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Priorities in the Selection of the Defensive Handgun

1. Reliability

2. Ergonomics

3. Other Size Factors

4. Revolver vs. Semi-auto (Autoloader)

Three generations of Smith & Wesson Centennial revolvers - with blued or stainless-steel frames - from top to bottom, wear the original factory grip with a Tyler T-Grip Adapter, hand-carved Boot Grips from Craig Spegel and the Pachmayr Compac Professional Grip. (Photo from Defensive Use of Firearms: Revised and Updated, copyright © 2010, by Defensive Use of Firearms, LLC.)
The Delta Grip from Ergo Grip extends beyond both the back strap and the bottom strap of a round-butt, J-frame S&W revolver, making it less suitable for pocket carry. Some users of the Airweight and Airlite versions - particularly if they have man-size hands - find that it makes those guns easier to control.
Hogue's Centennial/Bodyguard grip - pictured here on Smith & Wesson's Bodyguard 38 - offers a less radical approach to making those two small-frame S&W revolvers more manageable for some users. It is currently offered with the rubber section in three different colors, including pink and black.
Compare these two similar grips from Hogue for the ultralight Ruger LCR revolvers. Some grip makers are sensitive to the fact that male-size finger grooves are not suitable for all users and offer models without them.
This photo shows all three "palm swells" that Beretta furnishes for the PX4 Storm pistol. Note that only one extends the distance from the back strap to the face of the trigger. This photo shows a Walther PPQ pistol, and all three of the back-strap inserts. Note that they offer both different shapes and different distances from the back strap to the face of the trigger.
  • Some pistols, including most versions of Smith & Wesson's discontinued metal-frame, double-action models, incorporate a safety mechanism that prevents firing if there is not a magazine inside the magazine well. Ruger actually offers its small, striker-fired LC9s in a standard version that includes both a thumb safety and a magazine-disconnect safety and a Pro version, that lacks both.
  • Magazine-disconnect safeties may be viewed as desirable by users who want to be able to disable the pistol by simply removing the magazine. One such group that comes to mind is mothers and grandmothers who will not commit to holstered carry, on-body, and may perceive a need to disable the gun when children are present and the gun may be out of sight and reach of the adult.
  • The crucial issue is that safety with firearms is primarily a matter of following The Rules, not relying on a mechanical safety. Further, those who do opt for a pistol that incorporates a magazine-disconnect safety must remain mindful that that feature is not present on all other pistols, including some which may appear to be the same model as one that does incorporate that device.

  • As the US prepared to enter World War I, it lacked the capability to manufacture enough of the newly adopted M1911 pistol. In 1916, someone at Smith & Wesson figured out that the rimless .45 ACP cartridge could be made to function reasonably in the firm's large-frame revolver by inserting three of the rounds in a stamped-steel half-moon clip. The Army adopted that revolver as an expedient and Colt created a similar one on their large frame. This resulted in the rare case of two mechanically distinct handguns sharing the same designation - M1917.
  • The three-round half-moon clip was so named as it had a semicircular shape, with the cartridges inserted from the "inside." The concept was not all that popular with early Border Patrol agents who were issued M1917 revolvers and M1917 rifles - another expedient to deal with the inability to produce enough of the relatively new M1903 Springfield. Then came the sport of timed bowling-pin matches and someone started making full-moon clips that revolver competitors felt gave them a faster reload with the rimless .45 ACP round than using a speedloader with rimmed cartridges. The full-moon clips - generally referred to simply as moon clips today - have a star shape, with an opening for the center of the extractor star - and cartridges inserted from the "outside."
  • Today, revolvers are made to handle such pistol calibers as .380 ACP, 9x19mm, .40 S&W, 10mm and .45 ACP with the use of moon clips. Because some shooters value what they believe is a faster reload with a moon clip, some .38/357 revolvers are manufactured to allow their use and others - typically in other chamberings - are so modified. These work by cutting a recess in the center of the rear of the cylinder, to accommodate the moon clip while leaving enough of the outer contour for the rim of the case to headspace, whether or not the clip is used. Unlike with the rimless pistol cartridges, the rimmed revolver cases will also extract with the extractor star without the use of the clips.
  • Moon clips are susceptible to bending and breaking - the latter particularly with the relatively flimsy clips used for five-shot 9x19mm and .38/.357 revolvers. Bent clips - just enough to keep them from lying flat - may not only slow the claimed faster reload, they may also absorb some of the energy of the hammer strike, hindering reliable ignition of the primer. In the worst-case scenario, they may even hinder rotation of the cylinder. An additional issue with moon clips for revolver cartridges is whether their thickness matches the brand of ammunition that you intend to use.
  • Around the 1980's, French police used revolvers chambered in 9x19mm, both with and without moon clips. (Smith & Wesson's Model 547 was specifically designed to extract that rimless case without the use of moon clips for such a contract.) It is worth noting that those French units who continue using revolvers - typically SWAT-style entry teams - have transitioned to France's own Manurhin .357 Magnum revolvers.
  • If you've got the spare funds, I have no objection to seeking out an out-of-production S&W Model 547 or a currently produced Charter Arms Pitbull revolver, for the expedient use of 9x19mm ammo when it is more readily available than the traditional, rimmed revolver rounds. Dependence on moon clips, however, negates one advantage of the revolver - the ability to keep loading with loose rounds when magazines, clips, speedloaders and similar devices are not available. Double-action revolvers generally function more reliably with the rimmed cartridges around which they were designed. Those concerned with saving a second or two in reloading time may be better served by a so-called "New York reload" - transitioning to a second revolver.

