The purpose of this article is not to make the case for the single action (“cowboy”) revolver as the ultimate survival handgun. Nor do I suggest that the prepper select one as a defensive handgun for long-term survival. Realistically, a Glock or other modern semi-auto handgun is a better defensive tool for the vast majority of people.
Instead, I am arguing that the single action revolver not be disregarded by someone who already owns one, is new to prepping, and is probably on a budget. Huge numbers of single action revolvers are out there– many of them in the hands of people who enjoy Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS) as a sport. Hunters have also been big purchasers of single actions, mostly in practical hunting calibers such as .44 Magnum, .45 Colt, and .357 Magnum. In fact, if an outdoor enthusiast owns just one handgun, there’s a good chance it’s a Ruger Blackhawk in .357 or .44 Magnum.
Let’s look at how a single action revolver can be used effectively for defense, until a better defensive arm can be purchased, and how it can continue to be a useful part of a prepper’s battery. The single action can still be a fairly efficient handgun, in the right hands. The overall design is obsolescent, but the single action should not be dismissed out of hand.
If you find yourself in possession of a single action revolver, it’s good to know a little bit about it. The original Colt Single Action Army (SAA) dates back to 1873. From the start, the SAA was a big step forward, combining good handling qualities with an effective caliber (.45 Colt) and using centerfire ammunition and a sturdy, simple design. It was more reliable than the cap-and-ball revolvers that had preceded it, but more important was that it could be reloaded much more quickly. Over the years, it has been offered in a wide variety of calibers and variations. In spite of two production halts during its history, the Colt survives and is still being made, although replicas of Colt single actions are more affordable than current Colt production. Replica Colts, along with replicas of Remingtons, Smith & Wessons, and other frontier era single actions are popular with reenactors, cowboy action shooters, and those who enjoy the look and feel of the originals. The quality varies, but many of them are at least as well-made as the 19th century designs they resemble.
The first big improvements to the Colt single action came in 1955, in the form of the Ruger Blackhawk. Like the Colt, the Ruger has seen a host of calibers and variants. The current New Model Blackhawk is somewhat larger than the original Single Action Army and much stronger. It is used as a hunting revolver by many, and it has allowed the .45 Colt to reach its full potential in powerful, heavy bullet handloads that would destroy any SAA or similar revolver.
The current production Blackhawk features first-rate metallurgy, coil springs, and a transfer bar system that allows it to be carried safely fully loaded with six rounds. Note that early Blackhawks, like the original Colt single actions, could only be safely loaded with five cartridges. The grip frame is also larger than the original SAA and is favored by many with large hands. Overall, the Blackhawk is a big, strong, powerful revolver that has become the standard handgun for many who venture into bear country, although the debate on the “ideal” bear defense handgun rages constantly and will likely never be resolved. In my part of the country, the dangerous animals one is more likely to encounter are feral hogs, and the “perfect” handgun for defense against hogs is also a subject of intense debate.
Two very popular variants of the Blackhawk are the Ruger Vaquero (“Cowboy” in Spanish) and the New Vaquero. The former was the Blackhawk redesigned for a “cowboy” look, with a front sight that looks like that of the Colt SAA, along with the traditional fixed rear sight that is cut into the top strap of the frame. The Vaquero was the same size as the Blackhawk, and it was popular with cowboy action shooters, as well as outdoor people who wanted a strong, simple, powerful revolver. Now replaced by the New Vaquero, the original Vaquero is still available on the used market.
The Ruger New Vaquero is intended for the cowboy action market. It is essentially a fully modern single action that is sized almost exactly like the original Single Action Army, complete with a grip frame that feels just like a 19th-century Colt, yet its transfer bar system makes it safe to carry fully-loaded with six rounds. In addition to its appeal to cowboy action shooters, it has found favor with many of us with small- or medium-sized hands. The New Vaquero is a revolver of modest size, combining excellent handling qualities with high reliability and is my personal pick for a single action revolver.
Caliber-wise, single actions have been offered in a staggering array of calibers– from 19th century cartridges like the .32-20, .38-40, .44-40, and the .45 Colt to more recent additions like the .454 Casull. Most outdoors people, however, will probably be best served by one of the three most popular calibers– either the .357 Magnum, the .44 Magnum, or the .45 Colt. With proper ammo choice, any of the three are up to the task of dealing with most dangerous game and are more than suitable for the hunting of deer and similar-sized animals. Any of the three could also be pressed into self-defense in time of need.
