When I was in high school—I was probably 16 or so—my family had a nickel-plated Colt Diamondback .38 revolver that lived in a leather holster on top of the jelly cupboard by the front door. It was out of sight and far out of reach of any curious children (this was in another age, in the days before gun safes).
I was encouraged by my father to take it out (we lived way out in the country) and practice with it until I attained some level of confidence and proficiency with it. I shot several afternoons a week sometimes, shooting cans off the woodpile, old pieces of roofing tin down by the stock pond, broken clay flower pots in the garden.
It was another age and I, a thoughtless kid, took a toll on the bullfrogs and snapping turtles in the pond. In the late fall, I shot cottontails along the edge of the soybean fields, or squirrels (not many, despite a lot of trying) in the woods. I loved that revolver.
Twenty five years ago, I bought a Colt Commander, a Model 1911, .45 ACP, and never looked back. I took classes with the 1911, competed a little bit, practiced at least once a month—I reloaded or bought bulk ammo to keep my costs down.
I’m pretty good with it, especially with reloading and clearing the rare malfunction, and it is still my main handgun, though it is getting loose, the steel grayed, the rearing Colt on the rubber grips almost gone. But I have never shot it as accurately, with consistency, as I can shoot a well-balanced revolver.
It can be said that what we start with is what we know best. If so, the right revolver feels, in my hands, like coming home.
So when I found out that my old friend Tiger McKee was teaching a class called “Revolvers for Self Defense” at his Shootrite Academy in Langston, Alabama, I made sure that a family visit down South included a day on his range.
What I learned there was a new way of looking at what I once thought of as the “humble revolver.” In fact, when the long day was ended, driving home—my mind filled with targets, commands, flubs and fumbles, and finally, a hard-earned but growing sense of ease with my firearm—I was reminded of a favorite T.S. Eliot poem, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
“Let’s be absolutely clear,” Tiger said, laying out the various methods of reloading on a bench at the range. “Revolvers are firearms for experts, and not for people who don’t shoot often. They are the easiest handgun to shoot, and the most difficult to shoot well.”
We were running a stainless Smith and Wesson Model 67, a square-butt K-frame with a 4″ barrel, in .357, which of course will eat the much cheaper and recoil-friendlier .38 Specials, which is what we were feeding it.
Firing Line Instruction
It was New Year’s Day, and bitterly cold by Alabama standards (temperatures in the 20’s), but I quickly learned that effectively operating the Smith was not really possible with my bulky gloves.
The fingers got stuck in the trigger guard, I could not feel the cylinder release. The gloves just did not work. I tossed them aside, and gritted it out barehanded, something that might not be possible in my home state of Montana in the winter.
Note to self: get better gloves.
You have to recognize that self-defense with a handgun is not about how well you can shoot on a sunny spring afternoon with no variables at play.
Double-Action, All The Time
Tiger kept hammering on the challenges of the revolver as a primary defense weapon: “You have to remember that this is a more mechanically complicated weapon than a semi-auto. Way more complicated. There are more moving parts, more to go wrong.”
“You have a factory trigger that pulls at about 12 pounds, which means a lot of people will be jerking the trigger, just to fire the weapon.”
Yes, most revolvers can also be cocked and shot single-action, but emphatically, that is not a self-defense method. When using a revolver for self-defense, 100% of the time, the weapon is operated double-action.
“When you cock that pistol, you are committed to taking the shot,” Tiger explains. “Double-action revolvers, mechanically, are not meant to be de-cocked. But the foremost reason you don’t cock it? Because when you cock it, you lighten that trigger so much that a negligent discharge, especially under stress, is almost a given.”
He says it again: “Always, always, shoot double-action.”
Beyond the fact that the weapon is designed to be fired double-action, there is an inherent advantage in only using it that way for self-defense applications—some of the best customized self-defense double-action revolvers have their hammers bobbed flat, to prevent snagging on clothing, or impeding their actions in a close quarter self-defense situation.
Some of the most venerable and popular small revolvers, such as the nearly weightless Smith and Wesson 642 (.38 S&W Special, five round cylinder), are “hammerless” meaning they have an entirely enclosed hammer and can only be fired double action.
