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was single action widely preferred in the 19th century?

Discussion in 'Handguns: Revolvers' started by jason41987, Nov 25, 2012.

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  1. jason41987

    jason41987 member

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    ive been doing some thinking on the topic of 19th century firearms, and well, you take the knowledge most people think is true because of what they believe from movies, tv, etc... that everyone used single action because that was high tech at the time...

    since the 1850s or so, there have been a number of double action revolvers that came and went as it seemed they werent all that popular for one reason or another, and it seems single actions were common throughout the 1910s

    so why was there a preference for them?.. why, when other technologies had been available, did people prefer to go with these.... i remember reading that during the civil war when the starr double action was introduced, they asked them to make a single action version of it because thats what they preferred...

    am i wrong on this? was it really because a general lack of technologies, or did most the people in the later half of the 19th century, most probably civil war vets, prefer something that handled more like the colts and remingtons they had during the war?

    i notice that a preference for revolvers seemed to have ended after world war 1, where many people were introduced to the m1911... and i notice many people coming back from iraq when buying a rifle tend to go with an AR15... so were single actions just preferred because its what the civil war vets, and veterens from later wars in the 19th century were used to and familiar with?
     
  2. rcmodel

    rcmodel Member in memoriam

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    Pretty simple really.
    They were preferred because they almost always worked.
    They could even be made to work when something broke.


    DA's of the time where somewhat unreliable mechanically, particularly when fouled with black powder after a few shots. They were also generally only available in smaller calibers, or not as powerful as SA's in big calibers..
    And many of them had so heavy a DA pull as to render them useless anyway.

    Springs broke & timing went out often on guns such as the Colt 1877 Lightening & Thunderer.
    They were hard if not impossible for a blacksmith to fix, and in general, not as good or as reliable as the big bore Colt Army & Navy cap & ball, Colt SAA, or Remington SA's of the time.

    rc
     
    Last edited: Nov 25, 2012
  3. Bikewer

    Bikewer Member

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    I remember reading a snippet from an article published back then... Of dubious provenance. Could have been a "dime novel" writer.

    At any rate, he described a cowpoke handling a Colt DA revolver of the period, and how the fellow couldn't hit anything with it... That the long, heavy trigger pull made all his shots go off to the right.

    True or not... Such little snippets would circulate till they became "common knowledge", much as is the "common knowledge" that you can't hit anything with a handgun past 7 yards or so.
    Also... It is true that the style of shooting a handgun back then was with one hand, and a heavy pull and a one-hand hold would work against accuracy.
     
  4. Gary A

    Gary A Member

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    I can't vouch for the historical accuracy but in the 1959 Randolph Scott film, Ride Lonesome, a very young James Coburn can be seen firing his SAA with two hands, thumb cocking with his left hand. This was during a scene where they are attacked by Indians. I can easily imagine that someone might have thrown style out the window under such a circumstance in favor of effectiveness.
     
  5. rswartsell

    rswartsell Member

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    The first double action revolvers were much more complicated and fragile in their actions that the contemporary SA's. That is what I would consider to be an established fact. While they found some popularity in the suits and drawing rooms of the well heeled "gentlemen" of the time in New York, etc. on the plains or frontier the relatively blue collar working men had not the budget for increased cost nor the tolerance for tempermental fragility. There were notable exceptions, William Bonney (Billy the Kid) and his .38 Colt Lightning, that proved the rule, Teddy Roosevelt as prominent proponent of the .38SW Safety Hammerless.
     
  6. Driftwood Johnson

    Driftwood Johnson Member

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    Howdy

    First off, don't believe everything you see in the movies. If we were to believe the movies, there would have been nothing but Colt SAAs and Winchester Model 1892s in the Old West.

    Second, the 19th Century was a long time. Colt's first model, the Paterson model, appeared in 1836. The Century lasted another 64 years and there was a huge amount of firearm development in that time.

    Yes, some of the early Double Action Percussion revolvers like the Starr were unwieldy and awkward to shoot. Interestingly enough, just yesterday I got a chance to handle an original Double Action Remington C&B revolver that had been converted to firing rimfire cartridges. It was quite a nice piece, and handled very well. Unfortunately, no cartridges are made for it any more, or I might have bought it.

    OK, let's talk production numbers. Let's start with large calibers. The Colt Model of 1877 was very popular, there were over 166,000 of them made from 1877 until 1909. Not bad for a gun that had the reputation of breaking down easily. Compare that to the total production of over 356,000 units for the First Generation SAA, a production run that ran from 1873 until 1940. Not bad for a run of only about 30 years. The model 1878 was even better than the model 1877, designed as a companion to the SAA in large calibers like 44-40 and 45 Colt. Inexplicably, even though the 1878 was a better gun than the 1877, only about 51,000 were made between 1878 and 1905.

