Though it’s now over 100 years old, the modern double-action (DA) revolver remains the choice of many who, for various reasons, don’t care for self-loaders. Some feel that the old wheelgun is more reliable, while others say it’s more accurate or easier to understand. However, one thing is certain, the revolver is still popular with a large percentage of self-defense-oriented shooters and performs as well now as it did 50 years ago. However, like any other firearm, it won’t perform to its highest potential unless some serious thought is given as to how we can best tap into its inherent capabilities.
First, we need to specify the purpose it will be used for. Any quick trip to a gun shop will disclose that there are lots of revolvers available. They come in a variety of sizes, configurations and calibers, and to inadvertently choose one that’s inappropriate for our needs prevents maximum effectiveness.
For the most part, small-framed revolvers are chambered for either the .38 Special or the .357 Mag and usually come with a 2-inch barrel, although now and then a 3-incher can be found. Popularly known as “snubbies,” they represent a type of weapon intended for casual carry or as a back-up gun in the event of the wearer’s primary weapon being lost, broken or out of ammo.
Snubbies are easily concealed because of their light weight and convenience to carry. However, because of their diminutive size and short sight radius, they are tough to shoot well under stress. Their muzzle velocities are considerably reduced as well, significantly limiting JHP expansion, causing many to opt instead for a heavier SWC bullet, which will at least cut a full-caliber permanent wound channel.
Almost invariably, snubbies come with fixed sights, which for most shooters presents yet another problem. With anything other than the old 158-grain lead RNL (which was originally made for snubbie use), they don’t shoot anywhere near point-of-aim past three meters.
All these limitations clearly indicate that the snub is designed to be a special-purpose gun, a weapon with limited tactical applications. Its weaknesses if employed in a more general-purpose mode are obvious, making it a less than optimum choice.
For general-purpose missions, a larger-framed gun, such as a Colt D-frame or Smith & Wesson K-frame, would be a better choice. In addition, they’re usually available with adjustable sights, allowing use of the entire spectrum of .38 Spl or .357 Mag bullet weights and types. As such, they provide an excellent balance of weight, handling qualities and user-friendliness, making them excellent choices for general-purpose missions.
Heavy-framed guns like the venerable S&W N-frame series are controllable with most .357 Mag, .44 Spl, or .45ACP ammunition, but are bulky and quite heavy, which might be a major concern if concealment and/or daily carry are involved. Weight and bulk means slower holster presentations, though once the gun is finally in action, those same characteristics aid controllability in fast shooting sequences. Once again, the shooter must find the right balance for his needs.
Caliber selection is critically important too, because if the gun is too potent for the gun’s size and weight, performance will suffer greatly. And as if caliber alone isn’t enough, the load you select is also of critical importance. Best performance in any caliber can only be achieved by selecting the load that presents the best balance of velocity (which greatly influences bullet expansion), controllability (recoil), muzzle flash and terminal ballistics (penetration and expansion). Therefore, ultra-powerful cartridges like the .41 Mag or .44 Mag should be excluded from consideration.
Most medium and heavy-framed revolvers come with barrel lengths of from 3.5 to as long as 8.4 inches. Naturally, the massive 8.4-incher is for sporting use, but the 5-, 6- and 6.5-inch barrels are encountered on a fairly common basis. These provide increased muzzle velocities for better JHP expansion with heavier bullets and their longer sight radius makes for more accurate shooting as well.
However, they do have one serious drawback; they’re somewhat more difficult to conceal. This is why the 4-inch barrel is the most common choice. Though without a doubt a compromise, it provides the best combination of velocity, sight radius and concealability.
Often I’m asked about my load preferences for the .38 Spl and .357 Mag, particularly when short barrels are involved. Generally speaking, I favor the .38 Spl CorBon standard 110-grain JHP or DPX JHPs for 4-inch or longer barrels and a regular 158-grain lead RNL or SWC for snubbies. Both loads mentioned do show significant expansion even from a 2-inch barrel, but unless the gun has adjustable sights (a rarity in small-framed snubs), they don’t shoot to point-of-aim. I find this disconcerting and tend to avoid it as a result.
In shorter-barreled .357s, (2.5 to 4 inches) I’ve found the CorBon’s 110-grain Pow’RBall to be an excellent choice. It’s controllable, exhibits minimal flash and concussion is highly accurate and demonstrates superb terminal ballistics. CorBon’s 125-grain JHP is also a winner for those who prefer a more traditional bullet design. In the longer barreled .357s (5, 6, 6.5 inches), virtually any 140- or 158-grain JHP will do, since the muzzle velocities are sufficiently high to allow good expansion.
Controllability is often discussed, but is rarely understood. Too hot a load or too light a gun can negatively affect the shooter’s ability to place their shots quickly and accurately, a critical requirement in all tactical events. But there’s more – grip design and trigger configuration are important too. Grips that are too large for the shooter’s hand should be avoided because they hinder fast grip-index during fast holster presentations and firing sequences.
On the other hand, many factory grips are too small, allowing the rear of the triggerguard to constantly strike the knuckle of the middle finger, causing discomfort and loss of weapon control. The solution for this problem is simple: Install a grip adapter, which will fill that excess space behind the triggerguard and allow the firing hand to maintain a good grip when the revolver is being fired quickly.
A number of companies offer excellent aftermarket grips made of rubber or wood that are well configured for most hands and are relieved to allow a speedloader to clear. Personally, because I have a small palm and relatively short fingers, I prefer the smaller factory grips with the left-side panel relieved to allow a speedloader to clear, and either a Tyler T-Grip or Pachmayr grip adapter.
Ultra-wide target triggers and trigger shoes should be avoided because while they give the illusion of a lighter trigger pull, they cause a loss of feel to the trigger finger during fast shooting sequences, resulting in a deterioration in accuracy. Instead, the trigger should at the very least be narrow and, if possible, rounded and polished smooth to enhance feel during fast DA manipulation.
The hammer spur should also be as small and edge-free as possible to prevent snagging during concealed carry presentations and abrading skin when the gun is thumb-cocked into the single-action (SA) mode for longer-range shots.
Last, choose a finish that’s appropriate to the kind of environment where your gun is to be carried and used. These resist holster wear and corrosion due to moisture and body salts and thus extend your gun’s service life indefinitely. Among the best finishes, hard chrome, Metalife SS Chromium M, Roguard, and electroless nickel are consistently the most popular.
To truly be efficient, a defensive handgun must be capable of fast presentations from the holster, followed by accurate high-speed shot placement under the widest possible variety of tactical and environmental conditions. Thus, all the things we’ve discussed: mission definition, weapon size, weight, barrel length, stocks, trigger and hammer spur configuration, caliber and load selection, make a great deal of difference. In order for you to bring your revolver to its maximum potential, they must be properly understood, so the right choices can be made.
As it comes from the box, the DA revolver has much potential. But it can never reach its highest performance levels unless you consider all the factors involved and select the best combination of them for your needs. The resulting increase in efficiency is noticeable and, on some dark night outside the convenience store or ATM machine, it just might save your life!