L. Neil Smith's
Number 289, September 19, 2004

Today Is International Talk Like A Pirate Day!

A Little Gun Talk
by L. Neil Smith

Exclusive to TLE

Recently I rediscovered something a great many folks already knew: that for general purposes, revolvers with five-inch barrels are the best.

I'm speaking here of large-frame double-action revolvers, of course. For those among you who don't know (which certainly isn't a crime), a revolver is a kind of handgun with a rotating cylinder at its mechanical center, offering anything from three to nine holes—called "chambers"—for holding cartridges (don't say "bullets", they're only the front end of the ammunition). Each time the weapon operates, the cylinder revolves, presenting a fresh cartridge to be fired.

By way of illustration, all of the cowboy stars you recall, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Bat Masterson, Cheyenne Body, Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck, James West I and II, employed revolvers of the type known as "single action". You have to pull the hammer backward until it locks in place before you can pull the trigger and shoot.

On the other hand, "double action", typified by traditional police revolvers—where you can shoot slowly or rapidly simply by pulling back on the trigger—was first invented around the time of the War Between the States, but didn't really catch on for about another half century.

There are reasons for this sort of conservatism. Individuals who rely on weapons daily for self-defense tend to hold onto something that works a long time after less well-informed folks consider it "obsolete". I'm considered a relative neophile—meaning that I'm interested in new things—yet my most modern handgun, the ten millimeter Glock 20 autopistol, was first produced around twenty years ago. The personal weapon still most widely praised for reliability and effectiveness was invented in 1905, and adopted by the U.S. Army in 1911.

That's its name, the 1911. You probably know it as the Government .45.

But I digress.

For decades, from around the Spanish American War until fairly recently, American policemen carried double action revolvers, mostly six-shot .38 Specials with four-inch barrels, mostly made by Colt or Smith & Wesson. Sturm Ruger got into the act fashionably late with the excellent Security Six .357 Magnum I carried as reserve officer thirty years ago. It was considered new and untested, and I was a radical for choosing it, though the fact that I was a gunsmith spoke highly in its favor.

Now I'm told that 60% of American cops carry Glock automatic pistols, mostly chambered for the remarkable cartridge I call ".40 Liberty".

A paragraph here about that word "automatic". That's what their makers called them for a majority of the last century, until the word became politically incorrect. It simply means that when you pull the trigger (having cocked the piece, if it's the kind that needs it), there's a loud noise at the far end of the barrel, and the gun tosses away the now-empty cartridge case, cocks itself, and shuffles another cartridge into the chamber, ready for firing by another pull on the trigger.

One trigger-pull, one shot.

Anything else is a machinegun.

Knowledgeable shooters continue to buy revolvers, however, and new revolvers continue to be designed and manufactured. They're not as concealable (owing to the cylinder, which is twice as wide as the rest of the gun) and they carry fewer cartridges than modern, high-capacity automatics. So I suppose it's appropriate to ask why they still remain popular.

Partly, it's pure sentiment, especially with single-actions. Those cowboy stars I mentioned, and legions more, are burned into the brains of my generation like the image of Marilyn Monroe standing over that subway grating. I love the weight and swing of a big bore sixgun in my hand. It connects me with my ancestors—some of them surprisingly recent—in a way that's hard to describe but very satisfying to experience.

Also, in theory, it's easier for neophytes to learn the revolver, I guess because you can see all of its important workings happen right before your eyes. It may be harder to make mistakes, again in theory. It's less scary handing a loaded one to a beginner. On the other hand, it's harder to get good with a revolver, especially in double action mode.

I always feel chagrined because, although I know the autopistol is vastly better suited to self-defense, I handle double action revolvers better.

On the third hand, it's hard to find an automatic with as much power as a great many common revolvers offer. Ruger, Smith & Wesson, Colt, Dan Wesson, and others make many different revolvers in the "magnum" range—say anything producing 700 foot-pounds of energy or more—but there have only been four autopistols that ever produced that much power, the Automag, the Desert Eagle, the Grizzly, and the Wildey. I don't know about the Wildey, but the Automag is long out of production.

