Are Wheel Guns Still Relevant?

This is a guest post by Andrew Bettsrevolver

There was a time when the aphorism “Six for sure,” carried significant weight and automatic handguns were not nearly as dependable as revolvers. That time is long past, though. Modern automatic pistols are extremely reliable when loaded with quality ammunition. While revolvers are certainly no less dependable than they have always been, they are no more perfect than any other thing made by man. No matter what that gentleman with the greasy John Deere hat who seems Krazy glued to the end of the gun counter told you, revolvers can malfunction.

Aside from problems than can plague any firearm like parts breaking or bad ammo, there are problems that are unique to revolvers. A bullet can jump forward due to inertia when fired, locking up the cylinder. Debris can get between the hammer and the frame or between the frame and the cylinder. The latter can prevent primer ignition, stop the cylinder rotating, or prevent it indexing properly and the former can prevent the firing pin making contact with the primer or the hammer making contact with the firing pin. All that is not meant to imply that the revolver is in any way less reliable than an automatic, but it does have limitations.

Given that modern pistols are every bit as reliable as revolvers and typically carry more ammunition, is the revolver still a relevant choice? Does it really do anything better than an automatic?

The most obvious advantage that the revolver has over automatic pistols is power. Whether you want a load that expands well and still penetrates deeply or one that comes apart like a bomb and penetrates more reasonably, revolvers can deliver.


To be sure, there are a select few autos chambered in magnum cartridges but they tend to be much larger than revolvers chambered in the same cartridge. Auto pistols are just not as well suited to the higher pressures. With few exceptions, auto pistols are mostly recoil operated so they need stiff recoil springs with thick, heavy slides to keep the breech closed under the higher pressure of magnum cartridges. In other cases, like the Desert Eagle, they use a bulky gas system to handle the pressure and they end up even larger and even more impractical to carry.

On the other end of the size issue, revolvers can be made to be much smaller and lighter than auto pistols in similar Model 13cartridges. There are, of course, very small autos chambered in 9mm but at this size, the revolver once again enjoys a reliability edge.

In good conditions, and with a proper grip, pistols like the S&W Shield or Kel-Tec PF-9 are dependable but they are prone to failure when fired with a weak grip or from an awkward position. Autos will also fail to fire if the slide is pushed out of battery. This is an important safety feature to prevent a ruptured case but it means that if you find yourself in a sweaty pile with an attacker and you press your pistol into him, it won’t fire. A revolver still will.

There are rumors that the muzzle blast from a contact shot will be more devastating than the bullet, but that isn’t actually the case. At least not for .38 spl. Still, the revolver will put holes in the bad guy with which he did not start the fight, even if you have no choice but to press the revolver into him.



Likewise, a snub nose revolver with a shrouded or internal hammer can be fired from within a jacket pocket without inducing a malfunction. This ability to be fired in less than ideal conditions underscores one of the reasons that the revolver continues to sell in great numbers: simplicity. Not mechanical simplicity, revolvers are every bit as complicated on the inside as automatics are, but their use is simple. IMG_7419

An alloy framed short barrel revolver is not the easiest thing to shoot well at a distance, but it is easy to operate and easy to carry. You put the bang candy in the holes, close it up, jam it in a pocket holster, and forget about it until you need it. Now, we are NOT suggesting that a person does not need training, but that is how a lot of people approach personal defense and if a person is not willing to invest a lot of time and money on training, they may benefit from a firearm that is simple to use.

While it might not be as relevant to the urbanite, there is another thing that revolvers can do better than automatics: they can be loaded with snake shot (AKA rat shot) and still fire the next round. Snake shot is a terrible choice for personal defense against humans. It simply does not penetrate deeply enough to do more than anger an attacker or put an eye out if you get lucky.



Snake shot does perform extremely well on, wait for it, snakes. In some areas of the country snakes are common even in the suburbs, especially during certain times of the year. While most snakes prefer to be left alone and are happy to return the favor, some are actually genetically predisposed to be jerks and are highly aggressive. Even those that are not aggressive, like the Western Diamondback, will strike if you unintentionally disturb them. It may be safest to dispatch a venomous snake on your homestead, especially if you have short people and pets. Snake shot is not powerful enough to cycle the slide of an automatic but a double action revolver will simply move to the next cylinder with another trigger press.

If you are in an area where you anticipate venomous snakes, you can load the cylinder with the first round as snake shot (1 o’clock cylinder for S&W, Taurus, and Ruger revolvers and 11 o’clock cylinder for Colt revolvers) and fill the remaining cylinders with quality hollow points and if you are attacked by something larger than a snake, you can just press the trigger two or three times to get effective hits on the attacker.

Just as the revolver can still function even when loaded with low powered snake shot, it will also simply move to the next cylinder with a trigger pull if the cartridge under the hammer does not fire at all. Modern ammunition is extremely reliable and durable but primers can be deactivated by rough handling or long submersion in water. It is even possible for water or solvents to seep into the powder charge. Under normal use, this is extremely unlikely but it is possible.

Finally, revolvers have sights that are fixed to the barrel and frame and they tend to have very good single action triggers. That means they tend to be mechanically more accurate than automatic pistol, even if a short barreled double action is challenging to shoot well. With a 4” or 6” revolver,  loaded with a speedy .357 magnum, and when fired in single action, it can actually be reasonable to engage targets at 100 yards or more. That might not be typical for most defense scenarios but it is possible.



Revolvers do have limitations but those who carry them do not necessarily come to that decision simply because they are doddering old fools, stuck on antiquated technology. There are rational, objective reasons to choose a revolver for defense.


Andrew Betts served with the Arizona National Guard for over 12 years, including a tour to Afghanistan. Visit his YouTube Channel for more great shooting information.

Photo credit – Andrew Betts

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