SKILLS: Using a Single-Action Revolver for Self-Defense

Really? Yes really! Sheriff Jim examines some facts, not myths, about defensive handgun use surrounding one of the best-known (and effective) handgun designs. You’ve got to read this!


SOURCE: Shooting Illustrated
by Sheriff Jim Wilson

Far from being antiques, modern single-action revolvers are extremely popular among today’s handgunners. In this day of higher-capacity semi-autos and double-action revolvers, it’s difficult for some to consider the single-action as a viable choice for personal defense. But, single-action revolvers were originally designed as fighting guns and they did an excellent job of taking care of defensive chores for many, many years.

Today, the modern semi-automatic pistol and double-action sixgun have the old single-action beat in capacity and speed of reloading. But, center hits stop dangerous attacks, not the amount of ammo your gun carries or how fast you can recharge it. Let’s look at some who favor the single-action and examine some of the techniques that make the single-action a viable choice.

A large number of hunters and outdoorsmen choose a single-action because it is tough, sturdy, and can be relied upon when you are on the backside of the Rockies and miles away from the closest gunsmith. In addition, many find the single-action sixgun the most comfortable handgun to shoot when fed a steady diet of heavy .44 Spl., .45 Colt, .41 Mag., .44 Mag., or .454 Casull loads. The Colt-style single-action grip frame tends to roll in the hand and absorb a good deal of the recoil these big-bore loads produce. This reduction in felt recoil minimizes the tendency to flinch, and heavy handgun loads are mighty important when dealing with an angry bear.

Outdoorsmen and trail riders are often concerned about a predatory animal attack while enjoying a day in the woods. Today, however, they are almost as likely to encounter some two-legged predators. When properly managed, the single-action revolver is perfectly capable of dealing with either kind of threat.

Another group to become huge champions of the single-action revolver is cowboy action shooters. I was recently told 300,000 shooters participate in some form of the sport. Many of these folks fire hundreds of rounds a week through their single-actions. Naturally, a person is going to do his best work with the handgun he shoots the most. It makes sense to consider the same single-action as a personal-defense gun.

A few years ago, a group of us gathered at Gunsite Aacademy for a defensive single-action class sponsored by Ruger, XS Sights, and SureFire. We examined shooting techniques designed to make the best use of single-action revolvers.

Some years ago, the fast-draw craze gave single-action revolvers a bit of a bad name. This came about due to the tendency of the fast-draw boys to cock their handgun as it was drawn from the holster. If you were a bit faster on the trigger than you were on the draw, the gun could easily go off before it cleared the holster, which tends to send a heavy lead slug down in the vicinity of your feet.

Well, a better and safer method can be found.

The first step is to take a shooting grip on the holstered sixgun, with your trigger finger straight and outside of the trigger guard. The second step is to draw the gun straight up and out of the holster. The third step is to rotate the handgun until the barrel is pointed toward the threat.

At this point, the support hand (which has been flat against your body) comes out to meet the gun and a two-hand hold is secured. Make sure your support hand is never in front of the muzzle. Shooting your support hand will certainly ruin your day and nearly always spoil your aim.

With the muzzle pointed downrange (or at the threat) and a two-hand hold secured, the support thumb is used to cock the handgun. Throughout the draw stroke, the trigger finger is still straight, out of the trigger guard and along the gun’s frame. It is only as the gun is thrust forward and the sights go onto the target that the trigger finger goes to the trigger. Throughout the shooting sequence, the strong hand maintains a secure grip on the sixgun and the support thumb is used to cock the hammer.

Finally, the defensive single action shares two traits with the defensive shotgun: It just doesn’t hold very many cartridges and both are slow to reload.

The single-action revolver should be reloaded when there is a lull in the fight. Learn to flip open the loading gate, punch out the empties and top the gun off as quickly as possible.

If a single-action revolver is the handgun you shoot the most, you owe it to yourself to be as proficient with it as you possibly can. And, as with any defensive practice, it is important to work for smoothness, not speed. Speed results from smoothness.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Folks I just had to step in on this one… It struck a chord and rang a bell I hadn’t thought about much for years. Most know me as a competitive rifle shooter. That’s where my “credentials” are and also where I’ve focused my editorial attention over my career as a writer, well, that and handloading for those rifles. But! I’ve had a long life of guns, all kinds of guns, and all kinds of shooting. At one much (much) earlier time in my life I was obsessed with Single-Action-Army Colt’s-brand handguns. SAA’s. Based on my best recollection and a calculator, I’ve fired well in excess of 50,000 rounds through a few of those. I had a beloved mentor in my youth who shot competitively with rifles and helped me along there immeasurably, and also put on his own brand of “Wild West” shows for rodeos and what-not. And I learned all about that (I never quite got the rope tricks down…) Yep. One of those “fast-draw” guys that Sheriff Jim just suggested we not emulate. I strongly agree. However! What I learned about SAAs, what I know about SAAs, is that (after putting in the time, and it’s some time) to develop handling skills unique to these guns, they are daggone fast to the first hit. Reasons abound, but simplicity, balance, and “pointability” lead. Would I recommend anyone go out and purchase a Peacemaker for defensive use? NO! Would I carry one? YES! I can also tell you that a hit with one counts a little (or a lot) extra than anything rimless… Underneath all this, this blizzard of words being written in every publication about defensive handguns and their use, the topic of this article called back the basics: the winner of an armed encounter is almost always the one who hits first hardest.
— Glen Zediker

