For a hundred years now, there has been discussion between those who favour revolvers and those who favour pistols. While handguns have not been a major factor in wars to this date, psychological effect of possesing one should not be underestimated. In the last half a century, there have been no revolutionary developments in design and construction of either pistols or revolvers, so this thematic did not receive major attention.
Pistols can be non-automatic, where both reloading of the bullet and firing is done manually; half-automatic, where reloading is automatic but trigger has to be pulled for each firing; or fully automatic, where both reloading and the firing are done automatically as long as the trigger is kept pressed. Modern pistols are either half-automatic or fully automatic, with automatic pistols having the possibility of selecting either half-automatic or fully automatic operation. Some automatic pistols are equipped with gun-stocks in order to increase effective range of fire, from up to 50 to up to 200 meters.
Revolvers differ from pistols in that ammunition storage is done in a drum instead of a magazine. While firing, or preparing to fire (in manual-operation revolvers), the drum moves around its axis until shot is in line with weapon’s barrel. Drum capacity is typically five to seven shots.
Most pistols have bullets of calibre between 7,62 and 11,43 mm. All these calibres provide kinetic energy significantly greater than necessary for eliminating a living target at practical engagement distances. Currently, the most popular handgun calibre is 9 mm Parabellum, developed in 1902. Bullets of this calibre typically have similar kinetic energy to those of .45 (11,43 mm) calibre, but smaller dimensions of the shot and bullet allow greater penetration, smaller dimensions and lower weight. Its disadvantage is lesser effect on unprotected living targets (for stopping the target as quickly as possible, efficient transfer of energy is required – see the article on hollowpoint bullets, to be published after this one). Other calibres are significantly less common. Former Yugoslav Army used bullets in calibre of 7,62 mm and 7,65 mm, but 9 mm calibre provides the best balance of characteristics.
General requirements for personal sidearms are effectiveness at distances up to 50 meters, simple construction to facilitate easy usage, maintenance and education, large storage capacity, reliable operation, short pre-fire preparation time, quick removal of jams, adequate material quality (especially for highly stressed components), ambidextreity, provisions for aiming in conditions of low visibility, good ergonomic design, including the ability to be operated in gloves.
Shooting speed from a pistol is far quicker than that of a revoler. Pistols are significantly simpler to reload in the heat of combat, due to storing all shots in a single magazine. Revolvers are typically reloaded one round at the time. While option for a moon clip (speedloader), facillitating quick reload of the entire drum, does exist, they are awkward to carry. Speedloader consists of a plastic ring containing the rounds, and by pressing at the bottom of the loader after setting it at the drum, the rounds are inserted. For pistol, one only needs to release the empty magazine and insert the new one, and then insert the first round into the barrel. This need for pulling back on a slide is a disadvantage as such action may be forgotten in the heat of combat. Historically, police officers who used revolvers never attempted to reload while in combat. Rather, they would carry multiple guns and take full one once first gun ran dry (“New York Reload”).
Both weapons are limited to short distances where quick reaction is of major importance. For safety purposes, it is recommended not to carry either a pistol or a revolver with a locked-up striker. Doing so also causes the spring to compress, which in long term can cause the loss of elasticity and lead to energy released being insufficient for activating the primer. Revolvers were first constructed with a dual-function striker, so they were long held more ready for use; however, pistols now have such strikers as well, and when carried with a round in the barrel, they too can be ready for immediate use.
While shooting a revolver, greater quantity of gasses are lost. While a pistol looses some of the gas due to utilizing it for cycling action, this quantity is lesser than with a revolver. Consequently, a pistol of the same calibre and barrel length, and utilizing the same ammunition, will have greater muzzle velocity than a revolver.
Ability to design an ergonomic shape, especially that of a handle, is limited in a pistol due to need for ammunition magazine storage. Revolvers do not have that limitation, and they can have a customized handle, albeit customizing the handle is impractical for military use. Revolvers are also easier to quickly draw due to a more favourable positioning of the handle relative to user’s arm. Some pistols have trigger guard shaped so as to allow reliable grasping with both hands, as well as smooth outer surface, without protrusions that could cause problems with the draw.
