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Deacon’s Bully Pulpit #3 Wheel Guns

~July 2nd, 2012

Why a Wheelgun might be for you!

While the .45 Auto is our “signature” handgun, realize that in our time frame the revolver ruled the police and civilian markets still. Why? Reliability. “Six for Sure” was a real motto and was devoutly followed by many.

During the Great War autos became popular but only one, the 1911, had the reputation as a bet your life gun. Webleys, Colts and Smith and Wesson revolvers were still the standard that all other handguns were measured against for real fighting. Many police departments would not allow ANY automatic pistols even through the 1970s because of the reliability issue. It would not be until the 1980s when autos designed to work reliably with the then modern jacketed hollowpoint ammo that became available that the revolver was replaced. So for our sport, the wheel gun should be considered as your gun for several reasons and styles.

Okay, quick definition time here: Single Action revolvers have a trigger that performs just one action, releasing the trigger. You have to manually cock the hammer for the gun to fire. This was the first type of repeating revolver and was the dominant style up til the 1890s. The old cowboy guns are good examples of this type. Next is the Double Action revolver, here the trigger can perform two actions. You can still cock the hammer manually for an easier trigger pull for more accurate shots, or just pull the trigger all the way through, thereby cocking the hammer, then releasing it to shoot. This is faster, but generally not quite as accurate.

Nickel plated guns were popular because they were easier to maintain and more resistant to corrosion. If you get one today, do NOT use an ammonia based cleaner on it, as it will attack the finish

1. What’s your poison? Do you love the old cowboy style guns like the Duke and Gabby carried? Modern replicas are available, and these guns were carried by many [and were built by Colt until the start of WW2], so they are period correct. However, the loading gate style is slow to load or reload, so be prepared. But, they are classy and loads of fun.

The next style of revolver is called the Top Break, because the frame of the gun is hinged and when you work the release, the gun breaks open, ejecting all it’s shells at once. It is much faster to reload than the one at a time of the loading gate guns and many excellent revolvers are still easily found [including current reproductions of the S&W Schofield]. Then came the swing out cylinders, this is almost as fast as the top break, but can handle far more powerful cartridges. This is what you will most commonly see today, and were the dominant guns of our era.

2. Size. There are everything from tiny .32s to .45 Colts in our guns. They can range from small pocket revolvers to full size guns that need a good holster and Sam Browne belt to be comfortable. You will find a balancing act here that works in our favor, as it takes a larger and heavier gun to handle the more powerful rounds. Also, grip size is easily adjusted by adding a grip adapter or changing the grips entirely on most revolvers.

3. Sights. Only a small percentage of revolvers had target sights. Those are very nice and easier to shoot accurately, they also allow you to tailor your gun to a favorite load. But most of our older revolvers will have fixed sights. And this is a good thing! Big, bold and easily seen, they don’t get knocked out of alignment and on most revolvers are much better than on most autos of our era.

4. Ammo reliability is not an issue. If a round misfires, you pull the trigger again and voila, a fresh round is in place! And our most commonly used round, the .38 Special, is a peach to shoot. Mild mannered, accurate, with mild recoil and cheap to shoot, it should be near the top of anyone’s list of favorites. And should you want to have some real fun speedloading, get a Colt or Smith& Wesson 1917 in .45 ACP with half or full moon clips!

Now if you like revolvers, when shopping here are some things to look for. Stick with common calibers. .38 Special, .45 ACP, and .357 Magnum are common everywhere [the .357 in our time was only in three guns, the .357 Magnum from S&W and the Peacemaker and New Service by Colt], .32 S&W, .32-20, .38-40, .38 S&W, 7.62 Nagant, .44-40, .44 Special and .45 Colt are gun shop stock and anything else is gonna be a pain. The makers to look for are Colt, Smith & Wesson, Webley, Enfield, Harrington & Richardson, Iver Johnson, Remington and Merwin & Hulbert. The first two will be the most expensive, but there is a good reason for this, as they were the best. This is not a slam on other nation’s builders, but there is no arguing that Colt and S&W produced the finest revolvers in the world at this time. For us today, these two are still the best for us, as if you do need it worked on, most gunsmiths can handle the S&Ws, and there are still many who work on Colts. The rest of the makers will require hunting up a ‘smith if you need them worked on. However, because they were the best, most of these guns found today are still in excellent to very good shape mechanically. The examples we would use in ZS in .38 Special can be found for under $300 still and will amaze you with how accurate and smooth they are. I have a pair of S&W .38s, one from 1906 and the other from 1927, that will still outshoot most of the modern plastic tacticool pistols I see on the range today.

