Revolvers vs. Semi-Autos Part 1

Revolvers vs. Semi-Autos Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Honing your shooting skills the old fashioned way

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By Dennis Adler

A lot happed to firearms between 1873 and 1911 and the biggest change of all was the advent of semiautomatic handguns. A lot has also happened with airguns since 2014 when the Umarex Colt Commander blowback action CO2 semi-auto was introduced and 2015 when Umarex and Colt unveiled the first CO2 Peacemaker. Now the age old debate between revolvers and semi-autos has been reignited with BB and pellet firing copies of some of the greatest single action and semi-auto pistols in history being manufactured. And with those old debates also come the same old misconceptions about shooting and accuracy. We’re going to sort it out.

One of the more interesting discussions I have seen in recent articles, has been about the accuracy of revolvers vs. semiautomatic pistols, and in particular the 7-1/2 inch Colt Peacemaker compared to other airguns, including semi-autos. While this is truly an “apples and oranges” comparison, as one reader put it, it is a valid comparison in the light of how different handgun designs and systems of operation affect accuracy and, more importantly, one’s own confidence with a handgun. Testing handguns for as many years as I have, I’ve experienced every imaginable level of contentment and disappointment, either in myself or the firearm being tested. It is possible to have a bad or somehow flawed gun, or to have a bad day at the range shooting poorly because of weather, distractions, or just being off your game. Occasionally it can be both, which makes things seem even worse. But more often than not, the gun is unlikely to be at fault. When it is, things go south quickly. I have had single action revolvers with bad barrels and sights that were so off, I’d had a better chance hitting the target by throwing the gun at it! I’ve had semi-autos jam on every round, magazines that wouldn’t feed, sights that were impossible to adjust, and worse, random failures making the gun totally unreliable. And every one of these issues can be duplicated with an air pistol. However, just like cartridge-firing revolvers vs. semiautomatic pistols, the odds of a revolver having a failure are far less likely, which brings me to the question of revolvers vs. semi-autos for accuracy.

Single action revolvers were accurate, one just had to get a feel for the gun and where it shot. The sights, the rear channel notch in the top of the frame and the blade front, were essential for most, especially at anything beyond 10 or 15 feet. Lawmen often took careful aim down the sights of their Peacemakers (and other single action revolvers) whenever time permitted. A slow hit was preferable to a fast miss!

Sights, distances and accuracy

With a CO2 pistol you are rarely shooting at great distances. With a cartridge-firing handgun test distance is generally considered to be 25 yards (even for shorter barreled pistols, though the acceptable distance can be 15 yards for 4-inch barrels and 7 yards for 2-inch barrels), whereas with a 12 gr. CO2 pistol (revolver or semi-auto) you are shooting at anywhere from 15 feet to 21 feet with BBs, and out to 10 meters (33 feet) with pellets. I have found that with almost all CO2 revolvers and blowback action air pistols, 7 yards (21 feet) is an optimum distance. This is also the same minimum distance for cartridge-firing handguns.

Lining up the rear notch in the topstrap with the top of the front blade sight leveled the gun on target, but didn’t always guarantee pinpoint accuracy. It is no more or less accurate than the original fixed sights on a Model 1911. Once you have a feel for the gun and use the same ammo, adjusting for pinpoint accuracy becomes second nature.

With few exceptions airguns are limited to fixed (non-adjustable) sights, which put the onus for accuracy more heavily upon the individual shooter. I have seen comments from readers calling the old Western frame channel rear notch and blade front sights on Peacemakers and other old Single Action designs “poor” yet for the better part of the 19th century and well into the 20th, the majority of handguns had fixed sights, even the Colt Model 1911 carried by U.S. troops. One learned to compensate when aiming their gun. I have noted before that Cowboys learned where their pistol shot at most fighting distances and knew to hold over or under and hit their mark. Others filed down or had the front sight changed to their preferences. As for those who shot from the hip, that’s another skill level altogether. Sight alignment with a Peacemaker is not hard and once you have a feel for where the gun consistently hits (with Shoot-N-C targets you know this immediately) you fine tune your aiming skills.

Target sights on a semi-auto can really put shots on target, like those on the Tanfoglio Limited Custom. Is the gun ultimately more accurate than the Peacemaker at the same distance? Depends a lot upon the person doing the shooting, but a dialed in SAA can keep pace with a blowback action CO2 semi-auto at 21 feet…at least for the first six shots!

Even with a semi-auto that has fixed sights you do the same, though sometimes the sights are actually harder to align than a Colt Single Action’s (unless they are white dots). This is yet another reason why I stress training with airguns to learn these techniques. It doesn’t always work, and there are disappointments that make your confidence begin to fade. I have been there many times with many different guns, some of which (centerfire guns) that were touted to be among the most accurate and yet I was well off my best shooting with them (of course, here I am also factoring in recoil, one component almost totally absent with CO2 air pistols).

White dot sights such as those on the Umarex Colt Commander make the sighting job easier and faster for many. You can fire a blowback action CO2 model quicker than cocking the hammer on a Peacemaker, but the slide is in motion, and you have to reacquire the sights. A CO2 powered Colt revolver has no felt recoil and no moving sight platform (the slide) thus two handed firing (a Cowboy Action Shooting approved technique but something not well documented in the Old West) helps level that playing field by cocking the hammer with the support hand thumb and not moving the gun off target. Yes, semi-autos are still faster and hold more rounds, but we’re talking accuracy not capacity. 

Sights are important but sighting ability more so. Shoot offhand, not rested; learn to hold the gun on target. Shooting a pistol from a rest is great for establishing the gun’s accuracy, shooting offhand establishes yours. One thing you can do is practice sighting at increasing distances starting at 10 feet from the target. When you can nail the bullseye almost every time, add five more feet to your distance. Learn where your sighted shots are hitting each time, adjust, and then add another five feet until you are aiming with the same accuracy at 25 feet. Each step back builds confidence. Certainly some shooters are more skilled than others, some are born to it, others have to work at it, I’m in no way a competitive level shooter, just a competent shooter, but I shoot a lot and that helps. Find one revolver or semi-auto airgun you enjoy shooting and make that your personal training gun, work with it until you know where it is going to hit at every distance you’ve practiced. This may take weeks, it may take months, but what you will discover is that those skill sets will make the next gun you pick up easier to work with.

Coming up next, the Tanfoglio Limited Custom squares off against the Colt Peacemaker.

In the world of 12 gram CO2 powered air pistols, after less than a year on the market I would put the 7-1/2 inch Colt Peacemaker up against any semi-auto (even with adjustable sights) for accuracy at 21 feet and out to 10 meters.

In Part 2 the 7-1/2 inch Peacemaker goes up against the most accurate semi-auto CO2 model I have tested to see just how well the old ways work.

2 thoughts on “Revolvers vs. Semi-Autos Part 1”

  1. While adjustable sights are easier to dial in , they may not stay dialed in. A fixed sight handgun can ,and for me is just as accurate as an adjustable. In airguns I have found that the 7 1/2 barrel Peacemaker is a tack driver. A surprisingly accurate pellet pistol is the CZ P09. Will be interesting to see how this scenario plays out. Too bad we don’t have a fixed sight S&W or Colt service revolver airgun to throw in the mix.

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