Guns The Revolver Buyer’s Guide Mike Searson December 31, 2017 1 Comments, Join the Conversation [This Buyer's Guide originally appeared in Concealment 2] Photos by Mike Searson and Shinnosuke Tanaka Old Doesn't Mean Obsolete. Don't Write Off the Six-Shooter as a Viable CCW Option. When selecting a handgun for concealed carry, the most common choices that spring to mind are either a compact single-stack .45 ACP, a subcompact polymer .380 ACP, a striker-fired 9mm, or a snub-nosed revolver. Wait a minute — a snub-nosed revolver? Do we mean a wheel gun? A six-shooter, like they used during the Gold Rush of 1849 or in Tombstone at the O.K. Corral? Not exactly, but if you’re a shooter who was raised on Glocks and SIGs, you may need to acquaint yourself with this other concealed-carry option that never seems to go away despite advancements in firearms technology. The appeal of revolvers lies in their lightweight construction, ease of use, reliability, and ease of concealment. Each of these factors plays a crucial role in any plan for carrying a handgun covertly, and perhaps explains why the “six-shooter” is enjoying something of a renaissance. Or perhaps it never really went away. HISTORY The revolver is one of the oldest “modern handguns” and dates back to the mid-19th century. It has been declared “obsolete” many times over throughout much of the 20th century since the advent of semiautomatic pistols. However, revolvers have been making a strong comeback in recent years. Not as side-arms for law enforcement officers or the military, but as a viable option for a primary concealed-carry weapon (CCW) or as a backup in case the primary arm should fail. First developed by Samuel Colt in the 1830s, the earliest revolvers were front-loading black powder types. Colt scoffed at the mention of loading metallic cartridges in his firearms, but an upstart company from Massachusetts headed by Hiram Smith and Daniel Wesson picked up the ball and ran with it. Smith & Wesson has led the way in revolver development going back as far as 1857. The company was responsible for the first cartridge revolver, the first double-action revolver, and the first “swing-out cylinder” — and blazed the magnum handgun trail since the introduction of the .357 magnum in 1935. Smith & Wesson has also heeded the call for producing lighter-weight handguns since its introduction of the aluminum-framed Aircrew model in the 1940s. Since then, Smith & Wesson has taken advantage of new materials — such as titanium, scandium, and now polymer frames — in building its guns. The difference being that a lighter revolver will more likely be carried than a heavier one. THE REVOLVER ADVANTAGE They may lack the capacity and quick-reload option of a semiautomatic pistol, but they have other traits that stand above the rest when it comes to a CCW plan. Revolvers have long been praised for their ease of use. Although revolver virtuoso Ed McGivern famously said in the 1930s that a double-action revolver was “the hardest firearm to learn how to shoot well,” there is nothing simpler than picking up a double-action revolver and squeezing the trigger. There are no safety levers, de-cockers, or slides to rack in order to make a revolver ready to shoot. It is in this regard that the revolver can excel for a new and inexperienced shooter in a life-or-death situation. Most revolvers can also remain loaded for years at a time, without being concerned about weak magazine or recoil springs. Ease of concealment goes back to the size of the revolver. In this case, we’re not talking about the gargantuan N and X frames of Smith & Wesson or the massive Ruger Super Redhawk, but rather the J-frames of Smith & Wesson, the discontinued D-frames of Colt, and the LCR made by Ruger. Revolvers of these types can easily be concealed in a pocket (although that’s not a recommended practice without a good pocket holster) or a waistband with a suitable holster. The grip profile is smaller, the frame is typically narrower, and when coupled with a bobbed or concealed hammer the draw from the pocket can be quicker than most semi-autos. Some shooters aren’t physically capable of racking the slide of a pistol under pressure. We don’t just mean the elderly or infirm, but someone who has been injured in the course of an altercation may find it easier to get a revolver into action if one of their hands has been injured as opposed to making ready a semi-auto pistol. THE DOWNSIDES The snub-nose revolver is not without its shortcomings, either. Limited capacity is the obvious one. Most in this category are limited to five or six rounds. There are old adages about that (“If you can’t do it with five, you won’t do it at all”), but the reality is that the days of the lone assailant may be in the past. When defending your life from a gang of thugs, you may need more than six rounds. Even when coupled with a speed loader or moon clips, revolvers are slow to reload. The action must be opened and the empties dropped loose, then live rounds must be inserted. If you’re still living with a pre-1960s frame of mind, this is one at a time. Speed strips and M-16 stripper clips are good for holding rounds in place in a pocket or dump pouch, but the speed loader is king here. Revolver prices, particularly police trade-ins, used to run on the low end. However, as their manufacture declined, their demand seemed to go up. While deals can be had if you look, the glory days of picking up a barely used wheel gun for under $200 are a thing of the past. Likewise, ammunition has considerably risen in price. Luckily, straight-wall revolver cartridges are the easiest to reload, providing practical savings. TEST TIME The three biggest revolver manufacturers (Ruger, Smith & Wesson, and Taurus) have been backordered for six months or longer on all of their products, with Taurus citing a revolver as their hottest seller for four years in a row (Taurus was so backordered that it couldn’t directly supply us with a test revolver to meet our deadline for this article). These aren’t firearms made for competition, police/military contacts, or collectors, but working guns used for concealed carry by thousands of gun owners daily. We sampled some of the more popular offerings. The S&W 642 and Charter Bulldog were personally owned pieces by the author and photographer, the Taurus was a loaner from a local range, and the others were directly provided by the manufacturers. Read on to find out how they fared, and if one of these might fit in your personal wheelhouse. CAUTION! Although most revolvers