Why Would Anyone Want A 9mm Revolver?

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The 9mm revolvers are not for everyone. However, they’re beautiful to look at! Smith & Wesson always does a good job in that regard.
The 9mm revolvers are not for everyone. However, they’re beautiful to look at! Smith & Wesson always does a good job in that regard.

No matter how you slice it, a 9mm revolver is always a compromise.

Why Doesn't the 9mm Revolver Live Up To Expectations:

  • In all but a few cases, the rimless cartridge requires moon or semi-moon clips to function in a revolver.
  • Reliablity can be an issue, because because firing pin depth and primer height is occasionally in question.
  • If a case has split in the chamber or a hot handload has flattened and expanded the cartridge case, clean ejection can be compromised.
  • Most factory loads are optimized for 4-inch barreled pistols, thus lose performance in snubby carry revolvers.
  • It's more difficult to make accurate 9mm ammo when compared directly to the .38 Special.

What image pops into your mind? Cowboys? Gunslingers? Your favorite Western film? Shooting wadcutters in a bull’s-eye match? Hunting game at bowhunting distances?

The vast majority of people don’t think of the 9x19mm cartridge when talking about revolvers. It offers some unique angles for revolver fans … and some deficiencies as well.

9mm Revolvers vs. Semi-Automatics

There are very few revolver designs that are truly optimized for the 9mm cartridge. Of course, there have been many attempts at viability. But, for the most part, revolvers use rimmed cartridges. The frame size, barrel length and many other small design elements give a heavy preference to the use of a semi-automatic when looking at small, rimless cartridges such as the 9mm.

In general, revolvers have never really been designed to use rimless cartridges. It would be a fair assessment to say that they’ve been adapted to that use only in circumstances for which it’s been necessary for military supply channels or commercial relevance.

Here, .38 Special loads (left) display heavy and tough 158-grain Buffalo Bore Outdoorsman bullets made of hard-cast lead. This is a potent load! The 9mm is noticeably shorter than the .38 Special and is easier to load and eject. Nevertheless, as far as dedicated ammunition for use in revolvers is concerned, it offers less.
Here, .38 Special loads (left) display heavy and tough 158-grain Buffalo Bore Outdoorsman bullets made of hard-cast lead. This is a potent load! The 9mm is noticeably shorter than the .38 Special and is easier to load and eject. Nevertheless, as far as dedicated ammunition for use in revolvers is concerned, it offers less.

There existed some problems, because many of the early guns didn’t have chambers cut that would allow them to fire without a moon clip holding the base of the cartridges in place.

It’s possible to use moon clips with both rimmed and rimless cartridges, depending on the revolver model. You insert all the cartridges together and, because they’re held together at the rims, they all eject at once as well. If the chamber is not cut to allow the use of single rounds, the rimless cases can fall deeper into the cylinder and would need to be punched out as a result. The gun would, of course, not fire in this case.

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This brings us to the question of reliability in a revolver chambered for rimless pistol cartridges. In my experience, these tend to be the least reliable revolvers, because the critical dimension of firing pin depth and primer height is occasionally in question, depending on if a moon clip is used or not.

A brake on a 9mm? The recoil of the 9mm in a semi-auto is mild, and the slide and recoil process soaks up most of the energy generated by the cartridge. The 9mm in a revolver offers stiffer recoil for a few reasons, the most influential being that it has a great deal of velocity to build up in a very small case. The snappy recoil in a revolver, as opposed to the smoother recoil of the .38 Special (which can use bulkier and slower-burning powder), is noticeable by comparison.
A brake on a 9mm? The recoil of the 9mm in a semi-auto is mild, and the slide and recoil process soaks up most of the energy generated by the cartridge. The 9mm in a revolver offers stiffer recoil for a few reasons, the most influential being that it has a great deal of velocity to build up in a very small case. The snappy recoil in a revolver, as opposed to the smoother recoil of the .38 Special (which can use bulkier and slower-burning powder), is noticeable by comparison.

