I am not a fan of revolvers. However, I must admit, I am a great fan of Clint Eastwood and because dear Eastwood used his revolver with such tremendous swag, such flamboyance, such style, such panache, such flourish and such pizzazz that to admire his machismo and yet not to write about revolvers would be a sin.
Who does not remember, how Harry Callahan hissed through clenched teeth in ‘Dirty Harry’ as he loomed large over the psychopathic killer holding his Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver, “But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
I am also a great fan of the Wild West and the whole genre of Western films. Revolvers in the Wild West era were not simply weapons of combat or style statements. They were as much a part of the “Taming of the Wild West” and the whole gamut of romantic Western folklore as the cowboys, horses, Stetsons, outlaws, chewing tobacco, swinging half-doors, saloons, brothels, Red Indians and Mexican bandits happen to be.
You cannot imagine the Wild West without the revolvers slung low on the hips and that unforgettable swagger as they shot, got shot and dropped dead like flies. If you had to determine the “gun that won the West”, the honours would go to none but the Colt Single Action Army revolver and the Remington 1873 Repeater Rifle, which was described by a European as a damned Yankee gun that loads on Sunday and shoots all week long. Nothing matches the sheer romance of the gun settling disputes, as real men were expected to do! Revolvers are as much part of Americana as hamburgers!
The Gun That Made All Men Equal
Arguably the most famous revolver in history, the Colt Single Action Army revolver is also known by the names of Peacemaker and Frontier. Since it was as much popular with soldiers, cops, and civilians as with criminals, a former train robber is on record having commented that ‘a Colt’s forty-five makes all men equal’. No other thing associated with the Wild West has such a romantic, almost mythical, aura attached to it as this revolver. As long as the swagger and bravado of the cowboys would be cherished, the Peacemaker would be remembered. There is no Wild West without the Peacemaker slung on the waist, twirled in the hand and fired from the hip! Nearly half a million of these revolvers were made and working replicas are produced to this date.
It had a huge cartridge and, as a result, even as it used black powder in that era, its bullets developed 460 foot-pounds of energy compared to the later day .45 Automatic Colt Pistol bullets that developed 370 foot-pounds of energy. The US Army had demanded a cartridge capable of “dropping an Indian war pony at 100 yards”, and the .45 Colt cartridge rose to the challenge! However, at 10.5 inches, it was a huge gun—nearly two inches bigger than the Colt M1911 pistol introduced decades later. No wonder, Colt had designed it basically for the cavalry but who could withhold the cowboys and their swag? This revolver is known for its extreme robustness and excellent balance.
Ruger Blackhawk has reinvented the Colt Single Action Army revolver in .357 Magnum calibre
General George Patton, ever so conscious of his flamboyant image, wore an ivory handle 1873 Colt Single Action Army revolver high on his waist. What could be a greater endorsement of the iconic revolver than this?
Go Ahead, Make My Day: Smith & Wesson Model 29
Smith & Wesson Model 29 is the revolver firing the famous .44 Remington Magnum bullet that Clint Eastwood used in Dirty Harry. Never mind that it is actually not the most powerful handgun in the world as he claimed to frighten the psychopath. However, as he said, it would still blow his head clean off. Now, we have a gallery of revolver manufacturers in this calibre, ranging from Taurus, Ruger, and S&W to Colt (Anaconda).
In the Eastwood film ‘Sudden Impact’, Harry Callahan goes into a diner for a morning cup of coffee where he finds a robbery in progress. He kills all but one of the robbers in a shootout. However, a surviving robber grabs the fleeing waitress Loretta and threatens to shoot her. Undaunted, Harry points his .44 Magnum revolver into his face and utters those iconic words in his so very characteristic grumble, “Go ahead, make my day”, meaning that if the robber harmed the waitress in any way, he would be happy to kill him.
Think luxury and class in handguns and this revolver comes to mind. The Colt Python .357 Magnum revolver is hand-fitted and hand-polished like Rolls Royce cars even in this era of assembly line productions! Most people regard it as the classiest of them all.
