Handgun Radio 142 - History of the Double Action Revolver with Bill Bell

Hello and welcome to Handgun Radio! I’m your host Ryan Michad from the wild woods of Central Maine, and this is your home for all the news, information and discussion in the handgunning world.

This week, we’re joined by Bill “LaVista” Bell, to discuss early double action revolvers and how we got to the guns we know today!

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Week in Review:

Ryan: - Went up to the shop and tried to see if I could find a North American Arms .22 Mag. They are on backorder right now!

-Ordered a case of 1000 rounds Tula 9mm 115 grain from Lucky Gunner for $183 with shipping. Not a bad deal!

- Saw a beautiful Model 19-3 that was Mint condition in the shop. Really nice handgun. My 19 has holster wear, this one had the box and all papers and basically looked new from the factory.


  • This past week I’ve been reloading the .38 S&W cartridge.  I have some vintage Colt and S&W revolvers I’ve been wanting to shoot more, so I made some low-pressure handloads to use in them.  

  • I also received some 240 gr. SWC bullets to make handloads for my new (to me) S&W Model 1926 revolver in .44 Special (AKA) the .44 Hand Ejector, 3rd Model.  This is a post-war, transitional model and somewhat rare, so I want to shoot fairly moderate loads thru it - something about equal to factory ammo.

  • I’ve also been working on an article about revolver speedloaders for a new magazine from Athlon Media Group/Outdoors called THE COMPLETE BOOK OF REVOLVERS.                           


Didn’t manage to go shooting...unless you count my Bug-a-Salt, in which case there are a LOT less flies in the world.

Ordered a new P38 Magazine from Midway USA,  I went with the Pro Mag reproduction, and at least for my post-war commercial P38 with the Aluminum frame, the mag appears to fit fine, and it locks the slide back.   I’ll let you all know when I take it to the range.

Also when buying that magazine, I looked through Midway’s Clearance section and found a PM45 magazine for a VERY reasonable price, so that came too.

Jordan: Hey all. I figured I’d hop in. I just happened to be at Dad’s and figured I’d help out on the technical end! Hard to pass up getting to pal around with Ryan and Weerd!

  • I’ve been reading up on various calibers. Mostly 44 variants. I started on 44 special since I am interested in doing some testing with that in the future and then managed to find my way into 44-40 territory. I hate to admit it, but I never realized 44-40 wasn't straight walled. Wiki surfing is fun.

  • I picked up a new defensive 44spl load recently , that's what got me interested in doing some testing soon. You'd be surprised at the lack of good video coverage of this excellent caliber there is out there.

  • Ballistics gel is a racket, those prices wow. I need to learn to make it cheaper or I'll just shoot jugs of water! I could build a Fackler box like Dad used to use. He had this homemade Fackler box he tested with all the time when I was a kid so I know that is an option.

Drink Segment: So I went and did something I said I’d never do.

I made simple syrup for cocktails.     I originally said I wouldn’t do it because it’s just sugar water, and I’d rather use more complex syrups or liqueurs to give sweetness AND flavor.

Only there are times when there just isn’t anything else that will do.    Yes you can put a teaspoon of sugar over your mint in a mint julep,  but those sugar grains don’t fully dissolve, and they make a mess!

Also I was surprised to find the taste a little different than just sugar,  possibly because some of the sugar bonds mights be broken by heat.

You simply make it by putting 1 part sugar, in 1 part water.     I simply did a half-cup of each for my first batch.    Bring the water to a boil and stir,  then  remove the heat and let it cool.

The sugar will remain in solution even when cold,  and now will quickly dissolve in your cocktails.

Music Selection This Week:

1st Interlude: “Folsom Prison Blues” guitar solo I played from a recent gig.

2nd Interlude: “Feeling Alright” bass solo from a gig with my band the Jefftones

Main Topic: History of the Double Action Revolver with Bill Bell

Bill: I think for the edification of our listeners we should define the term “double-action”.  As it refers to handguns DA might be better called trigger-cocking; as a long pull of the trigger serves to both cock the hammer and then release the sear, allowing the hammer to fly forward striking the firing pin and exploding the cartridge.  “Double” referred to the mechanisms ability to be fired in both the single-action mode - the hammer being manually cocked and the trigger pulled or in the trigger-cocking mode.  Today we have come up with terminology that is not quite correct, that being double-action-only or DAO.  Here the handgun action has altered so that it can only be fired in the trigger-cocking mode.  This was primarily done for reasons of safety by law enforcement as the trigger pull on a handgun in single-action mode is much lighter, thus more prone to accidental discharge in a stressful situation.

