of better accuracy than the typical human being can achieve with it.
Defensive shooting from concealment can take place at contact distance and, despite those who claim one must always – ALWAYS – look across the sights when shooting, in self-defense scenarios there just sometimes isn’t the time or the distance. The wise concealed weapons carrier will learn the skills needed for hip level point shooting at seriously close range.
I am no terrific marksman and have never claimed otherwise. That said, what has always seemed practical to me has been this: Be prepared to shoot from the instant the weapon has cleared the holster and all the while you are raising the gun to eye level and firmly seating it with the support hand.
The typical semi-auto is more of an enclosed system than the revolver. Because of that, it is more forgiving of the dirt and debris associated with everyday use. But, again, we’re not debating the merits of revolvers versus semi-autos under prolonged battle conditions in a harsh climate. If we were, there would be no contest; the revolver would lose because it has more moving parts and is, typically, less robust. We are, instead, considering what to carry under our clothes for use in an emergency.
The real concern with a semi-automatic is reliability. In years gone by, there was great worry over magazine spring failure. Then, as now, if the spring is properly heat treated, the magazine could well be loaded for years without the spring taking a set (i.e., failing to spring back) and no longer functioning. This assumes, however, quality magazines.
If you fit your weapon with cheap magazines of questionable construction, you should not be surprised when the magazine fails. Some of the things that can happen, besides the spring taking a set, include the follower getting jammed on a rough spot in the body or on the follower itself, the magazine becoming compressed on the sides and jamming the follower, the follower nose diving because the magazine spring has the wrong tension, etc. With original equipment magazines or aftermarket magazines from purveyors of high quality components, encountering such difficulties should be rare, indeed.
When you first get a magazine, take a dowel rod or unsharpened pencil and depress the follower fully, letting it rise, then repeating the procedure several times. If the follower doesn’t stick, you’re probably okay. But, of course, the ultimate test is to shoot your weapon and observe how the magazine performs. If all goes smoothly and you take decent care of your magazines, even cleaning them periodically, you shouldn’t experience any difficulties.
Indeed, the ultimate reliability issue with a semi-automatic pistol concerns ammunition. Revolvers will generally function with any ammunition of the appropriate caliber. It is difficult to make them jam. Assuming no harsh field conditions, either an extremely heavy amount of powder residue is needed on the cylinder base pin – heavier than I’ve ever seen – or the primers were not seated deeply enough and they block cylinder rotation. This I have seen, but with hand loaded ammunition.
Semi-automatics, on the other hand, can be very sensitive when it comes to ammunition. A different bullet shape may alter feeding characteristics or a different powder charge may slow down or speed up the slide, thus producing anything from a “stovepipe” on the way out to a feeding jam on the way in. It is important that the ammunition which will be in the weapon when it is carried is the ammunition with which you do at least some of your practice. If, let’s say, you can get some really inexpensive ammo and you want to burn it up for practice, fine.
Just make certain that you have run enough ammo through your semi-auto of the type that will be carried on the street. The popular wisdom – and I wouldn’t dispute it – is that a minimum of two hundred failure-free rounds should be put through the weapon before carrying the weapon for defense.
In brief, if you are a gun knowledgeable person of satisfactory adult strength, either a revolver or a semi-auto will get you through.
The final question is, however, which type is more easily concealed? Because the semi-auto is flatter and the grip doesn’t flare outward, the semi-auto wins over all revolvers except the five-shot snubby .38. Full size revolvers are rarely concealed at waist level, these days; if carried concealed at all, they are more likely going to be worn in a diagonal shoulder holster. Full-size semi-autos, on the other hand, are worn concealed at waist level by droves of concealed weapons carriers.
Earlier in this chapter, we compared the two-inch J-frame with five shots to the Detonics CombatMaster with six or seven rounds. Comparing my old six-shooter version of the Smith & Wesson Model 686 .357 Magnum to a full-size 1911 with seven round magazine plus one in the chamber, we see that both handguns are a nominal 8.75 inches long, the 686 revolver 5 inches in height while the 1911 runs about 5.25 inches. The 686, measured at the cylinder (the widest part of the revolver), goes 1.5 inches. The 1911, measured at the ejection port, is under 7/8 of an inch wide. The 686’s barrel is only 4 inches long and the 1911’s barrel is 5 inches in length.
I like a good revolver as much as the next guy – and maybe more. But in a package not much over half as wide as a revolver, I can have two more rounds, reload lots faster and still have an extra inch of barrel for enhanced cartridge performance and accuracy, all while being able to hide the gun on body more easily and more comfortably. If I shift to the slightly fatter large capacity semi-auto, regardless of manufacturer, I can have twice as many rounds as even the more modern seven-shooter revolvers.
If I were to compare capacities between a six-shot revolver loaded with light .357s or moderate .38 Specials and an ordinary Glock 17 9mm with the best possible ammo choice, the Glock would have three times the capacity and, depending on loads chosen, not identical but comparable useful oomph on the target. The facts speak for themselves.
This article is an excerpt from the book Armed for Personal Defense.