Should a single action sixgun be used for defensive use and/or concealed carry? For more than seventy years the single action was state-of-the art when it came to self-defense with double action revolvers reaching perfection with the Smith & Wesson Triple-Lock of 1907, while semi-autos arrived at the same state in 1911 with Colt's Government Model .45 ACP. Modern as the new handguns were, many lawmen, including the Texas Rangers, held onto their single action sixguns well into the 20th Century; and anyone old enough to remember WWII, or now has the History Channel, has seen the famous .45 Colt Single Action on the hip of General Patton.
Realistically, I would rate the double action revolver as the first choice for most who seek a self-defense handgun, followed by a carefully selected semi-automatic, and finally the single action sixgun. I will neither encourage nor discourage anyone as to picking a single action as their concealed weapon of choice. However, if it is chosen we must forget anything ever seen in the movies concerning the use of single actions and start all over again. Gun handling in the movies is about as far removed from reality as it is possible to be. If one chooses a single action, one must be competent when it comes to the loading, shooting, unloading, and reloading of the single action sixgun. Any handgun that is carried for self-defense purposes should be used for regular systematic practice, and if anything this is even more important if the choice is a single action revolver.
Three times in my life I have had to draw a sixgun for self-defensive purposes against something other than four-legged animals. Twice my family was with me and the .44 Special double action sixgun was very comforting. The other time, simply the sight of a 7 1/2" Colt Single Action Army was enough to immediately deter those seeking trouble. Four men thought they had a young teenager at their mercy. They did not know I was armed but the sight of that long barreled Colt changed their mind very quickly. In fact, they decided they had urgent business elsewhere. Had I had to resort to its use I do not feel that I would have been at any great disadvantage with five 255 grain .45 Colt loads.
Is the single action sixgun the best choice for self-defense? Of course not! Over the years, the double action sixgun, the single action semi-automatics such as the 1911 Government Model and the Browning Hi-Power, and today the new wave of double action semi-autos, have all been better best choices. This is not because they are so much better but simply because their use is so much easier to master than a single action.
As mentioned, I would rate the double action revolver as the first choice for most who seek a self defense handgun, followed by the double action semi-automatic, the standard single action 1911-style semi-automatic, and finally the single action sixgun. The order of rating is based on simplicity and mastery of operation. For the first two it is simply a matter of drawing the gun and firing. The double action sixgun with a smoothed up action will give the same feel with every pull of the trigger, while the double action semi-automatic, at least most models, will be operated double action on the first shot and then go to a single action mode for subsequent shots, that is the gun will cock itself for succeeding shots rather than being cocked by a pull of the trigger. This means the first shot will have a trigger pull that is markedly different from the first shot.
With the 1911-style semi-automatic, the slide must be worked to jack a round into the chamber, or if it is carried with a round in the chamber, in cocked-and-locked mode
with the safety on, the safety must be operated before the gun can be fired. Finally with the single action, the hammer must be cocked before the gun can be fired and then cocked for each subsequent firing. Is the single action slowest to get into operation? Is it too slow for repeat shots? Is it too slow for reloading? One might think the double action sixgun or semi-automatic of either style would be eons faster than the old single action. Not so! The key point is not the type of firearm used but the training involved. No handgun is any faster for the first shot from leather than the single action. We are talking an aimed shot not just clearing leather fast draw and blasting away. There is no practical difference between the action styles for that first shot from leather. At my age, with my relexes, I can SAFELY draw a single action from the leather, cock the hammer, fire a shot and HIT the center of FBI silhouette target at seven yards in less than one second using a 7 1/2” single action.
When it comes to self-defense, there are really two separate and distinct categories, wild animals, and less desirables. For those working or traveling about in areas where attack by wild animals is a possibility, the single action is certainly the number one choice as it is the easiest to pack, the most portable, and chambered for such powerful cartridges such as the .454 Casull, .475 and .500 Linebaugh. With animals of lesser size and temper than the big bears such as mountain lions and black bears, the need for such power does not exist. These critters are much easier to stop and the .44 Magnum, .45 Colt, and .44 Special, even the .45 ACP, all properly loaded will do just fine.
When it comes to carrying any gun for self-defense no matter what the choice of action, I again issue a reminder to forget anything that has ever been seen on the silver screen. Gun handling in movies is about as far removed from reality as it is possible to be; in many cases it is exceedingly dangerous. Just about everything the movies teach about guns is unsafe, and virtually impossible. Every time I see a movie-type walking around with a cocked revolver I wonder how many gun accidents are really the fault of what someone has seen in the movies? The decision to carry a gun is one of the most important decisions in this life and it must not be entered into matter of factly, and every handgun that is carried for self-defense purposes should be used for regular practice. One would think that would go without saying but were I a betting man I would be willing to wager that more aren't than are! Practice should not only include shooting but drawing from the carry position and reloading. This is even more imperative with single actions than with the other types.
