Revolvers vs. Semi-Autos Part 1
Origin of an age old debate
By Dennis Adler
This is a debate that has, believe it or not, been ongoing for more than 100 years! The greatest difference in the 21st century, however, between revolvers and semi-autos is how they work, not what they shoot. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, semi-autos were small caliber pistols, the .25 Auto developed in 1900, .32 Auto developed by John M. Browning in 1897, .380 ACP developed by Browning in 1908, and in Germany, the largest caliber, 9x19mm (9mm Parabellum) developed by Georg Luger in 1903; were cartridges made specifically for use with a self-loading pistol. Over the next century advances in cartridge design, the development of revolver cylinders built to load semi-auto ammo (Colt and S&W models built during WWI and WWII to chamber .45 ACP) and finally modern alloy and polymer frame revolvers, have given rise to wheelguns that shoot semi-auto cartridges in 9mm, 10mm, .40 S&W and .380 ACP. But, this is 21st century pistol technology, technology that has marginalized many of the distinctions between wheelguns and semiautomatics in respect to caliber options, handgun sizes, and practical carry.
But historically, throughout much of the early to mid 20th century, the majority of individuals who carried handguns leaned toward .38 caliber revolvers like the Colt Detective Special and Smith & Wesson J-frame. Uniformed officers carried Colt and S&M models with 4-inch barrels, some longer barrels, and by the mid 20th century revolvers chambered in .357 Magnum and a stalwart few, in .44 Magnum. Semi-autos, principally the Colt Model 1911 and Browning Hi-Power, were the most popular in the law enforcement community. Half a century ago life was simpler, choices fewer, and all the options were good given almost any circumstances where a handgun would be the weapon of choice. Today, we have so many choices, so many different firearms manufacturers, so many choices in calibers and handgun sizes, that a simple decision is no longer simple. And yet the choice between a revolver and a semi-auto still remains the same as it was in the early 1900s!
Obviously, if the inherent features of a revolver were not evergreen we wouldn’t have modern variations to even consider. But I want to take you back to a time when this debate was new, when revolvers were the standard and semi-autos were looked upon the same way that Cowboys looked at horseless carriages. The year was 1915, a little over a century ago; it is one of the earliest years that the Colt 1911 became commercially available to civilians and lawmen. Up until late 1914 the majority of the new “U.S. Pistol, Automatic, Calibre .45, Model 1911” semiautomatics had been delivered to the U.S. military to fulfill initial orders for the country’s first semi-auto standard issue sidearm. The 1911 hadn’t actually replaced the Colt Single Action Army, but rather pushed it further aside, the military had already replaced it with .38 caliber Colt double action revolvers at the turn of the century.
In 1915 something almost lost to history took place. Texas Ranger Edwin DuBose started packing a Model 1911 in a custom made western holster. Yes indeed, the 1911 is a gun of the late American West. Sam Peckinpah reminded us of this in his classic 1969 western The Wild Bunch which takes place in 1913. In the film William Holden carried a 1911 in a shoulder holster and Colt Single Action in a western holster around his waist. Texas Ranger Ed Dubos wore his 1911 on his hip.
Other Texas Rangers began to do the same over the next dozen years, men like Frank Hamer (c.1915) and Manuel Trazazas “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas (c.1920), who carried both Colt Single Actions and Colt Model 1911s during their careers as Texas Rangers. Hamer’s Model 1911 was chambered in .38 Super, not .45 ACP, and his engraved Peacemaker with 4-3/4 inch barrel (which he nicknamed “Old Lucky”) was chambered in .45 Colt. Gonzaullas carried engraved .45 Colts and 1911s (some with cutaway triggerguards like the Fitz Special revolver, which he also carried as a backup). While Hamer and Gonzaullas are among the most famous of all early 20th century Texas Rangers, Edwin DuBos was the first Texas lawman to carry the Colt .45 ACP semi-auto.
Peacemakers and 1911s
The fundamental advantages to a Single Action revolver begin with ease of use. A revolver has no manual safety; you draw, cock the hammer, take aim, and if the situation demands, pull the trigger. Firing single action generally increases accuracy, as well as greatly reducing trigger pull effort on a double action revolver. And there is no question as to whether a round is chambered in a revolver, if the gun is loaded there is a chambered round. Even if you take the ultimate safety precaution as gunmen often did in the Old West, and keep the hammer resting on an empty chamber, when you cock the hammer the cylinder rotates to a loaded chamber.
Semi-autos were originally designed with a manually operated safety mechanism to prevent accidental discharge, (like the 1911) and thus the practice was to carry a gun with a chambered round and safety engaged (the proverbial “cocked and locked” method), draw, release the safety, aim and pull the trigger. The U.S. military required soldiers to carry the 1911 without a chambered round, and after drawing rack the slide and load the first cartridge. This was military protocol early on with the Colt Model 1911.
Cartridge capacity and ease of reloading are the next considerations. Revolvers, with very few exceptions, limit capacity to six rounds. Any question of accuracy between a revolver and semi-auto has little merit as both in comparable calibers and approximate barrel lengths are generally identical; it is in reloading where the semi-auto quickly excelled.
For fine quality Colt Peacemakers and Colt 1911s, by Colts and various manufacturers both here and abroad, the choice today is much the same as it was more than a century ago; one of weighing the pros and cons and finding your own level of comfort and proficiency with a handgun. This applies equally to your options today in high-quality .177 caliber air pistols like the Umarex Colt Peacemakers and, for purposes of period authenticity, 1911 models of the early c.1926 design, like the Swiss Arms model shown. This gun, you will recall from my feature on Defarbing a Swiss Arms Model 1911, looks more like a real Colt 1911 than a CO2 powered air pistol, just as the hand engraved Umarex Model 1873 looks more authentic. The decision between a revolver and semi-auto is no different here. How did men like Edwin DuBos, Frank Hamer, and Lone Wolf Gonzaullas decide? They carried both.
Straight up comparisons
The quality of construction with semi-autos and revolvers in .177 (4.5mm) caliber is far less diverse than it is in the world of cartridge-firing handguns, at least for the 1911 and Peacemaker; both are well made for CO2 pistols, within a few ounces of their centerfire counterparts, and measure up almost to the fraction of an inch. The modifications I made to the Swiss Arms 1911A1 model created a blowback action air pistol that looks and feels closer to an actual vintage 1911A1 than the Umarex Peacemaker does to an actual Colt .45. I will probably do the same to one of the blued Single Actions sometime this year to see if the realistic worn blued finish and a faux case colored frame and hammer can be achieved, although with the safety under the frame and the inset, screwed down black cover in the center of the grip shovel, it still won’t be as true to an original as the Swiss Arms model, which has the benefit of an actual safety in its original design and no added parts. Still, if the refinish turns out as well as the 1911, the Peacemaker will be a gem. The hand engraved guns, however, give the CO2 Single Actions the best possible look of all.
Saturday I will do a comparison shooting test between the 5-1/2 inch BB-firing Peacemaker and the BB-firing Swiss Arms 1911 for overall accuracy and handling at 21 feet. I’ll finish up with magazine swaps for the 1911, since there are a number of different mags that fit this gun, and that might answer some of the questions about reliability of the self-contained CO2 BB magazines for the Swiss Arms models.