In the early 90s, I experienced a malfunction with my revolver that left me dead in the water in the middle of a course of fire. After shooting the first few stages of a law enforcement qualification course with my normal carry load, I ran out of the old favorite and switched to an unproven alternative that I was considering switching to.

I didn’t even get through one cylinder’s worth of the new load before the trigger froze up, like it was welded in place. The time limit came and went, leaving me fussing with the gun to troubleshoot it. The cylinder was stuck in place and wouldn’t open up, so I had to step off the line and take an “incomplete” on the course while I inspected the gun.

Further investigation showed that the primer, under intense +P+ pressure, had flowed back into the firing pin hole in the frame and completely tied up the cylinder. I had to force the cylinder open and shear off the offending bit of metal to make the gun operate again. I learned an invaluable lesson that day about proper gear selection and testing, and I also learned the old saw about “revolvers don’t jam” was a dangerous myth.

We tend to focus on validating reliability in our semi-automatic pistols a lot these days, but as my experience proved, we also need to test our revolvers because sometimes “six for sure” . . . isn’t.

revolver ammo
Revolvers are more resistant to the effects of varying weights, dimensions, and shapes of bullets on reliability, but not immune. The only way to know is to test each load.

In Search Of A Standard

I’ve written elsewhere about the traditional advice of a 200 round standard for verifying reliability in semi-automatic pistols. Although not universal, this rule of thumb was endorsed by enough of the popular figures and writers in the industry over the years to make it stick. However, there doesn’t seem to be an accepted equivalent for the revolvers. Most of the old sages in the gunwriting business were silent about testing revolver ammunition for reliability probably because they thought it was unnecessary. A great number of them wrote profusely about the revolver’s inherent reliability with any choice of ammunition and proclaimed it superior to the semi-auto pistol as a result. American law enforcement must have agreed because it took a long time for the semi-auto pistol to gain supremacy among police.

However, as with the “200 round rule” for semi-autos, this advice about revolver reliability belongs to a different age. Back in the heyday of the revolver, the guns in popular use were mostly built on medium to large frames and the ammunition was typically kept within standard pressure limits that were relatively sedate. When the more powerful magnum loads were introduced in the various calibers, they were for large frame guns that could properly handle the increased pressures and recoil. When a flirtation with magnum loads in medium sized guns didn’t work out so well for either the shooters or the guns, the industry corrected back towards new Medium-Large frames that fixed the issue on both ends.

In this environment, the revolver established an enviable reputation for reliability and little thought was given to testing ammunition/gun combinations for reliability. It was generally assumed that if the revolver could chamber the cartridge, it would work.

A Different Era

However, the revolver scene has changed dramatically since that time. While a medium to large frame revolver is still an excellent fighting gun, we are now much more likely to see defensive revolvers in the role of a backup, or a compact concealed carry gun. These guns are built on much smaller frames, and many are made of extremely light materials in comparison to the larger, steel frame, duty guns that built the revolver’s reliable reputation.

The ammunition has changed too. Whereas Magnum and +P (or +P+) ammunition was strictly limited to medium to large frame guns in the past, it has become commonplace to carry these powerful loads in small frame guns today. It used to be that the small frames were only rated for standard pressure .38 Special at the most, but the lighter, stronger, modern snubbies are now frequently rated for +P and (shudder!) .357 Magnum.

New Gremlins

All this comes with a price, however. When you move from shooting .357 magnums in a heavy, large frame, steel revolver with a six-inch barrel to shooting them in a lightweight, small frame, alloy revolver with a sub two-inch barrel, something has to give. Most often it’s the shooter, but sometimes it’s the gun.

In my case, the higher pressure ammo blew out the primer and tied up the cylinder, but there are other gremlins out there to watch for. Heat buildup has caused problems in some revolvers in the past as materials expand and required clearances shrink. On some guns, newly added internal locking mechanisms and indicators have malfunctioned under recoil and components have bound up the action. On some of the featherweight guns, heavy-for-caliber bullets have jumped their crimp under recoil and been pulled far enough forward to prevent cylinder rotation. In yet other guns, unburned powder from the more heavily stoked cartridges has accumulated under the ejector star, preventing the cylinder from closing or rotating due to the extremely tight tolerances in these little guns. The same can happen at the cylinder gap, if tolerances are running tight and fouling is excessive.