    Now, let's talk about my favorite large frame 19th Century double action revolver, the Smith and Wesson Double Action 44. There were over 68,000 of these made. Most were chambered for 44 Russian, about 15,000 were chambered for 44-40, and about 270 were chambered for 38-40. This specimen is mine, it is chambered for 44 Russian. It shipped in 1881. The double action trigger pull rivals any modern double action Smith, it is a pleasure to shoot and it is very accurate.

    NewFrontSight02.jpg

    Here is a rare treat. I got a chance to see this gun before an auction a few years ago. A beautifully engraved 44DA that was shipped to Theodore Roosevelt shortly before he left for Cuba and the Spanish American War. I don't remember what it went for, but it was way out of my price range.

    TRpistol-1.jpg




    Now let's talk pocket pistols. Contrary to popular belief, they were not limited to card sharps and Easterners. Open carry of large belt pistols may have been acceptable out on the prairie, but townspeople soon grew tired of cowhands shooting up their towns at the end of a cattle drive. The famous shootout in Tombstone in 1881 occurred because Virgil Earp was trying to enforce a town ordinance against open carry of firearms. This was not an isolated law, towns all over the West were passing ordinances against open carry. Pocket pistols were the obvious answer for any body who wanted to carry a weapon in town.

    This is a S&W 38 Double Action. It is a five shot revolver chambered for the 38 S&W cartridge. This particular one is the Third Model and it shipped in 1888. There were over 322,000 of these made from 1880 until 1895. They were commonly carried by all sorts of people, including law officers and security guards.

    38DA3rdModel02.jpg

    This is a S&W 38 Safety Hammerless, sometimes known as a Lemon Squeezer because of the grip safety that must be depressed to fire the gun. This one is also chambered for 38 S&W. It is the Third Model and it shipped in 1896. There were over 200,000 of these made from 1887 until 1907.

    38SafetyHammerless3rdModel.jpg

    I would like to comment on the statement that these guns were likely to bind up after just a few shots from Black Powder fouling. Nothing could be further from the truth. It may have been true with the cheap pistols of the day, but not with quality pistols made by Smith and Wesson. I have made some comments and provided photos of several S&W revolvers made during the Black Powder era in another post on another page. These guns were specifically designed to shoot Black Powder and they did it well. They did not bind up after just a few rounds, I can attest to that, I have fired them all with Black Powder rounds. S&W had already been making revolvers for over 30 years when these guns came out, and they knew how to design them so they would not bind up.

    Here is a close up of the barrel/cylinder gap area of my 38 Safety Hammerless. Notice the prominent cylinder bushing at the front of the cylinder. Notice too the horizontal separation of the front of the bushing from the barrel/cylinder gap.

    barrelcylindergap-1.jpg

    In this next photo I have removed the cylinder and the bushing on the front of the cylinder is visible. The pin at the center of the cylinder is inserted inside the arbor pressed into the barrel assembly. The bushing fits outside the pin. When the gun fires, BP fouling is deflected away from the cylinder pin by the bushing. BP fouling blasted out of the b/c gap and deposited on the cylinder pin is the main cause of binding with any revolver fired with Black Powder. This design was very successful at keeping fouling away from the cylinder pin, and the gun can be fired many times without binding up.

    38SafetyHammerless3rdModel03.jpg

    Anyhoo, that is my take on double action revolvers in the 19th Century. Starting in the 1880s there were lots of them.

    For a very informative video on a few of these old double action revolvers, check this one out.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqkoMyHzR9E
     
    Last edited: Nov 25, 2012
  7. Ranger618

    Ranger618 Member

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    I would guess that single actions were less expensive than DAs,and people had little extra money back then.
     
  8. Jim K

    Jim K Member

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    In fact, folks often preferred DA revolvers when they could get good ones. But unlike Cooper, which unabashedly used an English design, Colt basically started from scratch and didn't produce a really good DA action until c. 1900. The English were will ahead of the Americans in producing high quality and reliable DA revolvers as early as the 1850s.

    In fairness, Colt's early DA designs were probably not that bad when originally produced. The ones we see today have had over a century of wear and tear, amateur gunsmithing, and spring flexing to overcome. I will note, based on personal experience, that the Models 1877 and 1878 are rather nasty to shoot, with the large rear "hump" beating up the hand rather badly. I suspect they were carried more than they were fired.

