Handguns

Wheel Guns: 10 of the Best Revolvers

Top to bottom: classic Colt revolvers – modified Army Special, Colt Three-Fifty-Seven, and a rare nickel three-inch barrel Detective Special

The history of revolvers is long and diverse. It began long before Samuel Colt or DB Wesson. While black powder cap and ball rifles were involved in many battles, I skipped over black powder revolvers as they are of less interest and with less staying power than cartridge revolvers. Just the same, keep watching these pages for more on early revolvers.

Many of the revolvers covered in this report were manufactured in the millions. As an example, the Smith and Wesson Military & Police Hand Ejector has been in continuous production for 124 years. Not to mention the Colt 1873, although it has not been continual production over the last 150 years. Then again, the Colt Three-Fifty-Seven manufacturing only saw 30,000 units. Let’s look at some of the most enduring designs.

Colt Python revolver, chrome, left profile
The Colt Python is perhaps the most easily recognizable revolver in the world.

Smith and Wesson Hand Ejector

The original Smith and Wesson Hand Ejector was a .32 caliber double-action revolver with a swing-out cylinder. It was among the first of its kind, although Colt had a swing-out cylinder revolver first. The quality and easy operation of the Hand Ejector, and its easy loading and unloading, ensured its success.

The Hand Ejector was built on the I-Frame. It was later modified into the hugely successful J-Frame and chambered first for the .38 Special and later the .357 Magnum. I-Frame Hand Ejector revolvers were offered in .32 Smith and Wesson Long and .38 Smith and Wesson. The latter was released in a five-shot version.

The Hand Ejector was the revolver that changed the world forever. It led to many interesting developments. The Smith and Wesson Chief’s Special .38 is a direct descendant of the Hand Ejector.

Smith and Wesson Military & Police

The .38 Hand Ejector, as it is sometimes referred to, is the single most successful revolver of all time. Introduced in 1899, and in its fifth model version by 1905, the Hand Ejector chambered an improved version of the .38 Colt cartridge labeled .38 Smith & Wesson Special.

heavy barrel Military & Police .38 revolver
The heavy barrel Military & Police .38 is perhaps the best-balanced revolver ever manufactured.

The medium-frame medium-power revolver is well balanced, famously reliable, featuring a smooth action. It wasn’t too heavy for constant carry. Chambered in .22, .32-20, .38 S&W, .38 Special, 9mm, and .357 Magnum in different models, the Military & Police revolver has seen more gunfights than perhaps all the other revolvers put together. The K-Frame .38 spun off the Combat Masterpiece, Combat Magnum, Model 13, and various stainless steel revolvers. It is still in production.

Colt 1873

The Colt Top Strap, Single Action Army, Frontier Six Shooter, or simply the Peacemaker is an American Icon. The threat profile of the day was a mounted adversary as well as the many dangerous animals on the American frontier. The .45 Colt cartridge was designed to be effective against an Indian war pony at 100 yards. In many battles of the day, more horses than men died.

The Colt SAA may not have been the most advanced revolver of the day, but it was robust, well balanced, and fast into action. It is still a popular field and trail revolver and among the most popular recreational revolvers in the country.

Bob Campbell drawing a Single Action Army revolver
The SAA is a fast-handling revolver. Everyone has a little cowboy spirit.

Chambered for many different cartridges during its long life, the Colt is best associated with the iconic .45 Colt cartridge. So long as Americans love cowboy movies and drovers, the SAA is likely to remain popular.

Colt’s .41 Frame Revolvers

Colt’s revolvers spanned several frame sizes. Among the most popular was the Official Police in .41 Long Colt. The .41 Colt is a lousy, old round firing a .384-inch bullet at low velocity. Just the same, it was superior to the lackluster .38 Colt.

The .38 Special is a good choice for these handguns. Perhaps the finest of these revolvers is the Colt Three-Fifty-Seven. With production beginning in the 1950s and ending in 1963, the Three-Fifty-Seven is a smooth, accurate, and a superbly fast-handling revolver. While it was not as popular as the Smith and Wesson Combat Magnum, a Colt man could do great shooting with this handgun. The fixed sight Official Police was much the same.

Colt Python

The newly reintroduced Colt Python is a shooters dream. The new revolver is stronger than the original and better suited to a steady shooting regimen. Each are deluxe revolvers with a heavy barrel, distinctive barrel rib, and hand honed action. These are fantastic shooting guns for the revolver shooter willing to master their unique action. While the original demands scalper prices, the new revolver is also a great shooter. Nothing has quite the bling of the Colt Python.

Colt Python revolver, chrome, left profile
The Colt Python is perhaps the most easily recognizable revolver in the world.

