I think that in any discussion of this type we pistol men should recognize that, firearm popularity, like the length of women’s skirts or the width of lapels is largely a matter of fashion not function. Particularly now, in the media age, never underestimate the power of the media to influence mass consumption. Consider the following examples:
By 1950 the single action revolver was dead as a dodo. Any knowledgeable “gun crank” would have told you that the single action was old news and yesterday’s design, far outclassed by the double action revolver. Colt SAAs could be purchased cheaply in second hand stores and pawn shops. The future was the 357 Magnum double action revolver, with target grade double action .38 Specials popular also. Then out of nowhere, in the mid-50s a new entertainment medium called television flooded the airways with dozens of western TV shows and suddenly the single action revolver enjoyed popularity even greater than its design heyday in the 1870s or 1880s. Colt was forced to retool and resume production of the SAA, a young fellow named Bill Ruger introduced a modern design of a single action revolver, first in .22 rim fire then in center fire, and built a gun company from the profits. The demand was so great that single action Colt copies were produced both here and overseas. Was this shift in handgun tastes the result of the shooting public acknowledging the strengths of the single action revolver? No, it was media exposure.
By 1971, the .44 Magnum revolver had been around for 16 years and had developed a small but enthusiastic following primarily as a hunting pistol. Smith and Wesson produced small quantities of the big revolver, which, while not commonplace, weren’t rare either. Then Clint Eastwood made “Dirty Harry” and Model 29s became impossible to find for a decade. (As an aside, I recently read a column at Field and Stream and discovered that the original actor scheduled to play Harry was Frank Sinatra, and that his trademark weapon was a 12 gauge shotgun. I don’t know how or why this got changed into the iconic .44 Magnum revolver, but I doubt old blue eyes could have done for the sawed off squaw gun what Eastwood did for the .44)
By the 1960s, the M1911A1 auto pistol was generally regarded as an obsolescent relic of the world wars and useful primarily as the foundation of a specialized bulls eye target gun. Then Jeff Cooper came along, invented a new shooting game that played to the old .45’s strengths, and with a pseudo-scientific training program and some stopping power mumbo jumbo turned the old horse cavalry pistol into a sort of “America’s pistol” by the 1980s.
Law enforcement taste in handguns is similarly capricious. Generally the police will use whatever handgun the FBI tells them to use and more importantly, whatever handgun they are subsidized to use by tax revenues. Tax revenues are declining. Some of the bigger departments (NYC, Chicago and LA) might go off on their own but they won’t stray too far from the federal fold and all that nice Homeland Security money, which motivates the smaller law enforcement organizations as well. Since law enforcement is so political, all it would take is one “incident” (or law enforcement fiasco) to cause a huge change in law enforcement handguns. Think of a Glock or other polymer frame “kaboom” incident at a particularly inopportune time and you could very well see the john laws ditching the polymer pistols for something else. Voters may also tire of the increasing militarization of the police and demand that local police forces once again resemble peace officers rather than an occupying army.
As Elmer Keith pointed out years ago, the auto pistol is dependent on perfect ammunition for functional reliability. Generally overlooked in the auto pistol vs. revolver debate is the fact that high quality dependable ammunition has been readily available, relatively inexpensively, for decades now. That may be changing however; in my part of the country, some pistol ammunition and rim fire ammunition is still (almost 9 months later) hard to come by in the wake of the Sandy Hook fiasco. Reloading components are similarly still in short supply; if one is forced to shoot reloads only, the revolver starts looking a lot more efficient than the self-loader. In a pinch the revolver will still perform if loaded with black powder or a black powder substitute. The self loader won’t.
The fact also remains that there are some things the revolver does well that the auto loader doesn’t do quite as efficiently. The auto loader can’t quite deliver the handiness, reliability and power of the snub nosed revolver for example. The revolver is also the preferred platform for the high powered handgun cartridges such as the magnum revolver loads.
I think the DA revolver will be with us for a longtime to come and depending on the vicissitudes of the political market place, could very well make a big comeback.