The debate over which is the better handgun has been, and will continue to be, beaten into the ground. But comparing revolvers to semi-automatic handguns isn’t really fair; it’s much like comparing a car to a motorcycle. Both do essentially the same thing, of getting you from A to B, but they do it in slightly different ways, and each has their place on the road (although we all know that motorbikes are more fun!). So, instead of partaking in said beating, I’ll try to stick to the facts.
Once upon a time, revolvers were considered to be more reliable than semi-automatic handguns. And it used to be true. But no longer. It is still true that revolvers generally contain fewer parts, and are inherently simpler than semi-autos, but today, modern materials and design technology produces many semi-auto pistols which are as reliable – or, in some cases, even more reliable – than the average revolver.
Generally speaking, semi-automatic pistols can hold more ammo than revolvers. Even in Canada, where the law limits our semi-auto handgun magazines to a maximum of 10 rounds, it is still a clear advantage over the average revolver capacity of only 6 rounds.
With a revolver, each cartridge must be loaded directly into the chambers in the cylinder. This needs to be done one at a time, or, in the case of a swing-out cylinder, by using a speed-loader, speed-strip, or moon-clip. When all cartridges have been fired, the cylinder must be emptied, and fresh rounds inserted. And, unless you have Miculek-style skills, this whole process can be fairly time consuming.
Semi-autos, on the other hand, use detachable magazines which can be loaded ahead of time. Empty magazines can be easily ejected, and quickly swapped for a full one; thus making reloads much faster. One downside of this loading method is that, once the mag is inserted, you have to rack the slide, or at least release it, to ready the gun for firing. Not a big deal, I know, but it is one extra step that you don’t need to do with revolvers.
When you press the trigger (or cock the hammer in the case of a SA) on a revolver, the cylinder rotates and moves a new chamber and cartridge into place. This means that if a cartridge malfunctions due to a bad primer etc., you can simply press the trigger again, and the hammer will fall onto a fresh round. But, if a cartridge fails to go bang in a semi-auto, then you have to go through the tap-rack-assess procedure. All of these things point towards revolvers being simpler to use.
If you like to save brass for reloading, then revolvers offer another advantage: they don’t eject an empty cartridge casing with every shot, thus saving you from sifting through gravel on the range.
Revolvers are often considered to have more felt recoil than semi-autos, even when firing the same cartridge. Theory holds that the reciprocating slide and spring mechanism on a semi-auto absorbs some of the recoil. Personally I’m not convinced; I think the ergonomics of each firearm has much more effect on how the recoil is felt in your hand, but either way, any differences will be minor.
The revolver’s lack of a slide means that the barrel is directly attached to the frame; this provides a more stable platform which lends itself to being a tad more accurate than semi-autos. But, again, this difference is negligible, and either firearm type will likely out-perform the user.
What about power? Well, of course power comes from the cartridge, not the gun, and it is true to say that the most common revolver cartridges (e.g. .357 & .44 Magnum) are considerably more powerful than the most common semi-auto cartridges (e.g. 9mm Para and .45 ACP). But, although more power usually equals more fun, unless you are hunting with a handgun (in the USA), or if you’re one of the few people who has an ATC to carry your handgun in the bush for bear defence, the extra power provided by beefier revolver cartridges will be wasted. Also, the higher recoil and higher price of revolver cartridges makes them less friendly for regular range use.
In the end, despite the revolver’s inherent simplicity, the semi automatic’s higher cartridge capacity, combined with their potential for faster reloads, makes them a more popular choice on the range. But, with all that said, I do love revolvers. Just like motorbikes. They may be less practical, but the grin-factor is huge!