Revolver shooters tend to be a pretty smug lot when it comes to dealing with malfunctions, enjoying the reality that serious revolver malfunctions are fairly rare. When severe malfunctions do happen, however, they usually take the gun out of commission. The usual prescription to “stroke the trigger again” doesn’t solve these unusual problems, and most people don’t know that there is a malfunction drill for revolvers — one that addresses all of the predictable failures.
The Loudest Click in the World
The first and most common malfunction is a simple misfire. This is where stroking the trigger again is called for, as it brings a new round under the hammer. If it ignites, you’re back in business. If it doesn’t, follow the universal prescription: RELOAD!
The usual issue with a revolver not going “bang” is, of course, lack of ammunition. Reloading obviously cures that problem, and also gives us another diagnostic tool: if the gun still fails to fire after the reload, you probably have a broken firing pin. This is a failure you can’t fix in the field. You should drop the gun and implement your backup routine. (You do carry backup, don’t you?)
Contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of things that can go wrong with a revolver. Thankfully they’re fairly rare, but they can tie the gun up so solidly that it becomes a paperweight. If this happens in the middle of a dynamic critical incident, getting the gun up and running (if it can be done) is a top priority.
Serious malfunctions will show one of two symptoms: either the trigger is locked in the forward position and won’t go back, or it’s locked in the rearmost position and won’t reset. As it happens, the malfunction drill is exactly the same for both symptoms, which means we don’t need to waste time trying to diagnose the problem while someone is shooting at us!
If the trigger is locked, either forward or back, the first thing to do is called “tap-stroke.” This is not unlike the “tap-rack” for autoloaders: with the heel of your hand, sharply strike the left side of the cylinder and frame, then stroke the trigger.
A trigger locked in the forward position can be caused by an unlatched cylinder (originating with a bent cylinder yoke, debris, or just plain bad luck). The tap-stroke will latch it solidly and the gun should be running again. If the problem is a self-engaged lock on a Smith & Wesson, it’s been my experience that it clears (shop-induced) failures about 15% of the time.
If the trigger is locked in the rearward position, the most common causes are dirt or ignition debris in the channel where the hand rides. The tap-stroke will usually knock the debris loose and return the gun to function.
If tap-stroke doesn’t do the job, RELOAD. It’s not uncommon to find a piece of dirt or unburned powder under the ejector, which wedges the cylinder enough that it won’t turn. Once reloaded, and with the speck (hopefully) thrown clear, the gun should function again. If it doesn’t—if the trigger is still locked in either position—drop the revolver and draw your backup.
Kick the Door Open
What if you attempt to reload, and the cylinder won’t swing out? It’s time to “kick the door open.” With your shooting hand, operate the release button and, as you do so, rotate the gun so that the right side is pointing up. Forcefully strike the cylinder with the heel of your hand, which may dislodge the cylinder and allow you to complete your reload.
This clears a high primer that wedges the cylinder, which prevents both the trigger from operating and the cylinder from opening. If the cylinder won’t open, drop the gun and go for your backup—you have a problem that you can’t fix in the timeline of a gunfight.
Such a terminal failure might be because a squib load has jammed itself between the chamber and the forcing cone, or it might be because the ejector rod on your S&W has become unscrewed. In either case, it’s not something you can fix right now—implement your backup procedure.
The final hurdle is if you can’t complete the reload because the cylinder won’t close. This is the last “hard failure.” Drop the gun and implement your backup plan.
Practicing the Malfunction Drill
While I normally like to practice as realistically as possible, this is a time when you can’t do so without damaging your gun. The malfunction drill is to get a wheelgun up and running when it won’t function at all. In those cases, a damaged but functional gun is preferable to a non-functioning gun.
If you have to perform the drill in real life, you’ll clear the problem but the gun will need repair afterwards. That certainly beats the alternative! If you start with a completely functional revolver, doing these drills at full force will result in damage.
So how do you train? Go through the motions at reduced speed and with little force, like a flow drill in martial arts. While it’s not perfect, it will at least acquaint your brain with the sequence, so that it has some idea what to do in a real incident.
Once More, Without the Narrative
The drill in sequence:
1. Stroke the trigger again.
2. If the gun still doesn’t fire, RELOAD.
3. If the gun fails to fire after the reload, drop it and go to backup.
2. If that doesn’t clear the problem, RELOAD.
3. If you can’t reload, “kick the door open” and finish the reload.
4. If the cylinder is still stuck, drop the gun and reach for your backup.
5. If you make it through the reload but the cylinder won’t close, it’s (again) backup time!
Remember to go to backup at any point that you finish a reload and the gun still won’t function.
That’s the entire sequence, and it addresses all of the revolver failures that can be fixed without tools. Now, go and practice!