Revolver versus Pistol


There has been a lot of emotional debates and some very unusual mis-information being bandied about lately regarding whether or not Victoria Police should convert to semi-automatic pistols.

This article is not going to attempt to justify whether or not Victoria Police should make the change, as the fact of the matter is that Victoria Police WILL convert to Pistols. Hopefully the change will not be delayed any longer than it has to be to affect an appropriate training curriculum, and the selection of the appropriate pistol.

In this article, my comparison of the pistol will mainly focus on the Glock, as it is currently the sidearm used by police in AFP, NSW, NT, QLD, TAS, WA, Australian Customs Service, and even some sections within Victoria Police already. There are other versions of pistols in service with Australian Government organisations, but the largest number by far is the Glock.

Although I may refer to comments made by CC Nixon, this is not a direct criticism of her, as a lot of her comments are based on common misconceptions about pistols. This is simply a comparison of the two weapons systems as it relates to frontline Law Enforcement.

My experience? I have trained with and used both revolvers and pistols since 1991. I have carried a sidearm nearly every day since 1997, and have participated in numerous advanced training courses with sidearms.

I’m not an “expert”, but I do have relevant experience and qualifications with both these weapon systems.



Revolver: The technology behind the revolver is sometimes claimed to have been developed in the 1500’s. This is not quite accurate. The “revolver” developed at that time was a single shot weapon only, which was also sometimes referred to as a “pistol”.

The revolver design of today, with a revolving cylinder containing ammunition firing through only one barrel, has been attributed to Samuel Colt in 1836, which was when the patent was granted to him for the design.

Pistol: Hiram Stevens Maxim, (the inventor of the mousetrap), invented the recoil mechanism used by today’s pistols sometime between 1883 and 1885. Although he concentrated on developing the Vickers Machine Gun, his technology is the foundation for today’s pistol. Perhaps one of the most well-known pistols today, the Colt 1911, was created by John Browning in the late 1890’s with Maxim’s technology and the exact same pistol technology is still used successfully by Police and Military to this day.

Both the revolver and pistol were developed from the original one-shot design of the 1500’s, and the creation of both weapons was less than 50 years apart in the 1800’s. When one considers the historical instances of technological advancement prior to the 1900’s, a 50 year gap is insignificant.


Which is less likely to jam? Which is safer for the user? A revolver or pistol? Let’s look at how they operate.


Revolver: The revolver is a basic design, there is no doubting that. The precise alignment of firing pin, bullet, and barrel, is all controlled by the trigger. When you place pressure on the trigger, springs and levers pull the hammer back whilst a pawl pushes on a ratchet to rotate the cylinder containing the ammunition into place between the firing pin and barrel. As long as the levers and springs do their job, then everything works perfectly. The problem is, due to the movement of the cylinder, there needs to be a certain amount of space between the frame of the revolver and the cylinder. It is relatively easy for dirt and grit to get into that space which could affect the precise alignment required to fire a round. Additionally, the trigger does not need to be depressed to action the revolver. The hammer itself can be pulled back, either intentionally or by snagging on clothing etc when holstering, allowing objects to fall into the gap. This could possibly prevent the hammer from hitting the firing pin, causing a faulty weapon.

Pistol: As stated previously, I will concentrate on the Glock pistol for this discussion. The Glock has no hammer. All workings of the pistol are internal, and as such makes the system more protected from the elements. The training of Australian Police using the Glock system is to have the weapon loaded when carrying it. This means there is no action required to fire the weapon apart from simply applying finger pressure to the trigger. The trigger itself has an integral safety lever, meaning that nothing will activate the firing pin until the “trigger safety” has pressure applied to it.

The cycling of the action is caused by the weapon firing. The recoil forces the slide of the pistol straight back, which ejects the spent casing, and inserts the next round into the chamber. It is a straight line action, utilising one spring and the recoil of the weapon. This design has been used by a number of weapon systems since the 1890’s, with some of those weapons still being used today by western Militaries and Police.

The main difference in simply firing a first shot between a revolver and Glock pistol is that the pressure required to fire the revolver is more than required for the Glock, due to the pressure required to rotate the cylinder into place. This makes correct and continuous sight alignment much easier with the Glock than the pistol, especially on that important first shot.

