The 10 Greatest Revolvers Of All Time

Greatest Revolvers All Time

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

colt 1851 navy
Colt’s 1851 Navy was the first great fighting revolver.

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

colt 1860 army
Colt’s 1860 .44 is available in a quality reproduction from Traditions.

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

starr 1858 army
This is the real thing—an original 1858 Starr .44.

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

colt SAA - best revolvers of all time
This is a 1973 (2nd Generation) Colt in .44-40 WCF.

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

Smith and Wesson Military and Police - best revolvers of all time
The Smith and Wesson Military and Police revolver served in World War II as the Victory Model.

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

Colt Official Police
This is a 1962 issue Colt Official Police .38 Special.

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

Colt 1917
This brawny revolver is a Colt 1917.

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

Colt Detective Special
That is an aluminum frame Colt Cobra above the Colt Detective Special, bottom.

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

S&W Model 27
There is no more businesslike handgun in appearance than the Smith and Wesson 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

Colt Python
The Colt Python, top, and an original Colt Three-Fifty-Seven, below.

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!

About the Author:

Wilburn Roberts

When Wilburn Roberts was a young peace officer, he adopted his present pen name at the suggestion of his chief, as some of the brass was leery of what he might write. This was also adopted out of respect for families of both victims and criminals. The pen name is the same and the man remains an outspoken proponent of using enough gun for the job.

He has been on the hit list of a well-known hate group, traveled in a dozen countries and written on many subjects, including investigating hate crimes and adopting the patrol carbine. He graduated second in his class with a degree in Police Science. It took him 20 years to work himself from Lieutenant to Sergeant and he calls it as he sees it.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (37)

  1. Hi Iam a revolver nut to. My favorite off duty revolver is Ruger sp-10 chambered in 9mm snubnose. Carry it alot very accurate revolver. Like it as much as my baretta px-4 storm compact. Trust my life with the two.

    Best Regards
    TN Deputy Sheriff

  2. I always marvel at you nation of gringos lauding yourselves for living in your own dreamland thinking you are the top of everything on earth. You Yankees must sit in front to the mirror every day and say “how wonderful am I”. Your firearms are just the same old, same old. Too many cowboys and Indians movies still infest your brains until you cannot see out of the box of your own insignificance. You only copy what another nation has invented. The Europeans and British leave all your firearms in the dust. Not only that, you yanks can never win a war with what you have. The Russians have shown your nation to be all wind, puff and blow.

  3. I’m own a 1851Navy colt peacemaker there are initials engraved on the but. It’s been real challenge to find the original owner. Any suggestions on someone that can help find civil war era issued colts registries or anything of that nature.i know not all are military some where purchased by confederate military as well as civilization. Any help would be welcome, thank you

  4. Korth NXS, Kimber K6S, manhurin MR73, were all omitted from your list. These are truly the greatest
    revolvers of all time.

  5. I would also mention that Smith & Wesson’s I-frame revolvers are worthy mentions. These were the first hand ejectors and revolutionized the technological mechanics of revolvers.

    I personally own the model 1903 in .32 S&W long. It is nickel plated with a real mother of pearl handle. What a beauty! It may not have the preferred power. However, as a person who is recoil sensitive, it will get the job done. In addition, it is extremely accurate! Just my two cents! Enjoy!

  6. 1851 Navy Colt is, in my opinion, the best for home defense when properly prepared. Large lead wad at lower velocity, tons of noise and enough smoke for the psych factor to apply. Lead ball won’t pass completely through so all knetic energy is transferred to the perp along with the sound/visual effect. High power ammo blasts through a perp losing energy transfer, not knocking said perp on their buttocks but blowing through when shooting to maim, not to kill.
    Using gulfwax to seal the cylinders after loading, a cap and ball revolver can sit loaded for several years between refreshing the powder and still be viable.

  7. s&w model 19 .357 combat weapon is another great one and should have been included i shoot floating bottles in the creek at 20yds easy and i’m not jim mckenzie

  8. s&w model 19 .357 combat weapon is another great one and should have been included i shoot floating bottles in the creek at 20yds easy

  9. I found the article interesting, I wonder if the author did any research on which revolver has won the most matches? I personally own most of the revolvers on this list. Including a custom shop python.

    The Dan Wesson model 15 IS A BETTER HANDGUN. At least the men who win competitions agree with that, even if you have never owned one.

  10. I own a Smith and Wesson model 27 that is scoped. I have fired thousands of rounds through this gun. Best hand gun ever and accurate at long range

  11. I was always partial to the Smith & Wesson revolvers. I first carried the Model 15 Combat Master, then the Model 67, which was the same weapon in stainless steel as a police officer. I owned a 2.5” Model 19. They were always reliable weapons.

  12. umm… well. I became a police officer in 1966 for a 4,000 member department. My choices
    (required) were a S&W Chief Special 2 inch revolver and an S&W 4 inch Combat Masterpiece.

  13. Can’t help but feel like this was a bit Colt biased. Remington 1858’s and 1875’s were solid reliable firearms. Ruger makes excellent revolvers in both single and double action. Nagant 1895 revolvers with the advancing cylinder that seals the end of the cartridge in the breach. Colt has made a lot of great revolvers, but I don’t know that they’ve made 8 of the top 10

  14. Mention should be made of the Ruger Security Six series, which redefined revolver construction by doing away with the side plate and proved more reliable than its Colt and S&W contemporaries.

  15. My first full-size handgun was a S&W model 19. I’ve also shot a model 27, and I’d have to concur with your having the 27 on your list. To use a car analogy, the model 19 is a Buick, and the model 27 is a Cadillac.

