The handling of any firearm, and especially any traditional single action sixgun should not be approached lightly. From 1836 to 1973, except for a few models of percussion revolvers offering a notch between cylinder chambers to accept the lowered hammer, all single action sixguns were actually five-shooters as safety required the hammer to be lowered on an empty chamber for carrying. Those foolish enough to carry six rounds with the hammer down on a cap or primer could easily wind up shooting themselves or someone else if the hammer was struck by a heavy object, such as a stirrup thrown over the saddle while tightening the cinch or dropping the sixgun. Ruger introduced the transfer safety bar with the New Model Blackhawk in 1973 which made single actions so equipped safe to carry fully loaded. All traditional single actions such as Colt, USFA, Great Western Italian replicas, and Rugers made prior to 1973 MUST be carried with the hammer down on an empty chamber.
We now agree the proper way to carry a loaded traditional single action six-shooter is with one empty chamber under the hammer, but how do we do it safely. Many time I have seen a shooter load five rounds and then look down the front of the cylinder to find the empty chamber. Looking down the front end of loaded sixgun in someone else's hands or my own, is not something I care to do. To properly and safely load a traditional single action, open the loading gate, pull the hammer back to the half cock notch, load one round, rotate the cylinder skipping the next chamber, and then load four more cartridges. The cylinder now contains five loaded and one empty chamber. The next step is to safely rotate the cylinder so that the empty is under the hammer. If the load one-skip one-load four has been done correctly, to accomplish this, one then simply pulls the hammer back to the full cock notch and then carefully lowers it while releasing the trigger. The hammer will be resting on an empty chamber.
This should be practiced diligently with DUMMY cartridges until it can be accomplished perfectly. If one is not a reloader nor has access to dummy cartridges it should not be very difficult to find a reloader that can provide five dummy cartridges. Note the hammer is never let down from the half cock notch but is brought back to the full cock notch before lowering. One of the best ways to lock up any traditional single action is to lower the hammer from the half cock. The internal parts will not be in the right place and the single action revolver will sometimes lock up when this is done.
To unload a single action I have found, after the loading gate is opened and the hammer is brought back to the half cock notch, placing the sixgun in my left hand cradles the tip of the hammer and the backstrap, and then with my right-hand I work the ejector rod with the barrel pointed downrange and slightly upwards. This drops all of the empties into my cradled left hand.
How one holds a single action is quite subjective as everyone's hands are not the same size and shape. I've tried several different ways with the traditional single action revolver with a Colt-style grip, including all generations of the Colt Single Action Army, all replicas thereof, and Ruger Blackhawks. The grip working best for me is two fingers wrapped around the grip, the little finger under the butt, and the thumb curled around so it makes contact with the middle finger. When using this style of grip it is absolutely necessary to not allow the little finger to contact a hard surface or a sharp pain and tears in the eyes will result. When shooting with two hands, I simply bring the left hand over and form a cup for the last three fingers of my shooting hand. Some shooters prefer placing the index finger of the offhand in front of the trigger guard, however, I have found using all fingers in the the cupping method works best for me. When shooting follow through is very important. As the gun is fired one continues to press the trigger rearward while maintaining a rock steady grip. The easiest way to practice this is to have someone else load the revolver with three or four live rounds and one or two dummy cartridges so the shooter does not know when the hammer will drop on a live round. Any movement at all when a dummy round is encountered calls for increased practice and concentration.
The safest handguns to draw from leather are a double action sixgun or a semi-auto with the safety on. A single action can be just as safe but first we must forget everything we have ever seen in the movies. In fact that goes for handling any firearm as they are routinely handled unsafely on TV and in the movies. If it wasn’t so dangerous what they do would be almost laughable. What works with blanks and movie cameras not only does not work in real-life, it is absolutely dangerous. A single action revolver MUST NEVER BE COCKED IN THE HOLSTER! The proper method is to grasp the butt with the normal shooting grip, trigger finger alongside the trigger guard, and the thumb on the hammer. Once the revolver is pointed at that which is to be shot, then, and only then, is the hammer to be cocked and the trigger finger placed upon the trigger.
Most fixed-sighted single action sixguns are made with high front sights designed to be dialed in by each individual shooter with the use of a file. If a sixgun shoots low but is on for windage it is necessary to lower the front sight to raise the impact of the bullet on target. To bring the point of impact up, the the top of the front sight is filed until the bullet strikes exactly where desired. Several cautions here, first wrap the sixgun with tape just in case the file slips and hits the barrel. Murphy’s Law will certainly kick in if the barrel is not taped. Every file stroke is most important as it takes very little metal removed from the top of the front sight to change the impact of the bullet on target drastically. Ruger steel is much harder than Italian steel, which removes very quickly. It is also necessary to choose the load that will be used with each particular sixgun and file the front sight for that load. With care and by moving slowly, the top of the front sight can be filed parallel to the barrel.
