A Brief History of Firearms: Birth of the Modern Revolver

March 28, 2022
A Brief History of Firearms: Birth of the Modern Revolver

By the time the modern revolver emerged on the scene in the 1880s and ‘90s, revolvers and firearms had undergone considerable development. Before the widespread availability of the revolving pistol, multi-shot capability meant either carrying more than one firearm or carrying a volley gun.

Of course, the revolver is a sidearm first and foremost and was not meant to replace shotguns and rifles as offensive or patrol weapons. Although eclipsed by semi-automatic pistols in military service, the modern revolver remained a popular choice among law enforcement until the late 20th century. It is still beloved by private citizens for its reliability, simple operation, and handling characteristics.

Snub-nosed double action revolvers, such as the .38-caliber Smith & Wesson Chiefs Special Model 36, and hammerless/concealed-hammer derivations, remain popular for concealed carry.

Here’s a brief history of the revolver, its place in firearms history, how the modern revolver came to be, how it compares with other types of firearms, and where it stands today.

Early Multi-Shot Firearms

In the history of firearms, multi-shot capability has been a centuries-old dilemma, which proved elusive due to previous eras’ technological and manufacturing limitations. Although single-shot black-powder muzzleloading firearms (muskets, early rifles) prevailed, repeating firearms fed from magazines, such as the Kalthoff repeater, were not unheard of in the 18th century

Although feasible, multi-shot firearms were expensive because they had a complex firing mechanism. The designs demanded close tolerances that don’t lend themselves to cost-effective production by hand, especially for mass production. Continuity of fire in an affordable, reliable weapon, especially for personal sidearms and in a military context, would continue to be a priority for gunmakers.

In the 18th century, carrying a flintlock pistol as a defensive weapon typically meant that you had one shot available. If that lead ball failed to repel or incapacitate your assailant, you resorted to a second pistol or a non-firearm weapon, such as a knife.

As a muzzleloading firearm, reloading was a time-consuming affair, which required that you pour a measured quantity of powder down the barrel, pack it with a ramrod, and follow by inserting a lead ball or shot charge. The pan would then be primed, covered with the frizzen, and the hammer cocked.

Some gunmakers attempted to remedy this by designing pistols with several barrels in a fan-shaped pattern, such as the duck’s foot. This was a handheld volley gun that would fire all three shots simultaneously.

Early Revolver Designs

Although most people think of the revolver as a type of firearm originating in the 19th century, this is a common misconception. In reality, the earliest revolving firearms were produced by Italian and German gunmakers in the 16th century in matchlock and wheel lock configurations, as an evolution of the 15th-century single-shot arquebus.

One of the earliest revolver-type firearms to see commercial success is the pepperbox, a compact handgun with a series of rotating barrels. Beginning as a hand-rotated flintlock, the design was later adapted to use percussion caps and a double action trigger mechanism that would index the barrels, cock the hammer, and fire. Rare examples were long-barrelled weapons and could be more accurately described as pepperbox rifles.

Although all pepperbox guns were breech-loading weapons, multiple mechanisms were developed. The most common possessed a rotating internal firing pin, such as the Rigby or the Comblain.

Some, such as the Sharps, used a rotating firing pin mounted on a hammer, making them closer in appearance to later single action revolvers. A rare few pepperbox designs, like the Martin, instead used multiple firing pins, one for each barrel.

Pepperbox guns were much like other early firearms, muzzle-loaded and primed using circular percussion caps. Although they were functional and practical for their time, the primary disadvantage was the reliance on multiple barrels (each possessing its own firing chamber), making them heavy.

The first true revolver is a descendant of the original pepperbox design with a single barrel and a cylinder with multiple firing chambers.

Collier Flintlock Revolver

Elisha Collier, a gunmaker from Boston, Massachusetts, is responsible for one of the earliest single-barreled revolvers to see moderate success, with a patent issued in 1818. Like early pepperbox weapons, the cylinder containing powder and ball had to be rotated manually.

Collier’s revolver was also a flintlock, albeit a self-priming type. Unfortunately, the lack of a positive cylinder stop was a possible hazard misalignment between the chamber and barrel, damaging the frame and injuring the user.

The Colt Emerges

When Samuel Colt applied for a British patent in 1835 and an American patent the following year for his revolving gun, this marked an important point in the history of firearms development.

Colt would revolutionize handheld firearms and manufacturing. While Colt didn’t invent the revolver, he popularized it by designing one of the first commercially successful modern revolvers and the mass production of firearms.