A revolver is always a manual-ejection proposition. This can be a struggle with rimless cartridges, because most revolvers are designed to push cases out of the cylinder using their rim. Ejection with a moon clip is quite easy and fast; however, it can also be compromised if a case has split in the chamber or a hot handload has flattened and expanded the cartridge case. In that case, the entire gun can be taken out of commission instantly.

Despite the general consensus that revolvers are more reliable than semi-automatics (a fact that’s slowly changing these days due to advanced compact guns), clearing a complicated malfunction with a wheelgun can be next to impossible in the field. The internal mechanisms of many revolvers, while time-honored designs, are fragile compared to modern semi-autos that don’t suffer from issues such as cylinder timing and complicated internal lock work.


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Why Are 9mm Revolvers still Made?

In my opinion, the sole reason that 9mm revolvers are still made is because of the popularity of the 9mm cartridge. It’s no stretch to say that it’s the most popular centerfire pistol cartridge in the world. It offers a tremendous number of benefits to a tremendous number of people and, as a result, it’s seen spectacular advances in bullet technology and in the guns made to fire it.

The revolver versus the automatic. The Glock 19X is lighter and about the same overall size as the PC 986—despite carrying more than double the ammunition. The 19X is also capable of generating higher velocity and less recoil. Revolvers are excellent, but the claim that reliability is superior is becoming less and less true in today’s pistol market.
The revolver versus the automatic. The Glock 19X is lighter and about the same overall size as the PC 986—despite carrying more than double the ammunition. The 19X is also capable of generating higher velocity and less recoil. Revolvers are excellent, but the claim that reliability is superior is becoming less and less true in today’s pistol market.

The public has accepted the 9mm for its practical assets—great penetration, high capacity and low recoil. Today’s world is no longer a revolver world, because inexpensive and reliable automatic pistols can be had almost anywhere and offer the most benefits to the most people in cost, training and ammo availability.

If you’re a first-time handgun purchaser and are looking to buy a revolver for self-defense, the 9mm cartridge is not your best bet when it comes to reliability in a small self-defense gun. Options such as the .38 Special are far superior in this role. If you already own several 9mm pistols or are set up to reload ammunition for the cartridge, owning a 9mm revolver is more feasible.

9mm vs. Legacy Revolver Cartridges

The pressure at which the 9mm operates is designed to ensure reliable operation in semi-autos. The powder used and the taper of the case are there to ensure reliable feeding and ejection. This isn’t true of the legacy revolver cartridges that the 9mm competes against in a revolver.

The “Jerry Miculek” monogram on the side of this S&W is a blatant hint at the intended use of the revolver. Revolvers are popular in some forms of competition, but they require a completely different set of skills than do automatic pistols.
The “Jerry Miculek” monogram on the side of this S&W is a blatant hint at the intended use of the revolver. Revolvers are popular in some forms of competition, but they require a completely different set of skills than do automatic pistols.

The primary competitor the 9mm faces in a revolver is a .38 Special. While many revolver rounds have come and gone over the years, the .38 Special has never lost relevance. Ammunition for the .38 Special in this role has become more advanced over time, and it’s quite good for what it is.

Today’s .38 Special suffers from several things, including a failure to evolve to meet the cartridge’s realistic end use. Most people who own and shoot .38 revolvers have them with barrels that are 2 inches or less. Contrasting this is most ammunition still designed to work at the velocities generated by 4-inch barrels—the typical standard for law enforcement for more than 70 years in the 20th century. What resulted from this are essentially two classes of .38 Special: one that addresses modern carry guns and one that makes use of slower-burning powders that never achieve significant velocity in small guns.

When looking at the 9mm in a small revolver, it does everything that the .38 Special can. However, it, too, suffers from the fact that most 9mm ammunition is designed around 4-inch barrels common on midsized automatics. The .38 Special generally has an advantage in available bullet weight and bullet types, because there’s no real 9mm ammunition offered specifically for revolvers.

