The author’s personal Ruger SP101 in a Mitch Rosen 5JR holster. Note the aftermarket grips which soak up the stiff recoil of the .357 Magnum. Extra ammo is carried in a speed strip on the belt carrier.
When most new or soon-to-be concealed carriers think of a choice in handguns, the auto-loader comes to mind. The semi automatic pistol is the leading seller in the US, according to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Their report on production and export for 2011 (the latest available) shows that auto-loader production in the US outnumbered revolver production by a factor of over 4.5 to 1. Among the more than 2.5 million auto-loaders produced, 34% were 9 mm with an additional 20% in .380 caliber. In fact, compact and sub-compact semi-autos in .380 and 9 mm are the most popular concealed carry handguns today.
Simply because something is popular with a majority does not mean that it is right for you. Over the years, many of my students, particularly ladies, have shown a preference for the revolver. Why is this so? One reason is that the double-action revolver is a logical choice for a beginner learning to handle and shoot a handgun. The operating procedure or “manual of arms” for a double-action revolver is pretty much the same irrespective of the make or model. You activate the cylinder latch on the left hand side and swing the cylinder out to load, unload, or to show clear. Pressing the ejector rod removes the empty cartridge casings from the chambers in the cylinder. You load the revolver by inserting cartridges one at a time in the chambers or by loading the entire cylinder at once using a speed loader or other device. Close the cylinder, rotate by hand until it stops, and you are safe and ready to holster. To fire, you may either thumb cock the hammer before pressing the trigger for single action fire, or by pulling the trigger fully to the rear which cocks the hammer, rotates the cylinder, and fires the revolver all in one motion. There is no manual safety.
Auto-loaders come in many different flavors. There are single-action, SA/DA and double-action-only varieties. The safety may be on the frame, the slide, or there may be no external safety at all. SIGs have a de-cocking lever, while Heckler and Koch pistols may be had in any one of nine different variations. The magazine release may be on the butt, behind the trigger guard, or in front of the trigger guard. Each brand of auto-loader has its own procedures for administrative handling. Further, some people find retracting the slide on an auto-loader to be inconvenient. Finally, take-down and cleaning of an auto-loader is a more complex process than cleaning a revolver.
You must be totally familiar with and confident of the handgun you choose to carry. You must practice drawing, aiming and firing thousands of times before the movements become ingrained in your “muscle memory.” If you switch from a 1911 to a Glock 23, for example, you must retrain yourself. With the DA revolver, operation is the same for all; just draw, aim, and pull the trigger all the way to the rear. Repeat the trigger pull if necessary.
It is true that the auto-loader has some advantages, but not so many that the revolver is either obsolete or a poor choice for self-defense. You must use what works for you. Let’s break down some of the pros and cons of the revolver vs the semi-auto:
- Hold more rounds than revolvers (most of the time).
- Are generally faster to reload.
- Are thinner and easier to conceal.
- Are more tolerant of abuse.
- Depend on high-quality ammunition for reliability.
- Can be picky about which ammunition works well.
- Generally require more training and practice to use well.
- Must be chosen with your hand size and grip angle in mind.
- Require specific training to clear a misfire or malfunction.
- Hold 5 to 8 rounds in .38 to .45 caliber.
- Take more time to reload.
- Are utterly reliable if kept clean and well maintained.
- Will handle a wider variety of ammo in a given choice of caliber.
- Can be mastered with relatively basic training.
- Can be fitted with a wide variety of aftermarket grips to fit various hands.
- Will easily handle a misfire. Just pull the trigger again.
- Will tolerate long periods of neglect, such as sitting in a drawer or in a hiding place.
All this being said, there is no clear-cut winner between the two. If you feel well-armed with a .380, 9 mm or .45 ACP, you will feel just as well-armed with a .38 Special, .357 Magnum or a .44 Special. The important thing to remember is that you must use the handgun of the most powerful caliber you will carry every day and allow you to put the first round on the target while under stress.
Some Good Choices
Let’s consider the current crop of available revolvers and point out a few which would make good concealed carry pieces. Here I am going to limit the selection to high-quality, American made product. This list will not be exhaustive. I encourage you to visit the manufacturers’ websites to review their offerings to find what may work for you.
Smith and Wesson
S&W 642 CT “Airweight” 5-shot, .38 Special +P Concealed hammer, Crimson Trace® laser grips, 15.3 oz.
This iconic manufacturer, founded in 1852, has had a long history marked by classic designs. While the company was owned by a large conglomerate, quality suffered. Today, as a standalone, publicly traded company, Smith and Wesson is back on top. Their line of handguns is extensive, comprising both revolvers and semi-autos. Their quality is first rate and the revolver line offers a staggering number of choices, including re-introductions of classic models from the past. The legendary J-frame, a 5-shot .38 Special with a 2″ barrel, is the definitive “snubby.” This excellent gun has been improved and modified over the years. Today it is available a wide variety of models, including .357 Magnum and with Crimson Trace laser grips. The alloy frame “Airweight” model tips the scales at under one pound. A wide variety of medium frame (K and L frame) revolvers is also available in 6, 7 and 8 shot capacities. The line-up is too extensive to discuss in detail here.
Ruger SP101, 2¼”, 5-shot, .357 Magnum. DAO, all stainless. 25 oz.
This American manufacturer was first known for their “Blackhawk” single-action revolvers which combined the look of the Old West with modern design and high-strength steel to handle the potent .357 and .44 Magnum. Today, Ruger offers a full line of single action and double action revolvers, as well as autoloading pistols, bolt action, single shot and semi-automatic rifles. Their double action revolver line includes the LCR, a thoroughly modern design of compact size, available in .38, .357, and 9 mm. This is a lightweight, 5-shot design which is easy to conceal. Also offered is the SP101, a 5-shot, all stainless steel model available in .38 and .357. Barrels of 2.25″, 3.06″, and 4.20″ are offered, as well as a choice of fixed or adjustable sights. Of particular interest is the #5720, with 2.25″ barrel, fixed sights, and spurless hammer for DAO operation. This smooth and easily concealed revolver is rugged enough to withstand thousands of rounds of full power .357 Magnum ammo, and will handle .38 special as well. If you prefer a slightly larger 6-shot model, check out the GP100, which is offered in a 3″ stainless version with fixed sights. All Ruger products are known for their superior strength and durability. They are also an excellent value for the money.
Charter Arms Bulldog, 5-shot .44 Special. DAO, 21 oz.
Though not as finely finished as the products from S&W or Ruger, Charter Arms offers well-made, durable and dependable revolvers at very reasonable prices. Perhaps best known for their “Bulldog” model, a 5-shot .44 Special with a 2.5″ barrel, they also offer the .38 Special “Undercover” and the .357 Magnum “Pug” in a number of different variations. There are exposed hammer and DAO versions and also versions with Crimson Trace® laser grips. Both blue and stainless finishes are offered.
For those who prefer a revolver for concealed carry, there is no shortage of excellent choices. Although some are light and small enough to be carried loose in a pocket, we recommend the use of a good holster, whether for belt or pocket carry. The holster covers the trigger guard, protects the gun from dirt and pocket debris, and keeps it in a constant position, insuring a smooth draw. In upcoming articles, Concealed Nation will review some concealed carry revolvers in detail. Stay safe.