A Complete Guide: Double-Action Revolvers for Defense

posted on June 28, 2021

The double-action revolver is always worthy of consideration when someone sets out to select a personal defense gun. They have been around for over 100 years and are about as reliable and accurate as a fellow would ever need. Still, we live in a time when the semi-autoloading pistol is in the forefront and many shooters, especially those new to the business, are not as familiar with the DA revolver as they should be. Here are a few things to keep in mind when considering the double-action revolver for personal defense.

Weight a Minute

While very lightweight revolvers have become popular within the past few years, this may not be the blessing they might first appear to be. Small handguns are easy to conceal, and that’s a good thing. However, the lighter the gun, the more difficult it is to shoot accurately.

In the suitable defensive calibers, the little guns tend to deliver some brutal recoil. And a shooter will simply not do their best work with a gun that hurts when fired. Given the fact that we are held responsible for every shot we fire in a deadly situation, accurate shooting is extremely important.

In my own case, I want a defensive handgun that is capable of making head shots at 25 yards and vital-zone shots at 50 yards. For me, that comes down to a medium-frame revolver with good sights. For that reason, one of my all-time favorite defensive handguns has been the Smith & Wesson Model 19, with the 2 1/2-inch barrel. While it is about twice the weight of the small five-shot revolvers, it is still comfortable to carry for long hours and, with some fore-thought, can be properly concealed.

Get a Grip

Once the shooter has settled upon a particular revolver, the next step is to get a set of stocks that fill that individual’s hand. There are certainly shooters who get along just fine with factory stocks and their shooting ability reflects this. However, most of us end up with some sort of custom revolver stocks on our favorite revolver. 

Fortunately there are quite a few companies making aftermarket stocks for the double action.  Those with large hands will do their best with thicker stocks that have an integral filler behind the trigger guard; while some even need a covered backstrap. Those with smaller hands would be wise to choose thinner stocks with the addition of a grip adapter to fill the area behind the trigger guard.

I wish that I could sit here behind my computer and tell each of you exactly what kind of revolver stocks to buy, but such is not the case. Most of us dedicated revolver shooters have a box in our gun room full of stocks that just weren’t quite what we wanted. [Editor's note: Testify!]

Fine Tuning

Another important step in adapting the DA revolver to personal use is to obtain the aid of a competent gunsmith. Just as with any handgun one might carry for personal defense, the revolver should be checked out thoroughly for reliability.

The gunsmith should check out the double-action revolver for proper timing, making sure that each chamber of the cylinder lines up perfectly with the bore. Even more important, the gunsmith should polish the revolver’s internal parts to make sure that they mesh together as smoothly as possible. I am not a big fan of weakening the various springs, but a good polish job will go a long way towards smoothing up the action and the double-action trigger pull.

It has been said that the double-action revolver is easy to shoot, but it is difficult to shoot well. Of course, that’s because of the double-action trigger pull. This long trigger pull can easily pull the gun off target if the shooter has not mastered the technique. There are two solutions to this. The first is getting the action job that I have already mentioned. 

The second is just lots of practice. And don’t overlook the value of dry practice. Dry practice, without the noise and recoil of using live ammunition, allows the shooter to concentrate on developing a smooth, continuous trigger pull that doesn’t disturb the sight picture. Nowadays, with the ammunition situation being what it is, I do far more dry practice than I do live firing.

Caliber Selection

The defensive revolver shooter really has it made when it comes to selecting a caliber for his revolver. Double-actions revolvers are available in everything from .22 LR right on up to .44 Mag. Both ends of that spectrum being a bit extreme, one can easily find a caliber, somewhere in the middle, that suits their needs. Unless one has health issues, it is probably a good idea to stay away from the various rimfire cartridges due to their lack of power. And the big-bore calibers may generate too much power to allow for accurate shooting. 

While I am intrigued by the .327 Fed. Mag. and have a good deal of respect for the .44 Sp. and .45 Colt, I have settled on the .38 Spl./.357 Mag. family for my own use. Ammunition is more readily available in a wide variety of power levels and bullet choices. The individual should make his selection based upon his ability to deliver fast, multiple hits accurately to the vital zone of the target.

Ready for Reloads

The defensive revolver shooter is wise to carry at least two reloads for the defensive revolver. One reload should be in a speed loader in order to quickly reload when the gun has been shot empty. The second should be in an ammo pouch, or speed strip, in order to top off the cylinder when just a few shots have been fired. And, just as one practices the double-action trigger pull to perfect it, the shooter should also practice quick, smooth reloading.

The DA revolver is still around because it, long ago, won its spurs as a fighting handgun.  Defensive handguns are a very personal, subjective thing and the serious shooters is well advised to select what works best for him, even if it means disregarding popular trends.  The test is to find something that we shoot quickly, accurately, and that we can manage and operate effectively under stress.  For many defensive shooters, the answer is found in the double-action revolver.


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