Guts of the Gun – The Revolver
Nostalgic Throwback or Modern Performer?
By Brian Jensen
The modern revolver is still a potent and viable option as a defensive too. Reliability, ease of use, and durability all combine to make a fine handgun. Smith & Wesson, Ruger, and Taurus are all very strong in the self defense market.
Revolvers come in all sizes. The Smith & Wesson 500 is chambered for the .500 S&W cartridges (above) and the .38 Sp. J-Frame snubbie (below).
Colt Patterson Revolver pair (modern Colt replica) for sale on GunsAmerica.
This is a period Colt SAA (Peacemaker) I found for sale on GunsAmerica today. It is from before smokeless powder and could probably tell quite a story.
This scandium/titanium revolver is light, durable, and easy to carry. (It is however, painful to shoot.)
The 500 Smith and Wesson while firing; this cannon is not for the faint of heart, even with the muzzle brake.
The break top revolver was an early way to load a revolver more quickly. It’s drawback was the break-top design made for a weaker frame and is not generally suited for the hotter cartridges. NOTE: Do not fire .38 Special in a .38S&W break top revolver.
The Taurus Judge “Public Defender” is a handful of dynamite in a very exciting, controllable and affordable package. These go for around $500 on GunsAmerica.
The size of the 5-shot revolver lends itself to concealment, but gives five shots of reliable firepower.
One of the great advantages of a revolver is the ability to sit loaded and ready over time. There are no magazine springs to worry about.
The revolver is generally thought of as a “six shooter”. However, this .22 holds eight rounds. Others are found regularly with seven shots.
The small snub-nosed revolver is well regarded in law enforcement and CCW circles as a rugged, reliable, and easily concealed defensive handgun.
When looking at a used revolver, the buyer should check for “flame cutting” or erosion in the area of the top-strap above the forcing cone.
Another test for a used revolver is to check the “timing and lockup” as the cylinder lines up with the forcing cone of the revolver. Once you’ve assured the gun is unloaded, pull back the hammer, and see that the cylinder is lined up with the barrel, then try to see if the cylinder moves from side to side. If it’s locked up tight, and lines up right, you should be good.
The Chiappa Rhino has taken the revolver, and taken it “outside the box”. It uses flats on the cylinder and along the barrel to make a flatter profile for concealed carry. These guns come in a 6-shot .357 magnum setup of varying barrel lengths. Makes you think of what revolvers we’ll see in the future.
OK…I’m not afraid to admit it; I grew up watching shows like Starsky and Hutch as a kid. The single coolest point of that show was watching “Hutch” pull out that 6-inch Colt Python – probably one of the highest “cool factor” pistols out at the time. As I recall, every cop and detective show from Andy Griffith to Cannon had the hero carrying a trusty wheelgun into harms way back then.
Yet now, when I train new officers, I show them my J-Frame snubbie and they give me a look something like that old Steve Martin – Bill Murray skit from Saturday Night Live, “What the Hell is that Thing…”
It’s true, if you ask most new gun buyers who are looking for their first handgun, my experience has been that they want some semi auto, and they look at the revolver as some antiquated piece of history. Oh how wrong they are. The revolver is still a viable, potent, and downright best choice for many applications, and for the majority of shooters.
A Little History…
The first revolving pistol is a matter of dispute, but in America we credit Sam Colt with its invention. In 1836 the Colt Patterson was released and quickly adopted by famous Texas Ranger Jack Hayes. The gun was notorious for its underpowered .36 caliber ball and for falling apart, but it was the first, and it worked. It was later followed by several models from Colt, Remington and others through the Civil War and into the 1870s. Last month we had a very good overview of shooting replicas of these fine and effective firearms. In 1873, Colt evolved the next generation of the revolver with the brass cartridge firing Colt Peacemaker, or Single Action Army, the civilian and military designations respectively. Then in the 1890s, when smokeless gunpowder took the place of crude, dirty, corrosive and smelly black powder, the revolver became a mainstay of American firearms.