There have been statements made that suggest that the Glock will fire when dropped onto the ground. Well, Glock themselves have conducted thousands of “drop-tests” over the years, and not once has a Glock fired simply from being dropped onto the ground. A search on the internet also fails to find any single proven incident of this happening. The internal safety mechanism of the Glock, combined with no hammer, makes it physically impossible for a functioning Glock to fire until the trigger safety is depressed.

Revolvers on the other hand, are more susceptible to fire if dropped, due to the fact that the hammer can be activated separately to the trigger, and no safety mechanism blocks the hammer from hitting the firing pin.

There have been incidents of Police shooting themselves accidently when holstering the Glock. That is a fact. The reason for this is having your finger inside the trigger guard when holstering the pistol. That is not a fault of the pistol, but of the training regime provided to the Officer involved. The exact same incident can happen to a person holstering the Victoria Police Smith & Wesson revolver, as it has no safety catch. Regardless of what the weapon is….if you pull the trigger, it will fire.

However, one important aspect that needs to be recognised by users and trainers of the pistol is that stoppages WILL occur with the pistol if the shooter does not keep a firm grip and straight wrist whilst firing. I have seen even experienced shooters having stoppages every single shot, due to poor grip and loose wrists. This is not a “fault” of pistols, but merely a very simple technique that needs to be recognised.

Motor Skills

A very quick explanation of “motor skills”:

Gross Motor skills – Large muscle groups: Walking, running, etc.

Fine motor skills – Can be defined as requiring use of fingers: Shooting.

Complex Motor skills – Multiple muscle groups and hand-eye coordination: writing etc.

It is a simple fact that the stress of being shot at or attacked by someone showing lethal intent will cause deterioration in complex motor skills first. If the stress increases, then your fine motor skills will deteriorate next, and lastly your gross motor skills.

Revolver: Fine motor skills required to fire the weapon, (drawing from the holster and pulling the trigger). Complex motor skills required to reload, (opening cylinder, rotating forearm and hitting ejection rod, looking at cylinder, inserting speedloader into cylinder and twisting, closing cylinder). This also requires removing your master hand from the weapon, which is not a preferred thing to do when being shot at. Note that you HAVE to take your eyes off the threat to reload.

The immediate action of the revolver not firing is simply pulling the trigger.

If you are not able to count your shots, which is normal during combat, there is no indication that the revolver is empty, meaning you can waste valuable seconds conducting the immediate action drill with no bullets.

Pistol: Fine motor skills required to fire the weapon, (drawing from the holster and pulling the trigger). Fine motor skills required to reload, (master hand stays on weapon whilst thumb hits magazine release, weak hand rips mag out and drops, grabs new magazine and inserts, then rack slide). No complex motor skills involved, and the master hand stays on the weapon. With adequate training, the entire reload drill can be completed without looking at the weapon.

The immediate action of the pistol misfiring is hitting the base of the magazine, racking the slide, and then pulling the trigger, (if necessary).

If you are not able to count your shots, which is normal in combat, you know the pistol is empty when the slide locks to the rear, saving valuable time assessing your weapon’s status.

The main points here is that whilst the reloading of the revolver requires removing the master hand from the weapon, taking your eyes off of the threat, and the use of complex motor skills, the pistol does not. Whilst the immediate action of the revolver is simpler than the pistol, the reloading problem, (and recognition), with the revolver far outweighs the benefit of the IA drill.

Tactical reload

The tactical reload is what I describe as needing to replace expended ammunition with fresh ammunition, without having fired all your rounds. Think of having fired a few rounds at a threat, and then taking cover. You still have rounds in your weapon, but the threat is still not yet neutralised.

Revolver: The only way of successfully doing this in a lethal threat environment is by conducting a full reload, which we have already shown requires the use of complex motor skills, removing your master hand from the weapon, and taking your eyes off the threat.

Pistol: The tactical reload for a pistol is again, exactly the same as a normal reload, which only requires fine motor skills, keeping your master hand on the weapon, and eyes on the threat. There is also a round still in the chamber, and the weapon can still be fired even if you have not had the time to load a magazine.

Ammunition Capacity

Revolver: The current weapon used by Victoria Police holds 6 shots, with extra ammunition carried in speedloaders of 6 shots each.

