A Brief History
On February 25, 1836, Sam Colt patented his cap and ball revolver that would give rise to all the modern revolvers that followed. Early attempts at revolvers in the flintlock era were disasters waiting to happen, as all too often the firing of one cylinder would set off the others as well. Over the years some iconic revolvers have been produced, and until the late 20th Century they remained the sidearm of choice for police and private citizens (although the semi-automatic pistol had superseded revolvers for military use for the most part as of the early 20th Century). Today we list what we think are the 10 Best Revolvers of All Time, based on quality, quantity, value, effectiveness, and because they are the ones we like! (Note: There is no significance to the order listed.)
1. Colt “Walker,” 1844.
Sam Colt got his first big sale of revolvers when the Texas Rangers ordered 1000 of the big .44 caliber guns. Designed by Samuel Walker in conjunction with Samuel Colt, the goal was to produce a beefy gun with excellent stopping power. The result was the most powerful black powder revolver ever produced, power that would not be exceeded until the 1930’s when the .357 Magnum made its debut. Weighing a hefty 4.5 pounds and spanning 15.5 inches long (9 inch barrel), this “Dragoon” type pistol was meant for use on horseback. Only 100 other Walker Colts were made for civilian sales. The big revolvers could launch a .44 caliber ball or conical bullet at up to 1200 feet per second. Some early problems were encountered when Rangers mistakenly loaded conical bullets backwards, creating high pressure that could rupture the cylinder. In spite of these problems, the Walker was the first widely distributed military revolver and laid the foundation for the world to follow.
2. Colt 1860 Army, 1860.
This effective pistol was premiered just in time for the massive sales that came with the US Civil War and was the main US military revolver used during that conflict. This pistol was the iconic percussion revolver (cap and ball), with over 200,000 produced between 1860 and 1873. Barely more than half the weight of the Walker Colt, the 1860 was practical for infantry use as well as cavalry use. Even after metallic cartridge revolvers had made their debut, the 1860 remained in heavy use throughout the rest of the 19th Century and beyond (by civilians). Normally equipped with an 8 inch barrel, some models were made with shorter tubes to enhance concealment and ease of carry. Later models had weight reducing cylinder flutes as well. The Colt 1860 Army launched a .44 caliber bullet at 600 to 1000 feet per second, as powerful as a modern .38 Special. Honorable mention: Colt 1851 Navy and Remington Model 1858.
3. LeMat Revolver, 1856.\
A unique and incredibly cool pistol, the LeMat sported a 9 chambered cylinder in either .36 or .42 caliber, with a second single shot barrel going through the middle of the cylinder chambered in 20 gauge smooth bore for shooting buckshot. A large bulky gun, it weighed 3.1 pounds unloaded. Although it would certainly take a while to reload, having 9 pistol caliber shots and a single short barreled shotgun blasting a charge of buckshot gave the pistolero enormous firepower when equipped with a LeMat. Only 2900 of these fascinating guns were made, with some produced as carbines, and a few made in slightly smaller calibers (.35 and 28 gauge) to reduce weight and bulk. Made from 1856 to 1865 in Paris, Philadelphia and London, the multiple caliber, multiple barrel revolvers are made today (since 1985) by Pietta of Italy and are sold in the United States. Attempts to modify the revolvers for use with pinfire and metallic cartridges were minor variants. LeMat revolvers were used mainly by the Army of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Honorable Mention: The Taurus Judge in .410/45 Colt, or .410/.454 Casull (which could also fire .45 colt and .45 Schofield), and the Smith & Wesson Governor capable of firing .410, .45 Colt, .45 ACP and .45 Schofield.
4. Colt 1873 Single Action Army, 1873.
I admit I do not personally like this gun all that much, and we have written about its downside, but the fact is that it was the issue sidearm for the US Army from 1873 to 1892, and in some cases served much longer. Firing a perfectly adequate .45 caliber bullet at almost 1000 feet per second, sometimes toned down to around 900 feet per second. Colt made over 350,000 of these classic pistols between 1873 and 1941, when production was interrupted for World War II. With a couple of other gaps in production, the SAA is still made by Colt today, as well as dozens of other manufacturers with varying levels of embellishment, barrel length, metal finish, and a dizzying array of calibers. A big advantage of the .45 Colt chambered guns over their Smith & Wesson competition, was that the Colt could use S & W .45 Schofield ammunition, but the Smith could not use .45 Colt ammo. Often called “The gun that won the West,” the SAA is the darling of Cowboy action shooters and trick gun handlers due to its classic appearance and superb balance. The Colt SAA is by far the most copied revolver of all time. Honorable Mention: Smith & Wesson Model 3 in .45 Schofield, arguably a better revolver than the Colt SAA, but nowhere near as famous. Much easier and faster to reload than the Colt, the Model 3 was used by military and police agencies across the world and was made in many other calibers.
