Gun Digest

Handguns: The Modern-Day Revolver

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In a time of semi-auto dominance, revolvers — and the cartridges they shoot — are far from irrelevant.

In 1994 I was hired as a patrol officer. On my first day, the department firearms instructor took me to the range to qualify. The gun in my holster was a Smith & Wesson Model 686 .357 Magnum with a 4-inch barrel. I left for the police academy about 6 months later with that same revolver. I was one of the only cadets with a revolver and still managed to be top gun. The moral of this story is that the revolver is still a viable self-defense option.

Of course you would not know that by reading today’s gun magazines; they’re all about the semi-automatic for personal protection. Admittedly, semi-automatics do have advantages. They can have a higher capacity, can be purchased at a cheaper price, and when compared to revolvers of the same size, weigh less.

Of course, there are good things about revolvers, too. They’re less prone to stoppages and simpler to operate. Revolvers can also harness more power than semi-autos of comparable size.

The big thing is, the revolver does not appeal to the cool kids. Tactard trainers and the gun gurus on the Internet shun them because they lack the capacity to deal with a zombie horde or a hundred charging jihadists. The new millennium gun guy is also enamored with plastic. In reality, however, most self-defense situations are solved with very few shots and, in case you’ve not been paying attention, plastic revolvers do exist.

Diversity Through Simplicity

Consider Ruger’s new LCRx. This is a 17-ounce .357 Magnum with a 1.87-inch barrel. It has a monolithic frame made of 400-series stainless-steel and a polymer fire control housing. The stainless-steel cylinder has been fluted to reduce weight, and it has a PVD coating to enhance durability. The revolver will accept modular grips, has a pinned, white-striped front sight and an external hammer for single-action operation. That’s a long way from the 42-ounce .357 I carried as a cop!

Of course some wheelgun aficionados like the robustness of an all-steel revolver. Ruger’s new 3-inch, stainless-steel, GP100 in .44 Special weighs in at 36 ounces. It comes with a fully adjustable rear sight and a fiber optic front sight. Unless you were born before 1970, you might not have any appreciation of the .44 Special, but it’s fully capable as a self-defense cartridge for use against a murderous fiend or a furry ball of fur and claws.

And that’s an aspect of self-defense often overlooked by the average gun owner: Bad guys are not the only things you might need protection from. Outdoorsmen who frequent bear country would do well to arm up with a firearm capable of putting the smackdown on a toothy attacker. Revolvers make excellent trail guns due to their ability to handle cartridges generating magnum power. With its 2.75-inch barrel, Ruger’s new .357 Magnum Redhawk is a big gun capable of helping tame the rock and roll of the hottest .357 Magnum loads. And, like all .357 Magnum revolvers, it will fire .38 Special ammunition, too.

Because of they way they’re made, revolvers can house more powerful cartridges than similar sized semi-automatics.

Along similar lines, look at the Ruger SP101 Match Campion. This revolver has a 4.2-inch, full-lugged barrel and is much lighter and handier than the big Redhawk. It will still handle .357 Magnum or .38 Special ammunition, but its five-shot cylinder reduces overall weight. It would be an ideal sidearm for a backpacker or camper, and don’t forget revolvers are well suited for use with shot shells, making them perfect for poisonous snakes or other vermin around home or camp.

‘Wheel-Life’ Protection

But, let’s get back to fighting bad guys. The compact revolver has long been a favorite of concealed carry. However, the quintessential example of that genre of wheelguns has remained basically unchanged for about 100 years.

Nighthawk Custom Firearms looked to rectify that for the American consumer through a partnership with German-built Korth revolvers. By virtue of my profession, I’ve pulled a lot of triggers on a lot of guns. I’ve never pulled a trigger on any gun as impressive as those on the Korth revolvers. The first time you do it your mouth will drop open and maybe stay that way long enough for a fly to buzz in.

Initially, Nighthawk will be offering three Korths configured to Nighthawk specifications. The Sky Hawk — the revolver serious self-defense practitioners should consider — is a compact, 20-ounce, six-shot revolver chambered for 9mm Luger. However, neither half- or full-moon clips are required. Every part is machined from billet steel or aluminum, and it’s available with a 2- or 3-inch barrel. A gold bead front sight, Houge grips, hard-coated frame, TSA-approved travel case, cleaning rod, grip removal tool, lubricating oil, lanyard and a proprietary speed loader are standard. Yes, this revolver retails for a staggering $1,699, but there’s nothing else like it on the planet.

