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"Stupid revolver question?" Topic

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1,007 hits since 24 May 2018
©1994-2018 Bill Armintrout
Comments or corrections?

emckinney24 May 2018 9:53 a.m. PST

Okay, I have been thinking about this for a while, and I'm sure that no one in the. Would have ever adopted it, but I'm curious as to whether it would have been possible or practical.

Could you have formed a light infantry unit armed with Colt revolvers? Say, two revolvers per man? Whitetail deer range would have been extremely short, I imagine them using semi modern tactics of crouching advances using cover as much as possible to close to fairly short-range. I would think that this would make the revolver infantry and nearly difficult Target for musket are formed infantry, and musket armed Infantry simply was not trained to engage single targets like this.

On the defense, the revolver armed infantry could lie down to minimize there profile, making it somewhere between difficult and Impossible 4 musket armed infantry to hit them. Very obvious Advantage is the shear rate of fire that they could manage against and advancing line of Infantry. That might be enough to inflict sufficient shock for the musket armed infantry, even with bayonets, to recoil. I'm assuming only firing one full of all of her. You could fire II revolver, or three shots, and then run for it. Running for it doesn't seem as though it's very safe for holding ground, and would allow the line to break or adjacent units to be outflanked, but I would place a second Skirmish wine perhaps 30 or 50 yards back, just far enough for charging infantry to lose a lot of steam, and then have to face a second volley of rapid revolver fire. That seems like a situation where it would be very, very difficult for an assault to continue pushing forward. The first line would obviously fall back to at least 20 yards, perhaps 50 behind the second line, and begin reloading. At some point, you should have Cannon supporting as well.

On the attack, as I mentioned, it's more of a constant harassing attack than an all-out offensive. Sneak forward, fire off at least one Revolver full of shots, and then withdraw behind a second line to reload. Lather, rinse, repeat. Since you're going to move forward carefully, possibly crawl the last bit, and then run like heck after firing, you should be able to deliver a lot of Firepower very fast, and then pull back.

How crazy is this idea? Were the Colt pistols simply too expensive to pull this off? I do understand that they did not have fixed ammunition, so reloading would not be fast at all. Could you combine this with some regular Infantry, perhaps in a thin line, as a fallback position to stop bayonet charges?

Old Glory Sponsoring Member of TMP24 May 2018 10:57 a.m. PST

Have you ever tried to hit something at any distance with a revolver?


Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP24 May 2018 11:05 a.m. PST

I can hit the wall of a barn with a revolver, if I'm inside the barn.

ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP24 May 2018 11:28 a.m. PST

I have to believe that if this had been an effective tactic someone would have thought of it. In fact, I suppose the Musket-and Pike era cavalry 'caracole'(sp?) is the mounted equivalent. So someone DID think of it, used it, and ultimately abandoned it.

As noted, the effective range of a pistol is very short, 25-50 yards max.

Trying to attack with such a unit over open ground would be difficult. They would come under fire at ranges far beyond which they could return fire. If the defenders had a screen of skirmishers out in front it becomes even more difficult since the skirmishers would be used to firing at a dispersed target (other skirmishers) and again, they could open fire at ranges from which the pistol armed troops could not reply.

Defending might be a little better, except that you can't do anything at all to the enemy until they are very close. It would take very well disciplined troops to hold their fire in the face of an assault and if they did fire early, most of their shots would be wasted.

Bottom line, I see a lot more disadvantages than advantages.

I might add that in the early days of the war a lot of new recruits equipped themselves with pistols at their own expense but quickly got rid of them when they realized how useless (and heavy) they were.

emckinney24 May 2018 11:38 a.m. PST

Sure, accuracy is terrible if you're trying to hit one man, but formed troops are something altogether different.

Besides, the accuracy of muskets was terrible as well.

Not so sure anyone would have thought of it in the era, since it was so opposed to the bayonet ethos (Stonewall wanting to reintroduce the pike???).

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP24 May 2018 11:47 a.m. PST

Given only 5-10% actually aimed to kill. And the rest either at best fired fired in the general direction of the enemy. Or actively tried not to hit the enemy.

