The revolver wasn’t invented by Sam Colt, but it was perfected by him. The revolver changed the world for fighting men and explorers. I would suggest that the revolver made western expansion possible.
A small group of men now had real firepower and could defend themselves against a considerable number of aboriginal warriors. The previously fielded single shot or double barrel firearms could not accomplish this.
Properly handled, the new Colt revolvers were effective to 100 yards or a little beyond. After receiving this assignment, I took up the task of pinning down the 10 greatest revolvers of all time.
While the Colt was the first fighting revolver, it wasn’t the only revolver to make a mark on warfare and struggle. When researching the greatest revolvers, commercial success wasn’t the only criteria, but many of these revolvers were produced in the millions.
Some (such as the Starr) were not. All were used in warfare or police service. While I have my favorites, I am hesitant to name a single “greatest” handgun I have not personally fired.
But, I was able to test high-quality replicas of some the revolvers and get a good idea of their capabilities.
1. Colt 1851 Navy
The Colt .36 Navy is among the best balanced and handling revolvers of all time. A favorite of Wild Bill Hickock and many cavalry officers, the Navy was reliable, accurate and effective at short range.
Per my testing, the soft .375 inch ball expands pretty much like a modern .38 Special hollowpoint. The drawback was that the caliber lost much of its effect after 100 yards and it was less than effective against horses.
Many battles during the Civil War and the plains wars resulted in more horses than men killed. As a gunfighters’ gun, the Colt Navy survived for many years and even in the 1900s fueled the interest of young shooters such as Elmer Keith.
The Colt Navy is a landmark. Without the Navy Model, Colt would never have been so successful. Modern replicas are offered by Traditions Firearms.
2. Colt 1860 Army
The Colt Army was developed to overcome the shortcomings of the Colt Navy. The Colt Army featured a rebated cylinder. The front of the cylinder is enlarged to accept a .457 inch ball. The rear of the cylinder is the same size as the Colt Navy.
With a slightly opened frame to accommodate the larger cylinder, the Colt Army was as well balanced and as fast handling as the Colt Navy. The .44 Army was much more effective.
Firsthand accounts from the Civil war describe the effect of the .44 Army’s ball on men and horses. The Colt Army “shot loose” sooner than the Navy, as might be expected, but it wrote a bloody chapter during the Civil War.
It was many years before a more effective combination was available.
3. Starr 1858 Army
To my way of thinking, the Starr was a very important firearm. The Starr represented a high point in firearms manufacture. The six-shot .44 caliber revolver featured a solid top strap and dovetailed front sight, versus the simple front bead and hammer notch of the Colt.
The Starr features notches between the cylinder to allow the hammer to be set at rest between the cylinder for safety. More importantly, the Starr was among the first double-action revolvers with a reliable action.
The Starr is among the best-made revolvers of the day and among the most accurate as well. The Starr did not prosper based on simple economics. The Colt revolver cost about two dollars less than the Starr.
This resulted in fewer government contracts and Starr eventually producing a cheaper single-action version of the 1858 Model.
The fellow who purchased the Starr is the type that owns a Les Baer or Nighthawk today, I would imagine, and the units that issued the Starr were select budget units.
4. Colt 1873 Single Action Army
The Colt SAA is still highly sought after, in production, and a viable outdoors or home defense handgun for those that are familiar with the type. Most of the rimfire calibers and the early centerfire cartridges were less powerful than the Colt 1860 Army.
The Army needed a cartridge capable of “dropping an Indian war pony at 100 yards.” The .45 Colt cartridge answered the challenge. With a 255-grain bullet at 900 fps from a 7.5-inch barrel, the . 45 Colt was the most formidable handgun cartridge of the day.
(Early loads differed in bullet weight and exact powder charge.) The SAA or Peacemaker was still in use at least as late as the 1950s in the hands of Western Lawmen.
It was a favored handgun of Lawrence of Arabia, General McArthur and General Patton, not to mention Frank Hamer and Lone Wolf Gonzaullas. All used the Peacemaker as it was meant to be used.
The Colt SAA is remarkably robust. It seldom gives trouble and is accurate enough for most chores. The balance is excellent. The Colt has been copied many times, most of the time cheaply, but only the Colt has the heritage.
Interestingly, the SAA actually saw little wartime service (save for plains use) until the Philippines action when it was brought back into service to replace the practically worthless Colt 1892 .38. The Colt SAA .45 was a man-stopper then and it still is today.
5. Smith and Wesson Military and Police
To pick up where we left off, the Colt 1892 had serious problems with the action and robustness, and the .38 Long Colt cartridge was proven ineffective. Smith and Wesson was tasked with developing a more reliable replacement.
The result was the single most successful revolver of all time.
Manufactured in the millions and in continuous service since 1899, the Military and Police remains an interesting and effective handgun. The .38 Smith and Wesson Special cartridge was developed for the new handgun.
Based on the .38 Long Colt, Smith and Wesson lengthened the cartridge and added a heavier bullet and powder charge. The .38 Special was adopted by practically every police department in America.
