Single-Action Revolvers: Not Quite Obsolete
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Introduction: The End
In 1941, the single-action revolver died forever.
This was the year Colt's Manufacturing ceased production of the Single Action Army, also known as the Colt Model P or, more famously, as the Peacemaker. Whatever one chose to call it, this single-action revolver represented the archetype of the "cowboy gun" both in popular conception and popular adoption: Over 370,000 were manufactured by the time wartime ramp-up of 1911 production forced Colt to move the machinery used to make Peacemakers to a parking lot, where exposure to the elements reduced it to scrap. Sixty-seven years of the single-action revolver (closer to 110 if you count black-powder revolvers) thus came to an ignominious end in a pile of rusted junk.
Some might say it was only appropriate: By that point, the single-action revolving pistol had been joined by the double-action revolver and both single- and double-action semi-autos. In the face of swing-out cylinders, high-capacity magazines, and fast-shooting actions, the single-action revolver was clearly antiquated, outdated, and every bit as much a lost cause as the decaying heaps of machinery outside Colt's factory. Progress had marched on, and it was time for the single-action revolver to join the flintlock, percussion pistol, pinfire ammunition, and even Borchardt-style toggle-lock semi-automatic actions. It would take its overdue place in the annals of outdated technology, there to rest forever.
Fit only for hunting the dodo.
Twelve years later, forever was prematurely canceled and the single-action returned.
Colt's, however, weren't the ones responsible for bringing back the single-action revolver; they had publicly declared they would make no more Peacemakers, and as history shows us, Colt's Manufacturing has a firm policy of sticking to their guns, market forced be damned. But market forces would neither be damned nor dammed: The emergence of the western in cinema and in broadcast form on those newfangled "televisions" spurred public interest in cowboy guns and demand for modern replicas. This demand went unmet by Colt, but not by a man named Bill Ruger.
In 1953, Ruger introduced the 22-caliber Single-Six revolver based off his patented improvements to the single-action design. Instead of using flat (aka "leaf") springs, which were famous for becoming work-hardened and breaking, the new design used coil and post springs for all major components, along with a more robust and easily-tuned timing and lockup mechanism. Later, these improvements would be augmented with a loading gate, which prevented the gun from being fired out of alignment, and a transfer-bar hammer safety permitting the gun to be safely carried with the hammer down over a live round. These changes fixed the primary flaws in the Colt design: a potentially dangerous loading procedure, short mean time between failures, and the inability to safely load the gun to full capacity.
Around the same time as Ruger came out with the Single-Six, a company called Great Western started offering Colt replicas in classic centerfire calibers, but they would eventually go out of business. Ruger's single-actions only grew in popularity with the introduction of the Blackhawk, a scaled-up version of the Single-Six in the modern caliber of .357 Magnum. In 1956, Ruger even beat Smith & Wesson to market with the first .44 Magnum handgun by putting a .44 Magnum version of the Blackhawk on shelves before S&W's Model 29 even shipped. (This was quite a coup, inasmuch as S&W and Remington developed the round in what was supposed to be secrecy.)
In the time since the 1950s, more companies have jumped on the single-action bandwagon, some offering replicas of classic single-actions, others introducing variations on the Ruger design. The renaissance in reproduction revolvers may be laid largely at the feet of Cowboy-Action Shooting. (While some may deride the sport as a Renaissance Fair with firearms, I grant it more respect than the SCA: There's an upper limit to how fast Sir Gladyvayne Dragonne-Slayerre, Knyghte of the Kinge's Legiones can waddle in pursuit of his tormentor while flailing a blunt pole-arm, but Deadye Dan the Sedentary Cowpoke has bullets.) Cowboy shooting aside, there are quite a few companies manufacturing modernized single-actions: Ruger was the first and is still the largest, but Freedom Arms and Magnum Research both do good business selling modern single-action revolvers, as do numerous boutique manufacturers. Single-actions are still selling--but why?
