Blast from the Past: Popular Police Speedloaders of the 1970s

In the early moments of 6 April 1970, a desperate gun battle erupted between officers of the California Highway Patrol and two heavily armed felons in the unincorporated city of Newhall, California. The felons killed four officers, making the “Newhall Shooting” one of the most deadly law enforcement gunfights of the modern era, and the most deadly in the history of the California Highway Patrol (CHP).

The last officer slain by the felons was killed while attempting to reload his revolver and get back into the fight. Officer James E. Pence, Jr. had just completed filling the cylinder of his Colt Python with loose cartridges from his dump pouch, and was in the process of closing the cylinder, when he was killed with an execution-style shot to the back of his head.

From Tragedy, Growth

In the aftermath of the shooting, the circumstances surrounding Officer Pence’s death drew the attention of CHP investigators, who determined that a more efficient means of carrying spare cartridges was required. Shortly thereafter, the CHP became the first law enforcement agency of its size to issue speedloaders to all of its uniformed personnel.

The practice spread, and by the mid-1970s, the revolver speedloader–once the sole domain of competition shooters–was quickly becoming a mainstay of police equipment throughout America. While some agencies stubbornly clung to loops and dump pouches until they transitioned to semiauto pistols, the majority of revolver-equipped departments had upgraded to speedloaders by the close of the decade.

Let’s take a look at some of the more popular designs adopted by police in this early era, most of which have disappeared in the years since.

Twists and Turns

In July of 1959, a patent was granted to John M. Hunt for a loading device that would be marketed as the Hunt Engineering, Inc. “Multi Loader.”  Initial units were apparently manufactured by the legendary Pachmayr Gun Works, and it was later produced and marketed by both Kel-Lite and Safariland as the “Firepower Clip.”

The loader was a tapered cylinder of soft neoprene which held six cartridges in the appropriate pattern in its bottom face. It was hollow at the top, which allowed an index finger to reach inside and activate a release that freed it from the carrying pouch, and also to help push the loader into place on the cylinder. In practice, after the loader was mounted flush to the gun, it was carefully torn away, and the soft neoprene would stretch and release the rims of the cartridges, allowing them to gravity feed.

The Hunt / Safariland loader was popular with competitors early on, and soon grew to be accepted by law enforcement as well. The loader did an excellent job of retaining cartridges if accidentally dropped. (Item courtesy of Bert DuVernay)

On the plus side, the loader was faster than traditional methods of loading loose rounds, and it held the cartridges very securely, even if dropped. It was thin enough that it didn’t get hung up too much on the left grip during loading. However, it had its faults. Since it wasn’t rigid, the rounds could flare outwards as the loader lost its shape over time in a pouch, making it harder to align with the chambers. Also, it required careful and practiced manipulation to avoid lifting the loader while tearing, which would drag cartridges out of the cylinder. Under stress, it was hard to get a clean release with this design.

A sideways “tearing” motion was required to use the Hunt / Safariland loader properly, to prevent pulling cartridges out of the chambers. (Item courtesy of Bert DuVernay)

A much better design was Ole N. Nelson’s loader, patented in August of 1965. This was built by Salinas Industries and marketed by the popular police product distributor, J.M. Bucheimer. The Bucheimer loader was made of hard plastic and shaped like a fluted revolver cylinder. It held the cartridges in firm alignment, for easy insertion into the cylinder. After aligning the loader with the gun, a small push button at the rear was activated to release the cartridges and allow them to gravity feed into the cylinder. This loader was later marketed as the “Feathertouch” as well, in the early 1970s.

Police Speedloaders
The scalloped edges of the Bucheimer’s body aided in indexing the loader to the cylinder.

The Bucheimer / Feathertouch was quick to operate and did an admirable job of retaining cartridges if dropped, but the small button could be missed under stress and the loader body was thick enough that it often got hung up on the grip panel–a problem that was common to almost all of the loaders of the period. The release button was spongy, without a definite “click” to let the user know the payload had been dropped, which sometimes created problems, and some users back then reported that the loader didn’t always drop all of the rounds when activated. Still, it was a successful and fast design for the most part.

Police Speedloaders
The Bucheimer was compact, durable, and reliable. It’s only real weaknesses were the undersized push button on the top, and the lack of a positive “click” when the payload was released.

An especially unique design was the Quick Load, from Donald Matich, patented in October of 1965. The Matich Quick Load was a flexible neoprene strip with six claws that held each of the individual cartridges. It was loaded while flat, but when it was full of rounds, it was rolled up into a cylinder shape and secured with a clasp.

When the tab on the Matich was pulled, it would release the metal clasp (seen at 9 O’clock in the photo) and allow the loader to be unraveled, leaving the cartridges in the chamber . . . hopefully. (Item courtesy of Bert DuVernay)

In practice, the Quick Load was mated to the cylinder and the clasp was undone by pulling on a tab. Continuing to pull the tab would peel the loader away from the trapped cartridges, leaving the cylinder spinning like a top.

