CCW: Revolver or Autoloader?

A partial reload of a revolver can be accomplished by working the ejector rod only part way, so spent cases can be plucked out and replaced by hand or from a Bianchi Speedstrip. The revolver is a Smith & Wesson Model 681, no longer produced.

A partial reload of a revolver can be accomplished by working the ejector rod only part way, so spent cases can be plucked out and replaced by hand or from a Bianchi Speedstrip. The revolver is a Smith & Wesson Model 681, no longer produced.

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.

Two ultimate cop guns, one European, one American. The Walther PP .32 saw considerable law enforcement use in Europe, while American plainclothes officers often carried an old style Smith & Wesson J-Frame .38 Special. This is a Model 640, modernized with the addition of Crimson Trace LaserGrips.

Two ultimate cop guns, one European, one American. The Walther PP .32 saw considerable law enforcement use in Europe, while American plainclothes officers often carried an old style Smith & Wesson J-Frame .38 Special. This is a Model 640, modernized with the addition of Crimson Trace LaserGrips.

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.

7 thoughts on “CCW: Revolver or Autoloader?

  1. kma650

    Mr. Ahern,

    I realize you were president of Detonics USA for a few years, that you’ve written many books and articles regarding firearms but I had issues with this article you wrote for Gun Digest.

    In “CCW: Revolver or Autoloader?” you wrote:
    “The semi-automatic has the following features … better accuracy in average hands … and enhanced reliability when neglected or subjected to dirt.”
    Please explain how an autoloader’s reliability is enhanced when neglected or subjected to dirt. I read your opening statement several times and I understand your writing style, maybe this is a typo by the editors? Or perhaps the word “reliability” should’ve been “unreliability”? True the original Colt 1911a1 made its reputation during both world wars by being completely reliable while caked with mud, dust, dirt, grit, sand, due to its loose tolerances (remember the AK47′s legendary status and loose tolerances?) but todays tight tolerances in autoloaders makes them less reliable when neglected or subjected to dirt. There are exceptions but by and large they fail when they get dirt in them. If you shake a pistol or revolver and you don’t hear clicking/clacking, then it will jam when dirty at the most inopportune moment.

    Also, I’m sure from my experience that accuracy is not better in average hands when talking about autoloaders since autoloader slide recoil causes excessive muzzle rise whereas in a revolver there is only felt recoil of the round going off and not a hunk of metal (re: the slide) slamming back off the direct line of fire (off center as it were) above the hand causing the “average hand’s” wrist to bend excessively; even small autoloaders such as the PPK or Ruger LCR or even your beloved large cal. Detonics CombatMaster (Officer’s model in size) don’t fit “average hands” as the pinky finger is usually off the grip completely leaving the shooter to have less control over felt recoil when firing, not to mention getting “bitten” by the slide because the shooter handling a small frame autoloader is want to “choke” the grip and get the web of his firing hand up to high, this is typical for the inexperienced PPK shooter, I’ve seen where people have gotten their hands cut clean to the bone when “choking” a PPK’s very small grip.

    You then wrote:
    “Looking first at the revolver … watch-like mechanisms in their operation…” but later in your article you state the near legendary reliability of revolvers. Revolvers have been in production since the 1800′s and their reliability is pretty much 100% these days. Sure, you can cake any firearm with enough mud, dirt, water, dust, and sand, then run over it with a tank and NO, it won’t be 100% reliable. But making the statement about a watch-like mechanism portrays the revolver as something delicate and must be handled with extreme care and as you know, nothing could be further from the truth. An inexperienced shooter with a lightweight five shot revolver can almost be guaranteed 100% flawless function of that gun, the only variable that could bring that percentage down is faulty ammo.

    Further on you wrote:
    “the cylinder’s charging holes.”
    I think these are called “chambers” in a cylinder, not “charging holes” in the cylinder.
    I realize your article (an excerpt from you book) is for what seems the inexperienced or the uninitiated when it comes to handguns, I think clarity would go a long way here.

    Next you wrote:
    “I’m a fan of the Detonics 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…”
    Since your article is clearly for the uninitiated or inexperience shooter, why would you “strip” one round from the mag into the chamber leaving 5 in the mag? What is the safety/defensive reason for this? Why limit yourself that one round, one round that could save your life or that of a loved one? I hope it has nothing to do with the Old West practice of placing the hammer down on an empty cylinder (half cocked) leaving only five rounds in the cylinder and if it is, this makes no sense. I carry my .45 with 8 rounds in the mag (Commander or Govn’t model, take you pick) and one up the pipe, nine rounds total. If I’m broke down on the turnpike, I’d rather have 9 rounds than your six.

