This is a guest post by my author friend, William R. Bartlett. It continues his discussion of all things firearms. Part 1, Introduction, was published in late October. Today, Bill explains how single action revolvers work and describes some common writing blunders. Enjoy and bookmark! 

A Writer’s Guide to Firearms by William R. Bartlett

Part 3 (cont’d): Double Action Revolvers

Operation of Double Action Revolvers

Colt Python revolver | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books


Most double action revolvers, like the Colt Python, have a hinged cylinder that swings to the left side of the frame when the cylinder release latch is activated. This exposes all of the cylinders to facilitate loading and extraction of spent cartridges. A spring-loaded extraction rod is attached to the cylinder and, when pressed, ejects all of the cartridges, spent or otherwise, at the same time. There is at least one major exception, and I’ll touch on it later, but this is by far the more popular style. After the cylinder is opened and empty cartridges are ejected, the cylinder can be loaded. All of the chambers are exposed, which makes loading faster and easier. In addition, speed loaders are commercially available. These are little cylinders of plastic or aluminum that hold cartridges in the same spacing as the revolver cylinders. Simply insert the cartridges held in the speed loader into the cylinder and either twist a knob or push a button (different manufacturers have different methods) and all of the cartridges are deposited into the cylinder at the same time. After loading the cylinder, it’s swung back into the frame and is ready to aim and fire. One can pull the hammer back to full cock, like a single action, prior to pulling the trigger. This is not possible with a ‘hammerless’ revolver. A shroud covers the hammer and prevents the shooter from manually cocking the weapon. The alternative to manually cocking the hammer on a double action revolver is to simply pull the trigger. This is the only way to shoot a hammerless revolver. When the hammer is down and the trigger is pulled, a double action revolver will rotate the cylinder and cock the hammer, before dropping it on the firing pin and shooting the round. After all the ammunition is shot, the shooter activates the cylinder release catch, swings the cylinder out to the left side and presses the ejector rod, thereby dispensing of all the spent cartridges at the same time. The weapon can then be reloaded or stored.

Advantages of Double Action Revolvers

Double action revolvers are loaded more quickly than single action revolvers. They are also faster to eject spent cartridges. Double action revolvers can be fired more quickly, too. All it takes is a simple pull of the trigger and the cylinder revolves, is locked into place and the hammer is automatically cocked and released. Shooting in single action mode is always an option and, time permitting, is generally a more accurate way to shoot. Shooting in double action mode keeps the sights in general alignment for subsequent shots and the hand is always in position for another shot.

Disadvantages of Double Action Revolvers

Cocking the hammer by pulling the trigger takes more effort. This additional effort can result in muzzle wobble and loss of accuracy. The cylinder release latch can be triggered by an opponent during a confrontation involving physical grappling. While technically possible, it’s more likely that the weapon could be removed from the hand.

Writing failures

As with semi-automatic handguns, simple errors can cost the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. Here are a few:

  • Inserting a weapon into any waistband. Revolvers typically utilize more steel in construction and their weight shows it. They’re too heavy for the light elastic in many garments to hold the weapon safely. A holster on a belt, either threaded through slots or clipped on, is always the safest way to carry a revolver.
  • Shooting too many times. Most revolvers hold either five or six rounds. I’ve seen films where a single revolver was fired twelve times in rapid succession without reloading. The writer should decide what weapon the character will carry and do the research.
  • Failure to sight on the target. As with the semi-automatic, the sights are simple. A blade front sight is aligned with a notch rear sight and both are aligned with the target. Because of the increased amount of force to cock the hammer when firing in double action, as stated before, the muzzle can waver and be off target. Professionals are aware of this and practice a barely-noticeable pause when the hammer reaches full cock. At that point, only the slightest amount of effort is required to fire the weapon.
  • Failure to account for the noise. This is the last time I’ll mention this since it’s true of all firearms. However, since handguns are easier to use in close quarters such as a home or office, it’s worthy of one last mention. Regardless of the cartridge used, all of them will be louder indoors, even at a range with sound baffling.


British Webley revolver | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Photo: Wikipedia

Some double action revolvers, such as the British Webley service revolver, had a hinge at the lower front of the frame. Referred to as ‘top break’ revolvers, a latch located on the top of the frame at the breech secures the frame in firing position. When released, the barrel and cylinder pivot downward, ejecting spent cartridges while leaving the cylinders open for reloading. This style, although a competitor with Colt for the Army contract following the American Civil War, isn’t as popular as the style where the cylinder swings out to the side.

Some revolvers that look like single action handguns are actually a hybrid. Loading and the extraction of empty cartridges are performed like a single action, but the weapon has the option of a double action trigger pull which will cock the hammer when the trigger is pulled. The shooter has the option of either single action or double action shooting.

Since all revolvers move the cylinder before they can fire, any revolver can be rendered inoperative by holding the cylinder to keep it from moving, such as during an altercation wherein two individuals are grappling. A physical obstruction, such as sand, for example, can also keep the cylinder from turning. Once the revolver is cocked, a cylinder is already in battery and can be fired, regardless of whether or not the cylinder is held, although a hand placed between the hammer and firing pin can keep the weapon from shooting. If the trigger is pulled when a hand is intentionally obstructing operation, it may result in a laceration. The severity of the injury would depend on how far the hammer traveled before it encountered flesh.

I hope this helps with your writing. The next installment will cover rifles.