When the first double action revolver came out....


December 1, 2007, 11:28 AM
When was it?

Who made it and in what calibers?

What other manufacturers joined in and quickly made the first few models of Double Action?

How big a "sensation" was it?

Did the reviewers and buying public love it, or hate it at first and prefer their trusty old single actions?

Were single actions always called single actions or did they start using the terms "single action" and "double action" just to tell them apart?

This is for research for a story set around the turn of the century where a detective buys a "new fangled double action revolver" which really surprises the bad guys at first. :)

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Old Fuff
December 1, 2007, 12:16 PM
Double action (self-cocking) handguns go back to the 1830's at least, so by the turn of the 20th' double action revolvers weren't new or exceptional.

The first Colt double action revolver was introduced in 1877. Usually chambered in .38 or .41 Long Colt they were popular with a lot of folks, including detectives. Smith & Wesson started making D.A. top-break revolvers in 1880.

So far as turn-of-the-20th century detectives were concerned, one of the most popular revolvers was Smith & Wesson's Safety Hammerless or New Departure .38. This 5-shot, .38 S&W, top-break had a fully inclosed hammer and a grip safety for extra security. Because of the inclosed hammer it was DAO, and could be drawn from deep cover with nothing that could possibly sag on a pocket or other clothing. The shortest standard barrel length was 3 1/4 inches, but a barrel could be cut as short as 1 1/2 inches, and still retain fully automatic shell ejection when the barrel was opened. They could be carried in any number of holsters, or simply dropped into a pocket. A smaller version in .32 S&W was sometimes carried as an hide-out.

If you are still looking for somethin more unique for the times, remember that Colt introduced their .32 Pocket Automatic pistol in 1903.

December 1, 2007, 02:32 PM
The french revolver Mle 1873 is a double action revolver (silver model).
He was the official hand gun of french army and marine.
The Mle 1874 is the officer model (black model).



December 1, 2007, 02:48 PM
I don't think a DA revolver would be much of a surprise to very many BG's by the turn of the century. (1900)

By then, the cheap top-break DA's were tools of the BG's trade.

What might have got a few of them's attention would have been one of those new-fangled pocket semi-auto's Browning & Colt were just starting to sell.


Old Fuff
December 1, 2007, 03:01 PM
What might have got a few of them's attention would have been one of those new-fangled pocket semi-auto's Browning & Colt were just starting to sell.

Not many Fabrique National (FN) Browning patent pistols were in the United States. JMB had made a sales agreement with both FN and Colt that divided sales between them around the world. Colt had the United States of course, as well as Mexico, Central and South America. FN had most of Europe and Canada.

December 1, 2007, 03:07 PM
I meant John Browning & Colt, not FN Browning & Colt.
Should have been more specific I guess.


December 1, 2007, 05:10 PM
I think the Brits has some DA guns that were coexistant with the Colt SAA. However, I am too lazy to go upstairs and look that up. :)

Jim Watson
December 1, 2007, 06:08 PM
Adams et al in England were making DA percussion revolvers. So was Starr in the USA in Civil War era. DA pepperboxes predate real revolvers.

December 1, 2007, 08:55 PM
As usual, Jim is on the mark. One of the first double-action revolvers was the Adams caplock revolver produced in the 1850s. The Adams became quite popular in England and, if memory serves me correctly, Colt was forced to closed one of its English manufacturing plants due to stiff competition from Adams and others.

I recall reading a passage praising the Adams from a British officer who used one in the Crimean War (1853-1856). He stated that if he had to cock his revolver manually, then he would have died. Comments like this certainly did not help Colt.

More to the point, double-action revolvers appeared in greater numbers during the 1880s and 1890s. The Colt Lighting, which Old Fluff mentioned, came out in 1877 and Smith & Wesson also followed suit. Double-actions were even made by now defunct companies such as Merwin & Hulbert. So, arming your fictional detective with a double-action revolver would not have been novel by the end of the 19th century. Hopefully, this info is useful. Good luck with your writing.


December 1, 2007, 09:11 PM
Sherlock Holmes carried an Adams IIRC.

