Photos & Story
by R.K. Campbell
For over 100 years Smith & Wesson (S&W) and Colt have produced immensely popular revolvers. Other makers have joined them in this exclusive club. A number of revolvers exhibit excellent workmanship and quality materials. While there are certain vintage revolvers I use and respect, modern revolvers are the finest ever produced and get the nod for serious pursuits such as hunting and self-defense.
Modern guns better than the Triple Lock or the Five Screw? While that is a bold statement in the light of the respect we give old paragons, I think an honest appraisal shows it to be true that modern revolvers perform better overall than anything previously made anywhere. Another qualified statement may be made that it is erroneous to see the revolver as an ancillary arm to the autoloader.
The auto is first in combat and the revolver is placed in the category of backup or as a hunting firearm. This perception of a secondary position can be put to rest. When people speak of the disadvantages of the revolver, most are related to firepower. But revolvers also have advantages in civilian and police defense, most of them related to close-quarters combat.
As an example, I have on file reports of several incidents in which a victim was nearly overpowered but managed to thrust a revolver into the adversary's body and fire the gun repeatedly, ending the threat. In one case the deadly assault came from a bear! An autoloader would have failed to function in these cases.
I won't mire myself in the muck of a revolver versus autoloader contest. Since I own and use excellent examples of each, I would be foolish to do so. By the same token I can play devil's advocate on either side of the fence. Simply put, the advantages the revolver has over the autoloader are even more apparent in modern quality revolvers.
Revolvers have been refined considerably during the past generation. We have seen the introduction of numerous long-awaited and much appreciated models. Many improvements-some obvious and some subtle-have been offered. Among the news is the introduction of super powerful calibers such as the .500 S&W. I see the new revolver as a showboat, a NASCAR racer compared to the standard hot rod fare.
This is an exercise that shows what can be done, while most of us will holster the more ordinary but quite effective .44 Magnum. The development of modern handgun cartridges that nearly equal the .444 Marlin is now a reality. With all due respect to the Desert Eagle, this is revolver territory. As for the NASCAR reference, well, guns such as the 12-inch barrel Taurus M44 Magnum give the maker a chance to show off what they can do. But let's look at the how and why of modern revolvers and we will realize that some pretty ordinary models have a lot to show.
Gunmakers are a different breed than knife makers; seldom basing the viability of a product solely upon its metal content. Many are reluctant to discuss the metallurgy of the particular handgun. Just the same, modern steels are much better than anything found before in revolvers. The safety margin is better.
I don't want to give carte blanche to wild reloading practice, but we seldom see a modern handgun blown and twisted. Modern brass is stronger than ever, especially with Starline brass serving as a standard to which all aspire. You can still flatten a primer but we have more confidence in our brass and also in the handgun.
Some of the improvements include departures from the traditional in the form of sight construction. Smith & Wesson adjustable sights once mounted on a long thin shank that were once fairly easy to warp and difficult to fit cleanly to a target barrel. Today the sights are shorter, thicker and stronger, fitting into a much shorter depression in the top strap. Unlike the earlier designs, I have never seen one of these out of place or "sprung." The rear sight on my .44 Magnum Taurus has held up to many, many full-power loads without loosening.
The cylinder latch of double-action revolvers has long been in need of a redesign, at least on S&W and Charter types. These latches are fine when you are firing light loads in standard calibers. But go to a light frame revolver with heavy loads or a Magnum, and the cylinder latch will rap your thumb. In a bad case it will cut the knuckle.
Custom gunsmiths such as Don Williams of the Action Works perfected cutting and polishing the cylinder latch until it offered a much less obtrusive profile. Modern revolvers feature redesigned cylinder latches that are improvements over previous examples. Even the Taurus .44 Magnum does not cut my thumb, something to brag about, given my propensity toward Elmer Keith Memorial loads.
Then we come to the action, the heart of the gun. Modern revolvers have shorter hammer falls and shorter actions than ever. If you question whether this is a good thing and wonder if the older guns were better, consider this: during the 1930s D.W. King and Walter King (no relation) did custom modifications of revolvers, including sights and trigger action work. The primary work done on the actions was to shorten the hammer fall and make the double-action pull shorter.
In Colt conversions, the general work was so well accepted, Colt introduced a factory version of the King Custom revolver as the Colt Python. Smith & Wesson introduced short-action revolvers just after World War II. Just as modern semi-auto pistols have benefited from the works of custom pistolsmiths, revolvers benefited many years ago.