A pair of guns introduced in World War One are also excellent candidates for shooting. These are the Model 1917s, made by Colt and Smith & Wesson because we did not have enough 1911s for our troops when WW1 started. S&W came up with the idea of using a half moon clip that would hold the rimless .45 ACP round and allow the ejector to work with this round. These guns will also work with the .45 Auto Rim that Remington designed post war, that does not need the moon clips. The half moons hold 3 rounds and the moon clip holds 6, making for very easy and quick reloads. These are large frame guns that really soak up the recoil. Still in use today in current S&W revolvers, these can be unbelievably fast. Hunt up Jerry Miculek setting his world records using this modern combination.

Of the other revolver makers, Webley and Enfield were English builders that produced mainly military guns. The Webleys are excellent, but ammo is strictly a gunshop proposition at best and expect to probably have to find and order it online. The Enfields are good guns but not as well finished as the Webleys. Neither will have the smoothness of the Colts or S&Ws however.

Iver Johnson was another US maker, and they produced a ton of top break revolvers during our time. They were not as well finished as the Cots or Smith & Wessons, but were much less expensive and good, solid guns. If you find one in .32 or .38 and it is still tight, it will serve well.

One other wheelgun you will find cheaply is the Russian Nagant, a clever design that actually seals the case when firing to give more velocity, it has a mild recoiling round, but is a loading gate design. It was produced under the Czars, then the Communists and some are very well finished, while others display very rough workmanship. This can lead to trigger pulls ranging from quite good to horrible. The guns are surplus and cheap to buy, ammo is cheap when you can find it right now, but most stocks of ammo seem to be drying up quickly. If you find a decent one, there are replacement cylinders being made that will shoot .32 ammo, so definitely get one of those cylinders.

Okay, Single Action fans, don’t despair. If you love the “Cowboy” or “Western” look, and the way that those guns handle, they were commonly used up through the 1940s. Powerful, smooth handling and utterly reliable, they were formidable fighting guns. Aside from the elegance of them, they are easy to shoot well, but slow to reload, as they use a loading gate. So use 2 guns! There are a ton of replicas still being made today due to the popularity of Cowboys Action Shooting and you can often get a good deal on someone’s trade in. Grab one in .357 and shoot .38 Specials in it for a mild recoiling gun and load.

Accessories? For the Colts and S&Ws, they are still everywhere. Belt loops and dump pouches will be what you need to handle your ammo, unless you are using a 1917 and then reproduction pouches are available or just do like I do and chuck the moon clips in a magazine pouch for a rifle. Vintage and reproduction holsters and Sam Browne belts are everywhere for these guns, from yard sales, to gun shows and even good old fleabay.

3 Responses to “Deacon’s Bully Pulpit #3 Wheel Guns”

  1. Excellent post, many used revolvers are available at reasonable prices, especially in 38 Special. I too really like the Model 1917 revolvers. I find the S&W 1917 easier to shoot than the larger Colt 1917, but the intrinsic accuracy is about the same.

  2. Dwayne Dees says:

    Just to add a little for those on tighter budgets, Armscor is making a replica of the Colt Detective snub nosed .38 (M206) and a 4″ that looks like a Police Positive with a shrouded ejector rod and ramped front sight (M200). Although the 4″ comes with rubber grips, it wouldn’t be a big deal to pick up a set of wooden ones and swap them out, especially since they are both in the $230 range and in the affordable .38 special. The M206/Detective model has wood grips already that look pretty decent, so you might look at these if you want an inexpensive secondary shooter or loaner for new members.

  3. The Deacon says:

    And the Armscor revolvers are generally receiving good reviews. For those who like the looks of a Colt over a S&W, this would be a very good option.

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