It's a puzzling question. Single-action cartridge revolvers are the oldest handgun design that does not actually require stuffing powder and lead balls into the gun preparatory to using it. As a weapon for defense against human beings, they were obsolete before the 20th century had even dawned, made so by S&W's Military and Police double-action revolver (called the Model 10 in its updated form). Given that a double-action revolver will do everything a single-action does and many subsequent designs do things the single-action cannot, why would anyone choose an archaic design?
The answer, of course, is for the very fact that it is an archaic design. This is not a disingenuous answer, for many of the features of single-action revolvers that betray their age also provide noteworthy advantages. Clearly, there are disadvantages to 19th-century designs, but the disadvantages should be considered in the context of the platform as a whole, not treated as just cause for dismissing a viable handgun as useless. Not everything that's old is obsolete, and single-action revolvers exemplify this principle.
Here's how they do it.
Revolver design is faced with a tricky conundrum: strength versus reloadability. On one hand, the ability to shuck and reload an entire cylinder at a time is a boon to speed; on the other hand, designing a gun that doesn't come apart when fired isn't made any easier by simultaneously requiring that it should come apart for reloading. Top-break revolvers ran directly into this problem by placing the latch in the exact location where the frame sustains the most pressure during firing. S&W's swing-out cylinder design solved the frame strength problem while providing all the reload speed of the top-breaks, but this new design was not without issues of its own. The swing-out crane introduces the possibility of lateral chamber misalignment if not locked firmly in place during firing. S&W revolvers typically lock at the rear and bottom of the cylinder, although some early .44 Special "Triple-Lock" models also secured the cylinder at the top of the crane. Placing a ball detent in that same location is still a popular modification for those wishing to enhance accuracy and extend the service life of guns shooting hot rounds. Some double-action revolvers designed for powerful cartridges feature a manual latch on the crane; examples of these include Dan Wesson revolvers and Taurus' Raging Bull line.
Double-action revolver designers spend a lot of time ensuring that swing-out cylinders stay put; single-action revolver designers go have a beer because their job is already done. Single-action cylinders rotate around the base pin, a cylinder of steel that passes through both front and rear of a solid frame and is locked in place by a latch or screw. The base pin must be removed in order to budge the cylinder from its place in the frame. This level of solidity is a step down from a locking bolt, but head and shoulders above every other repeating mechanism. (Another nice bonus is that if a bullet jumps crimp to the point that it locks up the cylinder, it's easy to remove the cylinder and offending cartridges.)
I've been tossing around the term "single-action" pretty loosely; in the above paragraph it's used as a synonym for guns made in the style of the Colt Single Action Army, even though it could just as well be applied to the S&W top-breaks or the black-powder arbor and wedge pin designs immediately preceding the SAA. The syntactic sloppiness is due to the fact that the SAA-style base pin lockup mechanism took 19th-century handgun technology by storm and continues to dominate the state of the art for single-action revolvers, largely due to its strength. When the Peacemaker was introduced in 1873, its inaugural .45 Colt chambering was an immensely powerful round, pushing out a 250-grain bullet at over 900 feet per second. Not since the massive Walker Colt black powder revolver had a round this powerful been chambered in a handgun, especially one so compact: The Walker, designed to be used from horseback, weighed 80 ounces and measured 16 inches long, but the new SAA weighed in at roughly half that with three inches less overall length. This was an astonishingly strong gun for its weight, especially considering that the original SAA frames were originally made of relatively soft wrought iron. The SAA was strong enough to chamber rifle rounds of the time, and models were chambered in .32-20, .44-40 (the ballistic equivalent to a hot, light .45 ACP and wildly popular in those days), and .38-40. The last round is worthy of mention all its own. Despite the ".38" in its name, the .38-40 cartridge used a 40-caliber round and was loaded to almost identical ballistics as the modern .40 S&W; in fact, it's possible to fit a 10mm conversion cylinder to a single-action revolver chambered in .38-40. When implemented with modern metallurgy in bulked-up designs (a la Ruger and Freedom Arms), the single-action design results in a strength:size ratio unmatched by any other repeating handgun.
