Revolver vs. Semi-Automatic – What Are the Differences?

Handguns come in various configurations, from single-shot pistols to derringers, but the two most common types are the revolver and the semi-automatic pistol. Revolving firearms have existed in one form or another since at least the 17th century. The modern revolver (double- and single action, swing-out cylinder) and the semi-automatic pistol are products of the late 19th.

Differences Between Revolvers and Semi-Automatic Pistols

While gun owners own and carry semi-automatic pistols and revolvers for many reasons, there are several critical functional differences.

Semi-Automatic Pistols

Semi-automatic pistols are magazine-fed handguns that use the fired cartridge’s energy to extract and eject the spent cartridge, recock the hammer, and feed a fresh cartridge into the chamber.

Semi-auto pistols typically have reciprocating slides you must retract to compress the recoil spring to cock the hammer or striker. When the recoil spring is fully compressed, releasing the slide allows it to expand, driving the slide forward and chambering a round. This action is also called “racking the slide.”

Semi-auto pistols with integral or detachable magazines generally have higher capacities than revolvers and are simpler to reload, especially under stress.

When the round is fired, the burning propellant’s high-pressure gases exert force through the case head against the breech face (the face of the bolt or slide), which is called bolt thrust or breech pressure. In a semi-automatic pistol operated by either recoil or blowback, this force is used to overcome the slide’s inertia alone or slide and barrel (recoil).

Revolvers

Revolvers and Semi-Automatic Pistols

A revolver is a handgun with a single barrel and a revolving cylinder containing multiple firing chambers, typically between 5 and 8, that align with the barrel to fire. The pressure you apply to the trigger or the action of cocking the hammer causes the cylinder to rotate or index, aligning the successive chamber with the barrel and readying the weapon for firing.

In most modern revolvers, you unload the cylinder by unlocking it from the frame using a latch on the side, swinging it out to the left, and depressing an ejector rod attached to an extractor star.

Revolver actions can be described as the following:

  • Single action only (SAO): In a solid-frame revolver, such as the Colt Single Action Army, you must manually cock the hammer to fire the weapon. This type of action is called single action because the trigger performs one action — it releases the hammer. The advantage of single-action revolvers is that it allows for a lighter trigger pull.
  • Double- and single-action (DA/SA): Most modern revolvers, especially those designed for duty or self-defense, fall into this category. In a DA/SA revolver, squeezing the trigger will perform two actions — it cocks the hammer and releases it. However, its hammer is also exposed, so you can manually cock the hammer.
  • Double-action only (DAO): A popular choice for concealed carry, in a double-action-only revolver, the hammer is internal or concealed, so all you have to do is pull the trigger. This eliminates the hammer spur, reducing the likelihood of its snagging on clothing as you draw it from the holster, resulting in a heavy trigger pull.

Types of Semi-Automatic Pistols

There are several ways to differentiate semi-automatic pistols other than make, model, and caliber. One is by action type, which includes:

  • Single-action only (SAO): One of the most popular examples of an SAO semi-automatic pistol is the Browning-designed M1911. It’s customary to carry it with the hammer cocked, and the manual safety lever engaged. This is called Condition One or “cocked and locked.” When you draw the weapon from its holster, you disengage the safety as you raise it to eye level.
  • Double- and single-action (DA/SA): This type of pistol action rose to prominence in the 1970s and ‘80s with the wonder nines — i.e., 9mm pistols fed from high-capacity magazines — such as the Smith & Wesson Model 59, CZ 75, Beretta 92, and SIG Sauer P220. Most examples have a combination safety/decocking lever.

Another is by the principle of operation. Most pistols that are chambered in service cartridges — e.g., 9mm Luger, .45 ACP — are locked-breech and recoil-operated to more effectively contain pressure.

A further distinction can be drawn regarding the type of magazine:

  • Single-column: Also called single-stack, this magazine holds fewer rounds of ammunition but is more compact, reducing the width of the grip. The M1911, for example, is fed from a single-column magazine that holds 8 or 9 rounds.
  • Double-column: Also known as “double-stack” or “staggered-feed,” this type holds more rounds — typically between 12 and 17 — but increases the grip’s diameter.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Both

When selecting a self-defense handgun, you must be aware of the practical differences between handgun types.

  • Reliability: Although semi-automatic pistols can be highly reliable, they still rely on the ammunition to cycle reliably. As a result, light loads can cause stoppages. Some bullet shapes that are highly efficient for self-defense, such as jacketed hollow-points or semi-wadcutters, do not feed reliably in some semi-automatic actions.
  • Simplicity: A revolver is comparatively simple to operate as there are no safety or magazine catches, or slide stops, to manipulate, and you can conceal the hammer.
  • Capacity: Revolvers generally hold fewer rounds relative to semi-automatic pistols because the cylinder’s circumference, and thus the size of the frame, is the limiting factor. In a semi-auto pistol, the magazine can be extended past the frame if necessary to accommodate additional ammunition.

The Takeaway

Whether you choose to carry a revolver or a semi-automatic pistol, you should understand the differences between them. Revolvers are more reliable with certain types of ammunition and are simpler to operate. However, semi-automatic pistols offer increased magazine capacity and are easier to reload.

At IFA Tactical, we’re passionate about firearms. Give us a call at (586) 275-2176 — we can help you determine which type of handgun would suit you best.