During those years (the first were actually percussion revolvers), several manufacturers introduced the concept of “double action” revolvers, where the pull of the trigger simultaneously cocked and fired the weapon. When you think of a modern revolver used for self defense, like a Smith & Wesson or the new Ruger LCR, you generally will be thinking double action. Single action revolvers still have their place, and General Patton is famous for carrying Colt Single Action Armies, but most would class a single action revolver as primarily a target, collectible, or replica weapon, not something built for modern day self defense.
How it Works
Revolvers work on a simple concept. Multiple chambers rotate and are aligned with the barrel and firing pin individually, each getting its turn. The pistol’s hammer is cocked (either by pulling back the hammer manually, or the trigger pulling back the hammer as it is pulled) and the mechanism rotates the cylinder with the next loaded chamber into a firing position at the rear of the barrel. The hammer falls, and strikes the round’s primer directly with an integral firing pin, or with a captured pin in the frame which fires the gun. The shooter then repeats this to rotate the cylinder and fire again.
The bullet, once fired, exits the cylinder, and enters an area called the “forcing cone” of the pistol’s barrel which guides the bullet into the bore, and sends it on it’s way to the target. The empty casings remain in the cylinder until the shooter cracks open the action and they either are dumped or pulled out, depending on which type of revolver it is.
Revolvers are loaded by ejecting the empties from the chambers in the cylinder and reloading these chambers with new rounds. Some cylinders are fixed in the gun – such as in single-action revolvers, and reloaded one at a time by a loading gate at the rear of the frame. Others, from the turn of the century and before would “break open” to access the rear of the cylinder and eject the empties (the Iver Johnson hardware store gun era). The most common modern system is the swing out cylinder, which also gives full access to the rear of the chambers to load them. The swing out is now universal in double action revolver design.
The Love of Revolvers
There is a mystique about revolvers that is very hard to put into words.
Unless you have been living under a rock and never seen a western movie, this is the pistol we will all remember from the Old West. And even though the double action revolver has eclipsed the era of the single action, there are still several national shooting clubs that celebrate the history of these history and effective weapons. The most prolific, with hundreds of thousands of members, is the Single Action Shooting Society, where competitors show up in full old west regalia. It isn’t a costume contest though. They shoot at steel plates on a timer, and the speeds can be blinding.
Remember that with a single action revolver, you fire it by first cocking the hammer, then the shooter pulls the trigger to release the hammer from where it’s held, letting it fall forward. The firing pin on the hammer then strikes the cartridge’s primer, firing the gun. The shooter then re-cocks the hammer to rotate the cylinder and repeat the firing sequence. Sounds time consuming from a Glock perspective right? Some people can do it fast than they eye can see.
You can still buy a real Colt Peacemaker to this day, and many others make there here in the US and overseas, mostly in Italy.
Ruger has led the way for decades in the area of single action modern revolvers. The Blackhawk series has been enormously successful, as has their Single Six and Vaquero lines, the latter of which was created specifically for the cowboy action, or SASS, shooter.
Dirty Harry and Beyond
Romance isn’t lost on the double action revolver either. Dirty Harry carried the infamous Model 29 Smith & Wesson, in .44 Magnum that could “blow your head clean off”. But the double action revolver is more known for its modern day effectiveness.
The biggest complaint about the double action revolver is also one of its strengths. It has a long, heavy trigger pull. You are after all both cocking then firing the gun, so this takes some work. It is faster to fire a revolver this way than single action, but the heavy pull is thought to effect accuracy. The longer the motion and the more energy expelled the more your hand has a tendency to not stay in one place.
Most double action revolvers can be fired single action at the will of the shooter simply by pulling the hammer rearward into the cocked position. However, there are some versions of double action only revolvers that have a bobbed hammer of no external hammer at all. These are generally concealed defensive pistols, prized for being snag-free without the hammer – they can be concealed and drawn with little in the way of sharp points that can grab onto clothing during the draw. As a police range instructor, I see a whole lot of these carried as backups. They are also highly prized by armed citizens for the same reasons.
