The Modern Defensive Revolver

There are better choices for concealed carry than a wheelgun. Semi-automatic pistols are easier to shoot, easier to reload, and easier to manipulate. I am a huge revolver fanboy, but I’m also honest with the fact that a round-gun is not going to be optimal for most people. But if you are going to build a defensive revolver for carry, then here are a few things you must have.

The Modern Defensive Revolver has to be a gun that you’re going to actually carry, and is actually shootable enough that you’ll train with it. So, for starters it can’t be a flyweight micro-gun. The Ruger LCRs and S&W Airweights are great guns, but they’re not in the niche of what we’re looking for here because you’re not going to take a 500 round class with a Scandium J-Frame. So the first criteria of a Modern Defensive Revolver is this:

It must be comfortable to shoot with defensive .38 Special ammo
The bottom end of guns that are comfortable to shoot with full house .38 +P loads are the all-steel small guns like the Ruger SP101 or the steel J-Frames such as a the 640 Pro Series.

smith & wesson 640 pro series

The reason that we want an MDR to be a bit heavier than the airweight guns its because we’re not viewing this gun as a backup; the modern defensive revolver is your primary carry gun. Because it’s your primary, you should train and practice with it. That brings us to the next criteria for a Modern Defensive Revolver.

It must have good sights
The traditional revolver gutter rear sight with a black front post is fine for shooting paper on a well lit range, but it’s not ideal for shooting smelly badguys in the face at 2am. The gun should have some kind of illuminated sights; while night sights are the best choice, I’d be willing to accept fiber optic or gold bead sights as well. Something that allows you to have a shot (ha) at target acquisition in low-light. Which brings us to the third criteria.

It must have a laser
Defensive lasers on your wheelgun are a must. It’s just that simple. It’s an auxiliary sighting system that allows for precise shot placement in low-light or no light conditions and allows you to keep your eyes focused on the threat. Train with the “real” sights, but have the laser for when you need it. Every single revolver I own for social work has a set of Crimson Trace LaserGrips on it, because I know if I really need the gun it’s probably not going to be on a sunny afternoon.

It must be DAO with a bobbed hammer
Single action has no place on a defensive revolver. Neither do hammer spurs, which catch on stuff and are generally bad things. I don’t like them on any revolver, but they really shouldn’t be on defensive revolvers.

GP100 right side

It must have a good trigger
Bad triggers are the bane of a defensive revolver. Heavy, gritty triggers are far too common on wheelguns, and a good defensive gun shouldn’t have that. It should have a smooth trigger that doesn’t stack or creep at the end of the break; ideally it should have an overtravel stop at the end as well. Weight is less of an issue than the smoothness of the trigger pull, but you should make an effort to keep the pull weight under 12 pounds.

It should not require moonclips to function
I like moonclip guns. They’re great for competition, and great to shoot as well. They also create an additional potential failure point in the gun that you really don’t want in a defensive revolver. I’ve seen moonclips tie up guns in pretty dramatic ways, and I even had a slightly bent moonclip cause a really poor trigger pull at a match once. I love moonclips, but for defensive guns it’s speedloaders only.

The final criteria for the Modern Defensive Revolver is simple: It must be chambered in a caliber for which modern defensive ammo is available
I almost wrote this to say that .357 Magnum was the only acceptable chambering, but I relented primarily because of the existence of the excellent Winchester PDX ammo in .45 Colt. But really, if you can’t get it done with a .357 Magnum, it’s not the gun.

Do you think the Modern Defensive Revolver should have more criteria, or am I way off base with any of these?


  1. “…or am I way off base with any of these?” Not “way off”, but if the gun community can actively advocate carrying a G42 for defensive purposes, then .38s in a j-frame have to be acceptable, as well.

    1. I should emphasize that I’m really only talking about revolvers as a primary gun in this sense. I wouldn’t view an airweight or a G42 as a primary, even if that may be the only gun I’m carrying on a specific day.

  2. I would say it does not need to be a .357 mag, there are .38 Special Loadings that will haul the mail. There are also adequate .44 loadings out there in the Gold Dot short barrelled line to include both the .44 Special (for any kind of defensive work) and Magnum (for more specialized defensive carry).

    Other than that I agree with all.

