There are better choices for concealed carry than a wheelgun. Semi-automatic pistols are easier to shoot, easier to reload, and easier to manipulate. I am a huge revolver fanboy, but I’m also honest with the fact that a round-gun is not going to be optimal for most people. But if you are going to build a defensive revolver for carry, then here are a few things you must have.
The Modern Defensive Revolver has to be a gun that you’re going to actually carry, and is actually shootable enough that you’ll train with it. So, for starters it can’t be a flyweight micro-gun. The Ruger LCRs and Smith & Wesson Airweights are great guns, but they’re not in the niche of what we’re looking for here because you’re not going to take a 500-round class with a Scandium J-Frame. So, the first criteria of a Modern Defensive Revolver is this:
It must be comfortable to shoot with defensive .38 Special ammo
The bottom end of guns that are comfortable to shoot with full house .38 +P loads are the all-steel small guns like the Ruger SP101 or the steel J-Frames such as a the 640 Pro Series.
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The reason that we want an MDR to be a bit heavier than the airweight guns its because we’re not viewing this gun as a backup; the modern defensive revolver is your primary carry gun. Because it’s your primary, you should train and practice with it. That brings us to the next criteria for a Modern Defensive Revolver.
It must have good sights
The traditional revolver gutter rear sight with a black front post is fine for shooting paper on a well lit range, but it’s not ideal for shooting smelly badguys in the face at 2am. The gun should have some kind of illuminated sights; while night sights are the best choice, I’d be willing to accept fiber optic or gold bead sights as well. Something that allows you to have a shot (ha) at target acquisition in low-light. Which brings us to the third criteria.
It must have a laser
Defensive lasers on your wheelgun are a must. It’s just that simple. It’s an auxiliary sighting system that allows for precise shot placement in low-light or no light conditions and allows you to keep your eyes focused on the threat. Train with the “real” sights, but have the laser for when you need it. Every single revolver I own for social work has a set of Crimson Trace LaserGrips on it, because I know if I really need the gun it’s probably not going to be on a sunny afternoon.
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It must be DAO with a bobbed hammer
Single action has no place on a defensive revolver. Neither do hammer spurs, which catch on stuff and are generally bad things. I don’t like them on any revolver, but they really shouldn’t be on defensive revolvers.
It must have a good trigger
Bad triggers are the bane of a defensive revolver. Heavy, gritty triggers are far too common on wheelguns, and a good defensive gun shouldn’t have that. It should have a smooth trigger that doesn’t stack or creep at the end of the break; ideally it should have an overtravel stop at the end as well. Weight is less of an issue than the smoothness of the trigger pull, but you should make an effort to keep the pull weight under 12 pounds.
It should not require moonclips to function
I like moonclip guns. They’re great for competition, and great to shoot as well. They also create an additional potential failure point in the gun that you really don’t want in a defensive revolver. I’ve seen moonclips tie up guns in pretty dramatic ways, and I even had a slightly bent moonclip cause a really poor trigger pull at a match once. I love moonclips, but for defensive guns it’s speedloaders only.
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The final criteria for the Modern Defensive Revolver is simple:
It must be chambered in a caliber for which modern defensive ammo is available
I almost wrote this to say that .357 Magnum was the only acceptable chambering, but I relented primarily because of the existence of the excellent Winchester PDX ammo in .45 Colt. But really, if you can’t get it done with a .357 Magnum, it’s not the gun.
You’ll note that this excludes guns light airweight j-frames and the Ruger LCR. Those are great guns, but the whole idea of the Modern Defensive Revolver is to update the concept of a revolver as a primary sidearm from where it’s been stuck in the 1970s. I love my Security Sixes, but when I look at them compared to my GP100 WC, they don’t really compare favorably. So to reiterate, the Modern Defensive Revolver is the wheelgun as a primary carry gun. To sum it up, it should be a medium frame, 6 shot (or more) revolver in .38 Special or .357 Magnum equipped with a DAO trigger, good sights, and a laser.
So where does that leave guns like the Ruger LCR? That’s where the Compact Defensive Revolver comes in. People have been carrying small-frame wheelguns for ages, but many of the guns on the market are like their larger cousins, stuck in the 1970s. Again, we want to take what is a familiar concept and update it to the 21st century using modern technology.
In general, a Compact Defensive Revolver should be light enough for pocket carry (assuming you have large enough pockets) and should be shootable with your defensive round of choice for at least 50 or so rounds. While you’re not going to take a huge class with a compact gun, you do still need to practice. Lots of pretty smart dudes recommend carrying 148 grain wadcutters in your defensive revolvers that are chambered in .38 Special – you won’t get any expansion, but it will cut a clean hole and penetrate well. Plus, the 148s are relatively easy to shoot.
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Now let’s address the first area for a well set-up Compact Defensive Revolver:
It must have some kind of high-visibility sighting system
On a full size MDR, we want both good sights and a Crimson Trace, on a smaller gun we’re willing to compromise and get one or the other. Because a lot of these guns come with fixed gutter style sights, your best bet will be to install a Crimson Trace LaserGrip for low-light sighting solutions. I know some shooters also will paint their front sight with luminescent paint as well.
It must be as snag free as possible
If your Compact Defensive Revolver is going to be carried in a pocket, it needs to be as free of potential snag areas as possible. Hammer spurs and other protuberances can interfere with a pocket draw. Ideally, a Compact Defensive Revolver would have a shrouded hammer like the LCR, but a bobbed hammer is okay.
The usual caveats about a good trigger apply here as well – a Compact Defensive Revolver really needs a good clean trigger. Despite what the internet thinks, you may have to use a Compact Defensive Revolver to actually shoot someone further than spitting distance. Because the guns are lightweight, a good trigger will really help make that job easier.
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Here’s a list of a few guns that fit the criteria and a list of things I’d update on them:
- Ruger LCR in .38 Special: Add Crimson Trace Laser Grip and XS Big Dot front sight.
- Smith & Wesson Model 642 CT: already comes with CTC grips!
- Smith & Wesson M&P340 CT: no changes
There are obviously quite a few other guns out there that fit the criteria as well, including some out-of-production guns. I actually wish that Ruger and S&W would bring back their .32 Magnum chambered revolvers, because getting a 6 shot .32 in a J-frame package is pretty rad.