If it was any year prior to 1995, it wouldn’t be a surprise to find a revolver in an officer’s duty holster. Even for years after that, finding one in an off-duty holster was quite common. These days it’s a bit rarer. Still, if you’re in the right spot at the right time, you’ll find an officer carrying a revolver off-duty and you might even find an “old guy” carrying one on duty. They will happily engage you in conversation about why revolvers are as good as, or better than the more common semi-automatic. The question becomes: Are revolvers still suitable for duty use in law enforcement?
It’s hard to argue with the history of success and service revolvers represent in law enforcement. Long before revolvers were even capable of double-action functionality they were serving in plenty of law enforcement holsters. Mostly in calibers running between .32 and .44, the single action black powder revolvers evolved into metallic cartridge revolvers and finally, double-action revolvers were born. Calibers stabilized in the .38 or at .44 range. Further evolution resulted in the .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum calibers being developed. Up until the late 1950s, with the exception of two semi-automatics—the Government Model 1911 (.45ACP) and the Browning High Power (9mm)—you’d be hard pressed to find something other than a revolver in a duty holster, most likely a revolver with either a 4” or 6” barrel.
Then, in the late 1950s, semi-automatic pistols chambered for 9mm began to become more common. Their use helped make semi-autos more acceptable in general and even more Government Model 1911s began to fill holsters. After the close of the Korean War and then the Vietnam War, surplus or personally held 1911s became even more common and other 9mm pistols began showing up in greater numbers. The Sig Sauer P226 9mm had become known for its use by the Navy special warfare units and had garnered a good reputation. One pistol, the Heckler & Koch P7 9mm, incorporated a squeeze-cocking mechanism and had a barrel fixed to the frame. At one point it was even adopted by the U.S. Park Police in both size variants the P7M8 8-shot and the P7M13 13-shot.
In 1985 when the U.S. Army transitioned to the Beretta M9—civilian designation 92FS—9mm, more agencies began to do so nationwide. From then on, semi-automatic handguns evolved to include polymer frames, a variety of calibers and accessory rail systems. Most of those semi-autos, especially those chambered in 9mm, had/have a capacity of 15 rounds or more. Even in the larger calibers of .45ACP and .40S&W, the capacities often run 12+. When considering whether revolvers still play a viable role in law enforcement duty, the question of need for larger round counts comes into focus.
To answer that question we took a look back at officer involved shootings, as reported via the UCR system and analyzed by the FBI. The particular information we were looking for was how many rounds were fired, on average, by an officer involved in a shooting. The additional, and perhaps more important information we sought, was how many rounds were fired AT those officers in the shooting conflict.
The average number of rounds fired by an officer in a gunfight from the years 2008 through 2017 was 3.3. Since there’s no way to fire 1/3 of a round, we’ll have to round that up to four. Now it would be easy to say that since every revolver carries more than four rounds, any revolver is sufficient to the duties at hand. That said, let’s consider a bit of math. If there is an officer in a gunfight who only fires one round, then to get a 3.3 average, another officer would have to have fired 5.6—rounded up to six. Since the largest majority of duty use revolvers carry six rounds, it’s still easy to say that a revolver is sufficient for duty use. But if you have to shoot all six rounds then you also have to reload… just in case. You can never assume, even though we’re working from historical data averages.
Since we never want to be outgunned though, the bigger question is how many rounds were fired by suspects AT law enforcement officers? The average over that same time span (2008-2017) is 5.3 which rounds up to six. But the maximum average number in a year was 7.8 which rounds up to eight. So… does that mean we need a duty weapon that has a minimum capacity of eight rounds? Many would say yes and it’s easy enough to do… just not in a revolver. There are a few revolvers with 7 and 8 round capacity but the logic of staying with a revolver—that is significantly larger as compared to a 9mm semi-automatic with twice the capacity—starts to get more than difficult to justify.
That recognized, and perhaps prohibiting revolvers for duty use (unless your agency specifically wants to limit their officers like that), does that prohibit revolvers for off-duty use? Absolutely not. More than one officer, most especially those who started their careers back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, still carry a revolver (or two) for off-duty service. Revolvers for off-duty use are both applicable for the purpose and popular within a certain segment of officers. There is a plethora of quality snubnose revolvers in the market suitable for off-duty use. From the S&W Chief's Special to the Colt Detective Special, the Ruger LCR and others, there are plenty of pretty small .38/.357 revolvers available.
For off-duty and recreational use, where the need for a sidearm might span a variety of necessary uses, a weapon chambered for .357 or .44 offers greater versatility. On a recent backpacking trip our Editorial Director carried a Ruger LCRx.357 with a 5-shot capacity and 3" barrel. He had the first two chambers loaded with snake-shot rounds because where he was backpacking rattle snakes were a potential challenge, and the other three chambers loaded with .357 Magnum defensive loads. The same could have been done with a .44 caliber revolver. In such situations, the revolver can outshine the semi-auto and provide greater versatility with the attached peace of mind.