So it doesn't really matter what you put in their hands. At best it will be a slight advantage. (Those 5-10% will be more efficient killers, for the rest it doesn't matter much what they use)

And the muskets didn't have horrible accuracy. The musket it self (given good powder) is close to 100% accurate at 100 meters) it's the guy behind the trigger that makes it go from 100% accurate to at best 0.5%.

Personal logo ochoin Supporting Member of TMP24 May 2018 11:55 a.m. PST

I think my unit of retroactively armed long bow men would make mincemeat of the revolver unit.

Rallynow Supporting Member of TMP24 May 2018 12:03 p.m. PST

ScottWashburn +1

If it would work, I am sure they would have done it. It would have been a lot more cost effective.

The closest thing to it, which may have taken place is for pistol only armed CS Cavalry fighting dismounted. They would be absolutely useless except maybe in an urban area. The first day of Gettysburg comes to mind but that was with infantry. Colt made a revolver long rifle.


Pistol armed only cavalry would almost never dismount. I have had a regiment or two and I never dismounted them.

ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP24 May 2018 12:15 p.m. PST

You would still have the same problem which all skirmishers have when facing formed troops: for a given frontage, there are a lot more of them than there are of you. A by-the-book skirmish line has one man every five paces which means that there are approximately ten times as many enemy troops per yard of front. Under those circumstances the amount of lead output per yard of front actually favors the formed troops with muskets over the dispersed men with pistols.

If you start bunching your pistoleers closer together you can get some advantage--for a while. Get too tightly bunched and you end up as just as good a target as they are--and they can start shooting at you from much farther away.

And it would take very, VERY good men to be able to advance in a dispersed line against an enemy who would be shooting at them long before they could shoot back. They would know that they have to get so close to the enemy that if their pistols DON'T break them, then they are in a hopeless situation. Unloaded, no hand-to-hand weapon, and too close to have much hope of getting away again. Victory or death/capture. Not many troops would be up to that.

Finally, you DO sort of have troops like this already: dismounted cavalry. They have carbines and they also have pistols (and maybe swords). In theory they ought to be able to do exactly what you suggest--only better. Fire with their carbines at longer ranges and when they get close to the enemy, pull out their revolvers and blaze away. This surely must have happened. And yet I can't recall ever hearing of any great successes like this.

tigrifsgt24 May 2018 12:37 p.m. PST

Scott, you usually disagree with almost everything I have had to say about the ACW, but I will put this out there. Morgans cavalry had some success from horseback with four pistols. Two on the waist belt and two on the saddle pommel.

Frederick Supporting Member of TMP24 May 2018 12:38 p.m. PST

The range thing makes this a moot point – a Springfield can deliver a reasonably aimed Minie ball to about 200 yards, which is four times the range of the revolver

And as Scott so tactfully points out, given that almost all ACW infantry were either enthusiastic volunteers (early) or grudging conscripts (later) I don't think they would have the discipline or inclination to advance against rifle armed troops

Personal logo Patrick R Supporting Member of TMP24 May 2018 12:58 p.m. PST

Rule of thumb is that most handguns are useless in open battle because of their limited range and power compared to the average rifle.

They were only used for self-defense by troops that couldn't carry a rifle or a carbine or for officers who would often carry a sword and were expected to use it in combat.

The only other troops that used handguns was cavalry and revolvers were for a time a very useful weapon as it allowed cavalry, under the right conditions, to close in with the enemy, fire a few shots and then scoot away, but often cavalry preferred to use carbines or even the sabre.

Early revolvers, Colt or otherwise were relatively fragile and prone to misfire, the percussion version took quite a while to reload, which is why some cavalry carried several of them, which was much faster than trying to reload it in the middle of an altercation.

If you are looking for a weapon that would really give light troops extra firepower with a half-decent range, the Henry Rifle would be the ideal choice. With a capacity of 15 shots even a small unit could lay down quite an impressive amount of fire. Once you get to 1866 the much improved Winchester becomes available which is much easier to reload thanks to the King's patent loading gate.

