New Shooter’s Guide: What Is a Revolver Handgun?


If you’re new to the shooting world, the array of terms and definitions can be staggeringly difficult to master, or even to understand. The types of firearms in particular can be confusing, so in answer to readers’ questions, here we take on one of the more basic pieces of terminology: What is a revolver handgun?

What Is a Revolver Handgun?

A revolver is a handgun that uses a cylinder. The cylinder revolves (thus the name) around an axle to align a chamber with the barrel as the revolver is fired. A wheel gun is another term for a revolver. The name comes from the rotating cylinder that resembles a wheel.

In the cylinder are chambers into which cartridges are loaded. The chambers are manually loaded one cartridge at a time. Most revolvers have five, six, seven, eight, nine, or ten chambers. The number of chambers dictates the cartridge capacity of the revolver.

There are three types of revolvers: a single-action revolver, a double-action revolver, and a top-break revolver. Double-action and single-action revolvers are the most common. All three types of revolvers use a cylinder with chambers.

What Is A Single Action Revolver?

A Single Action revolver has a single-action trigger that requires the user to cock back the hammer then press the trigger to fire the revolver. Single Action revolvers, called six-shooters, were used in the Old West and are the type of revolver we associate with cowboys. These revolvers are still popular today, with models chambered in 22 LR rimfire to more powerful centerfire calibers.

Older Single Action revolver designs do not have built in safety mechanisms, so if the revolver were accidentally dropped on its hammer, even in the down position, the revolver could fire. For this reason, old-design Single Action revolvers are typically loaded with the hammer resting on an empty chamber to avoid an accidental discharge.

Single Action revolvers are loaded and unloaded one chamber at a time via a loading gate built into the frame. Open the loading gate to expose the fired brass. You may have to pull the hammer back halfway to allow the cylinder to spin freely. Eject all the brass using the ejector rod, then spin the cylinder once to ensure all the chambers are empty. Then load the chambers with fresh ammunition.

This Cimarron is an example of a Single Action revolver, which requires the hammer (arrow) to be manually cocked before firing the revolver. The exposed pin in the hammer face strikes the primer. It’s this pin that can strike the primer, even when the hammer is down, if the gun is dropped. So most original design single actions should be carried with an empty chamber under the hammer.

What Is a Double Action Revolver?

A Double Action revolver has a double-action trigger, which only requires the user to press the trigger to fire the revolver. The term double action describes the movement of the trigger backward first to cock the hammer, then forward to fire the round, but it’s all one rearward motion of the trigger. It is possible to “stage” the trigger, that is halt its movement rearward, by partially pressing the trigger, and holding it, or staging it, before completing the trigger movement onward to firing.

In contrast, the single-action trigger is cocked manually first, so it only has the one single movement forward. This allows the user to shoot a Double Action revolver much quicker because the shooter can simply press the double-action trigger to rotate the cylinder and fire the gun.

Most modern Double Action revolvers use a DA/SA (Double Action/Single Action) trigger, which is a combination of both a Double Action and Single Action trigger, which gives the user a choice of firing the revolver either double action or single action. The fire a double-action revolver in single action, the shooter simply cocks an exposed hammer manually to lock it rearward, then presses the trigger to release the hammer.

Double Action revolvers are unloaded by pressing the cylinder latch and swinging the cylinder out of the frame. The shooter then uses the ejector rod, which is connected to a star-shaped piece at the back of the cylinder, to catch the rims of all of the brass in the cylinders at once, and dumping them out.

The shooter then loads one chamber at a time, though shooters can use a speedloader that loads all the chambers at the same time.

This is a Ruger Double Action revolver, which allows the user to either pull the trigger to fire the gun or cock back the hammer and pull the trigger. Press the cylinder latch (arrow), and the cylinder swings out of the frame to be unloaded and loaded.
Left, the single-action revolver loading system of the Heritage Tactical Cowboy rimfire is slower, while the Diamondback Sidekick’s swing-out cylinder, right, is much faster to operate.






What Is A Break Top Revolver?

A Break Top revolver has a frame that allows the barrel and cylinder to pivot away from the frame to load and unload the revolver. Break Top revolvers can have a Single Action trigger or a DA/SA (Double Action/Single Action) trigger. Break Top revolvers are less common than Double Action and Single Action revolvers.

A Break Top revolver design features a barrel and cylinder that pivot on the frame to unload and load the revolver. It can have either double- or single-action trigger operation.

What’s the Difference Between a Pistol and a Revolver?

A revolver uses a fixed cylinder with multiple chambers, and as the trigger is pulled, the chamber in the cylinder aligns with the barrel to fire a shot. A pistol uses a removable magazine that is inserted in the pistol’s grip. A slide is retracted to load a cartridge into the chamber. When a pistol is fired, the energy of the cartridge firing automatically cycles the slide, ejecting then loading a cartridge. This is why a pistol is called a semi-automatic; on each press of the trigger, the pistol automatically cycles and readies itself for the next shot. With a revolver, the user must manually rotate the cylinder, by either cocking the hammer or pulling the trigger.

A pistol uses a box magazine that is inserted in the grip (arrow). The slide is retracted to load cartridges into the chamber, and the pistol automatically ejects and loads a cartridge with each press of the trigger. This is a Kahr CT 40 40 S&W double-action only pistol.

Revolvers have been around for hundreds of years and have shown remarkable staying power. Yes, the total number of revolvers being sold every year is only a fraction of the total number of pistols, but many shooters swear by their revolvers for self defense, home defense, law enforcement, hunting, and target shooting. The technology may be old, but the revolver design is still spinning after all these years.



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