Smith and Wesson Combat Magnum (Model 19, Model 66)

The late Bill Jordan labeled the Combat Magnum ‘a peace officers dream.’ In the mid 1950s, metal science and heat treating had advanced to the point that a K-Frame revolver could be chambered for the .357 Magnum cartridge. The Combat Magnum is a modified Combat Masterpiece .38 Special revolver with the cylinder lengthened to accept the longer magnum cartridge.

At the time, the training schedule recommended was 20 .38 Special loads for every magnum. The Combat Magnum is relatively light, features a shrouded ejector rod, adjustable sights, and an excellent trigger action. The Combat Magnum was the prestige issue revolver for decades.

Ruger Speed Six

Ruger’s Security Six featured a .41 frame, rugged lock work, and fully adjustable sights. The revolver is nearly as accurate as the Python — according to its many fans. The Speed Six is a .357 Magnum revolver with fixed sights and a round butt — a concealed carry or rough service version of the rugged and reliable Security Six. I have a long history with this revolver. While the later GP100 is doubtless stronger and more durable, the Speed Six is among the fastest handling Ruger revolvers every manufactured.

Ruger GP100

The Ruger GP100 is tank tough. This heavy-duty .357 Magnum revolver offers excellent accuracy fit and finish. The action is smooth. The revolver doesn’t feature the problematic action lock found on some modern revolvers.

fixed-sight 10mm Ruger GP100
This fixed-sight 10mm Ruger GP100 is among the finest defense revolvers ever manufactured.

The GP100 won’t break the bank, but it will accomplish anything any other revolver will do while refusing to break down or go out of time. The Ruger is also offered in a 10mm version and even a super accurate .22 version. This is among the sturdiest revolvers ever manufactured.

Charter Arms Bulldog, Boxer, and Others

Charter Arms began manufacturing revolvers during the Vietnam War. Good quality revolvers were difficult to come by. Charter Arms offered a reliable revolver at a fair price, allowing many Americans on a budget to own decent home protection. The original product was the Charter Arms Undercover, a lightweight .38 Special using a steel frame.

The Undercover featured a modern, transfer bar ignition action. In the early 1970s, Charter Arms introduced the five-shot .44 Special Bulldog. The Bulldog was a sensation. Later versions were offered in .357 Magnum.

Charter Arms revolver, right profile
Charter Arms Bulldog, Pug, and Boxer revolvers are workmanlike designs capable of defending your person from harm

The six-shot Boxer is a light, handy .38 Special version of the Bulldog. The smaller five-shot .38s are more common while the slightly larger handguns are easier to shoot well. These revolvers fill an important niche between expensive but high quality revolvers and rougher cheap guns.

Chiappa Rhino

The Chiappa is a unique, even fantastic, design. The barrel is located low on the receiver. The revolver fires from the lower chamber. The double-action trigger is very smooth. A cocking lever allows the shooter to cock the internal hammer for single-action shots.

Chiappa Rhino revolver
The Chiappa Rhino revolver is a modern marvel in many ways.

The revolver is very easy to use well. Despite an unusual appearance, the Chiappa Rhino is among the most ergonomic revolvers every manufactured. This isn’t a traditional revolver, but it is certainly a shooter’s revolver.

There are other revolvers worth study — Colt Detective Special, N-Frame Smith and Wesson revolvers, and Dan Wesson revolvers. Sadly. we don’t have room for every one of these in this article, but which revolver is your favorite? Share your answer in the comment section.

  • Two Smith and Wesson’s Safety Hammerless revolvers
  • .38 Special Military & Police revolver with a steel helmet
  • six-inch barrel Hand Ejector nickel plated and round butt revolver
  • vintage Smith and Wesson Military & Police, top, Colt Detective Special .38, bottom
  • 100-year-old .38 revolver (top) and modern 442 .38 (bottom)
  • Wiley Clapp version of the Colt SAA
  • heavy barrel Military & Police .38 revolver
  • Bob Campbell drawing a Single Action Army revolver
  • Colt Python revolver, chrome, left profile
  • Ruger GP100 revolver
  • Colt Model Three-Fifty-Seven revolver
  • fixed-sight 10mm Ruger GP100
  • Ruger Speed Six revolver
  • Chiappa Rhino revolver
  • original Combat Magnum revolver
  • 5-shot .357 Magnum Charter Arms revolver
  • Smith and Wesson Model 19 revolver
  • Charter Arms revolver, right profile
  • two Colt MAgnum revolvers
  • 5-inch barrel Chiappa Rhino .357 magnum revolver
  • Top to bottom: classic Colt revolvers – modified Army Special, Colt Three-Fifty-Seven, and a rare nickel three-inch barrel Detective Special
  • Bob Campbell drawing a Single Action Army revolver

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
Handloader
Rifle Magazine
Handguns
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 (18)

