There’s really no doubt. When it comes to sidearms, we are in the era of the semi-auto pistol. But the double-action revolver isn’t going away any time soon. Count on it. For many, there are considerations beyond high magazine capacity and rapid reloads. A wheelgun can still do everything you need it to do… and some things a semi-auto can’t.
But while many people still choose to carry revolvers, proper techniques for their use in defensive situations must be sharp. Shooters, for the most part, have never been trained on some of the wheelgun’s finer points. If you’re contemplating going “old school” and carrying a revolver, here are some of the basic considerations.
CHOOSE YOUR ACTION
Whether your revolver has a hammer spur, a bobbed hammer or a shrouded hammer, your defensive work with it should be done firing double action. The majority of gunfights occur quickly at extremely close range, and you don’t want to be fumbling for the hammer. Remember, too, that you will be held accountable for every round fired. Accidental discharges under stress are a greater possibility with a cocked hammer, because the single-action trigger pull on many revolvers is very light, and the trigger only has to travel a slight distance after your nervous, sweaty finger makes contact with it. Believe it or not, there are possible liability concerns about premeditation to shoot someone if you cock the gun first. A hammer spur can snag on clothing as you draw your gun. And having one just offers too much temptation to cock it when we shouldn’t. So, we never want one, right? Not so fast.
“No bad guy will laugh at the old-fashioned wheelgun you’re pointing at him.”
My personal preference is to keep the hammer spur and that single-action option. I spend much of my time outdoors. There’s a better chance outdoors of longer shots where a light, single-action trigger pull would be beneficial to accuracy.
In my early days as a police officer, I carried a revolver and patrolled rural areas. We trained by firing double action out to about 50 yards, where we switched to single-action. Agencies rarely train at those distances today, but we had no authorized patrol rifles available to us at the time. I’d rather not give up one of the revolver’s key advantages in versatility. When I’m afield, even a revolver bought primarily for defense might have to be used for hunting in a pinch or to drop a rabid animal before it gets too close. I want to shoot single-action in those instances. But for defense, I’ll be shooting double-action, and most of my training time will be that way.
RELOADING MADE EASY
With practice, reloading a revolver is not as slow as some would have you believe. While some trainings have updated the techniques, I still find the old system to be the best.
First, you want to get the empties out of the gun; this, literally, can be a sticky situation, because the shell casings can expand, especially with magnum loads, and may need some help finding their way out of the chambers.
Hit the cylinder latch with your right thumb as you push the cylinder open with the fingers of the left hand. The middle and ring fingers of your left hand will go through the frame to hold the cylinder, which will also be stabilized by the thumb from the other side. Invert the gun, raise it above shoulder level, then sharply thrust the gun downward as you punch the ejector rod with your left thumb. Now, hold the gun, muzzle down, at belt-level to reload it. You can choose to reload using speedloaders, loading strips or from ammo loops on your belt. Each has advantages, so I normally carry spare ammo using a couple of them.
Don’t keep your spare ammo loose in a pocket. I have a Smith & Wesson Performance Center Eight-Shot Model 627 that can accept cartridges held together in full-moon clips. The trick is to find the brand of ammo that the clips can hold securely with the least flopping. Speedloaders, such as those from HKS and Safariland, are the fastest way to reload most other revolvers, but if you’re not careful, there’s always the chance under stress of dumping all of the rounds on the ground as they’re released from the loader. Speedloaders, because of their shape, aren’t as compact to carry.
Loading strips, such as Bianchi Speed Strips or Tuff Products Quick Strips, hold the rims of your cartridges all in a row so that they ride more easily in a pocket. They’re convenient, but not as fast, because you load cartridges two at a time. Ammo loops might seem archaic, but they offer an easy way to organize ammo for different purposes. In the loops of my ammo carrier, you might find two shotshells and four light handloads for small game and pests and six full-power factory loads if the situation turns serious. Normally, loading from the loops is also done two rounds at a time.
Whichever reloading device you use, the thumb of your left hand holds the cylinder steady and uses the cylinder flutes as a guide to rotate the cylinder and index it properly so you can reload with looking down at the gun. Remember, you should be reloading from cover with your eyes on the threat. If you have loading strips or ammo loops, you can use them to top off your cylinder. If there is a lull in the action, extract the rounds slightly and just pluck the spent casings from the cylinder. You have to know which way your cylinder rotates to do this. The cylinder on a Colt or Charter Arms revolver rotates clockwise; on a Smith & Wesson or Ruger, it turns counter-clockwise.
