The Battle Of The Small: Revolvers vs. Semi-Automatic Pistols

The decision to acquire your first handgun, or build your own with 80% Lowers in Stock with Fast Shipping, is an important milestone on the way to plunge into the world of firearms. Even if you don’t plan on expanding your collection of guns, it is always important to know what exactly you are buying. A handgun is a broad term that unites small firearms that can be used with a single hand. That is also a type of gun most suitable for self-defense purposes. But a handgun is not some firearm model and not even a type: this notion covers both revolvers and pistols. While many of you probably know the difference between the two, the exterior is not the only thing that differentiates revolvers from semi-automatic pistols. How does one make an informed decision without all the relevant information? One doesn’t. And we want you to buy a thing you genuinely need, not the one that was the first to pop up on the web page. Being quite familiar with all firearms allowed for civil use (we are a sporting goods store, after all), we’ve written this article to tell you about the main differences between revolvers and semi-automatic pistols. 

Revolver vs Pistol

Before we get to the differences, it might be worth listing their similarities. Both revolvers and pistols are repeating firearms, which means they can be fired multiple times before requiring a manual reloading. They are also short-barrelled which is pretty self-explanatory. Another common feature is overall size – a firearm needs to be small if it is to be used with one hand. On that point our list of similarities ends. It’s not too long, but we needed to explain why those firearms are being compared in the first place: people rarely choose between a rifle and a pistol.


The main structural difference between a revolver and a semi-automatic pistol lies in chamber design. Revolvers feature a revolving (hence the name) cylinder that contains several chambers that can hold only one cartridge each. The cylinder rotates before every shot, aligning the next chamber with the barrell. Pistols, on the other hand, have a single stationary integral chamber. The number of chambers doesn’t influence the number of cartridges shot at a time: most handguns fire one cartridge per trigger pull.


Both revolvers and pistols may come in single-action and double action varieties, but they work in a slightly different manner. Since in all single-actions handguns the trigger pull only releases the hammer, the cocking needs to be done by other means. SA revolvers feature an external hammer that needs to be manually pulled before every shot. Such a configuration allows for easier trigger pull, improves the accuracy, and prevents unintentional discharges. Single-action pistols are a bit different. Here, the recoil from a fired shot cocks the hammer for the next shots, so you don’t need to do it yourself. But you need to do the initial cocking yourself, otherwise your handgun won’t fire.

Double action works the same for both revolvers and pistols. The trigger both cocks the hammer and releases it. However, this is only true for double-action only handguns, which are not that numerous. More often than not, DA handguns are double-action to single action, and that’s where the differences become more apparent. In double-action revolvers, the hammer does two operations every single shot, so the trigger pull is more rigid. There is usually an opportunity to cock the hammer manually, turning DA to SA, but in all other cases every shot is double-action. That’s neither good nor bad, since the trigger always feels the same and lets the shooter grow accustomed to it.

Double action pistols work differently. Here, only the first shot is double-action and all the rest work the same as in SA pistols: the recoil from the previous shot cocks the hammer for the subsequent one. As a result, all shots, beginning from the second, are lighter and shorter. Pistol users should take this into consideration since you might need to adjust your aiming after the initial shot.  


Round capacity is the pistols’ strong side: modern magazines for concealed carry pistols can hold from 10 to 21 cartridges, which is quite enough for an average self-defense situation. Revolvers, on the other hand, rarely hold more than 5-6 cartridges. However, low capacity is not necessarily a disadvantage: it might help new shooters develop practical accuracy. When there are fewer shots, you try to make every one of them count. And you won’t go broke buying loads of ammo, so the choice is yours.  

Stopping Power

This is the aspect where revolvers make up for their low capacity. Since they usually hold up to 6 cartridges, it makes sense to make them more impactful to compensate for quantity. Many revolvers are chambered in large handgun calibers, the renowned Magnum included. These calibers possess an impact force enough to stop big game, not to mention regular humans. Pistols are usually chambered in lower calibers and thus transfer less energy to your intended target. But with a modern variety of goods, you can easily find revolvers chambered in 9 mm or big caliber pistols. However, the average stopping power of a revolver is higher than that of a pistol.

Reload Speed

2:1 in favor of pistols on this one. If we talk about conventional reloading, revolvers require you to load every one if it chambers separately, and that takes time. At the same time, all you need to do with pistols is remove the empty magazine and insert the new one. Both types of reloading require practice, but pistols have the upper hand when it comes to this matter. There are speed loaders available for revolvers that make the process quicker, but that is a helpful accessory that is not a part of standard gun.  


Weight comes with a draw for both competitors since it is a question of preference. Some people like their handgun heavy, some prefer lighter alternatives. Revolver frames are usually made from either steel or aluminum to handle higher calibers. These materials lessen the recoil but make the revolver a bit heavier. Pistol frames, on the other hand, are often made from lightweight polymers, which makes them more suitable for concealed carry. However, lesser weight brings more tangible recoil. 


Pistols score another goal with high modifiability, since they can mount a higher number of various accessories. To be honest, there is not much you can mount on your revolver: very few of them come with integrated accessory rails. And far be it from you to try to use a silencer on a revolver, that is highly dangerous. If a gun in its original state is not enough for you to admire, choose pistols over revolvers.


If you thought that pistols would have an unconditional win in this competition, you might have chosen a side too soon. Since revolvers have a much simpler build, they are more easy to disassemble and clean. Even more than that, quite often the only thing you need is to remove the cylinder and clean the barrel and the cylinder itself. Semi-automatic pistols require more work and knowledge on your side. They have more complex build and more moving parts, so it would take you much more time and effort to master pistol maintenance.


3:3, dear readers, revolvers manage to save the day for themselves by scoring at the last second. Even though malfunctions are rare in quality handguns, rare doesn’t mean never, and often doesn’t mean always. Since revolvers have a simpler build, they are less likely to jam, and if something should happen with a cartridge, you can simply pull the trigger to get to the next round. Pistols are less forgiving in that regard. By no means we want to say they fail constantly, that is not the case. But if we talk about theoretical situations, it would be more time-consuming to locate the reason for the jamming and address it. The same thing with a defective round.

As you can see, there is no apparent winner in this handgun tournament. Pistols and revolvers are great at what they do and they all deserve to become a part of your collection. Or its sole member, depending on your plans. We hope this article will help you to make an informed decision should a similar choice ever trouble you.

Leave a Comment