The History of Revolvers and Pistols

Ep. 5 – Educational Video Series

The History of Revolvers and Pistols

Chris dives deeper into the design, functionality, and historical context of two popular firearms, the revolver and the self-loading pistol. Revolvers made a name for themselves because they held multiple rounds and offered the user simple, fast and reliable operation, highly prized qualities for everyone, but especially the ranchers, lawmen and outlaws of America’s Wild West. At the beginning of the 20th century, John Moses Browning designed a new service firearm for the US Army, the Model of 1911. This self-loading pistol and its updated version, the M1911A1, were the most widely used service pistols in the US Army serving alongside our men and women in arms faithfully through all the major conflicts of the 20th century. Click the link to watch the episode on “The History of Revolvers and Pistols.”

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Hi, I’m Chris, Firearms Instructor, Chief Range Safety Officer and Marine Corps Veteran with Mission94 Firearms Education Center. We’ve already taken a look at the evolution of gunpowder and seen some examples of firing systems in previous episodes. Today, we’ll explore the design, functionality, and historical context of revolvers and self-loading pistols.


Are you a fan of the many Westerns of Clint Eastwood? Then you’ve definitely seen a revolver. A revolver is a repeating handgun that uses a revolving cylinder containing multiple chambers. Each chamber holds a single cartridge for firing. The rotating cylinder allowed the shooter a unique advantage over single shot firearms. They held multiple rounds of ammunition allowing the shooter to fire multiple rounds before the need to reload. This design allows for reliable, fast, and simple operation. 

Revolvers come in two primary operating mechanisms: single-action, where the hammer is manually cocked for each shot, and double-action, where a single pull of the trigger cocks the hammer and releases it. In 1836, Samuel Colt patented a revolver that used a ratchet and pawl system to rotate the cylinder and cock the hammer. His useful designs and superior salesmanship led to Colt’s widespread use. In 1873, the Colt Manufacturing Co. released the Colt .45 and the Colt Model of 1873 Single Action Army. Originally designed for the US Army, this model fired 6 cartridges and was offered in over 30 different calibers and various barrel lengths. The Single Action Army’s reliability and ease of use extended its popularity from the military to the ranchers, lawmen and outlaws of the Wild West. It featured prominently in the history and lore of the Wild West and was said to be used by the Earp Brothers and Doc Holliday during the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. One of the largest and most famous Colt retailers of the 1800s, Kittridge and Co. Of Cincinatti Ohio, attached the well-known nickname “Peacemaker” via its effective marketing efforts.


As we’ve said before, “Necessity is the mother of invention”. During the late 19th and early 20th century, warfare evolved quickly and the need for a more powerful firearm emerged. In 1906, following the Moro Rebellion, the US Army authorized testing for a new service pistol. John Moses Browning, a revolutionary firearms designer stepped up to the challenge. After years of design, testing, redesign and further testing, the resulting firearm was formally adopted by the Army on March 29, 1911. It was called the Model of 1911 or the M1911. Using a self-loading technology which had been available since the 1890’s, the M1911 features a magazine-fed design and recoil-operated firing mechanism.

When fired, some of the recoil energy is used to eject the spent cartridge, chamber a new round, and re-cock the hammer for the next shot. This innovative design allows for more rounds to be fired in a shorter time frame, and quick reloading, providing advantages in various situations. The M1911 and the updated M1911A1 were the primary service pistols of the US Army from 1911 to 1985 and saw action in all the major conflicts of the 20th century including both World Wars. Although officially replaced in the mid 80s, some special forces units continued to use modern versions of the M1911A1 until June of 2023.

Both revolvers and self-loading pistols have had a significant impact on the world of firearms. From law enforcement, military, and personal defense applications there have been a wide variety of firearm developments and styles available. The ongoing advancements in manufacturing continue to enhance reliability, safety, accuracy and performance, ensuring they remain vital tools for personal defense military applications, and law enforcement in the modern era.

Join us next time as we look at shotguns and see where the phrase, “Riding Shotgun” originated.

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