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 officers until the late 20th century and are still beloved by private citizens for their 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, continue to be a popular choice for concealed carry.

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 muzzleloading firearms – muskets, and rifles prevailed, repeating firearms fed from magazines, such as the Kalthoff repeater were not unheard of in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Multi-shot firearms were expensive, as mechanical complexity and close tolerances don’t lend themselves to cost-effective production by hand, especially in quantity. 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 would most likely resort to a second pistol or a non-firearm weapon, such as a knife or club.

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 commonly thought of as a design originating in the 19th century, firearms with revolving cylinders were produced by Italian and German gunmakers in the 16th century in matchlock and wheel lock configurations.

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.

The barrels would be loaded with powder and ball, and there was a series of circumferential percussion cap nipples near the breech. When squeezing the trigger, the barrels would rotate, aligning the corresponding percussion cap with the hammer.

However, the pepperbox, as with many of its forebears, was a multi-barreled firearm. What we know today as a revolver uses a single fixed barrel and a revolving cylinder.

Collier Flintlock Revolver

Elisha Collier, a gunmaker from Boston, Massachusetts, is responsible for one of the earliest single-barreled revolvers to see moderate success, patented 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 hazard — misalignment between the chamber and barrel was possible, 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 design the revolver, he designed one of the first commercially successful revolvers and, pioneering parts interchangeability, the mass production of firearms.

Unlike previous designs that either relied on multiple barrels or the antiquated flintlock ignition system, the new Colt revolver 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, as with a muzzleloader, the powder charge and lead ball packed with an integral ramrod, and a percussion cap 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.

Further Developments

In 1857, Smith & Wesson introduced a .22-caliber revolver that fired metallic rimfire cartridges fed from the breech — the tip-up Model 1. Having licensed Rollin White’s patent for a bored-through cylinder that made the use of such ammunition possible, Smith & Wesson retained a virtual monopoly on metallic-cartridge revolvers until the late 1860s.

In 1870, the famous Smith & Wesson Model 3 top-break revolver was introduced, chambered in .44 Smith & Wesson American. This 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. This is the famous Colt Single Action Army Model of 1873. Commonly referred to as the Colt .45 or the Peacemaker, the Single Action Army shares the title “The Gun That Won the West” with the Winchester Model 1873 lever-action rifle.

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 system squeezes the trigger, indexes the cylinder, and cocks and releases the hammer. 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.

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 1889 double-action revolver. 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, which was comparatively slow 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 .32 S&W Long, the Hand Ejector saw only limited sales to police. S&W’s development of the .38 Special cartridge in 1899 and production of a revolver to fire it attracted considerable interest.

The Semi-Automatic Pistol

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 gun of 1884, the world’s first truly automatic machine gun, 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 to come. This was due, in part, to the fragility, complexity, or relative lack of reliability of early examples.

The Revolver Today

In the 21 century, the revolver, as a service weapon, has been primarily replaced by the semi-automatic pistol. When the revolver is used by law enforcement at all, it’s relegated to the role of a back-up gun.

In the context of private self-defense, snub-nosed revolvers are often still in use. Even today, the revolver has distinct advantages relative to a semi-automatic. 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 is that, because 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.

Disadvantages of the Revolver

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.

Another is that reloading a revolver with a speed loader is simply not as fumble-free as inserting a magazine, especially under stress.

In Conclusion

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, give us a call at (586) 275-2176, and we’ll help you find the right wheelgun for your needs.