Pistol: Dependant on the type of Glock chosen. AFP, Tasmania and Australian Customs Service use 9mm Glocks that come with 17-round magazines. The Glocks used by NSW, NT, QLD, & WA are .40 calibre weapons, that come with 15-round magazines. Both systems enable a full magazine to be inserted, the weapon to be actioned / loaded, and the magazine then “topped up” with one more round, meaning ammunition capacities of 18 rounds and 16 rounds respectively.

The issue at hand should not be whether or not a Police Force can be justified in carrying  18 / 16 rounds in their weapons. The issue should be whether the frontline staff require a better weapon system than currently in use. If the answer to that is yes, then the ammunition capacity can be discussed afterwards.

However, current thinking of some Police Managers is that Police do not need that much ammunition, and that is a reason not to consider a pistol. I disagree. Even with current firearms laws in Australia, there have been incidents this year alone of criminals firing up to 40 shots at houses etc. If the criminals have access to semi-automatic weapons, they then have the ability to place a large number of rounds downrange at Police.

But do the Police need to fire a large number of rounds in return?

On August 3rd, 1998, Rod Ansell shot at two colleagues of mine, being Sgt Glen Huitson and Senior Constable Jamie O’Brien. Ansell was hiding behind a concrete pipe. After Ansell shot a member of the public, and fatally shot Sgt Huitson, S/C O’Brien returned fire with his Remington 870 shotgun. He emptied the shotgun in Ansell’s direction which had the effect of keeping Ansell’s head down until S/C O’Brien could position himself in a better position of fire. He then used his Glock to shoot Ansell once he was in a position of advantage.

I would bet vital parts of my anatomy that there will come a time in the near future when a Victoria Police Officer will be required to fire at a threat simply to prevent the threat firing back. This is called “cover fire”. Providing cover fire with a 6-shot revolver is like throwing a pebble at a moving truck in an effort to stop it. It is not an effective method.

In 1995, two NSW Police Officers, being Senior Constables Addison and Spears, were ambushed and killed. The Coroner recommended “that the suitability of the present Police Service weapon be looked at and that urgent attention be given to the supply and issue of a self-loading weapon with a magazine.”

On the 19th of November 1995, the Honourable Elaine NILE quoted the NSW Police News of August 1995 in the NSW Parliament stating,

In the article Geoff Beresford put forward the argument against the Smith and Wesson revolver:

Some experts argued that semi-automatics should not be made general issue as they jammed and the average police officer will not maintain them. They also said that semi-auto’s should only be available to specialist police, such as S.P.G. What they failed to tell us was that the semi-automatic pistol they used failed once after firing over two thousand rounds without cleaning. Clearly their arguments were not based on objective facts.

This was a test conducted in New South Wales. Regardless of what is happening with the royal commission, members of the Police Service must be armed properly to protect themselves so that they have confidence when they combat criminals. The police department owes it to them.

On the 18th of April 1996, Mr Paul Whelan, the NSW Minister for Police, stated, “Reloading the old revolver is a clumsy process that has too often proved fatal.”

What about Walsh Street in 1988? Victoria Police Officers Constable Tynan and Probationary Constable Eyre were murdered by up to 6 criminals intent on killing them. Or 10 years later when Victoria Police Officers Sergeant  Silk and Senior Constable Miller were murdered by 2 criminals? It is a proven fact that Victoria Police Officers do not only encounter single criminals. When an Officer is faced with up to 6 criminals trying to kill him, do 6 shots really seem to be enough?

Then we have the situation on 13th of May this year when Senior Constable David McHenry and Constable Adam McKenzie faced a criminal armed with a semi-automatic pistol in Melbourne. Fortunately both those Officers survived.

So, does Victoria Police require a weapon that can fire 16 or 18 shots before needing to be reloaded? I hope not. But as the saying goes, “It is better to have something and not need it, than need it and not have it.”

Converting the sidearms used by Victoria Police to semi-automatic pistols cannot happen overnight. The selection process for the appropriate weapon unfortunately takes time. The creation of an appropriate training curriculum also takes time. Most of this can happen concurrently however, and should be done so, so as to reduce the time taken to equip the frontline of Victoria’s Thin Blue Line with a much more effective OSTT tool.

Keep pushing for the conversion, but use logic, not emotion. Use the system, do not fight it.

Stay safe.

Doug Nicholson

Recommended for you

Leave a Reply