The author fires a SAA pistol.
The author fires a SAA pistol.Tom McHale

Single-Action revolvers like the classic Colt SAA have a few tricks and quirks to them. It’s important to know how they operate, not just so you can load and unload them properly, but for safety reasons, too.Often called “six shooters,” these revolvers were more frequently “five shooters.” That’s not because they didn’t have room for a sixth cartridge—they did. Many users only loaded them with five shots because of the way the firing pin and hammer were designed on the originals from the late 1800s.The firing pin was a fixed part of the hammer, so in theory, a knock on the back of the hammer—or if it were to get caught on something, get pulled back a little bit, and released—could set off the primer if the hammer were resting on a live round. That would definitely scare your horse. So, the guns were typically carried with the hammer resting on an empty chamber.

Modern reproductions, like this beautiful Uberti Cattleman El Patron implement neat little design tricks to make these revolvers safe to carry with all six chambers full. For example, even though the firing pin on this revolver looks fixed, it's not. The retractable design helps minimize the risk of the firing pin striking the hammer inadvertently.

Even still, it’s a good idea to use guns like this with five cartridges loaded and the hammer resting on an empty chamber.

Here’s how to do it.