The Matich, like the Hunt, was sensitive to technique. If a user pulled the Matich loader away at the wrong angle to the gun, he risked pulling cartridges out of the chambers. (Item courtesy of Bert DuVernay)

The Matich was thin and didn’t suffer the interference problems of some other loaders. It also  held rounds very securely when dropped. The biggest problem with this loader is that (like the Hunt)  it was very sensitive to user technique, and it tended to pull some cartridges out of the cylinder during loading.

When the Matich was loaded and rolled up, the hooks on the clasp (at left) would lock onto the metal cross pin that ran transverse through the loader’s other end. (Item courtesy of Bert DuVernay)

The design from John D. Fordham, patented in November 1970 and marketed by Dade Screw Machine Products, did a much better job of releasing the payload cleanly, and became very popular. Like the Bucheimer / Feathertouch, the Dade worked via a rear-mounted push button, which released the cartridges to gravity feed into the cylinder.

Police Speedloaders
The police duty pouch for the Dade incorporated a plastic frame on the inside which protected the contents and allowed for a slick draw. Note that the Dade pouch had a top-mounted snap release and a cutaway front that gave good access to the loader.

The Dade’s release button was much larger though (with a head about the size of a Quarter, instead of the small post of the Bucheimer, which looked like a click-top pen) and couldn’t be missed. Whereas the Bucheimer used a flexible, internal washer to hold the cartridge rims in place, the Dade retained cartridges by means of a coil spring that wrapped around the outside of the plastic loader body. The spring engaged the rims of the cartridges and held them in the loader until the push button forced the rims past the expanding spring.

Police Speedloaders
The large push button on the Dade couldn’t be missed, and the loader developed a reputation for being very fast.

The Dade was easier to operate than the Bucheimer, and was very fast, which made it very popular with competitors of the day.  However, the Dade was very prone to spilling cartridges if dropped, and its fat body created interference issues with grips that had not been relieved. The large push button which made it so quick to operate also gave it a tendency to discharge when carried in a pocket, so a proper carrier was mandatory.  While it’s no longer being manufactured, the essence of the design survives in today’s Speed Beez loader.

Police Speedloaders
The lineage of today’s Speed Beez loader (at right) is immediately apparent when it’s placed next to the Dade. The longer body of the Dade prevents the cases from wandering around as much when the loader is indexed to the cylinder.

In November of 1973, William T. Griffis was granted a patent on his unique design for a loader with a skeletonized plastic body and a ring around the outside that slid up and down the length of the loader. The ring engaged the cartridge rims, and when it was shoved forward towards the cylinder, it forced the cartridges out of the loader and into the gun. The advantage of the system is that it didn’t rely on gravity to load the cartridges, so its operation was  independent of the orientation of the gun. The gun could be positively charged even if it was angled upwards or laying on its side, and this feature made it popular with police, who understood that they might have to load from awkward positions, or with one hand, without being able to orient the gun with the muzzle straight down. Griffis sold the design as the “Second Six,” and restricted its sale to police. It had the distinction of being issued by the CHP, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and other influential agencies.

Police Speedloaders
The Second Six was a unique design, whose sale was restricted to law enforcement. Its trim body reduced interference problems with grips.

The Second Six was pretty fast, and a skilled user could match the Dade for speed.  The loader body was narrow and cleared grip panels better than some of its competitors, but sometimes the sliding ring could bind on a grip that was not properly relieved, which prevented operation.  Unfortunately, it did a poor job of retaining cartridges if dropped, and it wasn’t marketed well enough to gain popularity outside of California.  The loader was very durable, but a small annoyance was that the charging ring would sometimes pop off the loader when used, and the user would have to find the piece and reassemble the loader, later.

To remove the Second Six from the CHP-issue pouch, an officer could insert an index finger into the hole at the rear of the loader, to help pull it out and align it with the cylinder.

Survivors

All those loaders have faded away in the years since, but two more designs from the era still survive. The round loader with the best staying power of all was the design of Robert D. Switzer, who received his patent in March of 1973.  Switzer’s loader (manufactured and sold by HKS as the “Six Second”) uses a large, central, twist knob to lock and release the rims of the cartridges, which then gravity feed into the gun.  A spring loaded detent keeps the knob in position, preventing accidental discharges.

Police Speedloaders
The twist-to-release knob of the HKS was simple and offered superior retention of the cartridges.

