Even Revolvers Can Choke …
Listen to some people, and they’ll still tell you even well into the 21st century, semi-autos are malfunction-prone and can’t be trusted. To them, the revolver will forever be the premier self-defense handgun because it’s rock-solid reliable, faultlessly simple to use, and because any problem that could ever occur can simply be fixed with another pull of the trigger. As a result, more than a few of us have heard the old adage: “Six for sure.”
Of course, there’s a huge amount of hyperbole there. While revolvers make excellent self-defense tools and have a number of outstanding qualities over most semi-autos, make no mistake: they can and do fail. Whether through neglect, modification from their original forms, or just plain dumb luck, the possibility exists your gun will go offline — and sooner than you might think. Let’s wander through some of the many possibilities.
While seemingly impervious to malfunction,
even revolvers can — and do — fail at times.
Colts, Rugers, or Smiths: All are great guns, and all can quit on you.
A few common and simple tools to keep your
guns running. You probably have most already!
Many revolver owners face a temptation to modify the inner workings of the firearm in order to get a better trigger pull. Obtaining a competent action job from a reputable smith is ideal, but more often, revolver owners will simply monkey with the springs. While this does usually result in a lighter double-action pull, it often comes at the expense of reliability.
With less spring tension, there’s less force acting on the hammer. When it comes forward, the firing pin might not strike the primer with enough strength to set it off. Springs also have the possibility of wearing out over time, so an older and well-loved gun may become incrementally less reliable. After all, each trigger pull will add a marginal (but cumulative) degree of fatigue to the mainspring. The good news is springs are cheap, and in Smiths and Rugers, they’re very easily replaced as a DIY job. When it doubt, swap them out with factory-strength replacements.
With Smith and Wesson revolvers, the strain screw located at the front of the trigger guard is a common culprit of light primer strikes. Some target shooters back this screw out to achieve a lighter pull, which comes at the expense of reliability. For that reason, a half-turn of a screwdriver could be a dead-simple solution to getting a S&W running in top form. This screw can occasionally back its way out on its own. In such cases, a drop of blue Loctite on the threads (the non-permanent kind, mind you) is an expedient fix.
Other modifications can be considerably more dangerous. Shoddy gunsmithing on the sear could possibly cause the hammer to “slip off” or “push off” in single-action mode, assuming the sear angles aren’t correct or if they become excessively worn. The same condition can be created with a too-weak mainspring in combination with a reduced-power rebound spring. To test whether this is true for your gun, start with the revolver unloaded. Cock the hammer, then apply gentle (but firm) pressure forward. On a good gun, the hammer will stay put.
If you’re not sure whether a revolver’s been messed with, use this old gunsmith’s trick an d take a gander at the screws around the frame, and the condition of the sideplate. If the screws are chewed up or if the sideplate is no longer perfectly flush, it’s a good sign someone opened ‘er up with whatever was laying around — and probably kludged a few things in the process.
Most springs are easily replaced as a DIY job,
as with my Super Redhawk.
The S&W strain screw: a common cause of light primer strikes.
Do your screws look chewed up? It could be a sign
the last owner was an amateur tinkerer.
Ironically, many of the issues adversely affecting revolvers come from a consumer’s belief they’ll run flawlessly. If we’ve got “six for sure,” why perform any maintenance at all? I talked to Willy Clark at American Gun Works in Glendale, California about the ubiquitous “sock drawer” revolver. That’s a gun loaded and left sitting for months (often years) on end. In his opinion, most sock drawer guns are an accident waiting to happen.
“Typically, they’re over-oiled,” Willy said. “The buyer puts a whole bunch in the action figuring it will last for years. What it actually does is attract all kinds of dust and fuzz, which is made even worse from several years of opening and closing that drawer. When they go to use it, sometimes the trigger is so gunked up it won’t even move.” For that reason, Willy says any sock drawer revolver should be given only a light coat of oil, and periodic cleanings are highly advisable.
Sometimes, shooters figure that because their revolver has been dead-bang reliable so far, it’s going to stay that way even over the course of multiple shooting sessions. Bear in mind any revolver’s optimal functioning depends on the cylinder being able to turn free and easy. After several range trips, the accumulation of fouling on the breech face, forcing cone and top strap may become so thick it touches the cylinder and makes rotation sluggish. Similarly, gunk under the ejector star will also cause the part to stick out a few thousandths of an inch more than it should, causing similar issues.
