The merits of each have been debated for decades; here’s one shooter’s take.
Story by Jim Dickson
The relative merits of the three basic types of pistols – single-action, double-action and automatic – has rarely been discussed in an impartial manner. All have their place and their advantages and disadvantages, depending upon their use.
There is a lot of misinformation and even brazen lies that have been repeated for so long that many people believe them. Chief among these is the lie that revolvers are more reliable than automatics. We need to get that lie out of the way before we go any further. I shoot for a living and I have had far more jams and malfunctions with revolvers than automatics. I have seen a .45 M1911A1 throw sand out of every joint and keep right on firing. If you ever get sand down inside the lockwork of a revolver, it will lock up as tight as a bank vault until you turn it in to Ordnance and they take it apart and clean it.
That brings up another point. Automatics are usually easy to take apart and put back together. Revolvers are not, and double-action revolvers can be a nightmare. Even trying to get some of those tiny screws to start in their holes can prove almost impossible for those that lack the magic touch.
Revolvers have to be in perfect timing to operate reliably. As they wear, they get out of time. Bad things happen now. A cylinder may refuse to turn, trigger pulls go up and down drastically in the force required to operate, and a hammer may sporadically lack sufficient force to fire the cartridge or may refuse to go all the way back, etc. I have seen all these things and more.
A revolver that is worn or out of time may work perfectly during dry firing but start doing the aforementioned things when you begin firing live ammo. I have even had a foreign copy of a Colt Single Action have its cylinder freeze up after loading the first couple of rounds. Despite the fact that there was plenty of play fore and aft and no place was visibly binding, the cylinder pin had to be removed to get the cylinder out before you could get the cartridges out. The gun then would cycle perfectly as long as no shells were in it. I sent that gun back to the importer without ever figuring that one out.
Then there are the screws. Revolvers are full of them. They back out sometimes as you fire and then they can tie up the gun. An automatic keeps right on working reliably despite its wear until something breaks. I have never had any weird malfunctions with an automatic.
NOW LET US begin with the single-action revolvers. The Colt Single Action Army (SAA) in .45 Long Colt (as opposed to the .45 Short Schofield) is the classic gun of the Old West. It is simple and easy to master. Thanks to Western movies and TV shows, it is the most recognizable pistol in the world. The ease of hitting with it makes it a top choice for many people. As long as you take the time to point it at the target, its rate of fire is as fast as a double-action revolver.
Since it is a .45, you only need one shot per human assailant. That means you can immediately turn your attention to any other attackers in turn. This is a life and death matter because many men have run out of time and been killed by the other attackers while trying to do a double-tap on each assailant.
Equally important is the fact that you do not need expanding bullets, so long as you hit the vitals. Expanding bullets do not always expand and when they do, they do not always expand the same amount. Worse, they lack penetration through the cover your opponent will often try to take in a gunfight. On really big bear and moose, they lack adequate penetration.
As long as you don’t have to face more than five men before having time to reload, you are fine.
I said five because despite Hollywood calling it a six-shooter, you must never load more than five cartridges in a M1873 SAA because its 1836 lockwork from the Colt Patterson revolver does not have a rebounding hammer or a safety bar. That means a blow on the hammer can set off the cartridge under it. The safety notch intended to stop this can easily be broken off by a hard blow, as many early cowboys found out when saddling a horse resulted in a heavy stirrup hitting the hammer and firing the gun while it was in its holster.
While the five-shot capacity is not too bad a flaw, the speed of reloading is more serious. You can reload a Colt cap-and-ball revolver with paper cartridges just as fast as you can remove the empty cases and reload a Colt SAA. On the plus side, the ejection of the cases is positive and there is no way to get a cartridge case jammed behind the extractor, as sometimes happens when people try to eject the cases from a swing-out cylinder double-action revolver without pointing the muzzle up first.
The wonderful trigger pull of the SAA makes it unsuitable for police work, where pointing a loaded gun at a suspect is common. It is too easy for a nervous man to accidentally let off a shot. The Colt SAA is particularly susceptible to screws backing out and screwdrivers fitted to the screwheads are a necessity. I tighten up all my screws after each box of cartridges fired with a set of screwdrivers from Peacemaker Specialties. They also make a cylinder pin puller for getting out tight cylinder pins without marring them.
