Revolver 101: Unloading double-action revolvers

There’s a lot of officers who’ve only handled their issued firearm and could use a little training on how to safely unload revolvers


It had to happen sooner or later.

A friend told me a story about a young officer in his department who made an arrest and confiscated a double-action revolver from the suspect, only to realize he didn’t know how to safely unload it. The youngster consulted a senior officer on the shift, who showed him how to unload the gun…with a little bit of ribbing thrown in for good measure!

The typical Police1 reader is a cut above the average street cop in their firearms knowledge, so it may be a little hard for them to understand how any cop could be confused by a run-of-the-mill, double-action (DA) revolver. However, there’s a lot of officers out there who never fired a gun before the police academy, and who’ve never had any training or experience with anything other than their issued firearm. These officers simply haven’t been exposed to anything other than semiautomatic pistols and could use a little training on how to safely unload revolvers.

American police officers were armed with double-action revolvers for almost 100 years. (Photo/Mike Wood)
American police officers were armed with double-action revolvers for almost 100 years. (Photo/Mike Wood)

If that doesn’t describe you, that’s okay. Share this article with an officer in your department who could benefit from it – chances are good you won’t have to look very far to find one.

Safety 101

Before we discuss the details, we need to emphasize the importance of safety when handling firearms. It’s always important to be aware of firearms safety and to ensure you’re doing the right things to keep yourself and the people around you safe from an unintentional discharge, but it’s doubly important when you’re handling a firearm that’s not yours.

When you’re unfamiliar with a firearm and using a little extra brainpower to figure out how it works, it’s easy to overlook basic safety practices like keeping the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, or keeping your finger off the trigger. You need to be aware of this and ensure you’re always complying with the safe handling practices you were taught by your agency. Never get so involved in “figuring out the puzzle” that you let your attention stray from safe handling practices.

Additionally, the guns you encounter on the street may have been modified by people who were either ignorant or reckless (maybe both), and they may not be mechanically sound. Safety features may have been disabled, or proper operation may have been compromised, resulting in a gun that is prone to unintentional discharge. As such, you need to be even more aware of basic safety habits, like muzzle control, when you’re handling them.

Identifying double actions

American police officers were armed with double-action revolvers for almost 100 years. Even if you’ve never run across a real one, you’ve surely seen them in old pictures, and on TV and movie screens ‒ think “Adam-12” and you’ll know what we’re talking about here. If you don’t know what “Adam-12” is, slap yourself and go look it up on your smartphone, kid!

In a double-action revolver, the trigger does two things ‒ it can release an already cocked hammer, or it can cock an at-rest hammer and then release it as the trigger is pulled from start to finish. So, a person who wants to shoot a DA revolver can either cock the hammer back manually and pull the trigger, or if the hammer is forward, they can simply pull the trigger and the hammer will move back to the full cock position and then fall to ignite the cartridge as the trigger stroke is finished.

Some revolvers, like this Double-Action-Only (DAO) Ruger LCR, won’t have a visible hammer. (Photo/Mike Wood)
Some revolvers, like this Double-Action-Only (DAO) Ruger LCR, won’t have a visible hammer. (Photo/Mike Wood)

In some DA revolvers, the hammer is visible, but the spur on the hammer has been completely removed so there’s nothing to cock the hammer back with. In other DA revolvers, the hammer is enclosed in the frame of the gun and you can’t see or access it at all. Guns with these features are often referred to as “Double Action Only” (DAO) guns because there’s no provision for single-action (manually cocked) fire. The only way to fire these guns is to pull the trigger all the way through, which cocks and releases the spurless or internal hammer.

Since the majority of what you’ll encounter on the street are DA or DAO revolvers, let’s focus on them. We can talk about single-action revolvers another time.

Uncocking the double action

We’ve already said that the hammer on a DA revolver can either be manually cocked back by the user, or it can be cocked and released with a single trigger pull. Therefore, there are two conditions in which you can encounter a DA revolver: hammer cocked (back), or hammer at-rest (forward).

If the hammer is cocked, you need to safely lower it to the at-rest position. The way you do this is:

  1. Point the gun in a safe direction, holding it in your strong hand;
  2. Put a finger from your weak hand in-between the cocked hammer and the frame, so that it will block the fall of the hammer if you lose control of it (Note: This won’t be possible on DA guns with shrouded hammers, like the old-style S&W Bodyguard);
  3. Put your strong side thumb on the hammer spur, to control it and prevent it from falling forward (Note: If your hand is too small to get a good grip on the hammer spur with your strong side thumb, forget about the blocking finger, and instead, simply pinch the hammer between your weak hand thumb and index finger to control it);
  4. Pull the trigger with your strong side index finger to unlock the cocked hammer. As soon as the hammer is released, immediately remove your index finger from the trigger, to allow the internal safeties in the gun to operate properly, and prevent the gun from firing if the hammer gets away from you and slams forward. When the hammer starts to move forward, restrain it with your strong side thumb (or weak side thumb and index finger) and don’t let it fall yet;
  5. Once the hammer is released and your finger is no longer on the trigger, remove your weak hand blocking finger (as appropriate) and slowly move the hammer forward to the resting position with your strong side thumb (or weak side thumb and index finger).
If the hammer is cocked, it needs to be safely lowered before the revolver can be unloaded. Use caution here, as it doesn’t take much pressure on the trigger to make the gun fire in single-action mode. (Photo/Mike Wood)
If the hammer is cocked, it needs to be safely lowered before the revolver can be unloaded. Use caution here, as it doesn’t take much pressure on the trigger to make the gun fire in single-action mode. (Photo/Mike Wood)

Now that the hammer is in the at-rest position, we need to figure out how to open the cylinder of the gun, which is where the ammo is stored.