In either case, both single and double-action shooting will require more mechanical effort, and it may become more difficult to open or close the gun. Consider the cylinder/forcing cone gap between most “in spec” revolvers is about seven thousandths of an inch or less — that’s not a lot of clearance for filth. For that reason, even a lazy brushing and wipe-down of these critical areas after a range session can help keep your wheels turning, so to speak.
That teensy sliver of light is the gap between the
cylinder and forcing cone. Keep it clean!
Crud on the breechface should be addressed if operation is sluggish.
Just as importantly, check for gunk under your ejector star.
If you’re a handloader, you’ve got a few more issues to consider. Cartridges loaded either much too weak or excessively strong carry the risk of backing out primers. If a primer is wedged between the breechface and cylinder, it’s going to be very difficult for the cylinder to rotate, and substantial force may be required to get the gun open again if the primer is really stubborn. The same issue can be created right from the get-go if a reloader incorrectly seats the primer high. The cylinder may shut, and if it does, that primer will drag against the breechface.
There’s also the possibility the overall length of the round could exceed the length of the cylinder. Alternately, a poor or non-existent crimp could result in bullets being “pulled” forward in their casings under recoil, creating the same condition. In either case, these rounds will bang against the forcing cone and prevent further rotation.
Of course, there’s also the dreaded squib load to worry about. Forget to load enough powder (or any powder) into a cartridge, and the round might only have enough energy to make it into — but not out of — the barrel. If a fired round sounds different from usual, immediately stop shooting and check for an obstruction! Sometimes a squib load can get stuck between the cylinder and the forcing cone, locking up the cylinder until you can pound the bullet back into the chamber. Yikes.
Courtesy of Willy: this barrel’s previous owner was 10 times lucky.
If a round sounds funny, stop shooting and check for obstructions!
The hand (top) and cylinder stop (lower): two parts affecting timing.
Mechanical Wear and Dumb Luck
Like any machine, revolver parts can wear and break. I asked Willy about what exactly makes a revolver “go out of time.” For the unfamiliar, this is a condition where the chambers become poorly aligned with the barrel. If the timing’s off by a little, the revolver will shave lead as the bullets scrape on part of the forcing cone. If it’s off by quite a bit, the primers may not line up under the firing pin at all.
There are two main culprits to examine when timing begins to go — the hand and the cylinder stop. The hand must be just long enough to push against the notches on a revolver’s ejector star in such a way the cylinder rotates precisely from one chamber to another. The cylinder stop then pins the part in place.
Both tiny parts are subject to wear: the hand will grind down slowly over time; the stop may become battered and deformed by the rotating mass of the cylinder. This is amplified by mega-heavy cylinders and vigorous double-action work. One of the reasons, incidentally, why relatively few competitors run large-framed .357’s in fast competition. With the cylinder turning at higher speeds and with substantially more mass, the cylinder stop is subject to quite a bit more force! Lightweight titanium cylinders can help though. Thankfully, correcting timing is an easy fix for a competent gunsmith. Willy tells me it’s relatively simple to extrude the metal in the hand or fit a new stop.
Besides the issue of timing, expect the unexpected. To cite just one bizarre example, older Smith and Wessons had ejector rods that would back-out over time. In such cases, the rods unscrewed themselves under recoil and jammed the cylinder in place. The fix is simple: first cock the hammer about a quarter of an inch and use a business card to hold the cylinder stop down. Then, hold the rod firmly in place while turning the cylinder clockwise to re-thread the parts. S&W changed the direction of the threads effectively solving that little issue.
On older Smiths, check to make sure the ejector rod is screwed in tight.
On the other hand, don’t be afraid of guns with only minor
holster wear. In this case, it was a way to get a Python for $500.
A Smith 586 and 15, excellent guns with high round counts.
Both have malfunctioned!
Are revolvers durable and dependable? Absolutely. Failsafe? That’s another matter. Like just about any machine, revolvers are not especially tolerant of abuse and neglect, and Murphy’s Law is an ever-present part of daily life. Malfunctions can and do happen, even with sixguns. A gunsmith can usually get a dead or finnicky revolver up and running with a minimum of fuss, but the best cure is to make sure the gun is reasonably well-maintained. Your gun need not sparkle and shine, but if it looks really gross, address it!
In any case, the moral here is simple: take care of your revolvers, and they’ll most certainly take care of you.
By Clayton Walker