“A revolver never jams!”

I hear this one virtually every time I visit a gun store. Given what I do for a living, I simply can’t help picking up the sales conversations at the gun counter. Yeah, I know. That’s nosey and none of my business. Whether it’s my business to overhear or not, the statement still makes me cringe.

Listening to the “infallibility of the revolver” argument, you’d think that semiautomatic pistols were some new and untested invention like smart guns. They’re not. Semiautomatic pistols have been in common use for nearly a century, and they’ve been the law enforcement go-to handgun platform for decades. Even still, we collectively spend countless hours arguing about what’s the better concealed carry option: revolver or semiautomatic. Because time won’t kill itself, apparently.

Six for sure?
Six for sure?

I’m not doubting the reliability of a good revolver. I own several myself. They work pretty much all the time. I’ve also had them fail, just like I’ve had semiautomatic pistols fail. The most common failures I’ve observed relate in some way to the cylinder getting locked up. When you either cock the hammer or pull the trigger of most revolvers, the cylinder rotates to bring a new cartridge into position. The new chamber with a ready-to-fire cartridge lines up with the bore just before the hammer releases to break the shot. If the cylinder won’t move, or binds in any way, they revolver can’t fire, at least more than once.

There are a number of potential causes for binding. The most common I’ve seen involve dirt, crud, brass, lead pieces, or unburned powder making their way into the extractor. Many modern designs use an extractor “star” that simultaneously lifts the rims of all of the cartridge cases present. If debris gets between the cylinder itself and the extractor “star,” then it can’t close all the way and cartridges can’t seat fully in the chambers. This in turn moves the cartridge bases even closer to the breech face, minimizing the room available to let the cylinder turn freely. If the breech face is dirty and cases are pushed too close, it may bind.

If it’s just sticky, and the debris is soft, no big deal. You can encourage the action to work with a little extra brute force. if you end up with brass or lead chunks in there, the cylinder can bind pretty darn tightly, rendering the gun inoperable until you can manage to open the cylinder and clean things out.

The cylinder-binding issue can arise from a couple of less common causes, too. One other gotcha I’ve run into on rare occasion happens when primers back out a tad due to excessive pressure or bad primers or pockets. The primer can extend until it’s forced against the breech face, causing friction and potential binding. I may or may not have had this problem when firing “primer only” wax bullets when on garage spider patrol.

One more potential gotcha that people love to talk about is the scenario of bullets moving forward in their cases, extending forward of the chamber, and preventing the cylinder from turning. If not seated properly, a bullet in a waiting chamber can actually move forward under heavy recoil. I’ve shot plenty of .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum and not yet had this happen, but others have. Probably? No. Possible? Yes.

Maintenance is important with any gun. Be sure to keep the area under the extractor clean.
Maintenance is important with any gun. Be sure to keep the area under the extractor clean.

Of course, a revolver can have a mechanical failure like any other type of gun. No mechanical thing is infallible. There’s no magic solution out there that defies the laws of wear and materials stress.

I have to think that the “revolvers are infallible” myth comes in part from a blending of intention. When folks say “a revolver will always go bang,” I think they really mean two different things.

First, that a revolver is mechanically reliable. The second and possibly more true statement is that they’re easier to make go bang. They’re simple to operate, as all one has to do with any modern double-action revolver is pull the trigger. Then pull it again. No controls, safeties, removable magazines, decocking or slides. They’re operator friendly.

Maybe that’s the real reason people make the trade-offs for a revolver over a semiautomatic. Yes, revolvers generally carry fewer rounds than semiautomatic pistols, but they’re kind of a sure thing right? Six “for sure” versus 15 “maybe.” You know how the old saying goes, “A bird in the hand is…usually fried chicken.” Or something like that.

My point here isn’t to claim that revolvers are unreliable. They’re very reliable. So are modern semiautomatics. In the hundreds of thousands of rounds I’ve shot, I can’t tell a difference in the mechanical reliability of quality samples from both revolver and semi camps. Like any piece of mechanical equipment, either can fail. The real differences between the two platforms can’t be boiled down into an overly simple soundbite like “a revolver always goes bang.” In reality, there are dozens of other deciding factors that indicate which platform is best for you.

Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon.

