Throwback Thursday: How to Use a Double-Action Revolver Effectively

man shooting revolver

The double-action revolver is a timeless personal defense handgun. The double-action revolver is not only popular, there are new introductions that make the revolver even more effective. Quality revolvers from Colt, Charter Arms, Smith and Wesson, Ruger, and Taurus offer good protection. In the proper caliber, the handguns are useful not only for concealed carry, but home defense and defense against large animals as well.

Pros of the Double-Action Revolver

The revolver is simple to use and this is one of the great advantages of the double-action revolver. Pick up the revolver, take a grip, and fire the handgun. That is simple part. But managing the trigger isn’t easy. Let’s look at the best way to manage the long double-action trigger press of the self-cocking revolver.

First, what is a double-action revolver? In the modern DA revolver, the trigger action cocks and drops the hammer. With a single-action revolver, the hammer is manually cocked before firing and a single action — pressing the trigger — fires the revolver. The long, rolling trigger press of the DA revolver has advantages. 

man shooting double-action revolver
Double-action fire can be fast, too fast for the camera.

Proper Grip

Here is the best way to control the double-action revolver. I was trained in the DA revolver by some of the best, and I have a great deal of practice on my own. When you grip the revolver, place the hand as high as you can on the frame, with the trigger finger on the face of the trigger. The distal, or first joint of the finger, is the ideal placement. The ideal movement is a smooth, straight pull-through without stopping the trigger press. Keep the grip steady as you press the trigger straight to the rear. The trick is to keep the sight picture steady as you press.

There are shooters who have mastered the press by placing a dime on the front sight and not allowing the dime to fall off during the trigger press. They are a little above the scale of ordinary mortals, but then there are many who can perform this feat. For the rest of us, we continue to dry fire until we get it right.

Press the trigger to the rear in a smooth motion. Sure, the sights will wobble. At personal defense ranges of 5–7 yards, this wobble isn’t as important. You won’t miss the X by much. At longer range, well, you need to get those sights aligned precisely. Align the sights properly just before the hammer falls. It is that simple. Just like making the basketball hoop every single time or holding the leg in tight to perfect the golf swing.

man shooting in field
Keep the hand high on the revolver, press the trigger straight to the rear, and keep the sights on target.

DA or SA?

The double-action revolver demands different techniques than a self-loading pistol. Sight picture and sight alignment are the same, but the grip and trigger control are considerably different. The technique that leads up to dropping the hammer is different.

An advantage some find in double-action trigger control is that flinching is less with the DA press. (Flinching is the involuntary muscle contraction in anticipation of harsh recoil.) If you cock the hammer for single-action fire, you may anticipate recoil and flinch. With the surprise break of the DA trigger press, recoil is less of a concern. There is actually a lot of motion going in when you press the double-action trigger.

man shooting double-action revolver
Firing double-action from a solid benchrest firing position may be surprisingly accurate.

Trigger Action

The cylinder is locked in place at the beginning of the trigger press. Press the trigger and the trigger begins to cam the hammer back as the hand — sometimes called the pawl — moves the cylinder. This is why the trigger press is sometimes heavy compared to the DA semi-auto pistol. A certain part of the energy used in pressing the trigger is used to revolve the cylinder as well as cocking and dropping the hammer. The hand presses the chamber by butting into the ejector star or ratchet at the end of the ejector rod. The action takes place in a much shorter time than it takes to explain the operation.

Another operation that occurs at the same time is the release of the cylinder stop or cylinder bolt. This is the semi-round piece in the frame that rises to engage a cut-out in the cylinder to securely lock the cylinder in place as the revolver fires. The bolt must drop away to allow cylinder rotation. As you can see, the ‘simple’ revolver isn’t as simple as it seems. The shooter’s hand rides high on the frame and the trigger finger bends down and presses back. That is mastered with practice. 

man shooting revolver at range bench
For some shooters, double-action fire is the best option even at long handgun range.

Colt vs. Smith and Wesson

There are important differences in the way the action operates. The primary differences are found in the Colt- and Smith and Wesson-type revolver. The Colt uses a V spring that powers both the hammer and trigger return. If you do not allow the trigger to properly reset, the Colt trigger may set and appear locked up. It isn’t locked up, simply release the trigger.

The Smith and Wesson features a separate trigger return spring that resets the trigger after the hammer falls. Reset is simply the trigger being moved back into the firing position. Press the trigger to cock the hammer to the rear against spring pressure. The hammer breaks and falls as the trigger is completely to the rear. The trigger then resets to the original position.

A good cadence of fire is to fire, and as the revolver muzzle rises in recoil, allow the trigger to reset and bring the sights back on target. The rate of fire isn’t set by how fast you can pull the trigger, but by how quickly you are able to realign the sights.

man pointing revolver
It is especially important to keep the grip firm and the trigger press smooth when handling a revolver in personal defense drills.

Staging the Trigger

Some shooters firing in competition never cock the hammer for single-action fire. Some hunters, taking longer shots, never use the double-action option. More shooters jerk the trigger single-action than double-action, so use the double-action stroke for all defensive shooting. You don’t want to be walking around the house with a four-pound trigger press dropping the hammer! Shaky hands are not ideal for safely lowering the hammer. Double-action triggers run from 10–15 pounds.

