How To Safely Unload a Double Action Revolver

One of the most celebrated qualities of the double action revolver is its simplicity. The mechanism is easy to understand and operate, and having everything “out there in the open” makes their operation pretty transparent, even for the greenest of newbies. Any instructor who has seen an unfamiliar student get confused by the collection of buttons and levers and switches on the side of a semiauto pistol can appreciate how the revolver’s minimalist nature simplifies teaching the manual of arms.

A double action revolver may be simple to operate, but it’s as intolerant of negligent handling as the most complex self-chuckers. Revolvers are easy to run, but that buys you no room to be inattentive or sloppy in your gun handling. Never underestimate your ability to negligently discharge a double action revolver, just because it’s straightforward in its operation!

The RevolverGuy audience is a cut above so you’re likely to have strong habits already, but all of us, regardless of experience, can benefit from thinking about safety. I encourage you to give this method a try and see what you think. Even if you already have an unloading technique that’s working for you, consider sharing this with people in your life who don’t. We now have one or two generations of shooters out there who grew up on the plastic pistols, and may not know how to do this safely. They’ll certainly benefit from this information.

Besides, us old guys make mistakes, too.

Oh crud!

We got an important reminder of this lesson recently, when a world-class trainer negligently discharged a double action revolver during a class he was teaching. Unfortunately, the instructor got in a rush and made a mistake that all of us are capable of. He didn’t pay proper attention when clearing the weapon and accidentally left a cartridge behind in the cylinder, which was fired as he pressed the trigger (on an ostensibly “unloaded gun”) to demonstrate a technique. Fortunately, his muzzle discipline prevented the round from harming anyone or damaging any property, but the severity of the incident was lost on nobody . . . especially the instructor, who was most upset of all.

Sometimes we see what we expect to see. If we expect to see an unloaded cylinder, then it’s easy to convince ourselves that’s what we’re looking at. Your eyes won’t lie to you, but your brain will, so a procedure with redundant elements is important to catch your errors.

I’ve trained with this man and consider him one of the finest teachers and most professional gun handlers I’ve ever known. The incident demonstrates that experience is no protection against human error, and reminds us to be deliberate and careful when handling firearms.

Join the club

He’s not alone, of course. If you spent any time around police officers in the era when they were armed with double action revolvers, you certainly remember the stories about negligent discharges with these guns. Just about every police station had an extra hole or two in a ceiling, wall, floor, locker, or piece of furniture that bore witness to the fact that an “unloaded” revolver is easy to negligently discharge.

Public ranges were (and are) no different. Ever look at the ceiling in one of those? Yikes.

There’s a saying in aviation that the two pilots most likely to kill you are the new guy and the old head. The new guy doesn’t have the experience, skill, and judgment yet, and the old head has become so comfortable operating in a dangerous environment that he’s no longer alert to the risks inherent to the job. We gun owners can be a lot like that too—it’s not just the tyros that have negligent discharges!

The basic four? Or three?

So, we can agree that there’s no room for sloppiness or inattention when you’re handling any kind of firearm, including the simple, double action revolver. When you’re handling a gun, it’s essential to use safe practices and act responsibly at all times.

Experts may arm wrestle over the exact nature of codified safety rules, but a good place to start is probably with the safety rules established by groups such as the National Rifle Association, or respected training institutions such as Gunsite. By complying with the spirit, intent, and direction of safety rules such as these, you will establish a solid foundation to avoid unintentional injury or damage.

But wait, there’s more!

The safety rules are your foundation, but you still need to build a house of good handling techniques upon them. For example, you need a good method of unloading your revolver and verifying that it’s empty to assist you in your goal of avoiding a negligent discharge.

To that end, we suggest the following technique for unloading a double action revolver and verifying that there are no cartridges remaining in the cylinder (h/t RevolverGuy Dean Caputo for the assist*):

1.  With the muzzle pointed in the safest direction, and everything clear of the trigger, open the cylinder of the gun;

2.  Safely eject the cartridges from the gun in a manner which allows you to control and account for them;

3.  As you continue to point the muzzle in the safest direction and keep the trigger area clear, count the number of cartridges that were ejected, and compare that number to the capacity of the weapon to verify that you ejected the proper amount of cartridges (did you only get 5 cartridges out of a 6-shot gun?). Resolve any discrepancies;

One, two, three, four, five, si . . . wait, where’s number six?

4.  Look at the cylinder to inspect each of the chambers and visually verify they are empty. Count them off as your eyes go from chamber to chamber. If you find a loaded chamber, unload it and start a new visual inspection of all chambers;

5.  Using a fingertip, probe each of the empty chambers as you count them off to physically verify that they are empty. Run the count twice, for surety (i.e., count “12” on a 6-shot cylinder). If you find a loaded chamber, unload it and go back to step #4 to start a new visual inspection of all chambers;

You do this with the magazine well and chamber of your semiauto pistol, correct? Why wouldn’t you do the same with your revolver cylinder?

