In late 1972, I was on leave and hitchhiking home. Not many troops wore uniforms in public in those days, but I was in Class As, with spit-shined jump boots, ‘cuz Dad was a retired Airborne Command Sergeant Major and asked me to.
As I passed a small gun store, The Force made me stop and go in. The owner had just put out three S&W N-Frame Model 29 .44 Magnum revolvers, which were really hard to get right after Dirty Harry. The short story is that since I was a soldier, he held it until I could wheedle a loan out of Dad. The price was $425 (list was $273), which was close to two months’ pay. Best money I ever spent, and I still have that gun.
REVOLVERS ON DUTY: THEN AND NOW
I was teaching a handgun instructor course last year for a state POST. After the usual orientations and introductions, I asked how many of the officers had carried or trained with a revolver. It was an epiphany when I found that none of them had.
Like most former policemen of a certain vintage, I started with a revolver. My first duty gun was a six-inch S&W Model 28. The duty revolver for the Alaska State Troopers was an S&W Model 19, and later a model 686.
Each was a good gun, though the Model 19 K-Frame was too light a frame for a steady diet of magnum ammunition. The heavier 686, an L-Frame, stood up better. Over the years, I’ve owned many available revolvers, from .22s to a .454 Casull and a .500 Linebaugh. I even owned a Webley-Fosbery .455 Automatic Revolver.
The revolver became the king of personal defense in the 1840s. Colt came out with one of the first marketable, fairly reliable revolvers with the Paterson model. Colt got a huge shot in the arm when the Texas Rangers asked for a larger, heavier revolver for mounted warfare against Comanches and Mexican bandits—the Walker Colt.
The 1861 to 1865 difficulty between the Union and the Confederacy led to revolver development and use by a dozen different makers, some of which are still in business.
I’ve carried a revolver both on and off duty, and often carry one today. If I could own only one handgun, it might well be that first .44 revolver. My friend and fellow martialist Clint Smith often carries a wheelgun as he cruises Thunder Ranch—lots of cougars there.
Revolvers are not “black” guns, holding at most nine rounds but usually five or six, so they are below the radar in most anti-gun locations.
ACTION TYPES AND COCKING
Revolvers are normally divided into two action types: single-action (technically thumb cocking) and double-action (trigger cocking). I worked with a trooper in Alaska, a Texan, who carried a Colt Single-Action Army in .44 Special when not in uniform. However, double-action revolvers have been the preferred defensive type since the late 1800s and I’ll focus primarily on them.
Two schools of thought exist on trigger cocking vs. thumb cocking. I tend to thumb cock when shooting a heavy load at distance, and trigger cock with lighter loads when using it defensively.
When trigger cocking, I place the trigger in the “power crease,” in the first joint of the trigger finger. When thumb cocking, the trigger is on the pad of the finger. Some prefer to shoot in either mode by placing the pad on the trigger. I pull the trigger straight to the rear and avoid “staging,” which is partially cocking the gun by pulling the trigger, pausing, then finishing the press.
There are arguments for and against everything said above, but you’ll have to train and practice to see what works for you. I have two S&W revolvers with bobbed hammers, which precludes easily thumb cocking.
One advantage of revolvers is the variety of heavy cartridges available. I think of the .357 Magnum as a medium caliber, but last I heard it had more confirmed one-shot stops than any other pistol caliber.
In heavier calibers, revolvers go from .41 Magnum through .45 Colt and .44 Magnum into several .50-caliber cartridges. S&W and Rossi build revolvers that shoot both the .45 Colt and .410 shotgun shells, and revolvers come in 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP for ease of logistics.
Another plus to revolvers is reliability. Although rare, a stoppage with a revolver can result in a true jam rather than a malfunction that can be remedied with an immediate action drill.
One stoppage I’ve experienced is a high primer, where the primer backs out of the primer pocket and binds against the recoil shield at the rear. The solution is to push the cylinder release latch and smack the hell out of the off-side of the cylinder, which allows it to open.
Another problem, usually with reloaded ammo, is a light crimp on the bullet. In this case, the bullet may jump forward under recoil and not allow the cylinder to rotate. The only way to remedy it is to tap the offending bullet back into the case.
Finally is a failure to fire: fix it by pressing the trigger again.
As a hunting handgun, a revolver is hard to beat. For protection against bears, I habitually carried my .44 revolver any time I left the pavement in Alaska. In truth, it’s pretty optimistic to believe you can stop a charging brown bear with any handgun, but you can shoot your fishing buddy in the foot and run like hell while he distracts the bear.
I’ve killed bear, moose, caribou, deer, and one goat with the Model 29, but almost always had a guy with a rifle backing me up.
I have a lot of faith in the .44 Magnum as a defensive round. I responded to a shooting in a bar where the victim was hit in the hip with a single round—the damage was massive and death was immediate.
But the .44 is really loud, has a lot of recoil, and recovery time between shots is fairly long, so it’s not the best choice as a primary defensive caliber. All the calibers listed above are suitable for personal defense, along with the .38 Special and .357 Magnum if the load is carefully selected.
The barrel length should be carefully considered in selecting a defensive revolver and for a field gun. The Magnum calibers need some time in the barrel to come up to full velocity, and one revolver guru I know dismisses a two-inch .357 as “a really loud .38.”
Conversely, an 8 3/8-inch Model 29 might be a little difficult to carry and draw quickly. I usually shoot +P .38 Special loads in my two-, three- and four-inch revolvers and .357 Magnums in five- to six-inch guns.
As a good all-around length, four inches works. A two-inch can also work well—Jim Cirillo used one in many of his shootings as an NYPD detective. As a defensive round, my three favorite carry revolvers are an S&W Model 442, a hammerless .38 J-Frame, and a three-inch Model 65 K-Frame, loaded with Black Hills 100-grain Xtreme Defense .38 Special +P.