  16. For years my favorite revolver was Ruger’sSuper blackhawk, it fix my hand well and with an 8in barrel it was and still is amazingly accurate. For what ever reason I lost my touch with the single action 44. My replacement for the old friend was and still is the Taurus 454 raging bull. It is not a good fit for the average hand size, but it fits me like a glove with a red dot sight and it’s ported barrel the accuracy is amazing.

  17. I am a owner of nickle plated 4 inch .357 Python. I had begged Colt to make a 24 crt. Gold plated Python with no success. I even offered my own gun as a down payment but failed. If anybody with connections will you asked them to think about it.

  18. Seems you guys forgot the S&W 686, used by SEAL Teams for combat swimmer ops and was the first handgun used by ST-6. You also forgot the Ruger GP-100 which, IMHO, is the best. The SP-101 is also the best small .357 5 shot.

  19. As far as black powder revolvers go the 1858 Remington is far superior to the 1860 Colt, stronger and more accurate.

  20. Interesting article, but IMHO you definitely left out three landmark revolvers… either you need to cut three or make the article a “Baker’s Dozen.”

    First, the best mass produced Cap-and-Ball revolvers by a long shot were the Remingtons. They had a top strap and even in 44 cal with heavy use did not shoot loose like the 1860 Colt. They didn’t get the props in Western books and movies, but people who actually shoot C&B know… check out the revolver line at any North-South Skirmish event and see what is the most popular gun there.

    Moving forward about 90 years, Smith & Wesson introduced their Chiefs Special. In blue or nickel or a decade later in stainless, these were game changers for plain clothes, off duty or backup, they could not be beat.

    Last but certainly not least, the introduction in 1956 of the 44 Magnum. later called the Model 29, changed the limits of hand gunning forever. Game and ranges long unavailable to hand gunners became possible and doable.

    These three guns must be on any meaningful list of the most important revolvers.

  21. Dear Shooter’s Log,

    I applaud your choice of the Colt Model 1851 “Navy” as #1 in the 10 best handguns of all time. However, could you have found a better photo to use for important revolver? An original or even a proper reproduction? The one pictured is a brass frame replica gun generally termed a “Fantasy Gun” by shooters of historic firearms. Colt never made a brass frame version, and the very few brass frame guns made by the CS government during the Civil War were very different in details. Thanks!

  22. The Python gets my vote as the most overrated, overhyped revolver in history. Yes, it’s good looking with its Colt Royal Blue finish and vented rib, and yes, it’s accurate. However, I had one for a while and I didn’t much care for it. The grips were too big, even though I have large hands, and the general balance and feel were not comfortable for me. I sold it after a few months without regret. I have a Smith & Wesson Model 19, a Smith & Wesson Model 586, and a Ruger Security Six and I’d take any one of them in a heartbeat over a Python. Collectors have driven the price of this relic into the stratosphere, meaning there is even less reason to acquire one. Thanks, but no thanks.

  23. Too bad the Webley revolvers wasn’t mentioned, especially the Mk VI. It was a well made revolver designed for self defense in the real world. I feel it is far more relevant than the Starr 1858 Army.

  24. Of all the revolvers I’ve owned and shot I far and away prefer the N frame Model 625 Smith & Wesson in 45 ACP with moon clips.

  25. I love all four revolvers I currently own and shoot.

    1 Remington 1858 New Model Army. Italian replica, probably from the 1970’s. Bought it cheap as a wall hanger, rebuilt it with new springs and assorted small parts. Shoots remarkably well.

    2 Ruger New Vaquero, .45 Colt. Stainless Colt 1873 lookalike. Fun to shoot, have loaded blackpowder cartridges in the past, but binds up after just a few shots, so back to Bullseye.

    3 Smith & Wesson Model 19 (Combat Magnum) My first pistol, and still my favorite. I’ve owned it for 30 years. Easy to shoot well with. 38 Special.

    4 Smith & Wesson 637 Chief’s Special. My newest acquisition, always wanted a snubbie. Learning to shoot it well in double action.

  26. If this was titled the list of the greatest *U.S.* revolvers, I’d agree.

    Otherwise I’d want the .455 Webley Revolver included. It served the British from 1887 until 1963, worldwide, at a time when the world was a lot wider than it is today.

  27. My favorite revolver is the Smith and Wesson 486 L frame. It has a more reasonable price than the Colt python and has basically the same weight target hammer and trigger as well.

  28. My favorite is the stainless Ruger Security Six in .357 magnum. It is my camping and general all around outdoor activity handgun. I have others for CCW, but the Ruger doesn’t care if it goes kayaking, hiking in the snowy weather, or just “glamping” for a long weekend with my wife. AND, very importantly, because of the simple revolver operation, my wife is comfortable knowing she can pick it up and not worry about what lever to push to make sure it will fire.

  29. S&W Model 19 Combat Masterpiece, Colt Detective Special, and Ruger SP 101 – I’ve owned all three (as well as the S&W Model 27 Highway Patrolman).

  30. You skipped “the peace officer dream” the S&W m19. I know the frame can’t stand up to a steady diet of 357 but who shoots only full house 357.

  31. I enjoy my Colt Trooper .357 (6”) and my Browning 9mm Hi-Power.
    I feel they are both classics in way of style & performance. Spent
    Many weekday evenings with my brother reloading .38, .357 & 9mm
    In the basement for a couple hours of shoot-up on the weekend.
    Even got my daughter involved, called her Primer Girl. Now 48 years
    Old, she still remembers the toils.

  32. S&W 686 with 4″ barrel is my top pick. My first handgun was a Ruger Super Blackhawk. I just turned fifteen, and wanted the biggest and loudest thing I could afford to shoot. Had a Bausch and Lomb 4x put on it, and couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with that setup.

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