The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

Revisiting the Modern Service Revolver

At RECOIL, we review every product fairly and without bias. Making a purchase through one of our links may earn us a small commission, and helps support independent gun reviews. Learn More

About five years ago, I wrote a two-part article that discussed the idea of the modern service/carry revolver. The idea was to create a set of specifications that would allow shooters to build a revolver that took advantage of modern technological advancements. In the last year, there has been an increase in people looking to revolvers as options for concealed carry, as experienced shooters have once again embraced the u-shaped utility curve for wheelguns as defensive tools. Thus it’s appropriate for me to take a look back at old work and see how my old ideas hold up after time. 

First, let’s define some terms. There are two types of revolvers that we’ll look at: the modern service revolver and the compact defensive revolver. Originally I defined the modern service revolver as a medium or large frame revolver that holds six or more shots, is chambered in .38 Special or larger, and comes equipped with quality sights or has aftermarket sights available. Examples of this type would be Smith & Wesson K and L frames like the Model 15 or the 686, or the Ruger GP100 in its various configurations. Modern service revolvers are going to be large enough that firing a steady diet of service caliber ammo won’t overly fatigue the shooter, and as a consequence of that size, will need to be carried in a holster attached to a belt. 

The compact defensive revolver is a small revolver exemplified by Smith & Wesson’s J-Frame and the Ruger LCR. Unlike the service revolver, examples of this can be carried in a pocket as a backup gun, in ankle holsters, and other non-conventional methods of carry. Obviously, a belt and holster combination works with these as well. There are a few other guns that also fit this niche that I’ll discuss later. 

Some things never change

In my previous articles, I was adamant that any revolver carried for serious defensive use should be equipped with an instinctive grip activated laser, such as Crimson Trace. I haven't changed my mind on that opinion, with one small exception. The exception is reserved for small guns used exclusively for deep concealment where a laser grip might compromise concealability. Otherwise, the advantages a laser provides for a skilled shooter are significant. Understand, though, that despite its marketing, the laser is not a replacement for iron sights, neither is it a crutch; it is a specific tool that provides certain advantages in a small window. The laser is especially useful when mounted to compact defensive revolvers which may not have high visibility sights, or even very useful sights at all.


In the intervening five years, I have changed my mind or perhaps expanded my viewpoint on some other items with regards to defensive revolvers. Make no mistake, if you build a gun to my original standards, your end result will be an excellent defensive revolver. The two areas where I am far more willing to be open-minded now are caliber and the subject of moon clips. 

Previously, I had a fairly hard “38 Special and up” rule, which as my understanding of terminal ballistics has grown, that rule has softened considerably. I still think that if you’re going to carry a medium frame revolver, like a GP100 or a K-Frame, that it should definitely be .38 Special or higher caliber. That’s because out of a 4-inch barrel, you can get modern JHP loads that will reliably expand in .38 Special and .357 Magnum. There are also reliable revolvers chambered in .40 S&W/10mm and .45 ACP, both of which have excellent service loads available for them. 

However, out of compact defensive revolvers, expansion with any hollow point round is not guaranteed, which means that the most important criteria for a compact revolver is that it fires a round that meets the FBI penetration standard for terminal performance. Seeing as a 148-grain full lead wadcutter going 700 feet per second will meet that standard, we can open the door to various sub-caliber revolvers for personal defense. Lots of very smart people carry .32 Magnums because it gives them six rounds, and a .32 Magnum will meet the penetration standards. Somewhat more controversial is carrying a rimfire round – I do it and so do a few other serious shooters. The idea behind a rimfire gun, at least for me, is that it is the ultra-concealable gun. I carry a S&W 351PD, which is a scandium-framed .22 Magnum. It’s the lightest gun I own, and I can literally make it conceal in gym shorts. There are no other guns I can do that with, so the rimfire does fit a specific niche for me. 

Another area where I’ve softened is that of moon clips. Previously I wrote that a gun could not require moon clips to function and be considered a viable choice for a defensive revolver. This was because I’d had multiple bad experiences with thin, shitty moon clips made for compact revolvers. 9mm clips and .38 Special clips for compact revolvers tend to be very thin and very fragile, making them prone to bending, which renders the gun inoperable. On the other hand, when used with a mooner tool and a de-mooner tool, the large, robust clips such as the ones for the S&W 625 or the Ruger GP100 10mm are far more durable. One recommendation is that if you’re carrying clips for duty or personal protection, load them with dummy rounds, drop them in the cylinder, close the gun, and make sure the cylinder rotates freely when you pull the trigger. A bent clip in the gun will noticeably change your trigger pull. 

The now-discontinued 325 uses moon clips to hold 6 rounds of .45 ACP

New models

Since I wrote the last articles, new models have hit the market that make excellent compact defensive revolvers. For example, you have the Kimber K6s, which definitely hits all the right boxes on paper to be a great compact defensive revolver. The reason I’m not recommending it with glowing praise is I don’t have enough experience shooting one to know how it holds up. The samples I have shot do have excellent triggers, proper defensive pistol sights, and that sixth round in a compact package is a really nice touch. Several people I respect seem to love theirs, so I’m optimistic about the Kimber. 

Also new to the market is the return of the Colt Cobra, a classic 6-shot defensive revolver that is based on Colt’s old D Frame. This is a compact frame gun that does squeeze six rounds into the cylinder, which on paper makes it seem like a good choice. However the price tag eclipses the Kimber, and there are reports of spotty QC and other problems with the Cobra. I'm not comfortable, given Colt’s recent struggles, recommending the new Cobra for carry. 

Last but not least, Nighthawk, known for their 1911s, also dropped a couple of revolvers. This was a partnership with the German company Korth, who is known to make some of the finest wheelguns on earth. The “best” one for carry or duty would be the Mongoose .357, a medium-framed six-shooter with a 4-inch barrel. If you have the cash to buy and carry a 3700 dollar revolver, good for you!

In my opinion, outside of Ruger and Smith and Wesson, the other revolver brands are to be avoided for any reason other than humor value. Sure, the Chiapas Rhino looks cool, but it’s hopelessly complicated and likes to break. 

So after all that, what does the new defensive revolver look like? Pretty much the same as before. For full-size/duty guns, get it in .38 or larger, moon clips are okay as long as they are robust, and get one with adjustable sights so you make sure your bullets hit where you want them to. Compact guns: get a caliber that penetrates deep enough to hit vital stuff, and that you’ll want to actually shoot. And definitely put a frickin laser beam on it. 

Enter Your E-Mail to Receieve a Free 50-Target Pack from RECOIL!

NEXT STEP: Download Your Free Target Pack from RECOIL

For years, RECOIL magazine has treated its readers to a full-size (sometimes full color!) shooting target tucked into each big issue. Now we've compiled over 50 of our most popular targets into this one digital PDF download. From handgun drills to AR-15 practice, these 50+ targets have you covered. Print off as many as you like (ammo not included).

Get your pack of 50 Print-at-Home targets when you subscribe to the RECOIL email newsletter. We'll send you weekly updates on guns, gear, industry news, and special offers from leading manufacturers - your guide to the firearms lifestyle.

You want this. Trust Us.

Add a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to the Free