Reloading a revolver can be done in a few different ways. Without a speed loader, for most revolvers, one must insert each round, one at a time, into the chamber. One of the nice things about revolvers is that loading rounds manually into the chambers does not put much stress on your fingers compared to loading rounds into the magazine of an automatic firearm. However, a revolver loaded in this fashion is much slower to reload than it is to reload an automatic firearm with a magazine.
There are a few different methods employed to speed up the reloading of a revolver, the most common options being:
- Spare Cylinders
- Speed Strips
- Moon Clips
Additionally, there is the so-called "New York Reload", which is not a reload at all, but carrying a second gun as a reload.
One of the earliest successful rapidly reloadable revolvers was the Remington Model 1858. The model 1858 can rapidly exchange cylinders nearly as quickly as one can change magazines on a modern automatic pistol. During the civil war, The Remington 1858 and the Colt model 1861 were the main revolvers used, and the rapid ability to reload the model 1858 with a spare cylinder was a major advantage that it had over the Colt model 1861.
The main disadvantages to spare cylinders as reloading technique are the weight and cost of each cylinder. Each cylinder is basically machined from a solid piece of steel, with holes bored out, so there is substantial mass in a spare cylinder compared to spare magazines for an automatic firearm which are basically hollow shells, often made of aluminum or even plastic since magazines do not need to withstand the extreme pressures of gunpowder going off inside of them. The cost of the cylinders is also a result of the added machining. It is a lot cheaper to mass produce magazines made of folded sheet metal and injected plastic than to cut a piece of steel to shape. The tolerances are also much higher for a cylinder, and each spare cylinder typically has to be manually fit to the frame of the revolver in order to function properly. Magazines can be made to much looser tolerances.
Since the Remington model 1858 was a cap and ball revolver, the cylinders formed not only a reload but also served the function that modern cartridge casings served by containing the charge, the primer, and the bullet in a conveniently portable package. Other than the single action mechanism requiring one to pull the hammer back manually each shot, and the black powder smoke, the Remington model 1858 stacks up fairly well against even modern revolvers. The rate of fire and reload rate are similar with spare cylinders, and the older guns are equally as deadly as modern guns.
Not many revolvers that are manufactured in modern times can be reloaded rapidly with a spare cylinder. Modern cartridge casings would also add to the thickness and weight of a spare cylinder compared to an older cap and ball revolver. Today, this method of reloading is seldom seen.
Most of the cap and ball revolvers other than the model 1858 did not allow cylinders to be so easily exchanged, and many people could not afford spare cylinders. In the latter part of the 19th century, self contained metallic cartridges and the revolvers that accompanied them represented a reloading advantage for most. With the metallic cartridge, one could easily carry spare rounds, and it was certainly much faster to insert metallic cartridges into the chambers from behind than it was to pack powder and projectiles in from the front and then place a percussion cap on the back of each chamber. Inserting cartridges into the chamber of a top break or swing gate revolver is slow by modern standards, but it is something that could be accomplished in many time-sensitive combat situations where both the time spent and the clumsiness of reloading a black powder cylinder makes the task unfeasible.
While the metallic cartridge casing made reloads more practical for most people, interchanging cylinders on a gun like the Remington model 1858 was still the fastest way to reload a handgun until the development of automatic pistols with interchangeable magazines and the development of speed loaders and moon clips.
Since I do not personally own this gun, I do not personally have any videos or images. However, on YouTube, there are some great videos illustrating the effectiveness of reloading a revolver in this way.
A fellow on YouTube who goes by the moniker "Nykodymus" posted this video which demonstrates how easily the cylinder can be replaced. You can easily imagine that with sufficient practice, one could reload this gun about as rapidly as a modern revolver can be reloaded. Here is another YouTube video by a fellow by the moniker of "Damocsell" who fires multiple cylinders in quick succession.
Speed StripsA speed strip is a relatively recent method of reloading a revolver. Bianchi and other companies make speed strips out of flexible materials. The speed strip serves two functions. It allows one to carry their rounds in one package instead of carrying loose rounds, and to an extent expedites the reload process. With a speed strip, one typically inserts each round, still on the strip, into the chamber, and bends the flexible strip until the round falls out. Since all the casings are oriented in the same direction and can be held more easily in one hand, this is generally faster than reloading each round individually. One advantage of speed strips over spare cylinders, speed loaders, and moon clips, is that each speed strip is relatively flat, keeping each cartridge parallel to one another, rather than in a circle. This makes a speed strip very easy to carry and to conceal. The speed strip is generally much slower to operate than a speed loader. Here is a video I found on YouTube where Massad Ayoob demonstrates reloading with a speed strip.
