Here’s a Brief Look at the History of Revolvers

No look at firearms would be complete without a section on the history of revolvers. They were the first truly successful attempt to overcome one of the main limitations of guns – the fact that they must be reloaded. Historically, this usually meant a time-consuming, laborious process of pouring powder down the muzzle, inserting the projectile, and setting off a controlled explosion near the breach just to fire the weapon once.  As this could take a minute or more, the shooter faced 60-plus seconds during which he was vulnerable to counter-attack.

Pre-Revolver Designs

One of the earliest attempts to overcome the reloading problem was made by the Chinese around the year 1500.  Known as a pole gun, it had three separate barrels attached to a central staff.  All three were pre-loaded before combat began, and each was fired one at a time by holding a flame or smoldering wick to a touch hole.  For its time, this was a devastating advantage, though accuracy was nearly non-existent, and once all the barrels were fired the trio had to be reloaded.

The first true revolver, in the sense of a gun with a rotating cylinder, was created by James Puckle, who patented it in 1718.  It was actually a very early version of a machine gun, very similar to the design patented by Richard Gatling almost 150 years later in 1862.  It was reloaded by switching out cylinders, achieving a fire rate of 63 rounds in less than eight minutes.  For its time period, this was a phenomenal accomplishment.

An English inventor named Elisha Collier developed a flintlock weapon with a revolving cylinder in 1818, but it was limited by its use of black powder and inefficient mechanism.  Nonetheless, it served as inspiration to the man whom history credits with creating the revolver as we understand the term today.

Samuel Colt Changes Firearms History

Even among such other famous American businessmen as J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and Bill Gates, the founder of the Colt Firearms Company stands apart.  Part visionary, part inventor, and part master salesman, Samuel Colt revolutionized the world of weaponry when he patented his “revolving gun” in 1836. 

Despite his best efforts, his invention didn’t receive widespread acceptance until over a decade later, when, in 1847, Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers placed an order for 1,000 of them.  Stories of their success in the Mexican-American War made them hugely popular among western settlers, who found that the ability to fire six shots without reloading gave them an advantage over hostile Indians. 

Colt was an amazing man in many ways, but like many great figures in history, his weaknesses were as pronounced as his strengths.  He was a notorious drinker who spent huge sums of money on his wardrobe and other personal possessions.  He was the target of intense criticism during the Civil War, when he openly sold arms to both sides.  He passed away from gout at the relatively young age of 48, a condition aggravated by his poor lifestyle choices.

He also had another critical weakness.  He was vain to a fault.  He saw any efforts to improve his designs as personal insults and routinely fired employees who suggested them.  This trait cost him dearly when he ignored one of his gunsmiths, a fellow named Rollin White.  White came up with the idea of using self-contained metal cartridges, which would eliminate the need for meticulously pouring powder into cartridges and fitting caps into the breach of the cylinder.  He presented this idea to Colt in 1852, only to have it casually dismissed. 

White patented the idea himself and then took it to a pair of entrepreneurs who were also in the firearms business, Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson.  They promptly signed a deal with the gunsmith to use his design innovation.  It made their enterprise, the Smith & Wesson firearms company, the first one on earth to manufacture weapons that use modern-day cartridges. 

Colt, however, was banned by federal patent law from doing so for the following 20 years.  This cost his company untold millions of dollars in profits and set the stage for Smith & Wesson to become America’s premier firearms company.

Twice the Action for the Same Effort

Americans like Colt and White pioneered many of the advancements history of revolvers.  However, one of the most important innovations was developed by an Englishman named Robert Adams, who patented the first double-action revolver in 1851.  While this enabled a much greater rate of fire than single-action guns, it took decades for double-action weapons to catch on.  This was due to the fact that much pre-Civil War manufacturing was done largely by hand, so the quality of springs and other vital components was often uneven.  Most people preferred a slower gun that was more reliable than one which spit out rounds quicker but might break at any time.

Improvements in assembly line techniques eventually overcame this limitation, however, and by 1877, Colt was turning out double-action revolvers, and by the early 20th century, they had all but replaced their single-action ancestors.  Single-actions are still made to this day, however.  They are carried by outdoorsmen, cowboy action shooters, and others who find their accuracy and time-tested design more important than their relatively slow rate of fire.  It just goes to show that new guns aren’t always better guns.

The Revolver Today

Auto-loading pistols first came on the scene in large numbers during the first half of the 20th century, and ever since, the revolver’s demise has been predicted over and over.  Yet, this vintage weapon design is still enormously popular, especially in .38, .357 magnum, and 44. magnum versions.  Heritage Manufacturing of Florida makes old west-style single-action revolvers in many calibers, and so-called “hammerless” revolvers are very popular among both civilians and law enforcement for concealed carry purposes.  With well over 100 years of proven performance to recommend it, the revolver is assured of its place in firearms history.

Learning Curve

Revolvers are much simpler mechanically than pistols, and this is a huge advantage for occasional shooters.  Learning to load, aim, shoot, disassemble, clean, and reassemble a weapon that uses magazines is no casual set of skills.  Yet, without doing so correctly and on a regular basis, using an autoloader can be at best unreliable and at worst a disaster.  Many pistols are prone to jamming with very little provocation.

A revolver, on the other hand, can be loaded and set aside until and unless it’s needed for a defensive situation.  For someone who doesn’t want to spend his or her weekends at the target range, this is a distinct advantage.  Of course, every weapon should be practiced with regularly, but in today’s world, this doesn’t always happen.


The shape of a revolver lends itself to concealment, unlike pistols, which tend to stand out because of the frame’s squared-off butt.  The revolver’s rounded edges make undercover carry a simpler affair.  Some gun users disagree with this, citing the bulk of the cylinder.  However, circular shapes blend much more easily into the shape of the human body.


So, Navy SEALs or SWAT personnel shouldn’t execute raids on terrorist cells or drug cartel meth labs using wheel guns.  However, the odds of the average person running into such a scenario are extremely remote.  The vast majority of defensive shooting situations are close quarter affairs that are over in a few seconds.  For such situations, the revolver, especially in its hammerless versions, is ideal.  It gives the citizen quick access to five or six rounds to dispatch the bad guy with, more than enough to handle 99% of confrontations with street thugs.  Additionally, a good one can be had for as little as $200.00, as opposed to quality auto-pistols that can cost $500.00 or more.

Still a Fine Weapon

Sometimes the old ways are the best ways.  With almost 200 years of proven performance, the history of revolvers proves that it still deserves its place in the world of firearms.  Dury’s Guns is the place to buy one from.  Our painstaking attention to detail and unbeatable guarantee makes us the dealer of choice for premium pre-owned firearms.  Browse our site and place your order today.

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