We live in the age of the high capacity semi-automatic pistol, but thirty or so years ago, the revolver was the predominant self-defense handgun used by sworn–i.e., police–and non-sworn civilians for duty and protection. Even though semi-automatic pistols are most often carried these days, a large number of people in both camps still carry a revolver, some as their primary defensive sidearm or as a backup piece. But sadly, competency in the manipulation of wheel guns for self-defense is, if not a lost art, a skill that most revolver carriers lack. And not knowing how to run a revolver can get you or a loved one killed or injured.
The object here is to reveal some of the methods to run a double action (DA) revolver with a swing-out cylinder, although there may be some carryover in techniques to single action, top break, and gate loading revolvers. These methods are not the only way to manipulate a DA revolver but are one way.
Caution: Don’t think you can learn to competently run a revolver–or any gun for that matter–by reading a book or an article or watching a video. There is no substitute for in-person instruction by a competent instructor. But the first step in learning is to realize that there are things you don’t know and that you need to know. Perhaps that’s the real value here.
These techniques are taught by some of the best gunfighting schools in the world, like Gunsite Academy located near Prescott, Arizona. Although not all firearms instructors know how to run a revolver, the instructors at Gunsite do–even single action revolvers for that matter. So if you want to rely on a revolver as a life-saving tool, find a good instructor, pay the money, spend the time and get the training.
I recently attended an event at Gunsite where techniques for running a DA revolver for self-defense were taught. I used ammunition from Aguila and Black Hills along with a Smith & Wesson 686 revolver chambered in .357 Magnum and customized by ROBAR. It was carried in a Blade-Tech Classic OWB Holster. All equipment and ammunition performed flawlessly.
An important characteristic of DA revolvers is that stroking through the trigger pull rotates the cylinder to put an unfired round in line with the barrel and at the same time retracts the hammer. At the end of the trigger stroke, the hammer is released to ignite the round. Some DA revolvers operate only in the manner just described and these are often referred to as DAO or double action only revolvers. But a DA revolver also allows the hammer to be cocked by pulling back on the hammer spur until the hammer is fully cocked and the cylinder is advanced. With the hammer locked back, the trigger can then be pulled allowing the hammer to fall. DAO revolvers do not have this feature.
Cocking the hammer by thumbing it back on a DA revolver in a self-defense situation is rare. First, it takes longer to fire a round and second, once the hammer is cocked, the amount of trigger pressure required to fire the gun is very little which makes an unintentional discharge more likely. It might be appropriate if a very precise shot is needed and there is time to execute it, but the shooter must decide that for himself after careful consideration of the individual circumstances.
Although the longer and heavier trigger pull on a DA revolver may be more difficult to master than the pull on a single action or striker fired gun, and the revolver usually carries fewer rounds, there are other characteristics that make a revolver a good choice for some people. Modern DA revolvers have no safety levers, so there is no chance of forgetting to disengage a safety under stress. And some people have difficulty retracting the slide on a semi-automatic, but with a revolver, that problem is eliminated.
A common complaint is the revolver’s heavy double action trigger pull. But the pull can be smoothed and lightened which is what ROBAR did on the S&W 686. In addition to smoothing the stroke, the pull weight was reduced from 13 to 11 pounds which makes it easier to maintain proper aim while pressing the trigger. It also helps to increase the speed of follow-up shots.
ROBAR also applied NP3 which is a nickel plating embedded with PTFE–the same stuff that’s in Teflon–making the surface very hard and slick. NP3 is used on space hardware, so it’s pretty high tech stuff. Internal parts were also coated with NP3 making an already good trigger job that much smoother. Not only does the NP3 look great with its matte nickel finish, but it is also easier to clean.
Lastly, the factory ramp front sight with the orange insert was replaced with a far superior brass bead making it easier to obtain a good sight picture. That is especially obvious in bright sunlight where stainless steel glares. All of these custom improvements make an already effective DA revolver much better for self-defense.
Although a shooter should practice firing the revolver one handed with either hand, it is more effective to use a two hand hold. But that hold is a little different compared to a semi-auto. First, grip as high on the backstrap as possible to help control muzzle rise. And keep your fingers well behind the gap between the cylinder and the rear of the barrel. High-velocity hot gas is emitted from this gap with every round, and it can injure or even sever a finger.
One grip technique is to lock the offhand thumb over the firing hand thumb. Another is to place the offhand thumb behind the backstrap on top of the firing hand. Still, another is to place the offhand thumb below the firing hand thumb along the frame. Just don’t get near the cylinder gap. You will make that mistake only once before you learn the lesson.
To load, open the cylinder, cradle the gun in one hand and then drop a cartridge in each chamber. Carefully look at the back of the cylinder to make sure each charge hole is filled. Don’t laugh, sometimes we look but don’t see, so make a conscious effort to examine each hole before locking the cylinder into the frame. And don’t flick the cylinder shut while holding the gun by the grip and rotating the hand. Some Hollywood director thought it looked cool to do that, but it can damage the crane. So push the cylinder closed with the offhand using your thumb or fingers. Then it’s a good idea to slightly retract the hammer so that the cylinder stop is disengaged and the cylinder can be rotated freely. Rotate the cylinder 360 degrees to make sure nothing impedes the movement, then carefully lower the hammer and continue rotating the cylinder until it locks. Always point the gun in a safe direction in case there is an unintentional discharge.
Making sure the cylinder rotates freely is important because you don’t want to find out it won’t in the middle of a fight. Rotating it may cause a drag line around the cylinder, but you can probably live with that because you are carrying a life-saving tool, not a showpiece. Right?