A speedloader is a practical way to reload a modern revolver quickly, although it is bulkier than a speed strip and requires a higher degree of fine motor skills to use effectively compared to reloading with a magazine for an automatic handgun. Expert users can reload a revolver nearly as fast, but for most people it will be a bit slower. A speed loader typically works by grabbing onto the rims of the cartridge casing, and using a push button or a twist knob to release the rounds. In addition to the bulk of the speed loader, its complexity as a mechanical device is one disadvantage. Although I have not personally experienced a failure of a speed loader, I can easily imagine that they could be jammed with dirt.
In my opinion, the difficulty in using a speed loader is a greater disadvantage than the speed of using it. Reloading with a speed loader is a two handed affair, and requires one to point the gun downwards so that gravity can let the rounds fall into the chamber. I have only tried the HKS speed loader, with a twist knob. While many have used these effectively, I find that I almost wish I had three hands so that I could grasp the frame with one, grasp the speed loader with the other, and twist the knob with a third hand. There are many techniques to using a speed loader, and for many of them it involves removing your dominant hand from the grip to manipulate the speedloader. Personally, I prefer the idea of keeping my hand on the grip, and using the weak hand to manipulate the speedloader, although this is not the preferred method by competition shooters I have met. With a lot of skill, some can reload a revolver with a speedloader on the move, but for me, reloading a revolver with a speed loader would require standing in one place and being mostly undistracted. One advantage of the interchangeable magazine on an automatic handgun for the average user, over a speed loader from a revolver, is that it requires much less dexterity to use and can be reloaded while moving and in less than ideal stances that one might find themselves in during a self-defense situation.
Here is a picture of my HKS speed loader for my 7 shot S&W 620 revolver. The S&W 620 can be reloaded with the HKS 587 model:
I've also made a video demonstrating the HKS speed loader I own. Basically, to release the rounds, the knob on the back is just turned clockwise and the rounds fall out. I'm not an expert speed loader user, so forgive me for the lack of technique:
While I've only used the HKS speed loader, there are a number of other manufacturers of speed loaders, including the 5-star models machined from steel, which look to me to be very high quality although I have not tried them, and the Safariland speed loader. Here is a good YouTube video I found demonstrating the use of the Safariland speedloader. Most modern revolvers have at least one of those three companies making a speed loader for them, and there are probably other companies I have not heard of. Each of these speed loaders functions in a slightly different way.
Compared to a moon-clip, reloading the speedloader itself is a lot easier to do, although reloading a revolver with a speedloader is more complicated and slower than using a full moon clip. The moon clip is also much less bulky. On my HKS speed loader, the rounds are simply dropped into it, allowed to lean inwards, and then the knob is twisted to lock counter-clockwise them into place.
The moon clip was conceived primarily as a means of adapting a rimless cartridge designed for use in an automatic pistol for use in a revolver.
Why do some cartridges have rims while others do not?
In an automatic pistol, the cartridge generally positions itself in the chamber by using the mouth of the case itself against a ridge in the chamber. By contrast, in a revolver, the casings are typically held in place by the rim of the case at the back. Because an automatic pistol uses the power of the ammunition to cycle the rounds, the power must be consistent in order for it to function reliably.
The prime advantages of the rimless casing is that it makes it easier to design an automatic pistol to feed rounds without the rim in the way, and to increase the capacity of magazines in an automatic pistol without the rims taking up space. With rimmed cartridges in a magazine, one must also be careful that each cartridge in the magazine has its rim positioned closer to the chamber than the cartridge underneath it, otherwise "rimlock" will occur, jamming the gun when the rim of the cartridge below it prevents it from moving forward and into the chamber. There are some automatic handguns that use rimmed cartridges, such as the Desert Eagle which is chambered in rimmed cartridges such as.357 magnum and .44 magnum.
In a revolver, the operation is independent of the power of the cartridge so long as the bullets have enough powder behind them for them to escape the barrel after firing. As a result, a revolver can use bullets in a greater power range. One advantage of using the rim of the cartridge to position it in a revolver rather than the case mouth is the ability to use cartridges of different lengths in the same gun. As an example, .357 magnum is a cartridge designed for revolvers which is basically an extended .38 special case with more powder in the case and is much more powerful. A revolver chambered in .357 magnum can fire both .38 special and .357 magnum because other than the length of the cartridge, the cartridges are the same shape, and the rim of the casing is what holds the cartridge in place in the cylinder. Many revolver users appreciate the ability to shoot powerful ammunition when the power is desired, and also to have softer shooting ammunition on hand for prolonged target shooting sessions. Less sensitivity to case overall length by using the rim to keep the rounds in place also allows for greater ease in reusing handloaded cartridge cases since the handloader does not need to worry as much about the length of the casing.
In an automatic firearm that uses the rim of the casing for positioning, these advantages are lost. In order to feed rounds properly the spring strength in an automatic firearm must be tuned to the power of the cartridge. Using a .38 special cartridge in a firearm like a Desert Eagle is unlikely to have enough power to overcome the springs designed for the recoil of a .357 magnum and to feed the next round from the magazine. Additionally, an automatic firearm relies on the consistent geometry of each cartridge for ideal function and cartridges of different lengths may result in unexpected operation.
