I like revolvers as much as I like semi-autos. Just yesterday, with a late spring snowfall still on the ground, I went out to my backyard range with my S&W 686 that has a 2.5” barrel. I have an IWB holster for it and was practicing quick draw and rapid shooting at 7 yards. There was no brass flying into my face or onto the snow. For training fun, it was easy to stagger rounds by leaving a couple cylinder chambers empty. When the handgun goes “click” instead of “BOOM” I want to see if my hold and trigger pull move the sights off target or not. The faster you work, trying to get those rapid shots, the more likely bad habits can creep into your shooting. Having an empty chamber is a good way to see if you are still holding steady as you pull the trigger. With a semi-auto you can insert a dummy round into the magazine, but you can’t continue past the “click” to the next round like you can with a revolver. It is nice knowing the revolver cylinder will rotate to the next round, even on a dud.
As with many concealed carry weapons (CCW) holders, I’ve sought the mythical perfect carry gun. Opinions will vary, but for me the closest I’ve found is the Glock 26. Reliable, accurate, and holding 10 + 1 rounds of my favorite defensive 9mm ammo, with a spare magazine in my pocket. Compared to my 686 revolver (available as either a 6 or 7 shot), the G26 is both lighter and holds more ammo. Sure, my revolver can be stoked with powerful .357 magnums for hunting or woods carry, but often self-defense .38 special rounds are used and they are pretty similar to 9mm in recoil and effectiveness. 11 semi-auto rounds with a faster reload, or 6 or 7 revolver rounds with a slower reload. If I carry bulky speedloaders for the revolver, the reload becomes as fast as with a magazine, but usually for concealed carry I instead have a flat pack of ammo in my pocket. Due to superior capacity, I think it fair to say the semi-auto wins this comparison for concealed carry.
But what about the times when the Glock 26 is too much of a thick block for my carry needs for some particular day? Because it uses a double stack magazine, the G26 is a bit chunky on the hip. There are times when I want what I consider to be a deep concealment gun. No printing the outline of the gun, no sagging of the pants, no hint of carrying a gun at all. Is there a lighter and thinner semi-auto? Sure, plenty of them. Are they reliable? ...(Crickets).
There are a few small .380 ACP and 9mm semi-autos that I’ve tried over the years that did not prove very reliable in extensive range testing. I still have some of those guns in my safe’s back row of shame. While some people have had luck with various versions of small semi-autos, others have not. It seems it is just more difficult for a small semi-auto to be made to perform reliably. They are finicky creatures, with very light slides, susceptible to small changes in ammunition and differences in the way a gun is held. One day, target shoot them with range FMJ ammo, right handed, and no have issue. The next day, load up some hollow points, and switch to left handed, and suddenly a jam. Try a better hold. Or, wait, maybe it was a bad magazine. Swap out the magazines for new ones. Try different ammo. Try a stronger recoil spring. Polish the feedramp. Maybe the gun just needs another 500 rounds to break in. Perhaps send it back to the factory, again.
Enter the “J” frame snubby revolver. That is S&W’s frame designation for their small 5 shot .38 special revolvers. My favorite is the model 642 which has an internal hammer so it can’t snag on the draw. Weighing only 15 ounces with a slightly less than 2” barrel, that small revolver can indeed be carried in deep concealment. It is ultra reliable and can be shot with any kind of ammo, no problem. As long as the ammo is marked .38 special, with or without the +P designation, it will work. The cylinder of a small revolver is wider than the slide of a single stack semi-auto, but the cylinder is also much shorter and the conceals surprisingly well. The rear sight area of a semi-auto has that long slide area that can poke more at clothing than a revolver’s rounded profile. But there are two well known downsides to a short barrel J frame size .38. First, it only holds 5 rounds. Second, the short sight radius makes it difficult for beginners to shoot well at distance. However, on the plus side, you can shoot it from any body position, and even from within a jacket pocket, without jamming!