The strength of the double action revolver is simplicity of operation, and surprisingly, safety, even though almost all revolvers have no manual safety lever at all. The heavy double action pull makes an accidental discharge almost impossible, and that is why many states mandate them for security guard use where constant training is not required.
OK…I know you’re thinking that this sounds like I’ve jumped ahead to auto pistols, but there are automatic revolvers. The recoil of the weapon as it fires forces the barrel and/or cylinder to move backwards, cocking the hammer for the next shot as a single action trigger pull, much like a semiautomatic pistol. The Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver from the early 1900’s was an early version of this system.
The Mateba Revolver, from Italy, is just such an unusual system from recent history. Introduced in 1997 and produced until 2005, these are extremely rare and expensive in the states. Chambered in calibers from .357 Magnum, to .454 Casull, these may look a little weird, but they are a neat concept. The bore of the weapon sits lower on the weapon, firing from the bottom chamber in the cylinder. This can help negate some felt recoil by lowering the bore axis.
The revolver has one thing that no one will deny; they are just plain strong. Calibers such as .454 Casull, 500 S&W, or 44 Magnum are almost always in revolvers. (Yes, I know there are a few Magnum Research owners screaming right about now…) The design of a revolver just lends itself to a strong and sturdy platform for just such calibers.
I have fired the Smith & Wesson 500 and it is a beast to handle. It is not for the faint of heart, but it has it’s applications I guess. An extremely popular revolver of late has been the Taurus Judge. The “Public Defender” comes in .45LC, but it also holds the .410 shotshell. Several companies have come out with 3 buckshot loads just for the Judge and it is a formidable weapon.
When I first became an officer and started carrying a gun for a living almost twenty years ago, the first pistol I bought was a revolver as a backup weapon. Why, because the revolver is the single most reliable weapon I have ever dealt with, bar none. Gun for gun a revolver will take more abuse than any other type of handgun. In fact, a five shot revolver is one of the most common CCW weapons I know of, especially as a backup weapon for police. I have heard the expression used often of “five for sure” to describe the little wheelgun, and it’s a reputation it has earned. In almost thirty years of shooting I have never seen a revolver jam.
The revolver also has a unique advantage over semi-auto pistols as a home defense or house gun, that is just stored, and not necessarily fired on a regular basis. The revolver can sit loaded, and stay ready for as long as the ammo will last without a fear of jamming (excepting rust or other such calamity). While most semi-autos say they can remain fully loaded without compromising their magazine’s spring, I have seen too many magazines fail under these conditions. For a revolver, there are no springs to worry about. The rounds just sit in the cylinder until needed. Don’t get me wrong, I am never a proponent of leaving any gun loaded for your defense for extended periods of time without maintenance, but the revolver can do this without issue.
A Deal on the Used Market
Another great thing about revolvers is they represent a great value in the used gun market. If you shop GunsAmerica there will always be a Smith & Wesson Model 10, Model 66, or even an ugly J-Frame for cheap. A used revolver will generally be easier to check for wear and tear. Lots of guns have carry wear, like pocks of pits on the cylinder and frame, or outright existing rust. But these aren’t functional and can easily be cleaned up.
As long as the cylinder locks up correctly to place each cylinder in line with the barrel (what we call “timing”) and there is no flame cutting or erosion on the topstrap, they generally are good to go. Their rugged construction helps them last longer as well, at least in my experience. With the widespread adoption of auto’s for local police agencies, there will be likely plenty of these out on the used gun market for the foreseeable future. Almost every cop in the country carried a Smith & Wesson Model 10 in the 1930s through the 1970s. Those are all out on the used market and work great.
