Revolver History: Where Wheelguns Came From

Revolvers weren’t the first handgun to exist—there were matchlocks, flintlocks, hand cannons, and more that came first—but they’re often seen as the pioneering firearms of the pistol world. Just as commonly, revolvers are considered to be the purview of Samuel Colt, and although he certainly played a major role in their development, there’s more to the revolver world than Colts. How much do you know about revolver history? Keep reading to find out.

An early sketch of a Colt revolver.
An early sketch of a Colt revolver. (Photo credit: Hulton Archives)

What is a revolver?

This might seem like a basic question, but it’s one worth touching on. A revolver is a repeating gun with a rotating cylinder. For each pull of the trigger, a single shot fires, and the cylinder rotates to the next chamber, aligning with the barrel. The chamber of a revolver is like the chamber on a semi-automatic, except its part of the cylinder, and each revolver has multiple chambers. The capacity of those guns depends on the specific model but is typically around five or six rounds, meaning there are five or six chambers in the gun’s cylinder.

An original Colt revolver, shown with all the accessories it was sold with.
An original Colt revolver, shown with all the accessories it was sold with. (Photo credit: WDR)

What was the first revolver?

The first revolver to be patented and recognized as a functional firearm was the Colt Paterson. It was patented by Samuel Colt in 1836, had six chambers, and allowed greater capacity without reloading than any gun before its invention. That’s the gun typically referred to as the very first revolver. However, there were other steps along the way.

In 1718, James Puckle patented a firearm with a revolving cylinder, but it was a machine gun, not a handheld revolver. It did have that tell-tale rotating cylinder, meaning it was one of many pieces of the puzzle that had to fall into place to come up with the Colt revolver more than a century later.

James Puckle's large gun with rotating cylinder that was the predecessor to the Gatling Gun.
James Puckle invented a large gun with a rotating cylinder that ended up being the predecessor to the Gatling Gun. (Photo credit: Blade City)

Then there was the black powder flintlock with a revolving cylinder that was invented in 1818 by Elisha Collier. That wasn’t a terribly effective firearm, but again, it was another step.

Elisha Collier's blackpowder flintlock
Elisha Collier’s black powder flintlock attempt at creating a revolver took place in 1818. (Photo credit: American History)

By the time Samuel Colt began working on his revolver design, which is basically the design modern guns work from, a lot of people had inched the possibility along. Firearms history has rarely happened in dramatic leaps and bounds but instead takes place as a series of events that leads to a fantastic “aha!” moment.

original Colt Paterson
As you can see, the original Colt Paterson did not have a trigger guard. (Photo credit: American History)

According to History.com, Colt’s idea for his first famous gun occurred while on a ship, the Corvo:

Aboard the Corvo, Colt became fascinated with the ship’s wheel, particularly the way it could alternately spin or be locked in a fixed position through the use of a clutch. He translated this controlled rotation to firearms and a means whereby a single-shot pistol could be adapted to fire multiple rounds in quick succession. During his time at sea, Colt carved a six-barrel cylinder, locking pin and hammer out of wood. Although this prototype for a pistol featured multiple rotating barrels, in later versions Colt would opt instead for a rotating cylinder containing multiple bullet chambers to reduce the gun’s weight and bulk.

What ammo did the first revolvers use?

The question of what type of ammunition was used by early revolvers is a good one because ammo has certainly evolved over the years. At the time when Samuel Colt patented his first revolver, the guns were cap-and-ball.

An example of the material and steps required to load a cap and ball revolver.
An example of the material and steps required to load a cap and ball revolver. (Photo credit: inetres.com)

There weren’t enclosed cartridges in use yet—that wouldn’t happen for almost two more decades—but even so, the cap-and-ball was considered modern (and it was definitely an improvement over earlier attempts at effective ammo).

Loading a cap-ball-revolver was a process in and of itself. So although it was a huge feat that Colt invented a functional firearm with multiple chambers and a self-rotating cylinder, getting those chambers loaded did take some time. It involved pouring the correct amount of gunpowder into the chambers, followed by the wad, then the ball—the bullet—and, finally, a percussion cap. This was certainly faster than the old single-shot cap-and-ball guns and it did make an enormous difference in battle, but the loading process was still slow.

A visual example of loading the chambers of a cap and ball revolver.
A visual example of loading the chambers of a cap and ball revolver. (Photo credit: Western Fictioneer)

Who invented the double-action revolver?

The man behind the double-action wasn’t Samuel Colt but an Englishman named Robert Adams.

An example of one of Robert Adams' engraved double-action percussion revolvers.
An example of one of Robert Adams’ engraved double-action percussion revolvers. (Photo credit: iCollector.com)

Although Adams’ invention did a lot to speed the firing process, it was a little ahead of its time due largely to the poor quality of small parts. After all, the double-action was created in 1851, and it would be some time before manufacturing improved enough to keep up with the advances in firearms technology.

Why is a revolver called a wheel gun?

Colt Python
The Colt Python is a great example of a modern revolver. (Photo credit: Midway)

Revolvers have picked up a few nicknames over time, including “wheel gun” and “six-gun/six-shooter.” While it’s clear where those names came from—the revolving “wheel” that is the cylinder, and the then-standard six-shot capacity—there’s no one clear story about who started it. Theories and rumors abound, of course. So, is a revolver a wheel gun? The term is a colloquialism and while it isn’t technically wrong, it’s also not precisely correct. Whether or not you enjoy calling revolvers wheel guns is a matter of personal preference.

Korth revolver, available through Nighthawk Custom.
A Korth revolver available through Nighthawk Custom. There really is a revolver out there for everyone. (Photo credit: Nighthawk Custom)

Should you get a revolver?

It’s absolutely a fantastic idea to have at least one revolver in your gun collection. Having one makes you a well-rounded shooter capable of running multiple platforms, and the skills you pick up running a revolver translate to other guns. As time has gone by, an increasing number of gun owners have ignored the revolver, which is too bad considering what a solid option it is for all shooters. Today’s guns are offered in everything from 22 LR to 38 Special to 454 Casull, so there are plenty of options. Whether you want a revolver for self-defense, hunting, or fun, there’s one out there that will suit your needs.

Do you have a revolver? What model and caliber? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

Sign Up for Newsletter

Let us know what topics you would be interested:
© 2022 GunMag Warehouse. All Rights Reserved.
Copy link