There are many different small frame revolvers similar in size to the S&W 642 to choose from. Different companies make a variety of models in a few different calibers. The 642 is aluminum framed with a stainless steel cylinder and barrel. Some similar sized revolvers designed with stronger frames are also rated for .357 magnum, but most people do not enjoy shooting magnums in the lightweight versions and opt instead for the heavier all steel models. While 5 shots is common for small framed revolvers, slightly larger 6 shot versions are also made by some companies. Colt has reintroduced their 6 shot Cobra recently. Kimber has also gotten in to the small revolver market with a 6 shot. Choosing a smaller caliber can also sometimes allow for increased revolver capacity. For example, my S&W 63 in .22lr is an 8 shot, yet is same small J frame size as my 642. I bought the 63 as a target practice rimfire companion to the .38 snubbies that me and my wife often carry. Training with small revolvers is fun, and they are actually just as accurate as large revolvers and semi-autos. For distance shots you just have to carefully align their short radius sights. If you can’t find a reliable small semi-auto, the small revolver is a good alternative. If you get a small .38 revolver, keep in mind that the lowest recoiling factory rounds are 148 grain wadcutters. They are designed for target shooting and are very mild.
Not everyone is a revolver fan and fortunately it appears that various companies have been working over the years at making more reliable small semi-autos. Glock, for example, finally came out with a single stack 9mm. While a .380 ACP small semi-auto can be considered in the search for a very small pocket gun, many people would rather have a gun that uses the more powerful 9mm ammunition. At 6+1 capacity, the Glock 43 holds more rounds than my 5 shot S&W 642 snubby revolver. The two guns are about the same size, with the new Glock being a little thinner but also having a longer top line because of the slide. However that also gives the Glock a longer sight radius, making accuracy at distance easier for most shooters. The Glock at 18 ounces is still 3 ounces heavier than the aluminum framed 642 revolver. Overall, however, they are very close to each other in size. I have found my Glock 43 to be just as reliable as my Glock 26. That means perfection, and a victory for the semi-auto in the small carry gun category. That victory is dependent upon you finding a semi-auto that shoots reliably when held in your own hands, and when using your preferred ammo (small semi-autos are sensitive to ammo differences). There are still a lot of gun owners reporting jams from their various brands of small semi-autos. I see those jams in person at range, and at the qualifying course of fire for carry permits. You'd think someone would work the kinks out of their carry gun before having to shoot in front of an instructor, but it doesn't always happen that way.
The search for a reliable carry gun can be frustrating for newer shooters. Even for experienced shooters it can be difficult to find a small size gun that runs reliably from a variety of shooting positions. The small revolver still has a place in the carry rotation because of those issues. While the chances of getting a reliable small semi-auto is still not quite as good as getting reliable small revolver, fortunately your chances have gotten a lot better recently!
Here are the 4 guns discussed: S&W 686 with a 2.5" barrel in .38 special/.357 magnum (top left), Glock 26 9mm (bottom left), S&W 642 .38 special (top right), and Glock 43 9mm (bottom right).
The 686 is the largest in this group, in part because I have a large grip on it (smaller grips are available). It is an L frame, which can hold 7 rounds if you choose that version. Slightly smaller K frame revolvers are also very common (but limited to 6 rounds only). They, too, are generally bigger than the G26. In this pic, the 686 and G26 are on the left, and the thin G43 and the small J frame 642 are on the right.
While the G26 and G43 look similar from the side, they are very different to carry. The G43 definitely feels much thinner of the two. The difference in width is highlighted by this side by side comparison of the bottom of the grip. The difference being due to the G26 holding 10 rounds in a double stack magazine, while the G43 holds 6 in a single stack.
The 642 revolver often feels like it is smaller to carry than the G43, even though it has a cylinder that is wider than the frame of the G43. The 642 is lighter, has a thin barrel, can wear different grips to suit the user, and as can be seen in this view has less material to "print" by the rear sight area. Often it is the area by the rear sight that pokes a gun's outline through a t-shirt when the rest of the gun is below the belt line and the grip is close to the body. However, the G43 will be flatter in a pocket even though it has 2 more rounds.
Finally, here is a view of all 4 guns with their magazines and speedloaders. The G43 magazine is thinner than the G26 magazine. The speedloaders are bulky enough that often my spare ammo choice for a revolver is simply a flat pack, such as the one in blue seen here. The flap closes allowing the pack to keep a 5-round reload for the 642 neatly stored away in my spare pocket. The G43 magazine is a little larger to carry in my spare pocket, but holds 1 more round!