6.  If you have visually and physically verified that the cylinder is empty, you have unloaded your gun. Treat it with the same respect that you would a loaded gun, and handle it in accordance with the fundamental safety rules you have adopted.

Not that bad

The process sounds like a lot when you write it out, but the truth is that it takes just seconds to accomplish, and the redundancies help to keep you safe when you’re tired, distracted, rushed, or stressed out, or when the environmental conditions (weather, lighting) are less than ideal. We usually don’t make grievous mistakes when everything is going right, eh? If you adopt safety habits that work even in the worst of circumstances, then your chance of making a dangerous mistake are reduced when things aren’t perfect.

The extra work is worth the effort, and will prevent you from hearing the “loudest sound in the world.”

Be safe out there!


*I learned a variation of this technique from my Dad, as a youngster. Dean credits ROP instructor and Pasadena, CA Police Department Rangemaster Jack Preston with teaching him this technique “back in the day” when he was a cadet. Those were the days when blue steel (well, stainless steel . . . Dean’s not that old!) and gunleather still walked the beat. We salute Jack and we’re proud to help keep his valuable lesson alive for a new generation of RevolverGuys.

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Author: Mike

Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Mike Wood is a bonafide revolver nut, a certified law enforcement instructor in handgun, shotgun, patrol rifle, less-lethal, and diversionary device disciplines, and the author of Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis, the definitive study of the infamous, 1970 California Highway Patrol shootout in Newhall, California. Mike wrote the "Tactical Analysis" column at for 8 years, and enjoys teaching both armed citizens and law enforcement officers.

26 thoughts on “How To Safely Unload a Double Action Revolver”

  1. Along these same lines, we should talk about how to safely de-cock a revolver.

    If you find yourself in possession of a revolver with the hammer at full cock and you need to render it safe without discharging a round, this is the proper technique:
    1. Point the weapon in the safest direction
    2. Place the thumb of your weak hand between the hammer and the frame so that it blocks the hammer from going fully forward. If the hammer has a firing pin on its face, such as a S&W, your thumb goes under firing pin.
    3. After your weak hand thumb is in place, use the thumb of your strong hand to control the hammer by placing the pad of that thumb on the hammer spur.
    4. While controlling the hammer, depress the trigger to release the hammer from the sear.
    5. After the sear has released the hammer, REMOVE YOUR FINGER FROM THE TRIGGER ! Then, and only then – remove you weak hand thumb from under the hammer and ease the hammer forward with the thumb of your strong hand.

    When the hammer comes to rest on the frame or is fully forward, the gun is un-cocked and the gun is back in DA mode.

    The goal of this technique it to allow the hammer block safety or transfer bar to do its job. In order for that internal safety to work, your finger must be completely off the trigger. However, the only way to release the hammer from the sear when the hammer is fully cocked, is to depress the trigger. So once the hammer is released from the sear it is imperative that you remove your finger from the trigger before you remove your weak hand thumb from between the hammer and the frame.

  2. I also like to hold the ejector rod in the depressed position and look across the back of the cylinder. I do this for two reasons. 1) If a round is being hidden by a partially closed cylinder al a the first picture, the ejector will not move very far so I reduce the likelihood of that scenario. And 2) I get a different context; instead of looking at circles repeatedly, I change the geometry involved so that I am looking at rectangles. I find that a sticky cartridge is more obvious when I am looking across the cylinder instead of down at it. This can be included as step 3.5 without taking any real additional time.

  3. So…are you going to tell us the name of the “world-class trainer” who “negligently discharged a double action revolver during a class he was teaching?”

      1. Thanks for posting that. I wasn’t trying to call out and humiliate those involved…I just think that when it happens to someone of that “caliber” (pun intended 🙂 ) it strengthens all the more the point of Mike’s article.

      2. Reminds me of that video of the DEA agent in Florida trying to impress the school kids by launching a .40 S&W round into his leg

        . . . (modified) I’m the only one on this range professional enough, that I know of, to handle a .38 Special revolver.

  4. Just a incident I’ve described a few times on some

    While at an outdoor range, when a halt to shooting was
    called, I passed a stall where a shooter was digging his
    empty casings out of his DA revolver’s cylinder with
    the tip of a knife.

    I wondered if he was a new shooter.

    I stopped and asked if his ejector rod was broken. He
    replied, “What’s that?”

    “May I?” I asked and he let me take control of his
    revolver. I tapped the ejector rod and the remaining
    casings flew out to the ground.

    I worked the ejector rod several times as he
    watched. He was quite amazed at my brilliance.

    I probably should have advised him to read his
    gun’s manual but I didn’t.