Heavy barrels and underlugs to protect the ejector
rod have also been added to modern production. In the area of
grips and grip frames, we are seeing the finest handling revolvers
ever. Sure, rubber doesn't have the looks of a finely turned piece
of wood, but these guns shoot like a house on fire!
A combination of the now widely accepted round butt grip frame and well-designed synthetic grips gives us a handgun with a lower bore axis. The high bore axis of the revolver is what makes for greater muzzle flip. The use of properly designed grips lowers the bore axis or the height of the bore centerline above the hand. This is done for the most part with the design of rubber grips, but some revolvers have altered the frame design. These changes alter the handling of the revolver, and all to the good.
The primogenitors of most modern revolver types were designed for use with .38 Special, .44 Special, .45 Colt, or other mild cartridges. In order to handle Magnums, the frames, barrels and lockwork have undergone some revolutions. Smith & Wesson has always had an advantage over Colt in that while the Colt can be smooth, the hand of the Colt stays locked to the cylinder during firing, resulting in more jolt and wear to the action.
But various programs have been instigated to make the Magnum revolvers less prone to breakage. Frankly, without these improvements the modern 280- to 320-grain .44 Magnum loads would never have been possible. The tightening and hardening may not be noticeable in viewing the gun, but these improvements are evident when the gun is put to hard use.
Small and light is the watchword for concealed carry handguns. But small and light can also mean more kick and jolt. A design change in small-frame revolvers has produced many benefits not only in snag-free operation, but in ease of firing.
Many modern revolvers feature a completely enclosed hammer. The geometrically designed hammer rides inside the frame and does not allow the revolver to snag when drawn. Smith & Wesson was once alone in the manufacture of quality revolvers of this type, but Taurus and Charter 2000 have entered this market with good designs featuring improved "humpback" grip frames.
The snag free benefits are obvious. However, this type of grip frame moves the hand higher than would be possible if a hammer were cycling, digging into the web of the hand. These revolvers recoil less than other guns of the similar size and caliber. They are winners in my book.
Then, we have the ultra lightweight titanium and scandium guns. Sure, they have a bite in the hand when fired, but no small auto could ever work and work this well with a titanium slide. Or could it? Time will tell, but for now revolvers are the only game in town in ultra-light protection. These revolvers clearly demand attention to detail to proper use, but they are light and handy, and have more horsepower for the ounce than any other handgun.
Most of these handguns, even the larger versions, have round butt grip frames. This is a modern improvement. A round butt gun can be fitted with square frame grips with appropriate inserts, but the reverse is not true. This makes modern handgun frames more versatile, with more grip options for field and concealed carry use.
To qualify my opinions on modern revolvers, it was necessary to fire quite a few. I had been away from the revolver scene for some time, finishing a book on the 1911 pistol and firing and examining the latest versions. Recently, I had the opportunity to test fire a 2°-inch barreled S&W Model 19. I remember firing a round butt version with thin wooden grips in the 1980s.
I dismissed that revolver as too difficult to handle and excessively prone to rapping my knuckles. The modern version was much more comfortable to fire due to the grip design. The cylinder latch did not rap my thumb, and the action was smoother. The sights have even been redesigned and are less likely to be sprung in hard use. And this is a revolver that in basic form first saw light of day as the S&W Military and Police revolver in 1899!
I think that anyone who feels the wheel gun is a second rate handgun should take a hard look at the modern rendition of the revolver. I am sure that the modern revolver will not be found unsuited for the hardest duty.
A very good example of modern engineering comes from an unrecognized and seldom heralded source. Rossi revolvers have received faint praise in recent years, for various reasons. Some of the early versions were rough, to say the least. On the other hand, they were meant to undersell the competition and they did that. Somewhere, sometime it was realized that better quality would be worth the time and trouble and Rossi got better, cost a little more, and ended up with a larger market share.
There may be some overlap of products, between loosely related Rossi and Taurus as both companies build 5-shot .38-caliber revolvers, but Rossi had one design to its credit that should be fired to be appreciated. While basically Smith & Wesson-like in lockwork, Rossi has long offered a revolver that is very similar to the Colt Official Police or Detective Special in appearance. It is a 6-shot offered first in .38 Special and now in .357 Magnum.
Certain internal parts are heavier than .38-caliber models. The barrel is thick and heavy and the underlug helps dampen recoil. But a hard look at the grip frame and grips shows the difference in other revolvers best. The grips are offset from the frame, with a thick piece of rubber separating the hand from a steel frame. The hand is not only offset, the gripframe rides lower in the hand and the bore axis is correspondingly lower.
I fired this revolver with some trepidation, but the feared
eddies in my flesh did not appear. This is an excellent defense
revolver, well suited to its intended task. Flash and roar was
there, but not in the proportion that ported handguns demonstrate.