Opening the cylinder

In the majority of DA revolvers that you are likely to encounter, there’s a latch or button of some sort on the left side, at the rear of the frame. The latch is located above the grip and to the rear of the cylinder.

On Smith & Wesson, Taurus, Rossi and Charter Arms revolvers, this latch is pushed forward (toward the muzzle of the gun) to release the cylinder. On Colt and Armscor revolvers, this latch is pulled to the rear to release the cylinder. On Ruger and Kimber revolvers, the button is simply pushed inwards to release the cylinder. Once these latches are activated, you can simply push the unlocked cylinder out of the frame with your fingers. If you push from right to left, the cylinder will pop out of the frame on a small pivoting arm called the “crane” or “yoke” and you will now be able to see all the cartridges in the cylinder.

The latch on this Smith & Wesson needs to be pushed forward with your thumb to unlock the cylinder. Other guns may require you to pull the latch to the rear, or push it in towards the frame to unlock the cylinder. (Photo/Mike Wood)
The latch on this Smith & Wesson needs to be pushed forward with your thumb to unlock the cylinder. Other guns may require you to pull the latch to the rear, or push it in towards the frame to unlock the cylinder. (Photo/Mike Wood)
Once the cylinder is unlocked, you can push it through the frame from the right to the left. (Photo/Mike Wood)
Once the cylinder is unlocked, you can push it through the frame from the right to the left. (Photo/Mike Wood)
With the cylinder open, point the muzzle toward the sky and push downward on the tip of the ejector rod to unload the cylinder. Unfired cartridges may fall out by gravity – without pushing the ejector rod – when you point the muzzle skyward, and you can catch them in your hand to prevent them from falling onto the ground. Fired cases will often require you to push on the ejector rod though, as shown. (Photo/Mike Wood)
With the cylinder open, point the muzzle toward the sky and push downward on the tip of the ejector rod to unload the cylinder. Unfired cartridges may fall out by gravity – without pushing the ejector rod – when you point the muzzle skyward, and you can catch them in your hand to prevent them from falling onto the ground. Fired cases will often require you to push on the ejector rod though, as shown. (Photo/Mike Wood)

On a very, very small number of DA revolvers, this latch is not located at the left, rear, but rather somewhere else. On the Dan Wesson brand revolvers, the latch is located on the crane at the forward edge of the cylinder, and you have to slide it down to unlock the cylinder. On the new Smith & Wesson M&P Bodyguard, the latch is located on the top center of the frame, behind the rear sight, and you push it forward to release the cylinder.

Some older designs don’t have a visible latch at all – instead, the tip of the ejector rod needs to be pulled towards the muzzle to unlock the cylinder. You’ll see this on some older .22 caliber revolvers, but it’s not common.

Emptying the cylinder

Once the cylinder is swung out of the frame, you need to get the cartridges out of it. In some cases, simply holding the gun in a muzzle-up direction will allow gravity to do the work, and the cartridges will freefall out of the cylinder. In most cases though, you’ll have to manually eject them, which is accomplished by pushing the ejector rod (found at the front of the cylinder) to the rear. When the ejector rod is pushed, a star-shaped piece in the center of the gun called the extractor will pull the cartridges out of their chambers by their rims. Make sure you’re ready to catch these extracted cartridges or let them fall onto a soft surface before you push the ejector rod. For safety purposes, it’s not a good idea to let loaded cartridges fall to the ground.

Once the cartridges have been removed from the cylinder, then the gun is safely unloaded. Make sure you run a fingertip across all the empty chambers to physically verify they are empty – don’t trust your eyes only, as they can trick you into seeing what you expect to see. Do this double-check and you’ll make sure there are no cartridges left behind in the cylinder.

Don’t trust your eyes alone, to determine whether the cylinder is empty. Use the tip of your finger to physically verify each chamber is empty, to avoid dangerous surprises like this hidden cartridge that didn’t fall out. (Photo/Mike Wood)
Don’t trust your eyes alone, to determine whether the cylinder is empty. Use the tip of your finger to physically verify each chamber is empty, to avoid dangerous surprises like this hidden cartridge that didn’t fall out. (Photo/Mike Wood)

Discretion versus valor

If you can follow these directions, you’ll be able to safely unload a double-action revolver.

However, if you’re still not sure you can do it safely, the best thing you can do is ask for help from a more knowledgeable officer. You might get teased a bit, but that’s a lot better than having an unintentional discharge. You don’t want to hurt anybody by accident, and you also don’t want the new nickname you’ll get if you shoot a hole in the hood of your cruiser while unloading a perp’s gun. If you’re unsure, secure the gun and call for help.

Be safe out there!

NEXT: 5 important lessons about firearms maintenance

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