There are those who use a technique for staging the trigger for long-range shots. This is an art worth studying. In staging the shot, the trigger is brought to the rear and instead of pulling straight through, you stop, confirm the sight picture, and drop the hammer. This can be very fast and allows excellent shooting to 25 yards or beyond. It is also easy to go ahead and fire instead of staging, so be certain you are going to take the shot in case you do not stage properly. This is more of an art for competition, but I can see its validity if you have to take a shot at an active shooter at long range, or perhaps a shot on a varmint or pest in the field.

The key is dry fire. Practice with a triple-checked unloaded fire. Practice the trigger press. Use snap caps to reduce wear and tear on the firing pin. (Mandatory for Colt revolvers!) Get with the program and you are on your way to proficiency.

How do you master the double-action revolver? What is your preferred revolver? Let us know in the comment section.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in June of 2021. It has been revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
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 (15)

  1. I shoot very little double action. I shoot up to 50 yds out for accuracy. That is why I rarely shoot double action. I only have 4 double action revolvers. 8″ Anaconda, 6″ Python, 605 Snubby, and a 7 1/2″ S&W 460 XVR. I have shot them all in double action at least a cylinder-full. The Colts are on top, followed by the S&W, with the Taurus bringing up the rear. I only carry the Taurus out of the 4 so the Taurus sees more double action practice than the others. I love all 4 of them. But when we’re talking single action, The S&W shines the brightest. Nice write-up btw. I learned something.

  2. I wish you had shown a photo showing the grip of your left hand. Not sure it is good practice to show shooting from the hood of a vehicle. The pressure wave from shots will turn a small crack or rock chip into a major crack requiring a new windshield rather than a star repair.

  3. Dry firing with snap caps has brought me to a new level of shooting. Now I always fire 5 dry fire rounds, before I start shooting at the range.

  4. My preferred DA revolver to shoot is my 1984 vintage Dan Wesson 715 357 mag. The DA is smooth. SA is outstanding. It is a tack driver like virtually every Dan Wesson. It’s my carry horseback in a 20 loop cartridge belt. I’ve yet to handle a revolver that will outshoot a Dan Wesson. The design gives them a huge edge in accuracy. As much as I like my Dan Wesson the DA with the smoothest trigger I’ve handled is my wife’s 1933 vintage Colt Police Positive 38 special. You simply cannot beat the level of workmanship and fitting done years ago. It’s glass smooth.

  5. Sure,an instructor can train you in what works best, for him. Keep both eyes open when aiming. Finding your most comfortable,secure grip that permits consistent sight alignment is a matter individual experience from practice. New shooter should start close,then increase distance gradually.All bullets drop due to gravity. The .270 Caliber was lauded as ‘flat shooting’. As distance increases,new shooter will notice the bullet drop&learn to adjust sight picture. New shooter,if serious,should shoot at least 1000 rds / week. I did. Deer,squirrel,rabbits,chucks have all fallen to my DA revolvers. Sometimes I employ a 2 handed grip w/off hand supporting the shooting hand.The above game was taken w/1 handed grip. The key is practice,practice. Can`t emphasize that enough.

  6. HA HA Colonel

    I shaved the beard a few weeks ago.

    Big Foot was in the back yard hiding and trying to take my picture.



  7. So the author mentions Taurus and charter arms and has no clue about Dan Wesson! I couldn’t believe he praises junk!

  8. I have a Taurus Model 82, black finished, .38 spl, six shots. Is it safe to dry fire without snap caps?
    It is a very robust revolver, designed over a Model 10 Smith & Wesson, I believe. And is capable of using +P ammunition.
    Thank you for your attention.
    Óscar W. Díaz Cruz

  9. Just got my first DA only revolver (LCR22) and this article was very informative, also very well written with a good genial tone!

  10. I have used my K frame S&W revolvers for years. My favorite is my .357 Magnum Model 19. I have been able to hold my own with other shifters with their 9mm Glocks. Bob is right. Straight DA is awesome and by staging, most any form or range is achievable.

  11. Hi Bob, I enjoyed your article on the DA revolver. I wish, however you had spent a little more time on the proper grip. I noticed in the photos that you utilized a single hand, and double hand grip. I never feel comfortable with my two hand grip on my S&W 686+. Any recommendations? I was also wondering about your recommendation regarding the use of Snap Caps while dry firing, and the admonition regarding Colts. With the exception of rimfire .22LR, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about firing pin damage if not using Snap Caps with center fire weapons. Many articles talk about running through thousands of dry fire snaps to “wear in parts” and train on proper trigger pull. Granted, most of these articles are written about semi auto, self loader pistols. Is your recommendation strictly for revolvers? I’ve dry fired my S&W and Ruger revolvers frequently with no Snap Caps, figuring the firing pin was going into an empty hole. Am I damaging my weapons? Thanks!

  12. Another benefit of dry firing is to reduce flinching. I carry a Lady Smith and range time is very important to tame this lightweight in the .38 special round.

  13. Bob looks like Santa Claus with an attitude in that first photo. It’s a keeper. All it needs is a good caption.
    “So you don’t like the present Santa brought you for Christmas, eh? Well how do you like it now?”

  14. For most new shooters, thinking is that a small double action revolver is ideal. Nothing is further from the truth. HOWEVER, for people with limited hand strength, a double/single action revolver does make an excellent choice, When teaching new shooters, a double action revolver is also excellent. (Note – Double action revolvers were the original point and click device.) With modern technology, almost all of the issues with autoloading pistols are gone, but revolvers are still as effective as when Sam Colt design the first ones.

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