The HKS Six Second offered the best payload retention of all the loaders from this era, stubbornly holding onto all the cartridges, no matter how harshly the loader was treated. This tremendous advantage was slightly offset by the fact that the loader requires the cylinder to be trapped in place, to prevent rotation as the knob is twisted to release the cartridges. This makes the HKS loader more difficult to operate with one hand, if the user is injured. Additionally, the loader body is fat enough to cause interference problems on a lot of grip panels.

Police Speedloaders
The HKS is an excellent design, and it benefited from a solid marketing campaign and a robust distribution network. It quickly vaulted to the top of the heap in the 1970s.

Solid marketing, a diverse array of models, superior security, and rugged simplicity saved the day for the HKS, however. It quickly became a police and consumer favorite, and it remains the most prolific round body loader to this day.

The other favorite from the era is the John Bianchi-designed “Speed Strip,” which was trademarked in 1965, but not seen in the catalog until 1972 (thanks to American Handgunner Editor Roy Huntington for helping to track down that date). Bianchi’s design consisted of a narrow, hard rubber strip, with a spring steel core (later, an all-composite design), that allowed the user to load six cartridges in line. In practice, the user aligns one or two cartridges at a time into the chambers, and peels the Speed Strip away from the cylinder face, causing the rubber to lose its grip on the cartridge rims.

Police Speedloaders
These vintage Speed Strips are of the early type, with a spring steel core and a rubber exterior. They were sold in pairs and packaged in the hinged, plastic box seen here. (Items courtesy of John Bianchi)

The Speed Strip was an instant hit, particularly with officers who were required to use dump pouches, because they provided better control of the payload. A skilled user could become very fast with a Speed Strip (which was always faster and more positive than loading loose rounds from loops or dump pouches), and like the HKS, they did a marvelous job of retaining cartridges when dropped.

Police Speedloaders
More than four decades later, the popularity of the Speed Strip hasn’t changed. The new, all polymer, version on the right continues to offer flat and compact carry of spare cartridges, endearing it to new generations of wheelgunners. (Vintage Speed Strips courtesy of John Bianchi)

The flat and compact nature of the Speed Strip made it a favorite for plainclothes, off duty, or backup use, and many officers carried one or two in a shirt or pants pocket to back up other, round body speedloaders on the uniform belt. The Speed Strip can simply go places and do things that most round body loaders cannot, making it the only loader to rival the popularity of the HKS.  Numerous copies of the Speed Strip have been marketed by competitors in the years since its introduction.

Police Speedloaders
Speed Strips were popular with uniformed officers who were forced to carry traditional cartridge pouches on their Sam Browne rigs. The Speed Strip was much faster and much less error-prone than loading loose cartridges from dump pouches. (Period loaders and literature courtesy of John Bianchi)

The Wheel(gun) Turns

There were other speedloader designs in this era, but these seven were the leading contenders after the terrible Newhall gunfight focused police attention on upgrading their equipment during the tumultuous and violent decade of the 1970s.

By the mid-1980s, the wheel of progress had turned again, and autoloaders had begun to replace revolvers in police duty holsters, but that didn’t stop the development of more advanced and efficient speedloader designs, like the Safariland Comp series (Patented by David A. Johnson, in January of 1978) and the SL Variant (patented in Germany by Gerhard Longwitz in  April of 1995, and in the United States in September of 1999) that we enjoy today.

Yet, as popular as these new loaders are, they still aren’t as widely used as the HKS and the Speed Strip–two designs that were there at the beginning, and which continue to do yeoman’s duty for a new generation of wheelgunners today.

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Author: Mike Wood

Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Mike Wood is a certified revolver nut, an NRA Law Enforcement Division-certified Firearms Instructor, and a columnist at PoliceOne.com. He is also the author of Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis, the definitive study of the infamous, 1970 California Highway Patrol shootout in Newhall, California. Please visit the official website for this book at www.newhallshooting.com for more information.

11 thoughts on “Blast from the Past: Popular Police Speedloaders of the 1970s”

  1. After reading your excellent book about the Newhall shooting, I purposely stop what I’m doing to read anything I find with your name attached. This article didn’t disappoint! Thank you!

  2. Early speedloaders appeared not long after the first top-break and swing-open cylinder revolvers hit the market in the late 19th Century.

    For instance, Rollin White filed multiple patents for belt-mounted, multiple refill speedloaders for top-break revolvers.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US201855
    https://www.google.com/patents/US202613

    Probably one of the first designs that would be fairly relevant even today is this one from 1879.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US223100

    Even major manufacturers like Colt got in on the act. Here is Colt’s cartridge pack patent from 1889.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US402424

    Here’s the famous Prideaux device intended primarily for the top-break Webley revolvers.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US516942

    However, their popularity didn’t increase until PPC competition started to hit an equipment race in the 1960s and ’70s. A few forward thinking officers thought that if the speedloaders worked for competition, why not use them on the street?