Most fights are stopped with less than two shots. When it comes to self-defense many believe that the only answer for self defense is a semi-auto with a high capacity magazine with several back up magazines. Statistics do not support this. Unless one is in law enforcement the possibility of this being needed is probably somewhat less than the probability of hitting the lottery, however if one does find oneself needing more than two rounds, or even more than the five normally carried in a single action, how and how fast can a reload be accomplished?
When it comes to normal reloads, the Colt SAA is always going to come in last, as a new magazine can be inserted in a very short time, and the double action sixgun using a full moon clip, is also much faster than punching out the empties from a single action's cylinder and then reloading them one at a time. However, what if the reload isn't normal? What if one doesn't have a spare magazine or looses the extra magazine? It is quicker to load the cylinder of a single action than to insert cartridges into the one magazine at hand, and catch an empty cartridge case under the extractor star of a double action and see how slow the reloads become.
Safety is a prime concern when carrying any handgun with the single action having special considerations in this area. Heroes and bad guys of the movies may run around with cocked single action in hand but this is definitely a disaster waiting to happen. In every training course I have taken as well as police qualification courses I have been invited to participate in, one of the scenarios requires covering a suspect with the handgun until help arrives. With a double action sixgun or semi-auto this is no problem as it take quite a deliberate pull of the trigger, with a 1911 style semi-auto the gun can be cocked and ready to fire with the safety on, so again there is no problem, however with single action sixguns what do we do? If the gun is cocked usually very little pressure is required to fire the weapon. In this case it would be very wise to not cock it but rather leave the single action hammer at rest until the gun is to be fired and practice being able to cock and fire with as much speed and steadiness as possible.
One other aspect of safety arises with a single action sixgun, that being if the hammer is cocked and one decides not to fire then what? With the old style single actions such as the Colt Single Action Army, the Ruger Flat-Tops and Old Models, and the replica imports carried with an empty under the hammer, once the gun is cocked the cylinder rotates and if the hammer is let down it now rests on a loaded round. This is very dangerous and one must address the fact that if the hammer is let down it must be done in such a way as to not rest on a loaded round but rather back on the empty chamber. And it must be done in the midst of a stressful situation. In real-life it is extremely hazardous. So how do we handle it without looking down the front of the cylinder to find the empty chamber? This is something that should be practiced until it can be done perfectly and as with loading and unloading, even in the dark.
The method is actually very simple. The hammer has been cocked, a live round is under that hammer, and it is necessary to place the revolver in a safe condition without firing it. To do this, the hammer is VERY CAREFULLY lowered. Remember there's a live round under that hammer! The hammer is now brought back to the half cock notch, and the cylinder is rotated as one listens to 1, 2, 3, 4 clicks. Draw the hammer all the back to the full cock notch and carefully lower it all the way. If this is done correctly the empty chamber is now back under the hammer. This drill should be practiced with dummy cartridges until it is mastered perfectly. Practice in the dark; practice blindfolded. It actually sounds harder to do than it is to accomplish.
If a traditional single action is chosen for self-defense, one should also be careful about the leather that is used to house it. Again forget everything the movies teach. What is needed is a compact and secure holster that allows the single action in question to be carried concealed. Texas Ranger Tom Threepersons designed the single action sixgun holster known as the Threepersons. He cut away all excess leather from the designs of the time, and came up with the most popular single or double action sixgun holster of the better part of the 20th Century.
Threepersons original holster was crafted by S.D.“Tio Sam” Myres in his El Paso shop. Over the past eight decades the Threepersons holster has been produced by virtually every leather maker including Bianchi, George Lawrence, and El Paso Saddlery offers it beautifully crafted as the #1920 in plain, roughout, border stamped, basket stamped, and full floral carving all fully lined and the choice of a hammer thong or safety strap.
The original Threepersons holster is pictured in several books including R. L. Wilson’s The Peacemakers, John Bianchi’s Blue Steel & Gunleather, and the leather connoisseur’s bible, Packing Iron by Richard Rattenbury. I often refer to these books to study leather designs not the least of which is the original Tom Threepersons. As a collector of quality leather I have Threepersons-style holsters from the three companies mentioned as well as having seen the original holster and sixgun used by Tom himself. All those currently offered, while beautifully crafted renditions, are not exact duplicates of the original. The answer for an original design was found with Walt Ostin of Custom Leather. His rendition of Threepersons holster would certainly be considered perfection by the old lawman himself. Everything is here, the right slant, the heavy-duty single weight leather, no safety strap or excess leather, a tight belt loop, and as a great added bonus fully carved exactly like Threepersons’ was.
Thad Rybka offers a full line of concealment holsters. The Speed Scabbard which is his version of the Tom Threepersons. Straight draw, crossdraw, or muzzle to the rear slant are all available on this model as well as plain roughout or fully carved. A favorite of mine is the M81 Crossdraw featuring a high riding design that rides in close to the body with the front half of the trigger guard covered. There is no better choice than Rybka's design for a single action inside the pants holster that is made of roughout leather so the holster itself will cling to the clothing and not move.