Unlike most automatics, revolvers come with a variety of barrel-lengths which really change the character of a weapon. I have a .44 Magnum with a three-inch barrel (which is really short for a large-framed revolver); it's a completely different animal, carried and used for utterly different purposes, than the 8-inch barrelled .44 I also own. One is for the hip pocket, shooting snakes, and lighting up a dangerous alley at need. One is for reaching out and touching metallic critter silhouettes at two hundred meters, or for converting elk into groceries. It's exactly like acquiring different clubs for your golf bag.

Oh, yes, and I forgot Lucy Kropotkin's .50 caliber Gabbett-Fairfax Mars.

But you don't have to wear the silly clothes.

You have to wear other silly clothes, instead.

I have collected large-frame revolvers, both single and double action, for decades now, and have them in three inches, four inches, four and five-eighths inches, five inches, six inches, six and a half inches, seven and a half inches, the aforementioned eight inches, and eight and three-eighths inches. There are a great many other choices offered, and I'm presently hankering after a five and a half and a ten.

But what I've recently rediscovered is that the best all-round choice you can make if you want a good, reliable, sturdy weapon and you don't want to start a collection, is a five-inch double action revolver.

Such a weapon is not unconcealable if you know what you're doing. It'll even fit in the hip pocket of your jeans if you're an average size.

With modern ammunition, you don't really lose much power, compared with longer-barreled models, but every inch shorter means less sight radius—the distance from the front sight to the rear, which is the ultimate measure of how accurately you can shoot the gun—and every inch longer tends to make the weapon heavier and more difficult to conceal.

What makes a big difference, at least to me, is the "underlug". An integral part of the barrel, machined from the same piece of steel, it's a solid cylinder directly beneath the barrel that goes right to the end of the muzzle. As a shooter of metallic silhouettes (a game played at extremely long ranges), I like a lot of weight up front.

Military revolvers of the first World War had very handy five inch barrels, but they were lightweight and, owing to their slow recovery from recoil, not as conducive to rapid defensive shooting as they might otherwise have been. Modern underlugged barrels are something else. Because they're heavy, they don't flip upward as much with each shot and you get your sight picture back right away. They look and carry relatively short, but they feel and shoot much longer than they are.

Some of my revolvers even use automatic pistol cartridges—ten millimeter, .45 Auto, nine millimeter—held together on inexpensive stamped "moon clips" that make them almost as fast to reload as an autopistol.

A word on grips. Preferences in this area are highly subjective, of course, but I don't care much for anything that the manufacturers are currently putting on their hardware, nor for what's being produced just now in the conventional aftermarket. I greatly prefer Pachmayer's old-style "Presentation" grips, only the two-piece, without the brass medallion. They're no longer available in the ordinary market, so I buy Pachmayr N-frame "large" on e-Bay and put them on all my rotary toys.

Holsterwise, I have a silly story to tell you. After I acquired my most recent five-inch N-frame (used, of course, since I don't consider the Smith & Wesson boycott over), I got to mooning over a holster for it that I kept seeing in the Dillon "Blue Press" catalog. It was a Kramer number, made of horsehide (I'd never had a horsehide holster before) especially for five-inch S&Ws, and cost a princely $79.99 plus postage.

Some months later, I happened to spot the same item in brand new condition at a local gun show for ten dollars less, with no postage. I snapped it right up, took it home, and discovered, to my dismay, that if it wasn't on the most rigid belt I own, it quickly became somewhat uncomfortable.

I also discovered that the weapon fit perfectly in the same Uncle Mike's Size Five belt slide holster I almost always wear to carry service-size autopistols, everything from the Russian Tokarev through the Browning High Power, 1911 GI .45, and Tanfoglio clones of the CZ 75, through the .45 Win Mag Grizzly featured in Pallas. These holsters are concealable, comfortable on any belt I own, and cost $26.95.

Damn. You learn something every day.

Three-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith is the author of 23 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collection of articles and speeches, Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website "The Webley Page" at http://www.lneilsmith.org. Autographed copies may be had from the author at lneil@lneilsmith.org.

Neil is presently at work on Ceres and Ares, two sequels to his 1993 novel, Pallas, a decensored and electronically published version of his 1984 novel, Tom Paine Maru, and on Roswell, Texas, with Rex F. "Baloo" May. A 180-page full-color graphic novel version of The Probability Broach will be released this summer.


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