So Which Double-Action Revolver Should I Get?
The easiest way to narrow down your choices is to start with the cartridge, rather than with the revolver itself. There are a number of very powerful revolver cartridges that are not suitable for self-defense purposes. They are simply too big and generate too much recoil and blast. They will also over-penetrate an attacker’s body with more than enough energy to travel three blocks down the street and kill an innocent bystander. These are strictly for hunting; usually for hunting large and dangerous game. Chief among them are cartridges like the .500 S&W Magnum, the .460 S&W Magnum, the .480 Ruger, the .454 Casull, and the .475 Linebaugh. These hand cannons have no place in your self-defense arsenal. For purposes of personal defense, just forget they exist. The best choices for personal defense are the following cartridges: the .38 Special and the .357 Magnum. Anything larger or smaller will be inadequate or too powerful. With respect to the .41 Magnum and the .44 Magnum, some ammunition manufacturers make loads for these revolvers that are specially designed for self-defense purposes. They are usually sold as “Medium Velocity” or “Personal Defense” loads and are so marked on the cartridge boxes. These loads are purposely “watered down” so that they do not generate massive recoil and deafening muzzle blast, and a .41 Magnum or a .44 Magnum loaded with such ammunition can be a fine defensive firearm. Just remember that with very few exceptions, the double-action revolvers chambered for the .41 Magnum and the .44 Magnum are very large and have long double-action trigger pulls. If you have small to medium sized hands, the revolvers may be too large for you to operate properly, no matter what ammunition they are loaded with.
I should include one “honorable mention” here: the .45 Long Colt cartridge, a.k.a. the .45 Colt. Smith & Wesson has, over the years, made a few of their big double-action revolvers chambered for the .45 Colt cartridge. This is the classic “Cowboy Cartridge” made famous in the Colt Single Action Army revolver. The .45 Colt is an excellent defensive round: it has the big, heavy bullet of the .44 Magnum, but it generates nowhere near as much recoil, muzzle blast, or over-penetration. If you can find one, and if the grip frame is not too large for you, it would also make a fine choice.
There is something else to consider about two of the defensive cartridges mentioned here, and it is another reason why the double-action revolver makes for a great personal defense firearm: the .357 Magnum and the .44 Magnum were created as more powerful versions of the .38 Special and the .44 Special respectively. As a result, any revolver chambered for the .357 Magnum can shoot .38 Special cartridges just fine, and a .44 Magnum revolver can shoot .44 Special cartridges with no problem. This is a real advantage for a few reasons. First, it means that you can use the lighter-recoiling “Special” cartridges for practice, which helps you develop excellent shooting fundamentals more easily. You certainly want to incorporate whatever ammunition you will use for self-defense into your training, but a long day of shooting a few hundred magnum rounds can be tiring. The lighter “Specials” are very beneficial to your training. Second, younger and smaller members of your family can be trained to shoot your defensive revolver without being intimidated by the recoil and muzzle blast of the big magnum rounds. It is something to consider, and it is one of the reasons why I strongly believe that a good .357 Magnum double-action revolver is one of the finest self-defense firearms you can have. The ability to shoot .38 Special and .357 Magnum loads in a single gun makes it remarkably versatile.
The Dynamic Duo of Personal Defense Revolvers: the .38 Special and the .357 Magnum
The .38 Special Cartridge: The .38 Special was the most commonly issued police revolver in America for generations. It is a remarkably accurate cartridge, and most people have no trouble mastering the mild recoil that it generates. The original police load – a 158-grain round-nosed lead bullet – left a lot to be desired as a defensive load, as many older police officers can tell you. Seeking to improve the performance of the cartridge, the ammunition manufacturers introduced .38 Special loads that traveled at higher velocities. These became known as the .38 Special +P. The “+P” means “Plus Power.” These loads – and the adoption of hollow-point bullets – dramatically improved the effectiveness of the .38 Special against people. For defensive purposes, a .38 Special revolver should be loaded with some form of “+P” load. You can train with the lower-velocity “standard” .38 Special loads, but always choose the hotter “+P” loads for personal defense.