    Jim

    Jim
     
  9. jason41987

    jason41987 member

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    as far as modern semi automatics and double action revolvers go, to this date ive never shot anything that i felt had the balance, pointability, or handling of the colt single action revolvers... and these are characteristics that id personally rather have over super fast reloading or rapid fire... i wonder why the idea is so taboo now about people carrying these?...

    i knew a guy who carried one for about 60 years concealed because he as well never fired anything that had that kind of balance and handling... he's what i would have called a guru on single action colts, and was even contracted to tweak a few of them for western movies and TV shows in the 60s and 70s, but he died a few years ago with a ton of knowledge about them

    in rare occasions he did carry a very, very small single stack 9mm for the ultra concealability of a super-thin single stack 9 mil, but only when he absolutely couldnt carry one of his colts... he couldnt stand western movies either, didnt like CAS competitions, and worked as a machinist, so there wasnt any pro-western television bias with him about it, it was purely on the preference of its handling characteristics

    this, and other things leads me to believe that even with reliable double actions out there, and many made, a lot of people may have just preferred them then, and today it seems taboo because today everyones bombarded with action movies and first person shooter video games...

    but. as someone stated, could have also been a financial thing, single actions being cheaper to make, and cheaper to buy
     
  10. wlewisiii

    wlewisiii Member

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    Thank you to Driftwood for saving me from writing up much of what he said better and with his own exquisite example of a DA44 to boot! :)

    For me, I have never understood how anyone could hit anything with a SAA. Awkward, hard to aim and, even with the recoil rolling the revolver back to allow the thumb easier access to the hammer, much slower on the second and later shots than even the most miserable DA I've ever shot. Many of the old small breaktops did not have especially good triggers - my wife's S&W .32 DA revolver has probably the worst pull on any S&W I've run into. But I'd still rather carry it in an emergency than any Single Action I've ever shot.

    I consider my S&W 625 Mountain Gun in .45 Colt to be an example of the best of both worlds... ;)
     
  11. jason41987

    jason41987 member

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    really?... ive been able to hit the best with the single action revolvers and not as well with newer ones
     
  12. snooperman

    snooperman Member

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    The few double action designs in the 1870s-1880s were much weaker and not as reliable as the single action guns of the same time frame. Also one could shoot heavier loads with much greater power in the SA guns. In fact many border patrol agents and LE men in the 1900-1930 period out west continued carrying their 45 Colt SA type revolvers. The first shot from the holster was faster for them with the SA gun too.
     
  13. snooperman

    snooperman Member

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    During the Spanish- American War, the 1889 38 revolver was a very poor performer. Many U.S. soldiers would have better been served with the SA 45 Colt. Even today , if a hunter wants power in a handgun for hunting , he most often chooses the SA action. Many soldiers much preferred the SA in the Mexican skirmishes in the early 20th century, including one Lt. George Patton.
     
  14. HDCamel

    HDCamel Member

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    I don't think I've ever heard that said about SAAs. I've never shot a gun that felt more natural.
     
  15. Jim Watson

    Jim Watson Member

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    Jim K touches on it; don't be provincial and think that America was the only place building and using guns. The British Adams and early Webleys were well developed double actions. Much as we lampoon the French these days, they were once a world power and a leader in weapons development. Their 1858 revolver was such a robust basic design that it went from pinfire to centerfire, single action to double action until replaced by the double action "Mummy" revolver of 1873. The Russian gas seal Nagant with its heavy trigger was not the only Nagant and Nagant not the only double action revolver on the Continent.
     
  16. snooperman

    snooperman Member

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    "For me, I never understood how anyone could hit anything with A SA revolver". Well, that's because you do not know how to shoot them, and did not take the time learn. There are shooters in this country who can shoot them better and faster than those with double action guns. My 2 cents-Snoop
     
  17. wlewisiii

    wlewisiii Member

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    And didn't want to learn since I could shoot better with a double action already. Heresy, I know but not everyone worships the Colt SAA. I was quite happy to use my Blackhawk as a down payment on my 625 Mountain Gun.
     
  18. CraigC
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    CraigC Member

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    One has to take a broad view of history to understand. While Sam Colt did not invent the revolver, the development of the percussion cap allowed him to create the first practical, packable, usable revolving pistol. The Paterson guns, while an engineering marvel, were still an utter failure. So it's not like everybody woke up one morning in the late 1830's, dumped their single shots and bought a Paterson belt model. He had much more success with the Walker and the subsequent Dragoons but the concept didn't really come into its own until the 1849 and 1851 models. So in 1851 you had a wonderful, full-sized holster pistol but not something that automatically just flooded the market. Up to that point, lots of folks still used front stuffers, if they used a pistol at all. Revolver probably didn't really come into widespread use until 1860. At this point the Colt 1860 and Remington 1858 were state of the art. There was still a lot of outmoded thinking and folks just were not in a hurry to empty their pistol. Up until the Rollin-White patent ran out in 1869, it took a long time to reload them contraptions. Coupled with the fact that DA's were ungainly and overly complicated and the customary one-handed shooting at the time, it's no wonder that the single action survived as long as it did.