Milt Sparks' rendition of the Threepersons was designed by FBI Agent Hank Sloan. Known as the Model 200AW, this rig features a screw adjustable tension welt for security and, at Elmer Keith's suggestion, a hammer shroud to protect the lining of a coat or jacket. A second Sparks' design is The Summer Special, which is an inside the pants holster mainly for double action sixguns and semi-automatics. Both of these concealment rigs are available for the Colt Single Action and I use both of them frequently. Canadian Bob Mernickel, now relocated to Nevada, also makes an inside-the-pants holster that clips over the belt and works very well for the Colt Single Action Army; he also makes splendid belt holster with a boned fit and cut very low in the front that works great.
Jim Lockwood of Legends in Leather offers a unique concealment, or open carry for that matter, holster fully lined, floral carved, and made to hang straight. As with the Tom Threepersons design, it uses a minimum of leather, however it rides slightly lower and also features a low-cut out in the front below the hammer for an easier draw and easy one-handed return. Rather than being sewn the holster, two Chicago screw secure the belt loop, and this loop also has two stabilizing ears that ride behind the pants. To match with the holster Lockwood supplies a floral carved cartridge slide holding 12 rounds. Normally such a slide would be to stiff to ride comfortably on a pants belt, however Lockwood cuts a large slot in the back of the slide so it easily conforms to the body and also allows positioning of the pants belt loop in the middle of the slide.
Rusty Sherrick works in horsehide and exotic leather and has come up with a high riding concealment rig for a 3 ½” New Thunderer in .45 Colt. Being of horsehide it maintains its shape without being bulky and also holds the gun without the need for a safety strap. The holster is boned to the counters of the single action and is basically a belt slide with a holster body incorporated. It rides high and tight and easily concealed.
Derry Gallagher specializes in concealment holsters for semi-automatics, double action sixguns, and also single action sixguns. Each instructional and is holsters from horsehide which is not only lighter in weight, it is also tougher than cowhide. Each holster is hand finished, and boned to the exact sixgun it will carry, then dyed or left natural and waxed. The wax minimizes any transfer of dye to the clothing. With the boned fit no safety strap is necessary.
At the Shootists Holiday in 1986, I watched two well-known single action pistoleros who are both snakes with a single action, Jim Taylor, the Pistol Packin’ Preacher, and my colleague Mike Venturino, shoot bowling pins with single actions against an accomplished action shooter with a $2,000 semi-auto and competition holster. Venturino stood on the left and used an old Colt Single Action .38-40 with a 7 1/2” barrel and a traditional 1880s style holster. Taylor on the right used a Ruger .45 Colt also with a 7 1/2” barrel and a 20 year-old homemade holster, no metal lining just a comfortable packin' rig. At the signal both would draw, fire and take the pin before the action shooter had a chance. Who says single actions are slow into action?
Forgetting the games and looking at the serious side of life, is the person who packs a single action at a great disadvantage? In the vast majority of cases I do not believe so and I pack a single action as often as not and almost always when the hardware is packed openly. When I am out testing a double action or semi-automatic, more often than not I will be wearing a single action. They just seem to holster and pack so much easier than other types. The first shot is fast, and subsequent shots may be slower but the big bore single action can be depended upon to deliver five or six shots from a gun whose balance and portability has never been equaled. In the areas I frequent the most, the mountains, foothills, forests, and deserts of Idaho, the chances of needing anything faster than a big bore single action for the first shot and subsequent shots is about as close as we can get to zero. The single action not only fits my hand just fine, I cannot hit a target as easy from the hip with a either a double action or semi-auto as well as I can with a single action. It just points the way a sixgun should.
Yes, I realize packin' a single action in the 21st Century could be looked upon as more tradition than practicality but given my choice as to a big bore single action sixgun or a high capacity nine I would pick the single action every time. By big bore I refer to the 250 to 300 grain bullets from the .41 and .44 Special, the .41 and .44 Magnum, the .45 Colt , and the .454 Casull, or even heavier bullets from the .475 and .500 Linebaugh. Of course, I am not speaking from the standpoint of a large city peace officer by any means. If I had to go into the daily jungles that many peace officers must face every working day I would want a 100% reliable semi-automatic, preferably chambered in .45ACP or at the very least, a Smith & Wesson K-frame .357 or big bore N-frame.
The traditional single action Single Action Army is a classic pure and simple. So are the 1911 Government Model and the Smith & Wesson Models 19 (.357 Magnum), 27 (.357 Magnum) and 29 (.44 Magnum). There are semi- automatics being manufactured today that will probably be labeled classics in the future. I like 'em all. But first and foremost I always have been a single action sixgunner and always will be. From my first Ruger .22 Single-Six through the .38-40 Colt Single Action, .45 Colt Single Action, Ruger .357 Flat-Top, Ruger .44 Flat-Top, .....