The Colt Python enjoys a reputation for a smooth trigger pull, tight lock-up, and accuracy. It was adopted by several state highway patrol departments. If you belong to a class that demands its martinis shaken, not stirred, this is the revolver for you!
Colt Detective Special
The Colt Detective Special two-inch-barrel revolver in .32 and .38 calibres were meant for concealed carry. This made it instantly popular with plain-clothes detectives and other law enforcement officials who could not wear a holstered handgun. It was one of the first of what would soon be called “snub-nose” revolvers. Snub-nosed revolvers were extremely popular in the US until the 1950s and 1960s when many states passed laws limiting or prohibiting the carrying of concealed weapons as criminals had also taken to it in a huge way.
Smith & Wesson copied the idea in their famous ‘Chief’s Special’ five-shot revolver.
The Ultimate Big Boy of the British Empire
The British firm Webley & Scott is known more for its .455 calibre ‘hinged-frame’ revolver which remained the official handgun of the British army from 1887 until 1918 and was nicknamed ‘Peacemaker of the British Empire’. The Boxer, adopted in 1872, was, however, a .577 calibre revolver—the largest mass-produced handgun calibre in history. It was a reminder of the times when the Empire believed that native adversaries in colonial wars could be handled only with such man-stopper weapons. It was based on a design of Col. E. M. Boxer, Superintendent of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich Arsenal for the Snider-Enfield rifle. There was only one reason of making this revolver—stopping power. This revolver was 200 grams heavier than the Colt Single Action Army revolver! Many people called it a Hand Cannon!
America’s Continued Obsession with Big Bore Revolvers
Since 1889, the basic revolver design of a swing-out cylinder and double action lock has been standardized now with very little scope for innovation. What is the reason why revolvers have survived for 134 years without any change? The reason is simple. There is practically nothing that can go wrong with a revolver. They require very little maintenance. Hence, even though they are useless as military combat weapons, they continue to be popular with civilians because they do not demand any field stripping or any significant training or practice—one can keep it loaded and just shoot. A revolver never jams and if a round misfire, you go on to the next round.
Also Read: The greatest combat pistols in the world
There is one more reason for the revolver’s enduring popularity, particularly in the USA. Americans are obsessed with big things—be it cars or whatever, as all the porn watchers know well. So, they want big calibre handguns also. The problem with semi-automatic pistols is that you cannot keep on increasing calibre arbitrarily because that would require their mechanisms to become more complicated and the springs impractically stiffer. A revolver has no such limitation. As long as you are strong enough to withstand the recoil in your hands, you can make them as big as you want.
That is how; they produce revolvers like the Smith & Wesson Model 500 and the Taurus Raging Bull that fire the .500 S&W cartridge—with modern propellants, this is the most powerful handgun cartridge in history.
Smith & Wesson Model 500, the most powerful revolver in the world—over 15 inches long and more than 2 kg in weight
Taurus Raging Bull
For the academically inclined, I must inform you that the Austrian Pfeifer Zeliska .600 Nitro Express revolver has the honour of being the largest handgun in the world. It weighs over 6 kg (that is heavier than almost all military rifles) and is 22 inches long. Obviously, it is more of a curiosity than a practical weapon—for that reason, not too many have been produced.
The .500 calibre is followed by the .454 Casull as the second-most powerful handgun cartridge in the world. Ruger (Super Redhawk), Taurus and Freedom Arms etc. make revolvers for this. The .475 Linebaugh is the third-most powerful revolver cartridge in the world .480 Ruger holds fourth place.
Before these beasts came in the market, as many of you might know, the most popular service revolver calibre outside of the UK had been the .38 Special. This was invented in 1902 and ruled undisputed until the .357 S & W Magnum was introduced in 1934 and started the trend of high-power cartridges. Since big-bore cartridges (that is, generally bigger than .40) and their revolvers tend to be very costly and have very uncomfortable recoil to boot, the .357 Magnum continues to remain the most popular magnum cartridge followed by the .44 Magnum.
The Smith & Wesson Model 19, firing the .357 Magnum was once the most popular service revolver of the cops in the USA.
The revolver may well be a relic of the 19th century and long gone as a military weapon, but the Americans’ love of history and romance will keep it alive and thriving.