Images by Tom McHale

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  • Henry

    I appreciate your article. I personally have had the primer backout issue you describe, though it was self inflicted. On the other hand, I have also had whatever you call the piece that threads onto the extractor star pushrod “UNscrew” to the point where it was impossible to open the cylinder to reload it. I had to physically stop work, and carefully hold that “part” with one hand while slowly turning the cylinder so as to cause that “part” to thread back onto the pushrod, eventually allowing the cylinder to open for complete tightening of that “part”, and reloading of the revolver (a S&W Mod 60, in case someone should think the revolver was some POS). Either form of hangup, if it occurred during a life or death event, might change that event into a death only event. Unacceptable, at least to me.

  • Tom

    Yep – and the intent is not to bash revolvers, just the opposite. They’re incredible reliable. My main point is that we should assume any piece of equipment can fail, so it’s up to us to maintain, inspect and know the intricacies of whatever gear we choose to carry.

    • SmokeHillFarm

      Yes, any piece of equipment can fail, especially under the worst field conditions. However, I believe you should have pointed out that the likelihood of a fail-to-fire or a jam is MUCH more likely in a semi-auto than in a revolver. This is especially true if the firearm has gotten abuse, such as when a LEO has to chase someone down and finds himself grappling with some dirtbag in the dirt, or some mudhole.

      A good-quality semi-auto, properly cleaned & maintained, loaded with factory ammo that you KNOW it will feed reliably, is very reliable, as you say. However, many casual gunowners bought the gun twenty years ago and probably still have the same ammo in it. And very likely bought the first box of ammo they saw on the shelf and really have no idea how likely their semi-auto is going to cycle those shells reliably — especially after decades of sitting in their nightstand drawer. No matter how many times you tell them to go practice, practice, practice — and to make sure their pistol likes that type of ammo — you know that a great many of them won’t hit the range more than once. If that. This is why I never recommend a semi-auto except to those who are either very experienced shooters and that I believe will actually follow that good advice. Revolvers are mostly idiot-proof …. semi-autos, not so much.

      No doubt the jams you describe can happen with a revolver, but I have personally never known it to happen, even to a lot of very casual gun-owners I know (and who still won’t follow my advice about practice & cleaning). My guess is that these failures are only going to happen when someone is grossly negligent in cleaning, shooting hot loads, or shooting handloads that are, shall we say, less than professionally done. Revolvers are pretty forgiving, but given some really bad circumstances, no doubt they can fail. But that degree of negligence & foolishness would almost certainly cause far more problems in a semi-auto than in a revolver.

      Your points are definitely a good reminder to us all that even revolves need proper care and feeding to be reliable tools.

  • Luther N. Tonkin

    I think this article is misleading. The scenarios sited for revolver malfunctions involve situations that practically would never happen. Anyone that shoots, especially very much, at least periodically cleans and maintains their firearm. Given the identical scenarios, a semi-auto would malfunction much sooner than a revolver. The more appropriate question is: Is a revolver more reliable than a semi-auto? The answer is very clearly… YES!!! And the follow-up question: Is the difference in reliability offset by other factors?

    • SmokeHillFarm

      I agree with you. Having shot almost everything available for both civilians & military (I spent 21 yrs in uniform), there is absolutely NO doubt in my mind that, all things being equal, revolvers are far less likely to fail or jam than a semi-auto — and especially true for the middling-quality (or lower) weapons one is likely to find among gun owners who seldom shoot, but just keep a pistol in the house “for protection.” Sure, most of us know that some old .25-cal Raven Arms semi-auto is pretty flaky, especially if you haven’t cleaned it in ten or more years — but a cheap revolver, in the same situation, is extremely unlikely to fail you when you suddenly need it at 0300.

      The situations described by the author are almost always caused by real ABUSE of a firearm — using badly-loaded handloads, using handloads pushed toward their practical limit of charge, using ancient, dirty ammo, or almost a total lack of cleaning or maintenance. And revolvers, of course, require FAR less care and feeding than semi-autos. I have NEVER had a revolver fail (except shooting some 20-year-old imported .22 rounds) — and this was far easier to fix than if the same junk ammo had jammed in a semi-auto.

      You can get by with a lot of laziness and non-maintenance with a revolver that might easily prove fatal if you were packing a semi-auto.

      When we recommend a protection or carry pistol for some amateur, we would do well to remember that these people are likely to buy a cheap gun than a Colt or Kimber, they may likely never spend any real time at the range getting familiar with the gun, are less likely to clean it properly (or even regularly), and are far more likely to be severely rattled when they are awakened at three in the morning by someone breaking into their house. Very few cops ever have occasion to fire more than six shots when confronting a criminal, and the odds of this becoming a problem for some homeowner are probably so close to zero as to be indistinguishable, For those wishing to hedge their bets — buy a speedloader.

