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The primary advantages of semi-automatic handguns are that they are more easily concealable, tend to have lighter triggers, have greater ammunition capacity than revolvers-in many cases, much greater-and are more quickly and easily reloaded than revolvers. Semiautos also, in most common calibers, have much less recoil effect and muzzle blast than revolvers, and have a bore axis much lower than revolvers. With polymer frame construction, some semiautos can be substantially lighter than revolvers yet hold substantially more ammunition with no deficit in ruggedness and longevity.
Because of their very nature, semiautos are subject to more common malfunctions than revolvers, but each of these common malfunctions can be cleared in the field, without tools, in four seconds or less by those without expert levels of knowledge and skill. Because they do not have cylinders, as long as there is a round in the chamber-and this is the way modern semiautos should be carried-semiautos will virtually always fire at least one round even if they malfunction thereafter.
The only exception is those designs with a magazine disconnect, a system that prevents the weapon from firing unless a magazine is fully inserted. This is a “feature” that should never be a part of any handgun carried for personal defense.
One interesting advantage that is of little use to most shooters is that semiautos can accept suppressors (there is no such thing as a “silencer”). Suppressors are useless on revolvers-despite what Hollywood would have one believe-because of the gas that escapes through the gap between the cylinder and the forcing cone. Suppressing firearms is primarily about gas control.
Contemporary designs often have accessory rails that allow the easy installation and use of flashlights, and more importantly, laser sights. Revolvers may also be equipped with laser sights, but semiauto owners will generally find that equipping their weapons is easier and that there are more choices available.
Semiautos, many of which are designed with military service in mind, usually break down without tools and are easy to clean. Even non-military designs are generally easy to break down, clean and reassemble, and generally without tools. They also tend to have few parts to disassemble. GLOCKs, for example, break down into the frame, barrel, recoil spring/guide rod assembly and slide. No further disassembly is required for normal cleaning, and reassembly is quick and easy.
As previously mentioned, semiauto trigger mechanisms-even double action mechanisms-tend to be much lighter and more easily manipulated than revolver triggers.
There are two primary types of malfunctions common to semi-automatic handguns: failures to feed and failures to eject. Each has several commonly known variations, but as previously mentioned, proper training will show anyone how, within mere seconds, to clear such malfunctions. One of the most common problems with semi-automatic handguns is “limp wristing,” or not giving the handgun a firm grip with a straight, rigid wrist. Semi-automatic handguns need a solid grip against which to cycle the slide. If the weapon is held limply, it may lack the force to complete the cycle and may not fully eject an empty casing, or may not fully chamber a fresh round. Proper technique can easily sort out this common problem.
A number of readers of the first article in this series suggested that revolvers do not suffer from limp wristing, which is true enough, however, learning the manual of arms with any handgun, and becoming comfortable with it to the point of allowing good accuracy takes time and effort. All weapons have their peculiarities, and not every weapon is an optimum choice for everyone.
Semiautos generally come in only one grip size, so some may simply be too large for smaller hands, a not uncommon issue with full-sized 1911s, for example. However, some manufacturers are now shipping models with easily switched backstraps to address what may or may not be a problem. In addition, weapons with polymer frames like GLOCKs allow magazines with substantial capacity while still keeping the grip relatively small. Semiautos are generally more ergonomically pleasing to more people than revolvers, particularly with out-of-the-box, unaltered weapons.
One cannot normally tell whether a semiauto is loaded merely by looking at it, though some, such as GLOCKs, do have mechanical loaded chamber indicators (which can be checked by touch), or like the S&W Bodyguard, a small notch cut in the breach that allows a chambered cartridge to be seen. However, this can be addressed with a simple “pinch-check,” or retracting the slide just enough to see brass in the chamber. Some people also experience accidental discharges when, after removing the magazine, assume that the weapon is empty and fire the round in the chamber. This too can be easily addressed by using the proper, basic safety drill of always removing the magazine, cycling the slide several times, locking it back, and looking and using a finger to verify that the magazine well and chamber are empty. Of course, keeping one’s finger off the trigger until milliseconds before firing is also helpful.
Another common problem is loading magazines with stiff springs. However, inexpensive magazine loading tools that essentially eliminate this problem are widely available-GLOCK includes one with every handgun sold-and it is a very small portion of the population that cannot learn how to use what strength they have to cycle a slide, or with proper tools, to load a magazine. Even so, some few people, due to disability or illness may find such tasks daunting.
The greatest single weakness of semiautos is the magazine. They are generally easier to damage than the guns themselves, and if a magazine won’t properly feed due to fatigue or damage, the shooter suddenly has a hard to load single-shot handgun. To address this problem, at least one spare magazine should always be carried, and all magazines should be regularly rotated with a complete set of spares to allow the springs to “rest.”
Though this is a much smaller issue than it was only a decade ago, some semiautos are ammunition sensitive; some brands and/or configurations of ammunition may make some guns more prone to malfunctions. Most guns designed for self-defense will fire just about anything with little or no difficulty, but some guns, particularly those built to very tight tolerances, such as guns intended for competition, may take a bit of trial and error to find ammunition that is completely reliable. On the other hand, brands such as GLOCK have a well-deserved reputation for reliability right out of the box and require no alteration or modification at all.
Semiautos generally have less intrinsic accuracy than revolvers. This is so because their barrels-with a few notable exceptions, many in .22LR only-are not fixed to the frame and thus, unmoving as the slide cycles. Designs with both a fixed barrel and the sights attached to that barrel, tend to have intrinsic accuracy no less than the best revolvers, the Ruger Mark III and 22/45 pistols in .22LR being cases in point.
Defensive pistols must have looser tolerances because the need for maximum reliability is greater than the need for maximum accuracy. This will generally produce slightly less overall accuracy. However, for general defensive use, this is not at all an issue for most people, whose practical shooting ability is not up to the optimum intrinsic accuracy of their semiautos, particularly at the kinds of ranges at which gunfights virtually always take place.
What kind of difference is involved? A target semiauto tuned to the tightest tolerances without sacrificing the reliability necessary for the sport might shoot a 2” group at 25 yards, while a daily carry pistol might manage 4”. Proper ammunition will also have an effect on group size. Some handguns simply shoot more accurately with some configurations of cartridge and bullet. This is true with any firearm, and is why long-range competition riflemen and snipers are meticulous about developing loads that maximize the accuracy of their weapons.
Obviously, all semiauto owners should shoot a number of the cartridges they plan to carry in their weapons daily to ensure they work properly. How many? At least 20, and the more the better, not only to ensure they function properly, but to develop a feel for them and to gauge their accuracy and the necessity of changing sight (perhaps laser sight) settings.
One additional caveat is that, like revolvers, the smaller the pistol, the more difficult it tends to be to shoot accurately. Substantially smaller than the GLOCK, the Bodyguard has a longer and heavier trigger pull than the GLOCK, and a shorter barrel, and is therefore harder to shoot well. It’s not impossible to shoot well by any means, but it does require more practice, including dry fire off the range, to maintain proficiency. Of course, anyone choosing to carry a handgun has a duty to practice enough in dry and live fire to maintain proficiency sufficient to ensure they will hit only what they intend to hit.