The fourth most debated argument in the history of the world (right behind “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”, “Which action type is best for a handgun?” and “How can people possibly not like bacon?”) is whether a revolver or semi-automatic handgun is the best choice for personal defense. This philosophical debate has become more of a war of attrition, with each side desperate to convert new firearms folk to their side. While there is much to be said for both camps, and you can’t really go wrong either way, let’s go through some considerations/things to think about when choosing what is right for you.

Handgun Size

If you are 4’6″, weigh 75 lbs and want to buy a .454 Casul, chances are you may have some issues in safely handling the firearm come shooting time. Any handgun you use for personal defense should be well-suited to your body size – especially your hands/grip. Go to the store and put them in your hands. Feel them, make sure you can rack the slide on a semi-auto, etc. Just like shoes, make sure it’s comfortable. If you have any doubts, it’s not the gun for you.

Also be sure that once you have a good, comfortable grip on the firearm, you can easily and effectively get your trigger finger on the trigger without having to stretch, twist or otherwise change your natural shooting posture to get a good trigger press.

A 454 Casul revolver

A .454 Casul revolver

Handgun Recoil Management

While stopping power is absolutely important for personal defense, recoil management must be a consideration in deciding what to buy. The analogy I use is, “if you had to smash a car into a brick wall at 100 mph, would you rather the car be a Yugo or a Hummer?” The same idea applies to handguns. Now, if we’re talking about a steel-frame, 4″ barrel revolver, there will be much less felt recoil than if you were shooting a polymer Glock 26. The mass of the 4″ revolver will absorb a shot much better than the Glock.


A Glock 27 semi-automatic  (.40 caliber)


There is a mantra that says you should use the largest caliber you can reasonably handle for self-defense. It’s true to a point. Certainly, a .45 ACP bullet will be better balistically-speaking than a .380 would, but that doesn’t mean you should just assume .45 ACP is the one for you. I would not recommend going smaller than a .380 for personal protection, but there are a lot of options to choose from: .380, 9mm, .40, 10mm, 38 Special, .45ACP … and don’t forget 357 if you want to go bigger.

To choose effectively, you need to shoot these cartridges and see how well you handle them, especially in regards to recoil management.

Trigger Press

Whenever someone asks my advice on purchasing a revolver, the first thing I do is have them squeeze the trigger to see if they can actually get the hammer to cock and drop. As much as retailers tout the benefits of large-frame revolvers to new shooters, if the prospective buyer can’t even pull the trigger back, what’s the point of owning one for defensive purposes? (And before you get into the whole sidebar discussion of women not being able to pull the trigger on a S&W 686, let me tell you something: I have seen many wives pull the trigger on a 686 while their husband struggles.)

Small-frame carry revolvers won’t necessarily have a heavy trigger pull and therefore should not be much of an issue, but it’s always good to try the trigger before you buy and handgun to make sure it feels good to you.

For semi-automatic handguns, we’re typically talking about action type affecting trigger pull:

  • The trigger pull of a double/single-action
  • 1911-style single action
  • Striker fire

We’ve already discussed action types in a previous article, so a long discourse on the subject isn’t needed here. However, there are a few considerations to keep in mind:

  • If you are interested in a semi-automatic handgun with a DA/SA action type (Sig Sauer makes a bunch, for example) make sure you are comfortable with the initial trigger pull (double action) as well as the change to single action after the first shot.
  • If you are interested in a 1911-style semi-auto, pay close attention to the very short and light trigger pull and reset. You may not want to be walking around your house in the dark at 3AM with a cocked 1911 and your finger on the trigger and stub your toe on the nightstand.
  • Most of the polymer pistols nowadays are striker fire handguns. While there are no discernible “challenges” with shooting a striker pistol, some people don’t like the feel of the often-sloppy pull and reset. Your mileage may vary…

Reloading a Handgun Under Stress

No one wants to have to reload their handgun during a personal defense situation, but it must be a consideration. While we all hope that we wouldn’t need 6, 10 or 15 rounds to stop a threat, we can’t assume that all of our shots will be on target. For that reason, the ability and ease of reloading your handgun choice under stress is vital.

In this, a semi-automatic handgun is a no-brainer; you simply eject the empty magazine, pop in a new one, rack the slide and go. On the other hand, a revolver can be more problematic. But with a revolver, consideration must be given to your ability—under stress— to open the cylinder, dump brass, take out your stripper clip or speed loader, load the cartridges, close the cylinder and get back on target. This can be significantly longer to pull off, especially in low-light conditions.


Capacity, in some ways, go hand in hand with reloading under stress. The frequency in which you have to reload is determined by the capacity of your handgun. In New Jersey – at the time of this writing – the maximum magazine capacity for a firearm is 15 rounds. Most semi-automatic handguns sold in NJ ship with either 10-round magazines or 7/8-round for 1911 style handguns (standard for 1911s in general). For revolvers, it partially depends on caliber but you’re typically looking at cylinders with five, six or seven round capacity.

While you shouldn’t need 15 rounds in a personal defense situation, having more than you need gives you peace of mind. Additionally, studies show that under stress accuracy diminishes exponentially, so while you may be a great shot on the range, chances are you may miss the broadside of the barn when push comes to shove.


Depending on where you live, how you carry your handgun matters. Weather conditions, your clothing, whether you carry in a bag/purse, are you open carry or concealed? It all matters. In New Jersey, despite what is said there is no concealed or open carry option; law-abiding citizens can’t carry. So, if you live in NJ this isn’t a factor unless you have a permit for CCW reciprocity in other states. But, for most of the other states, concealability is a big factor. With that, holsters also come into play but that is a much bigger discussion for another time.

Whichever way you go, if you choose to carry be sure your firearms suits your needs. You may find yourself carrying one handgun under one set of circumstances and another in a different set.

So, Which Handgun Type is Best?

Perhaps you already know the answer, but for those of you who don’t the answer is, “it depends.” While you have to take all of the above factors into consideration, it really all boils down to what you are most comfortable with. What can you shoot, reload, carry and manage effectively. If you have to sacrifice by going to a smaller caliber because you are more accurate, you should so long as your recoil management is still viable. If you are more effective with a six-shot double action only revolver than a 15-round semi-auto, go with the revolver. There is no point – and, in fact, it’s dangerous – to use a handgun for personal defense that you’re not suited for. If you need to carry your firearm in a small pocket, you may have to settle for a .380 instead of your favorite 357.

Go to the range. Rent a bunch of guns and try them out. See what your friends use and ask them why they use it. (Just remember, take opinions with a grain of salt.) Do your due diligence and make an informed decision. Don’t just buy the Desert Eagle .50 in gold tiger stripes because it’s a big caliber and looks cool. If you take your time, do the proper research and consider all factors, the right choice will practically make itself.