If you spend any amount of time shooting revolvers you’ve no doubt discovered that revolvers can be , uh, fickle. Some days, they work with the perfection and regularity of a Swiss watch, and other days, they are like the Fiat of guns. This can be really frustrating! There are times where I want to throw the offending wheelgun into the nearest body of water, and simply press-on with life, using a semi-automatic pistol.
In my estimation, a revolver is very similar to the car you had in high school. It was your, “first,” love. You either bought or were given that car and you were responsible for its care. When you think back, you kind of miss that car. Even though it probably wasn’t the most state-of-the-art vehicle on the road, or didn’t have the most comfortable seats or the greatest sound system, you loved it anyway, despite its flaws. And you look back at it, wistfully. Revolvers, for many people, hold the same amount of nostalgia.
I’m talking about people like me here, but my first handgun was a revolver. My first formal instruction was with a revolver, and my first several years as a professional armored truck crewman found me armed with a revolver. So I know the beast well. Times have changed, and although I still carry a wheelgun as a back up gun on my ankle, I still put in more time on other revolvers, aside from the BUG. With weekly practice and training, I find myself sometimes thinking, “There has got to be a better way.” Unfortunately, I haven’t found an ankle rig that conceals a pistol, as well as a revolver, so until that happens, my 640 is glued to me.
To combat the issues I experience regularly shooting revolvers, I’ve become accustomed to carrying several tools that make them, “run,” more efficiently, and allow me to clear common stoppages that inhibit proper functioning. To think about this fundamentally, remember that to load and unload a revolver, you essentially have to disassemble it partway, swing the guts out one side, eject the spent cases, and then recharge the chambers, put the gun back together, and get back to it shooting. Seems simple enough! But, as with anything mechanical, the parts don’t always line up straight. Literally.
Here are a few things that will help you keep your revolver running, in optimal shape. Since you are probably relying on a revolver for self-defense (maybe only in a back up gun role) then you understand why it’s important that it works, correctly. These are a few issues I have encountered that can ruin your day, and how you can better prevent them.
- CHECK YOUR SIDEPLATE SCREWS. It isn’t often that the side plate comes loose, however the screw that is farthest forward on your side plate (crane screw) CAN work its way loose with normal use. If it unscrews itself completely, the next time you open the revolver, the cylinder will fall out onto the ground! That’s not a good thing, so make sure that the screws on your side plate are snug.
- CHECK UNDER AND IN FRONT OF THE EJECTOR STAR. Unburnt powder getting stuck in the ejection machinery of your revolver is a show stopper. It can prevent the cylinder from opening, or even lock the ejector rod in place. Either of these stoppages can be prevented by thoroughly keeping that space and those parts free of unburnt powder. A note on that…I LOVE shooting wadcutters. Depending on the brand, you may have a good deal of unburnt powder that literally falls out of the fired cases, sometimes in what seems like ridiculous amounts. Be mindful of that, and keep that star spotless! (The MASS of unburnt powder can also happen with ammo other than wadcutters, too. It really varies with the brand, and even the lot of the specific ammunition.
- CHECK THE CHAMBERS OF THE CYLINDER FOR UNBURNT POWDER OR A DEBRIS RING. If you have a .357 Magnum revolver (or a .44 Magnum, .454 or any other revolver caliber that is capable of firing cartridges of the same diameter, but have shorter case lengths) then a ring of debris can form around the inside of the chamber, preventing insertion of the longer (Magnum) round(s). Also, unburnt powder (as mentioned in #2 above) can simply get caught in the chamber, preventing easy insertion and extraction of other ammunition. In dental school, we were always taught, “Don’t blow on it, Doc,” meaning that we should try and break the natural human habit to want to blow air onto something we are trying to take dust off of (and yes…there are dentists who blow on someone’s denture, then hand it back to the patient, for their approval. GROSS.) but in this case, I’d say blowing out the chambers is a good thing! You may or may not have a brush with you that can do the same thing. Hence, the purpose of this article in the first place.
