Double-Action Wheelguns

Since the very get-go, the premise behind Cowboy or Western Action Shooting competition has been the usage of single-action (SA) revolvers. The oldest organization associated with this sport is the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) and the name itself is indicative of the handgun that must be used in all main-match stages. The trigger-cocking or double-action revolver is limited to side matches and are primarily for concealable “pocket pistols” like the small hinged-frame models. Another well-known western action shooting group, the National Congress of Old West Shootists (NCOWS) does not restrict the type of main-match revolver used, but specifies that the handgun or reproduction thereof, “…be original to the period or authentic reproductions of original makes and models.” This regulation opens up some interesting possibilities for other handguns used during the era of the Old West.

Lineage

Double-action revolvers came on the scene during the cap & ball or percussion period as evidenced by such six-guns as the American Starr or British Adams six-guns. In Europe, DA revolvers using self-contained pinfire cartridges became popular and in the U.S. and a number of small and larger-sized wheelguns began to make an appearance in the 1870’s. In 1878 Colt introduced two full-sized DA revolvers in .38 and .41 calibers called the Lightening and Thunderer. They were based on the design of the Single Action Army revolver, but had a DA mechanism.
The action proved to be somewhat complicated and delicate, which had a negative effect on their popularity. Later in 1878, Colt brought out a similar, but larger model called the Frontier DA that chambered more powerful cartridges like the .44 WCF (.44-40) and .45 Colt. A variation called the 1902 Army Model was bought by the government in .45 Colt to send to the Philippines to help subdue Moro tribesmen. These handguns were slow to load like the SAA, taking a definite backseat to the hinged-frame revolvers that when broken open simultaneously ejected all the empty cartridge cases, leaving the breech end of the cylinder open for reloading.

In 1889 Colt developed a new system for revolver loading/unloading that used a swing-out cylinder. Operation of the system required a latch on the left side of the frame to be pulled rearward, unlocking the cylinder and allowing it to swing out to the left on a crane or yoke. An ejector rod could then be pushed rearward, extracting and ejecting empty brass and leaving the cylinder ready for reloading. Once this was accomplished, the cylinder was swung back up into the frame where it locked back into position ready to fire. At the time, the American military was looking for a new revolver to replace the SAA. Taking a cue from the Continental European armed forces, the chosen handgun would be smaller and lighter than the current service sidearm and would shoot a medium-caliber cartridge. Colt again answered the challenge with the Model 1892, a medium frame, 6-inch barrel, swing-out cylinder, DA six-gun in .38 Long Colt.

Actually it was the U.S. Navy that was the first to adopt the model 92 Colt, but the Army followed suit shortly thereafter. Popular thinking at the time was that smaller bore cartridges in both handguns and rifles could do the job just as well as the old .45 Colt and .45-70 rounds and besides, the “Frontier Era” was drawing to a close along with the cessation of armed conflict with Native Americans. More forward-thinking armies like those of France, Spain, Italy and Germany were re-arming with rifles in 7mm or 8mm, and with handguns in similar bore sizes. Colt also courted the civilian market with its new DA revolvers and the Model 1892 underwent several design improvements and changes from 1895 through 1903. Smith & Wesson did not just sit on their laurels while all this was going on and in 1899 they introduced a medium-frame DA, hand-ejector model revolver, that later became the renowned Military & Police Model.

Double-Action Rough Rider

I became interested in the Model 1892 Colt in 1998 during the centennial of the Spanish-American War. This “Splendid Little War” was the first major conflict where the Model 92 saw combat use and Col. Theodore Roosevelt packed one during his charge up Kettle and San Juan Hills, using his to dispatch one enemy soldier in the process. Being an ardent admirer of the former Rough Rider and U.S. President, I searched local gun shops and gun shows for a Model 1892 Colt in shootable condition. I didn’t have any luck finding a surplus military model, but did finally score a civilian Model 1895. It left something to be desired in the finish department, the beautiful old fire blue finish having been worn off and replaced by a brown patina; but the lock-up was tight, the bore okay and the action stiff, yet manageable. I had a half-flap military-style holster made up for it and stocked up on .38 Long Colt cowboy cartridges from Black Hills. The old revolver was fun to shoot, but unfortunately I couldn’t use it in any SASS Cowboy Action Shooting events, so it mostly gathered dust in my gun safe.

A couple of years ago I found out about a Western Action Shooting club located closer to my home that was affiliated with NCOWS. I had previously shied away from NCOWS due to its reputation as a more historically inclined organization with strict rules regarding firearms, accouterments and wearing apparel. After a little research I found I could use most of the guns and gear that I used in SASS shoots, so I joined up. As I perused the NCOWS rule book I discovered that due to the date of manufacture, my Colt Model 1895 was “NCOWS legal” and on the Approved List of handguns, so I decided that at some point I would use it in an NCOWS shoot.

In preparation for this day I went about assembling what I called my “Rough Rider Veteran’s Costume.” I mated a dark blue flannel shirt with a pair of tan canvas trousers, leather suspenders, a cream-colored cowboy hat, and of course my flap holster on a cartridge belt with .38 caliber loops. I even found a dark blue, silk neckerchief with white polka-dots, similar to the one worn by Col. Roosevelt. I decided to pair my Model 1895 Colt with a reproduction Model 92 Winchester in .357 Mag and filled one side of my cartridge belt with .357 cowboy loads and the other side with the .38 Long Colt cowboy ammunition. My next mission would be a trip to the range to see where the old Colt revolver was shooting.