A Brief History
On March 29, 1911, the Colt M1911, a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol, was adopted as the first semi-automatic service pistol for regular use by the U.S. military.
Last year we first told you the tale of this great pistol, but today we will compare the relative merits of the semi-automatic pistol vs. the merits of the revolvers that preceded it. (Semi-automatics are usually called “pistols” to differentiate them from revolvers.)
Originally, revolvers were built with a “single-action” mechanism, which means that prior to firing the handgun, it had to be cocked by pulling back the hammer. Those were later made obsolete by the more complicated “double-action” revolvers that could be repeatedly fired merely by pulling the trigger more than once, with each pull of the trigger both cocking and releasing the hammer.
Another big improvement in revolver development was the top-break action that would enable all (usually 6) empty cases to be ejected at once instead of one at a time as was the case with the old single action revolvers. Later, revolvers adopted the swing-out cylinder as the method for rapidly unloading empty cases and reloading live rounds.
Semi-automatic pistols were first designed with an internal magazine that could be loaded faster than a revolver by the use of “stripper clips.” Unloading empty cases in a semi-automatic pistol was a non-issue as each empty case would be ejected automatically. Soon removable magazines were developed that allowed for even faster reloading. A pistolero could carry numerous pre-loaded magazines and lay down tremendous firepower with far more rapid reloads than with any revolver, even when “speed loaders” were used. Plus, the semi-automatic pistols generally carried more rounds than the 6 that were typical of revolvers (7 in the magazine and 1 in the chamber for the M1911). Today, high-capacity semi-autos have voluminous magazines holding a dozen or even up to 3 dozen rounds (in extended magazines that stick out of the hand grip).
Another advantage of the semi-automatic over the revolver is its flat profile over the bulging cylinder of the revolver. This is especially important for concealed carry.
Where the revolver shines is in the flexibility of its ammunition. Many revolvers can shoot a variety of case lengths as the straight-walled cases will easily fit in the cylinder and eject the same as the intended case. (Examples include using .38 Special in a .357 Magnum, using .44 Special in a .44 Magnum or using .22 Short and .22 Long in a .22 LR revolver. The .460 S&W Magnum revolver can also safely fire .454 Casull, .45 Colt and .45 Schofield ammunition. The fairly new caliber of .327 Federal Magnum revolver can handle .32 H&R Magnum, .32 S&W Long and .32 S&W cartridges as well.) So, not only can different cartridges be used, but also greatly varied bullet configurations and power levels. In a semi-auto, the ammo must have a consistent power level in order for the pistol to function properly, and the cases must be of standard length in order to eject properly. Basically, whereas revolvers eat up whatever you put in them, semi-autos are much more sensitive; either they like or they don’t like the ammo.
Revolvers are also more easily adaptable to using higher-powered ammunition, with monster calibers such as .44 Remington Magnum, .460 and .500 S&W Magnum, .480 Ruger, and .454 Casull available. These powerful rounds are appropriate for deer, hog and bear hunting. On the other hand, semi-automatic pistols in 10mm, .44 Magnum or .50 AE are rare in comparison and must be given full powered rounds, even when used for “plinking.”
Although revolvers are often seen as less complicated than semi-autos, the truth is that they are actually more complicated and are more prone to mechanical failure or failure due to dirt. (The S&W Model 10 revolver and the Colt M1911 have the same number of parts.) There is a reason, after all, why virtually every military in the world uses semi-automatic pistols. The caveat to this, however, is that the semi-automatic pretty much requires lubrication to work well, while the revolver can be “drier,” which could help in a sandy environment.
The bottom line is that the semi-automatic pistol is clearly superior for use by military and police forces and by citizens who require a higher level of firepower. Revolvers are better for people, such as hunters, who want the flexibility to use various powered rounds for different uses. The price of both types is comparable when in similar calibers and levels of quality.
In a bizarre twist, the English company Webley actually made a semi-automatic revolver (The Webley-Fosbery).
Question for students (and subscribers): So, which type of hand gun do you prefer? Feel free to give your opinions in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Doyle, William and Chris Kyle. American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms (P.S.). William Morrow Paperbacks, 2014.