    You have a photo of partially ejected shells hanging out of a revolver’s cylinder with the following caption:
    “A partial reload of a revolver can be accomplished by working the ejector rod only part way, so spent cases can be plucked out and replaced by hand or from a Bianchi Speedstrip.”
    Since this entire article is about CCW and not spending an hour at the range, I’d wonder why anyone would even consider “plucking” six rounds individually from a cylinder when the ejector rod is RIGHT THERE to eject all six empty shells so you can “speed load” the next six rounds with a speedloader. I know some folks like the “speed strip” though when it comes to a linear speed strip being force to load one or two rounds at a time into a round cylinder makes a much sense as forcing a square peg into a round hole. Circluar or half moon and star speedloaders are the only way to go with a modern CCW revolver.

    “my Walther PP .32 ACP… as a .380″
    As a CCW firearm, I carried a Beretta 84f in .380 for years until I went to a little competition shooting bowling pins, when hit with .380 the bowling pins weebled and wobbled but they didn’t fall down, but other guys shooting .45 sent them flying, I no longer carry .380, I’m a “.45 man” now.

    You wrote:
    ‘What about accuracy?”
    When it comes to short barreled revolvers or Officer’s model .45′s… my philosophy is any firearm is better than no firearm when it comes to fighting for your life. A short barrel revolver or pistol, in my opinion, basically throws out a chunk of lead at high velocity at your intended assailant. A friend of mine who worked for an alphabet agency said in a CCW situation, average contact range is 3 to 7 feet, at that range accuracy goes to Hell, at that range you’re fighting for you life, at that range all you want is to punch a hole or holes into your assailant so you can live another day. If you want long-range accuracy, get a Les Baer .45 with Novack Adjustable sights so you can adjust for windage and elevation, then again, them big sights WILL get hung up in your clothing when carrying concealed and who has time to adjust for windage in a life or death CCW situation?

    Later on you wrote:
    “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.”
    True but literally shooting from the hip with a revolver can be done easily, but with an autoloader shot at hip level, FTF and FTE can occur because of bending your wrist to aim your autoloader downrange (it’s called limp wristing the gun) causing it to not function properly due to lack of a stable platform (limp wrist at the hip with wrist bent to point gun from the hip) which causes it to Fail to Fire due to feed jam or Fail to Eject due to bent or “limp” wrist. I agree with you about shooting from the hip at very close contact range but this type of practice should be done with a professional keeping an eye you don’t shoot yourself in the hip, kidney, or thigh.

    Finally you stated:
    “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.”
    If I read this correctly you’re stating that as soon as the firearm clears your holster (the barrel pointed downrange) you should start pulling the trigger and keep firing as you raise the pistol/revolver to eye level, or did I misunderstand you? Basically you described what is what Old West speed shooters do, as soon as the barrel clears the holster, send lead down range. This flies in the face of all basic rules of shooting where knowing that your “background” is as important, if not more important, than your intended target; imagine describing to a jury how you were defending yourself, shooting from the hip, and you nailed some baby in a stroller (in the background) who happened to be yards behind your assailant.

    Nothing was mentioned about revolvers/pistols being deburred so that they don’t get hung up on clothing during presentation of the firearm and you even talk about cocking the hammer on a revolver when you should’ve said a hammerless revolver is the preferred type revolver when carrying concealed since a hammer spur WILL get hung up in one’s clothing. You talked about solid steel revolvers whereas new revolvers are available that are much lighter in weight and can take .38 +P rounds or .357 with a two inch barrel; the Ruger LCR is a perfect example of this and though felt recoil is greater due to it’s monolithic aluminum frame and polymer components (steel barrel and stainless steel cylinder) this firearm is so lightweight any man or woman can carry it and almost forget they’re even carrying!

    I know it appears I’m ripping your article apart but there were a lot of things about it I found fault with and the readers of this site, who may be the uninitiated or inexperience, readers you aimed your article at, need to know more specifics. Hopefully these are covered in more detail in your book(s) but if not, maybe my words here will provoke further investigation on their part before they purchase a firearm for CCW.

    Bob
    NRA Certified Pistol Instructor

  2. SmithKoWitz

    Oh yeah, forget to mention how I carry my weapons. My preferred choice is an inside the waistband clip on holster. The LCP and BLACK WIDOW often carried in jacket or vest, inside the breast pocket. The 460V goes in a shoulder holster or across the chest (under a jacket or vest). The M&P 9 or Full Size 1911 goes in a belt mount slide adjustable holster; sometimes cross draw worn or in back as well.