- BUILD UP ON THE FORCING CONE THE FRONT OF THE CYLINDER AND THE TOP STRAP. Your revolver is a precision instrument. It was designed to operate in a certain set of parameters. However, with use, that window of operable parameters widens. Not to the point that the gun will no longer function, but it can stop functioning as well. When you shoot lead bullets, the soft lead, and the lube that often accompanies lead projectiles, can become very hot, and shear off of the main projectile in small, molten fragments, and those fragments can fuse to the forcing cone. If this build-up of crud gets thick enough, it will inhibit the free rotation of the cylinder face, which makes your double action trigger pull increase significantly. If the buildup gets to be enough, it will gum up the rotation of the cylinder and make the gun inoperable.
- HEAT. As metal heats up, it expands. Heat a revolver up enough, and it will expand significantly. When I shoot revolvers in classes, especially in classes that are designed around semi-automatic pistols, they can get hot fast. So, I like to bring a pair of revolvers, so that when one gets really hot, I can let it cool down, while the other one gets hot. And correspondingly, the hotter the ammo (meaning rounds loaded to higher velocities) the hotter the gun will get quicker. Again, like in #3 above, the trigger pull will start to drag, due to the impedance of the cylinder face on the forcing cone.
- AMMO ISSUES. One of the often quoted, “advantages,” of revolvers over semi-automatic pistols is the point of, “less ammunition sensitive,” which is, in my opinion, a misnomer and not quite accurate. For example, while a semi-automatic pistol may not eject a round completely, due to a light powder load, a revolver may not chamber a round completely, due to a manufacturing defect like a bur on the case mouth, OR allow the cylinder to close due to a high primer. So, it’s important to inspect your ammo, to make sure that it will actually work, when you need it to. In this same category, I would include the use of moonclips as a possible hindrance to good function in your wheelgun. If the clips are slightly bent or deformed, they can prevent proper seating of the round in the chamber, and tie up the revolver.
- STRAIN SCREW COMING LOOSE. Some S&W revolvers have a screw at the front strap of the grip frame, that place tension on the revolver’s mainspring. That screw is a certain length for a reason, and needs to be screwed into the grip frame to its depth limit. These screws CAN back out, and lessen the tension on the mainspring, compromising the ignition reliability of your revolver. Some grips cover the strain screw enough to prevent it from backing out, but in the, “stock,” configuration, that screw is open to the elements, and free to do as it pleases. Be mindful of that screw, and if you see it marching out, put it back to its fully seated depth.
There are other issues that can happen with a revolver, but these are the common ones that I encounter in my own practice and life with revolvers. Of course, some of these are S&W specific, but I honestly don’t have enough time with malfunctions in the Ruger and Colt guns to complain much about them. The GP100’s and Service Sixes I own have literally been utterly reliable (but that’s another article entirely). However, they don’t have the feel of a good Smith K frame. Not knocking them, but there is just a palpable difference in the feel and handiness of the two makes of revolvers.
SUGGESTIONS FOR REVOLVER MALFUNCTIONS AND FINDING SUCCESS IN SELF-DEFENSE WHEELGUNNING
If you rely on a revolver for defense, you need to have a plan for what you are going to do once you run that cylinder through. Statistically, you should have enough ammunition in the gun to handle what you will be faced with, but statistics don’t always adhere to reality. If you do run the gun empty, OR have a showstopping malfunction, you will need a plan. The best plan, if the fight is still on, is to go to a second gun. If possible, it’s always good to have the capacity to escape from the immediate area. Run through these scenarios in your mind’s eye, so that when you need them, you won’t have to spend valuable time trying to come up with an option…have the option ready. As much as I love my revolvers, I really don’t want to have to stick somebody, eyeball to eyeball, with a Spyderco, because my revolver is empty or because the mechanism took a huge dump on me. I DO carry speed strips or speedloaders to reload with, but the chances of actually getting to reload, in the civilian context, are slim. However again, the statistics can only grant so much predictive power…nobody has a crystal ball and can tell the future. So have a plan, and have an alternate plan, in case your primary plan fails, but also have a contingency plan, in case your alternate plan fails, and lastly, have an emergency plan in case ALL of the other plans fail. A revolver as a primary (or even BUG) doesn’t require MORE planning to use than a semiauto, it just takes SOME planning.