Obviously, you can, if you have to, de-cock a double action revolver, just as you can de-cock a single-action revolver—shooters do it all the time. But shooters mess it up, too: thumbs slip off the hammer, the thumb is too weak to let the hammer down slowly enough to not risk a firing pin strike, and on and on. Boot Hill is well-stocked with innocent bystanders who were around when someone cocked their revolver—single or double action—then decided to de-cock it with just slightly less than the necessary caution and muzzle discipline.
“Reloading a revolver is complicated—it’s nothing like dropping one empty magazine and loading a full one on a Glock or a 1911. A revolver is like a shotgun—you have to keep feeding it, and those reload manipulations are not instinctual—they are complicated.”
Recoil is also an issue. “Most shooters are recoil sensitive, and with semi-auto pistols, the mechanism is soaking up a bunch of your recoil just to operate the action. With the revolver, you are getting all the recoil, and you’ll have to recognize that, because it affects your ability to recover and get off another effective shot.”
For a little bit, it seems as if Tiger is trying to discourage anyone from even considering the revolver as a practical sidearm.
“Revolvers are not for new shooters. I can have a new shooter, even someone who has never shot a handgun before, come to the range, using a Glock, and have them effectively shooting and reloading in just a couple of hours. That would take a whole day, at least, with a revolver.”
But for all his cautions, one thing is clear: Tiger is as drawn to, and as committed to, these historical and elegant weapons as any shooter alive. He has created a whole side business building and honing Smith and Wesson revolvers for clients who want the best for self-defense and/or competitive applications.
At The Range
When we hit the range, I immediately find that the toggle and cord on the hem of my down vest snags on my weapon each time I draw it. Tiger smoothly draws his knife from a sheath on his belt and cuts the toggle off, hanging it on a nail with dozens of other toggles, little buckles, sun-faded loops of cord, a jumble of obstructions on display there like trophies.
“I tell all my students that if it gets in the way of operating your weapon safely and effectively, it has to go,” he said. “If it gets in the way here on the range, it goes. Part of what we are training here is how not to have useless things get in your way when everything is on the line.”
I’m kind of sad to see the toggle go, but as far as my shooting goes, I’m impressing myself. Recoil and recovery is no problem with the .38s. My hits are dead center on the target from fifteen feet or so. The long pull of the Smith allows me to relax—one of the things I’ve learned here at Shootrite is that anticipation of the shot, whether with rifle or handgun, is the enemy of accuracy (Tiger pantomimes a shooter clenching up, squinting their eyes, and hissing “NOW, I’m going to SHOOT!” to drive home the point that this kind of anticipation is the ruin of good shooting).
With the long trigger pull, I am somehow freed from worrying about the outcome—the firearm, as Tiger has explained, decides when the shot will be fired. My job is just (!) to provide a stable platform for it, and to keep the front sight on the target.
Then it comes time to reload. We have three choices in tools for this operation, and at first, none of them work for me. It is one thing to shoot the revolver dry—six rounds—flip out the cylinder and use the ejector, and gravity, to dump all six empties on the ground. That, I can do.
But reloading it efficiently is much more difficult, especially since this is a self-defense class, and I am supposed to keep my eyes up and on the target.
We have three choices for carrying our extra rounds: a little leather pouch (called a 3×2 pouch) that holds two rounds ready to hand when the top is opened, rubber speed strips that hold six rounds by their bases, or the traditional speedloader, a round carrier (which believe me, is awkward to carry on the belt, because it is, well, round, and not flat like a semi-auto pistol mag) holding six rounds that can be inserted into the cylinder all at once.
The speedloader is the only reloading method I’ve used before, but this time, I cannot get it to work. My hands are cold, and I cannot seem to get the rounds in the speedloader to line up with the chambers in the cylinder. Fumbling occurs.
I’m holding the revolver, cylinder open, in my strong (right hand), and loading with my weak (left). This is what feels right to me. But it is far from easy, and none of it feels, well, natural. For one thing, my right thumb desperately wants to be wrapped around the pistol behind the hammer. But this means that same thumb blocks the reloading of the cylinders. I flip the thumb over to the right side of the pistol, as instructed, and now it feels like I could actually drop it.
The thumb snakes back to the right side, and now I can’t get the last two rounds in without sticking my thumb up like a desperate hitchhiker! I get it. The thumb goes on the right side, out of the way.
