Terril James Hebert
Introduction: Single Action Wheelguns
When it comes to the modern handgun market, capacity and ease of carry are the name of the game. But would it surprise you that the old single action revolver is still alive and well nearly two hundred years after Samuel Colt gave us the first five-shooter? There are plenty of reasons to not like the single action. The capacity is usually limited to five or six shots, or perhaps a few more depending on the model. Reloading requires fumbling with loose ammunition. The guns tend to be hefty and require you to cock the hammer before you can pull the trigger and fire, hence single action. Yet single actions continue to sell and sell very well. New models debut every year alongside the latest and greatest. Why?
The single action revolver is embodiment of the stoic man (or stoic woman if you will), of those who said little and let their guns do the talking. Whether it is through our view of history or how it came to be on the big screen, the single action has nostalgia and a long history of use on its side. The single action revolver can also be found in some powerful cartridges, enabling it to be used outside of cowboy games with great effect. And once you get your firing grip down, you would be surprised how fast the single action really is. There are many options for a single action revolver to choose from, but which is the best?
Types of Single Action Revolvers
There are many different single action revolvers out there for you to buy, shoot, carry, and enjoy. But there are four types of new single actions that you are likely to run into as you mill through your purchasing options. Each has their particular strengths and weaknesses and each has a different operating system to learn on.
- Percussion Revolvers
- Break-Top Revolvers
- Colts and Colt Clones
- Mini Revolvers
Percussion Revolvers: Percussion revolvers, often called cap-and-ball revolvers, were the first single actions to be fielded. These revolvers generally use a loading lever to load loose black powder and bullet from the front of the cylinder, rather than the rear like with a cartridge-firing revolver. Each loaded chamber is then primed with a percussion cap. The most common revolvers of this type you will find are Italian reproductions of original models by Uberti and Pietta. These are handy game-getters and a natural choice of the reenactor.
Break-Top Revolvers: Arguably the most modern choice with a root in the past, break-top revolvers fire conventional cartridges like the SAAs and Mini Revolvers. Loading and unloading, however, is much more rapid. The break-top hinges open to eject all empty cartridges at once, exposing all chambers for loading. The break-top revolver usually takes the form of Uberti-produced Smith & Wesson No.3 and Schofield revolvers, but there are a few oddities mixed in here and there.
Colts and Colt-Clones: A Colt Single Action Army revolver, or its many clones, is the most likely single action revolver you will encounter. Available in a number of frame sizes and cartridge configurations, the SAA-type are cartridge firing gate-loading revolvers. The cylinder has to be topped one round at a time through the open gate until the revolver is fully loaded. Removing the empty cases requires the poke of an ejector rod for each chamber. Colt continues to produce the Single Action Army and Uberti, Pietta, Ruger, among others, fill the market with improved and screw-for-screw copies.
Mini Revolvers: For every big-bore single action in the Old West, there were many more micro-sized palm pistols. These often came chambered in small, rimfire cartridges and had simple spur triggers. North American Arms revived this dead class of revolver with modern manufacturing processes. Their Mini Revolvers are single-action five-shot revolvers designed with concealed carry in mind.
List of the Best Single Action Revolvers
- Colt Single Action Army (overall)
- North American Arms (Best for CCW)
- Ruger Wrangler (Best Budget SA Revolver)
- Freedom Arms Model 83 (Best Big Bore)
- Uberti Remington New Model Army (Best for Powerderheads)
Best Single Action Revolver Overall
Colt Single Action Army Review
The Colt Single Action Army was not the first single-action revolver to come out. But the handgun market as a whole would never be the same once it made its debut all the way back in 1873. The Colt has been known by many names: the SAA, the Model P, the M1873, the Colt Peacemaker, among others. The Colt SAA was the first cartridge-firing handgun introduced to the US Army and it armed known and unknown villains and heroes both on and off the silver screen. The SAA is so popular, Colt continues to produce new ones.
