The Revolver - The iconic pistol for over 100 years

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For over 100 years, the revolver was the king of self defense handguns. From the introduction of the Colt Walker revolver in 1847 to the Smith & Wesson Model 29 making an appearance in the 1970 Clint Eastwood film "Dirty Harry", revolvers were seen in the holsters of police officers, hunters and shooters throughout the United States.

You may also be interested in our previous article about Revolvers, take a look: Popular 9mm Revolver For Concealed Carry
This trend began to decline in the mid-1980s, mostly due to the infamous FBI Miami Shootout of 1986 when revolver-toting agents were killed in a gun battle with armed robbers equipped with rifles.

Semiautomatic firearms were finding their way into the holsters of police agencies and armed citizens at an astounding rate to the point where, the revolver had seemingly disappeared from use and the classic "six shooter" was being considered a relic of a by-gone era. However, some of the top selling handguns in today's marketplace are not strictly compact semiautomatics or striker-fired duty pistols with 17-round magazines. In some cases it is the 5-shot wheel gun.



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History of the revolver

Revolvers originated in the early 1800s as "pepperbox" pistols. They were typically in a small caliber and these early designs relied on multiple barrels each loaded with a projectile and powder. They offered an advantage in firepower, but were somewhat bulky to carry and prone to misfire.

Samuel Colt changed that by using a fixed barrel and a rotating cylinder to hold the powder and bullets.

His end result was safer to carry, balanced well in the hand and went on to win numerous military contracts.



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The use of a self-contained cartridge in a revolver by Colt's rival, Smith & Wesson, lead to an even greater level of safety and reliability over Colt's muzzle loading revolvers and lead the way for other companies to produce designs suited for police work and self-defense.

By the early 1900s and the introduction of smokeless powder, revolvers became even more effective.

Improvements in metallurgy lead to more powerful cartridges that eclipsed what could be had in a semiautomatic pistol of the day and America continued its love affair with revolvers into the 1980s.




Dawn of the semiautomatic handgun


Semiautomatic pistols dominated the European market since the 1920s.

Shooters in the US tended to keep them at arm's length due to the perceived weaknesses of the calibers when compared to a revolver or the lack of reliability in a semiautomatic (whether real or imaginary). Eventually, magazine capacity increased, semiautomatic were made more reliable, integral safeties were developed and lightweight polymer replaced steel in frame construction.



By 1990 the market seemed to split evenly down the middle with regard to revolver use and semiautomatic handgun use. Most police departments and security companies would make the switch to semiautomatics by the mid-1990s due to the pricing, reliability and most significantly the higher magazine capacity of the semiautomatic pistol.



The general shooting public followed suit from an unlikely source, the 1994 federal ban on magazines containing more than 10 rounds.

Even with reduced magazine capacity legislation in place, 10 rounds was more than the 5 or 6 offered by 90% of the revolvers manufactured at the time.

During this same time period, states began to be more lenient with issuing concealed carry permits. The large 357 Magnum revolver with an 8" barrel might have been perfect for home defense, but was far from an effective carry piece.



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The resurgence of the Revolver

Just as semiautomatic pistols had to undergo a change to become accepted by the modern shooter, so did the revolver. Companies such as Smith & Wesson had been producing lighter weight revolvers for decades using materials such as aluminum. The company continued to push the envelope with titanium, scandium and other metals,

but what really brought the pocket revolver back to public notice were the polymer framed wheel guns offered by Smith & Wesson and Ruger.


Pocket revolver is a misnomer as any handgun intended for self-defense should be carried in a proper holster. The term merely reflects a handgun so small that it can fit in a pocket. Other companies such as Taurus followed suit by downsizing their full sized handguns into models intended for concealed carry.



The main advantages of these types of revolvers over similar sized semiautomatic pistols are simplicity, reliability and ease of concealment.


For simplicity and reliability, the revolver is king. There are no safeties to deactivate, no magazine releases or slide stop buttons to hit and no rearward slide travel to hang up on extraction or ejection. Granted, these types of failures in most modern semiautomatic pistols are rare and can be overcome with training, but for the revolver shooter they are a complete non-issue.


Concealability has more to do with the grip profile in the case of the revolver over the semiautomatic.

Semiautomatic grips most often contain the pistol’s magazine and in the case of double stack profile magazines, the girth makes them harder to conceal. The smaller grip profile of the compact revolver alleviates this concern for concealed carry.




The biggest question comes down to the issue of capacity as a small revolver of these types only holds 5 or 6 rounds as opposed to 8, 10, 12 15 17 or 18 in a corresponding semiautomatic.

Reloading a double action revolver is obviously not as fast as reloading a semiautomatic pistol, but there are tools such as speed loaders, speed strips and moon clips that can speed this up.


In the 1990s, the revolver may have appeared to have been a dinosaur plodding off to its death, but the 21st Century has shown that the wheel gun will be around for at least another 100 years before truly becoming obsolete.

Take a look at Alien Gear Revolver Holsters


About The Author


Mike Searson is a Marine veteran and a long time shooter, martial artist and historian of fighting and combat. He has written for RECOIL Magazine, Blade Magazine, Concealed Carry, SWAT, Gun Digest, Tactical Gear and covers MMA and Professional Boxing in Nevada and California for a number of news outlets.