will chamber and tolerate almost any load that they were designed for, the snubbies deserve special attention. These lighter-weight examples may have what feels like a sharp recoil impulse, but this can be tamed down by building a resistance. Start with light target loads and work your way up. Most of our examples rely on fixed sights for simplicity’s sake, and as a result a shooter may have to experiment with different loads to find the one that hits the sweet spot; in this case that means hitting the 10-ring on your target consistently. Don’t make the mistake of firing only light loads at the range and relying on Megalithic Exploding Star Crusher +P+ Man Killers as your defensive load. When you work up to your ideal load, incorporate it into your defensive shooting exercises. Harsher rounds loaded in lighter-weight frames will take a toll on guns after a while and reduce their service life. It may not be the first round or the 100th round, but eventually the pressure in that cylinder will decide that the path of least resistance is through the cylinder wall, and it will shatter along with the top strap. This doesn’t happen only with old relics or police trade-ins. The author personally witnessed this occurrence with five brand-new Smith & Wesson J-frames chambered in .357 Magnum within a month of their release back in the 1990s. Unless you’re shooting a massive S&W N-Frame or a Ruger chambered in .357 Magnum, keep the Magnum loads to a minimum and stick with the +P loads. Shooters of older .38 Special revolvers made prior to the 1980s need to heed this warning with regard to +P ammunition, as those old guns were not built for that power level. >>>>Charter Arms Bulldog The Bulldog is a great concept. A five-shot revolver chambered in the mighty .44 Special with a short barrel. It’s relatively lightweight and has a good feel in hand. Unfortunately, it falls flat in execution with poorly made components and shoddy workmanship. These revolvers have a tendency to break down quickly, partially due to the harshness of the .44 Special round and partially due to the manufacturing process. Likewise, there’s a shortage of qualified gunsmiths who will work on them. If you have a good one that runs well, treasure it. >>>>Chiappa Rhino We were ready to hate this one. It lacks the sleek curves of a classic snubby, and the barrel and firing pin are upside down compared to a traditional revolver. Yet, someone knew what they were doing, as it transmits the recoil to the center of the shooting hand and the rubber grip absorbs the brunt of this. Another innovation is the “flattened cylinder,” which is more hexagonal as opposed to round in shape. This makes the surface area of the revolver flatter than most and aids in concealment. Of all the models we tested, this was hands down the most pleasant to shoot. It’s not for everyone, but if you are new to the revolver game, it may be a good one to start out with in spite of the price tag. >>>>Ruger LCR We were a bit hesitant to try this model due to the plastic frame, but one thing reassured us: Ruger’s logo etched on the side plate. The company has been making quality arms for more than 65 years and has earned a reputation for making strong revolvers. The LCR is no exception. The LCR incorporates a friction-reducing cam to provide a smooth and easy trigger pull. The Hogue grips and shock-absorbing properties of the polymer frame make this 13-ounce wheel gun surprisingly pleasant to shoot. >>>>Smith & Wesson 642 The Model 36 was the first of this breed, followed by the first all stainless steel model in 1960, known as the Model 60 or Chief’s Special. Since then, S&W has produced these revolvers with frames of scandium, aluminum, titanium, and polymer for true lightweight carry pieces. Their Model 40 included a grip safety as an extra precaution, and their Model 49 featured a concealed hammer. The evolution of this in modern terms includes the 442 and 642, which have hammers completely shielded from external use. The Models 442 and 642 represent some of the finest double-action snubbies available today. Recoil may seem a bit harsh at first, due to the body’s light weight. The frames do take a noticeable beating after daily use that is, unfortunately, not fixable. >>>>Rossi R3520 Inexpensive does not necessarily mean cheap quality. Rossi of Brazil turns out a fantastic little five-shot revolver in high-polish stainless steel that resembles the nickel finish of higher-end revolvers from yesteryear. The oversized factory grip makes it easy to shoot, and it was one of the more accurate handguns in our lineup despite its relatively low price. >>>>Ruger SP-101 This is a bit on the larger or heavier side for our purposes, but it deserves special mention. The Ruger SP-101 weighs twice as much as the LCR, but the size means a diminished recoil impulse from shooting. Chambered in .357 Magnum, the SP-101 is comfortable to shoot when compared to the other snubbies. The larger grip makes it a bit harder to conceal, but it can be done with the right holster and wardrobe. Older SP-101s were intended for use with only 125-grain bullets in the .357 Magnum, due to the size constraints they placed on this model — those barrels are marked accordingly. Newer versions, on the other hand, will take the longer cartridges if that’s what works better for you as a shooter. We were surprised to see some of the newer revolvers outperforming our personally owned revolvers and perceive it to be new innovations and improvements on the part of the manufacturers to make the handguns that shooters want. If a concealed-carry gun is accurate, reliable, and pleasant to shoot, it’ll naturally see more carry time. They may be considered by some to be “a more elegant weapon for a more civilized age,” but revolvers are definitely more effective today than when they first cleared leather in the 19th century. >>>>Taurus Model 85 As competently as the Rossi performed (see our thoughts on the R3520), its parent company did not fare as well. While our test sample was a loaner from Reno Guns & Range, it was a recent addition at this new range, so it’s not as if we used a beater to throw a curve ball into the mix. The trigger stacked and was simply not as refined as the others. One of the chambers in the cylinder consistently felt tight, and we had a few rounds keyhole on the target. We’re certain a trip to the factory may remedy this, and fortunately Taurus offers one of the best warranties and costumer service in the industry. 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