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Semi-auto Vs Revolver Reliability

Discussion in 'Handguns: Autoloaders' started by USBP1969, Aug 12, 2011.

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  1. USBP1969

    USBP1969 Member

    Jul 19, 2008

    I am submitting this post to both the Revolver and Semi-auto forums since I would really like to hear from both those who favor semi-autos as well as those who favor revolvers. (I hope the moderators will allow this.)

    Question: As stated in the title, I am asking for input in regards to the comparative reliability of semi-autos to that of wheel guns. I ask this question in good faith because 15 years of being a full-time firearms instructor as well as having conducted 5 years of qualification in the field has caused me to come away with a jaundiced view of semi-auto reliability.

    The mitigating factor is that this experience (seeing both types shot side by side) was accumulated between 1990 and 2004.

    So, now in the year 2011, after 7 more years of development, I’d like to ask how they compare for reliability in a civilian and law enforcement environment?

  2. Dogguy

    Dogguy Member

    Oct 21, 2010
    I think (rather than "know") the concern over semi-auto reliability has pretty much played out.

    My first semi-automatic was a Colt 1911 that would fail to feed, eject or fail to do something else every so often. That was pretty much what you expected of the classic design autos back in the 70s and 80s. You bought a 1911, took it to a specializing gunsmith and spent another several hundred dollars to get it to work well enough to be considered reliable. No more. If you buy a new autoloader today that has been on the market for long enough to establish a good reputation, you're pretty much guaranteed it will be reliable right out of the box. If it's not, you'll know it immediately and manufacturer will fix it or replace it.

    Sometime in the mid 1970s through the mid to late 1980s, a whole new breed of auto came along that had simplified designs that made them run like they should have all along. That's when the world started to see CZs, SIG-Sauers and Glocks hit the market. Guns that ran like they were supposed to run without having to have a gunsmith tune them up. That's also when you started to see LE agencies turn away from revolvers and move in to autos.

    I started out shooting revolvers when I was a kid and I still like revolvers and I still own several revolvers. But I've moved on and I now own several autos that I consider every bit as reliable--or maybe even more reliable in some cases. That revolver vs auto debate is really no longer relevant.
  3. MCgunner

    MCgunner Member

    Dec 3, 2005
    The end of the road between Sodom and Gomorrah Tex
    I don't think autos particularly unreliable from the 80s on. I've had 1911s that only were very reliable with ball, that's why I don't care for 1911s after all being designed in 1911 FOR ball. You can improve 'em, of course, with one piece feed ramps, doing away with the link, polish, port, etc, but I just got rid of 'em and swore off. By the time you get one to work, you could have bought 10 cases of ammo for a modern gun. :rolleyes: The 1911 guys will jump on this, but they read too much Jeff Cooper. :rolleyes:

    I've only got 2 Rugers, a Kel Tec, a Grendel P12 (out of production little .380) and a Radom P64 for center fire autos. Every one of these guns are 100 percent reliable. Now, I've found some ammo in some of 'em that won't feed. Autos can be ammo picky. That's something that is not true of revolvers except for accuracy, but not function. But, when fed what they like, my autos are 100 percent, absolutely. My Rugers, I don't think you can jam the things, feed anything. I carry the old Speer 200 grain "flying ashtray" in my P90. I guess when my stash runs out, I'll switch to gold dots as the flying ashtray is no longer made. That bullet was the gold standard of reliability testing, if it'd feed, the gun would feed anything. For a test, I loaded an empty sized case in the mag with a few rounds in front and behind it and my P90 would feed THAT every time, no bullet at all! It's also revolver accurate, putting those flying ashtrays into a 1", sometime the first shot being a bit low to 1.5", at 25 yards off the bench. That's revolver accuracy in an auto. The trigger is fantastic, too. Needless to say, I still have the P90. It's a might hard to carry, though, in south Texas heat and humidity, not a pocket gun. But, it's lighter than an all steel 1911 and carries pretty easily on a belt or IWB in a Sparks summer special if you can wear the over garments. In 105 degree heat and 70 percent humidity, I can't. :rolleyes:

    Anyway, I love my revolvers, own more revolvers than autos, at lest center fire. I'm in to cap and ball revolvers, too, but don't count those. But, I find little pocket autos somewhat easier to conceal, slightly, than my ultralite .38 snubby revolver and they are easier to reload and carry reloads for. So, I mostly carry my autos, though I occasionally carry my .38, especially when I'm going fishing. The gun is stainless/alloy, don't have to worry so much about rust in a sweaty pocket in a salt water environment. The .38 is very accurate, but so are my Kel Tec and my Radom, the Grendel not so much.

    Most of the problems I HAVE had with autos, either feeding or other malfunctions, I fixed on the spot, usually with a tap/rack/bang. I've had a couple of malfunctions with a revolver that required sending back to the factory, put me out of action. One was a broken firing pin on a Rossi and the other was a split forcing cone on a Smith and Wesson M10 .38 special. Either would have been bad news in a gun fight. Don't happen often, mind you, but it can happen with a revolver, too.

    With an auto, you must first shoot a lot of what you're going to carry in it to prove it before you carry it, at least 200 rounds is the rule. Revolvers, just shoot for accuracy and you're good to go with maybe 5 or 10 shots fired. Proving an auto can be expensive, depending on the ammo involved. But, once I've proven the gun to my satisfaction, i'm as confident in it as any of my revolvers, frankly. I think the reliability thing is much to do about nothing, probably revolver guys with very little auto experience justifying their hatred for autos. JMHO, though.
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2011
  4. jmr40

    jmr40 Member

    May 26, 2007
    You could take a revolver out of the safe, to the range, back home, clean and put back in the safe and likely live a lifetime without a single malfunction.

    Do the same with a semi-auto and you will have the occasional malfunction, usually caused by poor ammo, assuming you have a quality gun.

    Start having to work with a dirty gun, or in a suituation where the gun would have to work after being dropped on the ground, or any type of abuse and either will eventually malfunction, but a quality semi-auto will continue to work longer.

    Revolvers are more complex, with more small parts that must work with close tolerances. It only takes a bit of un-burned powder, sand, or mud in the wrong place and a revolver will bind up and be useless. A revolver dropped on the ground could easliy damage the cylinder, hammer, ejector rod etc. since they are all external and not protected.

    It is much harder for crud to get into the internal parts of a semi-auto and the striker fired guns have even less moving parts externally.

    If you do have a semi-auto malfunction they are easliy cleared and back in action in seconds. When a revolver goes down, it is down until it can be repaired by someone with proper tools.

    No one plans on using their guns dirty, or after abusing them, but in the real world stuff happens. Sometimes your gun needs to work, no excuses.
  5. mgmorden

    mgmorden Member

    May 22, 2009
    Charleston, South Carolina
    As has been said, most of the bias against semi-autos comes from people who were around in a different time when they weren't as reliable as they are today. Modern guns might have more plastic and parts made out of cheaper materials (and produced using methods more friendly towards mass production), but overall the designs have been simplified greatly which helps reliability.

    For the most part just about ANY semi-auto from a good manufacturer (Ruger, S&W, Glock, SIG, Walther, CZ, Beretta, etc) will perform flawlessly for the entirety of it's useful life.

    The "reliability" argument in favor of revolvers is simply outdated. Not to say that revolvers aren't fun - I still have a few and enjoy shooting them - but it's not out of some misguided notion that they're more reliable.
  6. MCgunner

    MCgunner Member

    Dec 3, 2005
    The end of the road between Sodom and Gomorrah Tex
    In my real world, my autos don't get dropped in mud, filth, whatever. They ride in my pocket and I clean 'em and reload 'em (whatever I'm carrying) every week just as I do my revolvers, just so the pocket lint doesn't build up. I think your arguements only relate to military use. Civilian CCW, not so much.

