The revolver was our first, successful repeating handgun. Even today, the basic design has remained the same. A revolving cylinder is fitted into the frame with a handle on the bottom. That cylinder has holes drilled in which the charges or cartridges are fitted. This cylinder turns on a pivot pin in the center to align each hole in the cylinder in turn with the barrel and the firing mechanism.
The first recorded revolver is an 8-shot, manually rotated, flintlock revolver made in 1597. It belonged to the officer Georg von Reichwein from Hessen in Germany. It’s a very interesting piece of gun building, but didn’t catch on.
The modern design revolver has been around since 1830 when Sam Colt was bored while crossing the ocean on a slow boat and carved out a wooden model of a revolver. He is arguably said to have invented the modern revolver with that model.By 1836 he was producing the Colt Patterson, named for Patterson, N.J. where he made the guns. A neat feature on this gun was that the trigger was hidden inside the frame until the gun was cocked.
Colt made a huge mistake when he dismissed an idea from one of his gunsmiths, Rollin White. White had an idea of a “bored-through” revolver cylinder to allow the use of metallic cartridges in a handgun. After Colt fired White for daring to suggest an improvement to his revolver design, White took his idea to Smith & Wesson. They patented his invention and blocked Colt from building cartridge firearms for almost 20 years.
It was that concept—drilled-through cylinders to allow the use of pre-loaded cartridges—which launched the revolver into what we see as the modern design. Of course there have been a multitude of improvements and changes, but if you put a revolver from today next to one from the late eighteen hundreds it is easy to tell they are the same species.
The Smith and Wesson Model 1 was the first revolver to use self-contained cartridges. Later, in 1873 after the patent ran out, Colt introduced the Single Action Army pistol, perhaps the most famous revolver in history. It’s the gun that inspired the epitaph; “God created men, Col. Colt made them equal.”
The Single Action Army Colt, along with the .45 Colt centerfire cartridge, solidified American’s love affair with revolvers, one that still runs hot even today, nearly 200 years after Colt carved the prototype.
Here’s a look at what I consider some of the best revolvers for outdoorsmen and women. While these are mostly for outdoorsmen, some of these guns could also be considered the best concealed carry revolvers. Certainly, some of these are perfect for protection against lions and tigers and bears in the wilderness. Many of them work pretty well for two-legged threats, too. For example, I carry a S&W J-Frame in .357 every place I go, that may be woodcock hunting or it may be shopping for dinner. The Model 19 S&W with a shorter barrel was the preferred gun of many law enforcement people and those civilians who carried concealed for many years. Today, in the 4-inch version offered by S&W, it’s still a great carry option.
Freedom Arms Model 83
Best Single Action Revolver: Freedom Arms Model 83
“Do you feel lucky punk? Well, do ya?””
There had long been rumors of a new and more powerful cartridge called the .454 Casull. Then, in the eighties, Freedom Arms in Wyoming started making revolvers.
My first Freedom Arms Model 83 came with a standard 7.5-inch barrel. I mounted a Leupold scope on it with a J.D. Jones T’SOB mount and took it to the woods. I have lost count of the critters I have shot with that Model 83. Deer, bears, hogs plus a lot of smaller game. I have shot it a bunch at the range working up loads and practicing, yet that gun is just as tight as the day I got it 33 years ago.
It once hit a black bear so hard that my pal, Bill Ingalls shook his head and said, “That’s the deadest got’damned bear I have ever seen.” Bill ran bear dogs for decades and had seen a lot of dead bears.
“All I could think of was Crocodile Dundee and his knife,” He said. “I actually shouted out loud, ‘Now, THAT’S a blood trail!”
I have others now. Another 5-inch barrel, .454 that Ken Kelly at Mag-na-Port tricked out for me as a carry gun in bear country, and also Model 83 revolvers chambered for .50 AE and FA proprietary .50 Wyoming Express, a cartridge that I would use to hunt T-Rex if they ever get this cloning thing worked out. I feel confident that nobody will argue when I say the Freedom Arms Model 83 is the finest single action revolver that’s ever been made.
Smith & Wesson Model 19
Best .357 Revolver: S&W Model 19
The .357 came out in the large frame gun that would later be the Model 27. It was a wonderful piece of gun making art. As an aside, I once had a chance to buy one for a few peanuts. But I had a new job, a new house and a new kid. I had no peanuts.That’s the gun that haunts my dreams.
The large frame, called the N frame, is a bit of a heavy handgun in .357. So when in 1957 S&W introduced the smaller, lighter K frame in .357 and called it the Model 19, things changed.
I picked up mine used, it’s a six inch barrel with a Partridge style front sight. I used it for PPC competition with .38 Special wadcutters as well as for hunting with full power cast bullet loads. I recently had a reunion with an old shooting buddy from the seventies and he asked about the gun, “you were always tinkering on that thing, do you still have it?”
I do and it’s tuned to perfection. For many years I carried it whenever I was out and about in the woods. With that handgun and handloaded ammo I have taken every critter legal to shoot in my home state of Vermont, except a bobcat and a black bear.