December 1, 2007, 10:46 PM
The double action revolvers that we think of today did not really happen until the early 1900's. The early pre-1900 double actions were pretty crude by todays standards as I understand it. Even the Colt 1877 was somewhat crude by today's standards until a few new developments were added like Colt's positive lock.

Old Fuff
December 1, 2007, 11:10 PM
If you examine a .38 Smith & Wesson top-break revolver in excellent condition - either the D.A. model with a conventional hammer, or the enclosed hammer Safety Hammerless with a grip safety, you will quickly find that the workmanship and finish is anything but crude. In fact it's superior to what is seen now. For example, name a current product from anyone that has hardened steel shims inserted next to the cylinder stop notches to prevent battering - and fitted so closely that they canít be seen or detected without a magnifying glass. The Safety Hammerless' lockwork was adjusted so that the trigger pull actually dropped off, sending the shooter a signal that the revolver was about to fire.

Lower powered yes, but crude Ė no way.

December 1, 2007, 11:18 PM
IIRC, Tranter manufactured a double action percussion revolver prior to Adams.

December 1, 2007, 11:30 PM
Further research show that Tranter was a manufacturer of the Adams patent revolver. Adams fits displayed his double action only 5 shot revolver at the 1851 Great Exhibition. Tranter, with Kerr, later made an improved Adams type revolver with true double action in 1853

1851 Adams

Tranter double action. ca 1854

Jim K
December 2, 2007, 12:07 AM
I suppose it is stretching the terms "double action" and "revolver", but the pepperbox pistols of the 1830's were almost all "DAO". Colt didn't really invent the idea of a revolver, he invented the idea of a revolver with a single barrel, which was, of course, much lighter and easier to use than the pepperbox.

In 1900 or 1901, I think the real novelty item would have been a Model 1900 Colt automatic (or "ottomatick" as it was spelled by Penrod in the 1914 Booth Tarkington classic, when such guns were still novelties). There were only about 3500 made, but the writer could really puzzle people by having the owner push down the rear sight to make the gun safe and push it up to fire. (Yes, the 1900 Colt really did have a rear sight that doubled as a safety.) They would not have been available prior to mid-1900, and more likely to be seen in November or December.

But note that Colt didn't call it the Model 1900 (that is a modern collectors term). So it should be called just an "automatic Colt pistol" or a ".38 caliber automatic."


December 2, 2007, 12:15 AM
Starr made their first Double Action in 1858.

December 2, 2007, 01:22 AM
.22 Rimfire:
You said "The early pre-1900 double actions were pretty crude by todays standards as I understand it."

I disagree. I have a .38 S&W 2nd Model DA (from mid-1880s) and a Mark III Webley (188? or 189?) and they're both very well made and functioning perfectly. Both have "drop proof" hammers, too. I haven't dismantled them to see their works so I don't know if the guts are crude, but they work flawlessly. The Webley, especially, is an extremely nicely made gun, a quality piece. Most modern revolvers that I've experienced don't measure up, workmanship-wise.

December 2, 2007, 03:13 AM
GunTech, While Tranter did manufacture revolvers under license from Adams, the double-trigger model you showed was his own variation on the Adams design. The Adams grew in such popularity during the 1850s that it became the official sidearm of the British Army around the time of the Indian Mutiny (1857). Given this popularity, it is not surprising variations appeared on the market. My personal favorite is the Beaumont-Adams, the product of experience gained during the Crimean War. Thanks for the pics which brought back memories of this gun.

Hugo, if you want to arm your detective with an exotic gun, then have him purchase an early Luger. The time period is right and the Luger has a certain mystique to it. Good luck.


December 2, 2007, 03:31 AM
Casimir Lefaucheux (from Paris, France) made a double-action revolver in 1851. It was arguably the first revolver to use metallic cartridges (pinfire) and was sold to the civilian market:


It was of course very popular upon release although its high price only made it affordable for rich citizens.

Only in 1873 the French army adopted a standard service revolver, the St Etienne 1873, based on a Chamelot-Delvigne design.
That very revolver (such as the ones posted by Frenchbushmaster) was the first double-action sidearm ever adopted by any large standing army in History. It was copied and improved over the years by many countries..