CCW-A New Era
Smith and Wesson sells many revolvers in their lineup. However, in a recent exchange I had with a S&W executive, it was clear that the small five-shot J-Frame is likely their best seller. The Ruger LCR, a polymer framed gun, has had enormous success, and Taurus has had a strong following for many years with revolvers mostly tailored to the similar Smith & Wesson profiles. These newer guns come in such potent calibers as .357 Magnum or 10mm for the most determined adversary, and are made to be as light as 10.4 ounces, in titanium believe it or not.
All of the above make for a concealed carry wonderland. If you want a nostalgic, blued steel revolver, they have one. If you want a light have one of those as well (they kick a lot more though). Small revolvers, especially the hammerless variety, have the ability to be fired from inside a pocket, repeatedly. Try that with a semi-auto without it jamming. (OK…that was a HYPOTHETICAL statement for anyone who had any bright ideas.)
OK, the revolver does lack one thing: capacity. My smallest auto carries seven rounds, while my revolver carries five. Along with this, they are somewhat slower to reload. I can slap a new magazine into a semi-auto pistol quicker than I can use a speedloader or speed strip to reload my revolver. Unless you’re Jerry Miculek, you won’t be that quick. (Insert Video 2)
Revolvers are also relatively bulky, especially when you get into the larger frames. I’m still trying to figure out how a skinny guy like Clint Eastwood comfortably concealed that 6-inch model 29 in 44 magnum. (OK…yeah I just dated myself…) The revolver’s cylinder is just thick.
That cylinder also has one drawback. If something binds up the cylinder from turning, the gun just won’t shoot. My cousin was a police officer in Southern California when he came upon a suspect at a party who decided to draw his revolver and try to shoot him. My cousin grabbed the revolver around the cylinder and held the gun captive while other officers wrestled the bad guy to the ground. The gun was never able to fire because my cousin had a death grip on that thing, and that cylinder never turned.
Now the real drawback…most new shooters are caught up in the sexy image of the semi-auto pistol. James Bond made the Walther cool, Magnum PI had his Colt 1911, and Sonny Crocket had his Bren 10. With the exception of Cowboys and Dirty Harry, the revolver just is not seen in the same light. But to get caught up in image is a mistake for most casual shooters. Remembering to rack the slide (if you are queezy about keeping a loaded round in the chamber of a Glock) at 2am when you hear a bang downstairs and you don’t pets, or dropping the safety on your carry 1911 when the 7/11 gets robbed in front of you is not something you are always going to remember unless you shoot your weapon a lot. Revolvers are the best choice for the majority of shooters.
The Modern Revolver is Alive and Well…
I’ve already mentioned the Smith and Wesson, Ruger, and Taurus. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Revolvers run the gamut in value, from a Charter Arms or Rossi which can run in the $300 range to a Colt Python which can head well over $3,000. That can even be eclipsed by some of the older, collectable Colt Single Action guns from the 1800’s.
A new, and particularly interesting revolver is from Chiappa Firearms of Dayton Ohio, called the Rhino. These .357 magnum 6-shots are made in Italy by Kimar, and feature several characteristics that take the revolver into the next generation. The Rhino has a barrel which fires from the bottom cylinder, allowing the bore axis to sit low in the hand, and reduce felt recoil. The sides of the barrel, and even the cylinder have flats, instead of rounded edges, making for a more concealable package more like a semi-auto. They also have different grip sizes to best fit the gun to you.
Is a Revolver for You?
After reading this, you may find yourself asking if a revolver is for you? They are excellent weapons, and unfortunately they seem often overlooked in light of the modern auto pistol. However, they are a rugged and reliable weapon that can be found in the most potent of calibers.
Consider the role you are looking for. Hunting, defense, or sport . In all you will find revolvers readily able to handle the job. In fact, some are the exclusive domain of the wheelgun, such as cowboy action shooting or hunting for dangerous game with a weapon in a 454 Casull. Perhaps you want something small for carrying concealed. Guess what, cops have carried them for decades and been amply armed.
The revolver is a pillar in the history of modern firearms, but it isn’t simply a relic of old technology. Simplicity, safety and reliability can’t be matched by any other firearm to this day, and a revolver might just be the right gun for you.