Five Beans In The Wheel?

Did They Carry Five Or Six On The Frontier?
; .

U.S. Trooper Taylor survived the battle of The Little Bighorn but lost his
Colt when his horse plunged down a river embankment. His memoirs tell of
carrying six rounds and saving the last one for himself should he be captured.

It’s an argument as old as time, or at least since 1976 when The Shootist hit the silver screen. It is one of my favorite John Wayne movies but one I hate because it was his last movie role. But I digress.

The Arizona Rangers knew their business and went against
the worst of the frontier badmen with five beans in the wheel.

The Lesson

In the movie, J.B. Books (John Wayne) gives Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard) a shooting lesson with a Colt Single Action Army, also known as the Peacemaker.

The dialog goes something like this:

J.B. Books: “See that tree on the left with the divided trunk? You take the right side. Aim well and put five slugs in it.”
Gillom Rogers: “Why not six?”

J.B. Books: “You keep your hammer on an empty chamber for safety.”

Gillom Rogers: “And if you’re going out to face somebody?”

J.B. Books: “Load six if your insides tell you to.”

Hollywood is rarely historically correct, but did they get this right? Was it common to only load five in a six-shooter?

The root cause of concern is the design of the Colt SAA and other similar revolvers. The firing pin protrudes past the recoil plate when the hammer is at rest. The hammer is riding on the primer if a cartridge is in place. On a correctly working Colt SAA, pulling the hammer back to the first “click” position allows the trigger to catch a safety notch on the hammer, holding the firing pin away from the primer.

The Colt SAA became the official handgun of the U.S. military in 1872. In 1874 the military published a guide every soldier suffering from insomnia should have read, The Description And Management Of The Springfield Rifle, Carbine And Army Revolvers. It was the official guide to the care and use of the military weapons of the day and had the official loading procedure for “Colt’s Revolver, Calibre .45.”

OPERATION — To Load — Hold the Pistol in the left hand, muzzle downward, half-cock it with the right hand and open the gate. Insert the cartridges with the right hand, close the gate and bring the hammer to the safety notch; keep it there until the Pistol is to be fired.

There is no mention of loading five and lowering the hammer down on an empty chamber.

Evidence shows soldiers loaded the pistol fully and carried it on the not-so-safe-notch. Those experienced with the Colt SAA know the notches can be sheared away with a sudden impact or worn away with rough or improper use.


George Custer’s command, including scouts as shown here, had just
received their new Colt SAA revolvers before heading into unknown territory.

Trooper Tierney’s accidental death before the Battle of Rosebud made it into the local newspapers.


One of the earliest mentions of a negligent discharge occurred during Custer’s 1874 expedition into the Black Hills. Private Hoener, 7th Cavalry, Company B, suffered a negligent discharge while mounting his horse. The shot only injured the trooper’s leg. He was lucky.

Another incident occurred just before the Battle of the Rosebud. “Tragedy struck on May 30th when a man, Private Francis Tierney, accidentally shot himself while chopping wood.” According to accounts, the trooper carelessly dropped his holstered revolver down on a rock as he prepared to chop firewood. The short drop was enough to cause the gun to fire, fatally wounding the trooper.

Newspaper reporter and military veteran John F. Finerty traveled with General Crook’s command on the same expedition. Unlike reporters today, Finerty went armed and was ready to fight if need be.

“Finerty still had much to learn about taking proper care of his equipment and weapons. After a brief rest, Finerty got back on his horse, and the muzzle of his rifle accidentally struck the hammer of his revolver. The hammer was resting on the primer in the cartridge, and the sudden jolt discharged the weapon. The bullet damaged the back of the saddle but did no further harm. Captain Guy Henry asked him, “Is the bullet in your person?” In confusion, Finerty stammered, “I don’t know.” The officer was quite amused. “Then, by Jove, it is about time you found out!”

More evidence is in the memoirs of Private William Taylor. Taylor was separated from his fellow troopers during Major Reno’s failed assault on the Sioux villages. “The chances of being wounded or captured were many … so I reserved one of the six bullets that my revolver contained for the last resort, myself.” As fate had it, Taylor dropped his revolver when he grabbed the pommel as his horse plunged down the river embankment.

Even with all the documented accidents, the 1898 edition of The Description And Management Of The Springfield Rifle, Carbine And Army Revolvers read the same as it did 24 years earlier.

