Five Revolvers You Should Shoot Before You Die

Every enthusiastic shooter and collector has a list of guns they want to own, or maybe just to shoot.  How to narrow it down?

Well, that is not easy.  But I have managed to narrow my recommended list of revolvers down to five.  So, without further ado, here are five revolvers you should shoot before you die, in no particular order.

Colt Single Action Army/Model P

If there is a revolver more famous than the gun variously known as the Model 1873, the Model P, the Peacemaker, the Frontier Six-Shooter, or the Single Action Army, I do not know what it might be.  It is a worthy first for this list.  Here’s why:

Not only is the Model P a staple of almost every Western movie ever made, it is without a doubt the most iconic, the most beloved single-action sixgun in the American shooting world.  It is not as modern as the Ruger Blackhawk, or as powerful as the various behemoth magnum wrist-breakers that seem to escalate up the power scale every few weeks.  But the Single Action Army, no matter what your personal firearms might be, will draw an interested second look from almost any shooter.

Introduced in 1873 and still in (Custom Shop) production today, the old Colt has never quite outlived its usefulness.  You can find these in a variety of liveries, from the 3-inch ejectorless “Storekeeper” to the 12-inch-barreled “Buntline Special.”  In the early 20th century Colt built some 1st generation guns in a “Flat-top” target version with better sights, and from 1894 to 1912 they made the Bisley model, also intended as a target gun.  From 1961 to 1975, Colt offered the 2nd generation gun with a flat top and adjustable sights as the New Frontier model, which may or may not have been an attempt to cash in on John Kennedy’s campaign slogan.

The Single Action Army not only saw use on the American frontier and in the hands of U.S. soldiers, but also in a wide variety of other places.  The gun spawned a plethora of copies (imitation is, as they say, the sincerest form of flattery) and found celebrity endorsers from Elmer Keith to John Wayne.  It remains, today, inarguably the most famous revolver in American history – maybe world history.

An SAA will set you back a tidy few shekels today, whether you are buying new or used, but there are plenty of replicas and modernizations out there.  But sometimes there is nothing like an original.  If you get the chance to shoot one, do not pass it up.

Beauregard LeMat “Grapeshot Revolver”

What could be better than a nine-shot revolver that substitutes a 20-gauge shotgun barrel for the cylinder pin?  Uniqueness alone makes this a gun worth a further look.  Here’s why:

Made from 1856 to 1865, the “grapeshot revolver” was designed by a Frenchman, Jean Alexandre LeMat, and featured a nine-shot cylinder in either .42 or .36 caliber around a .60 caliber (20 gauge, more or less) shotgun barrel.  Towards the end of the run a pinfire cartridge and, supposedly, a centerfire cartridge version was produced, although these are as scarce as honest politicians.  Today, Pietta of Italy makes a reproduction in .44 caliber/20 gauge, although these seem scarce (and pricey) as well.

Combination guns have been a thing for a long time in long arms, from the old German “Cape guns” (one rifle barrel combined with one shotgun barrel) and “Drillings” (two shotgun barrels and one rifle barrel) along with various other combinations, right up through the rather more well-known Stevens 24.  But the LeMat was something different, intended as a cavalry piece and well suited to it; three more pistol-caliber rounds than the usual piece of that time, and in extremis, when hard-pressed by an enemy, exploding that shotgun barrel in their face would be terrible on the opponent’s morale, not to mention his dental work, although it may be a windfall for the local undertaker.

I have not yet had the chance to handle or fire a LeMat, having been no closer to one than examining one behind glass in a museum.  But it is on my bucket list, and I recommend it be on yours; whether original or replica, firing one of these should be memorable experience.

Colt 1860 Army

The Colt Army revolver was perhaps the single most popular sidearm for both sides in the War of the Northern Aggression, and for that reason alone is worth seeking one out for a try; but that’s not the only reason it’s on the list.  Here’s why:

The ultimate development of the martial cap-and-ball revolver, the Colt’s Army, as it was known in the Civil War era in which it was popular among both sides, combined the grace of the 1851 Navy with the punch of the big Dragoon revolvers.

The reason for the gracefulness was simple; the 1860 Army used the same light frame as the 1851 Navy, cut back some to allow for a rebated cylinder for the bigger .44 caliber balls.  The Army used the same lockwork and had the same balance, the same slickness clearing leather, the same reliability and accuracy.  Between 1860 and 1873, about 200,000 guns were made, but today, there are several companies making middling-to-excellent replicas.