  1. I shoot a model 19 smith Wesson ppc gun made by the late Joe kassay of Laurence harbor nj his shop was located in Perth amboy nj those who shot ppc matches knew his custom revolvers I still shoot that 19 once a week for the last 40 years shoots as good as the first day I got it you just don’t see pistol smith’s like him anymore

  2. @Bob and David
    When I first started in law enforcement our department had the Smith 686. I grew up shooting revolvers so it was no big deal to me but some of the recruits couldn’t figure them out or hit the broadside of a barn if they were inside of it and that was using .38 Spl, not even the full house .357 loads. Still love my Smiths, although we did have an issue with the barrels coming un-pinned… think those were the 686-4… Smith had been bought out/restructured and tried to cut some costs. Wound up with some shrapnal in side of my neck when a recruit was doing rapid fire on the range and the hollow barrel pin let go, letting the whole thing get out of time, blowing the barrel off. Smith sent a recall out for that particular batch. They wouldn’t let us armorers work on them, just send them back they said… uhhh okay… and what exactly are we supposed to train the recruits with? We’re aware of the situation Sgt, you still have other firearms in your armory inventory was Smith’s response on that.
    Keep in mind this was a state LE angency so yeah, we did, but not the point. We also had S&W M&P… even some of the new semi-auto in the .357 SIG and .40… and don’t get me wrong, Smith totally made it right because it was a state contract and their customer service is great today. I carry the SD40 and Shield Plus even now.
    I have an RIA M206 snub hammered version in .38 Spl. that’s not too bad especially for the price, you just have clean up the sharp edges. Little heavy for carry but it’s pretty dang accurate even out to 15 yards using some old school 125gr Federal Nyclad… the ones right after Smith stopped branding their ammo and Federal took over. It’s outward appearance is and cylinder release is like a Colt Detective Special. It’s no Smith Chief’s Special or Smith model 10 or even a Ruger Speed Six but it’s not bad and I’ve run a bunch of round through it… but dang if .38 Spl ain’t getting hard to find.
    Need to find a holster I like for that thing.

  3. Have had a Ruger GP100 6” with half bottom rib for 30+ years. Beautiful shooter The late Mr Ed Banks one of the best .45 & Browning High power gunsmiths I ever knew took me under his wing & taught me how to smooth it up. Between the millet gold cup sights & a trigger smooth as butter used it to shoot center fire bullseye matches for years & yes took my fair share of trophy’s. It is definitely a heirloom gun that will get passed down.

  4. I must admit that my favorite revolvers are S&W N Frames. I currently own four of them, a 22, 27,28, and a 25-5 in .45Colt that was my issued revolver for 8 years in the PD I worked for.

  5. Two Freedom Arms revolvers, 454, and 475, are the best handguns I have had, and I have had a Python, and a “Dirty Harry” S@W 44 magnum, and several Rugers. They are all great guns.

  6. about 22+ years ago , while at a local gun show i was able to purchase a used smith & wesson model 686 for under $300 . Great shooter & very accurate , easy to handle comfortably . One of my favorite revolvers for sure .

  7. Although I love my 6 inch Python, I have to admit that I find that my 4 inch Diamondback feels more balanced in my hands and as pleasant to shoot.
    Of the Smith & Wessons owned, the one I gravitate to is a 3 inch bull barrel model 64. The action job rendered it as smooth as the Python. Fast follow up shots are easy with the heavy barrel.

  8. Al

    Those two guns cover about 99 per cent of the personal defense problems likely to occur

    Thanks for reading

    Bob

  9. I love my early 80’s Dan Wesson Model 15 four inch. I carried it on the streets as a health department enforcement officer, even though the rangemaster at the police academy called it a “cannon” (said the man who would not carry anything except a Colt 1911 .45). My sons and I had the gun out recently while teaching grandkids how to shoot. Both my boys had to pick it up and run a cylinder full of magnum loads through it, and both commented it kicked more than the autos they carry. When I need something in my hand to defend the home, I’ll choose the Dan Wesson every time!

  10. I hunt deer with my ruger gp100. When I was a detective I cared the 38 colt detective special. My wife cares the 38 colt agent. I now carey the glock 30 in 45 acp amo. It’s all about preference and your skill level.

  11. I had a GP100 in 44 special. Sent it back twice and they “shimmed the crane”.
    Third strike and your out. I traded it on a used model 686 and am very happy with the 686.

  12. Of the several wheel guns I have my favorite is my security 6 although I whish I had gotten the stainless version. That being said a close 2nd is my Chief’s special 38 S&W cannot be beat for ccw.

  13. I have my dad’s S&W Model 10 .38 Special. It’s among my favorite guns to shoot. It’s an easy carry too.

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