5. Smith & Wesson Model 1, 1857.
The first revolver made by Smith & Wesson, the Model 1 is also the first revolver to use metallic cartridges instead of the cap and ball system. Chambered in .22 Short rimfire, it was not very powerful, but with 7 shots and the ease of reloading metallic cartridges instead of loose powder and ball with fumbling around with percussion caps, the little revolvers were popular, selling over 250,000 in 3 main production runs between 1857 and 1882. Unlike the “top break” Model 3, the Model 1 was opened with the barrel tipping upward to allow removal and reloading of the cylinder. In spite of its puny cartridge, the Model 1 was much sought after for use by both sides during the American Civil War, probably the only .22 rimfire pistol to find widespread use in an actual war.
6. Smith & Wesson Model 29, 1955.
Although not the first revolver to carry the “magnum” designation, when it was introduced in 1955 the .44 Magnum was the “Most Powerful Handgun in the World” as Dirty Harry used to say. Originally in blue steel, you can buy this big (N Frame in S&W lingo) revolver in stainless steel. The .44 Magnum made handgun hunting of large game a realistic proposition, though for self-defense or duty carry the recoil and muzzle flash made the Model 29 more of a bragging rights icon than a useful duty weapon. The ability to use .44 Special cartridges instead of the hotter .44 Magnum rounds gave the Model 29 much better general flexibility for use as a duty or home defense weapon. Despite other manufacturers making perfectly reliable and high quality weapons in .44 Magnum caliber, the connection to Dirty Harry in the movies makes the Model 29 THE .44 to own. Honorable mention: Any revolver chambered in .454 Casull, .500 S&W Magnum, or .460 S&W Magnum, all now much more powerful than the .44 Magnum.
7. Ruger Redhawk, Blackhawk, Service Six/Security Six, GP 100, Bearcat, etc., 1958.
Ruger makes a terrific line of revolvers that any revolver fan should love. All of the guns are super rugged and reliable, and range from the single action .22 caliber Bearcat, which jumped on the cowboy craze of the 1950’s by mimicking the Colt SAA in a smaller and more fun to shoot caliber to the big Redhawk magnums in up to .480 Ruger Magnum caliber. My favorite revolver of all time is my 4 inch barreled .357 Magnum caliber Service Six, made in 1976, “The 200th Year of American Liberty” as it says on the gun. Ruger even makes a revolver with a polymer frame, joining the ranks of semi-auto pistols that pioneered the use of polymers in pistol frames. The Ruger line of revolvers is so incredibly competent and of such good value that I could not possible narrow down the choice.
8. Charter Arms Bulldog, 1971.
How about a production run (so far) of 500,000? Chambered in .44 Special or .357 Magnum, this compact 5 shot revolver gives the concealed carry pistolero excellent stopping power in a small, economical package. Although revolvers today often cost more than their semi-automatic pistol counterparts, the Bulldog is a better value for the money than a Colt or Smith & Wesson. Available in barrel lengths of 2 to 4.2 inches and with a rounded butt, the Bulldog conceals well or provides an easy riding main duty pistol. Immediately popular when introduced, the Bulldog has been manufactured by 4 different iterations of the company. The Bulldog excels with light for caliber bullets and unfortunately achieved its highest level of fame when “Son of Sam” murderer David Berkowitz became famous as the “.44 Caliber Killer” in 1976-1977. A new Bulldog will cost around $400 today.
9. Webley Mk I through MkVI, 1887.
A top break style of 6 shooter in .455 Webley caliber, these pistols are perhaps the best known of European revolvers with 125,000 built until 1923. British military forces loved the ugly revolver and found the slow moving (650 feet per second) .455 caliber bullet at 265 grains to be an effective round. (The .455 Webley ammunition is also called .455 Eley or .455 Colt.) Some Webley’s have been modified to fire .45 ACP ammunition using half-moon clips, a bad idea that would decrease the value of the pistol. Although the .455 Webley has been out of military or police service for many years, chambered in .38/200 caliber there are still Webley MkVI revolvers in police service in some countries. (Note: The .38/200 cartridge is the same as the anemic .38 S&W, firing a 200 grain bullet at 620 feet per second.) Although some of the ugliest revolvers ever made, the Webley’s are reputed to rank among the most reliable.
10. Smith & Wesson J Frame, 1950.
The iconic detective revolver, usually a snub nosed variety with a 2 inch barrel (or so), the Model 36 was joined by the Model 60 in 1965, the Model 60 being the world’s first all stainless steel revolver. These compact pistols are designed for concealed carry and feature a 5 round cylinder, usually in .38 Special caliber, though sometimes in other calibers such as .32 S&W Long or .357 Magnum. Mega famous from movies and television shows, the little revolvers go for $700 or so nowadays, not really completive with similar sized .380 ACP or 9mm Luger semi-auto pistols. Still, there are a lot of people that prefer a revolver, and if you need a great quality, reliable hideout gun, the S&W J Frame may well be your ticket, now made in many varieties and using different metals and finishes. Honorable mention: Colt Detective Special, Taurus Model 85, Charter Arms Undercover. Extra Honorable Mention: Smith & Wesson Model 10, probably the most widely issued regular patrol carry police revolver of all time.
Question for students (and subscribers): Which revolvers would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Cunningham, Grant. Gun Digest Book of the Revolver. Gun Digest Books, 2011
DK. Firearms: An Illustrated History. DK, 2014.