Revolvers have been around for the past couple hundred years, give or take a few decades and depending on how, exactly, you define “revolver.” Today’s definition of what a revolver is has been established for more than a century, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been experiments with the design and basic idea of a revolver since.
Before we begin, however, it would be beneficial to identify what we consider to be a revolver. That may seem silly, but it will make sure we’re all on the same page before we get into the weeds.
Webster’s defines a revolver as “a pistol with revolving chambers enabling several shots to be fired without reloading.” The definition is simple enough, but the guns on this list are anything but!
Here’s a look at 20 of the most interesting revolver designs from the past 200 years.
The LeMat is probably the most well-known type of unconventional revolvers. Invented by Jean Alexandre LeMat, this handgun was patented in 1856 and saw some use during the Civil War by soldiers in the Confederacy. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard helped fund the gun, and both he and General J.E.B. Stuart were known to have carried them.
The gun got the nickname “grapeshot revolver” because the normal revolving cylinder, which held nine rounds of pistol ammo, did more than just revolve for each shot. In the center was a single, larger chamber, usually measuring the equivalent of 20 gauge in diameter, that had its own shorter barrel mounted under the pistol barrel.
Essentially, this allowed the LeMat to operate as a standard revolver with a “last ditch effort” in the form of a short-short-short-barreled shotgun. The shotgun was discharged by flipping down a piece of the hammer that changed the angle of its strike, allowing it to ignite the shotgun charge.
The guns were made in the US, England, France, and Belgium. Despite so many locations, fewer than 3,000 were made.
The design was certainly innovative, but it wasn’t very practical. The LeMat was heavy and awkward, and it required the shooter to carry multiple kinds of ammo in order to reload properly and use the gun to its full potential. Not to mention that firing a handgun shotgun isn’t the most pleasant thing in the world!
One way to increase the capacity of a revolver is to load it with superposed charges, that is, one stacked in front of the other so that you have two rounds in each chamber. That’s the concept used by John Walch with the muzzleloading cap-and-ball revolver that bears his name from 1859.
In order to fire this gun properly, you need two hammers and, on some models, two triggers. Either way, the hammers are designed to reach percussion caps mounted in slightly different locations on the cylinder.
To fire the front shot (which must always be done first to avoid blowing up the gun), you cock the corresponding hammer which, upon striking the percussion cap, channels the ignition on an angle, allowing it to bypass the powder and ball at the back of the chamber.
Once the front charge has been shot, the rear one can be safely discharged. This is done like any other conventional percussion revolver, as the ignition channel is in direct alignment with the back of the cylinder.
As mentioned previously, a careless user could accidentally cock the wrong hammer and fire the second shot first, thereby blowing up the gun and causing serious injury to the user. As a result, it’s easy to see why the guns didn’t catch on.
Dating to the 1830s, the pinfire concept is one of the earliest attempts to create self-contained metallic cartridges.
The cartridges are easily recognizable because of the pin that sticks out horizontally from the edge at the base of the cartridge.
That pin is mounted directly above a primer that is held internally in the cartridge case. When the hammer strikes the pin, it is driven down into the primer and the round is fired.
An interesting aspect of this design is that the pin in the cartridge is the actual firing pin. That is to say that guns designed to fire them have hammers, but the rounds themselves contain individual firing pins. Without that specific type of cartridge, the guns cannot be fired.
Initially quite successful, the concept expanded from revolvers and made its way to shotguns and rifles, and big names like Purdey, Boss, and Rigby made pinfire models.
Time marches on, and the advent of rimfire ammo in the 1850s led to the pinfire’s ultimate demise. Rimfire ammo was simply safer to transport and easier to use. The cylindrical rimfire cartridges didn’t need to be oriented in any specific way to be loaded, and they were far less likely to be accidentally discharged, which was a concern with pinfire ammo, since each round had a firing pin attached to its casing.
Rollin White invented and patented the concept of a bored-through cylinder, which is the design that we know today in regards to modern revolvers. He licensed the patent to Smith & Wesson, making them the only company that could legally produce and sell revolvers that fired ammunition loaded from the rear of the cylinder.
