Single Action Revolvers for Personal Defense?

Uberti Colt Single Action Army
Single Action Revolvers for Personal Defense?

USA – -(Ammoland.com)- When one thinks of a single action revolver, usually the same thought comes to mind, two gunslingers all duded up in cowboy hats with low slung holsters drawing on each other from a paced out distance. Then a blinding flash from both guns, and in most cases, the good guy walks away while the bad guy is lying face down in the dust.

But in the grand scheme of things, have single action revolvers outlived their usefulness, or can technology from the 19th century find its way into the 21st amidst the high tech gadgets we're used to now?

Now, when one talks about single action revolvers, you’re talking about a broad swath of time, starting from the late 1830’s with the introduction of the black powder cap and ball Colt Paterson up until the Ruger Blackhawk with its adjustable sights and coil mainspring that was introduced in the 1950’s. In between are a lot of years many leaps and bounds that saw the first self-contained cartridges, bored through cylinders and many calibers that have lasted until today. We also saw many famous instances of how those guns were used, on both sides of the law, and in countless others we will never know of.

Gunsmoke Hollywood Cowboy
Despite Hollywood myths, most self defense relied on little quick draw action and more on proper sight alignment and trigger control.

Despite all of the Hollywood fantasy, many gunfights with those old single action revolvers still fell back on someone behind the trigger knowing how to use it with some skill. There was little quick draw action and more proper sight alignment and trigger control.

 Arizona lawman Jim Roberts
Arizona lawman Jim Roberts

One such incident that was entirely against what most people have seen or think about single action revolvers involved veteran Arizona lawman Jim Roberts, known to most as “Uncle Jim.” One night as the deputy sheriff in the town of Jerome, three men were holed up after killing another in a card game. Roberts and his deputy found out that the three were not about to give up, and when the deputy’s courage left him, Roberts told the deputy to get out of the way and he would take them all. A few minutes later, the three evil men were lying on the ground dead.

However, in 1928, Uncle Jim was a very different man. A much older man now seventy-one years old, Roberts walked his beat around the city of Clarksdale, but he was hunched over, the years and miles had taken their toll on him. He looked nothing like those early western heroes on the silver screen like Tom Mix. In fact, most would probably have said he was too old to handle the job, until June 21st when two men, Earl Nelson and Willard Forrester robbed the Bank of Arizona of almost fifty thousand dollars, the most significant heist in the state at the time.

Roberts was making his rounds at the same time the robbers got into their car and started to drive away. Nelson leaned out of the car and winged off a shot at Roberts and missed. Uncle Jim slowly took his Colt single action of his pants pocket, since he didn’t keep it in a holster, and took a careful, two-handed and deliberate aim. Then fired off a single shot at the moving car, now a good distance away and struck Forrester in the head, killing him instantly. The car crashed next to the high school, and Nelson took off, and Roberts tracked him down later and took him in alive. Jim Roberts lived another six years and was found on the ground after suffering a heart attack.

So why would anyone pick a single action revolver over a modern firearm?

One is that they are very reliable and extremely tough. When the Colt Single Action Army came out in 1873, it quickly became the favorite of many, and the U.S. Army adopted it in the mighty .45 Colt with a barrel length of 7 ½ inches. While not the only single action revolver, there was, of course, many Colt conversion revolvers that were essentially 1851 Navy and 1860 Army models that were converted over to fire cartridges from the previous black powder cap and ball revolvers. Smith & Wesson got into the game being the first to have the bored through cylinders to allow self-contained cartridges. Remington and a few other companies tried to compete, but none could compare the Colt Single Action Army, which became the Glock pistol of the day.

While most think only of the powerful .45 Colt round when it came to the Colt SAA, it was in fact chambered in a couple dozen different calibers, including .44-40, .38-40 (favored by lawman Bill Tilghman), and .32-20, which made it very popular with those with Winchester and Marlin lever action rifles in those same rounds so that only one caliber of ammunition had to be carried.

Buffalo Bill Cody's Black Powder Colt Single Action Army Revolver

Those Colt SAA revolvers and their modern Italian clones are simple and easy to function, but they certainly have their drawbacks.