    One of the earliest to become popular in the 1960s was the Hunt Multi-Loader, later marketed by Safariland and Kel-Lite. Hunt’s design was a cup-shaped piece of rubber that held the cartridges on the outer bottom surface. The cartridge rims were retained much like the later Bianchi Speed Strip. You inserted the rounds together into the cylinder, and then peeled the loader off. However, it was easier said than done. If you weren’t careful, the act of peeling would pull a few cartridges back out of the chamber.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US2896353
    https://www.google.com/patents/US4079536

    The Matich Quick Loader was sort of like a sideways Bianchi Speed Strip with flanges sticking up from one side. You would roll the strip into a circle and these flanges formed six ‘chambers’. You could then force a cartridge in each of these holes. To speedload, you would start the cartridges into the cylinder and then peel the strip off. As the strip unrolled, the flanges would pull apart allowing the cartridges to drop into the cylinder.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US3213559

    Before finding the patent, I had only seen pictures of the Bye Speed Loading System with just the sketchiest of details. Its selling point was that it had no springs, screw, cams, or ratchets. The high price could not have helped sales. In 1978, it was 3 to 4 times as expensive as competing products.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US3252238

    I believe the following is that patent for what became the Bianchi Speed Strip.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US3538636

    The Dade Loader was extremely popular among PPC shooters. The case rims were retained by an elastic O-ring along the outer diameter of the loader. You started the cartridges in the chamber, the loader would bottom out, and then you pressed the center knob which would force the rims past the O-ring. The downside to the Dade was its fat diameter interfered with the stocks and thumbpieces. Worse yet, it would easily lose the cartridges when dropped.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US3541716

    Here is the original patent for the HKS ‘Six Second’ speedloader. These original models would later be dubbed the M-model after the introduction of the improved A and B models.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US3722125

    The B-model HKS were short lived, combining the automatic release of the Safariland Comp I while retaining the option of manual twist release like the legacy M and A models. The A-models were manual release only, but covered the primers like the B-Models.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US4202124

    The Kubik Speed Reloader was an odd piece of equipment. The cartridges were held in place by spring tension in three staggered tiers. The cartridges could be inserted from one side of the loader only. You started the cartridges in the chambers and then pulled the loader out to the side.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US3824729

    David Johnson’s JFS speedloader design quickly gained a following on the West Coast amongst PPC shooters. At the time, Johnson was reportedly making them in his garage. In an interview published in 1980, Safariland’s president Neale Perkins credited PPC revolversmith Bill Davis with tipping him off to the JFS design. Safariland picked up the design, where it was ultimately named the Comp I. Perkins stated that they sold 50,000 of the K2 Comp I loaders within the first 9 months of its introduction.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US4065868

    I don’t have a patent for the improved Comp II, but Johnson would later follow up with his answer to the Austrian Jet-Loader. Safariland still markets this as the Comp III.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US4866870

    The earliest mention I can find of the Jet-Loader being imported to the US was in 1981. Like other imported speedloaders, its availability seems to have been spotty.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US4133129

    The Second Six had nothing in common with the HKS ‘Six Second’. It consisted of two pieces of interlocking molded plastic. The inner portion retained the case rims through molded-in flanges; the outer portion was a ring that sat on top of the case heads when loaded. You would start the cartridges into the cylinder, and then force the outer ring towards the cylinder. This would force the case rims past the flanges. The upside was that this loader was extremely narrow in diameter. The downside was that depending on the gun model; forcing the tiny outer ring down was nearly impossible. Moreover, the firm would only sell direct to agencies and individual LEOs.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US4272903

    Compared to the others listed, the S.L. Variant is a fairly new design. It is closer to the Safariland Comp III in principle, but more like a Comp II in size. The case rims are held by independent fingers that cam in and out of the center body; moreover, each case head is backed by an individual spring. When the loader hits the extractor star, the fingers cam out of the way, and the springs toss the cartridges into the chambers. The best feature of this loader is the ease of inserting and locking individual rounds…no jiggling or twisting, just push each one into place. The downside is the cost and availability.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US5953845

  3. I remember Mel Tappan pushing the Second Six in his by now very dated Survival Guns book. He had a special deal with the manufacturer so his readers could buy them.

  4. Excellent article. It seems only following tragedy does technique and equipment move forward. I only use speed strips as a small revolver is a deep concealment gun for me but if I were using a service revolver on a belt (gone are the days of course) I would use belt-worn speedloaders for sure. The best of a bad situation, honestly.

  5. Some nice additional insight here.

    Although they may be obsolete for primary LE street use, revolvers still hold a pretty solid corner of the trail and mountain gun genre. A .357 or .44 sized revolver is more often than not what is seen where horses are more common than cars. Recently spent a week in AK and along with a lever gun, a big bore revolver is what I saw. I didnt ask if they used speedloaders though…

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