For the person who doesn’t reload, the .357 Magnum is the best choice, as it can also take .38 Special. It is also the most cost-effective caliber, whether the owner reloads or not. All in all, it’s a superb caliber choice for a single action revolver, and it may well be the most popular caliber for outdoors people who carry an SA revolver. For defense, the .38+P hollowpoint loads are very easy to control. I favor the .38+P lead semi-wadcutter hollow point (LSWCHP), which is commonly referred to as the “FBI Load.”
The .44 Magnum offers excellent power, but it’s only available in larger-framed revolvers like the Ruger Blackhawk. By using reduced .44 Magnum loads or by shooting .44 Special ammunition, recoil and muzzle blast can be reduced, while maintaining more than enough power for most tasks. The great disadvantage of the .44 Magnum is expensive factory ammo. This has helped its popularity with handloaders.
The .45 Colt provides good power at fairly low pressures and with modest recoil. The drawback is that it’s even more of a handloader’s cartridge than the .44 Magnum. Ammo for the .45 Colt is expensive and generally limited to three types– (1) very light “cowboy” loads, (2) loads for .410/.45 “shotgun” pistols, and (3) jacketed hollow-point self-defense cartridges. The cowboy loads are too mild for general usefulness, and .410/.45 shot cartridges are of dubious value beyond very short range. The JHP self-defense loads are more useful but may not be a great choice for hunting. Unfortunately, the .45 Colt JHP loads can be hard to find on store shelves.
Fortunately, the .45 Colt is very easy to handload, with a vast array of load data and components available. Simply find data for a 250- or 255-grain semi-wadcutter lead bullet at around 850-900 fps with pressures within SAAMI specs for the .45 Colt, and you have a load that can be used for a variety of game and can be fired from any .45 Colt revolver in good condition. Recoil should not be a problem in a single action revolver, and it isn’t difficult to lay aside a goodly number of carefully-crafted handloads for hunting or varmint elimination.
Shooting the Single Action
Almost everything in the movies about using a single action revolver is wrong. “Fanning”– the practice of holding the trigger back and repeatedly slapping the hammer with the non-gun hand– will quickly batter a revolver’s internal parts to the point of uselessness. Whether done by Clint Eastwood in “A Fistful of Dollars,” or by Mark Wahlberg in “2 Guns,” it is a way of missing your target and ruining a firearm. A single action can be fired quickly and with accuracy, but a better technique is needed.
I have seen and tried three ways of gripping a single action. The first is to simply grip it with the gun hand as high as possible on the grip. The middle finger may be pressed against the back of the trigger guard. A firm grasp keeps the gun from rolling too far back in recoil. In the second method, the shooter’s little finger is curled or hooked under the butt of the revolver. This keeps the gun from rolling back and seems to work well for shooters with large hands. The third method involves pressing the thumb of the gun hand against the rear of the recoil shield, next to the hammer. This is another way of controlling the movement of the revolver in recoil. I caution you to try this third method with light loads at first. I find it painful with anything stronger than cowboy loads. The second method puts my hand too far down on the grip to reach the hammer, so I use the first method.
A single action is best fired with two hands– the strong hand grips the gun and works the trigger, while the weak hand cocks the hammer for each shot. This method is surprisingly fast and accurate with practice. Some shooters use the weak hand as both a support hand and for cocking the hammer, while others use the weak hand in a light, “floating” grip which does little to support the gun and mainly just cocks the hammer.
One-handed shooting is slower than two-handed but can still be faster than one might expect. Beginners sometimes roll the gun back in their hands and hook the thumb joint over the hammer to cock the revolver, but this requires the shooter to re-acquire a shooting grip before firing. Speed and accuracy will both suffer. I use the last part of my gun hand thumb to reach up and cock the hammer, allowing me to maintain a shooting grip while cocking. I try to pull the hammer back, rather than rocking the gun forward. As the hammer comes all the way back and locks in place, my thumb “slips” off it to the side and drops down to form the complete shooting grip before firing.
The trigger on many single actions is rather good, which contributes to practical accuracy with them. The hammer is heavy and travels in a large arc (adding to lock time, at least in theory). A good grip and follow-through after squeezing the trigger help in accurate shooting with a single action revolver (and with any handgun).