Because they have a hammer mounted firing pin, it’s not wise to carry the gun with a round on a loaded chamber, effectively turning the six-shot revolver into a five shot gun. A single action revolver also has a light trigger pull once the hammer is cocked, much lighter than a double action revolver or semi-auto pistol, making it likely for an accidental discharge if you’re not careful and haven’t practiced with the gun.

These are also reasonably large guns compared to semi-auto pistols that hold more rounds, even in a short “Sheriff” model with its 3 ½ “ barrel the Colt SAA and it’s clone is longer than a full size 1911 by about a good half inch and the cylinder makes it wider.

So what are the pros for carrying a single action revolver?

One, the caliber selection is extensive, anything from .22 Long Rifle up to .44 Magnum and beyond, although the best choices for personal defense are in between. While most of the traditional choices are tough to come by in the way of ammunition, you can get revolvers in .357 Magnum or in the case of the Ruger Blackhawk, interchangeable cylinders in both .357 and 9mm for the same gun.

Speaking of the Ruger Blackhawk and it’s fixed sighted cousin the Vaquero, there are no better single action revolvers for those who want a gun for durability and toughness. Bill Ruger when he designed the Blackhawk in 1955 wanted a modern version of the Colt Single Action Army, capable of being chambered for modern cartridges but having modern features. Coil springs replaced the old style flat mainsprings of the Single Action Army, adjustable rear sights replaced the fixed sights of the Colt, and it was first chambered in .357 and .44 Magnum, with .41 Magnum, .45 Colt and .30 Carbine to follow in the first couple of decades. The original Blackhawks were like the Colt, not safe to carry with the hammer down on a loaded round, that all changed in 1973 when Ruger added a transfer bar safety and then offered to retrofit any older Blackhawk for free.

Tyler Gun Works Custom Ruger Vaqueros Revolver Cylinder
Tyler Gun Works Custom Ruger Vaqueros Revolver Cylinder

In 1993 Ruger introduced the Vaquero due to the popularity of Cowboy Action Shooting. Like the Blackhawk, the gun was tough as nails but was built to look like a Colt Single Action Army, but can safely load and carry all six rounds. In 2005 Ruger brought out the “New Vaquero,” built on a smaller frame and was much closer to the Colt Single Action Army then the original Vaquero was. The caliber choices have been the always popular .45 Colt, .357 Magnum, though the early Vaquero was chambered in .44-40 and .44 Magnum as well. There are the occasional distributor exclusives in .45 ACP and other calibers every now and again.

I have owned many single action revolvers over the years, in fact, the first handgun I ever owned was a Ruger Blackhawk in .357 Magnum. I never thought of the fact it wasn’t modern enough to be a hindrance. You have to understand with a single action revolver that reloading is going to be slower, much slower, but it has been proven over the years that most defensive shootings only involve a couple of rounds being fired. Still, it is something to think about.

Then there is the fact that you aren’t merely just pulling the trigger, you have to cock the hammer back before each shot. Someone who isn’t used to a single action revolver isn’t going to be able to do that under pressure quickly without having practiced and practiced a lot until it becomes second nature.

So again why would you want a single action thumb buster instead of the latest and greatest semi-auto pistol? Well, in more than one state the handgun magazine limit is stuck at ten rounds, so six shots aren’t all that far away from the limit. The single action revolver does tend to be a more “safe” choice if you are worried about what political climates might be coming sooner or later. While I despise the thought of any handguns being banned, it is something to think about.

The single action revolver is not merely a throwback to a bygone era. It’s not simply a Hollywood prop that looks cool and flashy when drawn from a holster at speed by some actor in a fancy outfit. A single action revolver is a tool and a darn good one at that. It’s as viable a defensive handgun in 2018 as it was in 1918 and even 1888 if you are willing to understand the limitations and practice with it, which is what you should do with any handgun, you carry to protect your hide.

David LaPell

About David LaPell

David LaPell has been a Corrections Officer with the local Sheriff's Department for thirteen years. A collector of antique and vintage firearms for over twenty years and an avid hunter. David has been writing articles about firearms, hunting and western history for ten years. In addition to having a passion for vintage guns, he is also a fan of old trucks and has written articles on those as well.

