When Nuthin’ Works

Touted For Their Reliability, Even The Finest
Double-Action Revolvers Can Have Problems

By Massad Ayoob

In every article you’ve ever read comparing revolvers to autos, a much-touted advantage of the former was its reputation for reliability. In the fine print—hopefully—someone mentioned revolvers can and do fail, and when it happens the malfunction is often tougher to clear than with a semi-automatic pistol.

Four of my fellow shooters got a powerful lesson in this atthe International Revolver Championships in Frostproof, Florida, at Frank Garcia’s fabulous Universal Shooting Academy range. Let me state up front all four are very gun-savvy Master and Expert class shooters who know their hardware and maintain it scrupulously. To spare them any undeserved teasing, I’ll number them instead of naming them.

Scott Mulkerin-tuned version of this 4-inch 625 came to the rescue
when No. 1’s 5-inch 625 started shooting “away from the sights.”

Shooter NO. 1: 625 Six-Gun Gets Deep-Sixed

“No. 1” is a Five-Gun Master in IDPA and has used his various moon-clipped S&W .45 ACP revolvers to win multiple state and regional championships. In his first of 13 stages he realized he was hitting way high, to the tune of 8 inches or so. Missed plates required time-consuming reloads. After the first or second stage, he screwed the rear sight all the way down, only a turn and a quarter, but the problem persisted. At the third stage he bagged the 5-inch 625 he’d been shooting and went to its replacement, the 4-inch Scott Mulkerin-tuned 625 that had won him so many championship titles. It hit where it looked, but he was already too far behind to have any hope of winning the match. He’s been too busy (and probably too disgusted) to wring out the problem gun since.

Shooter No. 2’s 686, sans Hogue grips, awaits gunsmith inspection.
Problem turned out to be in the bolt.

Shooter NO. 2: Slick but Sick 686

“No. 2” is a two-time national champion title holder who doesn’t usually shoot a wheelgun, but is pretty darn good with one when he does. A week before IRC he and I had been to a 50-person shooting contest where he had used his 4-inch S&W 686 to knock me down to 2nd place, beating me on the group-size tie-breaker by 1/8 inch. He and his gun had both been running fine, and when I shook his hand I told him, “You look ready for IRC to me!”

And he was… until the big match itself, where his gun started going “Bang, Click, Bang, Click, Bang…” The cylinder was not locking up in fast double-action play, and after the second stage he gave up on it and borrowed Shooter No. 4’s spare revolver, another 4-inch L-Frame Smith. By then, though, he had lost what his brother shooters estimated as 20 seconds, and what might have been a winning score finished down in high D Class. The failure turned out to be in the cylinder bolt.

An aftermarket light spring kit plus hard primer handloads tanked
reliability for No. 3’s GP100.

Shooter No. 3: Weak Springs Plus Hard
Primers Defeat Strong Ruger

“No. 3” is a champion shooter who had put a lightened spring kit into his Ruger GP100. He started getting misfires in the first stage and it got worse through the subsequent three, destroying his score before he swapped ammo with Shooter No. 4. The latter’s .38 Special loads worked fine. No. 3 told me later he’s convinced the combination of relatively hard CCI primers in his own handloads and the lightened mainspring he’d installed in his Ruger were what poisoned the reliability… and his performance.

Shooter No. 4: Dirt Hurts

“No. 4” has won multiple division champion titles in regional IDPA Stock Service Revolver championships with his 4-inch S&W 686. He was the “sole survivor” of the four gun problems that day because, dry-firing just before a stage, he felt the cylinder binding and wisely requested a time out. Over at the Safe Table, he realized while he had brushed out his chambers after every few stages, he had been too rushed to clean under the ejector star: debris had built up there, pushing the star back against the recoil shield of the frame window. A quick brushing fixed it, and he finished unhampered as 1st Place in the Unclassified division.