    I shoot them, carry them, hunt with them, daydream about them, modify them, restock them and have them professionally modified but I do not worship them. ;)


    I'm glad somebody likes them newfangled contraptions.
     
  19. Red Cent

    Red Cent Member

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    "I shoot them, carry them, hunt with them, daydream about them, modify them, restock them and have them professionally modified but I do not worship them."

    What he said. Well maybe a little worship. Been doing it every weekend (competition) for 12 years.
     
  20. jason41987

    jason41987 member

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    i think wlewisiii helps the point i made earlier, about a lot of people in the 19th century having learned with and gotten used to single action revolvers, many of them being civil war vets, and veterens from other conflicts after that... its what they learned on, its what they shot best

    then when people came home from WWI, what they knew most, and what they shot best at that point in time was the M1911, and this is about the point in time where i notice semi automatics and double actions really take off in popularity

    since wlewisiii started on double actions, he got used to the grips, tuned his hand, his muscles to point better with it, and be more instinctive with what he had so the SAA would feel foreign to him and wouldnt point right with the way he's gotten used to holding the DAs
     
  21. Vern Humphrey

    Vern Humphrey Member

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    Contact Hammond at Hammond Game Getter. http://www3.telus.net/gamegetter/

    Hammond or any other gunsmith worth his salt can help you. What you need are dummy cartridge cases with .22 chambers bored near the rim, so you can load a .22 nail-setting blank and fire it with your rimfire hammer. Nail setting blanks come in different power levels, and you can find one that will drive a .44 ball to respectable velocity.

    My own Game Getter is in .30-06, and with a Brown blank (lowest power), it drives a 00 buckshot to around 800 fps for squirrel hunting.
     
  22. Driftwood Johnson

    Driftwood Johnson Member

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    Howdy Again

    A few thoughts.

    Yes, it was the cartridge, not so much the gun that was unsatisfactory during the Philippine Insurrection. The cartridge was underpowered.

    Regarding being underpowered, as I said earlier the S&W DA 44 was available in 44-40. Hardly an underpowered cartridge. Mine is chambered for 44 Russian. The Colt Model 1878 was chambered for 32-20, 38-40, 41 Colt, 44-40 and 45 Colt. With the exception of 32-20 these were all big bore cartridges that packed plenty of punch. The Merwin Hulbert DA was also chambered for 44-40.

    Regarding heavy trigger pulls, what are we talking about anyway? A pistol has always been a close in weapon. Gunfights were not conducted at long range, they were close up an in your face. Controlling a DA revolver, even one with a stiff trigger pull is no problem when the target is close. Anyway, as I said earlier, my Smith DA 44 has a trigger pull that rivals any modern revolver. It is smooth and easy to control and the gun is very accurate.

    The point is also often made that DA revolvers were finicky and difficult to work on. Has anybody here ever fitted the bolt of a SAA? I have, and it is not a simple drop in part, it requires precise fitting to make it work properly. Most of the parts in a Smith would not have required the kind of fitting that the Colt bolt requires. The main objection the Army had when it rejected the S&W American model was that it was not a solid frame and the Army thought that was a drawback and a weakness. But it did not stop them from buying several thousand Schofield models a few years later. If not for the unfortunate choice of ammunition, the Schofields would probably have remained in service for many years.

    Lastly, regarding shooting the SAA accurately, I shoot mine all the time and they are very accurate, and yes they point very naturally. The biggest mistake most shooters make when firing a SAA is trying to cram their entire hand onto the grip. I always curl my pinky under the grip and allow the gun to recoil naturally in my hand.

    I like shooting modern DA revolvers too, but I like the pre-war ones best. They are the smoothest.
     
  23. snooperman

    snooperman Member

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    Driftwood, most of what you say here has merit but the 1878, was an intricate design that could not stay in time. It was like a bad watch. This characteristic is found in specimens today. I too like the pre war DA S&W the best and seek them out over all others. But my love of the SA action gun runs deep. My Ruger custom guns in 45 Colt are a joy to shoot and to hunt with. I find the 45 Colt cartridge my best all-around gun. I even carry one when out working around the farm or riding.
     
  24. rcmodel

    rcmodel Member in memoriam

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    Yes, many times.

    And it is childs play compaired to trying to replace springs and re-time a Colt Lightening!

    BTDT too, and I won't bother doing it ever again.

    rc
     
  25. .22-5-40

    .22-5-40 Member

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    Hello, jason. I see most if not all posts have been about U.S. dbl. actions. But the British had been using dbl. action revolvers since the earliest percussion models..and during Queen Victorias reign, they saw alot of action around the globe in small wars and uprisings. I have a Webley-Kerr dbl. action .455 with a dbl. action pull so smooth that rivals the best S&W.
     
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