The Single-Action Revolver for Self-Defense

Single-Action Circus

Single-Action Circus

Stepping into the firing booth, I reached low inside my vest; pulled the 4.62″ barreled .357 Ruger Blackhawk from its cross-draw holster, reached into vest pocket, and retrieved the 125 grain, .357 magnum rounds that resided there. With a slightly unpracticed hand, the Ruger was loaded and I commenced to christen a newly posted target.

Sliding it back into the holster, I reached across with my left hand, pulled the 6.5″ .357 Blackhawk from its Hunter’s 1090 holster, loaded it, and fired six more rounds left-handed with close to equal accuracy, and returned it to its rightful place. (I believe a Western ‘pistolero’ would call this a “Texas Reload”).

The Ruger SA revolvers just melted into my hand; they always have. Something about firing an old Colt SA or a Ruger SA revolver just appeals to me. I guess that it goes along with my love of lever-action rifles and double-barreled, short-barreled shotguns. When I look down the barrel of a single-action revolver, seeing the extraction tube sitting next to that barrel, it reminds me of driving an old car that has fenders – real fenders and a hood ornament mounted way out on the radiator. The view looking down that long hood always gave me a sense of pleasure – Like looking down the 7 1/2″ barrel of a single-action handgun in .45 Colt. I digress, however.

I shot a couple more of cylinder-full rounds, cleared the weapon, and returned it to its resting place. Looking at the target, it really got me to thinking about using a single-action revolver, in today’s times, for self-defense. I still consider it a viable weapon even with all the semi-autos and double-action revolvers that are out there today.

Some might call me a Reformed Luddite; I accept technology and its benefits and necessity in our modern age. As a Reformed Luddite; however, I attempt to limit the de-humanization of technology in day-to-day interactions with other people. I do not own a cell phone, an I-pad, Droid or Kindle. I use a computer for my writing but only for the fact that I can change my words more easily than with a typewriter, check grammar, and correct spelling airors errors. I do own high-capacity semi-automatic pistols and even a couple of semi-automatic rifles. While I enjoy the benefits of such, my first love is with the single-action revolver, lever action rifles and short, double-barreled shotguns.

Relegated to the written memories of cowboys past, the single-action revolver still enjoys use among those just learning about firearms, the occasional plinking shooter, and the CAS (Cowboy Action Shooting) and SASS (Single Action Shooting Society) crowd. With the proliferation of large-capacity semi-automatic pistols and double-action revolvers on the market today, the single-action revolver remains in the background and perhaps, according to some, rightly so as its usefulness in today’s self-defense auditorium is questionable.

Granted, if you are not Bob Munden or one of those fast single-action shooters that are around today, the single-action revolver may not be your first choice of defensive carry nor as a house gun. However, if single-action revolvers were not still popular, why would the Gunsight Academy offer a specialty course in single action revolver self-defense?

For the early part of the 1800s, firearms were muzzle loading rifles, shotguns, and pistols. The percussion cap was still replacing the flintlock. Non-existent was a rotating-cylinder handgun. By the late 1800s, cartridge firearms had replaced muzzle-loaders, and rifles might be bolt action, pump, lever action, or semi-auto (Mexico had a semi auto military rifle in the 1890s). Handguns were usually revolvers or derringers, but some early auto loading pistols were on the market. The double- barreled shotgun was still king, but was starting to be replaced by pump or lever action shotguns.

Firearms of the 1800s would cost anywhere from 1-100 USD or more (12-1200 USD in today’s money). Considered as a lot of money at the time, firearms were well cared for as they may mean the difference when protecting life, limb, and property.

From 1836 until the advent of the 1911 Government Model, which was simply the packing of the .45 caliber projectile into a modern self-cocking pistol, the single-action was king. The Colt Single Action Army (also known as the Model P, Peacemaker, M1873, Single Action Army, SAA, and Colt 45) is a single action revolver with a revolving cylinder holding six metallic cartridges. Designed for the U.S. Government service revolver trials of 1872 by Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company (today Colt’s Manufacturing Company) it became the standard military service revolver until 1892. Meanwhile, Colt introduced the double-action revolver in 1877 with the .38 Lightning and the .41 Thunderer. Both Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday took up purchase of the newfangled six-guns, but most six-gunners stayed with their single-actions. After all, they worked just fine, thank you.

My first introduction to the single-action revolver was in the mid-nineteen seventies when I purchased an Iver Johnson “Cattleman” in .44 magnum caliber. The gun proved to be great as a dental tool when an over-loaded factory round caused the gun to blow out a chamber and one of my canine teeth when the hammer imbedded itself in my upper lip. I carry the scar still to this day. About six years had passed before I handled a single-action revolver again: a Ruger Super Blackhawk. You can imagine my trepidation at shooting, once again, a powerful round as the .44 magnum (the most powerful handgun in the world – at that time) but the heavy and well-built Ruger Super Blackhawk handled the round with aplomb and I was hooked on Ruger single-action revolvers. Over the years, I have owned quite a few Ruger single-action revolvers with the Blackhawk chambered in .38 special/.357 magnum being my favorite for its versatility as both a handgun and rifle round. Though there are some fine copies of early single-action revolvers from Uberti and others, the Ruger single-action appeases my sense of safety and reliability.

