Gun Basics for Writers: Handguns, Part 1 of 2: Revolvers

Let's talk revolvers.

As an action writer and former professional firearms expert, I often get asked questions about writing guns into books. This will be a short series similar to Journey to Hollywood, where I add updates to the series once in a while, intermittently, for those who want some extra firearms knowledge specifically geared toward writers. (Some of these will be edited and updated from prior, otherwise-unavailable guides I’ve written on the subject.)

I’m aiming these toward the non-firearms writer person, so I’m starting with the basics.  If this is too beginner for you, feel free to ask more detailed, specific questions on this topic!

This week will be a two-part post on understanding handguns for writerly purposes, as those are some of the most commonly featured firearms in books.

Handguns

I think pretty much everyone knows what a handgun is.  They’re designed to be small enough to be fired with one or both hands, and are also far more concealable than long guns (“long guns” meaning rifles and shotguns), which is why some states in the U.S. restrict them more heavily even though they are comparatively less dangerous. For instance, in California you have to be 21 to purchase a handgun but only 18 for a long gun.

What would a character use a handgun for?  Well, they’d be (by far) the most common carry weapon.  However, they are not accurate over long distances like a rifle is, nor do they pack the punch of a shotgun.  They also do not (in general) have the stopping power of a rifle or shotgun.  So you would only have your character snipe someone with a handgun over a long distance if you want to make a point of her ridiculous superpowered badassness.  It is also sort of odd for someone to use only handguns for some sort of huge assault, as, say, Natasha does in the climax of The Avengers (but hey, Clint’s using a bow, so what do I know).

Handguns come in two flavors: Revolvers and semiautomatics. This post will cover revolvers, and we’ll move to semiautomatics on Thursday.

Revolvers

Here is a picture of a revolver:

Colt Anaconda .44 Magnum double-action revolver

Revolver. Photo © by Jeff Dean / CC-BY-SA-2.5.

Revolvers are so named because the revolver ammunition is loaded into a cylinder that revolves between shots, lining up the next round to be fired.  The cylinder generally holds 5-7 rounds, depending on the revolver.  Six is the classic number, but 5 or 7 isn’t unusual.

How a Character Would Load a Revolver

Open the cylinder (most modern revolvers have swing out cylinders).  Load in the rounds, then close the cylinder.

Here’s a picture of a revolver with the cylinder open:

Colt Python Revolver, swing out cylinder

Revolver with open swing out cylinder. Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.0-FR.

As you can see, this revolver has six slots to put in rounds of ammunition.

How a Character Would Fire a Revolver

Old Western revolvers were single-action-only, which meant that the hammer had to be manually pulled back between each round.  Modern revolvers are double-action as well—you can pull the hammer back before firing and fire it single-action (it makes for a much lighter trigger pull), but you don’t have to.  If you’re firing it single-action, pulling the hammer back rotates the cylinder to the next round and then pulling the trigger drops the hammer (that’s why it’s a lighter trigger pull).  If you're firing it double-action, pulling the trigger both rotates the cylinder to the next round AND drops the hammer, which takes a little more finger strength.  Most people are more accurate if they pull the hammer back first and fire single-action, so if you want your character to cock the gun, choosing a revolver would make that action make sense if he's going for single-action mode. But if it's a modern revolver he could fire it double-action without drawing the hammer back, so you still wouldn’t have him cock it if he’s trying to sneak up on someone.

How a Character Would Reload a Revolver

Once a revolver is fired, the casings remain in the cylinder.  You must empty them out before loading in new rounds.  Revolver aficionados often have speed reloaders (or “speedloaders”) they can use for loading so they don’t have to put each round in separately.

How a Character Would Clear a Revolver

Simply swing out the cylinder and empty any live rounds that are loaded in it.  The character can show that the weapon is clear by leaving the cylinder open.

(“Clear” means a gun is unloaded.)

How a Character Would Clean a Revolver

Revolvers don’t have many moving parts.  To clean a modern revolver, all you do is swing out the cylinder; there’s nothing to take down.  Then, like any gun that fires smokeless powder, you’d clean it with bore cleaner and lubricate it with oil.

Why a Character Would Prefer a Revolver

Revolvers are completely mechanical and are a lot less complicated than semiautomatics, which makes them not only terribly easy guns to understand and clean, but incredibly reliable.  I had one gun coach who would say that you could bury a revolver in the backyard for six months, dig it up, and it would still fire.  I’ve also known cops who would carry revolvers as backups to their main weapons, because they were certain that the revolvers wouldn’t fail.

Also, some people just like the feel of revolvers.

Other Useful Notes

  • Revolvers don’t have safeties.

  • It is very, very unlikely that a revolver would jam or have any other malfunction (except maybe a bad round of ammunition).

  • Revolvers range in size from tiny little snub-nosed ones to ginormous hand cannons.  For the same type of ammunition, the larger and heavier a revolver is, the less kick it has (a larger gun absorbs more kick).  This is true of guns in general.

  • All of the above refers to modern revolvers — Old West six-shooters have important differences, such as being single-action-only, not having swing out cylinders, and using black powder ammunition.

Have gun questions — or other action-related questions — that are specific to your work? This newsletter is mostly geared toward business advice, but don’t let that stop you from asking action-related research questions as well! Send questions to questions@askanauthor.org.