    HUNTING and OUTDOOR carry, I'll pick a magnum revolver EVERY time. Why? Accuracy, power, and range. That's all that matters. But, I kinda prefer my single shot TC Contender for hunting to my Blackhawks. :D They don't get dumped in mud, either. I'm 59 years old and the only time I've ever dumped a gun in mud was my shotguns duck hunting when I trip in the muck. That's why I like Mossbergs for that, mine with a camo finish that sheds the salt water. :D I have gotten my .38 set a few times fishing. I carry it because that happens and it's a stainless/alloy gun which sheds the salt water pretty well. But, that's not muck, just salt water. My P90 is stainless, but I hardly ever carry it, too big for a pocket.
  7. AK103K

    AK103K Member

    Dec 27, 2002
    With a gun that works, ammo is usually the culprit when it doesnt. Auto or revolver, it doesnt matter.

    Of the two, when a failure does happen, the revolver is usually out of action at that point, until the problem can be diagnosed, and the problem taken care of. The autos are usually put back into action pretty quickly with a TRB.


    Aug 28, 2009
    Revolvers can jam but its ammunition is what causes it such as a primer not seated properly, if you get a misfire just pull the trigger again and bang on a different round. Semi Autos can jam by faulty ammo, bad magazines, or the gun not manufactured quite up to spec, Revolvers have more tolerance for defects.

    This being said, I carry a Semi auto and trust my life to it.
  9. EdJennings

    EdJennings Member

    Aug 11, 2011
    In a lot of cases, the revolver is back in action with another pull of the trigger. If there is a squib in the barrel this won't work, of course. With any other misfire, the revolver will probably win.
  10. snooperman

    snooperman Member

    May 4, 2009
    I agree with much that has already been said and..

    at age 70 I have shot both Revolvers and semi-auto pistols for more thhan 55 years. The newer semi auto pistols are very reliable compared to what was available 30+ years ago. I like the Glocks, 1911, SIG , and Rugers, but there are many others today that are just as good. The key is to have good ammo that they like and become proficient with it. I carry a Colt "Magnum Carry" most of the time IWB, but sometimes I carry the Glock 19 also IWB. I find both to be extremely reliable and can not seem to discern a distinct advantage of one over the other, except in the number of cartridges they hold.
  11. AK103K

    AK103K Member

    Dec 27, 2002
    You dont always get a second pull of the trigger with revolvers. Ive personally had all of the following happen over the years with various makes of revolvers....

    A loose bullet moving forward under recoil tying up the cylinder.

    Unburnt powder and/or other debris under the extractor star due to improper reloading technique.

    Loose ejector rods that backed out tying the gun up, and you cant get it open to reload.

    S&W 940's that had parts break internally, requiring the gun to be disassembled to get the live rounds out just to ship it back.

    The cylinder retention screw back out on a S&W 29, which dropped the cylinder on the ground when I went to reload.

    As I said earlier, when the revolvers go south, its usually a done deal at that point. The autos on the other hand, can usually quickly be put back into action.
  12. marb4

    marb4 Member

    Jul 6, 2010
    Revolvers are generally more complex "machines" than semi auto pistols so one might assume they are more likely to malfunction due to their complexity. Revolvers, like any complex machine, can break and malfunction...

    HOWEVER - A revolver is not dependent on ammunition to function and thats its big advantage. Light loads, hot loads, round nose, hollow point, ect doesn't matter. Potential ammo feeding and cycling problems aren't there like they are with autoloaders and despite their complexity, breakage and malfunction are exceedingly rare. I've owned a number of semi auto pistols, most of which are very reliable, but I've had at least some stoppages with every one of them. Never any with my revolvers. On the rare occasion I get a dud round in a revolver, just squeeze the trigger again and your back in the game. No "tap/rack" drills...