Unlike previous designs that either relied on multiple barrels or the antiquated flintlock ignition system, the new Colt revolver, later known as the Colt Paterson (named after the Paterson plant, where it was produced), used a single barrel with a revolving cylinder, percussion-cap ignition, and a cylinder that indexed as the hammer was cocked.

Each chamber was loaded from the mouth, like with earlier breech-loading weapons. The loose powder charge and lead ball was packed with an integral ramrod, and a percussion cap was pressed on the corresponding nipple.

The ramrod was attached to a lever located under the barrel, which would be pulled downward. When the hammer was cocked with the thumb, this being a single-action-only firearm, squeezing the trigger would release it. The hammer would then strike the cap, detonating the priming compound and igniting the powder

Parallel Development: The Revolver Rifle

Before producing the Paterson handgun, Colt used the Paterson plant to produce one of the first successful revolver rifles, the Colt Ring Lever rifle series: First Model in 1837 and Second Model in 1838.

The Colt Ring Lever rifles employed a ring-shaped lever and a manually actuated cylinder, forming a hybrid between the lever-action rifle and the revolver. The cylinder rotates when pulling the lever, indexing the next chamber with the barrel, and cocking the hammer.

Technology Marches On

During the mid-19th century, firearms and ammunition technology progressed at an unprecedented pace.

  • Rifled barrels became commonplace during the early 19th century, rendering the smoothbore gun barrel of muskets (e.g., Brown Bess) and other breech-loading weapons obsolete.
  • The first metallic cartridge for firearms was the 6mm Flobert rimfire cartridge, invented in France in 1845. The 6mm Flober was a brass cartridge, which ended the reign of muzzle-loaded firearm designs and paper cartridges.
  • The first American rimfire cartridge and the first rimfire cartridge to employ a priming compound and a black-powder charge was the .22 Rimfire, introduced in 1857. When .22 Long was introduced in 1871, the original .22 Rimfire was retroactively renamed .22 Short.
  • The first bullet design to improve upon standard lead balls was the Minié ball, a round-nosed conical lead projectile with a hollow base, invented in France in 1847. These projectiles significantly improved the lethality and effectiveness of the average infantry rifled musket. The shape and design of these bullets inspired those used in later, more modern cartridges.

The First American Rimfire Revolvers

In 1857, Smith & Wesson introduced the Model 1, a .22-caliber, single action, tip-up revolver that fired .22 Rimfire (now .22 Short) metallic cartridges. The Model 1 accepted up to 6 of these rimfire brass cartridges, each fitted with a lead projectile (bullet weight: 29 grains) and filled with a 4-grain black-powder charge.

Together, the gun and ammunition produced average muzzle velocities of 1,000-1,050 ft/s and an average muzzle energy of 64-70 ft-lbf. The Model 1 was small, accurate, and generated negligible recoil, making it a practical weapon for self-defense.

In 1870, the famous Smith & Wesson Model 3 top-break revolver was introduced, chambered in .44 Smith & Wesson American (.44 American), one of the first big-bore black-powder cartridges. Original .44 American cartridges featured a bullet weight ranging between 200 and 220 grains. The Model 3 was one of the earliest large-caliber centerfire revolvers to see widespread use.

However, in 1872, two engineers working at Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Co., Charles Brinckerhoff Richards, and William Mason, began designing what would become the quintessential revolver of the late 19th century: The famous Colt Single Action Army Model of 1873, more commonly known as the Peacemaker, or simply the Colt .45.

The Modern Revolver Comes Together

The modern revolver is the culmination of several design breakthroughs by competing manufacturers over many years: the double-action firing mechanism, the top-strap frame, and the swing-out cylinder.

The First Double-Action Revolver

The traditional single action revolver requires the shooter to manually cock the hammer between each shot. The name comes from the fact the trigger performed a single function, to fire the gun.

In a double action firing mechanism, the trigger performs two functions: cocking the hammer and subsequently releasing it for an immediate shot. As the hammer is cocked, the cylinder rotates and indexes the next chamber with the chamber. In other words, a double action revolver lets the shooter pull the trigger repeatedly and fire until out of ammunition, with no intermediate steps required.

The British Adams revolver, a competitor of Colt’s in the 1850s, was the first successful example of such a system outside of the pepperbox pistols. Colt’s foray into double action revolvers would occur in 1878 with the .38-caliber Lightning.

The First Top-Strap Frame and Swing-Out Cylinder

With its increased strength and rigidity, the frame with a top strap was introduced by Adams and copied by Remington. However, the turning point was the swing-out cylinder introduced by Colt in the Model 1892 double-action revolver, chambered in .38 Long Colt. This allowed the cylinder to be unlocked from the frame and swung out to the side on an arm called the crane for loading and unloading.