Here are mine:


December 2, 2007, 12:25 PM
Maybe "crude" was not the best choice of words or description. I will leave the discussion to the experts as I am certainly not one.

December 2, 2007, 12:31 PM
The first Colt double action revolver was introduced in 1877. Usually chambered in .38 or .41 Long Colt they were popular with a lot of folks, including detectives. Smith & Wesson started making D.A. top-break revolvers in 1880.
As I recall, when Colt first introduced the term "double action," it did not refer to trigger-cocking or self-cocking (as opposed to thumb-cocking) but rather to the fact that those models could be fired in either mode, unlike earlier revolvers that could only be fired in one mode.

In this sense, I believe the first double-action revolvers were of European design (e.g., Beaumont-Adams, Nagant, Lefaucheux-Francotte/Chamelot-Delvigne and Schmidt-Galand).

December 2, 2007, 11:58 PM
Whoops forgot to mention the story is set in USA and Canada, probably 1890-ish. Interesting (but kinda odd) looking European revolvers, but I think something from this continent is what will be carried by the character. Definitely something using cartridges, black powder is too much of a pain to deal with. Also something not loaded through a gate on the side, definitely swing out cylinder. Not sure which one of those was first.

P.S. Nice collections guys in Europe! Hope those of you in France don't need to use them to fight off the damn fool rioters though. Stay safe!

Roswell 1847
December 3, 2007, 12:06 AM
People often think the early Double action lock work was crude in design because due to an infamous child shooting another child with a found pocket pistol manufacturers deliberately made the trigger pull of double action pocket pistols stiff and heavy to hopefully prevent a small child from pulling the trigger.

C&B double action guns had a heavy trigger pull because these guns need a stronger mainspring and resulting heavy hammer fall to prevent the cap from blowing off. My brother battlefield relic 51 has a much stronger main spring than any replica 51 I've seen.

An early double action was the Cooper copy of the baby dragoon.

Some Merwin and Hulbert pistols are double action. A rare and interesting design, well thought of by Lawmen.

The .476 Enfield was used by the Canadian Royal Mounted Police.

Merwin and Hulbert DA

December 3, 2007, 12:32 AM
Thanks for the website Roswell 1847! Nice things there, but too much money for me.

Aha now I see Colt had the first swing out cylinder revolver in 1889. Hmmm. Bet those are pricey today at auctions.
Colt had as model 1877 which was double action but looked like a Single action.

Merwin and Hulbert pistols sure do look terrific.

Roswell 1847
December 3, 2007, 01:02 PM
Since you want the bad guys to be suprized the fact that some Merwin and Hulbert pistols were Seven Shooters rather than six shot guns would sure be a suprize to the guy who thought the hero was out of ammo.

You could top up the cylinder quickly as well since the ejector dumped all the empty fired cases at once but left the live rounds in the chambers.

December 3, 2007, 02:07 PM
Still leaning toward an early auto pistol to befuddle the BG's.

Even Tom Horn, a very nowledgable gunman, was unable to figure out how to use one as late as 1903.

"Facing a hanging, Horn escaped from jail briefly with another prisoner by beating Deputy Richard Proctor. Other residents joined in and knocked Horn to the ground as he struggled to fire the pistol he had seized along the way, allegedly a German Luger, which he was completely unfamiliar with."

Perhaps a Borchardt?


Roswell 1847
December 3, 2007, 02:32 PM
I believe that there were a couple of civilian and foreign military contract model Lugers built before the German Military p08.
Those were in 7.65 luger rather than 9mm and the US Calvary tested a few of them, though I think that was around the time they adopted the 1911.

There was a Colt .45 ACP autoloader that preceeded the 1911, I think it was a 1905 model.

December 3, 2007, 04:15 PM
Still leaning toward an early auto pistol to befuddle the BG's.

Yup. The bee's knees would've been an 1896 Mauser. Ever seen "Joe Kidd"?

December 3, 2007, 10:09 PM

Cooper Circa 1862

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