Can Revolvers Fail? By: Jim Davis

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It’s widely accepted that revolvers always work, no matter what. Is that really true, thought? Can the much-vaunted wheel gun ever sputter and grind to a halt? Follow along and find out the truth.

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S&W 642
They never fail! Or do they? The author’s preferred carry revolver, the S&W 642.

The Old Standby Revolver

For the most part, revolvers are pretty damned reliable, and that’s a fact. They have a legendary reputation for reliability for a reason.

One major factor is that, unlike auto pistols that rely on the energy of the bullet to work the slide, revolvers simply hold the ammunition in the cylinder until it goes bang. There’s no slide to work. Consequently, underpowered bullets work just fine in a revolver, assuming the projectile exits the barrel. Revolvers are versatile, too, in that they can fire snake shot, target loads, self-defense loads, and in many cases (as long as they’re rated for it) Magnum loads.

Revolvers have a long and storied history in the United States. They helped win the West, participated in the Civil War (and many others), and were a staple in law enforcement until the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Cops with revolvers.
Revolvers were the mainstay of law enforcement for decades, with many agencies using them well into the 1990s. Some agencies still issue them!

As a matter of fact, the old law enforcement agency that I worked for still issues revolvers to this day!

During my career, I fired tens of thousands of rounds through revolvers and never experienced even one stoppage or malfunction. Come to think of it, at our range, such occurrences were very rare indeed. We were armed with Smith & Wesson .38 Special revolvers. They were very accurate and they really did work well.

Revolver Malfunctions and Failures

So why are we looking today at what can go wrong with revolvers? Because I believe too many people believe that there is no way that a revolver can break down. I believe that because I’ve had a large number of people tell me that very thing. And while it’s unlikely, it does actually happen. Revolvers are not infallible.

Diagram of a revolver.
Revolvers are machines that have quite a few moving parts. Photo: Mechanical Engineering.

Below, we’ll examine a few maladies that can occur with revolvers.

Excess Powder Charge

Many people handload their rounds, and some like to kick things up a notch by loading hot rounds. I personally witnessed a man blow out the cylinder of his revolver (a .45 Long Colt) at a private range. He admitted that he apparently put extra powder into the given round that he had unwittingly handloaded. I couldn’t tell you if that’s true or not.

A revolver that exploded.
Sometimes revolvers explode. Normally, this is caused by an excessive powder charge. Shown here is a heavy caliber revolver that was apparently pushed far beyond its limitations. (Photo: Wide Open Spaces)

What I can tell you is that the side of the cylinder exploded, peeling the cylinder out like a banana peel. As a matter of fact, at least one chunk of metal flew past my head like a grenade fragment at high velocity. I said a prayer of thanks that it did not impact the side of my head. While I have a thick head, I’m not sure I’d have made out very well in that deal.

A blown-out revolver cylinder.
Another example of a catastrophic failure. (Photo: The Firearm Blog)

Bullet Creep

I’m not sure there’s a technically official word for this, but some call it “Bullet Creep” or “Bullet Jump.” In the event a bullet (normally a handloaded bullet) is not properly crimped, the recoil can cause the projectile to creep forward, out of the casing.

Cylinder gap.
Here is the gap between the cylinder and the forcing cone of the barrel. If a bullet moves forward in the case, it can bind up the revolver’s action and even make it difficult to open the cylinder.

This often occurs when firing powerful rounds such as Magnums. The extreme recoil can cause those rounds to move out, which can then bind up the cylinder, not allowing it to rotate. The bullet may protrude just enough to exceed the barrel/cylinder gap and catch on the barrel’s forcing cone. To make matters worse, it can also interfere with your ability to open the cylinder (depending on which way your cylinder rotates). In short, this phenomenon can completely lock up your revolver!

This is why I recommend that people use factory ammunition for self-defense applications. Not that it can’t happen with factory rounds, but it’s more common with handloads. And this is another reason why it’s always a good idea to carefully inspect each round that you’ll be carrying for self-defense.

Cartridges loaded in S&W revolver cylinder.
Quality factory ammunition is probably best for reliability in revolvers.

Out of Tune Cylinder

An out-of-tune, or out-of-time cylinder is simply one that is slightly off on its synchronization. It’s not correctly lined up where it should be. One indicator of this is pieces of the projectile being shaved off when the bullet enters the barrel because it is not correctly lined up. Pieces of that bullet sometimes fly out of the cylinder and can hit bystanders (I’ve experienced this a number of times and is one of the reasons why eye protection needs to be worn on the range). Aside from shavings flying out of the action, an out-of-time cylinder can shut the revolver down.

Revolver forcing cone.
A view of the Forcing Cone, which is sort of the base of the barrel. If the cylinder is out of timing, pieces of bullets can be shaved off by the forcing cone and fly out of the side of the action.