5. Hammer-Fired vs. Striker-Fired Pistols

6. Caliber or Power

7. Problems with Lightweight and "Ultralight" Handguns

8. Consistency

9. Revolvers Make Poor Shotguns

  • Over the years that this website has been online, there has been a substantial increase in the number of Americans carrying firearms for personal protection. In recent years, I have seen an increasing number of articles reporting mishaps as dropped-gun discharges, resulting in a spectrum from embarrassment, through legal charges, to injuries and fatalities.
  • Firearms suitable for defensive use are properly considered deadly weapons. As such, their primary function is to launch potentially deadly projectiles. Attempts at mechanical means to make them completely "safe" risk making them useless for that primary role, under emergency circumstances. Thus, safety with firearms is primarily a matter of following The Rules.
  • While the use of a proper holster is a major step in keeping handguns from dropping to the floor or the ground, some guns are still less "drop-safe" than others. For better or for worse, such "drop-resistance" usually comes at a higher price. Most good-quality, modern revolvers and pistols are fitted with passive safety devices that greatly reduce the risk of dropped-gun discharges. One maker of medium-price firearms was forced to recall several models of polymer-frame, striker fired pistols because the firing-pin safety, at best, required engagement of the thumb safety in order to prevent discharges if the pistols got dropped at the wrong angles.
  • When you shop for a firearm - particularly a handgun - be sure to ask what sort of passive safety it has to prevent discharge if it is dropped. It may be worth some further research to determine if that safety system has been reported to have failed.

  • One of the most common problems with revolvers is binding of the cylinder. With double-action revolvers, this is often noticed as resistance in the trigger stroke. Such binding can be caused by one or more high primers, crud under the extractor star or - in S&W revolvers and some copies of them - loosening of the sleeve that forms the forward portion of the extractor rod.
  • A good precaution, after closing the action of a loaded revolver, is to check that the cylinder is not binding. If the revolver has a hammer with an exposed spur, the hammer can be eased back just far enough to disengage the cylinder stop, which rises and falls in a slot at the bottom of the cylinder window. Once it is disengaged, the other thumb can be used to check that the cylinder rotates without binding. If the revolver lacks an exposed hammer spur - such as if the hammer is concealed or the spur has been removed - the tip of the little finger of the non-gun hand can be usually inserted behind the trigger, allowing the trigger enough travel to disengage the cylinder stop without the risk of firing the revolver unintentionally.
  • If binding is detected and is traced to one or more primers that project beyond the head of the cartridge case, those rounds must be replaced. This problem is seen more commonly with reloaded training ammunition but can occur with factory ammunition as well.
  • If no high primers are detected, check the mating surfaces of the underside of the extractor star and the recess in the cylinder in which it seats. This is the most crucial area for cleaning on a double-action revolver and a revolver shooter should always take a nylon-bristle brush - such as a toothbrush - to the range for such cleaning. Accumulation of unburned flakes of powder here can be eliminated by avoidance of oil at this location and by turning the muzzle skyward while ejecting fired cases.
  • On S&W revolvers, there is a tendency for the sleeve that forms the forward portion of the extractor rod to shoot loose - even after the change to a left-hand thread, circa 1960. As soon as you detect this, carefully unscrew the sleeve, degrease the male and female threads with a solvent such as acetone, then apply a drop of a temporary Loctite (e.g., 222) or nail polish to the male thread before reassembly. The other thread that merits this precaution, when it is found to have worked loose, is the one for the slotted nut that holds the thumbpiece (cylinder release) to the bolt. These threaded parts, along with the side-plate screws, strain screw and the screw that holds the rear sight in place if the revolver is fitted with an adjustable sight, should be checked on every cleaning.
  • While revolvers have long been touted as being more reliable than autoloading pistols, this is a handy guide to function testing the more commonly encountered double-action revolvers. Also, this useful discussion of testing revolvers for other aspects of reliability.


Note: While this cutaway drawing helps identify several parts of a S&W revolver, it is of an older
version and some parts, including the hammer and firing pin, are no longer made as pictured


The Defensive Firearms Tripod

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