Another caution is necessary here. If the sixgun is shot from a rest using two hands for sighting in, and then in actual use, fired from a standing position using one hand, chances are very good that the point of impact will be different. For myself, the point of impact is higher from a standing one-handed position. The stance that will be used for most shooting should also be used as the front sight is filed in.
If the sixgun in question shoots to the right or left I do not recommend attempting to bend the front sight as it can result in a front sight being removed from the barrel. The best way is to seek the services of a gunsmith with the proper barrel vise to turn the barrel. A gun that shoots left, needs the front sight moved the opposite of the direction that one would move the rear sight to change point of impact. This means the barrel is turned to the left to move point of impact of a sixgun that shoots left to center. For most sixguns the barrel is simply turned in tighter to move the impact and loosened slightly if the sixgun shoots to the right.
Better gunsmiths are set up with a barrel vise that will not scratch the surface of the barrel. I have had numerous barrels turned by the gunsmiths at our local gunshop, Shapel's, with excellent results. I carefully shoot a target and take it into the gunsmith and he proceeds accordingly. A sixgun that is off as to both windage and elevation should be adjusted for windage first as turning the barrel for windage will also effect elevation. If the change needed is minor, say one-inch right or left, or a couple of inches up and down, it may be possible, with a little experimentation with bullets, powder types, and charges, to move the point of impact enough to bring the sixgun to point-of-aim impact. I have been able to do this with several sixguns with very little time and trouble. Generally, to lower the point-of-impact use a lighter or faster bullet or both; to raise the point of impact use heavier bullets, or slower velocities, or both. Differences in powder and velocity will often move the impact right or left.
Most single actions are assembled not tuned so they may be slightly out of time. This results in significant travel is found when cocking the hammer, which continues to move backwards after the locking bolt has found its place in the locking notch on the cylinder; or the opposite scenario in which the hammer has reached the full-length of its travel before the cylinder locks up. In either case, an expert in tuning single actions should be consulted. There are many excellent single action sixgunsmiths out there. Any of the custom sixgunsmiths mentioned in this book can make a single action literally sit up and sing. Their work is absolutely A+. They are the ones to call on when serious problems exist or one simply desires a super smooth action and specific trigger pull.
There are a few simple things that I am able to accomplish myself and if I can do it, anyone can. Many mainsprings are heavier than they need to be. The simple solution on a Ruger is to cut a coil or two from the mainspring. To do this, consult a Ruger Manual on how to disassemble the revolver and follow the directions for captivating the mainspring. It can then be carefully removed from the strut and shortened no more than one coil at a time. With Colt style revolvers I have been padding the mainspring since 1957. Some gunsmiths say this is perfectly OK and others will tell you never to do it. However, it works for me. The three screws fastening the back strap to the mainframe are removed, the mainspring screw is removed, and a rubber or leather washer is placed under the mainspring and the spring replaced. This will lighten the hammer pull significantly. However, for handgun used for hunting I prefer a full power factory, or even heavier mainspring. The last thing I want is to have a mad hog coming at me and I’m holding a sixgun that won’t fire!
Several companies also now offer lighter mainsprings and bolt springs for Colt and Colt-style single actions. Be careful when using lightened springs as they may throw off the geometry of the action. Smoothing is better than light springs. Brownell's catalog offers several of these all of which are very easy to install, and Brownell's also has a stoning kit for smoothing up the inside surfaces in the frame. This also works very easily. Unless one is an expert, the trigger/hammer engagement services should not be touched.
Cylinders from single actions do not always fit the base pin correctly exhibiting a lot of play This is an easy fix thanks to Belt Mountain Enterprises. This outfit specializes in slightly oversize base pins of several styles including larger knurled heads and also those styled after the base pin found on both Elmer Keith’s famous #5SAA as well as the Texas Longhorn Arms Improved #5. Not only do these pins provide a tighter cylinder fit, many of them also have a locking screw to keep them in place under recoil.
There are several must tools for anyone to have to do any basic work or even cleaning of a single action sixgun. Base pins can be very stubborn when one tries to remove them. Brownell’s also has a base pin puller with a small lever that fits into the notch on the head of the base pin giving the necessary leverage to remove it easily. While the base pin is out I prefer to grease the pin with something like Tetra Gun Grease, Rig, or Gunslick, whichever happens to be on the bench at the time, and also place a spot of grease at the front and rear contact points on the cylinder itself. This not only aids functioning it also provides for longer life for these parts. Brownell's also has two special screwdriver offerings for single action users. Both of these have removable tips of the proper size and number to fit all the screws on either a Colt Single Action or a Ruger Blackhawk. Buggered up screw heads are the mark of a rank amateur. These special screwdriver kits have the proper tips to fit all single action screws correctly and keep screw heads in factory new shape.
A good single action sixgun properly handled will always be safe and not only last a lifetime, but can be handed down to several generations. If a single action sixgun is chosen for self-defense use there are other considerations, which we look at in the next chapter.