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Old Man’s Gun

The Why of the Wheel Gun

Photos by Dave Merrill, Kenda Lenseigne, Mike Searson, and Shinnosuke Tanaka

The Western lawman. Cop movies set in the 1970s. Pulp novels about private investigators. Wyatt Earp. Roger Murtaugh getting too old for this sh*t. All of these share two common traits: They wear mustaches unironically, and they carry wheel guns. But there’s more to the revolver than history, pop culture, and a throwback to ancient days.

There are people in the gun world who wonder, in the year 2017, why anyone would choose a revolver over a modern semi-auto pistol. Well, we’re glad you asked. We’re reminded of Pat Roger’s axiom “The mission drives the gear train” in answering such questions. In short, for some people, and some situations, the revolver can be the dreaded “just as good as,” or an even better.

While it is true that the modern military-grade semi-auto service pistol has replaced the revolver for hard use in defensive carry, police, and military service, this in no way means the revolver isn’t a capable handgun for defensive and sport use.

To start, let’s address what’s often perceived as an issue when revolvers are considered for defensive carry use: the deadly duo of low ammunition capacity and slow reload speed.

Ammunition Capacity
This is actually a non-issue for the concealed carry paradigm. We can learn quite a bit by examining what has happened in real-world incidents. To borrow a line from Tom Givens, when speaking of experiences his students who’ve actually been in defensive shootings: “three shots in 3 seconds at 3 feet” is still what a typical defensive shooting looks like.

We’ll also note Givens is famous for saying, “The primary cause of needing to reload is missing.”

To pursue this idea further, we draw on the research of friend and mentor Keith Jones. Jones is a Vietnam combat vet, nearly 40-year police officer, multiple gunfight winner, very competent researcher, and gun guy. Back in the days when coppers only carried revolvers, Jones looked at the experiences of the officers in his area. He found that in 199 incidents, from 1970 through 1988, there was only one instance where the officer had to reload to prevail in the fight.

Everything else was settled with the five or six rounds available in the wheel gun.

The patrol officer shootout is often a very different fight than we see in the concealed carry/defensive pistol realm; suspects fight more aggressively to avoid arrest, multiple suspects are more likely to be involved, and there’s a duty to pursue. Yet in these 199 incidents, the revolver clearly had enough capacity to get the job done.

Claude Werner, a gifted instructor, noted researcher, and generally the smartest guy in the room tells us the average number of shots fired in the defensive gunfight is 1.43.

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An underappreciated advantage of the revolver is the rate of malfunctions that occur in real-world fights. Although the military-grade semi-auto service pistol is clearly more tolerant of abuse and hard service than the revolver, all semi-auto pistols are subject to malfunction when the shooter uses a weak grip, is floating the gun one handed, if the ammunition is underpowered, and if the pistol is poorly lubed and/or full of dust bunnies.

While the “six for sure” mantra of revolver proponents is a myth, it’s a fact the revolver is vastly more tolerant of a poor grip and garbage ammunition.

Even though yours truly started in the defensive handgun world in the days when cops carried by-God-steel-framed-revolvers and leather gear, uses for the wheel gun nowadays include backup gun/lightweight carry gun, hunting/“kit gun,” general fun shooting, and training gun.

Being an old cop, using the snubby as a backup gun was a natural thing. Over the years we have tried several semi-auto backup guns, but have repeatedly come back to the snub due to some very concrete advantages that this platform gives versus the semi-auto pistol.

An airweight snub, such as an S&W 642 or a Ruger LCR, generally carries on an ankle or in a pocket better than any semi-auto pistol. It also draws more cleanly and consistently when pushing speed. The snub can be reliably fired with hard muzzle contact, clothing interference, or even through a pocket. The shape of a snubby often makes it conceal better than a similarly sized semi-auto, and this shape also makes it easier to get a shooting grip on the gun when carried in deep concealment.


For the rest of this article, subscribe here: Concealment 8

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