  5. Thank you. There are so many range horror stories out there, but I have not seen this one…yet.

  6. The two pilots most likely to kill you are the newbie with his private VFR ticket, and a doctor in a Bonanza ( V-tail ).

    That said, one thing that ALL firearms have one feature in common, regardless of the platform: belt feeder, box feeder, wheel-gun, single action, break top – you name it. If you think you have made it absolutely idiot proof – then wait, you WILL find that idiot who will prove you wrong. They live and breathe among us. Worse yet, they reproduce.

    Despite the Six In Six Out mantra, in ‘them olden days’ I heard of too many occasions ( 1 being too many, 2 or more are still too many ) where some local PD or SO recruit on the firing line would have a question mid run, turn around with a loaded (and sometimes cocked) revolver and wonder why the instructor would nearly remove their arm during a disarm before they could speak a single word. Our instructor had the R. Lee Ermey approach long before ‘Gunny Hartmann’. He introduced himself and laid the law of the range down. We were advised that anyone who pointed a loaded firearm at him or any assistant range officer would be shot. He also advised it had been several recruit training academy classes since he had got to shoot anyone. I later on stole that concept when I began training folks. It worked like a charm !!

    I also knew, personally, of a deputy sheriff in Florida during the 1970s who was big into guns, yet during an in service training qualification, managed to launch a .38 wadcutter round into his leg with his S&W M67.

    1. I got a HUGE chuckle out of the story about your old rangemaster! Sadly, methinks he would run afoul of a “triggered” youngster these days, and wind up doing the carpet dance.

      Sometimes, the old ways are better. ; ^ )

      1. There is a hole in the back wall of our range where a single round was fired by an idiot who turned around, loaded gun in hand, “with a problem.”

        Soon the idiot had a bigger problem: a permanent ban from using our range ever again.

  7. Second reading… I like to think I’m safe with my weapons but I keep learning new things. Thank you for the article and everyone for the additional comments! I keep learning…

  8. Different animal, I know, but emptying a single
    action revolver through a side gate, whether live
    ammo or empty casings, does present a good
    chance of leaving a round in the chamber.

    Learned this during years of participating in
    Cowboy Action Shooting and working on the
    loading and unloading benches. Guys get
    yakking and bypass a chamber without even

    1. Ha! That’s funny.

      I think both of us are driving poor Grant Cunningham crazy. He has a hankering for one but can’t find one.

      If any RG readers have a line on one, please drop us a line so we can tell Grant!

  9. Just reading part of this article not being able to finish due to what I’d call B.S.
    1. When you say: unfamiliar student get confused by the collection of buttons and levers and switches on the side of a semiauto. On todays striker fired guns what a slide release, mag release, & maybe a safety of which only the safety is the only thing of importance, what’s to be confused? What are all these buttons, levers & switches you refer to? As opposed to say a Smart Phone.
    2. The negligent discharge of a revolver? Really you consider him one of the finest teachers and most professional gun handlers I’ve ever known. (That’s like saying Hillary Clinton would have been the best President ever) That statement alone would make me question you & your ability, this man should never be qualified to train again period.

    You probably think I’m too harsh but the 2 items mentioned above are the simplest of simple & a trainer not being able to unload 5 or 6 rd of a revolver is just not comprehensible. Some things are teachable but common sense you either have it or you don’t.

    You just can’t put the Galactically stupid & guns together, that’s what gives us gun people a bad rap. They typically are just destined to be liberal democrats.

    1. 1. Because three our four controls are perfectly comprehensible to you, doesn’t mean they are to everyone. I am a professional instructor, and I’ve seen military members screw up manual of arms after several days of dedicated training on a new platform. I think you may be falling victim to a cognitive bias called “The curse of knowledge” wherein victims think because they understand something, everyone else does, too.
      2. That trainer is not “not able” to unload a revolver. He’s probably been to the range more times in the last month than most shooters have been in the last year. I’m not excusing it, but when you actually get off the computer and hit the range, the odds of an ND go up considerably. That’s why in my unit we broke with USMC convention and said, “safety is NOT paramount. If it were, we’d be in the barracks, being safe.”

      Check the attitude at the door on this blog. If you’re here to learn, act like it. If you’re here to teach, that’s fine, too, but you need to adjust your methodology or you message is going to get lost. This blog (and comments section specifically) isn’t for everyone. You must remain civil to participate here.


    2. Since you’re new here, allow me to give you the penny tour, Mr. Patriot.

      Justin, our Editor In Chief, is a combat veteran of the Marine Corps, who served in Special Operations. As an NCO, he was directly responsible for the training of his fellow SpecOps troops, and knows what it’s like to serve in the chaos of combat and to prepare others to do so.

      I (Mike) am the Senior Editor at RevolverGuy. I’m a career military aviator with over 13,000 hours (including 550 combat and combat support hours over Iraq and Afghanistan) in aircraft ranging from fighters to 600,000 pound heavies. I also served as an instructor, teaching brand new pilots how to fly their aircraft in demanding operational environments–including combat–throughout the world.

