Revolver Vs. Semi-Auto

A grudge match, going way back. And a religious argument.

Who Uses What

The pistol isn’t an important military weapon, but all militaries issue them to at least some members. Many people think that, because they engage in real combat, they’re the ones who have real combat experience, and hence a better idea of what works and what doesn’t. The US military moved away from revolvers a long time ago. Most of the other militaries around the world were on semi-autos even before that.

Another place people look to for leadership in weapon selection is the police and other governmental agencies involved in violence (FBI, Federal Marshals, Border Patrol, INS, Secret Service and the rest of the BATF, and such). They’ve all gone to semi-autos also.

The semi-auto has obvious combat advantages. It has a larger ammunition capacity, it’s faster to reload and easier to carry reloads ready to use (magazines). The military and police also sometimes use full-auto versions (MP-5, Uzi).

The popular combat-simulation contests (IPSC, IDPA) seem to have come down mostly to semi-auto shooters.

Besides, revolvers are wussy.

Practical Differences

The semi-auto is considerably more complex to operate than the revolver. The revolver is the original “point and click” interface; you point it in the general direction of your assailant, and pull the trigger. (You hope for rather more than a “click” in that situation, though; if it just clicks, pull again.)

Some semi-auto have those manual “safety switches”, which can be put in the wrong position. (A very few revolvers do also, but nothing of even vaguely current production that I’m aware of.) When reloading, you have to rack the slide after putting in the fresh magazine; order is important.

Worse, semi-autos have more failure modes. Various sorts of stovepipe and failure to extract situations really happen. Worse, poor shooting technique can make these problems more likely. (Good luck avoiding “poor shooting” technique when you’re shooting with your off hand because you got hit in your dominant shoulder.) When running students through the shooting qualification in the MN Carry course, I’ve watched a number of people have to clear stoppages, and I’ve watched a number have trouble operating the controls of their semi-auto correctly. You have to know the clearance drill for all this stuff, and you have to be able to execute that clearance drill rapidly and correctly under the stress of a deadly attack.

Revolvers have their own failure modes. But don’t worry about it during the attack. If your revolver locks up on you, you’re not going to fix it before the attack is over. You’ve just found yourself armed with a short club. I’ve twice seen revolvers lock up because of loose screws, and I hear that the recoil of full-power loads in lightweight revolvers sometimes pulls the bullets far enough out that they bind the cylinder so it can’t rotate.

Physiology of Stress

As you know, if you have taken the MN Carry course or read up on the subject, the body has a number of basic physiological reactions to danger. Mostly they’re the result of dumping a whole bunch of adrenaline into the bloodstream. You get stronger, of course. A lot stronger (in his story, Joel describes ripping open the locked bag his gun was in). You also lose quite a lot of fine motor control, and you lose a lot of IQ points. Joel describes not being able to subtract 1 from 13 twice (13-1-1 = “some”). You also get tunnel-vision and hyper-focus — directed at the threat. One of the FBI agents who died in the Miami shootout was a top competitive combat shooter as well. He appears to have died by being shot while repeatedly attempting to bring his gun up into the line of sight between himself and his assailants so that he could use his sights. His focus on the assailant was so intense, though, that he couldn’t bring himself to put his gun where it blocked his view. (Videos of police shooting shows them nearly always firing with their guns held low, in front of their chests, not using their sights.)

Trying to clear a jam, or even notice that your gun has jammed (there’s lots of video of people pulling the trigger repeatedly after they’ve run out of ammo), during the fight may not work out too well. That FBI agent had immensely more training and practice time than I’m ever going to have, and it didn’t work out too well for him in the end.

Value of Experience

Many of us have had close calls, while driving if not being shot at. Many of us find that we react better under stress than most people. Many of us routinely clear minor stoppages without even slowing down on the range, even in the stress of competition. Doesn’t that suggest that we’d probably do better than most people when being shot at, too?

Yes, I think it does suggest that. The qustion has to become how strongly does it suggest it? Are you willing to bet your life on it?

Most of us have never been in a life-threatening fight. I think actually being attacked is different from just being in danger. The human mind deals with a deliberate attacker much differently from a driving emergency.

If you have been in deadly fights, then you know at least something about how you will react to that sort of stress. I’m not sure you know anything about how I will react, though. There’s human variation (the theme of this series, I think). I don’t know of any shooting videos showing the police behaving calmly and in accordance with their training.

Reports from combat veterans seem to suggest that you just can’t tell in advance who will fight and who will hide and who will run. This probably applies to how effectively you will fight, and how well you’ll deal with unexpected problems, too.

The Choice

So, should you carry a revolver for self-defense, or a semi-auto?

I don’t like revolvers much. I don’t find them fun to shoot. They’re not “salty”, either. Revolvers are wussy.

Do you see anything in the previous paragraph about how suitable revolvers are for self-defense? I don’t.

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