Forty years ago, if a neophyte entered a gun store looking for a self-defense handgun, the choice was easy. Not knowing anything about handguns, the customer would ask the proprietor for “a gun like the police use.” The proprietor would show the customer a medium-framed, six-shot .38 Special double-action revolver, with either a four-inch or a six-inch barrel. The customer had already concluded that if he or she needed a handgun for self-defense, one like the police use would be the perfect choice. While semiautomatic handguns now dominate the defensive handgun market, the citizen who chooses a good medium-framed .38 Special double-action revolver is well armed; provided of course that the right ammunition is chosen. The .38 Special +P load that has the best track record for self-defense is the 158-grain lead hollow-point version. The heavy bullet penetrates clothing and a number of barriers very well, and the soft lead hollow-point bullet usually expands in soft tissue to an acceptable degree. There are a number of newer hollow-point designs in the 125-grain class that have a good record, but I recommend that you stick with the 158-grain lead hollow-point +P load. It works very well; particularly at close range.
Smith & Wesson rules the roost with respect to double-action revolvers for self-defense. Colt no longer makes any of their double-action revolvers – which is tantamount to a crime, if you ask me – and Ruger makes only a couple of models (though they are fine revolvers indeed, and quite probably the strongest, most durable double-action revolvers ever made). The Brazilian firm Taurus makes a number of good double-action revolvers that are practically clones of the Smith & Wesson guns, and they have proven to be durable and accurate. Either the Ruger or the Taurus would be good choices, but given the dominance of Smith & Wesson in the field, I suggest that you confine your search to Smith & Wesson’s line of double-action revolvers. One of the advantages of the dominance of Smith & Wesson’s revolvers is that wherever you reside, you will almost certainly have a competent gunsmith who is thoroughly familiar with their products. If you ever need any gunsmithing work done, you can rest assured that there are plenty of excellent smiths available to work on your Smith & Wesson. The same cannot be said for the guns made by other manufacturers.
So what about specific models? That is an easy one. For many decades, the standard American police revolver was the “K-Frame” Smith & Wesson in .38 Special, with either a four-inch or a six-inch barrel. Smith & Wesson uses letter designations to categorize their revolver frame sizes. Many experts thought that these “K-Frame” revolvers were the best compromise all around: they were neither too big nor too small, and they were chambered in an acceptable self-defense cartridge. Smith & Wesson still makes the “K-Frame” revolvers as the Model 10 (fixed-sight version) and the Model 15 (adjustable sight version). Smith & Wesson also makes these revolvers out of stainless steel as the Model 64 and the Model 67, respectively. While the Model 10 can sometimes be found with a two-inch barrel, stick with the four-inch or six-inch barreled versions. The longer barrels mean that you get more velocity out of the cartridges, and the longer barrels mean a longer sight radius and better stabilization of the bullet, so you can shoot more accurately. A six-inch barreled revolver is a bit much to carry concealed, but if the revolver will be for home defense, then you need not worry about carrying it concealed. Either the four-inch or the six-inch barreled versions make for fine home defense revolvers.
Years ago, Smith & Wesson developed a slightly larger medium framed double-action revolver that had the same grip size as the “K-Frame” models. These are the “L-Frame” revolvers. These will be chambered in the more powerful .357 Magnum, but you can shoot the .38 Special cartridges out of it without harming the revolver. The “L-Frame” double-action revolvers were made to replace the “K-Frame” revolvers that were chambered for the .357 Magnum cartridge, which was beating up the “K-Frames” over time. The Smith & Wesson “L-Frame” revolvers are currently sold under the designations Model 586, Model 686, and Model 686 Plus (this is a seven-shot revolver; otherwise, it is the same gun). The “L-Frame” revolvers with either a four-inch or a six-inch barrel make excellent choices for self-defense.
I strongly suggest that you avoid the tiny “J-Frame” revolvers offered by Smith & Wesson. These revolvers are offered in both .38 Special (rated to handle +P loads) and in .357 Magnum chamberings. These were designed to be easily carried and easily concealed by police detectives and others who are not likely to have to use their revolvers in a gunfight. The tiny “J-Frame” revolvers by Smith & Wesson carry only five shots, and their barrels are actually closer to one inch or less in length. These tiny, lightweight revolvers are not pleasant to shoot even with standard velocity ammunition, and the +P loads are downright painful to shoot. Shooting .357 Magnum rounds from them is a downright horrendous experience. These super-short barrels mean that you lose a great deal of bullet velocity, as most of the gunpowder from the cartridge burns outside of the barrel. Their extremely short sight radius (the distance between the rear sight and the front sight) means that they are very difficult to shoot accurately. Oh; they make for fine back-up guns, and a lot of police officers carry them for just this purpose. But your primary defensive revolver should be a medium-framed model with at least a four-inch barrel that carries at least six cartridges in the cylinder.