Overall, this is a good defense gun, more controllable than I
would have thought.
I often carry this handgun with Cor-Bon's 110-grain JHP. That is about as good as it gets in light revolvers. For the sportsman, the design of this revolver means he could carry the pistol loaded with a hard cast 160-grain SWC and have a handgun capable of delivering the coup de grâce to the largest animal, but with a minimum of bulk.
I like this revolver very much.
A blend of modern and old-style technology can answer the problem of excess recoil in lightweight revolvers. Even the most jaded revolver men admit that Smith & Wesson and Taurus have produced lightweight revolvers on the edge of controllability. The .44 Magnum and .45 Colt caliber Titanium revolvers are a handful and not for the faint of heart. I have fired several ultra lightweight Magnums with heavily loaded cartridges in complete comfort.
These loads have been put up with stiff charges of blackpowder. Yes, blackpowder! We cannot achieve the same velocity with blackpowder as we do the full house .45 Colt and .44 Special loads, but we can easily break 850 feet-per-second (fps) with proper bullet selection. And 900 fps with a Taurus Titanium in .45 Colt, using a heavy charge of blackpowder under a 200-grain Speer Gold Dot bullet.
What? Blackpowder under a jacketed hollowpoint? Let's look at the whole picture. The relatively fast burning powder used in autos is supposed to produce less recoil energy than the slower burning powders used in Magnum revolver loads. That is true. But blackpowder burns really slow and does not produce nearly the recoil energy of modern loads, but is well suited to big cartridge cases like the .45 Colt, .44 Special and .44 Magnum.
Just fill a .45 Colt case with blackpowder and leave room to seat a .45-70 300-grain bullet in the neck. You may be surprised. It's just fun with physics. And if you are lucky enough to own a stainless steel revolver, simply wash it under the hot water faucet in the tub when you are done shooting.
Among the criticisms of the revolver is slow reloading time and lowered capacity. This has been addressed in the past and well addressed in current production. Many modern revolvers have seven and eight chambers instead of six, and chamber fight-stopping cartridges such as the .38 Super and .357 Magnum. So, the revolver is at less of a disadvantage than in the past as far as capacity, especially when compared to the 8-shot .45 auto.
But there is another facet that has been explored in modern production. Speedloaders have existed for many years for the revolver, the first patent appearing about 1877. But as far as I know, the first actually issued were deployed by British Empire troops about 1902, designed for the top-break Webley revolver.
The fastest revolver of all time to load and unload was designed by American engineers prior to World War I. Large frame S&W and Colt revolvers could easily be chambered for the .45 Auto cartridge. The problem was, the cartridge could not be ejected since it does not have a revolver type case rim. A thin metal clip known as a moon clip was designed to be used with the .45 ACP revolver. These were supplied as 3-shot clips, and two were used to load the revolver.
This made for much surer and faster loading than loading the chambers one round at a time. Simply grasp the clips and slip them into the waiting cylinder. Modern inventors devised the full moon clip which holds six rounds, making for an even more rapid reload. Occasionally, if the gun is not held in a muzzle up attitude, a cartridge rim can become jammed under the ejector star when ejecting the brass from a conventional revolver. This is not a problem with the moon clip revolver. All rounds are ejected smartly.
Reloading is a simple matter. Today, the 8-shot .38 Super revolver from Smith & Wesson features an 8-shot clip for just such ease of loading. Taurus has even extended this feature to its small frame line. The 5-shot .45 ACP Tracker version is a joy to load and unload by virtue of these moon clips. The light handy Tracker is a dream revolver, well suited to personal defense and outdoor use.
I will admit that theoretically the .45 Colt version can be hand-loaded for better performance, but factory-loaded .45 ACP ammunition somewhat outperforms factory .45 Colt ammunition. For defense purposes, this is a mighty good little revolver.
If you choose a .38- or .357-caliber revolver for defense, and there is nothing wrong with that, you still have better options than ever before. The SL Variant Speed loader offered by Buffer Technologies is a sure operating, advanced loader that gives excellent service. On the simplest end of the spectrum, the rubber speed loaders offered by Speedloader.com are inexpensive enough that anyone can purchase a pocketful for practice and deployment.
The modern revolver is just that, modern in every way. The advantages of the revolver are ever more apparent with the current crop. But the shortcomings are well addressed. Interestingly, we could modify practically any semi-auto of a few generations ago to modern standards, but when revolvers are compared, we would have to purchase a new gun to reap the full benefits. That says a lot about modern revolver technology.