As always, necessity is the mother of all invention, and so the cupfire system was designed to circumvent the White patent held by Smith & Wesson.
The self-contained metallic cartridges contained projectiles that were seated flush in the cases, and the rear of the cartridge contained a primer that sat with the recess facing out, like a cup. Essentially, picture it like a primer being inserted upside down from how you would seat one in traditional centerfire cartridges.
The cartridges were loaded from the front of the cylinder, with access to the primer from the rear, thereby skirting the White patent. Looking at the cylinder, one could argue that it is actually bored all the way through. Technically, this is correct; there is a hole all the way through the cylinder. However, the rear diameter is narrower than the front, preventing cartridges from being inserted any way but from the front. So, also technically, it isn’t bored all the way through because it cannot be loaded from the rear of the cylinder.
When the hammer fell, the firing pin made contact with the recessed primer and the gun fired. Spent cartridges were ejected by means of a frame-mounted rod that used a mechanism similar to the bolt-action concept.
The handle is lifted up to unlock the ejector rod, it is pushed forward to eject the spent case, and then returned to its resting location and relocked before rotating the cylinder to the next chamber.
All told, about 20,000 guns of this design were made, making it one of the most effective ways to skirt the Rollin White patent.
Of course, patents don’t last forever, and the ability for gunmakers to legally make their own revolvers with bored through cylinders made cupfire ammo obsolete. It also made our next type of guns obsolete, too.
Yet another way to get around the bored-through cylinder patent was with a cartridge design known as “teat-fire.” Invented by Daniel Moore, these cartridges came to a narrow taper at the back, with a priming compound being contained in the tapered “teat.” Moore also designed the revolver, which bore his name, specifically to fire these rounds.
Loaded from the front of the cylinder, a teat-fire round was designed so that the teat protruded from a smaller diameter hole at the rear of the cylinder. Again, this prevented it from being loaded from the rear, and so it wasn’t considered to be a bored-through cylinder.
When the hammer struck the teat, the compound ignited and the gun fired. Essentially, this concept can be described as being similar to that of a rimfire, except that the center is struck instead of the rim.
Patented in 1862 by a Pennsylvanian named Aaron Vaughan, his revolver enabled extra capacity by utilizing as much available real estate in a cylinder combined with two barrels.
In order to accomplish this, Vaughan’s cylinders had chambers positioned in offset inner and outer rows. These lined up with offset barrels that were milled from a single block of steel.
The single trigger operated the two hammers, which had different shaped faces to strike the differently-located percussion caps.
The outer row had axial firing cones, which were struck by the right hammer with a square face. The inner row had oblique cones, which were struck by the left hammer with a slanted face. This design ensured that the hammers could not reach and ignite the wrong chambers.
Loading the gun was also unique. The traditional hinged loading lever as found on virtually all cap-and-ball revolvers is present, but there are two pins on the end, so that two chambers can be charged at once.
Sneider, Gardner, Linberg & Phillips, Philip, and Orr Revolvers
These five revolvers are being lumped together because all of them operate on the same essential principle. Each of them has multiple cylinders, one in front of the other, mounted in the frame at the same time.
In addition to the patent models, at least one of each was made and it’s possible—but unlikely—that more could exist. Once you read about them, it will be painfully clear as to why their designs never took off!
In 1862, C. E. Sneider patented a revolver that had two, seven-shot cylinders designed to fire small caliber rimfire cartridges.
The cylinders were placed in the frame back-to-back and a long hammer fired the rounds in the forward cylinder. Then, the barrel hinge was opened, both cylinders were removed while still on the center pin, and were turned around so that the second cylinder could now face forward and be fired.
In 1865, G. H. Gardner patented a revolver with two percussion cylinders, the forward one containing five shots and the rear one containing six shots.
Obviously, the forward cylinder fired first to avoid catastrophic failure. Even though the forward cylinder only held five shots, it still had six chambers. That’s because the sixth round in the rear cylinder needed to find its way out of the gun somehow, so the sixth hole acted as a barrel extension of sorts.