    HOWEVER - if a revolver does malfunction and lock up there is no quick fix. You're pretty much done until it can be disassembled and fixed. Not good if you're defending your life.

    So to answer the question, if I had to defend my life or family and had a semi auto pistol and revolver sitting in front of me I would likely grab the revolver (not factoring in caliber). I've never had a revolver fail me but all of my autoloaders on rare occasions have (thankfully only when shooting paper bad guys). Most modern semi auto pistols are very reliable but no matter how good the gun, it can still be taken out of action with one bad round.
  13. Robert101

    Robert101 Member

    May 10, 2010
    I have no other statistics than my own experience. I've never had a single weapon malfunction from a revolver - say 4,000 rounds fired.

    I've had FTFs or FTEs on every pistol (semi-auto) with the exception of my Gen4 Glock 27 which only has 250 rounds fired - say 30 malfuntions in 8,000 rounds fired total. I keep round count records so my stats are accurate.

    Now many of you will say that my 12,000 rounds fire are pretty minimal. Ok, but certainly more than your average gun owner and certainly enough to at least formulate and opinion.

    By the way, my guns include only good quality firearms like S&W, Dan Wesson, Springfiled Armory, Browning, etc. I've got to say that the Glock looks promising in the reliability of semi-auto. I use it as my CCW.
  14. showmebob

    showmebob Member

    Feb 1, 2009
    Salida, CO
    I own equal numbers of semi-autos and revolvers. I've shot at least 15,000 rounds (probably more). NOT COUNTING AMMO RELATED OR FEEDING EJECTION FAILURES I've had 0 revolver failures and 1 DOA semi-auto failure that required factory repair to fire.
    One revolver ammo related failure where the primer backed out and locked up the cylinder. It took a minute or two to resolve the issue.
    Multiple semi-auto ammo related failures that didn't take too long to resolve.

    If I had to bet my life on firing 5 quick shots with no problems I'll grab my revolver every time.
  15. Inebriated

    Inebriated Member

    Mar 25, 2011
    Revolvers have less to go wrong, so they're generally less prone to malfunctions. Semi-autos are more prone, but almost all malfunctions with a semi are able to be identified and fixed. The debate over revolver vs. semi reliability is overplayed in my opinion.
  16. Slamfire

    Slamfire Member

    Dec 29, 2006
    Ruger performed the last product improvement on the single action revolver in the 1950's.


    Revolvers are simple and reliable. I trust a wheel gun more than a semi auto.

    Though today's semi autos are better than they have ever been.
  17. AK103K

    AK103K Member

    Dec 27, 2002
    They should have left it alone after that. :)

    I had a couple of new model Blackhawks that both had to go back because of the cylinder gap being a problem with lead bullets, specifically, lead build up on the face of the cylinder. The cylinders on both guns would tie up after shooting a couple of cylinders full. The gun would get sluggish to cock towards the end of the first, and you couldnt cock it at all usually by the end of the second.
  18. genstab

    genstab Member

    Oct 22, 2010
    Very interesting thread. Personally, I always thought from what people said that revolvers would never let you down while semiautos can jam, so my first guns were a S&W Model 60, a nickel plated Colt Detective Special (second series) and a S&W Military & Police snub (pre-model 10) followed by a primo stainless Model 64 snub. But I got intrigued by Browning Hi-Powers, wanted to give a semiauto a fair chance, and bought a new 9mm Practical. All I can say is I agree with the folks who say the newer semiautos are super reliable because I have not had one single misfire with the Browning. I fire some 200 rounds as soon as I get a gun to test it out. I than got hold of a Browning BDM which performs flawlessly, and then picked up on a FN HP-DA which is the same gun as a Browning BDA-9, as it's made by FN (the mags, at least the 15 rounders, are interchangeable with the BDM). They are super reliable also. I think the HP-DA (or BDA-9) is a more solid gun by construction; the BDM is super thin and lighter though they are all steel guns. What's my opinion now? I think you can trust your life to a modern semiauto, at least a FN/Browning (and having had such good luck with them I'm not about to experiment with other brands though from what I read I would say the SigSauer, Glock and Beretta are also quality guns), but as I have these revolvers, I'm going to have one of them in each room of my house along with a semiauto in case of need. If one lets me down I can grab the other. But yes, I'd grab the semiauto first because I have 13 to 15 round mags for them. So if I have a misfire which I have never had yet with any of my semiautos I can grab a .38 Special quickly. As far as my car goes, as I have a concealed carry license, I carry the Browning BDM in the glove box. But if I ever have the need to carry a gun in a bad area it'll be one of my snub nose .38s because they're lighter, more concealable, and I have holsters for them that aren't bulky. I can always carry a speedloader in my pocket.

