Originally published in Points West magazine
The Way West: How to Safely Load Your Six-Shooter
By Ashley Hlebinsky
Any fan of Westerns knows the Colt Model 1873 single-action revolver. Seeing their heroes on screen—quick-drawing the iconic handgun, twirling it around, and fanning the hammer—has inspired many people to purchase their little slice of Hollywood and history.
However, purchasing a historic gun without doing your homework (or attempting any of the aforementioned tricks) can lead to negligent discharge and legal controversy with this iconic gun of the West.
The original Colt Model 1873 was designed in 1872, a decade after company founder Samuel Colt died. It was adopted for the military, and became popular on the civilian market. However, this marketed “six-shooter” must be carried in a specific way to be safe: loaded with only five rounds.
The single-action description refers to the number of “actions” performed by the trigger. To fire the gun, the shooter must cock the hammer back fully before pulling the trigger. This action must be repeated for each shot.
The hammer on original Colt single-actions could be placed in four positions: full-down, safety notch, half-cock, and full-cock. Soldiers on the battlefield realized that if they loaded all six chambers and left the hammer in the full-down position, the firearm could accidentally discharge when dropped.
That’s because the firing pin is attached to the hammer. Therefore, the hammer in full-down position has the firing pin resting directly on the cartridge primer. If the revolver is dropped, the firing pin can hit the primer with enough force to fire the gun.
As a result, the safest way to carry a loaded Colt-type single-action revolver is with only five rounds loaded, placing the hammer on the sixth and empty chamber.
Of course, the basic rules of gun safety always apply to handling any firearm.
The four top rules are:
- Always point the gun in a safe direction.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until ready to fire.
- Keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.
- Know your target and what’s beyond it.
A five-shooter is admittedly not as sexy as a six-shooter, but all modern Colt-type single-actions with the four-position hammer clearly state in manuals to load only five rounds.
However, with the popularity of Westerns after World War II, many with limited gun knowledge bought these types of firearms, leading to civil suits over negligent discharge.
Loaded and carried properly, the firearm is safe. But, if you’re still concerned, there are many single-action revolver models and reproductions on the market with additional passive and active safety devices.
About the author
Ashley Hlebinsky was formerly the Robert W. Woodruff Curator of the Cody Firearms Museum, and then Curator Emerita. She is a firearms history consultant, writer, and television producer and personality who enjoys whiskey and cigars.