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.