Tiger explains, “When people are first getting into shooting revolvers, initially they’ll find one way that works for them, or feels the easiest, but what seems easiest at first is not necessarily what you’ll end up with. This kind of training is an evolution.” He repeats: “It takes a lot of practice to learn what method is really best for you as an experienced revolver shooter—again—these are the simplest pistols to shoot, and the most difficult pistols to truly use well.”
My notes, written in a cold hand, mid-class, with a near frozen pen? “After a lifetime of plinking around with revolvers, efficiently using them—reloading under stress is insanely difficult…. Aiming for consistency: front sight! Presss! Front sight! Presss is hard to do after an hour…shooting still feels good—good hits…everything else slow—twisted hands…speed strip is my friend…Tiger quote ‘Using a firearm correctly is about balance, sensitivity and awareness NOT brute force, strength or speed. Especially when it comes to revolvers!’”
By the afternoon, as the sun at our backs weakened even more, I finally started to get it. The round speed loader stayed in its awkward pouch, but the 3×2 pouch worked well for me, and the speed strip worked even better. I could fire two shots, get good hits on the target from a variety of positions and distances, using cover, moving, and I could, still holding the pistol in my right hand and reloading with my left, extract the two spent rounds and load two fresh ones without (for the most part!) taking eyes off target.
I could use the speed strip by feel, and I could get the revolver back into action on the targets, fully charged and without as much fumbling. And then of course, as always happens during a full day class, it all began to fall apart, with the tired and the cold and the adrenaline wearing thin.
Groups on the targets began to widen, fliers appeared, wild and unexplained. I almost dropped the pistol while fumbling another two round reload. It is time for coffee, a hamburger at the only place open on New Year’s Day way out here in rural Alabama, beside the utterly empty expanse of Guntersville Lake, glittering in the cold and driven up in whitecaps by a mighty north wind.
Reload a Revolver With a Magazine
We return to the range for a final two hours, rehearsing, practicing, adding nothing new to the training, just building on what I learned. I can sort of use the round speed loader, but the speed strip is still my go-to.
Tiger explains that another method of carrying extra ammo and loading the revolver is to get a magazine for a semi-auto .357 like the Desert Eagle, and use that the same way I am using the speed strip. “The magazine is flat, so it is not awkward to carry like the speedloader, and the ammo is held tightly and protected, unlike on the speed strip,” he said.
I want to work on using cover and shooting at longer ranges, just to see how the revolver compares to my Colt 1911 .45, which I have trained with here many times in the past. Again, the whole process of shooting the revolver feels comfortable, and I am able to mostly get good hits on the steel targets, the satisfying “pock!” coming across the range to us as the shadows lengthen and the cold becomes hard like iron.
“One thing we haven’t done,” Tiger said, “is just work your dry-fire practice. When you go home, you should be practicing all of these techniques we did today, and working on dry firing – 90% of your practice should be dry.”
He adds, “And remind your readers that, if they are going to use a revolver for self-defense, please get training. This is all serious business. Remind them—and remind yourself, every day—that the first and foremost tactic, always, is escape and avoidance of trouble. Avoidance is victory.”
After that, there are three rules that must be followed, and never forgotten:
One: I know exactly what is going on, and what the problem is, beyond a doubt.
Two: I know that I can contribute in a positive way to solving the problem.
Three: Solving this problem is worth risking my life.” He pauses, “Let’s say, number one, I’m in Wal-Mart, and I hear gun shots in the store. I don’t know what’s going on. I may draw my pistol and find a place to secure and hold. I will not go looking for trouble.”
“Let’s take this idea a little further, and look at Number Two on the list. I know I can contribute in a positive way to solving this problem. Let’s make sure it is our problem to solve Say I smell smoke? Is it my responsibility to put this fire out? If it is in my kitchen, yes. If the fire is in a high rise across the street? No. That’s a job for the local fire department, and my getting involved can only complicate that situation.
“Now, for Number Three: is it is worth risking my life to solve this problem? That one is hard to calculate, isn’t it? Family, friends, little kids, yes. What about a guy getting his butt kicked by the side of the road? I don’t know what is going on there. If I get killed over something that means nothing to me, that I don’t understand, that’s it, I’m gone. I can’t protect my family. I’ve failed in my primary duty right there.
“This is all serious business, and it should be approached in that way and no other. Now, let’s pick up brass, and call it a day.”