In a modern context, the SAA is not the most efficient or robust of its type. The Ruger Vaquero honors the Colt’s same classic lines, but the former uses a coiled mainspring and has a slightly beefier frame. It also has a transfer bar safety, allowing you to carry the revolver with all six chambers fully loaded. The Ruger can take more abuse than a Colt. But that Ruger does not operate like a Colt and you just might find that the Colt was, and is, plenty of pistol. There are plenty of fine Colt clones out there that are just as useful, but there was always something about the clones that never fit the bill. Some models get the grip wrong, others have weird safeties, and others have a gritty action that does not compare.
A Colt made today operates like one made when George Custer and Wyatt Earp were extant. It also comes with the learning curve that many have had to learn when handling one. Load one, skip a chamber, load four, and cock the hammer and lower it on an empty chamber. You have to half-cock the hammer to free the cylinder to spin for loading and unloading. And when you go to fire, you cock the hammer all the way back. The hammer clicks four times as it cocks for C-O-L-T.
There is no substitute for a Colt Single Action. Perhaps the worst knock on the Colt is its status as a collector’s item. Colts are simply too nice to scratch up and use. That point is fair. Colts hold their value and are a joy to own, but just in case you want a new one, five-rounds of .357 Magnum or .45 Colt can still do a job.
Colt SAA Pros and Cons:
Short, Crisp Trigger Pull Weight
No Viable Safety
North American Arms Mini Revolver
Freedom Arms introduced their small, stainless-steel Patriot in 1978, this five-shot .22 rimfire has a short barrel, spur trigger, a rounded birds head grip and is single-action only. In 1990, Freedom Arms sold the design to North American Arms of Provo, Utah. NAA took the original design and ran with it. NAA Mini Revolvers are available with Hogue grips, tritium night sights, lasers, and bull barrels from 1-4 inches in length. The standard Mini Revolver has the same rosewood birds grip and has a barrel length between 1 1/8 and 1 5/8 inch, depending on what model you choose. Caliber choices range from 22 Short, 22 Long Rifle, and 22 Win. Mag.
The 22 Magnum Mini probably represents the single action at its most practical in a modern sense. The revolver weights just 6.6 ounces unloaded and can be carried just about anywhere. Although the 22 Magnum cartridge loses much of its ballistic potential out of such a short barrel, most 40 grain rifle ammunition will penetrate on par with larger .380 ACP or .38 Special hollow-point loads. The need to cock the hammer before ever shot also brings some piece of mind should you be nervous about carrying a loaded handgun in unconventional places.
The Mini is a five and forget option. Like similar style pocket guns of the Old West, like the Smith Wesson No. 1 and the Colt New Line, the NAA Mini requires the cylinder to be removed for loading and unloading. But all things considered, the NAA Mini is a legitimate contender among today’s pocket pistols.
Safety Notches Between Chambers
Disassemble for Reloading
You don’t have to get into obsolescence or magnum cartridges in order to shoot a single action revolver. If you are on a budget or looking for a good general tool, there isn’t much that can beat a good .22 rimfire single-action revolver. Ruger has been making single-action .22s since the dawn of the TV Western and the Wrangler may be the best bang for the buck.
The Wrangler is based on the Ruger Single Six design, which borrows on the lines of the old Colt Single Action. Functionally, the Wrangler has similarities to both. The Wrangler holds six rounds of 22 LR, which are loaded through a loading gate and punched out with an ejector rod on the right side of the barrel. It also has the familiar plow-handle Peacemaker grip. Aside from this, the Wrangler has its own peculiarities. When the loading gate is open, the cylinder can spin in both directions. The Single Six can only spin clock-wise. The Colts and their rimfire versions require the hammer to be drawn to half-cock to free the cylinder. With the Rugers, opening the loading gate frees the cylinder. The Wrangler also uses a transfer bar safety, which prevents the hammer from contacting the firing pin unless the trigger is pulled.
The Wrangler is not as refined as the Single Six on a certain level. The level of finish work is a bit less and the Cerakote finish does not wear like a good cold blue. The Wrangler also uses an aluminum frame and a zinc grip frame for cost savings. But the overall product is more well-finished and well-appointed compared to other budget .22 revolvers like those from Uberti and Heritage Arms.