S&W Model 27 and Ruger LCR
Today’s revolvers are often a fraction of the size and weight of the defensive revolvers carried by earlier generations, but they shoot cartridges that are just as (or more) powerful. There’s no free lunch—sometimes reliability takes a hit when you squeeze all that power into a small package. Better to find out in testing.

Clip-fed revolvers are seeing a bit of a resurgence these days, and while an ammunition clip can expedite loading and unloading, they can also cause problems. Most often, they are a result of the clip getting bent while removing spent brass or loading new cartridges which results in a cylinder that binds or can’t be closed. However, “dirty” ammunition that leaves a lot of unburned powder behind can cause the same problems by preventing a clip from being properly seated. Once in a while, a variation in case dimensions (extractor groove shape or rim thickness) can even cause a headspace issue that affects reliability as well. All of these hidden dangers, and others not discussed, can have a disastrous impact if they are not discovered in testing prior to relying on the gun/ammunition combination for defensive purposes. As such, it is as important to test our revolvers for reliability with our duty ammunition as it is to test our semi-autos.

That’s Easy!

Fortunately, the mechanical design of a double action revolver eliminates many of the problem areas of semi-auto pistols. We don’t have to worry about spring power and slide velocity or the delicate balance of timing that they create. Our revolvers are not dependent on firm resistance from our shooting stance to function properly—we merely need to pull the trigger. They are also not subject to the large number of variables introduced by using different magazines as their autoloading brothers are.

Therefore, all that remains is to shoot the gun. But how many times? A full 50 round box seems reasonable and ought to do it, but if financial or logistical hurdles are prohibitive, you might be able to get by with less. It seems prudent to shoot at least twice your basic load out, so if you carry two spare loaders, that’s six cylinders full. Shooting six cylinders full should allow you to detect any lurking difficulties and still have enough remaining to load your gun and speedloaders for carry with a 50 round box (or just slightly over it, if you have a six-shooter).

By the Numbers

Here are some things to keep in mind when it comes time to start your testing:

Break It In

Just like with your semi-autos, you should plan on shooting 150-200 rounds of more affordable training ammunition (FMJ, RNL, SWC) to “break in” both you and the gun before you start testing with the premium stuff. This will smooth out the action and allow you to detect mechanical and material flaws while simultaneously ensuring that your technique is good. You can induce a malfunction in your revolver if your thumb strikes the thumb piece during recoil and unlocks the cylinder, so it’s important to develop proper form. Also, all you “thumbs forward” autopistol shooters out there will need to work out a different solution to avoid flame or gas cutting from the cylinder gap. Get all of this straightened out before you start shooting the higher pressure +P or Magnum loads.

Shoot It Fast

Doing so will help you detect whether or not the cartridge is too powerful for your abilities. Snubbies loaded with powerful loads are a real handful, and you need to know if you’ve crossed a point of diminishing returns by shooting the gun with loads that are just too hot to control. Also, shooting it fast may allow you to discover other problems, like that sharp edge on the bottom of the thumb piece that keeps cutting you. Get the gun hot. This is not the time for slow fire that allows the gun to cool in between shots or cylinders. We want to get it hot to eliminate concerns over thermal expansion issues, so shoot it fast, like your life depends on it . . . because it just might one day.

Test Your Speedloaders

Reload using your spare loading devices. Thumbing individual rounds into the cylinder can mask problems like excessive chamber fouling or fouling under the star that is caused by your ammunition. Your gravity-feed speedloader may not be able to seat cartridges deep enough or smash the star down into place over debris like your big old thumb can. It’s important to figure this out now, not in the middle of your worst day ever.

Ruger SP101 and HKS Speedloaders
If you carry a reload in a speedloader that relies upon gravity to load the cartridges in the chambers, you need to test it that way, too, to avoid unpleasant surprises later.

Write It Down

Document the specifics about any failures during your test including the type of ammunition, number fired, type of malfunction, etc., for further evaluation and (if warranted) retesting.

There’s no doubt that revolvers offer many advantages from a reliability standpoint, but that doesn’t make them worry-free. As with any gear that you will stake your life on, you need to wring them out thoroughly under realistic conditions to make sure they will be there when you need them most.