The .357 Magnum Cartridge: As already stated, back in the day before the advent of hollow-point ammunition and “+P” loads, a lot of police officers found the .38 Special left a lot to be desired as a defensive cartridge. Oh; they loved the revolvers, but they hated the cartridge. This is understandable. The old standard 158-grain round-nosed lead bullet moving at about 755 feet per second from a six-inch barrel tended to drill nice, neat holes in bad guys without imparting any real stopping power. The load generated about 200 foot-pounds of energy, which in the grand scheme of things is not much (Consider: full-power hunting loads for the .44 Magnum can generate almost 1,000 foot-pounds of energy). Rather than try to beef up the cartridge, the firearms and ammunition companies decided to make a more powerful version of it specifically for police and federal agents.1 They would make the case a bit longer than the .38 Special to keep this hot, new load from being chambered in a .38 Special revolver. The new cartridge would fire the same sized bullet, but at approximately 1,500 feet per second; giving the new load three times the striking energy of the old .38 Special. It would be devastating against an assailant, and it would shoot through the doors of an automobile with more than enough power to neutralize a dangerous suspect hiding behind that door. They called this new cartridge the .357 Magnum.
The .357 Magnum is nothing more than a .38 Special with a slightly longer case to hold more gunpowder; thereby allowing it to drive bullets at much higher velocities than the .38 Special ever could. More velocity equals more striking power, which is what really anchors an assailant. The .357 Magnum cartridge remains one of the finest defensive handgun cartridges that money can buy. It is very powerful, but not too powerful to be used against human attackers. A citizen with a double-action revolver chambered in the .357 Magnum cartridge is very well-armed. The extra power means that the .357 Magnum will produce more recoil and muzzle blast than the .38 Special, but it is by no means so powerful that the average person cannot learn to shoot it quickly and accurately. There are more excellent .357 Magnum double-action revolvers offered for sale today than there are medium-framed .38 Special revolvers. Your best bet with respect to the .357 Magnum are the “L-Frame” double-action revolvers from Smith & Wesson. They are offered in both six-shot and seven-shot versions, with barrels ranging from two inches to six inches. With respect to the “L-Frame” revolvers, the two-inch barreled version has a genuine two inch barrel with a full-length underlug for stability and recoil absorption. A good “K-Frame” .357 Magnum double-action revolver is a fine choice, but if you like to shoot your handgun a great deal, I strongly suggest that you go with the “L-Frame” revolvers for .357 Magnum. And one more thing about the Smith & Wesson “L-Frame” guns: unlike the tiny “J-Frame” guns, I can recommend the two-inch Smith & Wesson Model 686 and 686 Plus without hesitation. They are accurate at civilian defense combat distances, easy to handle, and plenty accurate. Still; I would recommend a model with either a four-inch or a six-inch barrel.
The “classic” load for a .357 Magnum revolver is a 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter bullet moving out of a six-inch barreled revolver at a little over 1,500 feet per second. That makes for an immensely powerful load, but most commercially produced .357 Magnum ammunition does not reach those velocities. Fear not; the .357 Magnum is still one of the best – if not the best – one-shot fight stoppers of all of the handgun cartridges available today. Some tests have shown that the best anti-personnel load for the .357 Magnum is the 125-grain jacketed hollow point (JHP) version. Personally, I prefer the heavier bullets (140-grain to 158-grain), but the fact is that there are almost no loads for the .357 Magnum that are not excellent choices for personal defense. Just remember: for personal defense, stick with the hollow-point bullets. Solid bullets are nowhere near as good as a hollow-point when confronted with a human attacker. Forget about the military “Hardball” or solid lead bullets. Hollow-points are definitely the way to go.
1 The very first .357 Magnum revolver made by Smith & Wesson – serial #1 – was presented to F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover on May 10th, 1935.