It wasn’t just the military who failed to practice proper firearm safety. None other than Wyatt Earp had a negligent discharge when he was a policeman in Wichita, Kansas.

Wichita Beacon, January 12th, 1876 — “Last Sunday night, while policeman Earp was sitting with two or three others in the back room of the Custom House saloon, his revolver slipped from his holster and in falling to the floor the hammer, which rested on the cap, is supposed to have struck the chair, causing a discharge of one of the barrels. The ball passed through his coat, struck the north wall then glanced off and passed out through the ceiling.”

Another tragic story is shared in the book Gunsmoke and Saddleleather. A tenderfoot shoved his new Colt .45 under his pillow as he rode in a sleeper car. The porter came to make up the room, and the cowboy moved to a nearby seat to wait. As the porter jerked the sheets off the bed, the Colt fell, causing it to discharge. The bullet killed the tenderfoot owner.


Even famous lawman Wyatt Earp suffered the ignominy of a negligent discharge.
Thereafter, he always carried “five beans in the wheel.”

Sheriff John Behan was a rival with Earp but the pair were two peas
in a pod when it came to Colt SAA safety — both famously had a
negligent discharge from their fully loaded Colt.

At Home On The Range

In 1894, A.C. Gould revised and updated his book Modern American Pistols and Revolvers. In the section on Colt’s revolvers, he added this: “The manufacturers of the Colt revolver state that the arm should be carried with the hammer resting in the safety notch; but many army officers and frontiersmen habitually carried one chamber of the revolver empty, with the hammer down on the empty chamber.”

The practice gave birth to the phrase “five beans in the wheel.”

In following what the fictional character J.B. Books preached, rancher Edgar Bronson related a time when he and his companions were concerned about the nearby Oglala Sioux. “Several of us proceeded to slip a cartridge into the ‘hammer chamber’ of our pistol cylinders.” Clearly, they carried five unless their insides told them to do differently.

In 1881, Tombstone lawman Billy Breckenridge was deafened from a close gunshot. Initially, he thought he was being attacked but realized Sheriff John Behan’s revolver had dropped from its holster and discharged. From then on, Breckenridge practiced five beans in the wheel but isn’t it ironic rivals Wyatt Earp and John Behan suffered the same embarrassment?

While Wyatt Earp grudgingly admitted to the incident in Wichita, he also stated only a fool would load six in a Colt revolver. He was among many deciding five shots were enough in a rapidly taming west. But was it tame?

In his biography, Gun Notches, Arizona Ranger Tom Rynning shared several stories hammering home how prevalent the practice of only loading five was.

“Harry’s gun was out and going in a flash. He put four of his five bullets into Tracey quicker than you could tell it, then stopped with one loaded shell in reserve. No real frontiersman ever carries six cartridges in his six-shooter because if his gun should drop on the ground and there is a loaded shell under the hammer, it might go off and hit the wrong party. Then Tracey took another shot at the Ranger, emptying his gun. That sixth shot likely surprised Harry, him counting the other fellow’s shots and thinking his gun was empty on the fifth report.”


Impact, misuse or even long-term wear can damage the notches on a Colt SAA hammer.

Many of Alan’s original Colt SAA revolvers had similar damage. A skilled
gunsmith can carefully weld and re-cut the damaged or missing notches.

When not cocked, the Colt SAA firing pin protrudes enough to set off a cartridge.

When the hammer is setting in the safe notch, the hammer
is recessed enough to prevent an accidental discharge.


By 1878 changes in design brought the rebounding hammer and other safety features, but not on the Colt SAA. The Achilles Heel of the Colt revolver safety notch was a known issue, and other gun makers capitalized on it. In 1935 Iver Johnson filed the trademark “Hammer on the Hammer” to prove their revolvers were safe when fully loaded.

The current production Colt SAA has changed little in the past 150 years, but now the Colt manual warns to carry it with the hammer down on an empty chamber. Hopefully, this is standard practice for all those with the same design revolver.

Ruger and other manufacturers have gone to transfer bar safeties and other modifications to make their revolvers safe to carry fully loaded. Still, some people reject them because they are not true to the original Colt design. Hopefully, they will practice “five beans in the wheel.”

So, in the eternal discussion of did they load five or did they load six, the answer is an undeniable yes.

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