There were only a few basic variations on the 1860 Army, although one popular option was the detachable shoulder stock.  Some such stocks were hollow and meant to serve as a canteen; these were rather unimaginatively known as “canteen stocks” and were presumably handy for carrying a supply of fresh water – or whiskey.

There is something very satisfying about firing a black-powder revolver.  The BOOM, the cloud of smoke, the slow push of recoil, all form a satisfactory payoff for the laborious process of loading.  Try it!

Colt Detective Special/Smith & Wesson Chief’s Special

Both Colt and Smith & Wesson made damn near identical versions of the classic small-frame .38 snubbie, and both are decent sidearms, if accuracy outside of rock-throwing distance is not too much of a concern.  But they still are singular arms.  Here’s why:

The story of the “snubbie” begins around 1925, when a Colt Firearms employee named John Henry Fitzgerald came up with what would be known as the “Fitz Special.”  This was a .38 Special Colt Police Positive, with the barrel shortened to two inches, the ejector rod cut short to match, the hammer spur bobbed, and the front of the trigger guard cut away.  The result was a lightweight hideout piece, of which Colt made somewhat less than two hundred; the exact number is unclear.

Then, in 1927, Colt legitimized the Fitz Special, keeping the two-inch barrel but also retaining the entire trigger guard and the hammer spur.  This was the Colt Detective Special, the first mass-production snubnose revolver.

Colt’s primary competition in those days was Smith & Wesson, who inexplicably waited until 1950 before introducing their own snubnose revolver.  For this purpose, they designed a new frame, which would be known as the J or “.32” frame, but the new snubbie was designed around the .38 Special cartridge.  This resulted in a powerful gun in a small package, but also limited the gun to a five-shot cylinder.

The Colt Detective Special ceased production in 1995, while the Smith & Wesson snubbie, now made as the Model 36, is still in production.  Both are interesting pieces, both still to this day make good carry pieces.

Smith & Wesson K-22

In (year) Smith & Wesson introduced one of the best rimfire sidearms that had ever been made to date.  The gun came to be known as the K-22 due to the use of the K or “38” frame, and later was designated as the Model 17.  A .22 sidearm has a place in any collection, and this one is one of the best.  Here’s why:

In 1930, Smith & Wesson brought their first .22 revolver on the K frame, calling it the K-22 Outdoorsman.  The original model had a six-inch barrel, fixed sights and was guaranteed to shoot into an inch and a half at 50 yards.

In 1939, Smith & Wesson brought out an improvement, which they called the K-22 Masterpiece.  These improvements included a shorter action for faster lock-time and a micrometer rear sight.  Only a tad over a thousand of these were made before World War 2 interrupted the sale.

The shooting community saw a burst of development among American gunmakers in the years immediately following World War 2.  The industry that was until recently engaged in producing martial arms was now released to seek civilian customers, and millions of returning servicemen had their pockets full of demobilization pay.

Smith & Wesson’s answer was to bring back the K-22 in 1947.  In 1949 they introduced the K-22 Combat Masterpiece, a four-inch version, and eventually versions were marketed in stainless steel and also chambered for the .22 WMR and even in the .22 Remington Jet, with steel inserts to allow the revolver to handle the .22 Long Rifle.

The K-22 is a remarkable revolver.  It can hold its own on a target range or in the game fields.  It has a well-deserved reputation for accuracy, and while the K-frame lends enough heft to the gun to allow for a steady hold, it remains light enough to carry all day in a belt holster.

I have been watching for a good example of the Combat Masterpiece for a while now, as a companion piece to my 25-5.  The gun is still manufactured today, after a short hiatus, but as a pricey “Classic” item.  There are plenty of examples for sale, but ones in decent conditions rarely go for under four figures.  So, I watch and wait.

In Conclusion

Anyone who has read much of my work knows I am a wheelgun man.  I like big-bore sixguns, and when bumming around in the mountains almost always have a .45 Colt sixgun secured at my belt.  I generally choose the big N-frame Smith & Wesson 25-5 but occasionally go for the Vaquero, just for variety.

Revolvers have a couple of advantages over semi-autos; they are less finicky about ammo (you can run a .38 Short Colt through a .357 Magnum, and thus have good capability for game from rabbit to deer) and can generally handle stouter loads.  They are simpler, therefore generally easier for many folks to learn and operate.  The five mentioned here are no exception, and if any of you have the chance to handle/fire one of them, I am sure you will enjoy the experience.

Still, in this modern age, most of this argument of revolver vs. pistol is just a matter of preference.  I have some of each and find my full-size 1911 to be just as good a belt companion as my sixguns – and by good companion, I mean ‘something I can rely on to save my bacon if need be.’

Speaking of which, next week:  Pistols.