In 1870, Charles Linberg and William Phillips patented a six-shot revolver with cylinders arranged back-to-back like the Sneider. It operated on the same principle as the Sneider, but the percussion cones could be removed to permit firing self-contained metallic cartridges.
In 1873, W. H. Phillip patented an exceptionally complicated rimfire revolver that could be used with two cylinders like the ones mentioned previously, but it had the added bonus of also being able to function with three cylinders. Though there are a total of 21 chambers, only 17 are actually capable of holding and firing cartridges.
The front and rear cylinders each hold six rounds with one left open in the front to act as a barrel extension and one in the rear to hold the firing pin extension for the other two cylinders.
The middle cylinder only holds five rounds, with one reserved as a barrel extension and the other for the firing pin extension. This works because the grooves on the cylinder interact with a pawl that determines which sequence the cylinders revolve to provide correct firing. Confused yet?
Finally, in 1874, W. Orr patented a rimfire revolver with two, six-shot cylinders and one hammer with two faces of varying length and angle. The more forward of the two reaches over the rear cylinder and fires the front cylinder first.
Then, the rear portion of the hammer has an adjustable screw in it to allow the user to lengthen for shorten the reach, thereby controlling the ability to fire the rear cylinder or not.
These late-19th century arms are a triple threat because they’re actually three weapons in one: brass knuckles, a dagger, and a revolver.
Operating almost exclusively as pinfire weapons, the main shape is that of brass knuckles.
The finger hold for your index finger is also the trigger, which puts the gun in perfect firing position just by wearing it. When you’ve expended all the shots and your hand hurts from hitting, you can deploy the small dagger for some stabbing action.
These firearms were often called Apache revolvers as they were favored by French criminals and gangsters of the early 1900s known as Les Apaches, hence the name.
Nagant M1895 Revolver
The M1895 revolver holds the distinction of being the only revolver that can successfully act as a host for a suppressor.
Because of the gap between cylinder face and forcing cone on every other revolver, gas escapes and prevents the gun from being able to benefit from a suppressor.
Cartridges for the M1895 have their bullets recessed into the case. In an effort to take advantage of every bit of ballistic pressure available from the 7.62×38mmR rounds it fired, the act of cocking the hammer caused the cylinder to move forward and close the gap between the cylinder and the forcing cone.
Of course, the energy to move the cylinder has to come from somewhere. One of the biggest drawbacks of the design was that this energy came from the trigger, which made for an absurdly heavy trigger pull – even for a double-action revolver. We’re talking approximately 12 pounds for single-action and 20 or more pounds for double-action!
The design known as the knuckleduster is named as such because it could be rotated on your finger and the butt of the piece could be used as a singular brass knuckle.
The gun had no barrel and fired directly from the cylinder, adding to its ability to be concealed, but relegating it to extremely close-quarters use. They were available in .22, .32, and .41 calibers.
The small and concealable design made it popular with women and travelers so that they could have something handy when out on the dangerous roads. It was also a popular design with gamblers who might need some concealed backup when the other players found the fifth ace they were hiding in their sleeve.
Despite their small size, the all-metal guns were well made and even featured scroll engraving on both sides of the frame, the topstrap, and even the front of the cylinder, making the gun both practical and attractive.
The most well-known versions of these guns were made by James Reid, and he called them the “My Friend” knuckleduster.
Reid also offered his gun with a barrel, first a 3-inch model and then a 1¾-inch version in 1875 and 1877 respectively. This gave the guns a bit more accuracy at a little more distance, but the carrier sacrificed some concealment due to the added length.
All told, Reid made approximately 13,940 of his standard knuckledusters. He only made around 1,160 of the barreled models.
Reid’s “My Friend” knuckleduster is an odd little gun, but sometimes the most interesting designs come in the smallest packages. Plus, you’ve got to hand it to him with the clever name. I’ll admit that I’ve referred to my carry gun as my friend on at least one occasion.
Fishy Foot Revolver
Near the end of May 1899, Joseph Aster of New York, NY, filed a patent for a revolver he very plainly called a “foot operated revolver.” Upon seeing the drawing he submitted, it is clear that his design was anything but plain.
