September 24, 2010
Like riding a bicycle or baiting a hook, some things are not forgotten even though we may never do them again. Shooting a single-action revolver is much the same, although some would argue that there is no inherent skill needed, once you know the fundamentals of handgun shooting in general.
That, of course, is a totally erroneous statement. A single action comes with its own set of guidelines comprising some very basic but often critical do's and don'ts.
During the 19th century, and prior to the 1870s--before the widespread advent of the double-action revolver--there was no trick to shooting a single action, for that was all there was. You either did it correctly or ended up literally shooting yourself in the foot, or worse. But even with the growing acceptance of double actions, most gunmen of the time still preferred to cock the hammer before squeezing off a round, as the longer, stiffer trigger pulls of those early wheelguns made accurate bullet placement pretty much a single-action situation.
As handguns evolved, double actions and semiautomatics began appearing in more holsters. By the middle of the 20th century, unlike bike riding or fishing, knowing how to shoot a single action had become relegated to the same fate as knowing how to drive a horse-drawn buckboard or using button hooks to fasten high-topped shoes. Though these tasks were once considered part of everyday life, no one knew how to do them anymore.
That began to change in the 1950s with the small-screen phenomenon of TV westerns and the subsequent fast-draw craze. This, in turn, begat the return of the single-action revolver, most notably early replicas from firms such as Hy Hunter and, soon afterward, with Ruger's Single Six and Blackhawk revolvers, followed by Colt's reintroduction of its famed Single Action Army. Later, German and Italian clones were added to the mix.
In the early years, fast-draw specialists such as Arvo Ojala and Rod Redwing made their livings--and reputations--by instructing actors--and, indirectly, the public--in the forgotten skill of sixgun shooting. Thus, a lost art was rediscovered by a new generation of shooters.
In the interest of showmanship, however, a number of improbable--and impractical--techniques were exploited during the television western/fast-draw era of the '50s and '60s. The most notorious was "fanning" a single action, in which the hammer was slapped back with the off hand while the gun hand kept the trigger depressed. In this way, a number of rapid-fire shots could be fanned dramatically faster than thumb-cocking the hammer and pulling the trigger for each shot.
However, while fanning looked spectacular on screen with five-in-one studio blanks, it was highly inaccurate and exceedingly dangerous with live ammo, as recoil would send the bullets all over the terrain. Additionally, the practice played havoc with gun parts.
Another potentially dangerous single-action ploy was the art of fast draw itself. Typically, this was only done using blanks in tandem with specially designed metal-lined holsters (which did not exist in the 19th century) made by craftsmen such as Ojala, Andy Anderson, Dee Woolem and, years earlier, Ed Bohlin. The metal lining enabled the hammer to be cocked while the gun was still in the holster. Thus, the single action was ready to fire the instant the muzzle cleared leather. Of course, nobody in his right mind would ever attempt this technique with live ammunition--an invitation to disaster.
Nonetheless, back in the late 1950s, while competing in a regional fast-draw contest in Buckeye, Arizona, I remember buying a second-generation Colt Single Action from a fellow participant who was walking with a noticeable limp. When I asked him why he was selling his sixgun, he said it was because it went off in his holster. But single actions don't go off by themselves--someone has to physically cock the hammer, which this fellow apparently did while practicing fast draw with live ammunition. Even with blanks, a blast to the leg can char both denim and flesh.
The only way to draw a single action is to keep the hammer down and your trigger finger outstretched alongside the guard (which aids in pointing) until the gun is out of the holster and level with your target. It was an axiom of the western frontier that the gunmen who managed to survive weren't always fast but they were usually accurate.
Another old-time rule that had to be relearned by a new generation of single-action shooters was to load only five rounds in the cylinder with the hammer resting on the empty sixth chamber. This, of course, is to preclude any chance of the gun going off should it be accidentally dropped. Although Colt-style six-shooters (which consequently are really five-shooters) have a first "safety notch" click on the hammer designed to raise the fixed firing pin from contact with the primer of the cartridge under it, no safety should be trusted, as it is merely a mechanical device. And mechanical devices tend to break. The number of first- and second-generation single actions with broken safety notches is testimony to this.
There is a simple technique in the proper loading of the SAA. The formula is to first load one round, leave the next chamber empty and finish shucking in the remaining four rounds. Then bring the hammer to full cock, and when you lower it back down, just like magic it will be resting over an empty chamber.
Interestingly, much of the credit for relearning the five-shot rule goes to Ruger, which ran an ad during this period showing a single action with the loading gate open and a rolled-up dollar bill stuffed into one of the chambers. The reference was that the 19th century cowboys knew enough to keep one cylinder empty. Consequently, that provided an ideal place to hide a banknote because there was little chance of anyone claiming it while the gun's owner was alive.
Typically, when loading and unloading a traditional Colt-style single action, the hammer is brought to half cock, which frees the cylinder and allows it to rotate clockwise, thus bringing each of the chambers in line with the open loading gate. However--and here is the trick--to lower the hammer from half-cock, it must first be brought all the way back to full cock. Then, holding the hammer back with the thumb to keep it from snapping forward, the trigger is depressed and the hammer is gently lowered.