  3. I agree with SD3 on caliber and size. Just as I sometimes end up (due to dress requirements) carrying what most would consider a BUG (usually a P-64, which is PPK sized, but I’m planning on snagging an LCP soon for an even smaller option) as my _primary_ gun, when I had a 2″ J-frame (steel, for the reason you noted, as well as long term durability vice the alloy guns), I often ended up carrying it as my primary. HOWEVER, I can shoot these smaller guns for fairly extended sessions without feeling like I just jammed my right palm against a flap wheel buffer.

    I do not think that a traditional DA/SA trigger setup is a deal-killer for an MDR. Not because I feel that SA revolver fire is generally a good idea in a defensive gun fight, but because I believe that just because you CAN does not mean you MUST. Frankly, I cannot recall the last time I fired a DA revolver in SA mode, aside from using a 2″ J-frame at 75 yards almost ten years ago for fun.

    I do not agree with your assertion that the hammer MUST be bobbed. Given that I generally carry semiautos, and most of those have exposed hammers, I have found “snagging” to be much less of an issue (but I have meaty hands and forearms – going for the gun under a conceament garment my arms push the fabric well clear. . . someone built more like Olive Oyl might have more problems, I admit). In fact, if you mean it must be bobbed as smoooth as a baby’s butt as your illustration has it, I adamantly DISAGREE. Of course, I prefer 3″ K-frames (and the occaisional 2″ or 3″ J-frame), and I generally use IWB holsters. The combination of whosrt barrel, fat cylinder (compared to a semi’s profile), and no thumb break has caused more than one revolver carried in a quality holster to start getting squirted out of the holster like a watermelon seed. (Never had one come completely out and fall, but I have found a revolver held only by it’s barrel with the grip swinging outboard. . . with a 3″ or shorter barrel, this is not a Happy Making discovery! ๐Ÿ™‚ ) Even if I had a DAO revolver, I would leave about 3/16″ of the hammer spur, just to give the thumb break strap a “stop”.

    As much as I love the .357 Magnum (favorite carry revolver is, after all, a S&W M65LS with 3″ barrel) and agree that (in a 3″ or longer barrel) it is a SUPERB defensive cartidge, I think .38 Special or 9x19mm (yes, I have seen no moon clip revolvers in 9x19mm) are good choices. So, keep .38 Special performance as a floor. In fact, in a barrel shorter than 3″, I think the .38 Special (with appropriate loadings) is SUPERIOR to the .357 Magnum — you really cannot get signifcantly more juice out of a .357 in a short tube than you can a .38 Special, but you CAN get more blast, recoil, and flash. Likewise, if I had a Charter Arms Bulldog that I trusted (as in, buying second hand where I know the history and record of THAT gun), I like the .44 Special with proper loads. And if you accept that a J-frame is an acceptable gun, then I think the .327 is suitable for some users — I understand the better loadings approach .38 Special modern JHP wound tracks.

    I vehemently disagree with you on lasers being a “must”. Very useful, very helpful, and a really good idea? HELL YES. I also think you should qualify laser the way you qualified everything else — there are some cheap, bad, lasers out there. Lasers that will not hold POA, that break easily, that FALL THE HELL OFF, etc., are probably worse than no laser. A “must” is a minimum acceptable performance or capability standard — I would say a quality laser is PREFERRED, and HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

  4. So why is a hammer spur a deal killer on a primary carried revolver – say a k frame or GP100 but it’s not on a Sig pistol? Both are belt carried.

    1. I’ve snagged hammer spurs on the draw before. In a match it’s annoying, on a defensive gun it could be quite naughty.

  5. A good list, but I disagree on your “moon clips are only for competition” theory. The now discontinued 940 9mm J-frame, using a proper fitting moonclip holder, is faster to reload, more certain during the extraction stroke due to the clip, and much easier to conceal than any known speedloader. In fact, I can carry 2 moonclip holders with total of 4 full reloads easily. I suspect your concern is when using rimmed cartridges and cheap clips that bend easily…they are not designed to bang around in a pocket, like a speedstrip.

  6. I’m considering the Tarus “judge” or Rossi’s copy of it(not sure which one came first). It would be my first “carry” gun purchase,my second choice would be a .45 acp 1911, with at least 10 rounds. The revolver would be less expensive over all considering matainence. Plus being able to take 3 different types of ammo.