The drawback of lever-action rifles like the Henry and the Winchester is that the mechanism could only handle lighter loads, not full-size rifle loads, when the 1886 model, which could handle hot ammo like the .45/70, was introduced the bolt action rifle was already in widespread use and the lever action remains a footnote in military history. But use in combat does show it had incredible potential.

redbanner414524 May 2018 1:03 p.m. PST

A black powder pistol is basically a melee weapon like a bayonet or a saber.

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP24 May 2018 1:33 p.m. PST

You can't hit people in the head from 75 yards with a bayonet. You can with a colt navy, just ask Wild Bill.

79thPA Supporting Member of TMP24 May 2018 3:30 p.m. PST

How crazy? Very. They would have been slaughtered. A pistol is a close range defensive weapon.

Ed Mohrmann Supporting Member of TMP24 May 2018 3:31 p.m. PST

Hmmm…I had a Colt's Navy revolver and a Remington
Army revolver.

I used them in target competition and NEVER made
any groups of significance at anything over 10 yards.
And of course NO ONE was shooting a rifle or even
a musket at me while I was so engaged. Perhaps against
formations the effect of the fire would be much
better, but then the formations would be FIRING
BACK with many more rounds !

And the fastest way to reload a cap and ball revolver
was and is with a spare cylinder, pre-loaded and
capped (dangerous, that). Reloading the normal way
while dodging about can't be done quickly.

As Redbanner said, the revolver was/is basically a
melee weapon – see also comment re: Morgan's
cavalry being armed with FOUR revolvers, which
didn't seem to do them much good against Union
gunboats at the ill-fated crossing of the Ohio
River at Buffington Island. Most of Morgan's
command was captured (700 men) and spent the rest
of the war in a Union POW camp.

altfritz24 May 2018 4:34 p.m. PST

Why bother when you can arm them with muskets or rifles of some description?

jdginaz24 May 2018 5:33 p.m. PST

"Besides, the accuracy of muskets was terrible as well."

The accuracy of Rifled Muskets was quite good, that of the shooters not so much.

It takes a lot more practice to learn to be able hit a target with a pistol that with a rifle.

Kevin C Supporting Member of TMP24 May 2018 6:42 p.m. PST

The Texas Rangers (who were usually mounted on such occasions) employed them to good effect against the Comanche at times. The effectiveness of the proposed tactic would depend to a great deal on the tactics and weaponry of the enemy.

khanscom24 May 2018 7:24 p.m. PST

These might be useful as skirmishers in close terrain (visibility of 50 yds. or less)-- clearly the greater range and accuracy of rifled muskets would find them severely disadvantaged in more open ground. Another consideration might be the greater cost of acquiring revolvers compared to the cost of a rifle-- this might also be a reason why the early repeater Colt revolving rifle wasn't widely used.

I recall that an article in an older issue of MW or WI had a reference to a revolver- armed unit at the Eureka stockade in Australia-- probably more of a desperation measure.

Old Glory Sponsoring Member of TMP24 May 2018 7:37 p.m. PST

The maximum range fired at in the USMC pistol qualification range is 25 yards. Gunsmoke and Bonanza is not an accurate description of pistol accuracy.
I own both a 1861 Army and Navy colt and good luck at hitting a paint can at 15 yards??

Russ Dunaway

Stephen Miller24 May 2018 9:54 p.m. PST


Wild Bill wasn't killed with a Colt from 75 yards, he was shot by Jack McCall while both were inside a saloon in Deadwood, probably from less that 10 yards range, certainly less than 15 yards, ie, 45 feet.

attilathepun4724 May 2018 10:43 p.m. PST

I am surprised that nobody has brought up the question of arming at least a portion of a light infantry unit with Spencer rifles. Yes, I know the Spencer is mostly known as a cavalry carbine, but a rifle version did exist. Like the Henry rifle, it could only chamber a relatively weak cartridge, and the magazine capacity was only half that of a Henry. However, the advantage of the Spencer was that it was reloaded with detachable tubular magazines, so that a large volume of rapid fire could be delivered over an extended period if available supplies of ammunition permitted it. Add some expert sharpshooters equipped with heavy rifles and you might well have a very formidable unit.

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP25 May 2018 2:22 a.m. PST

]Wild Bill wasn't killed with a Colt from 75 yards, he was shot by Jack McCall while both were inside a saloon in Deadwood, probably from less that 10 yards range, certainly less than 15 yards, ie, 45 feet.