What we think of as the double-action revolver was first invented in 1851 by Robert Adams in England and was a cap & ball or percussion revolver using a trigger-cocking mechanism which in the case of revolvers simultaneously cocks the hammer, revolves the cylinder, locks the firing chamber in line with the barrel and releases the hammer, firing the gun.  This went over rather well in Great Britain and was approved by the British Small Arms Committee.  In American the gathering gray clouds of civil war spurred firearms production and in 1856 Ebanezer Starr invented a DA mechanism for a revolver and in 1858 produced the Starr DA .36 caliber Navy revolver and a DA .44 caliber Army revolver.  Both were procured for use by Union troops in the Civil War.  Another early American DA revolver was the Cooper Pocket DA Revolver introduced in 1860.  It looked very similar to the Colt 1849 Pocket Model and was a .31 caliber 5-shooter with a DA mechanism.

Skipping into the realm of self-contained metallic cartridge revolvers, it appears that the first such revolver was produced by Remington in the late 1860’s and was a factory conversion of the Remington-Rider DA revolver to fire .38 RF cartridges.  While S&W held the rights to the Rollin White Patent for bored-thru cylinder revolvers, they stayed with the SA mechanism, while Colt introduced the Model 1877, which was a DA revolver that looked and functioned much like the earlier Peacemaker or SAA.  The Lightning model was made in .38 Long Colt, the Thunderer in .41 Long Colt and during the first year production a rarer version the Rainmaker was made in .32 Colt.  The revolver proved popular to everyone but gunsmiths, who disliked working on its delicate action.  The Model 1878 was a larger-framed revolver built to handle cartridges like the .45 Colt and .44-40; it was often referred to as the Frontier Model or Double Action Army and 9000 of them in .45 Colt were supplied to the military.  Both the Models 1877 and 1878 were hampered by the slow loading and unloading system copied from the Peacemaker.

By this time S&W was starting to wake up.  They had discussed a DA revolver with the Russian government, but the plans fell through.  Smith had designs worked out in 1876 and 1878, but it wasn’t until February 1880 that they introduced a small, hinged frame, DA revolver in .38 caliber, a cartridge we know as the .38 S&W.  Like Smith’s earlier hinged-frame SA revolvers, it had the advantage of fast reloading as the barrel and cylinder tipped downward on a hinge allowing all the empty brass to be ejected at once and all the cylinder chambers were exposed for cartridge insertion.  Following close on its heels was a .32 S&W version.  In 1881 a large-frame model in .44 Russian was introduced; it evolved into the Favorite Model in 1882 which was altered to be lighter and handier.  A Frontier model was also made that chambered .44-40 and .38-40 cartridges.  In 1886 S&W introduced the .32 and .38 Safety Hammerless models that featured a concealed hammer and a grip safety; they became known as “Lemon-Squeezers” and could be considered DAO by today’s definition.

While the hinged frame was fast, Colt was looking for a more robust design and came up with the first DA revolver that most of us would recognize in 1889.  It had a swing-out cylinder, released by a sliding latch, which allowed simultaneous ejection of empty brass, plus fast reloading and it had a solid frame for increased strength.  Its cylinder rotated clockwise and it was chambered in .38 and .41 Long Colt.  It was improved and evolved into the Model 1892 which was adopted for military use in .38 Long Colt, a cartridge which proved lacking as a “man-stopper.”

S&W wasn’t resting on its laurels and came out with their own solid-frame, swing-out cylinder revolvers.  Designed were perfected in the mid-1890’s for what we now call I-frame and K-frame revolvers in .32 and .38 caliber.  The first to hit the market in 1896 was the I-frame .32 Hand Ejector Model of 1896 in .32 S&W Long.  It was followed by the K-frame Model 1899 referred to as the Military & Police chambered for the new .38 Special cartridge.  None of the earlier versions had the locking lug beneath the barrel and locked only with a center-pin at the rear of the cylinder.  The cylinder on the S&W turned counter-clockwise.  The revolver most recognizable today as the Military & Police, later designated the Model 10, began as the .38 Hand Ejector Model 1905.  This is probably the most recognizable DA revolver in the world today and has outfitted military and police forces for over 100 years.

Given the  militaries dissatisfaction with the .38 caliber revolver in the early 1900’s and the re-issue of old SAA and Model 1878 revolvers in .45 Colt, a new revolver with a larger frame to handle the .45 Colt cartridge was designed.  Introduced in 1898, it was called the New Service and would eventually be chambered in everything from .38 Short Colt to .476 Eley.  As the Model 1909 it was adopted by the military for service in the Philippines battling fierce Moro tribesmen.  It also became the service revolver of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the New York State Police.  It later evolved into the Model 1917 revolver which became a substitute standard for the military in WWI chambered for the .45 ACP service cartridge.