  • 37 thoughts on “Single Action Revolvers for Personal Defense?

    1. Hate to pick on Clint Eastwood movies , but in I think the good the bad and the ugly , if you watch Lee Van Cleef he wears a cross draw holser . In it is a single action which you can see the nipples that they put the caps on. Don’t recall seeing caps on them . But in his gun belt he carries cartridges . Just one of those things you can catch also near the end if you happen to look between buildings you can see a bus go by .

      1. I remember the scene but when I looked at other pictures, I was reminded of the common cartridge conversions which had 6 firing pins on the back of the cylinder which allowed BP cartridges to be used. Usually a full cylinder carried for a quicker reload. Eastwood used similar revolvers in his other movies like when he was the Preacher. They sure look like nipples but I’m betting they were cartridge conversion models.

    2. Lots of opinions here from lots of good folks, and perhaps all are true and valid except for one thing: They disregard the fact that in an actual life or death home invasion situation, the family member who has trained his or her self with a single action revolver isn’t always the actual defender.. I respectfully submit a 4 inch barrel .38 double action revolver is the absolute best defense weapon since even a child can point and shoot it with little or no training whatsoever. Personally, that’s what I have beside the bed although owning and shooting my single actions is a lot of fun.

    3. i was raised with a 2nd generation Colt in 45 colt.
      belonged to my uncle, i now own it.
      plus i also own a Ruger black hawk in 44 mag, and a Ruger 357 magnum Maximum, which ammo is getting harder to find for that one.
      plus my Smith& Wesson’s.
      .don’t get to shoot like i used to, but do when i can.

    4. The single greatest overlooked market for gun makers is the average potential home defense gun owner. The gun needs to be smaller than macho Blackhawks and macho .357 etc. what ever the author said. They should have a 4″ barrel and be chambered in .38 special. Single actions revolvers are safer, really good at shooting with one hand, and point really well. The manual of arms is simple where as there are many different manual of arms for autos all which require more practice than the average potential home defense gun owner can do. Racking the slide is harder than cocking the hammer except single action revolvers are too damn big.

      Ruger would make a killing with a scaled 9mm Single Six. Make the cylinder shorter to reduce the gun length and weight. What a waste all the empty space in 38 Special cases. Unloading a 9mm is the same as any other cartridge. A 4″ barrel provides plenty of velocity and will reduce the weight over a longer barrel.

      The average potential home defense gun owner.

    5. For some people with felony convictions, a single-action cap-and-ball revolver may be all that is legally available to them.

    6. It really is not the pistol. It really is ones techniques and tactics. If you want to lose an armed contact, just do what Marshal Dillon does. Stand still, draw one handed. Extend arm fully, then shoot. And, of course, Marshal Dillon had no after action paperwork.

    7. Single-action revolvers are a popular defensive carry option in bear country. Many Ruger Blackhawks ride around in belt and shoulder holsters throughout Alaska. No nonsense and ultimately reliable when your life depends on it. They are also great hunting guns!

    8. I’m retired and I’m looking to have my personal gun licese I’m in N.Y. and you know how hard it would be.

        1. ‘If I owned Texas and Hell I would rent out Texas and live in Hell’ – General William Tecumseh Sherman. ‘Nuff said.

            1. @RAS…Some people insist on opening their mouth and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt how stupid they are .

      1. Michael, you see, Cody’s gun functioned the same as later SAAs. It used regular brass cartridges and bullets like we still use today, but smokeless powder was not invented until decades later, so black powder was the propellant.

    9. If you look at many of the old texts on shooting these guns in self-defense, you see that vertically raising the gun on the target, while cocking it, and then firing it as it comes on target, is the answer to the whole “to cock or not to cock” argument. This can be done very smoothly and quickly with practice. The amount of sight refinement (or simply pointing when close) depends on distance and time available. The problem comes in when someone cocks the gun in preparation for conflict, and then points it in areas of potential danger. Now you get the flinch and accidental discharge problem. By making the act of aiming and firing a (quick!) deliberate three step process; raise, cock, pull trigger, you are probably safer and only slightly slower then the individual who has his DA only gun pointed in at all times.

