Key Point: Each comes with their own pros and cons, and it comes down to user's preference.
One of the most important roles a handgun can play is in home defense. Compact and easy to secure, handguns are ideal weapons for defending one’s own home. Caliber aside, one of the major questions when picking a home-defense gun is whether or not to choose a revolver or semiautomatic handgun. Both types have bring their own advantages and disadvantages to the debate, and knowing them will help prospective gun owners make an informed choice.
Revolvers, or “wheelguns,” have been around for nearly two hundred years. A revolver typically holds five, six, or even seven rounds of ammunition in a rotating cylinder. Modern revolvers are typically double-action guns: a single trigger pull both cocks the hammer and releases it, firing the pistol. Alternately, many handguns can be fired in single-action mode, in which the hammer is first cocked, resulting in a lighter trigger pull. Modern revolvers have steel or aluminum frames and are generally heavier, round for round, than other handguns. This both gives a revolver heft and helps to absorb recoil. A modern home-defense handgun will either come in .38 Special or .357 Magnum calibers, and guns chambered in the latter can fire both calibers of bullets.
One advantage of the revolver in home defense is that it is easier to operate and learn to shoot. There isn’t much to shooting a revolver: simply open the cylinder, insert bullets, close the cylinder and pull the trigger. This simplicity is reassuring in a high-stress situation, where the user does not have to worry about whether or not the first round was chambered by racking the slide, like in semiautomatic pistols. The heft of a metal-framed revolver is also reassuring in the user’s hands.
There are disadvantages to a revolver in a home-defense situation, too. Revolvers are limited to a handful of bullets, typically six. This is less than half the number available to owners of semiautomatic pistols. In many modern gun engagements, the handgun owner often expends the entire magazine of fifteen or so rounds in the first two seconds. Having six rounds or fewer can often feel inadequate, although this is more of a training issue than anything else. Revolvers also take more time to reload, which can feel like an eternity in a stressful situation, and involve taking the user’s eyes off the threat to load a fresh set of bullets.
Semiautomatic handguns, or pistols, have been around for just over a hundred years. A pistol typically holds up to seventeen rounds of nine-millimeter ammunition in a magazine inserted into the pistol grip. Like revolvers, most pistols are double-action weapons, though some are capable of firing in single-action mode. Pistols such as the 1911A1 are all steel handguns, but many newer models such as the Glock 19 and Smith & Wesson M&P make use of polymer frames as a weight-saving measure. Most modern pistols are chambered in nine-millimeter, .40 Smith & Wesson and .45 ACP.
Pistols have several advantages in a home-defense situation. Pistols, with the exception of the 1911A1 generally carry twice as many bullets, though this also depends on firearms laws in the user’s state. (California, for example, only allows ten-round magazines in handguns and pistols.) Pistols can also be reloaded with taking the user’s eyes off the threat, with the handgun still pointed downrange. Finally, modern pistols often include M1913 rail interface systems. Developed by Picatinny Arsenal, these rails allow the attachment of accessory lights and laser pointers, making it easier to shine a light and hold a handgun at the same time.
Pistols also have their own disadvantages. Unless stored “cocked and locked”—that is, loaded, and cocked with the safety on, a pistol needs its slide racked to chamber a round before firing. “Cocked and locked” may not be an option with children in the home, and many modern pistols lack a manual safety. A pistol owner, experiencing fear and stress in a defensive situation, could forget to rack the slide and chamber around unless the step is second nature.
If a homeowner has little training but still needs a handgun to secure his or her home, a revolver such as the Ruger GP100 is ideal. The weapon is simple to operate and, with its beefy, all-steel frame, has a reassuring heft. The weapon can accept lighter, gentler recoil .38 Special bullets or heavier, more powerful .357 Magnum bullets that generate greater recoil.
A more experienced handgun owner would do well with a Glock 19 pistol fitted with a rail-mounted weapon light. Smaller than the original Glock 17, a Glock 19 still carries twice as many bullets as a revolver while being lighter and bearing a slimmer profile. Although some firearms experts characterize the nine-millimeter round as anemic, special ammunition can boost the Glock’s ability to immediately incapacitate the target.
A handgun is a dangerous weapon designed to kill people. That said, it is also merely a tool, and there are some situations in which it is the only tool that can effectively respond to a dangerous situation. One of the most valuable skills a handgun owner can possess is the ability to think clearly in a stressful situation and refrain from using force. The times when force is absolutely, positively necessary will be exceedingly rare, but readily apparent.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami. This piece was originally featured in 2017 and is being republished due to reader's interest.