While pistols and revolvers utilizing the same ammunition are of roughly the same dimensions and weight, with revolers being somewhat wider due to the drum, there are differences in center of mass positioning. Also, revolvers utilizing magnum ammunition tend to be 20% heavier than pistols and revolvers utilizing standard ammunition of the same calibre. Differences in center of mass are caused laregly by the ammunition magazine positioning. Some pistols have ammunition storage in front of the trigger, but most have magazine positioned inside the handle. This causes the barrel to recoil upwards. Center of mass of a fully loaded revolver is below the trigger, around first third of the drum, which is also the most favourable position for shooting.
Both revolvers and pistols have around 55 component parts, so in that are neither has the advantage. There are some exceptions, such as Glock 17 pistol which has only 32 parts. However, revolvers are easier to maintain as they do not have to have their springs changed or regular lubrication.
Due to their construction, revolvers can be loaded with various types of ammunition of the same calibre. Some newer pistols (e.g. Glock 17) can also utilize various types of ammunition. However, revolvers have major advantage in that they can accept ammunition with different pressures. Meanwhile, most pistols cannot achieve cycle action unless ammunition is within very strict pressure margins. Pistols do have the advantage in that most light machine guns utilize the same ammunition as pistols, which in most cases does not hold true for revolvers.
Semiautomatic pistols have magazine capacity of 8-15 rounds, while fully automatic pistols have capacity of 20 rounds. Revolvers typically have only 5-6 rounds, which may or may not be enough – in some cases several shots might be required to stop a single attacker, and there may be more than one. Such is an example of Lance Thomas, a watchmaker in California. In second of his four shootouts, he was attacked by three armed men. He hit the first suspect with five out of six shots, but two other suspects stayed and kept shooting. Lance emptied two more revolvers before the fight was over, killing the second attacker and forcing the third to retreat. In total, he connected with 11 out of 17 shots fired, a phenomenal accuracy by most standard. However, had he had not the foresight to place multiple revolvers within arm’s reach of his workbench, he would have been dead. In such situation, pistols with their greater ammunition capacity and significantly quicker reload times, offer significant advantage. This is especially important since attackers can sometimes take half a dozen or more shots and keep coming – in one case an attacker took six rounds in vital organs (heart, left lung, right lung, liver, diaphragm and right kidney) plus eight to non-vital areas, and still kept coming. In the end, he was felled by a bullet to the brain, but still showed vital signs when EMS arrived. No traces of drug or alcohol were found in his body.
Pistols have advantage when it comes to rate of fire. Single-action revolvers, where cocking the striker is done by hand, have required trigger force of 1,5 daN, while double-action revolvers have trigger force of 4 daN. With pistols, cocking the striker – either manually or by trigger – is necessary only for the first shot. For each following shot, the striker is cocked by the cycling action. As a result, pistols only require 2 daN for pulling the trigger, which is a major advantage when quick fire is required.
Revolver, unlike most pistols, typically has no brake as it is safe enough even without it. Some older revolvers will go off if dropped with the hammer down, but modern models do not have that problem. It is also possible to increase the safety by not loading the revolver to capacity, and keeping the striking pin on an empty chamber. Most pistols do have a brake, and some have multiple different brakes, albeit some or all of the brakes are automatic so there is no need to manually release any brake. Example would be HS2000, which has three independent brakes, but since all of these are automatic, shooter has to only pull the pistol out and fire, without having to worry about unblocking the weapon (one of the safeties in HS2000 is grip safety similar to that of M1911, in addition to trigger and drop safeties). Manual safeties however add to proprietary nature of the pistol. In many cases where attacker took one’s pistol, fact that the attacker had to fumble with safeties of an unfamiliar firearm saved defender’s life. Some pistols also allow the magazine to be disconnected if the attacker is gaining control of the weapon in the physical struggle.
When shooting the revolver, the only indication of an empty drum is when striker only produces a “click” instead of a shot. With most pistols, the slide is locked in the rearmost position once magazine is empty, producing a useful warning and also allowing better cooling of the barrel.
