Revolvers Kill! (May Be Even More Lethal Than Semi-Automatic Handguns)

I have been meaning to write for some time about an article we read last spring in my Sociology of Guns Seminar: “Impact of handgun types on gun assault outcomes: A comparison of gun assaults involving semiautomatic pistols and revolvers,” published in Injury Prevention in 2003 by D.C. Reedy and C.S. Koper. (Koper is possibly best-known for his work assessing the effect of the federal assault weapons ban for the National Institute of Justice.)

Like many observers of gun culture, I mostly see revolvers recommended (a) for ladies, (b) as a backup to your primary, semiautomatic carry pistol, or (c) by old school wheel gun masters like Grant Cunningham.

Cunningham excepted, we often seem to underestimate the lethal potential of revolvers. And WE most definitely includes the authors of this article. In fact, they are so hell-bent on establishing the danger of semi-automatic pistols over revolvers that they cannot even read their own findings correctly. (Recalling my last post on the importance of being truth advocates over political advocates.)

Using police records on fatal and non-fatal handgun assaults in Jersey City, NJ from 1992 through 1996, the authors results are summarized in the two figures below. (I wanted to present them side-by side for ease of comparison, but didn’t have time to do that, sorry.)

Figure 1 shows the results for SEMIAUTOMATIC HANDGUNS. Following the tree from threat to death, bottom to top, we see that in 57.58% of attacks, the victim was injured. This is virtually the same proportion as those attacked with revolvers: 56.34% (Figure 2 below).

Of those injured, 15.79% of those assaulted with semiautomatic pistols died. But the fatality rate for revolvers is actually almost 60% HIGHER: 25% (Figure 2 below).

Revolvers kill!!!!

Respect to the authors for reporting what the data actually show. That is social scientifically responsible. But because the findings depart from their expectations, they go through all sorts of efforts to try to explain how semi-automatic pistols really are more dangerous.

Consider their conclusions:They conclude: “the number of gunshot victims would have been approximately 9% lower had pistols not been used in any of the attacks.”

What? The? Freak? The number of victims would have been 9% lower, but the fatality rate of revolvers is 58% higher (25% vs. 15.79%). So that is an acceptable trade-off?

Even their basis for explaining how much worse semi-autos are than revolvers is suspect. As seen in Table 2 below, the average number of gunshot victims per incident was 1.15 for semi-autos and 1.0 for revolvers. The difference is statistically significant, but is it substantively significant?

Although the difference is not statistically significant, the average number of wounds per gunshot victim (1.5) is actually higher than that of semi-autos (1.44).

Of course we all know that a benefit of semi-autos over revolvers is that you can just rain bullets down on people with semi-autos. Table 1 below shows the estimated shots fired per incident, by pistols and revolvers. The estimated average range per incident (minimum to maximum) for semi-autos is 3.23 to 3.68, and for revolvers is 2.3 to 2.58.

So, basically one more shot per incident on average for semi-auto pistols than revolvers. Not exactly a hail of gunfire in either case, and certainly not a major difference between the two gun action types.

I don’t know whether these results are because revolvers are more reliable or accurate, or because those who use revolvers are more determined or careful. But I certainly interpreted the findings much differently than the authors.


  1. Since we are on the topic.

    I apologize in advance, but somewhere I recall reading that gun incidents were getting more deadly not just because semiautos were replacing revolvers, but because the weapons on the streets were changing over during the last quarter century from small caliber weapons (22 LR, 25 semiauto, 38 special, etc) to more lethal calibers (9×19, 40 S%W, 45 ACP). Seems the gun of choice these days is a semiauto 9mm.

    This increase in hitting power of course was in tandem with semiautos being more commonplace than revolvers. I recall reading it in The Trace but not sure where they got their primary data. Just found the article but gotta run off to a meeting. I recall having a few bones to pick with this article but I think it is worth a read. Of course, The Trace has its own axe to grind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The 1-in-4 to 1-in-3 lethality claim is interesting. It would be nice to see the stats on it, as one hypothesis often offered by anti-gun rights folks is that one reason homicide numbers are down even with more guns in circulation is because better trauma care is saving gunshot victims who would have died in the past.

      Of course, the rates of aggravated assault, the applicable charge when someone intentionally criminally shot with a firearm doesn’t die, don’t seem to have increased, nor even fallen with any sort of proportional lower rate trend last I checked. Often agg assault with a firearm is even helpfully broken out in the data.

      In general I think the “better trauma care” argument is not supported by the available evidence to a conclusive degree.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Caliber.

    As noted below, most concealable revolvers produced, and thus available for criminal use, since the 1950’s have been .38 Spl caliber or above. Most concealable semi-auto pistols were in .22 / .25. Production of 9mm and larger semi-autos really doesn’t pick up until the late ’80s.

    So, the most powerful and concealable firearms readily available for criminal use, particularly by criminals who might plan to use them offensively, rather than possess for self-defensive use, were revolvers. Given the average “time to crime” is a decade per ATF, and it would take time for the new stock of 9mms and .380s to enter the criminal market in large numbers in any event, I would expect to see the findings they report.

    The number of new handguns added to those available has exceeded the number of new shotguns and rifles in recent years. More than half of the guns added in 1993 were handguns. Over 40 million handguns have been produced in the United States since 1973.

    Since over 80% of the guns available in the United
    States are manufactured here, gun production is a
    reasonable indicator of the guns made available.
    From 1973 to 1993, U.S. manufacturers produced–

    6.6 million .357 Magnum revolvers
    6.5 million .38 Special revolvers
    5.4 million .22 caliber pistols
    5.3 million .22 caliber revolvers
    4.5 million .25 caliber pistols
    3.1 million 9 millimeter pistols
    2.4 million .380 caliber pistols
    2.2 million .44 Magnum revolvers
    1.7 million .45 caliber pistols
    1.2 million .32 caliber revolvers.