If you experience this, it’s time to get the gun to a gunsmith or back to the factory. Sometimes guns come like this from the factory, or they can experience parts wear that causes them to become out of time.

The internals of a revolver.
Revolvers can be somewhat complex, as seen here in this Colt revolver. (Photo: Pin On Taxonomias (Pinterest))

Loose Extractor Rod

Because of recoil, the extractor rod can sometimes loosen (it can back out or unscrew), which causes the rod to bind. In short, your cylinder will not swing out because the protruding rod won’t allow it.

Extractor rod.
Make certain to check your extractor rod from time to time. Should it become loose, it can create havoc.

It’s a good idea to check your extractor rod often to make sure it’s not loosening up. Be sure to hand tighten it if that is the case (do not crank down on it with pliers).

Short Or Partial Cycling

This is when the trigger is being pulled, but is not pulled completely, firing the revolver. Pressure is released before the hammer falls. This can cause the gear inside to fall between the position it needs to be in order to cycle. In short, it screws up the action of the revolver.

It’s important that, once you decide to fire, you complete the firing sequence.

If this situation occurs, it can usually be rectified by simply rotating the cylinder until it clicks into the next notch, and you are good to go. Another fix is to press the cylinder release, opening and closing the cylinder.

Parts Breakage

Being the machines that they are, revolvers sometimes suffer parts breakage. Aside from a number of internal parts, there are also springs inside the handgun. If one of them breaks, your revolver likely will not be able to fire.

Firing pins can break, as can trigger return springs and main springs.

If the cylinder latch spring breaks or becomes weak, it can cause the latch to fail to seat into the notch in the cylinder, which means the cylinder will not lock into place.

Some of my friends work on their own guns and routinely fix them. As for me, I’d head to the gunsmith for such a tragedy, as I do not trust myself to fix a weapon that I want to depend on with my life.

Fouled Extractor Star

The job of this piece of gear is to extract the rounds from the cylinder when you don’t want them in there any longer. They might be spent rounds, or simply rounds that are live and you want them out.

revolver extractor star
Keep the extractor star and the recess underneath it clean. Debris underneath the star can bind up the action on your revolver.

If the extractor star is dirty (sometimes unburned powder gets under it) or a piece of something gets underneath, it may protrude, which can interfere with your ability to close the cylinder. It can also keep the rounds from properly seating in the chambers of the cylinder. Again, this makes it difficult or impossible to close the cylinder.

revolver cylinder opened, with center pin visible
That little nub that’s protruding in the center of the star is the Center Pin. It keeps things in line and secures the cylinder in place when closed.
Center Pin Channel, Firing Pin Channel.
The center pin rests in the small recess that is in line with the cylinder release. Above it is the firing pin channel.

The solution: Keep it clean! And use quality ammo that shoots cleanly. If the cylinder is bound up, a few taps from a rubber mallet might do the trick to get it open. If live ammunition is in there, you’ll want to be extra cautious! Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. If you have any doubt whatsoever, get that revolver to a qualified gunsmith immediately.

Failure To Extract

What?! But that only happens with auto pistols! Sorry, that is incorrect—it can also happen with revolvers. The extractor star might jump over the round in the cylinder, and you’re left with a round underneath that star and still very much in the chamber of your cylinder.

A stuck casing.
A round stuck underneath the extractor star can be a challenge to remove, often requiring a rod to push the casing out. (Photo: American Handgunner)

In such an event, you may need a rod to push through the front of the cylinder to extract that case. In some instances, you may be able to get something under the rim of the cartridge to pry the casing out. Either way, it sucks.

Speer Gold Dot +P .38 Special rounds.
Aside from keeping your revolver clean, another key to success is to use high-quality ammunition. Here, for example, is Speer Gold Dot +P .38 Special ammunition.

Overall

For the most part, revolvers work very well and reliably. When they do have an issue, though, it’s normally catastrophic and requires the services of a competent gunsmith.

The good news is that a maintained and cleaned revolver will usually be extremely reliable.

As mentioned, my agency has used them since before I began working there in 1990 and is still using them (Smith & Wesson models). I saw very, very few issues with revolvers on the range, and we put some major rounds through those guns over the decades.

Malloy and Reed from Adam-12.
Officers Malloy and Reed from Adam-12 fame used revolvers quite effectively, thank you very much! (Photo: The Los Angeles Times)

Are revolvers more reliable than auto pistols? In my experience, yes. But don’t be misled. You can’t dunk a revolver in a vat of mud and then expect it to function perfectly. There are limits to their reliability and durability.

Treat the revolver well and it will treat you well most of the time. And that’s about all we can ask for, isn’t it?

What’s your experience in this realm? Comment and let us know your thoughts!