Revolver Handguns

Sometimes referred to as "wheel guns", in reference to the cylinder, revolvers have taken a back seat to semi-automatics in recent years in military and law enforcement applications.

Lower ammunition capacity and longer reload times compared to semi-automatics are the main reasons for the trend that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. The flat profile of semi-autos make them more suitable for concealed carry. Revolvers still remain popular in the role of back-up and off-duty guns among American law enforcement officers (LEO) and security guards. Revolvers are still common in the American private sector as defensive, sporting, hunting and collectible firearms.

A 1950 Colt 32 and 1965 Colt 38 Detective Special

General George Patton would have labeled the above guns as New Orleans Pimp guns because of the Mother of Pearl grips. I think a reporter asked him about his gun grips being Mother of Pearl at a press conference once. Patton was quick to correct the reporter about the grips on his revolver being made of Elephant Ivory, not Mother of Pearl (continue to bottom of page to see a gun like his). Patton went on to make the statement that "only a New Orleans Pimp would carry a gun with Mother of Pearl grips".

Key Features

Other than single-shot and multiple barrel guns, handguns can be divided into two categories.

  • Revolvers - Loading rounds from a cylinder, a revolver is a multi-shot firearm, usually a handgun, in which multiple firing chambers are grouped into a cylinder which rotates to align each round sequentially with a single barrel. A double-action revolver requires only a trigger pull for each round that is fired but is not considered semi-automatic. The difference in a double-action revolver is that the act of pulling the trigger also rotates the cylinder moving the next round into position.
  • Semi-Automatics - Loading rounds from a magazine, a semi-automatic pistol is a type of handgun that can be fired in semi-automatic mode, firing one cartridge for each pull of the trigger. This type of firearm uses a single chamber and a single barrel, which remain in a fixed linear orientation relative to each other while being fired and reloaded semi-automatically. Semi-automatic function uses the recoil force generated by the last fired cartridge combined with spring action in the firearm to ready the next round to be fired. Some terms that have been, or still are, used as synonyms for semi-automatic pistol are automatic pistol, auto-pistol, self-loading pistol, and self-loader.

Want to learn what year your Colt Revolver was made?

The Serial Number Tables linked at the bottom of the page can identify more than 3 million Colt revolvers. I'm also sharing an external link to Colt's Database Search Tool.

  Colt Database Search

Detective Special


Colt Python


Cobra, Agent & Aircrewman


Colt Courier

Greg's First Generation .45 Colt Single Action Army Peacemaker, nickel with Ivory grips

Greg's First Generation .45 Colt Single Action Army Peacemaker with Elephant Ivory grips.

A Closer Look at Revolvers

In an earlier article we looked briefly at revolvers and mentioned a couple of prominent examples, the Colt Peacemaker M1873 or SAA (Single Action Army) and the Smith and Wesson Model 10. The former, a single-action handgun associated with the old west and the latter, a double-action, often called the S&W .38 Special. Both these handguns are “six shooters” and, in updated models, manufactured today.

Let’s take a look at some variations on the theme of revolvers.

Fixed Cylinder

The revolver’s cylinder is firmly attached, front and rear to the frame of the handgun. The weapon is loaded when the “loading gate” is swung aside and the spent round ejected manually by a spring-loaded rod set under the barrel. This is the standard method of loading a single-action revolver.

This Colt SAA Peacemaker is a prime example of the fixed cylinder

This 1931 Colt SAA Peacemaker is a prime example of the fixed cylinder.

Swing Out

The revolver’s cylinder is mounted on a pivot that, when unlatched, allows the cylinder to swing out and down. All spent rounds are ejected in one motion as the shooter presses a rod projecting from the front of the cylinder mechanism. The operator can then load the cylinder with one round at a time or use a speedloader to load several cartridges or the entire cylinder. The majority of today’s revolvers have swing out cylinders.

Greg's 1962 Colt Python with swing-out cylinder

Greg's 1962 Colt Python with swing-out cylinder.


The handgun is hinged at the front of the cylinder. When the shooter releases a lock and presses the barrel down, the weapon opens at the rear of the cylinder, usually automatically ejecting spent rounds. The operator then reloads singly or with a speedloader.

Top Break Revolver

Although top-break revolvers have fallen out of favor, primarily because they cannot handle modern high-pressure magnum rounds, there are historical examples of fully-functional, efficient top-break revolvers. The British Army relied on the Webley top-break revolver until 1963. It was chambered for the .455 Webley, a rimmed cartridge that fired a .45 caliber bullet at a relatively low velocity, but produced excellent knockdown power.

It is also interesting that one of American History’s most famous lawmen, Wyatt Earp, was said to have been armed with a S&W Model 3 break-top revolver during the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Definition: A speedloader is most often a device that holds cartridges firmly in a circular pattern for reloading a revolver. When the handgun’s cylinder is empty, the operator slides the rounds into the open chambers and releases them simultaneously.

Samuel Colt Patented the "Revolving Gun" February 25, 1836

A key element to Colt's success was vigorous protection of his patent rights. Even though he lawfully held the only patent on a revolver, scores of imitators copied his work and Colt found himself constantly in litigation.

Author Comment: I believe the above is what started the old saying, "If it ain't a Colt, it's just a copy."

In each one of these cases, Colt's lawyer, Edward N. Dickerson, deftly exploited the patent system and successfully shut down Colt's competitors. However, Colt's zealous protection of his patents greatly impeded firearms development as a whole in the United States.

Colt's preoccupation with patent infringement suits slowed his own company's transition to the cartridge system and blocked other firms from pursuing revolver designs. At the same time, Colt's policies forced some competing inventors to greater innovation by denying them key features of his mechanism; as a result they created their own.

Source: wikipedia.org

The power, accuracy and handling qualities of the Single Action Army (SAA) made it a popular sidearm from its inception, well into the 20th century.

The association with the history of the American West remains to the present century, and these revolvers remain popular with shooters and collectors.


George S. Patton, who began his career in the horse-cavalry, carried a custom-made SAA with ivory grips engraved with his initials and an eagle, which became his trademark. He used it during the Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916 to kill two of Pancho Villa's lieutenants, and carried it until his death in 1945 shortly after the end of World War II.

The father of a very good friend of mine served under Patton, knew him well and told me stories of some of Patton's "antics", for lack of a better term. The one story that stands out in my memory is about the time that Patton squared off with the Chief of Police in Phenix City, Alabama. Patton and his troops were at Ft. Benning in Columbus, Georgia preparing to ship out for the war in Europe.

Columbus, Georgia is right on the Georgia-Alabama state line, with only a river separating it from Phenix City, Alabama. Army troops would routinely get into trouble at the bars and nightclubs in Phenix City. Four or five of Patton's troops were arrested for a Saturday night bar fight and were being held in the Phenix City jail. Patton telephoned the Chief of Police on Sunday morning to get his men released so they could ship out for the war on Monday. The Police Chief didn't like Patton's attitude and basically told him that the men would not get any special treatment and that it would be Monday before they could go before the judge.

Patton went ballistic! Patton informed the Chief that he was coming for his men and would be at the bridge that separated the two towns in thirty minutes, if he had to cross the bridge to get his men, the Chief would no longer have a jail when he left with them. Patton proceeded to take several tanks and lined up at the bridge. The Chief released his men.

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