Use of Rimless Cartridges in Revolvers, Moon Clip Development
In World War I, the United States Army was using the M1911 pistol in the rimless .45 ACP cartridge as the standard issue sidearm, but production of M1911 pistols could not keep up with the military demand for sidearms. As a result, the M1917 revolver was devised. The M1917 revolver used the rimless .45 ACP cartridge. In a normal revolver cylinder, where the diameter of the chamber is the same the whole length of the cylinder, the .45 ACP cartridge would fall through the cylinder without a rim to keep it in place. The solution in the M1917 pistol was the semi-circular half moon clip. It clipped onto the "rim" of three "rimless" .45 ACP cartridges, holding them together. This allowed the use of the rimless case in the revolver, and also expedited reloading by making it so that instead of inserting six separate cartridges into the chamber, one only needed to insert two different semi-circular clips. Rimmed .45 ACP cartridges were also made that allowed for loading of the gun without the clips, but the rimless cartridge was the military cartridge.
Later, full moon clips were developed for revolvers, which are the same in concept as a half moon clip but held a full cylinder full of ammunition.
Use of Moon Clips
Since the moon clip goes into the gun instead of separating from the rounds like a speed loader, a revolver with moon clips can be loaded faster and with greater ease than a revolver using speed loaders. This advantage was such that many competition shooters even have their revolvers in typical rimmed chamberings adapted for use with full moon clips. Since the moon clip adds thickness to the cartridge casing, a moon clip will not work unless the revolver is made to work with them, or modified by cutting the chamber down to fit with a moon clip. I do not have moon clips to photograph, but here is a great picture from hausofguns.com showing a half moon clip next to a full moon clip.
For revolvers using rimless casings, the chambers are often made to position the cartridge using the case mouth instead of the rim, whether or not it is also made to use moon clips. For revolvers that are made to use moon clips, inserting rounds one at a time without using a moon clip complicates the extraction of spent cartridges. A revolver usually uses the rim of the cartridge or a moon clip not only to keep the round in place, but also to eject the cartridges when the user pushes the ejection rod. Without using a moon clip or a rimmed cartridge, it is often necessary to use a dowel to push casings out. There have been some alternative ejection mechanisms devised to deal with this however, and there are some revolvers that exist to function with rimless casings and without a moon clip that still allow for the casings to be ejected normally.
One drawback to the moon clip is that loading a moon clip itself requires a lot more effort than loading a speed loader. It is common to use a tool to help load moon clips and remove spent brass casings from the moon clip. The casings fit into the clip very tight and it requires considerable force to load and strip a moon clip. Another potential drawback to the moon clip is that variations in the extractor groove of the cartridge can vary between brands of ammunition, so certain moon clips may not be compatible with certain brands of ammunition.
Jerry Miculek set a world record reloading using a revolver with moon clips, firing 12 shots in 2.99 seconds. A YouTube video demonstrating his exploit can be seen here
New York Reload
Supposedly, the phrase "New York Reload" came about from New York City police adopting the practice of carrying a second gun for extra ammunition rather than carrying extra rounds to reload the first gun. But the practice of carrying multiple guns dates back much longer. In the days before repeating firearms, it was especially common for men to carry a brace of several pistols. In western movies, cowboys are also often depicted with two guns. The main drawback to carrying two guns is the added weight, and also the expense, but it is hard to argue with the speed and utility of carrying two guns. If the guns are equivalent or similar in size, they can also add balance by putting an equal weight on each side of your belt or shoulder holster. Automatic firearms can often be reloaded so quickly that many modern defense practitioners scowl at the idea of carrying additional guns as reloads. But since revolvers are reloaded more slowly, carrying two revolvers is still not an uncommon practice by those who prefer revolvers.
However, regardless of the firearm used, I believe there are still definite advantages to carrying an additional gun rather than a reload. If the first firearm malfunctions, a second firearm can be used as a replacement. And even with very fast reloads accomplished by expert competition shooters with both semi-automatic firearms and revolvers, drawing a second firearm can still be done faster. Most importantly, it takes less fine motor skills and dexterity to draw a firearm than even reloading a semi-automatic firearm. It can be done one handed and from all manners of less than ideal stances. Also, if two guns are carried in a manner such that either hand can draw, this is an additional advantage. If one arm is injured, one can still easily draw with the other. If one gun breaks or is dropped or taken away, one has another gun. And a second gun can easily be drawn while using a hand to push someone back or to block a blow, and it can be drawn when on the ground, or while making rapid evasive movements that might complicate the two handed procedure of reloading even a modern automatic handgun.
I think the unpredictable nature of self-defense encounters lead to many situations where a second gun is more ideal than a reload. This element of unpredictability is often discounted by those who imagine they will always be standing on their feet, at least 7 yards from their attacker, in a perfect Weaver or isosceles shooting stance, when they are acting in self-defense.