Monday, August 24, 2015

Revolvers ARE More Reliable Than Semi-Auto Pistols

File:Failure to eject (FTE), firearm.jpg
Something you will never see with a revolver (Source).

Prepared Gun Owners has published a piece entitled "Why Revolvers Are NOT More Reliable Than Semi-Auto Pistols." In the article, the author cited Tom Givens for the proposition that the only reason that revolvers have historically been considered more reliable than semi-auto handguns is because in the early 20th Century, primers used corrosive salts (mercuric salts) that were hygroscopic (absorb water from the air) and, therefore, could over time, become unreliable in their ignition. Thus, according to Givens:
... when auto pistols first became common the mercuric ammunition was all that was available and misfires were common. If a revolver misfires the user simply pulls the trigger again and a fresh round comes up for another try. If a cartridge in a semiauto pistol misfires the user must perform an immediate action drill to get the gun back in operation. With modern ammunition a properly maintained semiautomatic pistol is about as reliable as a machine can be.
Givens is highly certificated as a firearms instructor, so hopefully this is situation where he is being quoted out of context, because there is a whole lot more to the issue than pre-WWII primers.

1.  Semi-Autos Can Be Finicky.

Since Givens begins by using the .45 ACP 1911 pistol as an example, I will begin there. Like many semi-automatic pistols made prior to the mid- to late-1980's, it was designed to use ball ammo. As in: "ye shall use ball ammo only, and only ball ammo. Ball ammo is all ye shall use." Older 1911's (and by this, I mean pre-1990) were extremely unreliable with hollow-point ammo. But it is not just 1911s. Other popular semi-auto pistols were (are) equally unreliable (the Walther PPK, in particular, comes to mind). See, e.g,:

And its not just older firearms. Seecamp's web-page contains the following cautionary note:
It is always good practice to familiarize yourself with a defense pistol by test firing it using ammo for carry from the same lot number you were shooting at the range. Ammunition, even from the same manufacturer, varies or there would be no need for lot numbers. It is better to shoot only 43 from a box and load the last seven for carry than to shoot 200 or 2000 and then load for personal protection ammunition from an entirely different production lot. That is about the same as buying two identical guns and test firing one to check out the reliability of the other. Neither approach makes sense.
The Kitchen Table Gunsmith also describes how his Taurus 24/7 will only reliably feed ball ammo (which is verified by the owner's manual). Note that all of these cases involve properly maintained semi-auto pistols using modern ammunition. They just aren't reliable unless that modern ammunition is ball (FMJ).  In short:
Revolvers will digest about anything with gun powder in it. Semi-autos are a bit more finicky. Every semi-auto has a different ammo it absolutely loves to feed, and some it does not. Try a few brands and choose the one that feeds the most reliably for you. The experienced shooter says, "Run at least 150-200 rounds of your selected defensive ammo thru your firearm. If it goes off without a hitch, then and only then can you call it your defensive load".
And my own observations are that if your semi-auto does not reliable feed certain ammunition, it is not just a case of having to run a failure-to-feed drill and resume shooting. Typically, it will be running a failure to feed drill multiple times--perhaps with every single round.

2.  Magazines Can Be Finicky.

We are all familiar (or should be) with how bent magazine lips can have a negative impact on feeding. But even the design of the magazine can impact how reliable the weapon is with different types of ammunition. See, "1911 Magazine Analysis" (discussing how different magazine designs (all for the 1911) can impact feeding with different types of ammunition).

3.  Poor Design

Even the most reliable manufacturers can sometimes have a lemon. This article at Loose Rounds discusses some of the design changes made to the Glock 42 after it had already been introduced to correct complaints of feedings problems, including changes to the frame, magazine, and other internals. I had a colleague who ended up returning a Kahr handgun a couple years ago (unfortunately I don't remember the particular model number--it was a small 9 mm, polymer frame) because the casings were catching on polymer around or near the feed ramp and inducing misfeeds. And we are all familiar with the problems with Remington's R51 when it was introduced.

4.  Break-In.

 Although Glock pistols often are touted as having "out-of-the-box reliability," is isn't always necessarily so. And it certainly has not been the case with most semi-auto pistols. In the 1970's and 80's, a new 1911 would generally require fairly extensive gunsmithing to be reliable as a defensive firearm; and that apparently is still the case. Fortunately, that is no longer the norm when buying a semi-automatic, but there is still a substantial break in period:
Operational break-in is most often associating with semi-auto pistols, however it applies to revolvers as well. Most semi-auto manufacturers and other firearms experts recommend at least some break-in for EVERY semi-auto pistol that will be relied upon for personal protection, with recommendations of 200 to 500 most often quoted for complete break-in and 100 rounds noted as an absolute minimum - these guidelines even apply to John Browning's venerable 1911 pistols. For example Kimber America - a manufacturer of fine rifles and quality pistols - states on page 27 of their Compact, Pro and Ultra Operational Manual (3 and 4" barreled 1911 pistols) "...for proper Break-in of the firearm, shoot 400-500 rounds of Quality Factory Ball (230g. FMJ) ammunition, cleaning and lubricating the gun every 100-150 rounds". Similarly, Kahr Arms states on page 17 in their Operating Instructions for DAO Pistols, "The KAHR Pistol must be run through an initial break-in period before achieving fully reliable feeding and functioning. This pistol should not be considered fully reliable until after it has fired 200 rounds". While many shooters consider it less critical, breaking-in a revolver is important too, with guidelines of 100 to 200 rounds most often recommended for complete break-in and 50 rounds generally considered to be the absolute minimum. I strongly encourage everyone to BREAK-IN EVERY HOME-DEFENSE, CARRY or DUTY handgun, when NEW and AFTER any MAJOR work or alteration, by visiting the range and firing several boxes of ammo downrange, which should include at least a couple magazines or cylinders of the ammunition that will be used for defensive purposes. Be sure to stop every 50 -100 rounds to clean and lubricate the handgun.
5.  Complexity.

The Prepared Gun Owner's article points out that revolvers are more complex than semi-auto designs. That may be true now, but it wasn't necessarily true historically. I will agree that if something goes wrong with a revolver, it is generally a serious problem that will not be quickly or easily corrected. But more complexity does not necessarily translate across to more failures. And a semi-auto with a stuck casing, broken extractor, or other broken parts can present just a serious failure as a broken part in a revolver.

6.  Other Considerations.

There are other things that can happen when shooting a semi-auto to impact reliability. In a close encounter, the barrel and slide can be pushed out of battery. It is not uncommon for inexperienced shooters to limp wrist the pistol. And I have, on a few occasions, seen floor plates suddenly pop off a loaded magazine, dumping all the ammunition onto the ground.


So, yes, if you have a good design and one that came off the manufacturing line correctly made, a pistol (and magazines) in good repair, and are using ammunition that you know that your pistol will reliably feed, the semi-auto can be just as reliable as a revolver. And certain firearms--Glocks in particular--have deservedly good reputations for reliably feeding all sorts of ammunition. But contrary to what Givens apparently said, there is a lot more to the "revolver is more reliable than a semi-auto" than obsolete primers.

For preppers, particularly those that envision a serious breakdown in society, the issue of reliable feeding is a big issue. With a revolver, practically anything you can fit into the cylinder chambers will shoot. But if you are having to buy or scrounge ammunition from questionable or irregular sources, there is no guarantee that you will find ammunition that your semi-auto likes.

In short, a flat out statement that "semi-autos are as or more reliable than a revolver" is simply not true; and for someone that hasn't fully vetted their pistol or ammunition, it can be a dangerous misunderstanding.

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