    Best regards,
    Bill in Cleveland
  19. M2 Carbine

    M2 Carbine Member

    May 29, 2003
    About 1960 I had a couple revolvers and a couple semi automatics. Since then I have owned and shot or been around people shooting many, many revolvers and semi automatics. Since 1967 I have owned my own range where friends and I have shot many semi autos and revolvers.

    In all this time the total number of revolver malfunctions I've seen, I can probably count on my fingers and toes and have some left over. In the same time I can not even begin to estimate the number of semi auto malfunctions I've seen, and still see.

    When I see a revolver malfunction it's a big deal. When I see a semi auto malfunction it's just another day at the range.

    Right now I have a Ruger LC9 that has quickly gone through almost 1,600 trouble free rounds and will probably go through another 1,600 with no trouble. But if it has a malfunction the next time I shoot it I will not be surprised, it's a semi automatic.

    I like revolvers and semi autos equally well but when I pick up a revolver I "know" it's going to work. When I pick up a semi auto I "know" that it stands a fair chance of malfunctioning. It's just the nature of the beast.
  20. Zerodefect

    Zerodefect Member

    Mar 28, 2009
    Yakutsk, Sakha Republic
    Revolvers are more reliable. No recoil operation or complex sliding parts. Your thumb or trigger finger powers them.

    But, in my experience, they are far less durable.

    One good wack and you can bend that frame a little and your shots are off. In fact banging a revolver on a wooden block with a leather cover, is how I watched an old timer zero his gun in.

    How many times can I fall down on my side with a revolver before the crane gets bent out of shape? My Glocks and 1911's have no problem with me dropping to urban prone on top of them. (Rifle shoot, pistol in holster)

    So, in my opinion, a good Glock or 1911 is overall more durable/reliable for me. I still like S&W J-frames. But I won't throw my revolver down the driveway like I can my Glock or 1911.

    I'd really like to get my hands on a 7" USFA single action revolver. Maybe even the "aged" version, even though it is kinda corny. But it's not like it would be practical for anyhting anyways.
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2011
  21. DC Plumber

    DC Plumber Member

    Dec 5, 2010
    NE of The Frozen Tundra
    Ah, the debate goes on. Very thought provoking responses though.

    Seriously, two nights ago, we had an incident in the neighborhood that woke up our family at 2am. My wife was pretty scared, I ran to the safe where I have numerous loaded handguns, all ready to go.

    I grabbed my 4" 586 loaded with 158 JHP XTPs over 14.5g of 2400.

    My other options included everything from a 22 rimfire, a 380, 2 1911s, 44mags, 44 specials and a few knives.

    Concealed carry is another matter, but for in home situations in the middle of the night, there was no debate in my mind. Thinking back, my second choice would have been my Smith and Wesson 3" model 24-3 stoked with 240g GDHP over a stiff charge of 2400.

    Luckily, neither was needed. This is the second time in my life that I had to grab a gun in the middle of the night for a very real threat. It felt good not to be helpless.
  22. Hondo 60

    Hondo 60 Member

    Sep 6, 2009
    Manitowoc, WI
    Limp Wristing

    I have several semi-autos & revolvers.