7 thoughts on “SKILLS: Using a Single-Action Revolver for Self-Defense”

  1. Next thing you know, the anti-gun crowd will want to ban the 1873 Colt SSA revolver, be they originals or reproductions. They forget that God created men, and Samuel Colt made them equal.

    1. They don’t care about God or men or any quote of someone who’s long dead. All they care about is getting your guns taken away so they can control you without the threat of being shot when their plans start coming to fruition. If they did care about those they wouldn’t be Liberal/progressives.

  2. I used to shoot Second Chance Bowling pin matches at Point Mugu a couple of decades ago. One of my friends there shot his single action revolver and was able to clear the table of the 5 pins faster than at least 3/4 of the people out there with their 45 ACP autoloaders. The only hand gun I had at the time was a 7 1/2″ Ruger Redhawk in 44 Mag. Counting up the number of rounds fired at each meet and on weekends between meets I fired at least 4,500 rounds through it mostly double action but single was very smooth and I was asked many times where I’d had the action worked on. Most all were quite surprised when I said no one. I shot very reduced loads, 260 grain Hard Lead truncated cone bullets I bought from a guy in Tucson. Of course if I had to reload I wasn’t going to win even the marksman class. I loaded them to only 1100 FPS compared to normal loads at 1450. Compared to the 1911A1 230 gr at 900 FPS it was amazing how the pins flew off the back of the table. My brother likes Blackhawks and Super blackhawks but I like my Redhawk. Options. Single or Double action. Good practice for bowling pin shoots is to use expended 12 gauge rounds as targets at the same 25 feet as the pins are shot at. Do that with any gun and you’re going to be a fierce competitor and a deadly opponent in the bad guy/good guy encounters. From the example of my friend, who always did better than I did, Single Action would be just fine. I’m not carrying a Redhawk around in my bag or in a holster as a carry weapon. Truthfully it’s to much for me know, I’m never going to get to hunt pigs with it as I intended. I’ve got a 4″ GP100 for home defense and I carry a Beretta 3032 Tomcat in 32 ACP. I can hit what I want to hit with it and it’s easy to carry and reload. I sincerely hope and pray that I NEVER have to use it in self defense or defense of another. It’s like the seatbelt in my car. Hopefully it will always just be an annoyance to fasten and not be needed to save my life. But if I need it, I have it and that’s the key. You have to have it with you when you need it because the bad guy isn’t going to wait if you say “Can I run home real quick and get my gun?”. He’s going to probably smile and shoot you dead.

  3. Got my first single action over 40 years ago.
    For years I shot 500/ week at the club and sand pits.

    Practiced ‘quick draw’ by walking the pasture streams and shooting frogs. Don’t draw till they jump for the water and have to shoot before they hit it.

    Had to shoot bears twice. One has powder burns on the head between the eyes. The other was at 6 feet.

    A 158gr .357 mag @ 1500fps placed well will take care of most any threat.

    I wouldn’t have any problem carrying a 4” vaquero cross draw under my jacket if needed, though it rides on my side while hunting, fishing, trapping, etc.


    Use what you know and know what you have.

  4. I carry my Ruger Vaquero (.45 ACP) in a Mernickle concealed carry holster. For a full size pistol, it conceals pretty nicely under a loose shirt or light jacket. I carry extra rounds in a 1911 magazine ( you can thumb the rounds right into the cylinder from the mag). I feel very comfortable that I would be able to defend myself in most situations. In a real SHTF scenario I would switch to a hi cap semi auto.

    1. Using a magazine as a “speedloader” for a Colt 1873 type revolver is a really good idea. At times I carry a revolver for self-defense as a retired peace office with a CCW. I have a .38 S&W Chief’s Special “(A harmless toy, Mr. Bond!”). I practice with it and target shoot it usually in single-action mode. I’d like to one day get a reproduction Colt 1873 made by one of the well-known companies to display with my antique firearms and shoot. The anti-gun people may start closely looking at these. They are already concerned about .50 caliber muzzle-loaders, as hard as that is to believe.



Leave a Reply