Extracting with a full moon clip is fast and easy. Extraction without one is iffy at best—and impossible in some cases, depending on design. While magazines are flat and easily carried, the moon clip is bulky and easily bent if not stored safely. It’s also easier to hang up on pockets and pouches than a pistol magazine.
Extracting with a full moon clip is fast and easy. Extraction without one is iffy at best—and impossible in some cases, depending on design. While magazines are flat and easily carried, the moon clip is bulky and easily bent if not stored safely. It’s also easier to hang up on pockets and pouches than a pistol magazine.

Extremely powerful options from companies such as Buffalo Bore allow the .38 Special to have a significant leg up on the 9mm with identically sized pocket revolvers. The .38 also has a generally higher threshold for accuracy because the bullets have substantially less “jump” through the cylinder gap into the barrel. That’s not to say 9mm revolvers are inaccurate; it’s just that they’re harder to make accurate when compared directly to the .38 Special.

Ammunition in .38 Special and .357 Magnum specifically designed for self-defense in a short-barreled revolver is typically superior to what is available for 9mm (given identically sized guns). You wouldn’t be bad off with a 9mm LCR, but if it were a first-time gun purchase or something you intended as a backup, there really isn’t a reason to go with 9mm (barring the economic factor or the idea of having a single pistol caliber for all your handguns).

As far as power goes, the 9mm falls into an odd space, because it can produce excellent velocity; but the fact that most factory ammo is not loaded nearly as hot as it could be severely handicaps its performance in a revolver. Factory ammo has to be powerful enough to allow an automatic pistol to cycle, but not so powerful that it could damage the gun.

The highest capacity found in a 9mm revolver is eight rounds. This is the same as many common carry guns that chamber the cartridge with seven in the mag and one in the pipe. It’s more common to find conversion guns that use a spare 9mm cylinder than it is to find dedicated 9mm revolvers.
The highest capacity found in a 9mm revolver is eight rounds. This is the same as many common carry guns that chamber the cartridge with seven in the mag and one in the pipe. It’s more common to find conversion guns that use a spare 9mm cylinder than it is to find dedicated 9mm revolvers.

With a 4-inch barrel on a revolver, you’ll almost always be able to produce higher velocities with identical bullet weights in .38 Special. However, if the same guns were to all use full moon clips, the 9mm would offer a significant advantage in terms of reload speed because of its much shorter case body.

So, Why Own One?

The revolver has become something of a specialized tool. For aficionados of the wheelgun, there’s nothing better than a slick S&W or Colt Python.

I don’t think the 9mm will gain a significant market share of the revolver business. As modern automatics continue to improve, revolvers have to continue to specialize or simply appeal to nostalgia to remain relevant. Many of the revolvers chambered for the ubiquitous 9mm are simply there to feed a niche market.

The Performance Center 986 offers a seven-round capacity. The gun is smooth and crisp, with a trigger to drool over. But it’s not more powerful than S&W’s own Shield 9 and is substantially heavier and with less onboard ammunition. Who’d benefit from a gun such as this? That’s up to you.
The Performance Center 986 offers a seven-round capacity. The gun is smooth and crisp, with a trigger to drool over. But it’s not more powerful than S&W’s own Shield 9 and is substantially heavier and with less onboard ammunition. Who’d benefit from a gun such as this? That’s up to you.

In more than one sense, the 9mm revolver will always be limited by the 9mm cartridge. I doubt there’s a company willing to make a high-pressure, revolver-only 9mm load—knowing that a novice or a devil-may-care shooter might, either by ignorance or design, chamber it in an automatic pistol and blow their hand off. It’s simply not feasible when the .38 Special and .357 Magnum already exist in relative abundance.

At the end of the day, the 9mm chambered in revolver will always be a compromise.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.


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