    1. BLUF: Honestly, there’s nothing to be gained by shooting .410 in a revolver, as far as defensive or carry needs go.

      And the long .410 chamber means that there are potential accuracy compromises when shooting .45 Colt (or .45 ACP/Auto Rim) that will only make your life more difficult.

      If you want to buy a revolver that can shoot .410, fine, but bear in mind that it’s a toy, not a serious carry piece.
      And if you want a revolver that can shoot .45, buy a .45 revolver like a 625, though those tend to be pretty bulky. Since I’m a skinny guy, I’d probably find a .45 revolver harder to conceal than a 1911–and I have CC’d a full-size 1911 before, it was pretty easy. As were the 2 spare 8-round magazines.
      Most 1911 maintenance is pretty predictable, and the majority of mine so far has been replacing springs every few thousand rounds–which is something that should be done with any semi-auto anyway.

      Skip the Judge or any other .410 revolver if you’re looking for a carry piece. If you want a revolver, get a quality .38 that’s +P rated or .357, and rock on. If you want semi-auto, get one in a standard service caliber.
      Either way, get a good stock of practice ammo and defense/carry ammo, and a GOOD holster.

  7. No thanks.
    I’ll stick with my LCR .357 with the tritium front sights.
    Polymer and stainless steel frame with the stock grips does a good job of controlling recoil with full-house .357, even better with .38+p.

    “Train with the โ€œrealโ€ sights, but have the laser for when you need it.”
    It would be a very bad idea to not train with any device that you might have to use in a fight. If you insist on having a laser sight on your handgun, then you should train with it as well as the fixed sights.

    Personally, I don’t want to have to rely on anything that depends on batteries to work.
    I’d rather keep things as simple as possible. The less I need to practice with, the more I can practice the vital stuff. And the less there is to remember in a fight. KISS.

    Final thought: I can fire five shots with my LCR in my jacket pocket. Not with any of my semiautos.

  8. “It must have a laser”

    I am not sure I agree with this, but it certainly is a good option. The activation method is very important in order to prevent “laser ND’s”.

    “It must be DAO with a bobbed hammer”

    I disagree. There is far too much dogma against single action shooting, likely due to bleed over from police training. The purpose of single action is to make a more precise shot. If the shooter has the time, then single action could help the shooter make the shot. Roger Phillips went over initiative and distance in “Point Shooting Progressions”; the same concepts may be found in 7677’s “The Sight Continuum” document. Vic Stacy’s hits at 56 yards (or 65 depending upon the story) in Texas assisted a police officer under fire could have benefited from single action. It’s not clear how he took those shots, but I would certainly use the single action trigger at that distance. The first shot was a nasty surprise for the criminal, so he had the time.

    Snagging may be easily prevented by placing the thumb over the hammer as the gun is pulled from the holster (but before it is turned horizontally). Ayoob

    1. If you need single action to make a more precise shot, you need to train more. Single action is a crutch for unskilled shooters.

      1. “Single action is a crutch for unskilled shooters.”

        I feel a great disturbance in the Force, as though the ghost of Jeff Cooper and millions of 1911 fanboys crying out in rage…

  9. I wish that revolver-makers made dovetail sights straight from the factory like semi-autos. It would really be great to have the flexibility to change your sight picture as needed!

  10. Seeing ‘Modern’ and ‘Revolver’ in the same sentence is kinda fun. I love wheel guns myself and one thing I think of regarding the MDR is ‘it must not be a Chiappa Rhino.’ Agree with most of the points, but I’m not a fan of lasers. Not because I don’t think they’re useful, but, I’m happy with iron sights and I’ve learned the hard way that lasers don’t like the occasional baptism they might get. Stainless revolvers recover nicely from an accidental dunk, though.

  11. I prefer the “humpback” J-frames: the Models 49 and 38. With decent action jobs and the front sights painted, and paying my gunsmith to chamfer the charge holes, I feel well-armed. I can practice to my heart’s content with the 49 without pain (with proper stocks) and transition to the 38 to keep my skills on par with the aluminum-framed gun. My kids got me a set of Crimson Trace J-frame stocks for Christmas, and they are on the 38, which I wear around the property; here in IL it is still illegal to carry elsewhere for the time being. Elsewhere, the two take turns for “New York Reloads”, and as has been mentioned, they can be emptied through a coat pocket… or loose slacks, if one is willing to suffer the powder burns attendant to that. Sometimes one must fight from the ground.

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