Ruger Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum
Best .44 Magnum Revolver: Ruger Super Blackhawk
It’s 1955 and Smith & Wesson and Remington are feverishly working under a cloak of secrecy, developing the Model 29 revolver and the .44 Magnum cartridge. I guess they weren’t all that good at the “secret” part because somebody found some spent cases in the trash and they made their way to Bill Ruger’s desk. Ruger called all his friends at Remington to ask about the cartridge and they wouldn’t tell him anything.
In typical Bill Ruger fashion, he said “to hell with them, then” and built a new .44 Magnum Blackhawk by reverse engineering the cases. Ruger got his pistol to market in 1956 ahead of S&W and the Model 29.
The Super Blackhawk is kind of like a rock, in that you need to work very hard to break it. One of mine digested about six gazillion full power loads when I was competing and it still functions like the day it was made. It’s the gun I used to shoot my first handgun deer with. I used my other Super Blackhawk to shoot my first ever black bear. For a hunter looking for a .44 Magnum revolver to carry in the wilderness for bear protection or to shoot whitetails in the back forty, the Ruger Super Blackhawk really has no rival.
Best .22 Revolver: Ruger Single-Six
Speaking of Bill Ruger and his genius, let’s look at his first single action revolver. The Great War was over, Colt had stopped production on single action revolvers and the market was all about automatics and double action revolvers. So Ruger decided to build a single action revolver. All the “experts” told him he was crazy and that nobody would buy it.
With that gun, he introduced investment casting to the gun making world, something that was unheard of. “It will never work,” all the experts were in agreement on that. “Ruger has lost his marbles,” they said. “This will be the end of him and his company.”
Then a well-known writer at the time, Pete Kuhlhoff, ran a small mention in Argosy magazine and it broke the Southport Post Office. Seems Americans did indeed want a single action handgun.
The Single Six is a scaled down single action in a size that works with the .22 LR (and the .22 WMR, as a lot of them came with both cylinders.) Big enough to feel like a real gun and fit in an adult hand, yet light enough to carry on your belt all day. It became the companion handgun of millions of hunters, fishermen, trappers, campers and woods ramblers.
The Single-Six is a delightful handgun, not just light to carry, but extremely accurate. When I first got into Bullseye shooting competition, it was the only .22 handgun I owned. Nobody ever told me it wouldn’t work, well nobody I listened to anyway. My scores were fine. I later updated to a S&W Model 41, the ultimate Bullseye competition gun. A year later I found out that there are pistol shooting competitions that move faster than drying paint and I left Bullseye behind. About that time I also entered my trapping phase. For about four or five years, two of them full time, that little Ruger was on my belt every single early morning as I headed out to tend my line. The gun accounted for a lot of fur and a lot of small game. I even shot a deer with it one time, a finishing shot. Twice it saved me from a pissed-off skunk in a trap. (Who knew they could be so vindictive?)
Colt Anaconda .44 Magnum
Best Revolver Comeback: Colt’s Big Snake Guns
My first handgun was a S&W .357 Model 28. I was so proud that the next day at work I showed it around the shop. (Different times.) Until one guy said, “big deal, it’s not a Python.”
While I am still a little hurt, he was right. The Python was considered the premier .357 Magnum, double-action revolver of the time.
Colt, of course, blew it and the gun went out of production before I could get my hands on one. No problem, I figured I could always pick up a used one. Then the Walking Dead started showing greasy Rick, holding his Python in his limp-wristed grip and it blew up demand. Prices rose to absurd levels.
So, no Python for me. I did, however somewhere along the line manage to acquire its big brother, the Anaconda, in .44 Magnum.
Finally, the Python is back in production. I shot one recently and fell in love. I was shooting at a moving, “swinger” target, double action and hitting the thing every time. Then I went to work on my MGM plate rack, single action. I was ready to fight the gun’s owner rather than return it. Once again, I gotta get me one.
They ain’t cheap, but the Python never was.
The Anaconda is back as well. This is a fine handgun for hunting and backcountry use. One advantage for bear protection is that you have the double action feature, which is easier to fire than a single action when your leg is being munched on like an Éclair.
Smith & Wesson M&P J-Frame
Best Carry Revolver: S&W J-Frame
First off, for those who don’t know, the J-Frame is the smallest revolver size that S&W makes. It’s the gun that people often call a “Snub-nose” but it’s made in several configurations and cartridges.
The J-Frame serves as the foundation for the “Kit Gun” in .22 LR. I have one of the early AirLite models that sees a lot of outdoor time. It weighs almost nothing, less than 12 ounces, so I hardly know I have it. I usually carry it in a holster on my backpack belt or in a pocket of my fishing vest. It has finished deer, shot small game and at least once encouraged a dirt bag to leave me alone. It has also survived a few unplanned river swims.
The true essence of the J-Frame, though, is as a tiny gun in a powerful cartridge. For years most were in .38 Special, now .357 Magnum is common. I like the ultralight Scandium frame in .357. The gun weighs one pound, loaded. It’s a beast to fire, with recoil in the .454 Casull range. With .38 Special +P it’s tamer. Still, I keep the high octane stuff in mine when I carry.