Until this approach, cartridge revolvers used either a loading gate (robust but slow to reload) or a hinged system (e.g., tip-up or top-break) which meant that a stronger solid frame couldn’t be used.

The swing-out cylinder was subsequently incorporated by Smith & Wesson into its Model 1896 Hand Ejector, so named to distinguish it from the hinged tip-up and top-break revolvers for which S&W had become well known.

Initially chambered in .38 Long Colt centerfire cartridge, the Hand Ejector was intended originally for the U.S. military and police (and was even called at first the Smith & Wesson .38 Military and Police, inspiring the modern M&P pistol’s name).

Advent of the .38 Revolver

However, S&W’s development of the .38 Special centerfire cartridge in 1899 helped the Hand Ejector cement its place in firearms history, attracting considerable interest from customers worldwide.

The .38 Special cartridge developed higher muzzle velocities than the original .38 Long Colt (up to 900 ft/s with a 125-grain bullet, compared to .38 LC’s 775 ft/s) due to a more potent black-powder charge.

When smokeless gunpowder became commonplace at the turn of the 20th century, the same muzzle velocity could be achieved with a considerably smaller powder charge than equivalent black-powder cartridges. More powerful .38 Special loads became possible, exceeding 1,000 ft/s from the same Hand Ejector revolver.

This high performance allowed the .38 revolver to become the consummate modern American revolver, serving as the sidearm of choice for most law enforcement agencies for over five decades.

Although over 120 years old, the .38 Special cartridge remains in production. The Hand Ejector became the Model 10, turning into the world’s most successful double action revolver and the most popular handgun of the 20th century, with over 6 million units produced.

Beyond the Revolver: The Semi-Automatic Pistol

Although they aren’t revolvers, semi-automatic pistols are integral to the revolver’s history. They are an alternative approach to the concept of a multi-shot handgun, and due to becoming the dominant handgun design, outpacing revolvers.

The semi-automatic or self-loading pistol, which uses the bolt thrust or breech pressure of the fired cartridge to perform a reloading cycle, originated in the late 19th century.
Taking design inspiration from the famous Maxim machine gun of 1884, one of the first true automatic weapons, several gun manufacturers sought to harness the recoil energy produced by explosive propellants to operate mechanical systems.

While early semi-automatic pistols gained considerable attention, the modern revolver would remain in service for several decades. This was due, in part, to the fragility, complexity, or relative lack of reliability of early examples (e.g., high barrel wear, frequent accidental discharge incidents, unreliable designs, etc.).

The Revolver Today

In the 21st century, the revolver was largely replaced as a duty weapon by the semi-automatic pistol. When the revolver is used by law enforcement, it’s typically relegated to the role of a backup gun.

In the context of private self-defense, snub-nosed revolvers are often still in use. Even today, the revolver has advantages over a semi-automatic. For example, the revolver is not sensitive to the type of ammunition used because it doesn’t rely on gas pressure or recoil to cycle. As a result, everything from low-velocity target wadcutters to +P JHP defensive loads can be used.

Another advantage is that the barrel is fixed, and there is no slide; if the muzzle must be pressed against an attacker in a contact shot, there’s no risk of the gun being rendered inoperable.

Modern revolvers are made using contemporary manufacturing techniques, and alloys can be made to fire extremely powerful modern cartridges (Magnum cartridges), exceeding the performance of even the largest semi-automatics.

Why Revolvers Fell Out of Favor

The most notable con of the revolver is its ammunition capacity, which is a limitation of the design. As a result, most centerfire revolvers hold 5 or 6 rounds, although 7- and 8-shot models are available. Rimfire revolvers generally hold 8 to 10.

Semi-automatic pistols hold as many rounds as the magazine inserted can, plus one in the chamber. The typical service pistol magazine holds anywhere between 15 and 20 rounds, and even ultra-compact concealed carry pistols carry more ammunition than most revolvers, with capacities ranging from 6+1 to 12+1.

Another drawback is the reloading speed. Reloading a revolver quickly requires extensive practice and good coordination, even with speedloaders. Semi-automatic pistol magazines are extremely simple to reload. It requires much less practice to swap magazines and complete a reload quickly. With enough training and experience, you can reload a semi-automatic in less than two seconds.

Learn, Shoot, and Train with IFA Tactical

At IFA Tactical, the history of the revolver, and firearms in general, is one of our passions, and we’re always striving to find new ways of sharing it with gun enthusiasts.

If you’re looking for a revolver to add to your collection, call us today at (586) 275-2176, and we’ll help you find the right wheelgun for your needs.

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