Smith & Wesson began development of a large (N-frame) frame revolver in 1905 and it was introduced 3 years later as the .44 Military Model of 1908; chambered for the new .44 Special cartridge.  It had locking points a the rear of the cylinder, at the front on the ejector rod shroud and an the juncture between the rear of the ejector rod shroud and the frame, which gave it the nickname the “Triple-Lock.”  The 3rd locking point on the ejector rod shroud was an added expense as was the shroud itself, so it was eliminated in the 2nd Model.  This revolver chambered for the .455 Webley cartridge was sold to the British during WWI before America became involved.

When the U.S. entered the war in 1917 it became readily apparent that there were not enough 1911 pistols to arm our servicemen, so Colt and S&W modified their large-frame revolvers to chamber the .45 ACP cartridge; both were referred to as the Model 1917.  As the .45 ACP is a rimless cartridge; half-moon clips were invented so the revolvers ejector star could push the empty brass out of the chambers.  This worked out so well that that Model 1917 revolvers were still in use during WWII, Korea and even Viet Nam.  Today, a number of revolvers use what we call full-moon clips that carry a full load of cartridges and these guns are popular for speed-shooting events.

In 1926 S&W received a big order for .44 Hand Ejector revolvers that had the shroud like the Triple-Lock, but only the two locking mechanisms; this became the 3rd Model or the .44 Military Model of 1926.  Gun writers of the period began experimenting with high velocity handloads in revolvers like the Model 1926 and the N-frame .38-44 Heavy Duty; the end result was the .357 Magnum and the .44 Magnum cartridges.  The medium-framed or E-frame Colt .38 revolver was chambered for the .38 Special and became the Army Special and later the Official Police.  This frame was sturdy enough for the .357 Magnum and became the adjustable-sighted Trooper and then the sleek Colt Python.  A specially heat-treat S&W K-frame was chambered for the .357 Magnum and became the Combat Magnum or Model 19.

Today’s DA revolvers all have this lineage.  Early 20th Century D-frame Colts became the .38 Police Positive and later the Detective Special.  I-frame Smiths were the basis of the .38 Regulation Police and Terrier; the I-frame morphed into the J-frame and became the Chief’s Special.  As police use of the .357 Magnum grew S&W introduced the more rugged L-frame in the early 1980’s and I carried a Model 686 as my last LE service revolver.  The N-frame became the platform for the Model 29 in .44 Magnum and the Model 57 in .41 Magnum.

Colt dropped the New Service in 1942 and did not have a large frame DA revolver until 1990 when they introduced the MM-frame Anaconda in .44 Magnum and .45 Colt.  The old E-frame revolvers actions were getting too expensive to produce so Colt developed a new DA mechanism that required less hand-fitting and more coiled springs and produced the Metropolitan Police and Trooper Mk III revolvers.  The last of the Colt DA .38/.357 revolvers was the Mk V Lawman, Peacekeeper, Trooper, and King Cobra - the last of these revolvers left the factory in 1998 and the Anaconda was discontinued in 2003.  Smith & Wesson has also dropped a number of their DA revolvers over the years; especially those in obsolete calibers like .32 Long and .38 S&W.  Some have come back as Heritage Models and special editions for large distributors.

Ruger began producing a medium-frame DA revolver in .38/.357 during 1972 called the Security Six.  It evolved into the GP-100, which is still with us today.  In the early 80’s came the SP-101 small-framed .38 Special and today we have a polymer hybrid-framed LCR.  They also produce the large-frame Redhawk in .44 Magnum, which just recently became available in .41 Magnum and .45 Colt/.45 ACP.  Dan Wesson, founded in 1968 produced a medium-frame .38/.357 revolver with a unique interchangeable barrel, the Model 15-2.  The torque on the barrel produced by the barrel nut and the muzzle of the barrel shroud caused this to be a very accurate revolver.  A large-frame version called the SuperMax was the darling of hunters and metallic silhouette competition shooters.  Today only the Model 715, a new rendition of the Model 15-2 is available.

We could go on and on, but I think this hits the high-points of DA revolvers in the U.S.                          


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  • Thank you for coming on the show Bill! Where can people find you?

  • You can find me in various publications, I have a few new articles out with Athlon Media Group in their “The Best of Combat Handguns GUN SHOW” and “2017 Complete Book of Guns, Buyers Guide” magazines. Both are on newsstands now. You can find both myself and Jordan on our blog, The Firing Pen at  http://www.facebook.com/thefiringpen

  • Until next week, have fun & safe shooting!!!