When out in the woods, I carry a five- or 6.5-inch Model 29 .44 Magnum loaded with Black Hills 240-grain JHPs. I generally stick to older pinned and recessed S&Ws. Pinned means a small pin runs through the frame into the barrel. Recessed means the charge holes in the cylinder are chamfered, so the base of the case is flush with the cylinder.
One disadvantage of revolvers is they take longer to reload, unless you’re Jerry Miculek. I can speedload a 1911 in about one second, but two to three seconds for a revolver. The reality, though, is that most of us will never have to do a speedload in civilian life other than in shooting matches.
The above-mentioned Det. Cirillo won a fight with two suspects while armed with a five-shot S&W M36 Snubby—he just shot well, so he didn’t need to reload. At one point, we went from 2.5 rounds fired (revolver days) per police shooting to 12.8 (high-cap auto-pistol days). Maybe coppers took a little more care aiming when they only had six tries to git ‘er done….
Revolvers are easy to tac load, just like with an auto-pistol. With a revolver, once a shot or two is fired, open the cylinder and push the ejector rod slightly to the rear. The fired case(s) can be plucked out with the thumb and index finger and a new round(s) can be loaded.
Rather than dumping a few rounds in your pocket, carry a QuickStrip from Tuff Products. This flat plastic strip holds five, six, or seven rounds and easily allows one or more rounds to be loaded when needed.
When all or most of the rounds in a conventional revolver have been shot, a speedload can be done with a speedloader—a plastic wheel that holds five or six rounds.
The two I am most familiar with are the HKS and the Safariland. Each works well but differently. The HKS drops the rounds into the charge holes by turning a knob on the top. The Safariland uses a release in the center of the circle that releases the rounds when a knob contacts the extractor star.
In my experience, the HKS is more rugged, but the Safariland is faster. Get one of each for your revolver, try them, and then buy several for that particular gun. I carry one speedloader and one QuickStrip when I carry a revolver.
To speedload, push the cylinder release latch forward and open the cylinder by pushing on the off side. Elevate the muzzle and punch the ejector rod, either with the thumb or by smacking it with the firing hand. All the rounds/cases are ejected. Draw the speedloader, align the rounds with the charge holes, insert slightly, and release. Close the cylinder with the support hand and get back to work.
Some shooters prefer to use the strong hand for the speedloader, others the weak hand. I’m trying to convert to weak hand for economy of motion and not changing my grip with my strong hand.
One answer, other than lots of practice with speedloaders, is to carry a revolver that uses moon clips. These flat spring-steel clips hold two, three, six or more rounds, all of which go into the cylinder at once.
The design came about to allow .45 ACP rounds to be carried in military service revolvers, like the S&W and Colt Model 1917. S&W later built commercial guns like the 1955 Target, or Model 25, that used moon clips. The really good news is that moon-clip revolvers are still being made, and there is one for most modern calibers.
I contacted S&W while at the SHOT Show and arranged three test guns. I was able to get a 9mm moon-clip piece, the Model 929, and a Thunder Ranch Special in .45 ACP. I was also able to get “The Governor,” which shoots .410 shotgun and .45 Colt rounds.
The Governor is an interesting concept, especially for preppers and avid outdoorsmen. The Winchester .410 birdshot load showed good coverage out to eight to 10 yards, meaning it should kill small game easily within that envelope. Winchester also kindly sent me some .410 buckshot loads, which deliver twice the energy of a .45 ACP, so should put the hurt on a goblin when used in defensive mode.
The .45 Colt comes in several defensive loads, and a hot load approaches Magnum energy. I fired some Winchester PDX1 Defender defensive rounds from this pistol, which was very manageable. I was able to put ten rounds into the head of an IPSC target at seven yards, both trigger-cocking and thumb-cocking the action. A well-constructed 225-grain bullet at 850fps should discourage man or beast.
The Thunder Ranch .45 ACP revolver was everything you’d expect from a gun with Clint Smith’s name on it, as was the 9mm Jerry Miculek signature model, both from the S&W Performance Center. Both guns were very smooth, accurate, had nice triggers in either cocking mode, and were easy to shoot. The TR model even sports a light rail, which can come in handy on the farm or in the city.
THE REVOLVER MAN
Properly trained and equipped, the revolver man is at no disadvantage in a pistol fight. I believe strongly that you aren’t a gun guy unless you can run and shoot a revolver. Each third-degree black belt (sandan) in my system has to come back and pass the first dan test with a revolver before he can continue.
Finding quality revolver training can be a little difficult. I went to a revolver class at Thunder Ranch several years ago, and it was outstanding. But most training schools don’t have many instructors who speak revolver or can show you how to keep it shooting.
The answer is to find an Old Guy, a retired policeman or FBI agent who still speaks wheelgun, or go to Thunder Ranch to train with Clint, or take a 250 Pistol class at Gunsite.
Finding good used defensive revolvers isn’t too hard, but the prices have gone up. At a recent gun show, I found a nice, tight S&W Model 15 with four-inch barrel for $400. The action had been tuned by a master, was very smooth, and the hammer bobbed, so it was a double-action-only model. The cylinder locked up well. It shoots great and would be a good carry piece.
You’re not really a gun guy until you can shoot and run a revolver, since you may someday have to use one. Shop around and find a nice model 15, 19, 586, 686, or whatever appeals to you, and try it out.
Seek out quality training and add one more level to your defensive capabilities.
Jeff Hall is an Army veteran, retired Alaska State Trooper lieutenant, and NRA staff instructor. He also teaches for several state POST agencies. He is a martial arts grandmaster and founder of Hojutsu-Ryu, the martial art of shooting. He can be reached at [email protected].