Revolvers were an amazing advance in technology when they first appeared. Of course, the standard at the time was single shot firearms. Most people interested in portable self defense tools would carry two so they would have access to a follow up shot.
Revolvers must have seemed like they were spat out of a time machine that just visited the far future. Six shots instead of one! How amazing!
Such high regard was not to last. As anyone witnessing the rapid pace of innovation and invention that the 20th and 21st Centuries have brought can attest, the miraculous and liberating very quickly becomes the boring and confining.
And so it was with revolvers. Six shots? Not enough!
Oh, there are revolvers which offer more than the traditional six. The vast majority are chambered for .22 caliber cartridges, ammunition that is considered to be too small and weak to be used as an effective self defense tool.
Adding to this woe is the fact that the best selling revolvers for concealed carry are built on what is known as a “J frame“, a slightly miniaturized version of the traditional handgun. The gun may get smaller, lighter, and more easy to conceal, but it also only leaves room for five shots instead of six.
Revolver fans have chafed at this restriction for more than a century, frustrated by the iron rule of six-then-empty. But is the rule made of iron? Have there been revolvers designed to be portable self defense tools, chambered for potent cartridges, that sported more than half a dozen chambers?
There have been a few, but not many. In fact, I can only think of four off the top of my head. If you are interested, follow me below the break and join me on a walk down Memory Lane. Click the name of the revolvers for a link to a webpage with more information.
Designed in 1856, this handgun was developed when someone asked “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if my handgun could be used as a shotgun?”
Looks like a perfectly ordinary cap-and-ball revolver, except for the really big tube under the barrel. What is that? It is a 20 gauge shotgun barrel, ready to pour a blast of buckshot into anyone unfortunate enough to get so close that a shotgun with a three inch barrel would actually manage to hit them.
The shotgun barrel was put in the center of the cylinder, where it takes the place of the axis. This means the cylinder was enlarged, making enough room for nine chambers instead of the traditional six.
This also meant that the gun was large, heavy, and rather unwieldy. None of these facts were seen as a major drawback, as the design was meant for the use of mounted cavalry instead of foot soldiers.
LeMat tried to equip Confederate cavalry with his revolver during the American Civil War, but far too few made their way into the hands of combatants to make much of a difference. Firearm technology advanced during that conflict, resulting in guns which used cartridges instead of relying on loading each cylinder with loose powder and bullet. LeMat tried to keep his design relevant by reworking it to make use of the new system, which resulted in a mighty strange looking gun.
It still had a 20 gauge shotgun barrel, still had space for nine shots, it just used cartridges instead of the cap-and-ball system.
But, although it employed the fancy new cartridge system, it was still not a successful design. Too big, too heavy, too unwieldy. Although I can certainly see the use for a 20 gauge shotgun if a criminal should venture to within touching distance, my goal is to never let them get that close. A revolver like the LeMat would make sense only in an extremely narrow and rare set of circumstances, and the risk is hardly great enough to warrant the bother of lugging this monster about.
Another handgun that was introduced just before the American Civil War, it was a cap-and-ball revolver that only had six chambers. So how did it fire twelve shots before running dry? Please note the two triggers in the picture below, and the two hammers pictured just below that.
The idea was that the chambers were very long, with room enough for two charges of powder and two bullets loaded back to front. The back of the chambers had two percussion caps, one to set off each powder charge in turn.
So two shots would be loaded, two hammers would be cocked, and the first of the two triggers would be pulled. One of the hammers would drop, setting off the percussion cap, and a tube would contain the spark so it would only set off the front powder charge. After the gun went bang, the second trigger would be pulled to set off the rear shot.
This was an amazingly clever system, but it proved to be far too finicky and unsafe to be relied on.
What happens if the front charge does not go off, due to a bad primer or wet powder? Better not pull the second trigger!
What happens if you pull the wrong trigger first, setting off the rear charge while the front of the chamber is still packed full? Better count your fingers and hope for the best!
I don’t know about you, but I think I would stick to six shots if it meant risking losing a hand through a simple mistake.
I have mentioned these clever guns here before, which consists of a 2-tier revolver and barrel system. It was manufactured by the Henrion, Dassy and Heuschen firm of Belgium in the late 19th Century, the firearms manufacturing company that held that nations monopoly on police firearms at the time.
Although the handguns intended for the police in Belgium of the time were all of traditional design, the HDH company decided to branch out into the military and civilian self defense market with a line of 12 and 20 shot revolvers. They employed a great deal of ingenuity in the product.
The cartridges were fired in turn by a dual firing pin system. Each pull of the trigger would fire only one shot at a time, with the emerging bullet alternating between the top and bottom barrels.
The twenty shot version was originally chambered for a proprietary .22 caliber round, which seemed a bit weak. A twelve shot version was offered that was chambered for a .32 caliber round, which upped the lethality level to something that was probably considered to be barely adequate at the time.
The HDH company marketed these guns under a variety of aggressive names which were intended to highlight their alleged destructive power. The Terrible and The Machine Gun are two which crop up most frequently, manly he-man macho monikers which supposedly invoke visions of sweeping all foes which have the bad judgement to stand before you. The big problem was the small calibers which the guns used, and the fact that they were rather heavy and unwieldy. Add in to that the high price that came with the precision engineering needed to manufacture the guns and we have something that very few people actually wanted to buy.
Originally introduced in 1980, this handgun may well be unique in that it is a popular selling revolver which holds more than six shots. As you can see by the picture below, it boasts seven chambers in the cylinder.
The Model 686 is chambered for the potent .357 Magnum cartridge, which enjoys a well deserved reputation as a self defense round. There is little doubt that it fills the role as a primary self defense tool very well indeed.
The design has been around for some time, and it is offered in a great many configurations in order to fill many roles.
I have fired this particular model extensively over the past three decades, but never owned one myself. Why would that be? They are somewhat more expensive than other designs, but that isn’t why I stayed away.
The main reason why I passed the 686 up is that the cylinder is machined to some really tight tolerances in order to be able to fit that extra chamber, and so the design is not at all friendly to reloads. Reloaded ammunition tends to be difficult to insert into the chambers, and they usually become stuck upon firing. Since I rely on reloads to keep the cost of my charity self defense course down, I decided that it would be too frustrating for me to bother.
So far as store bought factory ammunition from one of the big name manufacturers, I never noticed a problem. If you are rich enough to afford store bought all the time, then this design might be right for you.
Gun designers have tried to increase revolver firepower for more than one and a half centuries, but with extremely mixed results. It all seems rather a moot point considering how autoloaders often boast magazine counts far beyond that which revolvers can hold. But if you try hard enough, and you are willing to spend some extra money, then you can eventually find a revolver which has an extra cartridge or two.