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.


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.