ETA: One of my mentors, the great Tom Givens, posted this on pistol-forum.com and it is too good not to share:
The old crap about revolvers being more reliable than autos arises from the ammunition that was available when autos first appeared in military and police service, circa 1900. Ammunition of that day had unstable primers that deteriorated quickly when exposed to gun oils, solvent vapors, and just ordinary exposure to weather while carrying the loaded gun and ammo on the belt. The primers of that day contained mercuric salts, which gather moisture from the air and cause corrosion. These “corrosive primers” made cleaning the gun the same day it was fired an absolute necessity. If the gun was not cleaned immediately the mercuric salt deposits in the barrel would gather moisture and cause rust overnight. Unfortunately, these mercuric salts in the primer gather moisture when ammunition is worn on the belt and often failed fire when needed. This is no longer an issue as these mercuric primers have not been used in the US since World War II. Modern primers contain lead styphnate, not mercuric compounds. Modern primers are far less susceptible to oils, solvents, and the weather. However, when auto pistols first became common the mercuric ammunition was all it was available and misfires were common. If a revolver misfires the user simply pulls the trigger again and a fresh round comes up for another try. If a cartridge in a semiautomatic pistol misfires the user must perform an immediate action drill to get the gun back in operation. With modern ammunition a properly maintained semiautomatic pistol is about as reliable as machine can be.
The revolver’s basic design makes it far more fragile, and far more susceptible to serious malfunctions that take too long to fix in a fight. If you will think about it, a revolver has five or six individual chambers, each of which has to line up precisely with the pistol barrel upon firing. A misalignment by just a few thousandths of an inch results in bullet shaving off the forcing cone, or the primer misaligned with the firing pin causing misfires. In order to time the action so that each chamber locks in place exactly in alignment with the barrel each time the trigger is pulled the action of the revolver has to be precisely timed and balanced. The inside of a double action revolver somewhat resembles the workings of a wind-up watch. Small delicate parts, small springs, and so forth require perfect fitting and no wear in order to maintain these extremely tight tolerances. Here are some of the basic malfunctions that occur with the double action revolver and what you might be able to do to fix in the field.
Failure to fire – you pull the trigger, nothing. With support hand palm, strike cylinder on left side to be sure it is closed fully. Pull trigger again. If no bang, transition to back up gun. This can because by a high primer jammed against the recoil shield, or a jumped bullet lodged against the forcing cone. In in either of these cases, your only viable option is a backup gun.
Failure to fire – you pull the trigger, get “click”. Immediately pull the trigger again. If it clicks twice it is empty, the ammo is dead, or the firing pin is broken. Speed load or transition to a backup gun. If you reload and it goes click, the firing pin is probably broken. If you’re still alive transition to your back up gun.
Cylinder won’t open – ejector rod may be backed out; high primer may be stuck; bullet may have jumped, ejector rod may be bent. Primer metal may have flowed into the firing pin hole in the frame, locking everything up. This is most common with Magnum ammunition. Transition to your backup gun.
Cylinder won’t turn – you pull the trigger but it won’t move and cylinder won’t turn. Crap under the extractor star has bound up the action. See first entry. Or, ejector rod is bent, or eject rod has come unscrewed. Transition to your backup gun. Titanium guns and lead bullets don’t mix – they recoil so sharply that bullets tend to jump forward under recoil and tie up the action. Transition to your backup gun.
Cylinder will not accept new ammo on reload – Dumb ass! You failed to eject the spent cases vigorously with the gun vertical and the spent case(s) got under the extractor rod. Transition to your backup gun. Later, if you survive, hold the extractor open and pry out the case.
Failure to fire – the Taurus or Smith & Wesson goofy internal lock has engaged spontaneously. Transition to your backup gun!
Failure to fire – the strain screw in the front strap of the grip has backed out due to the vibrations of recoil. If this screw backs up a couple of turns the firing pin strike will be too light to ignite cartridges. Periodically check this screw and make sure it is tight. Also, check your firing pin frequently if you have a hammer mounted firing pin as opposed to a frame mounted firing pin. The firing pins mounted on the hammer are subject to breakage.
As you can see, there are a number of mechanical reasons why your revolver may fail, and unfortunately, most of them require time and tools to fix. In a fight you will have neither.