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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.