Designed to be disguised, Aster’s revolver was concealed in the body of a fake metl fish. The barrel protruded out from the mouth and the cylinder occupied the largest part of the cavity. A hammer was located further back near the tail.
The fish sat horizontally, balanced on its two bottom fins which were, in fact, the trigger.
When you applied pressure to the top of the fish, the fins were depressed and the gun was discharged. The patent application and drawing that Aster submitted did not mention the size of the fish or the caliber, but the drawing does show six chambers in the cylinder.
Despite the unusual design, Aster received approval for his foot operated revolver in January 1900. He was issued patent number 641,620.
What target audience, exactly, he was trying to reach with a fish revolver you put on the floor and operate with your foot isn’t clear. What is clear, however, is that Aster must have had quite the imagination – and a lot of confidence that people wouldn’t be suspicious about a fish sitting out of water on the floor somewhere.
It isn’t known if his design ever made it to production. If it did, no examples survive. Since Joseph didn’t submit an actual patent model, the foot operated revolver disguised as a fish exists only on paper.
One thing is for sure: if you ever enter a building and there’s a line of odd-looking fish sitting on the floor, you might want to get out of there as soon as possible!
Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver
The zig-zag grooves on the revolver’s cylinder are the model’s most iconic visual and functional distinction. Patented by William John Whiting in 1901, the grooves played an important role in the gun’s operation.
When the top half of the revolver recoiled to the rear, the cylinder grooves were engaged by a stud on the frame. This engagement provided 30 degrees of rotation. As the recoil spring pushed the revolver forward, the cylinder rotated another 30 degrees and placed a new cartridge in line with the firing pin.
It was this motion that led to the gun being called an “automatic revolver.”
While the design had its advantages, it was not without drawbacks. The Webley-Fosbery was expensive to manufacture and, in turn, expensive to buy.
When the gun was made available to the public in 1901, you could buy a Mauser C96 Broomhandle pistol for 10 shillings less than a Webley-Fosbery.
When the gun made its debut at the Bisley Shooting Ground, it was met with great fanfare and copious amounts of positive press.
In 1902, famed target shooter Walter Winans fired 12 shots (which included a reload) in a two-inch group at 20 yards in only 20 seconds. Rapid reloading was accomplished through the use of a Prideaux speedloader.
The attendees at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 also lauded the design. Unfortunately, commercial approval only goes so far; a military contract was necessary in order for the design to survive. Ultimately, no contract materialized and production of the Webley-Fosbery ceased.
During the gun’s entire production, only 4,200 were produced. Of that total number, almost all were chambered for the .455 Webley. Approximately 200 left the factory chambered for .38 ACP.
Emilio Ghisoni, the heir to an Italian food processing company, sought to improve the shortcomings of the Webley-Fosbery. His design, which was patented in 1987 and took another decade to reach production, was quite different from its predecessor.
Visually, it had an interesting shape to the cylinder, an ambidextrous cylinder latch, an extended beavertail, distinctive grips, and a compensator.
Oh, and it also fired from the 6 o’clock position instead of the 12 o’clock position, giving it an exceptionally low bore-axis.
Operation was similar to the Webley-Fosbery, though not exactly the same. The cylinder’s large, slab-like fluting and lack of other features are directly linked to the way the gun locks up and how it cycles. Cylinder latches to lock the chamber in place are located on the face of the cylinder instead of the outside edge. This eliminated the notches on the outside of the cylinder and also prevented a drag line from forming.
The first shot is double-action, with subsequent shots being single-action. While you can manually cock the hammer for the first shot, it isn’t necessary.
Recoil moves the slide to the rear, cocking the hammer. The forward motion returning the gun to battery rotates the cylinder to the next loaded chamber and the gun is ready to fire. No cams, studs, or zig-zag grooves are used to rotate the cylinder.
Because of the gun’s low bore axis, substantial weight of approximately three pounds, and recoil operation, it is a pleasant revolver to shoot. Follow-up shots are easily placed on target with a great degree of accuracy.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to keep the company in business.
