A Dangerous Liaison?

Terminology can throw you a curve when it comes to revolvers. If I saw John Wayne cock his Single Action Army, my brain understands it — cock the hammer, point and press the trigger. If I see a guy cock the hammer on a double action S&W my head goes into a short version of ice cream brain freeze. To me, the DA revolver is meant to be operated by firing the gun from the trigger-cocking (DA) mode. So what’s right — and what’s wrong?

A single action revolver has a loading gate on the right side, and the hammer is cocked to half-cock to free the cylinder so it can be turned as it’s loaded. By the way, keep an empty chamber under the hammer for safety. To fire, you cock the hammer fully, aim and press the trigger. Repeat as required. Each shot requires you to cock the hammer. Each press of the trigger does one thing: fires the gun. Hence the name: Single Action.

On the other hand, a double-action revolver (or DA) can fire by cocking the hammer and firing single action, or firing double action. Double action simply means when you pull the trigger, it cocks the hammer, and then, as you complete the press, eventually fires the gun. So it does two things — cocks and fires the gun — hence the DA name. Some call that method “trigger-cocking.” One of the first examples of this combination of methods is the Colt Lighting of 1877.

In the late 1800s, DA revolvers were developed allowing a “swing-out” cylinder, like today’s modern revolvers. This made reloading faster, and allowed the introduction of “speed” loading devices. Some of today’s revolver masters can actually reload a revolver as quickly as an experienced semi-auto shooter can reload his auto. This combines the reliability of the revolver with the speedy reload of an auto, but takes a great deal of practice.

Single actions (like the SAA at top),led to early DA/SA models like the Colt Lighting
(center), eventually leading to today’s modern DA revolvers like this S&W Model 29.

Subtle Nuances

There’s no question firing a revolver in DA mode is faster than firing in SA mode. Is one more accurate than the other? Not necessarily. An experienced revolver shooter can work the DA trigger smoothly enough to keep tight groups at 50 yards. It’s not uncommon for PPC shooters (a target event focusing on DA shooting and extreme accuracy) to shoot 1.5″ groups at 50 yards using the DA feature of a revolver.

Some may assume you would need an ultra-light action to accomplish this, but in reality, you simply need to be smooth. Light actions may mis-fire so don’t even go there! Oh, and you’ll need to practice too.

It’s often pointed out you should thumb-cock the hammer for a careful press if you need the highest degree of accuracy, say in a hostage situation. I don’t advocate that, as a careful DA press is not only safer (not dealing with a 1 or 2-pound trigger release), but easy to make-safe by simply allowing the trigger to move forward if you don’t fire. If your accuracy isn’t up to snuff in DA mode, you need to practice — you don’t need to cock the hammer.

Make It Safe

The situation is: “I cocked the revolver and the bad guy turned and ran. I’ve nothing to shoot, but how do I make my revolver safe now it’s cocked?” Everyone owning a revolver should know how to do this without blowing a hole in the wall. Keeping the muzzle in a safe direction, place the non-gun hand thumb between the hammer and the frame (look at the photo). Holding the hammer with the gun hand thumb, apply some rearward pressure, then carefully apply trigger pressure. This will release the sear, allowing the hammer to move forward “pinching” your non-gun hand thumb. Then gently lift the hammer from your thumb enough to carefully slide your thumb out. Then release the trigger and gently let the hammer forward to a rest position.

When you relieve the hammer pressure to pull your thumb out, if the hammer accidentally cocks again — you’ll simply need to start over. Then don’t cock the thing again! If you need to shoot the gun in a tight situation, stroke the trigger in one fluid motion to the rear in DA mode until it fires. Shoot double action with double-action revolvers — or buy a Glock.

Revolvers are solid handguns, serving skillful shooters well and are excellent self-defense tools. Get a good gun, a good holster, good speed loaders and practice. If you ever have to use a handgun, the revolver is as good as anything out there — and in reality, often better than most.
By Clint Smith

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One thought on “Thumb-Cocking

  1. Thurston Butler

    I wrote another comment and you have not posted it, so I will try again. Clint Smith must not have ever shot a revolver where he had to lower the hammer on a live round. Just point the gun down and in a safe direction, hold hammer with your shooting hand and ease the trigger back and slowly lower hammer. He is going to get someone shot in the hand doing as he says, someone will pinch their thumb and jerk it out and let gun go off.

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