Analysis: Revolvers Are Just Better

Revolvers have historically tended to be more reliable, smaller, lighter, and simpler to use than comparable automatic pistols (especially prior to 1980; advances in design make this less universally true in the 21st century): just pull the trigger, no need for things like safeties or a loaded chamber. Versus an easier reload and more ammunition, the traditional argument has been that you rarely need more than six bullets in a gunfight. Up until the seventies, it was commonly known that revolvers were much more accurate than semi-automatics. They do tend to have a better trigger, and the reputation tends to stick even today. Revolvers also don't tend to jam like semi-automatics do, as they do not eject the bullet casings.

This makes them a good choice for self-defense and similar applications, where their low ammo capacity and slow reloading is usually not an issue. This is also the reason why they are usually recommended for people who have never fired a handgun before. In addition, for single-action revolvers (mostly those designed in the 19th century), the Dramatic Gun Cock is actually standard procedure; more modern designs are "double action," meaning that the trigger both cocks and releases the hammer in a single motion. Even with double-action, however, cocking the hammer on the first shot greatly reduces the weight of the trigger pull, making the gun easier to fire accurately.

They do have a few downsides. Most people know of more difficult reloading - versus loading a single box into a semi-auto, one has to either load six single bullets, or load six bullets into six holes at the same time; this can be quite difficult at times and is very hard to do one-handed, though in some revolvers, the actual cylinder can be pulled out and replaced with a loaded one. They're also very watch-like mechanically and many owners never open up a revolver because of the incredibly complex internal mechanisms. On a tightly-fitted revolver, carbon buildup on the cylinder face can cause the action to lock up, and poor ammunition can allow bullets to slip forward in the chambers, jamming the revolver completely. The advent of inexpensive semi-automatics like the Glock also means they can be more expensive unless one seeks out a used model. And there is the traditional problem - lacking capacity, though many designs have more than the normal five or six, some .357s packing eight rounds.

Revolvers are often shown to be more "powerful" than semiautomatic handguns, and this is true to some extent: revolvers can utilize much more powerful ammunition (see page pic) because they usually have a solid frame and therefore are physically stronger. Semi-automatics have to cycle in some manner (necessitating a design that opens), and the vast majority are recoil operated, which places an upper limit on cartridge power. Recoil springs can only be made so strong and still fit into something that a person can hold in one hand. Some semi-autos are chambered for powerful revolver cartridges, most notably the Desert Eagle but they are gas operated, which has its own drawbacks. Revolvers can also be stored loaded almost indefinitely, whereas magazines can't be left full longer than about a week at a time without losing tension in the springs. (Note: while this was historically the case, modern springs with improved metals last a lot longer than a week under compression; besides, it's more repeated compression and then decompression multiple times that wears out a spring, not just being compressed).

However, most revolvers are chambered for lighter rounds with less recoil, such as the popular .38 Special, which is only about as powerful as a 9mm round. This is because most rounds larger than the .357 Magnum are viewed as too powerful for self-defense or law enforcement use in the hands of anyone who isn't built like an Action Hero, and are largely limited to sport shooting and backup hunting weapons.

There is also some real world reason for this trope being reasonably common in Live Action TV and Film. Most automatic firearms require modification to allow blank ammunition to cycle them (using live ammunition on a film set is incredibly dangerous), as they either fail to produce enough gas pressure, or haven't enough recoil. They can be fitted with adaptors on the muzzle to increase the back pressure to cycle the action (blank-firing adaptors) but these are both bulky and obvious, and decrease the muzzle flash and report, making the blank shot much less dramatic. Revolvers or manual action (pump/lever/bolt/break) weapons being cycled by user effort, don't require any alteration to allow them to cycle with blanks.

Another reason is cultural, at least in the US. Revolvers are associated with cowboys and cops: heroic archetypes with ties to older traditions and the subtle implication that someone who uses a "six-shooter" is old-fashioned or at least conservative in outlook, if not necessarily politics. This is true even today, despite the fact that most police departments traded in their revolvers for semiauto pistols in the 1980s (although in some, like the NYPD, long-serving cops can retain their revolvers.) Then, too, especially in the 21st Century, someone who by preference uses a weapon holding only six rounds may be perceived as being confident in his skills ("Beware the man with one gun"), when more modern designs holding several times that much ammunition are readily available.

For some reason, top-break revolvers seem particularly affected by this trope, which is odd because they can't fire most high-pressure rounds, (With one notable exception in the IZHMECH MP412 REX which uses .357 Magnum), and are for the most part rather rare.