      I love my semi-autos and enjoy shooting them on the range. However, I will not carry one for protection, or grab one when I hear a noise out in the barn. I might grab the old M-1 carbine (a particular favorite of mine) as I go out the door, but in my holster (or hand) is going to be a Ruger .357 or .44, with a speedloader.

  • Chester Bowen

    More self-inflicted gun wounds occur with semi-automatics than revolvers. Cite the idiots who carry with a cartridge chambered and safety off, while revolvers are always ready to fire, have a heavier trigger pull and most have a cross bar safety.

  • Mark

    I once worked for an armoured car company and while waiting in the truck for the messenger to return, I thought I should check my revolver as it was one that was in a pool that other employees could draw from. After unloading it, I pulled the trigger to see how it functioned and to my horror, discovered that the cylinder would not rotate. On closer inspection, I saw that someone had previously dropped it and bent the crescent shaped part of the frame that is directly behind the cylinder. It was bent in such a way that it was impinging on the back of the cylinder, preventing it from turning. I was able to bend it back out right there and then by banging it on a steel part of the truck cab,
    I was glad I had inspected it because had I needed it in a life and death situation, it would have failed and not fired.

    • SmokeHillFarm

      That must have been one seriously brutal drop to have caused that much of a ding in a revolver, even a really cheap one.

      My guess is that if that had been a semi-auto, the damage would have been far more serious, and probably not something one could quickly fix with a file.

      Having taught a lot of beginner classes, I have seen a lot of revolvers dropped, but have never (so far) seen one so damaged that it would not function properly.

  • left coast chuck

    I think it goes to the fact that a revolver can sit in a nightstand drawer for quite a while and one doesn’t have to worry about the magazine spring taking a set (something that the folks who should know claim happens with about the same frequency as a bullet moving forward in the case and jamming a revolver and also, if the first round fails to fire, the remedy is to simply continue to operate the revolver and put another round in line to fire, whereas with a semi-automatic, unless there is second strike capability, the firearm must be manipulated in order to seat a fresh round. A loaded revolver has no safety to be manipulated (despite what some authors write about clicking the safety off on the .357 revolver) whereas a loaded pistol usually is carried with a safety on (yes, I know that some pistols don’t have “safeties”) and a revolver before being fired if it is known to be loaded, doesn’t have to be checked to make sure a round is in battery and the safety is disengaged. For the gun owner who, for whatever reason, doesn’t get to the range frequently or doesn’t dry fire at home, the revolver is a safer and more simply engaged protection device versus the semi-auto. My personal reason for liking revolvers is that I reload and inasmuch as I am a lot older and fatter than when I began shooting, chasing brass has become a chore, whereas after I shoot a cylinder of whatever, I just dump it into the jar of cleaning solution so that on the drive home the natural jostling of the car goes a long way to cleaning the fired brass and I haven’t tortured my 150 year old knees stooping down to retrieve errant brass so that I arrive home feeling much better than I do when I have spent most of the range time scrabbling after the brass that never seems to go in the brass catcher no matter how I have it set up. No, I’m not 150 y.o., but my knees having led a much harder life than the rest of me react as if they are that old.

  • MAc

    You can’t blame the revolver if a primer backs out, that blame belongs to the ammo.

  • GrandDaddy

    I mostly carry semis, rarely carry a revolver except as a trail gun, or if I am just in the mood. Have had revolvers fail, had a Python that I had to have worked on twice to stop the cylinder lock-up. The idiot that owned it before me was not happy with the silky trigger pull and tried to smooth it out. But I can say that I have had unexpected failures, stove-pipes, jams, failures to feed, spring ejection! in all my semis but one. And they are not “bargain guns” by any measure. Reader above makes a point that an auto is more LIKELY to fail, due to the complication of its operation. That is obvious. The trick is to find the auto that never fails, and they are out there- one I have is an old S&W 469 – built as Smith’s submission for consideration when the army switched over to a 9mm in the 80s. It has never failed – not once. Every gun, even the high-dollar guns, are prone to failure. I would advise anyone who is trying to decide on a go-to or edc auto, to shoot and shoot and shoot some more to get a feel for your gun’s tolerances, weak points and likelihood of failure. If you have more than one to choose from, choose the one that fails the least.

  • Joe

    I was a cop in the late 80’s in Pennsylvania and my duty weapon was a Ruger Security Six. It jammed on a regular basis if I was not anal about cleaning the cylinder face and forcing cone with a stainless steel brush. If I shot semi-wad cutters, then the jamming was terrible. Gimme a semiauto any day of the week.