I carry a hammerless model in a pocket holster every day, all day. If I am hunting, sometimes I’ll put an exposed hammer model in a belt holster instead. I have night sights and lasers on both guns. The laser is the key; it brings a new dimension to shooting these little guns.
So what’s the use to an outdoorsman? Well protection for one.
I know, I know, why do we need a pistol when we have a rifle or shotgun? Well, what if the long gun is gone, out of reach, or taken from you? Also, I have used these little revolvers to finish big game and even to take some smaller game and predators. If you pull off a headshot on a rabbit, I promise you will strut and crow. In a survival situation I would not hesitate to shoot a deer if it’s close. The .357 will also work well against most four-leg predators—cougars, wolves, coyotes, or black bears.
“Coyotes?” you say.
Yup, there have been at least two fatal attacks, one was on an adult. The .357 is a bit light for big bears, but it’s better than nothing.
Then there are the unconventional uses. It can handle camp maintenance chores like dealing with marauding porcupines chewing on the outhouse or racoons raiding the garbage cans. The J-frame is kinda like the Swiss Army Knife of revolvers. It’s also a great comfort beside your bed when sleeping in a wilderness tent.
We give your wheel gun questions a spin
Q: Why are revolvers still popular today?
That’s like asking why pickup trucks are relevant. Because they work. Sure, most of the self-defense crowd has moved to magazine fed semi-auto handguns. They are correct in that. While revolvers are still viable for self-defense, those of us who choose them accept that they are a compromise. They have low ammo capacity and are slow to reload. But they are dependable, easier to learn and pack a punch. There is no pocket size semi-auto that comes close to matching the power of the .357 Magnum.
That said, here is why revolvers matter: Power. For the outdoorsman, revolvers are really the only choice. Defense is usually against critters. When it comes to big bears, no matter what you read on the internet, no semi-auto cartridge is truly adequate. Only a revolver can provide the level of power needed to smash bones and penetrate deep.
Same with hunting, only a revolver has enough power to ethically hunt big game. I know that might make 10mm fans upset. But, I like the 10mm, I have two of them. It’s adequate for hogs and small deer. But, really not for any larger game. Can it work? Of course. But, there is no margin for error. A .44 Mag is far better. For bear protection I’ll take the .454 Casull every damn time.
Then there’s accuracy. A quality revolver is on average much more accurate, particularly at longer distances, than any semi-auto. It’s also available in cartridges capable of stretching to 150 yards or more.
And don’t forget dependability. Take care of a good revolver and it will almost never give you trouble. I know of at least two bear attacks that turned out poorly because the 10mm semi-auto jammed. A jammed revolver is as rare as Bigfoot riding a unicorn past your deer stand.
Q: What is the best revolver for home self defense?
Depends on the home and where it’s located. For urbanites, the carry guns outlined above are probably a pretty good choice. I live in the country and have to deal with critters at times. So I like a little bit longer barrel, 4-6 inches for more performance and a longer sighting radius. Again, .357 Mag or bigger.
A couple of years back my dog was going wild behind my gunsmithing shop. I grabbed a .410 shotshell revolver that I keep by the door for snakes. It turned out to be a large raccoon that was sick with rabies or distemper, not sure which, but he was very angry. The #9 shot in the revolver turned out to be a poor choice. I made him dead, but my ears rang for a week because of all the shooting.
My buddy Lucas Clark lives a bit more remotely on a big island in Alaska. His EDC gun is a .500 S&W. He was checking his livestock one evening when a very large brown bear decided he looked like supper. Without the power of the big revolver, he might well have been digested by now. The point is, match the gun to the potential threat.
Q: What are the qualities that make a great revolver?
I would say two things: It must be accurate and dependable. So the manufacturing tolerances must be tight and the materials the best available.
Cheap revolvers are abusive to the relationship. They spit bullet material out the sides, are inaccurate and often break.
The other important consideration is ergonomics. The revolver must feel “right” in a shooter’s hand and be comfortable to shoot. In the big-bores, that’s even more important. There is one well-known double action revolver that I left off consideration for this piece. It’s a tough, reliable, accurate revolver, but in the big boomers it’s painful to shoot.
Q: What is the best revolver for a woman to carry?
My wife carries a steel frame Model 36 (J-Frame) in .38 Special. She has a lot of handguns to choose from. I even bought her a couple of semi-autos, but she makes it very clear that this is the gun she likes. She has used it to good effect when a distemper infested fox was attacking our dogs. I was in Texas at a shooting match, so she went out and salted that coyote’s hash.
Final Thoughts on revolvers
Revolvers are a timeless firearm for hunting, shooting, and self defense. Whether you choose the .44 Magnum Blackhawk or the .22 LR Single-Six you’ll have an heirloom-quality firearm. You can buy them online by clicking the links above each model and have the revolver shipped to your local FFL dealer to complete the transaction.