Handguns > Revolver

How to Load a Single-Action Revolver

Use this sure-fire way to ensure you always lower the hammer on an empty chamber.


I must have been about 7 years old when a friend invited me to spend a weekend with his family in the hills on their property. For a 7-year-old boy this was going to be quite an adventure. We spent the time fishing, hunting and shooting. There were several memorable events for me during that exciting weekend more than five decades ago. And although my memory gets fuzzy about a lot of things, that weekend and the experiences with real guns remain as clear as a mountain creek.

Standing out among those recollections was that as soon as we got there, my buddy’s dad strapped on a great big ol’ six-gun. To me it looked just like the one Matt Dillon used every week on “Gunsmoke.” It had a long barrel, a beautiful and wickedly curved hammer, and the grips were white with dark stripes (I know now they were stag, or at least faux stag). The cartridges in the loops on his belt were bigger than my thumb at the time. Withdrawing the revolver from the holster, he motioned his son and me to come to him. “Here’s the first thing you should know about a handgun,” he said as he inched a couple of cartridges from the loops on the gun belt. “Always carry it with the hammer down on an empty chamber.” He then loaded five rounds, cocked it and then carefully lowered the hammer and re-holstered the revolver without looking at it and slipped the leather thong over the hammer. “That way,” he concluded, “you won’t shoot yourself in the foot.”

Fast forward a half century. Many of today’s younger shooters have never shot a revolver of any kind. Their shooting world has been dominated with double-action and striker-fired semi-autos that safely allow a live round to be carried under the firing pin or hammer. We have several of these enthusiastic shooters among our 3-gun club where I live. A few of them showed up last year at a cowboy action shoot, just to see what a bunch of old guys with old guns had to get excited about. Giving them the same explanation as to why one loads five rounds in a single-action revolver, we let them have at it.

One of the first young men proceeded to load five .45 Colt cartridges into a revolver, then turn the muzzle toward his face and look for the empty chamber in order to align it with the barrel. This—as you may have guessed—precipitated a fair amount of concern among the group. I grabbed the barrel and quickly turned it up, “Here, let me show you something,” I said firmly. I took the revolver and emptied the cylinder of cartridges back into my hand. “Here is a guaranteed infallible way to safely load a single-action revolver.”

I pulled the hammer back to half-cock and opened the loading gate. Simultaneously loading and talking in order to emphasize what I was doing, I said, “Load the first chamber, skip one chamber, and load the remaining four. This part is important: Pull the hammer back to full-cock, and lower it on the empty chamber.” It took but a couple of times for these otherwise savvy gunners to get the hang of loading “five beans in the wheel.”

Some modern single actions have been designed to be safely carried with the hammer down over a loaded chamber—notably the post-1973 Rugers—but in cowboy action shooting the hammer must be on an empty chamber regardless of whether the particular revolver is safe to carry with a full boat. This technique—load one, skip one, load the remaining chambers and come to full cock, then lower the hammer on an empty chamber—will work for any single-action revolver, regardless if it is a five-, six- or eight- or nine-shot cylinder.

If you have any doubt as to whether a particular single-action revolver is safe to carry with all chambers loaded, here is a simple examination. Ensuring that the gun is empty, hold the gun up with the muzzle pointed in a safe direction and carefully look at the gap between the breech-face of the revolver frame and the cylinder. If you see the firing pin protruding from the breech-face, either on its own or when you apply thumb pressure on the hammer without holding down the trigger, carry it with an empty chamber under the hammer.

Share |



Enter your comments below, they will appear within 24 hours

Your Name

Your Email

Your Comment

14 Responses to How to Load a Single-Action Revolver

j. palmer wrote:
July 26, 2011

another technique was common on cap and ball revolvers: load all 6, then drop the hammer/firing pin between cylinders. it works on cartridge revolvers, too.

John P. wrote:
June 17, 2011

Excuse mr Rufus, you are wrong about the transfer bar. Although many cowboys had a built in distrust of the new fangled DA revolver, I cannot see any of the old west gunmen not loving the ability to have an extra round in the chamber with the safety of a transfer bar.

Rufus Cogburn wrote:
April 29, 2011

Passing the buck is actually an old 18th century card playing term. The "buck" type knife always layed in front of the dealer. As you would pass the buck to the next one to deal. As far as a transfer bar goes, yes, you can safely carry one under the hammer. But, no real cowboy has such a thing.

Stan wrote:
April 27, 2011

Okay, RAE says if you DO NOT rotate the cylinder backwards against its stop, you'll get a round under the hammer. I suspect he meant to say if you (do) rotate the cylinder back against the stop, that is when you will get a round under the hammer. With load one, skip one, load four, the gate must be closed on the last round, then rotated forward to get an empty chamber under the hammer. Regardless, looking to see if there's a space at the top of the cylinder is a good safety "check".

republic4u wrote:
April 27, 2011

The instructions are great, and the comments are golden!

Marshall Burp wrote:
April 27, 2011

I was told the "buck" in the 2nd spot was to bury the fellow if he was killed.

Joe Di Benedetto wrote:
April 27, 2011

During the days of the single action revolver the empty chanb er ws filled with a $20.00 dollar bill and was called "Burying Money. Therefore the sixth chamber could never be filled with ammunition

Griff wrote:
April 27, 2011

RAE, The method works equally with the Vaquero, either the OM or the NM... as their action is the same as the post 1973 Ruger SA, just cosmetically changed to resemble the Colt.

Steve C wrote:
April 27, 2011

Good information, I was given a Colt .32 police special that belonged to my wife's grandfather. It was still loaded as described in the article when we found it among his belongings after his death. Thankfully I knew why it was loaded that way. It was good to know that grandpa knew how to safely load this old wheel gun. He carried it as part of his civil defense duties in WWII. I think the corroded rounds in the cylinder were from that era. The weapon has since been thoroughly cleaned, oiled and reloaded for home protection. Just as grandpa would have liked it.

Leroy Sundquist wrote:
April 27, 2011

Surely a TRANSFER BAR has consideration in this scheme of things.

Don Brand wrote:
April 27, 2011

It works equally well on the new model Rugers. Open the gate, load one, skip one, load 4 and cock and lower the hammer. The empty cylinder will be under the hammer.

Kerry O'Day wrote:
April 27, 2011

This loading technique is where the term "Pass the buck" came from. The cowboy would roll up a $1, $100 bill and put it in one of the chambers. He then loaded a cartridge, "Passed the buck" and loaded the remaing 4 rounds.

RAE wrote:
April 27, 2011

This process works for revolvers that have to be in a half cock position. To load a New Model Vaquero you just open the loading gate and insert the cartridges and then close the gate. If you do not hold the cylinder and rotate it backwards against its stop you will end up with a round under the hammer. At a SASS event we have a "Loading Table Officer" who checks to make sure the empty chamber is under the hammer. Looking through the gap between the cylinder and the frame you can see the rim of the cartridge. You just have to make sure you do not see one in the top position.

CJ wrote:
April 27, 2011

Very nice and simple explanation. Thanks.