In the beginning, there was the percussion revolver, and it was good. But reloading those things took half a day, a picnic table, a pouch full of tools, and way too much patience, so we made sure to keep a good saber, knife, or hatchet nearby too. These also came in handy when we returned home to an angry wife, who was tired of cleaning the grease and blackpowder soot from our shirt and pants after a busy day on the battlefield.
Then God said, “Let there be the the self-contained, metallic cartridge,” and it was also good. Actually, it was gooder, because now we could reload without a sundial, animal fat, and a rag.
When Sam Colt decided to put the loading gate of the Single Action Army on the right side of the frame, it was probably in deference to the right-handed majority that would be using the revolver in combat, where reloads needed to be expeditious. If a shooter was going to be thumbing individual cartridges into the 1873, the first of the truly great cartridge revolvers, it made sense to do it with the more dexterous hand. For most shooters, that was going to be their right one.
So, the gate went on the right, which allowed a shooter to cant the gun to the left, transfer it to the palm of their left hand, and open the gate with the right thumb. With a pushing motion, the cylinder could be rolled by the left thumb (with help from the middle finger, underneath) while the fingers of the left hand controlled the gun and steadied the cylinder, allowing the right hand to work the ejector rod. Once empty, the gun could be cradled muzzle down, so the right hand could accomplish the tricky part–feeding cartridges into the chambers without dropping them on the ground. This was easier said than done while on horseback, or while trying to make shaky hands work efficiently so you could avoid a scalping.
When all this was done, the gun had to be transferred back into the hand that was actually going to shoot it, and the “hand jive” was complete.
Had the Smith & Wesson Model 3 Schofield (with its break-top action that was released with the shooting hand thumb, and its automatic ejection–a wonderful design for a cavalryman!) been more popular and prolific, a pattern of keeping the gun in the shooting hand during reloading might have been established. However, it was not to be, and the vast majority of soldiers, cowboys, and plain folk wound up transferring their cartridge revolvers to their other hand when it was time to empty and reload, then putting them back into the shooting hand when it was time to make noise again.
The New Century
That trend was not reversed with the coming of the swing-out cylinder designs from the likes of Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson, Samuel Colt, and others, just before the turn of the century. These guns all opened up to the left, and placed the cylinder latch at the left rear of the frame, where it could be easily operated with the right thumb (which was also the shooting hand thumb for most users–remember, we were still a long ways away from the popularization of two-handed holds, so you had a “shooting hand” and a “non-shooting hand” back then). Folks with long fingers might have been able to push the cylinder open with their trigger finger, but the majority of shooters used their left hand to pop it out, and the natural flow of things was for the left hand to assume control of the gun so the right could start feeding loose cartridges into the open chambers after they had been emptied.
It was no different for the Southpaw minority. The swing-out cylinder guns were invariably transferred to the other hand to facilitate unloading and reloading, because there was no practical way to access the chambers if the gun was kept in the shooting hand.
When practical speedloaders came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a moment where all of this shuttling of the gun back and forth between hands could have changed. The best of the new loaders simplified the process and made it easier to get cartridges into the gun without spilling them, even if you used your less dexterous hand. If there was ever a chance that the concept of keeping the gun in the right hand and loading with the left hand would become popular, this was it. But the greater shooting community didn’t bite, and common sense prevailed. The more efficient and reliable habit of using the most nimble hand to thread the needle continued. Besides, most folks were still loading with loose cartridges anyhow. Even a lot of police officers stayed with loops right to the end.
New Wave and Wondernines
Then came the 1980s.
When America’s police and the shooting public fell hard for semiauto pistols in the era of parachute pants and dresses with big shoulder pads (ask your folks about it) they had to learn some new habits. On the self-chuckers, it made a lot more sense to keep the gun in the shooting hand, jettison the spent magazine with the conveniently located button (well, convenient for Righties, but the Wrongies were adaptable, and reversible/ambidextrous controls were on the horizon), and slap in a new magazine with the support hand. That’s the way God and John Browning (but I repeat myself) intended it to be.
But there were diehards who refused to play ball. In fact, one of the funnier displays in police revolver-to-auto transition classes of the era was the reloading part. It wasn’t uncommon to see a right-handed shooter dump his mag after slide lock, then transfer the gun to the palm of his left, so that his right could feed the new magazine in (usually with an extra hammering motion). He’d been doing it that way with the round gun for years, and old habits die hard, you know.
Hand Jive 2.0
Fast forward to today, and we’ve exorcised those demons . . . kinda.
The autopistol has been the dominant arm in military, police, and private circles for so long in America that a new set of habits, built around the square gun, has become firmly entrenched. The autopistol doesn’t feel foreign in our hands, like it used to a few generations ago. We know how to run them efficiently, and we know that shuffling a gun back and forth unnecessarily during a reload is just a waste of time, right?
The funny thing is, within a generation or two, we managed to make the pistol, and its manual of arms, so familiar, that now we have folks out there who are uncomfortable working a revolver. We’re getting reports of young coppers who’ve confiscated revolvers from suspects but can’t figure out how to open and unload them, and have had to call a Sergeant to help them out!
We’re also seeing a new twist on the hand jive. After being raised from the womb to keep the gun in the primary hand during reloads, some revolver newbies are trying to reload with their support hand, just as they do with their pistol. The wheel (gun) has come full circle.
Are they wrong? I don’t know. I still happen to think it’s better to load the revolver with the more dexterous hand holding the cartridges, but there’s something to be said about not having to move the gun back and forth so much. In an era of extended thumbpieces, full moon clips and Jet Loaders, maybe we don’t have to worry so much about our “weak” hand not being up to the task? Maybe we can realize the advantage of keeping the gun in the shooting hand with a little extra training for the support hand?
Can you teach an old dog new tricks? I’m interested to know what you think. Let me hear from you in the comments, below. In the meantime, I’m off to change out the grip panels on my Glock, if I can just find the right screwdriver . . .