WHO TURNED OFF THE LIGHTS?
Statistically, more shootings happen at night. Not as many companies offer aftermarket night sights for revolvers. However, night sights or not, a flashlight is strongly recommended for positively identifying your target. Standard iron sights really stand out, silhouetted black, giving you an excellent sight picture when your flashlight brightly lights the target. Flashlight techniques used with semi-autos can be used with the revolver. Also, some Smith & Wesson revolvers are available with a rail for attaching a light. These make excellent guns for home defense. If you are training to use the flutes to index the cylinder during reloads while keeping your eyes on the threat, reloading in the dark shouldn’t be an issue. In the police academy, looking down at the gun during reloads normally resulted in the range officer subjecting you to many, many pushups and an “invigorating” run.
An effective defensive revolver cartridge is the .357 Magnum. Its major drawbacks are recoil and muzzle flash. Some ammo manufacturers are producing loads that purport to lessen the fireworks display, and that’s a good thing.
But in the days before night sights and onboard flashlights, we learned to use muzzle flash to our advantage. In low-light training simulating an exchange of gunfire at close range, we found that the muzzle flash could give us a flash view of the target, allowing for quick adjustments as we took the next shot to stay on center mass.
Reliability is one of the revolver’s strengths. I know. Semi-autos are more reliable than ever before, but any gun, even a revolver, can be subject to mechanical failure. The fact remains, however, that a semi-auto is still dependent on using recoil to function properly. Absorb enough of that recoil, and the semi-auto can jam. I’ve had several semi-autos that have never jammed when firing them from a good steady shooting stance. But loosen that wrist or bend that elbow as you’re shooting one handed and diving for cover, and a malfunction is more likely, especially if something rubs against gun and slows down the slide’s motion.
“ … a semi-auto is still dependent on using recoil to function properly. Absorb enough of that recoil, and the semi-auto can jam.”
A misfire with a semi-auto requires the tap-rack-ready drill to get a new round in the chamber ready to fire. If semi-autos never had malfunctions, agencies wouldn’t spend so much time practicing this drill. With a revolver, if the firing pin hits a bad primer, you have only to pull the trigger again to get to a fresh round in a new chamber.
If something gets wedged between the frame and cylinder, a revolver can jam. In that event, you might have to strike the cylinder against a solid object while working the latch to open the cylinder and clear away the obstruction.
Regardless of the defensive handgun, my preferred method of carry is with an in-the-waistband holster, strong side. For me, it offers the best balance of concealability, security and quick access. At times when I stick a snubnose revolver in a jacket pocket, I still use a pocket holster to help keep the gun oriented properly and to keep lint out of the action.
“ … the double-action revolver isn’t going away any time soon. Count on it.”
Because I prefer a gun with a spur hammer, when drawing from a pocket, I’ll place my thumb lightly over the hammer to ensure the spur doesn’t snag on anything. As the gun clears the clothing and is thrust into shooting position, I’ll move the thumb down for a secure grip. I don’t find this motion much different than swiping a thumb safety as you’re bringing a semi-auto into action.
IS YOUR WAY BETTER?
There are techniques that vary from those I’ve mentioned. Pick a proven technique, and stick with it. Consistency in training is key. With a quality revolver and proper training, you are well-armed.
No bad guy will laugh at the old-fashioned wheelgun you’re pointing at him.
Not finicky eaters
They’ll digest most ammo of correct caliber, heavy or light, with no malfunctions.
Muscles not required
They’re easy to use for those who might have trouble racking the slide on a semi-auto.
There’s no dropping a magazine and forgetting you left one in the chamber.
The same revolver can be used for hunting small game and large, as well as defense, depending on the ammo used. Also, a .357 Magnum will fire .38 Special; a .44 Magnum will fire .44 Special; and a .454 Casull will fire .45 Colt.
Revolvers don’t spit empty brass everywhere—not down your shirt, not behind your glasses. There are no empties to pick up later.
If a cartridge misfires, you simply pull the trigger again to fire a fresh round in the next chamber.
If your revolver has an exposed hammer, you have the option of a long, smooth, double-action trigger pull for defense or a light, single-action pull when the hammer is cocked for more accurate long-range shots.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the August 2016 print issue of Gun World Magazine.