There's one more advantage to be found in the base pin design, and that's accuracy. Although variations between manufacturers and guns blur the distinction, single-action revolvers often have an accuracy advantage over double-actions. This has nothing to do with the fact that all single-actions are shot exclusively in single-action, but with the consistent lateral cylinder support provided by the base pin.
Everything has a price, of course, and with this nice, solid base pin comes the requirement of loading and unloading each round one at a time. Although the ejector housing adds an attractive asymmetry to the design of the gun, it's slow. Even at the time of its introduction, reloading the Colt SAA took longer than S&W's top-break revolvers, which had already been on the market five years. People in the last quarter of the 19th century were more practical than tactical, though, and chose durability and shootability over the less-likely eventuality of having to perform a quick reload.
Durability wasn't the only selling point for Colt's single-action; ergonomics also played a role.
The grip shape of Colt's single-action revolvers is one of their most distinctive aspects. To the modern eye, it screams, "cowboy gun." To the modern hand accustomed to straight-grip semi-autos, it feels a little strange and awkward. Legend has it that the grip shape was chosen because it was similar to a plow handle and would therefore feel natural to the average man in those days; however, the muzzle-loading single-shot pistols that preceded Colt's revolvers were built with similarly rounded grips, so it could just be an evolution of contemporary designs. Either way, many find single-action grip too small and hard to hold very firmly.
This is exactly as it should be.
Semi-autos are rewarded for filling out the grip both vertically and horizontally with high magazine capacity. Double-action revolvers have to provide full hand support and a bump at the top in order to provide a stable platform for the heavy double-action pull. Single-action revolver grips don't need to be large because they don't hold ammo and the trigger pull is light. They also don't need support at the top or a shape conducive to an iron grip because they are supposed to roll back in the hand under recoil. Revolvers can't avoid the fact that the bore sits well above the hand, but single-actions literally leverage that fact to increase the firing speed of the gun and reduce felt recoil. Upon firing, the gun pivots around the two fingers on the front of the grip while the backstrap, rounded as it is, slides down the palm. Control is maintained, but the recoil fights the heavy barrel and mechanically advantageous leverage point instead of the bones and tissues of one's hand. When all this is done, the gun perches at an awkward angle in the hand; however, the hammer, which needs to be cocked again anyway, sits neatly in reach of the thumb. Recocking and readjusting one's grip occur simultaneously. The grip shape may feel awkward to some, but it's perfectly suited for its platform. (This is another reason S&W's top-break single-actions never took off: Cocking the hammer single-handed was just too awkward for most.)
Although perceived recoil is incredibly subjective, most find that the rolling motion of single-action grips alleviates a great deal of felt recoil. Speaking from personal experience, I will not choose anything but a single-action revolver for major magnum calibers. Shooting factory .44 Magnum ammunition out of a S&W 629 with a four inch barrel stings to the point that I can't shoot an entire cylinder without pausing; it's bearable from the same model with a six inch barrel, but working through an entire box is still a chore. Out of a Ruger Super Blackhawk with a 5.5 inch barrel, the exact same load is fun and easy to shoot and my only limitation on round count is how much ammo I have on hand instead of how much ammo I can handle.
Your experience may vary, of course, but I was pleasantly surprised at what a difference just the shape of the grips made. The strength of the single-action design makes it possible to shoot ridiculously powerful supermagnum calibers out of guns far lighter than S&W's X-frame revolvers, but the grip shape makes it possible to use your hand afterward.
