Early revolvers were called pepper-boxes and they had multiple barrels which revolved about an axis and a common firing mechanism. The earliest ones exist from 1597 (a revolving arquebus) and use matchlock mechanisms. In the 1700s, James Puckle invented the "Puckle Gun" which had multiple firing chambers and one common barrel and firing mechanism. A hand crank rotated the firing chambers and brought each one in line with the barrel and firing mechanism. Elisha Collier of Boston, patented a popular revolver model in 1818, which used the flintlock firing mechanism. He also produced revolving shotguns and rifles. In 1819, John Evans of London bought Collier's patent and produced several weapons which were used by British soldiers stationed in India.
Many big developments in revolver technology were by Samuel Colt. In 1836, he patented his first revolver model. It was manufactured in Colt's factory in Paterson, New Jersey, and hence it is popularly called the "Paterson revolver." While Colt's name is the most famous one associated with revolvers, he never claimed to invent the concept. In fact, the Paterson revolver was an improved variant of the concept invented by Collier. Some of Colt's big innovations dealt with applying concepts of mass production, interchangeable parts and assembly line techniques to revolver production and this reduced the price of revolvers. He was also an excellent salesman and promoter and his weapons became extremely popular with the public. One of his later models was nicknamed "Peacemaker" and "Equalizer". A popular saying of the time went "Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them all equal!"
Colt's first revolvers all used a ratchet and pawl mechanism to hold the cylinders in place. They were also "single action" mechanisms, i.e. the user must cock the weapon manually. The act of pulling back the hammer to cock the weapon also rotates the cylinder. Once the weapon is cocked, the user can pull the trigger to fire it.
Later on in 1851, a British gunsmith named Robert Adams invented the first "double action" revolver. In this mechanism, pulling the trigger halfway automatically rotates the cylinder and cocks the hammer. Pulling the trigger back some more releases the cocked hammer. Thus, the user can fire the weapon with just one trigger pull. The Adams revolver was hand-crafted, which made it more expensive than Colt's design. It also had a few flaws in the hammer and frame. This could only fire in double-action mode and was hence called a "DAO revolver" (i.e.) Double-Action Only. Improvements to the Adams model were made by Lieutenant Frederick E.B. Beaumont, a veteran of the Crimean war and the resulting model was called the Beaumont-Adams revolver. This new model could be operated in both single-action or double-action mode and was such a huge success that Samuel Colt had to shut down their factory in England as a result. Mechanisms that operate in both single and double-action mode are called DA revolvers (DA standing for "Double Action").
Most modern revolvers to this day are double-action. They are still used by law-enforcement around the world and remain popular among many private gun-owners. In fact, it is said by many that the best way to teach a new handgun enthusiast about shooting basics is to start with a revolver first.
Some of the advantages of revolvers over other multiple firing mechanisms (notably the automatic pistol) are:
- Simpler mechanism, which is less prone to jamming.
- Ease of use: With a double action revolver, all one has to do is pull the trigger. With a single-action revolver, one cocks the hammer and then pulls the trigger. Unlike a pistol or an automatic rifle, there are no additional safety mechanisms that need to be meddled with.
- More powerful cartridges can be used: Due to the robust design of the revolver, bigger magnum cartridges can be used with one. In fact, the biggest handgun cartridges are mostly designed for revolvers.
- Much easier and faster to reload than a pistol. Anyone who has loaded a pistol or rifle magazine knows that the first few cartridges go in easy, but the last 3 or 4 cartridges take considerable effort to push into the magazine. With a revolver, one merely opens the chamber and drops cartridges into it.
- Works with greater range of ammunition types: Revolvers can be used with blanks, wad-cutters etc., which do not work with automatic pistols.
- Easier cleaning and maintenance: Since revolvers have fewer moving parts than automatic pistols and rifles, they don't require disassembly and are therefore much easier to clean and maintain.
On the other hand, pistols generally hold more ammunition, are lighter and slimmer profile, and also use cheaper ammunition than revolvers.
One of the reasons that revolvers are/were popular with Indian police has to do with poor quality of ammunition available to them. If a pistol misfires due to faulty ammunition, the user has to pull back the slide and extract the faulty cartridge before it can be fired again. This takes a bit of time to accomplish. With a revolver, if one cartridge is faulty and does not fire, the user can simply pull the trigger again and the cylinder automatically rotates and brings up the next round ready to fire.
In the next few posts, we will look into various types of revolvers.