  3. SmithKoWitz

    Own a variety of both types of weapons. Small size to large as well. As a daily carry weapon it’s a 3″ barrel or less semi auto, in 40S&W or 45ACP. We’re are talking a min. of 5 +1 and max. of 8 + 1 in the chamber, depending on which brand I choose. I usually carry a spare loaded magazine as well. If I want to do something different for a change, I will carry my S&W 632, the .327 Mag., J frame 6 rounds and power akin to a .357. When I go off hiking I often carry a back up weapon as well. Most often this will be my Bond Arms Snake Slayer with 4.25″ barrel 45LC/.410 3″ and I load it with 300g Bear load 45LC or 3″ .410 000 buck. Usually carry a pouch with spare 45LC 225g FTX and some .410 #4 Buck and #4 shot. When I go off into the remote wilderness I pack my S&W 460V with some 300g or better loads as well as 200g FTX. For additional back up in public settings, I carry an LCP380 or NAA Black Widow 22WMR with 45g FTX or 30g VMAX by Hornady, both very accurate to 10 yards with a 2″ barrel. Aside from my personal choices, revolvers really are simple to keep functioning flawlessly and rarely is there a malfunction. The only one I can recall are due to loads that are over spec. and get stuck in the cylinder upon ejection attempt. I have never shot anything but factory loads and have experienced pretty stuck cartridges. Required a palm smack on the ejection rod and once against a harder service to get them out. It’s most always the same brand that has issues; a well known old west brand name. Yes, it is important to fire plenty of the ammo type you plan to carry, no matter what style gun you choose to carry. Every gun being different, means you might have more than one brand and type you need to keep on hand in sufficient quantity. My semi-autos of choice; Kahr MK40, SA EMP40 and Kimber SIS Ultra. For high capacity carry, pull out the old standby S&W M&P 9 with 17 +1.

  4. Michael Edwards

    I have carried both a revolver and a S&W 45acp. I prefer my 45 to the revolver. I used to own a 38 detective special S&W. I prefer the semi-auto45 because the detective special revolver had a habit of hanging up in my pants pocket when it go to the cylinder. My 45′s don’t give me this problem they are the same width all the way down so in tight fitting jeans it does not hang up.

  5. 1911David

    Hi Jerry, I remember meeting you years ago at the Great Western show in Southern Cal. You were with the SWPL, right? I used to work with Jim Hoag’s .45 shop.

    I’d agree with your assessment between the two action types. If one simply does not want to take the time to learn a semi auto, or is somewhat infirm, has R.A., or doesn’t wish to be “inconvenienced” by his sidearm, the snub makes sense.

    Otherwise, the greater capacity and ease of shooting the semi, especially the 1911 we both admire, makes the revolver a choice for hunters only in large calibers. As a piece of social hardware, the auto pretty much rules the roost because of its simplicity of action, greater ammo load, adequate if not outstanding accuracy, and less recoil for equivalent street results.

    I’ve never been able to master the 2″ snub shooting DA; they are the ONLY handguns that have vexed me so. My “snub” is a G30 in .45ACP.

    Keep the Faith!

    David

  6. rjc4243

    Jerry should not be pointing a loaded revolver at himself when explaining the plain sights on the revolver in the picture. Poor example of proper gun handling.

  7. holeshot308

    Good points on the wheel guns vs semis. You can look at it like this, compare automatic transmissions (wheel guns) to a standard transmission (semis). About anyone can drive the automatic but you have to learn and practice awhile to drive the standard. In other words if you can’t or won’t put in the time and effort to master a semi-auto and learn how to quickly deal with the occasional malfunction prone to them then you NEED to buy a wheel gun. Despite the difference in concealing one more easily than the other, being able to get on target quickly and firing the weapon properly should be the main objective. Five or six well placed rounds from a revolver can do as much or more damage than someone with a Glock-17 DUMPING the mag at a target just because they know they have the extra firepower. Having a hi-cap semi-auto should never be an excuse for sloppy shooting. On the other side of the coin though, I carry a Glock-30 with the ten round mag for concealment and I carry two Glock-21 mags with grip extensions in the mag pouch, that gives me 37 available rounds counting the one in the chamber. Sounding a little hypocritical here but I do put in a lot of range time with the Glocks (got a G-26 also that uses G-17 mags as well). If you’ve got the time to work with the semis then by all means carry one but if you’re like so many out there that buy one gun and one box of ammo for home defense or CC I sure hope you bought a good D.A. revolver.

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