The Tactical Single-Action Revolver
This is a joke, of course, because single-action revolvers are not the best choice for self-defense against humans. That's not the same as saying that they're not suited for that purpose, just that there are better alternatives. S&W double-action revolvers with swing-out cylinders neatly solve all the defensive disadvantages of the single-action revolver, and magazine-fed semi-automatic handguns enhance reload speed and rate of fire even further. Given that single-actions don't start displaying definite advantages over double-action revolvers until one enters the realm of rounds far too powerful for use against humans, why would anyone want to own one?
Short of nostalgia, there are still a couple reasons the single-action revolver isn't dead. As mentioned above, single-actions aren't ideal for defense against humans, but they will suffice. The human factor dominates almost all technical considerations. Where single-actions really offer an advantage over their double-action brethren, though, is their fitness for carry in the wilderness. Here, the slight edge in durability starts to become more pronounced, especially for one who has a tendency to spend his time tumbling down rocky hillsides, bouncing off trees, and fetching up in a stone-lined glacial runoff stream. Additionally, the recoil-soothing attributes of the single-action grip makes it less painful to practice with loads capable of ensuring that a bear is very angry by the time it starts to eat you.
The viability of handguns for defense against wildlife is dubious at best; without proper shot placement, even the most massive handcannon is insufficient. This is where the accuracy of single-action shooting backed by plenty of practice offers an advantage. While it is possible for one to choose to cock the hammer of a double-action revolver in the face of a charging grizzly, it's not as easy to do (mentally or physically) when there is a faster, albeit less accurate, alternative. For those who suffer no accuracy impairment from shooting in double-action mode, this isn't a consideration; for the rest of us, though, it's another point in favor of the single-action revolver.
Finally, there's rate of fire. Taking our hypothetical handgunner capable of single-action accuracy while shooting double-action and amending him to include the ability to maintain this level of accuracy while shooting as fast as he can pull the trigger, he still needs to deal with recoil. (If we also assume that he recovers from .44 Magnum recoil like shooting a .22, then we might as well suppose he can beat up a grizzly bare-handed and the question of his gun choice becomes irrelevant.) Most people's rate of fire is limited by recoil, especially so when shooting powerful calibers. Given that single-action revolvers are recocked during recoil recovery, their rate-of-fire limitations become smaller and smaller as recoil goes up.
Single-action revolvers are enjoying a renaissance fueled in equal parts by cowboy action shooters and people who enjoy creating ludicrously powerful handgun rounds. In a sense, the single-action revolver today is split into the past and the future, as one can buy a replica of a design first produced over a century ago from the same store that offers an updated version of the exact same design chambered for the most recent development in projectile technology.
For all the discussion about the history, technology, advantages, and disadvantages of the single-action revolver, I've neglected to mention one minor attribute: They're fun. Some of the most enjoyable shooting I've done has involved a Ruger Single-Six, a box of .22 Magnum ammo, and several unlucky cans at the base of the 25-yard berm. The aesthetics and ergonomics of single-action revolvers are unique and wonderful, ranging from elegant historical reproductions to heavy modern chunks of stainless steel capable of containing rifle-like pressure. Loading and unloading is slow, but the process is not unenjoyable and the time taken makes each carefully-placed shot special. Magdumps and full-auto may hold some appeal, but single-actions remind one of the significance of sending a chunk of lead downrange.
I wrote this article because my own research into single-action revolvers revealed to me an entirely overlooked category of firearms. Like many others, I eschewed single-actions without serious consideration of pros and cons, dismissing them as obsolete without stopping to ask if they actually were. Over time I've come to realize the extent to which I was wrong, as well as the degree to which my offhand assessment is correct. But being right without any reason is just luck; better to have the facts, even if they don't change your opinion. Whether you love, hate, or just don't care about single-action revolvers, I wanted to share the pros, cons, and history of these amazing guns in the interests of informing some opinions or, just maybe, changing one or two.
Opinions and technologies change with the times, but the single-action revolver remains in both classic and modernized forms. Although it has been joined by newer technologies, it has been supplanted by none. It's relevance may be dimmed and applicability limited, but the single-action revolver endures.
© 2007 C. Kaukl - All
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