Rick Hacker talks about the Gunsite course for single-action revolvers. The conclusion:
“I don’t think that anybody who has a single-action should feel deprived in any way,” noted Il Ling New, one of Gunsite’s premiere defensive handgun, rifle and shotgun instructors—and a licensed guide who has hunted throughout the world. “You really should fight with what you have. Why not use your single-action as your defensive handgun? Those five or six rounds in the chambers can win the fight for you.”
The handgun I carry most around the place is my Springfield Armory XDM .40 S&W. The reason I carry it has more to do with size and weight, and the fact that it is stainless steel whereas my revolvers are mostly blue. Still, I don't shoot any handgun as well as I shoot my single-action revolvers. In fact, I'm not sure I shoot any firearm I have as well as my Ruger Super Blackhawk and my Single-Six.
As for speed, the SA revolver lends itself to a fast first shot, either in the hand or from the holster. I don't believe any handgun -- except, perhaps, a locked-and-cocked 1911, is as fast – for the average shooter.
The drawbacks are limited capacity and, especially, a comparatively slow reload. But the speed of reloading can be enhanced by a "shoot two/load two" tactical reload -- and practice. If you think you are going to have to shoot your way through 20 or 30 gunmen, ala Josey Wales (who, by the way, was using multiple cap-and-ball Colts, the fastest reload then and now being another handgun), a high-capacity autoloader like the XDM is probably a better choice -- not that anybody is going to survive that gunfight anyway.
Very few of us are going to ever need to fire a handgun in self-defense, though the percentage may go up over the next several years of economic turmoil and possible political instability/insanity. Most of those who will be forced to defend their lives or their families will be able to do so with three shots or less.
A good single-action can be acquired for a reasonable price. Modern single-action revolvers are nearly as fool-proof as a crowbar. Ruger revolvers are strong for their caliber and solidly constructed. Buying a used one is not usually a problem. They can be worn out, but it is uncommon. If buying a used SA, I verify the weapon is unloaded, cock the hammer and see how much movement is in the cylinder. There should be essentially none, either forward and backward or side-to-side.
My SA revolvers are hunting weapons and have barrels of six to seven and a half inches in length. If I were buying one to carry around with me all the time, I would probably try to get a barrel under five inches. A non-reflective finish on a defensive firearm is better than a glossy finish, but dark is better than light, so it often comes down to personal preference. I like matte stainless steel for a weapon I need to carry when I know I might get wet or where I am going to be sweating a lot. Otherwise I prefer a traditional blue finish.
Caliber is a matter of personal preference as well. I like the .44 magnum, but the .357 is hard to beat for self-defense; it makes an adequate hunting round for our local whitetails; and it’s good for varmints. You can go bigger than the .44 these days, and, with the .327 magnum or the older .32 H&R magnum in a used gun, you can go smaller than the .38/357.
I have two handloads I shoot in my Super Blackhawk – one is a jacketed bullet load that gets a 240 grain bullet going about 1350 fps; the other is a cast bullet load, also 240 grains, that runs about 200 fps slower. I could probably fit the cast load in a .44 Special case, but why bother? I use magnum cases for both loads – the cast is over Blue Dot, and the jacketed bullet is over H2400 powder. Either one will shoot through most anything I’ve encountered. The jacketed load is not hot or high pressure, and, though loud, doesn’t have excessive recoil. The cast load is very controllable and is what I normally keep in the revolver unless I expect to take longer shots.
Would I use my single-actions for self-defense? Absolutely. Many times at night, when I check out what the dog is barking at, it is with one of those ‘old-fashioned’ revolvers in my hand. Would I recommend the single-action revolver as someone’s only self-defense weapon? Not necessarily. It depends on what a person is comfortable with. A good double-action revolver is a probably a better “nightstand” gun for most folks. A more modern autoloader such as a Glock or any of a dozen others carries better, has more capacity, and reloads faster, and the reloads can be carried more compactly and conveniently. But the single-action revolver is versatile and fun to shoot, and it will get the job done, whatever it may be.