Double-Action Wheelguns

Backtracking a little at this point, both SASS and NCOWS have a Pocket Pistol classification and this is where granddad’s old “lemon-squeezer” and all the smaller hinged-frame .32 and .38 DA revolvers come into play. At this time nobody I’m aware of is making any reproductions of these handguns (more’s the pity) so all you can do is look for an original in safe, shootable condition (be sure to have it checked out by a gunsmith before using). They are pretty easy to find at gun shops, gun shows or by surfing the web. I have added several to my collection over the years and most are pretty affordable depending on make, model and condition. Back in the day you could order one from the Sear & Roebuck catalog for under $3.

Smith & Wesson started the ball rolling in the late 1850’s with the Model 1 a .22 rimfire tip-up frame revolver, that later evolved into the Number 2 and 1-1/2 models in .32 rimfire. In the 1870’s S&W came out with first small-frame SA then DA hinged-frame revolvers chambering .32 and .38 S&W cartridges. These became extremely popular and other companies like Hopkins & Allen, Harrington & Richardson, and Iver Johnson produced them by the thousands. Belgian and Spanish copies also proliferated, but were often unsafe to shoot, even brand new! Good American-made originals are the type seen at most Western Action Shooting side matches and factory ammunition for them is still loaded by several companies like Remington and Winchester.

Other Double-Actions

Besides my Colt Model 1895 .38 DA, I also took to the range a good condition Smith & Wesson .38 Double Action Perfected Model as a representative of the small hinged-frame “pocket pistol.” Along with the two revolvers and a stack of targets was a selection of factory ammunition from Black Hills, Remington and Winchester in .38 Long Colt, .38 Short Colt and .38 S&W. For fun, I suited up in my “Rough Rider” get-up and proceeded to the range to do some paper-punching from the bench and also a few strings of shooting on “cowboy-type” targets in preparation for a couple of upcoming SASS and NCOWS matches that I planned to attend. Nothing like getting in some test shooting and practice at the same time!

At the outdoor range where I attend NCOWS events, I set up my target stand at 15 yards and attached two large-size bulls-eye targets. Unlimbering the Model 1895 Colt I loaded it with 5 rounds of Black Hills .38 Long Colt ammunition that has a 158-grain round-nose lead (RNL) bullet at a factory velocity of 650 feet per second (fps). Shooting single-action from a sandbag rest, I aimed at the center ring of the target and my first shot hit a couple of inches high at about 11:00 o’clock. I adjusted my hold on the target and plunked nine more shots into the target with all hits in the 10-ring. I noted that many of the bullets tended to key-hole, hitting the target at an angle. I had an old box of Remington .38 Short Colt cartridges that have 130-grain RNL bullets traveling at about 750 fps. I shot 10 rounds of it at the other target, using a center hold, and saw all my shots in the black, but scattered around the 9 and 10-rings. No key-holing this time.

Next up was the Smith & Wesson .38 Perfected Model, my 5-shooter has a 4-inch barrel and is in great shape for the most part, but the gun has seen a lot of holster carry and at some point the grip frame was shellacked. I broke it open and loaded five Winchester .38 S&W cartridges of fairly recent manufacture. This little cartridge has a 145-grain RNL bullet and a muzzle velocity of 685 fps (4-inch barrel), but as its bullet is .361 inches in diameter, it won’t work in most .38 Special revolvers unlike the .38 Long and Short Colt ammunition. The sights on this little wheelgun leave lots to be desired as they rear sight is a notch cut into the locking latch on the frame topstrap and the front sight is a thin, half-moon blade pinned to a rib atop the barrel. Nevertheless, shooting in the SA mode, holding on the target center, I was easily able to keep my 10 shots within the 10-ring. I decided to try another 10 shots using some vintage Western .38 S&W cartridges with “Lubaloy” RNL bullets. This load was also fairly accurate all things considered and did a great job for ammunition that has to be at least as old as I am.

I went back to the western action shooting range to plink at some steel targets with the Colt and S&W revolvers. Drawing and firing DA with the Colt, using Black Hills ammunition, I had no trouble hitting the targets on one stage, which had all been placed at a distance of about 10 yards from the firing line. I repeated this drill three times and had no misses; the keyholing didn’t really seem to have any kind of negative effect at this range. The bore on my 1895 Colt is not the best; this gun has seen lots of use and there are dark patches showing where rust had been allowed to form in the barrel. It could be that it doesn’t like the heavier 158-grain bullets Black Hills uses; it had no trouble stabilizing the 130-grain bullets in the .38 Short Colt cartridges.

Pocket pistol side-matches are usually close-range, fast and furious affairs, with shooting done using DA. The range has a rack of steel falling plate targets that look like five side-by-side quart milk bottles. I loaded the S&W hinged-frame .38 with the Winchester cartridges and from just a few yards away, was able to knock down all five targets using a point shooting stance. I set the targets back up and did it again and then a third time—I’m happy to report that I had no misses and this little .38 Perfected Model will be my choice for pocket pistol side-matches from here on out. Even with its worn, hard rubber “sliver” grips, it’s easy to control in rapid fire and points naturally in my medium-size hand. The mild .38 S&W round had no trouble knocking over the steel targets and there was no bounce-back of expended bullets or fragments of lead.

Final Notes

I have had a heck of a good time playing with DA handguns in Western Action Shooting matches. Yes, it’s also a hoot shooting reproduction SA sixguns too, but as nobody is replicating the DA handguns like my Model 1895 Colt or Smith & Wesson .38 Perfected Model, then your only alternative is to use original firearms. To me there is no better nexus with history than to take a gun to the range that was made during the days of my great granddad. Holding these old guns you wish that they could talk as I’m sure a number of them would have an interesting story to tell. I wouldn’t use a true “collector’s item” or an unsafe gun, but a good-condition old-time DA wheelgun can provide loads of fun.