Single action sights are often good, as well. The Ruger Blackhawk has crisp, fully-adjustable sights. Many single actions have the old style, with the rounded blade front sight and the grooved top strap for a rear sight. In spite of its primitive appearance, the traditional sights can still be used to good effect, especially on blued guns. A polished stainless revolver with old-style sights is the most difficult to shoot accurately, as the front blade is very hard to see clearly in bright sunlight. A simple fix is to make a small hole near the bottom of a paper bag. Insert the revolver and poke the front sight up through the hole. Use some masking tape to seal the hole around the base of the sight blade. Use some more tape to close the open end of the bag. Give the front blade two LIGHT coats of flat black spray paint. This paint can be easily touched up, and it can be safely removed, if desired, with gentle use of a Chore Boy copper scrub pad.
There are a number of YouTube videos that show how to shoot a single action revolver. Some of the best are by World Champion Cowboy Action Shooter Jim Finch, a.k.a. “Long Hunter.” He emphasizes efficiency in “running” the various cowboy guns. He provides a lot of useful hints and tips, which should be a big help to beginning shooters. Even though he’s shooting light loads, it’s still amazing to see how fast he can shoot a cowboy revolver. Many of his techniques can be applied to shooting with full-power loads.
Loading and Reloading the Single Action
As traditional single actions are not safe when fully loaded with a round under the hammer, many experienced shooters have taken to loading five rounds in all single actions, leaving an empty chamber under the hammer. To do this, the procedure is:
- Load one round
- Skip one chamber, leaving it empty
- Load four rounds
- For Modern Rugers only, continue rotating until the next chamber lines up with the barrel, then close loading gate. For Colt-type revolvers, fully cock and gently lower the hammer on the empty chamber.
- Practice this procedure with fired (empty) brass until you’re sure that you are lowering the hammer over an empty chamber. Although this method is not necessary with modern arms with transfer bars that prevent firing if the hammer is struck, it is a good safety practice, especially if you own one or more traditional single actions.
I hold the revolver in my left hand and feed in the cartridges with my right. My left thumb rotates the cylinder. The revolver is pointing nearly straight down, so gravity helps the rounds to drop in.
Some practitioners operate the ejector with their weak-hand index finger while rotating the cylinder with the thumb, thus freeing the strong hand to load the fresh rounds. Typically, they eject an empty and load a round before moving to the next chamber. This allows them to do the 19th century version of the “tactical” reload– reloading a partially empty gun. It also means that there is ammo in the gun as soon as possible, in case there is not enough time to fully load the revolver.
My hands are not big enough to work the ejector with the left hand, so to reload I angle the muzzle upward and keep it pointing downrange. I open the loading gate (freeing the cylinder in a Ruger) and rotate the cylinder slightly to line up the first fired cylinder with the loading gate. I operate the ejector with the right hand, then rotate the revolver to a muzzle-down position to load that chamber. I then repeat the process until all fired chambers are loaded.
One trick used by some people who carry .45 ACP single action revolvers is to carry one or more 1911 magazines for reloads. The magazine is easier to handle than individual rounds. They thumb rounds from the magazine into the cylinder. I do this with my index finger around the front of the the mag, just below the rounds coming out of it. The back of my finger presses against the revolver, preventing the magazine from scratching the finish. Loading from a magazine takes practice, but it’s less prone to fumbling.
Can a cowboy revolver be used for self-defense? Yes, but there are better choices. I would much rather have a modern 9mm, such as a Glock, SIG, Springfield, Smith & Wesson, or Ruger, if I had to defend myself. The semi-auto is easier to shoot quickly and accurately, has greater capacity, and is much faster to reload. Some people will tell you that most gunfights only require a few shots. That may be true, but many violent crimes involve more than one attacker. I had a Taurus Model 85CH– a 5-shot, snub-nosed .38 Special revolver– when at least three people tried an invasion of our home several years ago. As I waited in the dark and listened to the assault on my front door, I wondered if I would be able to stop them all. The steel door outlasted their attempts to kick it in, thank God. So, I never found out.
That said, the single action revolver, if chambered for an effective caliber, would not be the worst choice. You definitely could defend yourself with one, but a situation could arise, such as a home invasion with multiple assailants, that would be better handled with a different firearm. Regardless of what you have, though, you should do your best to acquire the skills to use it efficiently and effectively.