The revolver usually has five or six charge holes or chambers in the cylinder, although some revolvers have more. Regardless of the number, the capacity is usually less than a modern double stack semi-automatic, and loading is slower, so managing ammunition is critical. If possible, keep track of the rounds fired. That’s pretty hard to do under the stress of a deadly force encounter, so if you fire a few rounds, there is a lull in the action and you can safely do so, reload.
And when the gunfight is over and the threat is gone, reload so that if another threat comes along, you have a fully loaded self-defense tool. To do so, hold the gun with the muzzle slightly down, open the cylinder and slowly push the ejector rod partially to the rear. Then let it go back into place. Hopefully, the fired empty cartridge cases will protrude from the cylinder while unfired rounds fall back into place. Pick the empties out and let them fall. They are no longer useful. Using a Tuff Products QuickStrip (www.tuffproducts.com) or loose rounds from a belt carrier or wherever you carry them, refill the empty charge holes and close the cylinder. When done, scan to make sure there are no threats then holster the gun. That’s an administrative reload.
Some revolver cylinders rotate clockwise and others counter clockwise when viewed from the rear. Know the direction of yours so if you are unable to fully load the revolver because someone is shooting at you, you can close the cylinder so a live round rotates into position when you pull the trigger. If you make a mistake and the hammer falls on a spent round or an empty chamber, keep pulling the trigger until the gun fires. It’s much faster to keep the trigger going than to stop, open the cylinder and realign the cartridges.
In fact, it’s a good idea to practice loading one round at a time, firing it, and then loading another round. If your revolver runs out of ammunition in the middle of a fight and you cannot quickly load all chambers, you may be able to defend yourself with this technique.
The following procedures are for a person firing the gun with his or her right hand. Left handed shooters will have to modify these techniques to make them work, but the principles are the same.
If you are in a fight and have to reload, move fast and try to get to cover. Sometimes it may be smarter to reload all charge holes at the same time even if you have a few live rounds still in the cylinder. Each gunfight is different, so it’s your decision and no one except you can make it.
The first step is to open the cylinder by pushing the cylinder latch with the thumb of the firing hand. Some models push forward, others in and others to the rear. Make sure you know which way to push yours.
Now, if your hand is big enough, you may be able to push the cylinder open with the fingers of your firing hand. Not everyone can do this. For those who can’t, while the latch is disengaged, cradle the gun in the left hand with the trigger guard in your palm and push the cylinder open with the two middle fingers of the same hand. Continue to hold the gun in this manner with the two middle fingers touching the cylinder through the window created in the frame and the thumb of the left hand touching the cylinder. This prevents the cylinder from closing or rotating.
Then point the muzzle up and with the palm of the right hand, quickly and forcefully hit the ejector rod pushing it all the way in and then letting it spring back into place. If luck is with you, this will force empties and live rounds out of the cylinder. Let them fall away. Some say to hit the ejector rod with the left thumb, but that may not provide enough force or speed to get all the empties out of the cylinder. Do it however you want, just make sure the way you choose works.
Next, rotate the gun so the muzzle is pointing down. Using your free hand, drop fresh rounds into the cylinder. Speed loaders like those made by Safariland or HKS and moon clips are the fastest, but you can use loose rounds or a QuickStrip. When the speed loader or QuickStrip is empty, let it fall to the ground.
Next, forcefully close the cylinder with the thumb of the left hand while applying some rotational force to the cylinder so that it locks in place. Get back on the sights and determine if another round needs to be fired.
Where do you carry your reloads? That’s up to each person, but moon clips and speed loaders are a little bulky while loose rounds and QuickStrips are less so. Pockets work but are not the best. Simply Rugged Holsters makes pouches that can be worn on the belt for all the options. Generally, reloads should be accessible with either hand, so this means wearing them somewhere near the front of the body.
And if you are using moon clips or speed loaders, make sure they work with your gun before you need them for real. Sometimes grips interfere with their use, but replacement grips that work may be available.
If you think that revolvers are foolproof and never malfunction, you are mistaken. Sometimes, especially with powerful ammunition and lightweight revolvers, bullets can actually be pulled slightly forward in the cartridge case by recoil and protrude far enough so that they contact the frame and keep the cylinder from rotating. That may also prevent the cylinder from opening and cannot be fixed fast.
Sometimes a primer may not be fully seated which also stops the cylinder from rotating. Dirt or grit can get into the internal mechanism and bind everything. And if the trigger is not allowed to fully return forward after a round is fired, sometimes the internals can bind and a stoppage occurs. If the ejector is not forcefully and quickly struck and empties don’t fall cleanly away, a cartridge rim may get caught under the ejector star making the gun useless until the cartridge is removed. And if dirt or unburned particles of powder get between the back of the cylinder and the ejector star, the cylinder may not close or rotate. So although revolvers are not subject to single round feeding or ejection problems, other things can go wrong. But using quality ammunition, manipulating the revolver correctly and keeping it cleaned and lubed will help to prevent these malfunctions.
Even though the revolver design is old, revolvers are still effective self-defense firearms and are carried by many people. But knowing how to run them and then practicing is important.
A former Contributing and Field Editor for Guns & Ammo magazine, Doug Larson’s articles have appeared in many top firearm publications. He has completed hundreds of hours of firearm and self-defense training provided by some of the finest world class gun fighting instructors and schools. He has experience with handguns, rifles, shotguns, submachine guns, machine guns, and other crew served weapons.