If you attempt to lower the hammer directly from half-cock, the cylinder chamber will not be lined up with the bore, and when the locking bolt rises up from the frame as the hammer is lowered, it will press against the sides of the cylinder rather than snapping into the cylinder locking notch. That means the next time you cock the gun, or manually turn the cylinder to line up the chamber, the bolt will etch a nice bare-metal mark on the cylinder, which explains why we often see so many scored cylinders on guns that are perfectly timed.
But there are some lessons that even the most experienced (and I use that term somewhat loosely) shooters never seem to learn, as this cardinal sin is committed by many shooters who should know better. I will never forget being in a hunting camp with another gunwriter who is a few years my senior. At one point, he asked if he could look at the pristine third-generation .44 Special Colt singe action I was packing.
Although I had owned the gun for a number of years, I always carried it in a lined holster and was quite proud of its unmarred condition, even though I had taken it afield many times. I flipped open the loading gate, put the hammer on half-cock so my fellow scribe could see that the gun was empty and handed him the revolver, butt first. He immediately lowered the hammer from half-cock, then cocked the gun again, thereby etching a nice, faint gray line around the otherwise unblemished cylinder.
I promptly assumed the role of a veterinarian, describing my friend's direct lineage from a female canine. He merely looked at the gun blankly, not knowing what he had done.
In a way, you can't blame him. Many of the rules that stemmed from the original 1873 Single Action Army changed in 1973 when Ruger brought out its transfer-bar system. This revolutionized single-action shooting, for it enabled New Model Ruger single actions (those made from 1973 on) to be loaded by merely opening the loading gate. This frees the cylinder without having to cock the hammer. In fact, there is no half-cock notch on New Model Ruger single actions.
Yet, it is still possible to scar the cylinder if you do not manually align the flutes on either side of the topstrap before shutting the loading gate. Otherwise, when the gate is snapped shut the cylinder bolt will rise up against the cylinder rather than into the cylinder notch. Which is why so many New Model Ruger single actions have this tell-tale line around the cylinder.
But an even more dramatic change has taken place with the advent of the New Model Ruger Blackhawks, Vaqueros and now the New Vaqueros (same basic gun as the Vaquero but built on a smaller, Colt-style frame with Ruger's original XR-3 frame from the '50s). With these New Model Rugers, the cylinders may be filled with a full complement of six rounds, as the transfer-bar system prevents the hammer and firing pin from coming in contact with a cartridge unless the trigger is fully depressed--which can only happen once the hammer is brought to full cock. Thus, these New Model Rugers are true six-shooters. However, other, more traditional SAs such as Colt and the Italian clones must still adhere to the five-shot rule.
With the exception of single actions with adjustable sights, most thumbbusters incorporate a historically correct grooved topstrap and a high-blade, fixed-sight arrangement. These guns typically shoot high and to the left--more dramatically with some brands and barrel lengths than others. Traditionally, Kentucky windage was employed to bring the gun on target. Additionally, when shooting at ranges that hover around 25 yards with barrel lengths of 4 3/4 and 5 1/2 inches, only about half of the front-sight blade should rise above the rear-sight groove; with 71?2-inch barrels, just the top third of the front-sight blade should be showing.
Also, different brands of ammunition and bullet weights will affect where the gun prints on a target. Lighter bullets usually shoot higher at practical sixgun ranges of 15 to 25 yards. You'll have to experiment to find out which bullets your gun prefers, not just for point of impact but for group size. You may be surprised at the clover-leaf accuracy some of these single actions are capable of producing. I have a third-generation .45-caliber Colt SAA that prints 1 1/2-inch groups with 225-grain Winchester silvertips; needless to say, those are the only cartridges I use in that gun.
However, more finite adjustments can be made. Simply having a qualified gunsmith crank the barrel a quarter of a degree right or left (depending on where you want the gun to hit) can make a dramatic difference in the striking point of a bullet. The rule for windage adjus
tment on a fixed-sight SA is, if your gun is shooting to the left, turn the barrel to the left, which leans the front-sight blade slightly in that direction and consequently redirects the bullet strike to the right.
Once you have the windage adjusted, it is a simple matter to learn just how much front sight you should allow to peek over the topstrap to compensate for elevation. However, if you don't mind changing the contour of the front-sight blade (as many 19th century shootists did, much to the chagrin of today's collectors), elevation can be raised by carefully filing down the front-sight blade. But just take off a little steel at a time. It is far easier to remove metal than replace it.
But if your single action is shooting high rather than low, you will either have to use heavier bullets, employ Kentucky windage or invest in the more costly option of having a gunsmith build up the front blade (a higher blade will lower your shots). In this case, you might want the blade made slightly higher than necessary, then fine-tune it by careful filing it at the range.
Another trick of single-action shooting is to thin the front-sight blade so it can be more easily centered within the grooved topstrap. You may also want to consider serrating the blade so that it doesn't reflect light. And remember to always do your sighting-in adjustments using ammo that produces the best groups.
While fast draw remains a viable sport, today Cowboy Action shooting, hunting, collectability and nostalgia have widened the single action's legendary appeal. But at the very core of its ongoing attraction is the undeniable fact that the single-action revolver is one of the safest, most ergonomic handguns ever designed. And knowing how to shoot it--and shoot it well--will ensure its immortality well beyond the memory of buckboards and bootlaces and perhaps right up there with bicycles and baited hooks.