Lessons Learned

One of “Ayoob’s Laws” is, “Anything made by man can fail, including our parents’ children.” N- and L-Framed Smith & Wesson revolvers are among the most reliable handguns ever made, and if Kalashnikov had ever designed a revolver it probably would have resembled the Ruger GP100. In the latter case, aftermarket parts had altered the synergy of the famously reliable Ruger with negative consequences. In Shooter No. 1’s case, we can argue it’s a sight issue and not a gun issue, but the sights are a part of the gun, and many of us have seen even fixed sights change point of aim/point of impact with time and lots of shooting.

Notice in three of the four cases, changing to a backup gun solved the problem. Few shooting matches allow you to carry a second loaded handgun during a stage in case the primary goes down, but history has taught us that for personal defense, the backup gun has been a life-saver again and again. Perhaps the ultimate lesson is, “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”

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6 thoughts on “When Nuthin’ Works

  1. Charles K. Roswell

    Perhaps the ultimate lesson is, “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”
    In the printed paper edition, “but prepare for the worst.” was not printed.

    Reply
  2. Joe Brazil

    I agree 100% that revolvers can certainly fail, and have had a few fail on me, but I think the context in which revolver failures are often described differs a bit from the context of what an average shooter will encounter.

    The failures of revolvers I’ve witnessed and heard about usually seem to occur at extended training classes, or shooting matches, both with pretty high rounds counts, or to revolvers that have been tweaked for better performance (e.g., #3 above, which also happened to me with a GP100 at an IDPA match). While they demonstrate that, yes, revolvers can fail, I don’t think that necessarily relates to an average shooter who won’t have someone tweak the action, maybe fires 100 rounds a month, cleans the gun afterwards, and leaves it in a nightstand or carries it.

    Reply
  3. Michael McMillan

    I remember years ago taking to the range a S&W model 13 that I was considering taking in trade for an alloy frame Colt Commander. After putting a couple of boxes of rounds through it it locked up from being dirty. Certainly not an occurrence that would have occurred in a defensive situation…

    Reply
  4. HankB

    I inherited an N-frame S&W “357” which was among the first made after WWII – it’s seen literally tens of thousands of rounds go down the barrel with exactly ZERO malfunctions of any kind. I’d say it’s a good example of revolver reliability. Also have an M&P .38 and a K-22 with similarly large round counts and no issues – ever.

    BUT – anything made by man can fail – including a revolver. Many products have “infant mortality” issues, where poor QC at the factory results in an early failure; it’s been my experience that firearms fall into this category. If a gun gets through its first 1000 rounds without an issue, the odds are normal maintenance will keep it working just fine for a LONG time until normal wear & tear starts to catch up with it.

    Another issue – alluded to in Ayoob’s examples – is gunsmithing. There are some BAD gunsmiths out there buggering up guns; I personally experienced problems from a nationally known smith (actually recommended by Mr. Ayoob in one of his magazine articles) who messed up one of my guns SO badly I had to return it to the manufacturer to get it to work at all. This was NOT a “revolver” problem, but a “bad gunsmith” problem.

    Reply
  5. RODNEY KLOMP

    For any of my revolver EDC guns I stay away from changing out springs for weaker ones just to make the action feel better, that alone can cost you your life at some point in time, with my autos I leave them alone also, and just get use to their triggers and different types of actions , I feel staying proficient with all my guns is priority #1, I won’t buy a gun if it doesn’t feel right or the action needs work, there are too many great guns out there today that the need to re-do an action to make it right should’t be on a new gun..

    Reply
  6. chris

    nothing made by man is perfect. yes wheel guns fail. dont clean um put weak springs in em……same for autos. shot revolvers a lot for 40+ years and only had one that gave me trouble. plunger on the star ejector would back out and lock up the gun. a little of the Mrs finger nail polish fixed that. I for one am tired of hearing about how much revolvers can fail so auto users can feel good about their handgun. with ammo other than ball, autos are more reliable than they used to be, the revolver is still more reliable.

    Reply

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