      Both of us are firearms instructors who regularly teach military and law enforcement personnel, in addition to armed citizens.

      So, I believe we’re well-qualified to comment on the nature of adult learning, firearms training, and human performance. When we discuss human error in both the experienced and the inexperienced, our comments are influenced by a lifetime of doing, learning, teaching, and observing in real-world conditions and environments. It’s not academic for us–we live it.

      Real people, doing real stuff, in real conditions, get confused, make mistakes, and have lapses in judgment. This includes both neophytes and highly-trained professionals. If you don’t understand that, then you haven’t been around . . .

      You’re welcome to disagree with our opinions, but if you want anybody here to take you seriously, you’re going to have to act like an adult, and demonstrate some degree of professionalism, maturity, and experience. The members of the RevolverGuy community (staff and readers) demand that of each other, and if you can’t deliver, your stay here will be short indeed.

    3. Okay, I know Justin and Mike have responded, but I am just ornery enough to throw my 3 cents in. I’ve had the dubious pleasure (??) in my 67 years to have been exposed in my early and teen years to a somewhat varied assortment of weapon platforms, mostly revolvers and bolt action rifles. I was introduced to handguns as a youngster by a sergeant with our local PD who would take me to their range and taught me to shoot his Colt ‘357’ with department loaded .38 Wadcutters. $1.50 a box of 50 – that gun seemed so big then. In the late ’60s, I had to learn a new platform, the M14, and came to love it – heck, it had a 2 stage trigger like my M98 Mauser, what wasn’t to love. The M16 had come out and still had that lingering ‘reputation’. It took me almost 30 years to warm up to that rifle.

      Fast forward to over 30 years in LE and training myself and others on more weapon platforms than I can count. It is NOT difficult to comprehend folks being confused about what you call that “collection of buttons and levers and switches on the side of a semiauto.” just as much as there was confusion when the Glock came around. Firearm use is not instinctive, it has to be learned and maintained.

      How about trying to transition folks who are not really ‘gun people’, like you seem to be, into multiple and very different platforms. With their issued revolver, they know to push the thumb thing forward (or pull it back), press out the cylinder and push the rod to pop out the empty cases and repeat: load 6, shoot 6, unload 6, all done manually.

      Now move them to a platform that has a button to release the ‘clip’ (try getting them to use the term ‘magazine’ was for later), and a selector lever (decocker/safety), slide lock lever, a takedown lever, on the Beretta M92, etc, etc, etc. and watch what happens. You’re now introducing them to a platform that has big parts moving all around every time the trigger is pressed and a round goes off, only to have it reload itself before you can blink, and do it without them putting a round in their leg, foot, hand, another student, or into me or my body armor (yes, I wear it on training ranges–especially on training ranges).

      Just about the time you’ve got these folks programmed on how to run a Beretta M92, or a SIG-Sauer P226, and are just getting comfy with it (not really), now transition them to the Glock, and they no longer have all those wonderful levers, and their comfort level has now gone away. You have to start from scratch.

      An essential part of the training process is instilling confidence in the student. There’s a distinct difference between being confident and arrogant. Confidence is knowing your weapon platform and being able to run it effectively and SAFELY. I am in no way going to make an excuse for the ND by the instructor in question, nor am I going to cut him any slack for the mishap. Whether in handling firearms, being in uniform on the street, or in Col. Mike’s world of military and civilian aviation, you only have an ‘A’ game, and you have to be on it 100% of the time. The F’up Fairly only has to get lucky once to have things go south.

      At the end of the day, or the weekend, or week of training, the only holes you want to take home with you are the ones in the targets and in your wallet. In aviation, if you can bring the plane back onto the runway, you’ve had a good day; if it’s in one piece, you’ve had a great day. If you can actually re-use the plane, you’ve had an excellent day.

  10. I like the safety rules, one of the great things about them is that you usually have to mess up multiple of them for something to go really badly. I had an unintentional discharge when I was first getting into guns. I unknowingly bought a gun that had a mechanical issue. the extractor would decide to be a firing pin and fire the 22 rimfire if the slide closed with enough force. I found this out when I was loading the gun up in my apartment. there were some failures to feed issues with the magazine, so I dropped a loose round in the chamber and dropped the slide, boom! I repeated this at the range so I could confirm that i did indeed have my finger off the trigger, yup, slide energy and extractor would set off the rounds. If I lowered the slide gingerly and inserted a magazine and took a shot, the gun would keep firing until it jammed or emptied the mag. Needless to say, keeping the gun pointed in a safe direction saved my bacon that day, although my kitchen table still has a hole in it. I returned the gun to the store with instructions to have it fixed or destroyed.

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