I said ask wild bill. You can't ask him if he's dead.

Wild Bill hit a man in the head from 75 yards wit his colt navy in one of the very Hollywood style western duel.

If you put up a regiment sized target. Give 500 men any revolver. Spend a day teaching them how to elevate the barrel at say 100 yards. By the end of the day. You'll have 50-70% hit rate.
Because you don't aim. Simply elevate the barrel and fire in the general direction.

Of course i actual battle the accuracy would fall to about 0.5% just as with the musket and rifled-musket.

Personal logo Patrick R Supporting Member of TMP25 May 2018 2:50 a.m. PST

Armies have long straddled the issue of range/accuracy vs rate of fire.

Early firelocks fired "aimed" shots at very short ranges, mostly because ramrods tended to be made of wood and reloading a muzzle-loader with gunpowder was easy. So they tried to make the few shots they could do count as much as possible.

This changed with flintlocks and the metal ramrod, accuracy (always a weakness in smoothbore weapons) was considered less important than rate of fire.

Rifling didn't change things the way most people expected, troops hardly fired at longer ranges anyway even if they were aware their weapons were more accurate with a better range as attempts to do so usually gave very poor results.

We did see troops being drilled and trained to fire rifled weapons accurately, but they were usually specialist troops.

Now by the time we see the first cartridge weapons and multiple shot capacity some people were worried that troops might be hard to control and would start to blast away at the enemy, exhausting their ammo supply in minutes and rendering entire units ineffective.

So many militaries saw a high rate of fire as having some potential if you are hard pressed or fighting superior numbers, but the idea was that to preserve ammo troops would do better to fire accurately at range and either leave out the option to fire multiple shots entirely or limit it.

As said before rifles like the Henry and Spencer fired weak cartridges and some feared that troops properly trained in long range accurate volley fire might be able to keep them at bay, negating all the advantages in combat.

That's why the US army preferred single shot rifles and carbines firing a powerful bullet capable of taking down a horse at several hundred yards and many early bolt action rifles had a magazine cutout and fired manually fed single shots in volleys, keeping the magazine for rapid fire in case of emergency.

Incidentally the idea of long range single shot marksmanship in the US army lasted until the Vietnam war when they finally gave up on the M14 and high powered ammo in favour of a weapon that could also fire full auto, something the Germans and Russians had understood by the end of WWII.

Weapons like the Henry and Spencer never had a chance to influence battles the way they could have done. To properly use them would have required special tactics that were too complex for its day. It was far easier to train soldiers to fire at long range in aimed volleys and move in formations with a bare minimum of officers and NCO's to control it. Open order tactics only works at much lower levels of organisations and requires more trained men to command these smaller sub-units effectively.

So revolvers would only have been useful for a short period of time at the very best, once the enemy has something like a reliable and accurate single shot rifle (CF the Remington Rolling Block) in a potent enough caliber, you're going to be wiped out before you even get at extreme revolver range.

Personal logo Patrick R Supporting Member of TMP25 May 2018 8:39 a.m. PST

The Spencer is also a "lever action", but is remarkably slower than the Henry as you must cock the hammer before moving the lever which isn't as ergonomic as the Henry's much simpler action. Time shots make it about a third to a quarter slower than a Henry.

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP25 May 2018 8:48 a.m. PST

The "volley fire" was used for matchlocks. The standard version was Gustav Adolph "invented" it.
But by the last 40 years of the 17th century. Various version of volley fire was used.
The reason for volley fire was the moral effect on the enemy.
A single volley causing 10 casualties in a second had a higher negative effect on enemy moral then a slow attrition. Even if aimed shots caused more casualties over say a 5 or 10 minute period.
Basically shock and awe (highly ineffective in reality but very effective in moral terms)

donlowry25 May 2018 9:15 a.m. PST

I was trained to fire a .38 revolver (Colt Combat Masterpiece) in the USAF. On the qualifying range we fired at 25 yards at a paper bull's eye-type target (about a yard in diameter), firing one-handed, single action (i.e., cocking the hammer first). Hitting the target was fairly easy, hitting the bull's eye in the center, damned hard.