Ghisoni failed to learn from the Webley-Fosbery’s mistakes. Ghisoni was forced to sell Mateba to a German firm in the early 2000s. By 2005, the company ceased to exist altogether. All told, fewer than 2,000 autorevolvers were ever made.
It is no coincidence that the Mateba Autorevolver and the Chiappa Rhino look similar. Emilio Ghisoni worked on the Rhino, using his idea for a 6 o’clock firing position on this new revolver. Beyond that, the Mateba and the Rhino are completely different firearms, with the Rhino operating like a traditional SA/DA revolver.
Despite being unconventional in appearance, the Rhino has developed a solid core group of shooters and collectors. This has encouraged Chiappa to produce the gun is a variety of different calibers, barrel lengths, materials, and finishes. As of June 2019, there are 94 different SKUs listed for the Rhino on Chiappa’s website!
Even though the Rhino turned out to be far more successful than the Mateba, Ghisoni wouldn’t live to see it. He passed away in 2008 before the design fully came to fruition.
Dardick Series 1500
In August 1958, David Dardick received a patent for a magazine-fed revolver. His design featured a cylinder with openings on each exterior edge, creating U-shaped chambers instead of traditional O-shaped chambers. This allowed rounds to be automatically fed into the chamber from a magazine loaded with a stripper clip, instead of being loaded manually like in a traditional revolver. Additionally, extraction was also done automatically.
Dardick soon realized that his U-shaped ammunition would require it to be fed in a very specific fashion in order for his revolver to function properly. By the end of 1958, he was issued a second patent that shows his ammunition now being three-sided like a triangle. The uniform size of the round on each side enabled it to feed into the cylinder more easily, thereby increasing the gun’s reliability.
The new triangular ammunition needed a name, so Dardick called them “trounds,” a combination of the words “triangle” and “round.” The bullet, powder, and primer were all loaded into the triangular-shaped plastic case that created the outer wall of the revolver’s cylinder.
The Model 1500 had interchangeable barrels and could fire .38, .30, and .22 caliber trounds. It was also available with a carbine conversion kit to turn the revolver into a rifle.
Shortly after introduction to the public, Mechanix Illustrated magazine featured an article on the new gun. Its author called it “as versatile as a six-armed monkey.” While the analogy may seem to be an unusual way to praise Dardick’s creation, it proved to be accurate in a way the author never intended: just like there’s no such thing as a six-armed monkey, there’s also no such thing as a commercially-successful, magazine-fed revolver that fires rounds from a plastic triangle.
The public never embraced his concept and Dardick’s trounds remain little more than a footnote in the advancement of ammunition.
Elisha H. Collier and Artemus Wheeler invented this five-shot flintlock revolver around 1818, but it is known widely today just by Collier’s name. Wheeler patented the gun in the United States while Collier patented it in Britain.
While the revolver provided the shooter with five rounds before having to reload, there was still a lot of manual work to be done. The hammer had to be recocked, the frizzen closed, and the cylinder rotated. None of those actions were mechanized or synched together.
Collier operated “Collier & Co., Gunmakers” in London from 1818 to 1827, but he himself may not have actually made the guns, hence “Gunmakers” in his company name. It’s possible that Rigby, ,and Mortimer made the arms sold by Collier & Co.
Regardless of who made them, they are an important part of revolver history as a whole. Noted Colt historian R. L. Wilson credits the design as having had an influence on Sam Colt when he was developing his own revolver. In that vein, were it not for Collier, there may not have ever been Colt. Can you imagine such a world!?!
Looking Back, Looking Forward
As we’ve seen with these 20 revolvers, some of their inventors looked to designs from the past to find their way to the future. You never know what, exactly, will work and what will not until it is put into practice. Case in point: Emilio Ghisoni’s Mateba design didn’t catch on, but his Rhino design did.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that most all of the revolvers here were doomed to fail, but that didn’t deter their inventors from trying. In that same inventive spirit, who knows what kind of new revolver we might see at the next SHOT Show!