    During the two decades from 1973 to 1993, the types of handguns most frequently produced have changed. Most new handguns are pistols rather than revolvers. Pistol production grew from 28% of the handguns produced in the United States in 1973 to 80% in 1993.

    The number of large-caliber pistols produced annually increased substantially after 1986. Until the mid-1980s, most pistols produced in the United States were .22 and .25 caliber models. Production of .380 caliber and 9 millimeter pistols began to increase substantially in 1987, so that by 1993 they became the most frequently produced pistols. From 1991 to 1993, the last 3 years for which data are available, the most frequently produced handguns were–

    .380 caliber pistols (20%)
    9 millimeter pistols (19%)
    .22 caliber pistols (17%)
    .25 caliber pistols (13%)
    .50 caliber pistols (8%).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Follow-up. Aside from being practical about having the best tools for their jobs, criminals are consumers of pop culture as well. The ones who view themselves as bad men, real killers, will of course gravitate to the guns used by the baddest characters (hero and criminal) on TV and movies of their time. They also are as vulnerable to “gun shop commando” myth as any other credulous gun user.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The other thing changing is the advances in technology of self-defense ammunition. With the rise of GC-2.0 and the proliferation of concealable handguns has come the proliferation of R and D into more lethal handgun ammo suitable for short barrels and self defense. Especially ways to increase the effectiveness of stuff like those “Pocket 9’s”. One example in the popular lit here.

        Liked by 1 person

      • RIP? Pikers!

        Extreme Shock ammo is the best. Transfers so much energy the temporary wound channel actually rips a hole in time and space and kills the attacker’s grandparents, erasing them from existence.

        Lest you think I’m overstating their ad hyperbole… they had actual ad text like:

        “E-Shock rounds are engineered to expend maximum energy into soft targets, turning the density mass into an expanding rotational cone of NyTrilium matrix particles, causing neurological collapse to the central nervous system.”

        Liked by 2 people

      • GCA ’68 cut off the import of small autos from Europe with the “sporting purposes” test. .380 is about the physically largest and most potent auto cartridge you can fit into a “.25 acp-ish” sized blowback design. Given we are ‘Murica and bigger guns are better I assume domestic manufacturers aiming at the expanding concealed carry market of the late ’80s tended more toward the .380 than the .25s and .32s as time went on.

        It would take time for them to get the engineering right to stuff 9mms into the smallest (often lower end) guns.

        Found this factoid on the wiki. “In 1993, Lorcin was the number one pistol manufacturer in the United States, producing 341,243 guns.” They introduced their .380 in 1992. Be interesting to see how many were .380s in ’93 for them and others, particularly in the “low end” market.

        As an aside, I bought my first handguns at 18 from a coworker (legal in Alaska in ’89). A 1911, a New Model Single Six in .22 Mag, and a ’70s vintage Mauser HsC in 9mm Kurz (.380).


      • I wonder how small you can go with 9×19 and still retain some control over the firearm. My smallest 9 is a Beretta Px4 Storm Subcompact. Its a joy to shoot. Have not tried a Ruger LC9, which is what I was shopping for when I bought the Px4.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Haven’t shot one, but the Kimber Solo is almost the identical in size to my Colt Mustang in .380, which is about as small as it gets.

        3.9″H x 5.5″L x 1.1″W at the grips (3/4″ or so for the slide itself).

        Not sure about the “control” part though. Can’t be fun.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I know it won’t be a large number, but .32 ACP pistols is missing from the list of handguns manufactured in the US. Seecamp, Kel-Tec and NAA come to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I carried in Florida it was a 5 shot .44 revolver without a reload ( yeah, yeah, I know) so you can be sure if I had to use it each shot would be aimed as carefully as adrenaline and circumstances would allow. A Glock 19 psychology allows more sloppiness in shooting, with 15 rounds in the mag.


      • I was taught in my very first gun training course — Massad Ayoob’s MAG-40 — that we are responsible for every round we fire, whether 5 rounds of .44 or 15 rounds of 9mm. So I don’t allow myself psychologically to be sloppy about it – though who knows what I would do in real life?

        Liked by 1 person

  4. David,
    Let me add my 2 cents worth, interesting data by the way.

    I am 61 years old now. I was born into a pastors family in 1956. All 6 kids were raised around weapons and trained on how to properly use them.

    I am retired US Air Force Security Forces having specialized in security operations and anti-terrorism. I used both the AR-15 style, the .38, and the M9 Baretta once it was introduced to the military, among other weapons.

    I have been retired from the military almost as long as I was active duty. I own a few weapons to include a Baretta .380 and a S&W Model 60 357 (my carry model).
    I mention those two because one is semi auto and one is a revolver. I personally prefer revolvers.

    I was shooting both of them in my back yard one day to compare how they performed. I did notice that the .357 Model 60 shot a slightly tighter grouping on the target. I talked to my older brother about this to verify technicalities. The semi automatic slide moves back and forth, thus the barrel never comes back into the same exact position before firing. The 357 revolver barrel never moves, thus a tighter shot grouping.

    So, yes, in my mind, revolvers are typically more accurate, thus a higher kill ratio.
    Personally, I would rather shot a bad guy once to take the person down than to have to keep firing.
    My thoughts.


    • Well

      At minute of bad guy(or in the case of criminals, at minute of man), I don’t think the differences in accuracy are really enough to matter. Especially by as much as the paper says.


  5. I realize there may be a very slightly greater level of inherent accuracy in a revolver, but I don’t know if it is significant in the fight… I do think revolver carriers are generally more careful in their shooting. They may also be more practiced than many who own semi autos… That might be worth a study.


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