A discussion of revolvers in any capacity cannot be complete without mentioning Smith & Wesson. My grandfather’s pistol was a Model 10 Smith & Wesson. It was the first handgun I ever fired, and according to Grandpa, it was the best pistol in the world. I’m not sure much has changed; Smith & Wesson is still the premier revolver manufacturer in America, and it has some new and cool wheelguns for just about any application.

Big-Barking Revolver Options

Let’s take a step back and again consider handguns for hideous creatures. The new Model 500 Smith & Wesson from the Performance Center holds five rounds of .500 Smith & Wesson. But, this beast of a cartridge is contained in a compact package only weighing 56 ounces. Yeah, that’s heavy for a handgun, but when you’re talking about one with this much power, polymer is not an option. With its stubby 3-inch barrel, the 500 3.5 might be the ultimate bear defense handgun. If you can handle it, it should work just as well for velociraptors and werewolves.

You simply cannot load a revolver as fast as you can change magazines in a semi-auto, and a revolver’s capacity is limited.

Smith & Wesson’s J-Frame revolver has long been a staple in the pockets, glove boxes, and night stands of those who take responsibility for their personal safety. The new 360 J-Frame from Smith & Wesson is a modernized adaptation of a classic. It features a corrosion-resistant, unfluted, stainless-steel cylinder with a PVD finish. This revolver is built on a lightweight but strong scandium alloy frame, with flat dark earth synthetic grips. But most importantly, this compact five-shot revolver is chambered for the potent .357 Magnum.

Buying Custom Wheels

For those who like a custom touch to their handgun, the revolver is well suited to that treatment, maybe more so than many of the more modern semi-autos. Gary Reeder of Flagstaff, Arizona, has been building high-quality custom revolvers for a long time, and his business is booming. This is partly because lots of folks like their guns to be a little different, but mostly because Reeder can tweak a wheelgun like Carroll Shelby can fine-tune a Mustang.

Reeder’s new Outlaw is based on the Ruger Vaquero and is one of his top sellers. Like the new Ruger GP 100, it too is chambered for the .44 Special. It has a full color-cased frame, with a black Chromex finish on the rest of the gun. The unique Sorrel-stocked Bisley Gunfighter grip and red fiber-optic sight set this pistol apart.

One of my Reeder favorites is the Hellcat. Over the past year or so, Reeder has specialized on small-caliber conversions. For the Hellcat, he took the rimfire Ruger Bearcat and converted it to handle the .32 H&R. This is a very versatile cartridge that’s often overlooked, and with the right ammo it is deer capable. I know — I’ve proven it.

Why The Wheelgun?

You might think the revolver is a thing of the past, and that it’s nothing but an antiquated throwback to the times of cowboy gunfighters and Bat Masterson. Truth is, whether you’re talking about self-defense, hunting or even sport shooting, it is — and always will be — the person behind the gun that matters most. My favorite handguns are semi-automatics, but I have several revolvers I carry and use frequently.

Revolvers in certain chamberings can be very versatile. A .44 Rem. Magnum can shoot .44 Special ammo; a .357 can shoot .38 Special; and a .327 Federal can shoot .32 Auto, .32 Short, .32 Long and .32 H&R.

The current lack of respect the wheelgun is getting reminds me of a story my friend Sheriff Jim Wilson once shared. He and former border patrolman and gunwriter Bill Jordan were visiting one day when a self proclaimed gun expert asked, “Mr. Jordan, what battle rifle would you stash away?” I guess the man was curious what the great Bill Jordan would want in his hand at the start of some apocalyptic catastrophe.

Bill took a sip of his vodka tonic and said, “I’d put away a Smith & Wesson Model 19 and a box of cartridges.” With Bill being from Louisiana, cartridges came out sounding like “cat-i-ges.” The gun expert, realizing Bill was a little hard of hearing, said, “No, Mr. Jordan, I meant what kind of AR would you want to have hidden away.”

Bill smiled, finished his vodka tonic, and said, “Sonny, I heard you the first time. And my answer is a Smith & Wesson Model 19 and a box of cartridges. If serious trouble starts, you can use that Model 19 to get whatever kind of little machine gun you’d want to carry. You could even get a little Jeep to drive and maybe even a nice looking uniform to wear … if you can shoot!”

‘Nuff said!

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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