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39 thoughts on “Testing Revolvers for Reliability

  1. IDK maybe it’s just me, but most of the issues the author cites are not failures of the revolver platform, and not reliability problems with revolvers…most of the stories he relates are AMMO FAILURES. It is up to the shooter to thoroughly test specific ammunition in his or her revolver and to determine when and if issues like crimp jump, or backed out primers will occur. Most of the problems cited are easily avoided with a little testing on the range.

        1. Absolutely. Also, don’t use reloads or handloads for self defense. Heaven forbid you get into a shooting situation, the bad guys’ lawyer will have a field day with you.

    1. While I have had bullet advancement with handloads I’ve had 2/5 S&W Revolvers and 1/2 Taurus autos suffer catastrophic parts failures.

      1. That is really bad luck. Do you buy old, used revolvers or what? I’ve never had parts failures, nor has my Father who has been shooting them for 60 years now.

  2. I bought a used 1982 Ruger Blackhawk that continually pierced the primers of only Perfecta range ammo and no other brand I tested, so this is not just limited to +P. Even though visual inspection of the firing pin looked ok, I sent the gun back to Ruger and they replaced the firing pin for free and now it works flawlessly with everything I’ve thrown at it.

  3. this year i have had 2 revolvers fail on me…or at least that is the way it seemed. my ruger lcr 38 failed when the trigger did not “reset’..which i have learned, is most likely my fault. my smith 64 in 38 had several light primer strikes..which was probably due to the ammo..(winchester white box). but even with these failures probably not due to the guns i have lost faith in them to be there when i need them. so i have switched to semi-auto pistols. shield and glock-26. but boy do i miss the revolvers.

  4. The only revolver I’ve ever owned was a S&W 642. Luckily, my catastrophic failure happened at the range and not in a self defense situation. Basically, the cylinder locked up on the frame. Something bent. Sent it back to S&W, got it back and immediately sold it. I may never get another revolver for that reason, as I was carrying it for self defense at the time. With the tens of thousands of rounds I’ve put through semi-autos, I’ve never had a catastrophic failure. The 642 failed after about 50 rounds.

    1. Personally, I wouldn’t discount all revolvers completely because of a failure in the only revolver you’ve ever owned. Some research into the failure rate of the 642 due to that particular failure, and any corrective actions taken by S&W would be prudent. I’m fairly confident that the actual failure rate would be very, very low, considering it was a S&W.

      Discounting any and all revolvers due to a failure of one would be like never buying any type of shotgun based on a failure of one particular firearm. ANY firearm can fail.

      If you’re dead-set on never depending upon a revolver for self-defense based on one failure, well, OK. But don’t cheat yourself out of all of the wonderful aspects of owning revolvers for the pleasure of shooting them.

      1. As I’ve said; My failure rate with broken S&W revolvers is 40%. My failure rate with SLP’s is- SIG 00%, Colt 00%, Beretta 00%, Taurus 50%,

      2. Hey, late reply here. I completely understand what you’re saying but the gun failed to a point that it was 100% unusable. I’ve never had a semi-auto malfunction to the point that I couldn’t remedy it within seconds. Having a non-firing, catastrophic failure, is absolutely inexcusable by any manufacturer. I opened the cylinder and it would not close, making the gun completely dead in the water. I admit that 99.99999% of other revolvers are probably good to go but I wouldn’t rely on one for self defense.

        1. Wow! That is really unusual. And unsettling! I’m beginning to see why you feel the way you do.

  5. My brand new LCR .357 failed after 5 rounds. Shot 5, unloaded, reload, can’t close the cylinder! Turns out the ejector rod screws into the crane and wasn’t tight. Firing (recoil plus cylinder rotation, I assume) caused it to loosen up a 1/2 turn or so and caused it to hit the shroud on closing it the second time.

    Of course the fix took less time that it took to type this, once I discovered the problem, but NOT what I’d want in a fight!