Units armed with Spencer rifles did tend to fire off all their ammo too quickly. They could only carry so much. I've read, however, that the Spencer did have pretty good power, because the cartridge had a lot of fulminate of mercury in it, more than was really needed as a primer (it was rim-fire IIRC).

Trajanus25 May 2018 9:52 a.m. PST

I think the OP might have seen this from 1 hour 33mins onwards. ;o)

YouTube link

Old Glory Sponsoring Member of TMP25 May 2018 10:20 a.m. PST

Another possible issue may be -- when/if the advancing musket/bayonet armed troops finally close, the pistol armed troops must relinquish the position (which in most cases is kind of the point not to) or they are probably seriously screwed ??

Russ Dunaway

tigrifsgt25 May 2018 12:02 p.m. PST

In the only instance that I know of in the ACW, pistol and knife armed infantry drove a superior force from the field. Less than 100 La. Tigers seeing that they were about to be overrun dropped their muskets and pulled their pistols. The Tigers charged and the 1,000 plus men of the 1st Rhode Island turned and ran. (1st Manassas)

Old Glory Sponsoring Member of TMP25 May 2018 12:19 p.m. PST

That might say something more about the men then the weapons??? 🤔

Russ Dunaway

Bill N25 May 2018 1:40 p.m. PST

And the muskets didn't have horrible accuracy. The musket it self (given good powder) is close to 100% accurate at 100 meters) it's the guy behind the trigger that makes it go from 100% accurate to at best 0.5%.

I understand what you are driving at, but I have never been a fan of this argument. Even in the 19th century the quality of the ammo wasn't a given. The weapons themselves were not intended to be mounted on secure bases and fired against targets a predetermined and possibly even presighted distance away. The user of the weapon is part of the equation, as are the circumstances under which he is using it.

@tigrifsgt-It does not sound like this charge differed much from some successful highlander charges a century before. A number of crazed lunatics bearing down on you with sharp, shiney weapons can be intimidating even if the pistols are not causing casualties.

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP25 May 2018 2:22 p.m. PST

Yes, but the Musket gets the bad rap, for being horribly inaccurate while the mighty Rifled-musket is basically a nuke hitting people in the eye from a mile away.
Yet they were almost exactly as accurate in combat situations (same goes for WW1 and WW2 really)
So it's a myth the musket was horribly inaccurate, in combat, it was almost exactly as accurate as most rifled muskets and riles.

One one side people say, that a musket can't hit the barn door at a 100 yards, while the Springfield 1861 is basically a barret .50 and totally changed warfare as we know it, which it didn't.

Normal Guy25 May 2018 2:54 p.m. PST

This string of messages has brought me great joy and laughter, but then again I am not in a pistol armed unit going up against rifled muskets.

goragrad25 May 2018 9:28 p.m. PST

Spencers would be the better choice – just ask Heth.

Trajanus27 May 2018 5:40 a.m. PST

Don't ask him he's confused!

YouTube link

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP27 May 2018 5:45 a.m. PST

Don't ask him he's confused!

YouTube link

Holy crap, how did we survive watching movies in such horrific quality. Serious eye cancer that thing.
I watched Gettysburg just two nights ago on bluray, And it looked fantastic.

That "video" on the other hand, makes we want to burn out my eyes even if I only watched 3 seconds of it.

ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP27 May 2018 12:12 p.m. PST

The whole business of Buford repulsing repeated infantry attacks as shown in the movie "Gettysburg" is a fiction. Buford skirmished with the head of Heth's column, delaying them. He deployed as if he meant to hold his ground to force Heth to deploy, but by the time the Confederates actually attacked, the I Corps was up and Buford pulled his troopers out of the way.

Trajanus27 May 2018 2:32 p.m. PST

Let's face it Gunfreak, if your Blu-ray isn't better quality's than pirate video on You Tube, something is seriously wrong! :o)

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP27 May 2018 2:43 p.m. PST

The point, is that video quality was standard tv quality in the 80s and 90s.

donlowry28 May 2018 9:20 a.m. PST

Good point, Scott.

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