The .38 Special is the most powerful cartridge the occasional shooter is able to master and offers excellent accuracy. While it isn’t the most effective personal defense cartridge, it is enough with good shot placement.
The Military and Police revolver spun off a number of highly developed revolvers, including the Combat Masterpiece and Combat Magnum.
6. Colt Official Police
The Colt Official Police was a latecomer, introduced in 1927. The Official Police is similar to the Army Special. This .38 Special is a refinement of older Colt revolvers. The action is very smooth and the Official Police was preferred by many Northern agencies.
The Colt was at the lead in police sales and fought the good fight with Smith and Wesson. But after WWII, S&W made a huge investment in new models and beat Colt on the low bid with what many believed was a superior product.
Just the same, the Colt Official Police is an excellent revolver, robust, built on a .41 frame, capable of taking heavy loads and quite accurate. It was discontinued in 1969.
7. 1917 Model Revolvers
I am lumping the Model 1917s into a single category. Colt made one and Smith & Wesson the other.
They are comparable in performance and while experienced shooters may prefer the action of one over the other in combat ability, there is nothing that may be done with one that cannot be done with the other in practical terms.
It is a thrice-told tale. As we entered World War I, the United States was dangerously short of 1911 . 45 automatic pistols. Colt and the various sub-contractors could not possibly tool up to produce enough 1911 pistols to arm a million-man army.
Both Smith and Wesson and Colt had big-frame revolvers in full production to arm the Brits. These revolvers were chambered for the .455 Webley cartridge. It was a simple matter to modify the revolver for the .45 ACP cartridge.
The problem was extracting and ejecting a rimless cartridge. A thin sheet metal clip was developed to properly eject the .45 ACP cartridge. The result was the fastest revolver ever manufactured to load and unload.
Smith and Wesson chambered their hand ejector for the .45 ACP. Colt’s New Service was similarly modified. The revolvers were declared surplus after the war, although many remained in storage and were used during World War II.
The Border Patrol, local agencies, the post office, federal agents and outdoorsmen made good use of these revolvers. They are still viable working handguns. I often carry the Smith and Wesson Model of 1937 illustrated when hiking or spelunking.
The .45 Auto Rim was developed to allow firing a standard revolver cartridge in the 1917’s .45 ACP cylinder. The 255-grain Buffalo Bore load breaks 923 fps. This is a powerful loading well-suited to hunting.
8. Colt Detective Special
Fitz Fitzgerald, a long-time Colt employee, also trained many shooters and modified revolvers. He felt that with modern mechanized police forces and the age of the automobile on us in the early 1920s, the heavy long barrel revolvers once common were outdated.
Lawmen such as Bat Masterson had asked for and got a shorter Colt SAA, and in the 1920s Tom Threepersons carried his 4.75-inch revolver when working the rough border towns. Fitz felt that a big bore with a short barrel was the best answer.
While his work centered on big-bore handguns, it also led to the Colt Detective Special. If you wanted a hideout revolver, you had a choice of underpowered .32 and .38 short caliber revolvers until Colt introduced the Detective Special in 1926.
The Detective Special was a short barrel variation of the Police Positive Special chambered for the .38 Special cartridge. The advantage of the Detective Special over other small revolvers was in the action, size, handling and sights.
The new revolver was practically as easy to use well as most four-inch barrel revolvers. The result was one of the most popular revolvers of all time, appreciated by savvy handgunners. It has long been out of production.
The Detective Special is well worth its price and remains a sought-after classic.
9. Smith and Wesson’s .357 Magnum Model 27
In 1935, Smith & Wesson introduced a deluxe revolver on the heavy .44 frame. The revolver featured fully adjustable rear sights, a post front sight, new Magna style grips and excellent heat treating.
Most importantly, the new handgun was chambered for the brand-new .357 Magnum cartridge. The .357 Magnum is a lengthened .38 Special with about twice the energy of the .38 Special. The new handgun set a number of long-range accuracy records to 600 yards.
When a new numbering system was introduced in 1957, the .357 Magnum was given the Model 27 designation. The Model 27 has been offered with 3.5, 4, 5, 6, and 8 3/8 inch barrels, nickel finish, stainless steel and in eight shot versions.
The Model 27 is offered in the Classic line today. It is perhaps the all-time Classic Smith & Wesson revolver.
10. Colt Python
During the 1930s, a tremendous amount of development and modification went on with both S&W and Colt revolvers. These handguns were modified with short actions (which S&W adopted after the war in production revolvers), special sights and barrel ribs.
Colt elected to design their own super custom revolver. The result was the Colt Python, my favorite of the classics. I often carry and fire the Python and find it a superbly accurate revolver, easily the most accurate of the classics tested.
The action is smooth and the revolver feels good in the hand. The .41 size frame is lighter than the S&W N frame but heavy enough to absorb the recoil of the .357 Magnum cartridge.
These ten revolvers are not the only classics. The Smith and Wesson .38-44, the Colt Shooting Master and others are worth consideration.
There are modern revolvers that may one day deserve the title, and there were thousands of inexpensive revolvers that did yeoman service in the hands of working people.
What are your favorite revolvers? Let us know in the comments below!