  6. Those are all good and valid points. I shoot a S&W model 686 plus (7 round cylinder) and I also have a little 638. I can rapid fire the 686 all day long, usually with just .38 special but have done so with .357 magnums as well. It just costs more and you have to control the recoil more for rapid fire. Doing the same thing with the 638 would never even cross my mind. It’s a pocket gun for an emergency and concealed carry and only shoot .39 spl +P. I never load to +P as I find it unnecessary. Accuracy improves by using just regular 38’s and it is meant for very short distances. Neither has ever failed, however. The 686 has thousands of rounds through it by now, the 638 never will see that many. I shoot it to stay accurate and no more, as it isn’t a ‘fun’ gun to shoot. On the other hand I can’t say that my semi auto has ever failed me either and it has thousands of rounds through it as well. I prefer revolvers for the superb balance and ease of use.

  7. Mr. Wood’s comment:
    “When you move from shooting .357 magnums in a heavy, large frame, steel revolver with a six-inch barrel to shooting them in a lightweight, small frame, alloy revolver with a sub two-inch barrel, something has to give.”
    I very much agree. The first thing to ‘give’ in this situation is the shooters common sense.
    A .357 traveling out of a 2″ barrel is difficult to handle, creates flames and an ear shattering blast coming out of the muzzle which is at that moment displaying massive amounts of gaseous propellant looking for a longer barrel. A 2 inch .357 is a brilliant arms manufactures marketing scheme creating millions in sales.
    Noted for its accuracy and manageable recoil, the .38 Special remains the most popular revolver cartridge in the world more than a century after its introduction.
    A 2″ .38 Special revolver is designed for close combat and it does excel at this application.
    Please note the historic and horrific images of Lee Harvey Oswald,1963. General Nguyen Ngoc Loan”s infamous 1968 Saigon execution made infamous with a 2 inch. S&W .38 Special.
    What has worked well for the last 120 years still works today. Other wheels need reinventing.

    1. That’s an old argument and one which ignores tangible and observable results. My .357 snub has a 2.5″ barrel and launches 125 grain projectiles at 1200 fps using non-maximum handloads. Try getting that kind of velocity out of standard .38 Special loads…which average in the 750 fps range in a snub nose. The absolute best a .38 Special with a 2″ barrel will do is on average around 900 fps…and that is only when using +P which is a maxed out load and does increase muzzle flash and recoil. No matter how you slice it up, the .357 revolver always wins…even more so because for the limp wristed guys out there, it will accept BOTH .357 and .38.

      1. I also have a 2.5″ S&W. Arguably the best all around single handgun to own.
        One can not argue with ‘slicing up’ the differences in inertia between .38 and .357 magnum.
        Just how much “bang” does one need for a self defence situation? A .357 will sail right through the stoutest abdomen and well into whatever is behind it possibly ending in tragic consequence.
        President Reagan nearly died from a .22 rimfire. The bullet ending just a few centimeters from his heart and this was after the .22 first bounced off a car door.

        1. I never worry about overpenetration…it’s largely a myth started by self-declared “expert” Massad Ayoob…there’s really no real world data to back it up ie. it’s never happened in thousands of police and civilian involved self defense shootings. I use a Lyman 358093 handload for my concealed carry rounds. Nothing wrong with being able to penetrate car doors or whatever. What you say about the .38 may very well be true, but I prefer to err on the side of caution. I also carry in the great outdoors, and I prefer the .357 for that role as well.

  8. Guns are mechanical and they can fail. I have had two revolvers fail in 30 years. However, if maintained properly they are much more reliable than semi-autos.

    1. As long as we’re counting, I’ve had two revolvers fail in the last two months. New ones. Quality control from the big manufacturers is not what it once was for wheel guns.

      1. For wheel guns, keep a purchasing policy of “pinned and recessed.” Like all fashion trends, new stuff does not measure up to what it used to be.

        1. Pinned and recessed applies to only magnum revolvers and rimfires. I have several .38’s and .32’s that are excellent quality pistols that are neither pinned nor recessed. Furthermore, the pinned barrels aren’t really any better than unpinned barrels, that’s more of an age determining thing than that of quality.

      2. Ruger revolvers seem to hold their quality control fairly well, and are the toughest dogs in the yard. Ruger doesn’t do so well with other products, like their centerfire semi auto pistols. Their forte is in revolvers, the 10/22 and the Mark I and Mark II .22 pistols. Had nothing but ‘issues’ with their other guns.

        S&W on the other hand, well, the last good autos they made were the 3d generation DA/SA series and the pre Hillary hole lock revolvers. I won’t even consider a S&W revolver with the Hillary hole or the MIM parts. Nothing against MIM technology, but S&W quality has hit the skids.

