Tactical mythbusting: revolvers are more accurate than semi-autos

I love revolvers. Revolver aficionados tend to fancy themselves the wise Jedi Knights of defensive shooting, keepers of secret knowledge. We are fond of phrases like “accuracy is final” and “six for sure”, and of course to continue to rip off Star Wars by referring to our wheelguns as “more elegant weapons for a more civilized age.” However, there is one revolver myth that gets repeated almost as often, and today we’ll explain why it isn’t true.

Ruger GP100-2

The myth goes like this: “Revolvers are more accurate than semi-automatic pistols because a revolver barrel doesn’t move.” When you examine it on the surface, it actually kind of makes sense. The barrels on recoil operated semi-automatic pistols do move when the gun is fired, so a casual observer might be tempted to think that a semi-auto pistol would be less inherently accurate than a revolver. In fact, this myth does have a kernel of truth to it; back in the days before CNC machining, it was quite likely that if you took a brand new production revolver off the line and put it up against a brand new semi-auto pistol, the revolver would shoot more accurately. But now days, that’s not the case. To understand why, we have to look at the firing cycle of both guns.

A semi-auto pistol chambers the round, and when it is fired, the bullet engages the barrel’s rifling almost instantly. The barrel doesn’t begin its reward movement until the bullet has cleared the barrel. Additionally, most modern constructed semi-automatic pistols lock up quite a bit tighter than the old rattlecan guns of the 1930s and 40s. Thanks to the joys of modern CNC machining, we can build guns with tolerances that would have been unheard of for factory guns even a generation ago. This is why we get Gen 4 Glocks that can shoot 1.90 inch groups.

A revolver’s firing cycle starts with the cartridge in the cylinder, and depending on the gun/ammo selection, the bullet may have to travel a significant (for a gun) amount of distance before engaging the rifling. All revolver rounds have to travel some distance in the cylinder, pass through the forcing cone, and then engage the rifling. There’s a lot in those three steps that can affect mechanical accuracy in a wheelgun. The most notable is the forcing cone; if the cone isn’t cut right, or if the angle is off a little bit, the bullet will cut little bits of itself off on the cone, which can unbalance it and lead to wildly inaccurate shooting. One of my match revolvers simply refuses to shoot a group with lead bullets, likely do to the cut of the forcing cone.

In modern times, revolvers and semi-automatic pistols are on quite even terms in the accuracy realm. If you went and pulled a modern production K-Frame, a GP100, a Glock 17 and a Sig P226 off the production line; the most important factor in the pistol’s accuracy wouldn’t be the barrel, it would be the trigger nut.

7 thoughts on “Tactical mythbusting: revolvers are more accurate than semi-autos”

  1. Caleb,

    Good analysis. To add a little more “fuel” to your fire, you might want to mention that semi-auto pistols like the Walther PP and PPK have fixed barrels.

    I do think the “barrel-cylinder” gap does cause accuracy problems in revolvers, especially if all the cylinders are not bored true with the centerline of the barrel.

  2. The only real way to test the inherent accuracy of a firearm is to put in a rest and actually test it.

  3. a properly tuned browning action is going to give you more inherent accuracy than any human can take advantage of while actually holding the gun.

  4. I can only say that most, but by no means all, of my semi-auto’s seem to have a different point of impact between the first round and the rest of the mag. I do’t know why. I never encounter this with a revolver.

  5. Ethan — there can be a small difference between the first round loaded by dropping the slide from slide lock, and subsequent rounds loaded by firing. More prominent if you drop the first round directly in the chamber.

    I’ve only heard of it being a detectable issue if your bullets aren’t crimped tightly, implying it is the bullet shifting in the case, based on different closing speeds. Bullets ending up at different seating depths = variation in pressures, etc. = variations in external ballistics. I’ve never had this issue myself — which might indicate it is either a myth, or I just don’t shoot well enough to see the difference. {grin}

    Unless you fire your first round double action, and the remainder in single action — that can also cause a shift, obviously.

    1. Thanks for the input. I never thought to check between factory and handloads. And I usually hand drop in the chamber.
      DA/SA is not an issue. Again, my thanks.

  6. Depending on the firearm you’re using, hand dropping a round into the chamber may cause problems for your extractor. As its been explained to me, when you drop a round in the chamber then allow the slide to fall on the round, the extractor has to jump over the rim of the cartridge which can ultimately de-tune it creating reliability issues. Just something to think about. I used to load my carry piece the same way, but have adjusted so that now I insert a magazine, chamber a round off the top, drop the magazine, top it off, then reinsert so I maximize my immediately available capacity.

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