The Colt SAA’s strong point is the ease of hitting with it. Sadly, most people never gain the full benefits of this because they don’t fully understand how to shoot it. Some years ago, I realized that I was the last living man who knew the old gunfighter’s secret grip for the Colt SAA. Since I don’t expect to face another man with a single-action in a gunfight in this day and time, I decided to start writing about it. The men on the frontier who knew this grip could easily shoot alongside an M1873 or M1892 Winchester rifle at all ranges. See sidebar on page 88 to learn how to master this old gunfighter’s secret grip.
THE DOUBLE-ACTION REVOLVER has largely superseded the single-action. It is much faster to reload, especially if it is a topbreak, and the use of speed loaders makes it even faster. The old British Webley is the all-time champion revolver for fast reloading. This rugged, reliable design stands as the best military revolver ever to see service. Sadly, it is no longer made.
The American swing-out cylinder revolvers require that the muzzle be held up when ejecting the cartridges, lest one fall between the cylinder and the ejector and be hard to remove. Ejection requires a separate movement, unlike the topbreak designs that positively eject when the gun is opened fast.
Double-action revolvers are the best pistols for the casual user who just wants a burglar pistol, as there is not much to remember. Just point and pull the trigger.
Burglars are normally shot at across-the-room range, so this works quite well in practice. That long double-action trigger pull is a good safety feature for when a nervous homeowner has their finger on the trigger. It is also the reason that this is the only satisfactory gun for police use. Single-actions and automatics have triggers that are easier to set off. That’s no good when a nervous cop has pulled a gun on a possibly innocent suspect. We have few crimes where the death penalty is employed anymore, so letting a nervous cop play accidental executioner is inexcusable if the police are really there to protect and serve the citizen instead of the state.
This is a good time to debunk the advice that a pump shotgun makes a good burglar gun. It is long and clumsy indoors and may be easily grabbed away from you when going through doorways. At across-the-room range, the shot does not spread out enough to matter. You basically have a pump slug gun that has to have the action pumped for each shot. While some think the sound of cycling a pump gun is cool, it is also fatally slow indoors. A pistol is a far, far better weapon here. Just make sure it’s a .45.
The best double-action .45 revolver currently available is the 4-inch-barrel Ruger Redhawk in .45 Colt. It has the finest double-action trigger pull of any revolver I have ever used. I can hit just as well shooting double-action with this pistol as I can shooting single-action with it. They also designed it without all the screws you normally find in revolvers. This gun is big enough to be almost recoil-free in .45 Colt, yet any member of the family can use it in an emergency.
Most people will not take the time or expend the ammunition to become proficient at double-action firing, but here is how to do it. First and foremost, employ instinct shooting. Second, make a smooth trigger pull while ignoring the gun. Engage the trigger with the first joint instead of the tip of the trigger finger, with the thumb pointed down as it grips the pistol. You will be surprised at how quickly skill can be gained this way. You are still going to have a big ammo bill, though, as practice these days does not come cheap.
The double-action revolver can also be fired single-action, but it is not configured for efficient use in this mode. If you are going to cock the gun before you shoot, you should just go ahead and buy a single-action, as they are much more efficient at this mode of firing. Use the double-action revolver for double-action shooting. That’s what it is designed to do. Also do not fire the first shot single-action if you may have to fire double-action for follow-up shots, for this will throw off your shooting immeasurably.
THE M1911A1 .45 automatic represents the ultimate in pistol design. It has the most reliability of all pistols and its .45 ACP cartridge will put down a foe with one shot to the vitals as reliably as anything you can hold in your hand. I have a World War II manual in which the Army states that the .45 ACP has more stopping power than the .30-06. That just bears out what pistol users have seen all along.
While relatively easy to master, you do need to become accustomed to it, whereas the German P08 Luger is the easiest pistol to hit with ever made. You just point and hit. It’s as simple as that. The Luger is also one of the most accurate pistols ever made. While not quite as reliable overall as the M1911A1, it is the champ in the mud. There is no place for globs of mud to enter the mechanism and it is good at throwing the mud off when fired.
If the barrel is plugged with mud and then fired, it will bulge the barrel but the gun will still work. A pistol with a slide over the barrel will always jam in that situation and the only fix is to replace the bulged barrel.