    2. Not to pile on, but I agree with Chris. On Sunday I drove out to the range, set up, and got exactly one cylinder out of my 686-3 before the ejector rod backed out and completely tied my gun up. This is is third malfunction I’ve had with this revolver in the last 3,000 or so rounds. Revolvers malfunction.

        1. Gun manufacturers will like my answer; keep a backup handy. I have yet to have a revolver malfunction but it will–not may–happen. We keep two handguns we feel comfortable shooting in our gun safes for just that reason.

          On a side note, these articles have been really helpful to us as we select weapons for home defense and shoot them at the range.

    3. Of 5 S&W revolvers 2 have required the services of a gunsmith. I’v only ever had to send one auto in for similar treatment out of way more than 5. That was a Taurus, I have never had a SLP other than the Taurus fail with quality factory ammo. I have had occasional issues with budget surplus ammo and Russian Wolf.

    4. My introduction to revolver ‘failures’ was in the early 70s in our state police academy. Turns out the ammo being used for training was, well, just say that ‘dirty’ was being kind. Unburned powder always found its way under the extractor star to bind things up. I started carrying a rag to wipe out the area under the extractor every few reloads and things settled down. Once on the street and we qualified with our carry loads, never had any issues with the good stuff – but I always had those range issues in the back of my head (still do).

  9. This happened to me! I’ve had 2 mechanical failures with S&W revolvers. I.E. parts breakage that required a gunsmith. The following only ever happened with handloads: Under recoil a bullet advanced enough to bind the cylinder. And it’s happened more than once, even with 38 Spcl. So yes; revolvers can and do jam! Due to arthritis I no longer shoot any magnum loads but can still manage +P in a 38 Spcl.

    1. Have you tried putting a little heavier crimp on your handloads to prevent recoil advancement? I use a factory crimp die to get a full-circumference crimp and never have any issues with bullet advancement. I never cared for the taper-crimp die “half-moon” crimp.

  10. I’m a Ruger man but I found a nice Taurus 856 38sp and bought It. First day at the range the cylinder latch busted and the cylinder wouldn’t advance anymore. I sent it back to Taurus and two months later received it back and haven’t had a problem since.. But I decided to go with something a little more stouter and got the Wiley Clapp edition of the SP101 and ran about 100 rounds of Winchester white box 357 through it in DAO rapid fire and while it was hotter than a firecracker it shot excellently.. Other than burning my fingers trying to reload with my two Safariland speedloaders no issues so far

  11. OH MY ACHING WORD! yes we all know that revolvers are prone to failure if you look at them crosseyed. especially when using HOT, cheap, dirty, ammo, while autos are the cats mewo.

  12. Another factor not mentioned in the article is some of the iffy ammo being marketed today. It used to be that we were cautioned to not use “gun show reloads”. Nowadays, with the growing popularity of indoor ranges, many of these ranges push their own private small market reloads at a discounted price. Despite claims of high standards of quality control, we must remember that the cases that are being reloaded were likely swept up off of the range floor, and the “manufacturer” cannot possibly inspect each case – his manhour cost of doing so would drive his costs through the roof.

    Case in point:. A co-worker mentioned that his wife was interested in a home defense revolver and had been window-shopping on the internet. She was particularly taken with the Rossi 971, but was unable to find one in any local gun shop. It so happened that I had one, and offered to lend it to him so that his wife could try it out.

    When he returned it he reported that they had issues with the cylinder binding up after 3 or 4 shots with full power .357 Magnums. I asked him what ammo he used, and he related that they were “store brand” cartridges, and that the range swore by them and that the manufacturer would stand by their quality. He did not keep any of the fired cases, as it was against range rules.

    When I got home I gave the revolver an inspection, and I found, on the face of the recoil shield, scrape marks exactly the width of a primer, extending from about the 10:00 position (looking from the muzzle back to the recoil shield face) leading right up to the firing pin bushing. Obviously he was experiencing primers backing out on firing.

    I next took the revolver to the range and fired it with my usual Federal/Remington/Winchester/Hornady/Speer .357s and had no issues.

    1. I believe the cylinder on a Rossi 971 rotates counter-clockwise so it’s possible the scratch was caused by a shallow seated primer.

      Either way, it was bum ammo.

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