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Why Not?

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Submitted by Eric Daniel

Jason posted this comment a while back on my "What is a Combat Handgun?" entry.

When I got out I worked personal security for individuals.  I had to take 3 levels of firearms qualification classes.  Even with my experience several of my instructors asked me to try the revolver (yes I am going there)

I was skeptical.  But in their opinions (all were similar), if I got the **** scared out of me I would be more accurate with a revolver.  I went to a gun shop after doing some research and picked up a S&W Model 66.  Stainless steel, .357 Magnum, and adjustable sights.  Night sights too.

I started practicing with it every night for about an hour during my courses and would shoot both types of firearms.  No question I could get two in the chest and a head shot (had to unlearn that per my instructors, though...) even when worked up (we did push ups, sit ups and ran in place and then went into shooting scenarios and drills at the sound of a whistle).

In my very few engagements I felt 100% better with the revolver.  Stainless steel doesn't rust and conceals nicely when not in use.  Speed loaders are exceptionally fast to load when taught the right technique.  And a .357+P hollow point round will mess the BG up.

Besides aren't almost all of these engagements where you switched to a pistol for whatever reason CQB.  You are going to end up stabbing the BG in the head or chest anyway when the gun is empty, so reloading is unlikely.

I know the instructors who taught me had rarely seen statistics that involved a successful engagement between two combatants where the winner (good or bad) had fired many more than 3-6 rounds.  Anything with more shots than that fired usually involved one or more of the combatants retreating and looking for cover with someone or both wounded.  All instructors (to my best recollection) had fired their handguns successfully as I remember.  That is what made me pay such good attention.

Jason's comment got me to thinking.

"Why not?" 

Fine, revolvers, as battlefield weapons went out of style in the American army a century ago (surviving until recently as aircrew holdout weapons) and they don't carry as many bullets as modern automatics go (6 v. 15) but is the revolver really that bad as a defensive firearm when compared with an automatic?

I would think, from a purely layman perspective, that revolvers would have a number of things going for them, as a mass-produced, mass-issued defensive firearm. 

Firstly, they are reliable.  Yes, I know that most properly maintained military-grade weapons are reliable, but I would think that a revolver would have an advantage over an automatic in that it has fewer moving parts and it's operation isn't dependent upon the effective transfer of energy (be the slide gas or recoil operated.)  There's no energy to be lost, no slide to bind, no failures to extract, eject, or feed.  In short, if you can get the hammer to fall, the weapon should function as advertised.  Hell, even if you get a misfire, there's no SPORTS to perform, you just pull the trigger again. 

Secondly, they are durable.  Again, I'm not saying that automatics are not durable, but I would think, especially when compared with a polymer-slided auto, the all-metal revolver has a longer working life.  Now, to clarify further, when I mean durable, I mean 30-50 years durable.  My issue .45 was 40 years old for Pete's sake.  Yes, I think modern firearms are, for the most part, well built and will provide years of service, but I do believe there's a difference between a sportsman who uses the same handgun for target practice for 10 years and a weapon that gets issued to soldiers for field duty over a 30 year period; in general the Army pistol will see more abuse and have a poorer maintenance program, so "soldier-proof" weapons are a big plus (now before all you out there bag on me about dissing "your" weapon maintenance habits, you'll notice I didn't mention you by name, so I wasn't talking about you.)  How many police officers us hand me down weapons that old, or stick with the dame duty weapon for that period of time?  Durability would also translate to maintenance costs as well.  With fewer moving parts, there would be fewer parts to replace over the life of the weapon, though this might be negated by the cost of having to replace a barrel (I've never replaced a revolver barrel, mind you, but it's got to be harder to do than swapping out one in an automatic) but then, on the flip side, there are no magazines or magazine springs to replace either. 

Finally, there are the politics and training considerations.  Revolvers are double action only weapons (okay, sure, if we brought back the Colt SAA, we'd have a cool single-action handgun in .45 Colt, but I don't see that happening) which means that they are politically more palatable than are SA weapons (which also dovetails well with the fact that a revolver only has 6 bullets rather than 15.)  Mind you, I'm not saying that this is a good thing, or that it is even appropriate to entertain such considerations when selecting a piece of life saving equipment, but nonetheless, the fact remains that it does happen, and so it would be a consideration.  In addition, in the one-size-fits-all category, a revolver would have the advantage over all the double stacked autos out there, and with the case of the .38 special/.357 magnum combination, you'd even have the added bonus of issuing different rounds if you wanted to (yes the same could be said of automatics, but to get an automatic to function reliably with either a different cartridge or lower powered cartridge you'd need to swap out some parts to account for the change in slide operating recoil.)  Also in the ammunition realm is the discussion of anything other than ball type ammunition.  Since we are never going to use anything other than ball ammunition (at least until personal linear accelerators come out) in the rank-and-file military, comparing .357 JHP to .45 WC to .460 Nitro Express is pointless and non-productive.  Again, I'm not saying this is a good thing, but it is something that those in power seem to focus on, so it's worth mentioning.

All this having been said, however, there are a number of huge, real world, realities that a revolver would have to overcome in order to get selected. 

First, there is the dearth of revolver ammunition in the military supply system, which is to say there's none at all.  Before we all started shooting our new wheel guns, we'd need some bullets to shoot first (no, I don't see the Army adopting a 9x19mm revolver, though given how things have been going of late in procurement, I wouldn't be surprised if they did.)  I also realize that there'd be the issue of overall effectiveness. 

Second, all those revolvers would have to be purchased, and those purchases mean money.  This issue is further compounded by the fact that revolvers, at least on the free market, appear to be more expensive than automatics (I came to this conclusion by looking at the MSRP for a variety of "stock" handguns, so it is more an anecdotal conclusion than a scientific one) and that there wouldn't be any commonality offsets associated with the new purchase, meaning a S&W Model 60 and a Beretta 92 FS are not going to have anything in common.  This means that all those Berettas still on the books would need to find a home in someone else's army.

Thirdly, there is the fact that revolvers are, well... old.  While this has absolutely no bearing on the actual merits of the item in question (you'll notice farriers still use an anvil and hammer for shaping horseshoes, devices introduced in the early Bronze Age (3300 BC)) in today's, "it's gotta be digital, carbon fiber, and Land Warrior compatible" world, revolvers are looked down upon as being less advanced than automatics, and therefore less effective and ultimately less desirable.  Also, as mentioned, while there are very few things that can go wrong with or wear out on a revolver, the things that do wear out, like the barrel, are big-ticket maintenance items.  Given the Army's tolerances for equipment wear, and the relative ease of replacing worn parts on an automatic, the revolver, over the long haul, might be the less effective of the two options.  There is also the issue of weight.  Hands down, revolvers, especially when compared with polymer automatics, are significantly heavier than automatics.  Is that weight difference a deal breaker though?

That all having been said, where are we now?  Personally I would want a weapon that was firstly reliable (if it doesn't work, what good is it) secondly effective (the purpose of the weapon is to kill or disable the target, not piss it off) and thirdly is everything else; size (smaller is better) capacity (6 v. 15.) and ergonomics (how well does it fit in my hand (allowing for custom grips would be a nice touch) with political considerations last of all.  Would I personally select a revolver over an automatic?  I don't know, but I certainly not opposed to the idea and wouldn't frown upon a good .357 S&W if that were what the Army issued me.

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