The trigger pull of an automatic can be as light as any single-action’s. This is a great aid to accuracy, but like the single-action revolver, it makes it unsuitable for police work where you are supposed to cover a suspect with your gun without accidentally shooting him.
Users of automatic pistols need to learn how to field-strip them and then reassemble them. This puts off the casual owner just wanting a burglar pistol. They may have trouble remembering how after a few years.
The automatic is the champion at sustained fire. Just keep those loaded magazines coming and it will keep right on firing. No revolver can approach its sustained rate of fire, which has saved the lives of many service members.
The M1911A1 is best gripped with the first joint of the trigger finger on the trigger, instead of the tip. The thumb should be pointed down. This grip gives the best control and accuracy of the gun. Do not point the thumb up, as you may soon find that it is prone to raising a blister in this position if the gun is fired extensively.
It should be noted that as America has produced many pistoleros, there have been men in every war who have used their pistol in preference to a long arm for everything except long-range work. It certainly is the best weapon for fighting inside buildings. The M1911A1 has earned itself a sterling reputation among these men, quite unlike its successor, the 9mm M9 pistol, whose career has been marked by slides coming off in soldiers’ faces and reports of jams in adverse conditions.
Colonel George Chinn authored the series of books, The Machine Gun, on machinegun mechanisms, which the Bureau of Navy Ordnance kept classified for years. Col. Chinn once told me that “as long as nitrocellulose is our propellant, every possible mechanism has been tried. All that the gun designer can do now is reconfigure existing mechanisms.”
By the time the M1911 came along, all the ones suitable for pistols had come out. It is a simple truth that once you reach the top of the mountain, all roads are downhill from there. That certainly applies to the M1911, as it is the pinnacle of pistol design and everything since then has been and will continue to be inferior to it.
Back in the early 1980s, when my wife Betty and I were living in a one-room log trapper’s cabin deep in Alaska, our WWII-issue Remington Rand M1911A1s with G.I. surplus ball ammo proved capable of doing everything we needed in the Alaskan bush. If I could only have one gun, it would be the M1911A1, as it is the only one that I can have on me at all times.
The need for a gun generally comes as a sudden surprise, whether you are in the wilderness or the city. That’s where the pistol can be your lifesaver. Skill with the pistol is one of the most important skills in life because it is one that can determine whether you and your family live or not.
Exclusive – Mastering the Secret Grip
The Colt SAA’s strong point is the ease of hitting with it, but only if you know how to shoot it. Here’s how to master the secret grip:
The first step is to cock the hammer with the thumb laid sideways across the hammer. This positions the hand high on the grip, whereas cocking it with the thumb held longways on the hammer – as you would cock a double-action revolver – throws the grip down to the round bottom part of the gun’s handle, resulting in the gun’s side to side movement being more difficult to control.
The hand should be up tight against the cocked hammer’s spur. Since this
comes razor-sharp from the factory, you will need to file off the sharp edge. Don’t worry. It won’t show.
The base of the trigger finger should be angled down, pressing against the flat Colt logo panel at the top of the grips, while the thumb should be angled down, pressing against the other logo panel.
The trigger is engaged with the first joint of the trigger finger, not the tip of the finger. The tip of the finger should curve back and touch the tip of the thumb.
To fire, squeeze both logo panels (this will automatically align the sights with what you are pointing at) and press the trigger finger against the thumb, ignoring the trigger itself. This converts the normally disruptive force of pulling the trigger into a steadying force. The gunfighter’s secret grip was always intended to be used with instinct shooting because this is the fastest and most accurate way to hit. To learn to instinct shoot, set out a row of matchsticks or empty .22 cases as far away as you can easily see them, taking care not to place them too close together.
Strict form is necessary if you want to learn fast. You can shoot from other positions after you learn to hit this way. Stand in the classic duelist
stance with the arm fully extended towards the target with your elbow and wrist straight. Lay your chin against your shoulder and look only at the target, ignoring the gun as you point at the target. Commence firing
at each target in turn. If you miss, just keep going. Otherwise you will
just miss in the same spot again.
It’s really very easy and you will soon catch on. Later you can progress to shooting coins out of the air and other tricks.