    The revolvers don't jam - ever - unless a part breaks.
    My nephew tends to limp wrist my 1911 & it jams on him maybe every other or every 3rd magazine.

    It never jams on me.

    I think for the purposes of this debate we need to specify whether the shooter is experienced with the particular firearm or not.

    In my case there is no difference between my newer semi-autos & my vintage revolvers when it comes to reliability.
  23. Warp

    Warp Member

    Jan 22, 2008
    This sounds about right and qualifies as conventional wisdom from what I have seen.

    The problem is that the auto loader has problems more often.

    In my mind there is no doubt that, all else equal, the revolver is more reliable. Too bad they can't hold, say, 14 rounds of .45ACP.
  24. TEX

    TEX Member

    Jun 3, 2003
    I believe the main issue is the extra training luggage an auto comes with – which is substantial and very critical.

    Many say most stoppages in an auto are ammo related, but this is also true of a revolver. The revolver does not give a hoot about bullet profile and an auto may. In a revolver, if you shoot good factory ammo with primers properly seated, bullets properly crimped, and you periodically tighten the frame screws and ejector rod, you chances of having a malfunction approach your chances of being hit by lighting while holding a winning lotto ticket. However, should a revolver have any malfunction other than a simple failure to fire (bad primer/dud round) you are probably done – you may not even be able to get the cylinder open to reload. With a failure to fire due to a dud round, most people even with no training at all, will perform the proper malfunction clearance – which is to pull the trigger again. With autos, other than a broken critical part or a ruptured case head, about 99.5% of all malfunctions can be fixed with one of two clearance procedures – one pretty darn quick and the other not so darn quick. Thankfully the first, and quicker one, solves probably 80+ percent of the problems. Autos tend to have more malfunctions not because their design and cycling, but because the list of things that can hang them up is much long than for a revolver. It runs the gambit from failing to seat the magazine fully, unfavorable bullet nose profile, misplaced thumbs, etc. to weak extractor springs, weak magazine springs or a magazine inserted too far – it is a long list. Some of this misery however, is self inflicted by perfectionist who, in attempting to shrink groups, get the auto too tight or modify it is some way it doesn’t like. The highest percentages of malfunction in autos I have seen are with semi-high end 1911s, especially those with barrels shorter than 4.5-inches. The most reliable autos I have seen are (and in order); Glock, Sig Saur, and Beretta. As with most other things, there are tradeoffs. If you are willing to become proficient with clearing malfunctions in an automatic, it may be a significantly better choice. They are usually more concealable, usually have a higher capacity, often have short trigger stokes, may have less recoil, and the “Biggy” – can be quickly reloaded with spare magazines (unless you are they Jerry cat out of Louisiana in which case an auto only slows you down). Excessive dirt or fouling is an enemy of both autos and revolvers, but seem to affect certain autos more than revolvers. That is a basic observation. I did once run over three cases of ammo through my Glock 23 (not all at one time) without cleaning it at all to see where it would start choking, but it never did. I just got tired of looking at it and cleaned it. I have never done that with a revolver, and if I did, I would not be surprised to have some trouble with it.

    A revolver may seem more reliable, but an auto offers many advantages, some potentially life saving, if you will take the time and effort to learn the malfunction clearances to the point they are engrained and automatic.
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2011
  25. GLOOB

    GLOOB Member

    Sep 16, 2007
    Depends on the individual gun. Sure, I have some semi-autos that are less reliable than my revolvers. But I have some that are more reliable.

    I've had malfunctions with both of my revolvers.
    1.The mainspring screw had backed out of my Smith, causing light strikes. Required disassembly to fix.
    2. Extractor rod backed out of my Smith, jamming the cylinder closed.
    3. Lack of lube and light rusting on the hammer caused my Smith to have some light strikes. Required disassmebly to fix.
    4. Ruger trigger dried out and wouldn't reset. Required disassembly to fix.
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