Basic training is simpler on a revolver, as more things can go wrong when handling a pistol. However, western militaries and police departments have found that, for achieving equal accuracy at rapid-fire shooting, it is necessary to use 50% ammunition when training with a revolver than with a pistol. Revolver also has advantage in that it is immune to most jams which can appear in a pistol, such as not ejecting the casing or a round getting stuck. Also, if a round does not fire, cocking the striker will automatically bring new round into position; with pistol, one needs to pull back the slide to eject the faulty round. It is also far easier to clean, as there is no need to take it apart. However, pistols have better abuse tolerance, which is a significant factor in the military. A double action revolver, if dropped into mud, will likely be out of action for the duration; military-specification pistol will spit out the dirt and work just fine. Revolver can also misfire due to a chamber not aligning to the barrel, which means tighter tolerances required than for a pistol, and this in turn means greater likelihood of a jam. Reason why revolvers are perceived as being more reliable is twofold: one is basic misconception about pistol’s complexity and working principles, and second is experience from early 1900s when pistol ammunition was of bad quality due to unstable primers that would deteriorate and even corrode the gun. Some modern pistols (e.g. Glock 19) use plastic magazines which can break down when exposed to environmental conditions for a long time; pistols with steel magazines (e.g. M1911, HS2000) do not have this problem.
But the list of possible reasons why revolver could fail to fire is extensive:
*** Excessive fouling under the extractor star can lock up a cylinder
*** Recoil can cause bullets to partly back out of the shell casing which can also prevent the cylinder from rotating.
*** Cylinder won’t open for a number of reasons
*** The ejector rod can work itself loose and cylinder won’t turn.
*** A grain of gun powder can work itself under the extractor star and the cylinder won’t turn
*** Ejector rod is bent (because it was hit wrong during a reload under stress) and the cylinder won’t turn
*** High primer in one of the 5 or 6 cartridges keeps cylinder from turning
*** During reloading you can get incomplete extraction and cases stuck under the extractor.
*** Taurus or S&W “internal lock” has spontaneously engaged and the gun won’t fire
*** Strain screw in front strap of grip can loosen over time, if it backs out enough, the firing pin strike will be too light and won’t ignite primers — failure to fire.
All of the above are true jams that cannot be quickly remedied during combat; they all require tools to fix.
Pistol has significantly reduced recoil compared to revolver of the same calibre and ammunition, which improves accuracy, particularly when shoting at quick pace. This difference in felt recoil is because gasses are used for the cycling action to reload the barrel, and the feeling is somewhat delayed. However, the barrel motion during the cycling action can reduce accuracy. Due to this and reduced trigger force, the Illions State Police Department saw their hit ratio in actual gun fights almost triple after changing from Colt and S&W revolvers to 9 mm S&W pistols.
Pistols have advantage in that they can be equipped with suppressors; doing so is meaningless for revolvers as most gasses escape between the drum and the barrel. However, it is easier to equip revolver with accessories such as optical sights or grenade launchers.
In close quarters situation, with gun pressed against the attacker’s body, pistols will not fire as the slide is pushed back (exceptions to this are HS2000 and Beretta Nano). Any modern revolver will be able to fire the whole cylinder worth of shots in such a situation.
To summarize, advantages of pistol are greater reliability and abuse tolerance, superior firepower, better range and accuracy when utilizing same type of ammunition. It also has advantage in indicating the state of magazine, improved accuracy during rapid fire due to reduced trigger force, and reduced sound signature when utilizing suppressors, as well as better abuse tolerance. Revolver has simpler construction and lesser maintenance requirements as well as greater reliability in close-quarters situations with physical contact.
There are two basic situations in which firearms are used: for self-defense and in combat. In former, quick reaction, stopping power and accuracy of the first hit is paramount, as the opponent has to be disabled as quickly as possible. In the latter, there is typically enough time to prepare weapon for use, and because opponents are in cover, penetrative abilities of ammunition as well as magazine capacity are important characteristics. Overall, revolver is better weapon for self-defense, while pistol is superior for military use. However, advantages of the pistol listed above mean that situation is not clear-cut even in personal use, while on the military side pistol has undeniable advantage.
Hrvatski Vojnik, Broj 35, Godina III, 9. travnja 1993. (Croatian Soldier, No. 35, Year III, 9. April 1993)
4 thoughts on “Revolver or pistol”
Ok, so the question I had was the following:
It is a common practice for a semi-automatic gun not to fully load the magazine, to prevent jamming under intense firing. Does the same practice exist for pistols or this works only for semi-automatic rifles?
I don’t know. I have never heard of it being done with pistols.
Well, now we know that this is unconventional . 😀