Inspecting Wheel Guns

By Andy Allinder


Thought I’d share a few thoughts on wheel gun quality for the discerning shopper. I am extremely frugal when it comes to handgun purchases. I want every dollar spent to be represented by quality. I do not collect fancy museum pieces. I am mainly concerned with strength, reliability and value.

All revolvers are not created equal. Aside form the differences in caliber, capacity, action type and barrel length; it is the quality of design, materials, construction, fit and finish that sets different manufacturers apart. The way a revolver’s quality is measured is what I wish to convey here. Some things to consider while shopping for a new or used wheel gun are as follows.

Internal safeties

The invention of the "safety" hammer block action by Colt and S&W for double action revolvers may very well be one of the most significant design improvements ever applied to modern firearms. This was followed much later by the transfer bar system introduced by Ruger for both single and double action revolvers. A transfer bar makes an unintended discharge all but impossible and does not negatively affect the function or reliability of a revolver in any way. My hat is off to Bill Ruger for coming up with this nifty idea and to the other competitors out there smart enough to adopt it in their own offerings.

The only “safety” that I would recommend against is the internal hammer lock found on some Taurus models. This invention is, no doubt, offered as a way to appease the anti-gun lawyers so prevalent today. This internal lock uses a plastic hex key to lock the hammer shut. The key is very small, hard to use and prone to misplacement. The internal lock tang also consistently sticks when the gun becomes hot and renders the revolver useless until it cools down. Not desirable in a self-defense situation. (Or any other! -Ed.) The Taurus I had with this feature was sold as soon as I found this out. It is much better to buy an external lock to be safety compliant.

Cylinder

The cylinder and crane are often overlooked when inspecting a revolver. The cylinder should have cleanly machined lock detents and should rotate on its pivot shaft with no binding, even when being twisted laterally. The crane should also have very little lateral movement with a very tight fit to the frame when in the closed position. When inspecting a revolver for purchase it is best to be very critical of these areas. When the cylinder is closed, the first detent should catch with authority while rotated against the bolt (bottom lock). It should never move past this point. When the cylinder is locked into the frame, there should be very little cylinder play. The gap between the front of the cylinder and the forcing cone should be very small and should remain the same when the cylinder is rotated 360-degrees. Accuracy and power can be affected by a sloppy forcing cone/cylinder relationship. It is also quite possible to be pelted about the face and hands by shreds of copper jacket, bullet lead, or powder grains with a sloppy set up; a good reason to wear eye protection when shooting. Trust me, it’s kinda hard to explain these little burns to the wife.

The ejector, whether on a double or single action revolver, should operate with adequate spring tension without binding. If it does bind, it will probably get worse as the gun heats from continued firing. Cartridges should slide in and out of the cylinder with very little effort. The ejector shouldn’t have to be used to remove unfired factory loaded ammunition from a clean cylinder. If unfired factory ammo cannot be “dumped” out of a clean cylinder, you will more than likely have a hard time extracting fired cases. A cartridge should never protrude past the end of the cylinder. (This should not be an issue with factory loaded ammunition.) A bound-up cylinder is very hard to operate. The unfired rounds should have a little (not a lot!) front to back movement if shaken in a closed cylinder. All the more reason never to exceed the SAAMI specified cartridge overall length if you reload.

Cylinder latch

Another commonly overlooked item on double action revolvers. The release button should be tight, but not too tight. It should be easily operated by the thumb of a right-handed shooter's firing hand while keeping a positive purchase on the grip. Any slop is a bad sign. While manipulating the release the cylinder should open easily with applied pressure from the index finger of the firing hand. Opening the cylinder should be one smooth movement.

Frame screws

Check your frame screws after a range session. Magnum rounds will usually loosen frame screws over time. When this happens, remove the screws one at a time, clean, inspect the threads, and reinstall with a small amount of blue or green liquid thread locker. Green is probably better for this and blue is slightly stronger. NEVER use red. Make sure you use the correct size, hollow ground driver for your particular fastener. If you do not own a set of "gunsmith" screwdrivers, now is the time to purchase one. Most frame screws are the slotted type and can easily be deformed when using a poor fitting driver. This is unsightly and degrades the value of the gun. A screwdriver with interchangeable bits is probably the least expensive way to go these days. Most bit sets come with many different sizes and an individual bit can easily be replaced if worn or broken. It is also less cumbersome to take a single driver and a set of bits, which are typically sold as a cased set, rather than a bunch of individual drivers to the range.

Top strap

Make sure that the gun you choose has some heft to the frame's top strap. Small cracks may be very hard to see on used guns, especially just above the forcing cone. If it is not clean enough to inspect, do not buy it. Make sure to detail this area while cleaning and make sure you have no serious gas cutting or erosion. (Magnum revolvers typically show slight erosion here; as long as it is minor it's okay.) Another reason for a tight forcing cone gap.

I won’t go too far into sights. Get what you like for a hunting gun, but make sure that they are fully adjustable. I like optical sights, because I would rather look at what’s threatening me than the hardware on my pistol. Lasers are even better. (Lasers are good at night, but practically worthless outdoors in the daytime. -Ed.)

A quality revolver can be a lifesaver and fun to shoot. If you do not have a reliable wheel gun, I suggest you consider a purchase. They are a wonderful addition to any firearms collection. Remember: God made Man, but Sam Colt made ‘em equal.




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Copyright 2009 by Andy Allinder. All rights reserved.



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