      1. The practice of raising the muzzle up after each shot fired comes from the cap and ball revolver. The hammer hits the cap like a hammer hits a nail. The copper caps of the day where much softer back then and would often break into pecies. These would fall down into the frame and jam the action. Tipping the muzzle up as it was cocked would let them fall free. The act of pulling the hammer back as the gun came back down was just economy of motion. It was just developing muscle memory. The rear sight on these revolves was in the hammer requiring the hammer to be cocked. Most actual combat shooting then as now was at close range and the sights aren’t used. Some shooter are either tought this way or see it done and pick it up. If you take up bullseye shooting especially on most indoor ranges this isn’t allowed for obvious reasons.

        1. Mr. Furbush is correct. When the Colt was originally invented, if the cap didn’t fall away it would sometimes jam the action. Also, its easier to lift the muzzle on any single action to cock the pistol after the first shot if you cock it with the shooting hand. The weapon recoiled upward, the thumb reached for the hammer and you cocked the pistol as you brought it down from recoil. I also tend to cock double action revolvers for most of my shooting. Its more accurate.
          Elton P. Green SSG USA Inf. (Ret.)

          1. Glad to see I’m not the only person who does this! Got a lot of looks at the range when I was running my snub nosed like an Colt.

            1. Yep, I do it all the time with my M629 and M29. Cocking a double action lets you use the lighter single action trigger pull, and keeps one from pulling the sights off the target. This, your chances of a first round hit are greatly increased. I can hit a rabbit with the M29 6 1/2 inch barrel .44 at 60 yards easy that way. Try doing that using the double action pull. The only reason to shoot double action is if you’re in a hurry and your target is close. And yes, I always use sights on both single action and double action revolvers. It isn’t the first shot that counts. Its the first good hit.
              Elton P. Green SSG USA, Inf. (Ret.)

    10. I would note that it isn’t actually the hammer mounted firing pin that gives rise to the problem of a blow to the hammer setting off a round, but the lack of some type of interrupter mechanism to hold the firing pin off the primer(if a live round is carried under the hammer) while the hammer is ‘at rest’. W/o some interrupter system the hammer is never truly at rest, rather the firing pin rests on the live round’s primer, and is held off its stop only by the primer. Surely the definition of “an accident waiting to happen.
      I had Ruger Bearcat fire in exactly this way, and the Bearcat has a frame mounted firing pin, but no transfer bar. OFC, the transfer bar is far from the only way to address this problem, Older Smith & Wesson DAs have the firing pin on the hammer, but are rendered perfectly safe by the rebound slide, a device that won’t let the hammer go all the way forward unless the trigger is held fully rearward.
      This might seem a little technical, but there is danger in assuming that it is the frame mounted firing pin that makes the gun safe from this problem, as under that mis-perception, guns like the Ruger Bearcat would seem to not have this problem, but they do. And guns like the older Smith’s would seem to have it, but they don’t…

    11. “The gunfight is not won by the first shot, but by the first hit.” — Bill Jordan
      Can’t say it much better than that.

    12. A single action revolver has been my primary carry gun for over fifty years. These days it’s a Ruger Single Seven, 4 5/8″ barrel, in .327 Federal Magnum, with a 3 3/4″ bird’s head model on the way. I just like em, and they work great for me.

      1. I second this comment as that is my carry gun. It is a real nice shooting revolver with seven cartridges. I just really like it and it just seems to acquire targets nice and fast. Everyone I show it to likes it also and the most common comment is how well it fits the hand,

      2. How are those? I’m a single action man myself but I have a Charter Arms in .327 and I love the ability to load all those different round in there (I’m in love with the .32 s&w now) so I looked into a single seven but the not having a half cock turned me off.