With that said, allow me to express my thoughts, as well as others, about the single-action six-gun for self-defense.

With training, no handgun is any faster for the first shot from leather than a single-action. As single-action shooters claim, “We are talking an aimed shot, not just clearing leather and blasting away.”

Chuck Hawks puts it this way; “The single action (SA) revolver must be manually cocked before the trigger will fire the weapon. These are the traditional ‘western’ style guns, such as the Colt Single Action Army and Ruger Blackhawk and Vaquero models. Such guns are slow to reload, but powerful, accurate and deadly when the whistle blows. Their ‘plow handle’ grip shape fits most hands exceedingly well, making accurate fire comparatively easy. They can be fired rapidly from a two handed hold by cocking the piece with the thumb of the off hand.

Somewhat like auto-loading pistols, I regard SA revolvers as an entirely satisfactory choice for home defense, particularly for experienced shooters. Single-action “wheel-guns” are not; however, the very best self-defense choice of weapons for the casual user.

Naturally, single-action revolvers fall behind in the re-loading department. Reloading a single-action revolver is much slower than reloading a semi-auto pistol or double-action revolver. Two methods for re-loading are:

  1. The empty casing are punched out from the cylinder chamber one at a time, with the extraction rod, until the cylinder is completely empty and then new rounds are inserted into the cylinder chambers one at a time until the cylinder is completely loaded, or
  2. After removing each empty case from the cylinder chamber, inserting a new round loads the chamber as you then rotate the cylinder to the next chamber; continuing until the cylinder is fully loaded. Some consider the latter method as the “tactical reload” for the single-action revolver.

Note: Load only 5 rounds on OLD single actions. More modern revolvers have safety features like transfer bar safeties and hammer block safeties etc ( such as the Ruger Blackhawk SA ) to prevent such unintended discharges. We have come a long way in safety on revolvers to get away from the “accidental discharges” due to hammer strikes. That being said , I wouldn’t have the hammer resting on a live round, in a revolver, unless it was a modern example with one of the safety features mentioned or similar.

Most handlers of the single-action revolver are used to pulling the hammer back with the thumb of the shooting hand, as was done down through the ages. The natural-plowing effect of the revolver under recoil positions the hammer almost perfectly for shooting in this style. When shooting double-handed, when using the thumb of the support hand to re-cock the revolver, and with practice, firing five or six shots of your favorite ammunition downrange in a hurry is easy. In fact, when using the thumb of the support hand, and with practice, rounds fired downrange as fast as the 1911 semi-automatic pistol is possible. I cannot say that I have been able to do this, as my left thumb is older and slower than my right thumb, but I can hold my own in using this method.

“Fanning” of the single-action revolver is not recommended as it places stress on the gun and wears internal parts must faster than simply cocking the revolver for each shot. That said, I know of shooters who’s revolver’s innards have worn to the point that the hammer will not remain in the cocked position; the shooter simply aims, pulls back the hammer, and releases it to fire the weapon.


In early single-action (cowboy) revolvers, placing the hammer in the half-cocked position allowed opening of the loading/unloading gate, which allowed rotation of the cylinder. Sturm Ruger modified that in its later offerings of the single-action revolver. With the later Ruger single-action revolvers, one only has to open the loading gate to necessitate unloading, loading, and reloading.

Ruger’s new action also allows the cylinder to “free-float”, which allows the shooter to move the cylinder in any direction to facilitate unloading/loading.

In Ruger’s rendering of common single-action pistols, there is no need to carry only five-chambered rounds like in the old days, as Ruger’s patented transfer bar safety allows you to safely carry six rounds.


Is the single-action revolver a viable tool for self-defense? With self-defense being a broad term, that includes defense against; two-legged “varmints”, four-legged furry beasts, slithering snakes, crawling reptiles, and your neighbor’s pet Komono Dragon, I would say ‘yes’ given the correct circumstances, proper caliber, adequate amounts of ammunition, proper training, and lots of practice.

Chambered for everything from .22 to the Pfeifer-Zeliska .600 Nitro Express Magnum, single-action “wheel” guns can handle just about anything that comes down the pike.

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About Taurian

Taurian is a U.S. Army veteran and former LEO and Defensive Tactics Instructor. Taurian also has over fifty years of experience as a Technical Writer and Training Program Developer. After leaving home at the age of ten without any shoes, Taurian continues on with many years devoted to the keeping and bearing of arms.

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