The Wrangler is available in a number of barrel lengths and is generally found in .22 LR, although the new steel-frame Super Wrangler is available with a convertible .22 Magnum cylinder.
Transfer Bar Safety
Dull Cerakote Finish
Only available in 22 LR (except for the Super Wrangler)
Freedom Arms Model 83
Dick Casull cofounded Freedom Arms in the late 1970s and produced the first of what would become the NAA Mini Revolver, one of the smallest handguns you can buy. But Casull’s name will forever be tied to the .454 Casull, one of the most powerful handgun cartridges. Small wonder that Freedom Arms became much better known for large-frame revolvers like their Model 83. The Model 83 is a single-action revolver that is a facsimile of the Colt style, but is renowned as one of the most powerful handguns you can buy. The Model 83 can still be had in normal everyday calibers like 22 Long Rifle and .357 Magnum. But it is also currently available in rounds like the .454 Casull, .475 Linebaugh, and .500 Wyoming Express.
These stainless-steel revolvers are made to order and intended with hunting and wilderness defense in mind. The single action design lends itself well to both reliability and safety in these contexts. A single-action has fewer parts than a conventional double-action revolver or an autoloader. There is less to go wrong in the field. And when it comes to shooting, the single-action can only be fired one round at a time. The trigger does nothing unless the hammer is cocked. Some revolvers, especially those in large Magnum calibers, generate tremendous recoil and twist in your hands. A double-action revolver with similar rounds can easily send extra rounds by accident, because recoil can cause the shooter to inadvertently pull the trigger again. That concern is null with a single-action. Whether you have a knack for craftsmanship or for bear, the Freedom Arms Model 83 is worth a look.
Adjustable target sights
Can Be Too Powerful
Uberti Remington New Model Army
When Samuel Colt’s patent on the revolver expired, firms by the dozen rose in Eastern industrial towns to make their own. Remington not only rose to challenge Colt, but arguably produced a better gun. Although Remington has had its ups and downs, their New Model Army revolver set them up a century and a half of brand recognition. Colt had made a name for himself with his open-top Colt 1849 Pocket, 1851 Navy, and 1860 Army revolvers. The 1860 Colt Army model was the most produced handgun of the American Civil War, but the Remington took a solid second place.
Like the Colt, the Remington New Model Army is a six-shot .44 caliber percussion revolver. But it has a solid frame as well as rear notch and front blade sights that made it thoroughly modern then, as it would appeal to us now. It also has a captive cylinder pin, which allowed the cylinder to be removed for easy cleaning.
Uberti and Pietta of Italy make a plethora of Colt and Remington percussion revolvers. If you are so inclined to make smoke with loose components, the Uberti Remington New Model Army (incorrectly referred to as the 1858 Remington) is the best first buy.
The Remington has more modern sights that are easier to pick up. Thanks to modern CNC machining, the same quick-disassembly feature of the Remington can be utilized for rapid reloads by purchasing spare cylinders. The Remington’s solid frame is a benefit to the new powderhead when it comes to reliability. Colt clones tend to suck spent caps off the cylinder and into the exposed hammer-slot, leading to misfires or jamming the action. The out-of-box solution is to buy a Remington. The solid frame prevents caps from stopping the action. On the other hand, black powder fouling collects in the frame and on the cylinder pin more readily than an open Colt. After 18-24 rounds of firing, a quick wipe of the pin and the inside of the frame is needed to keep going.
Both Uberti and Pietta guns are serviceable, but I always found Uberti’s quality to be a cut above. Uberti’s fit and finish is better and the firm hides its branding under the loading lever. Likewise, the front sight is dovetailed and moveable, unlike the Pietta model. Whether you are new to black powder or a longtime powder head, a Uberti Remmy belongs in the safe.
More Reliable than Colt clones
Closed Frame Invites Residue
Looking for more information? Check out Travis Pike’s picks for best single action revolver.