      1. SD shooting is a lot like a knife fight in a phone booth. It’s real close and real quick. 98% are over in 8 seconds with 3 to 5 rounds fired by all involved. The weapon used and caliber is only a secondary factor. A bullet is a bullet and when you’re shot you’re shot. I learned that much in 33 years as a cop, 7 of them LAPD

    13. There are better options however I always tell people carry the best option for you. There are plenty of quality belt holsters and many Kydex makers that can put some reasonable rigs together for concealed options. I recommend avoiding the low slung cowboy holsters for retention reasons. Make sure your using the appropriate caliber and ammo combo for self defense and not hunting elk or bear in a crowded room. That tends to be an issue with those I know carrying single actions. A 44 full house magnum with a 250 hard cast flat nose is a poor choice in a church or diner.
      Whatever your choice get trained, get educated and carry.

    14. Always think of what happens with the local prosecutor after a shooting regardless of your gun or situation. So you protect and win the fight. But you had to pull the hammer back (Yes, yes, I know-only way the gun fires-I get it–trolls shut the hell up) BUT the prosecutor can still claim you had murderous intent to fire the gun with the hammer manually pulled back (this has been done many times with double action revolvers). A legal argument you must then fight to overcome and win or else!
      A single action is certainly far better than nothing, but I would not promote the use of one over that of a double action (since we are talking revolvers in this article–NOT semis–trolls again, please shut the hell up).

      1. What law school did you not graduate from? When did you pass the bar and become a county attorney qualified to percent an indictment to a grand jury? SD shootings are not a crime. If you’re state of mind was exculpatory eveadence anyone deciding to carry any type of firearm would be accused of a predisposition to shoot another person in self defense. The single action revolver is no more of a legal liability than any other weapon. Lawenforcement agency’s started switching to DA only revolves and pistols because most cops not only can’t shoot worth a piss, they tend to be the most unsafe people in the world when handling a firearm. I spent 33 years in lawenforcement the things I saw some of these otherwise competent people do with guns would curle you’re toes. Most people don’t become cops because they like guns. Most of them struggle to meet a generous minimum standard of skill to keep their job. I like guns and shooting, but I needed a fulltime job as well. They have a high rate of ADs because fingers get on triggers when they don’t belong there. The partial cure for that is a heavy trigger pull. The majority of civilian handgun owners are better trained and more competent in the use of the weapons they use and carry for protection. Having trained both I’ve seen this most of the time. Unless You’re weapon has a mechanical defect that you knew or should have known about and you ended up shooting someone you had no lawful reason to shoot you’re not committing a crime and you’re weapon isn’t a factor deciding if you’re going to be charged. In a civil tourt the plaintiff has the 100% burdun of proof that both you and you’re weapon are inherently unsafe and you acted in a reckless and negligent manner. The fact that booth SA revolves and pistols have been around for over 160 years and are still in common usage invalidates that argument. The bottom line is the actions you took are what will determine if you’re going to be charged with a crime or sued not the weapon you choose.

    15. I would offer that you left out one of the premier SA manufacturers, Uberti. I purchased one of their revolvers, around 1980, with two cylinders, 44 mag & 44-40. I’ve shot and enjoyed both calibers a lot over the years. Kenda Lenseigne, world and national mounted cowboy action shooter is sponsored by and a spokeswoman for Uberti now. Their SA’s are very reasonably priced ($450-$480). I’d put them up against just about any other.

      1. He did mention the Italian replica manufactures. I also have a Uberti 1873 SAA in .45 colt it is beautiful and a blast to shoot, but with a 71/2 inch barrel not really made for CC. But functions great in my cross draw cavalry flap holster on horseback.

      2. @Van, I agree. I have three Uberti SAs. A matched set of ten shot .22 caliber Shot Show features, and a “Doc Holiday” from Uberit’s first Doc Holiday run. Every one is as well made, balanced, and fit as well as any original Colt that I own. But my barbecue pistol is a fully engraved, nickel, second gen.Colt with genuine Ivory furniture.

    16. I have several single-action “safe mode” Ruger Blackhawks and even more double-action revolvers, including modern Rugers and S&Ws. The latter are cached safely and fully loaded around the home, having never jumped out of their safes and killed anyone on their own. To paraphrase Garry James in his reviews of classic firearms, “I would not feel under-armed using any of them in defense of myself and my family”, especially using modern SD ammo and speed loaders.

    Leave a Comment 37 Comments

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *