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Revolver Combat Loading and Unloading

May 18, 2022

By Mike Keleher

I was reading a gun magazine this week and saw an article about a “new” revolver- like there is anything new to be had or said about them since Sam Colt carved one out of wood back in 1836 while on a ship at sea modeling the action after the steering mechanism capstan, rachet and pawl on the ship.

Everyone has their own opinions about revolvers, yea or nay, and are welcome to those opinions. On the downside, by modern standards they carry very limited amounts of flying projectiles. On the plus side, they are doggedly reliable. Chances are, if you pick one up and pull the trigger it will rotate the cylinder, move the hammer and detonate the round under the firing pin.

When I was hired as a federal agent way back in 1987 I attended the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, GA and trained to shoot revolvers their way. They gave us S+W Customs (CS-1) stainless steel 686 revolvers to work with. Back in my first office in Los Angeles I received my first agency issue revolver an arsenal Parkerized Ruger Security Six .357 which had the same heft and usage as a small boat anchor. In that time frame Ruger would show off their revolvers durability by tossing them under large truck wheels.

The Government had taken that nearly infallible revolver and dunked it or sprayed it with a fresh Parkerized coating. The reason I mention this story is remember how dependable revolvers are? Well I have seen several fail over the years, and this one failed to work at all. Taking it apart, I found they had coated everything to include the inside of the barrel and the lockworks with this stuff, to the point it no longer worked. Just because it is a revolver does not mean it is infallible. I swapped in a couple personally owned Dan Wessons and carried them until we traded way up to 13 round Sig Sauer 228’s in 9mm. I carried the massive Dan Wesson .357 in a horizontal nylon shoulder holster with two speedloaders in pouches on the opposite tie down side. 25 years old with 18 complete rounds of .38 S+W running all over LA to include Compton and Watts during the peak of the drive by AK shootings years. On the weekends, I left the revovler at home and stuffed a brand new gun in my jeans that held 17 rounds all by itself. I saw it in Soldier of Fortune and nabbed up one of the first ones into the country. It was an ugly cuss called a “Glock.”

Looking at the new revolver magazine article and shiny pictures, it occurred to me to jot down a couple lines about “State of the Art” methods of combat loading and unloading the revolver which have pretty much remained the same since I learned them back at FLETC.

One of my ancillary jobs at the agency was to be a firearms instructor several times a year for nearly 30 years, and despite the Sig Sauer being a tremendous pistol, a fair number of older agents retained their revolvers as that was what they grew up with, and frequently they used the small S+W Chief Special snub noses to have the smallest, lightest gun on their belt or ankle …which they never expected to shoot with nefarious types in the front sight.

Late in my career I was posted to HQ in Wash DC and saw a new crop of young agents showing up on range days with these snub nosed guns. I was always mildly amazed by this when they could carry a compact Glock 26 stuffed with 10 pills vs a 5 shot snubbie, but to each his own.

The next thing I found, was these young kids did not know how to load and unload the revolvers under stress or combat conditions. I found out they got a one time, one hour, “familiarization” session with revolvers at the academy and all the rest of their training time was with semi-auto pistol-yet they could carry revolver! (…and for Gosh Sake don’t get me started on them sticking these lightweight hand cannons into ankle holsters!)

Being old (Let’s call it “Classically Trained”) I took several small revolvers away from kids and showed them the “right way” to unload and reload them. I thought I’d repeat it here for entertainment or edification (perhaps mine.)

Back in the 80’s our agency gave you a .38 or .357 revolver and some .38 hollow points, a holster and a small pouch about the length of your index finger. A snap rolled back the cover of the pouch which was worn over your belt on the strong side and contained six bullets. The six were arranged in three pairs and during reloads you snapped the pouch open, nabbed two rounds, inserted into the cylinder and repeated until full. I still feel comfortable with this type of 2 at a time reload-but I trained with it for several years.



“Reload with two and shoot two” became a mandatory revolver qualification standard after study of the 1986 Miami FBI/Bank Robbers Shoot Out. Study on the many errors, found one of the FBI agents was killed while trying to reload with six rounds (as trained) when the bad guy came around the car with a Mini-14 and killed him. That whole “You will fight like you train” adage was linked to that reloading with six, and the FBI believed if the agent had just loaded two rounds he would have been back in the fight and possibly saved his own life. One more train as you fight side note there, the same agent was found to have his empty brass in his jacket pocket. Seems at the range quals, guys would put their empties in their pocket, instead of dumping them on the ground during a reload and have to bend over later to pick them up.

This 2-2 and 2 was advanced tech at the time and replaced a pouch that flipped open and let six rounds dump into your hand all willy-nilly. Tune in to Andy Griffith shows to see Barney’s dump pouch- they were still around in the 1980s and even called “Barneys.”

Bianchi came up with some rubber strips in the late 70’s that held five or six .38’s by the base. You could keep the strip in your pocket or in a pouch and then hook the nose of a bullet (or two at once if lucky) and strip them off into the cylinder. These strips are still sold today- not terribly fast, but they still work, and obviously if you carry a gun you need to carry a reload on your person.

(Here is a pretty silly zip strip holder I won somewhere, it’s like the Bianchi zip strips for revolvers, but this one is for 12 ga shells. I guess it does hold them in an organized fashion and it is easy to find when I need a standard 5 shot shotgun…but still looks silly!)

The next revolver reloading innovation (and pretty much the last one) was invented by the HKS company in the 80’s, a round plastic cylinder that held five or six cartridges and you would insert them en mass into your empty gun cylinder, twist a knob and the cartridges would drop free. Called the “Six Second Reloader” we all had to have them. Imagine, unloading and reloading in only six seconds! That was really fast. They later called them “Five second reloaders” but I was always suspicious where they shaved off that extra second! These revolver speedloaders continue to be sold in pretty much the same format as when they were invented. There are a couple of innovations that were offered, but the idea remains the same- take a loader that was size matched to your revolver, stuff all the bullets in the cylinder at once and click the knob or push the button to let them drop in. Discard the loader and close up your gun.



I am now going to relate the official, as taught back in the day “Combat unload and reload technique for revolvers” in the “right manner.” Failure to reload a revolver correctly can end up with several bad results, especially under stress.

First Step. YOU ARE HAVING AN EMERGENCY- TAKE COVER. Then to begin the unload, place the gun in your left hand (horizontal with the floor) with it cupped in your palm around the bottom and cylinder. Open the cylinder latch with an available digit. I my left thumb at the same time I push the cylinder open from behind with my left middle fingers.



Step Two. Now this is the big one kids. Mess this up and your six second revolver reload can result in a 30 second or complete jam of a revolver. I am to going to quote the law to you on this one…the law of gravity. With the cylinder open and the gun still in your left hand turn the barrel straight up. Some empty brass may fall out on its own even with no other help- Gravity, not just a good idea, it’s the law! Now use the ejector rod on the front of the cylinder to empty the brass- either press the rod fully down ward with your left thumb- one time, or smack it down one time with the palm of your right hand. I prefer the vigorous palm strike-everything is going to go with that one and straight down.

Left thumb pushing extractor rod.

The problem that can occur with using just your left thumb to work the ejector rod is a tendency to push it several times at less than full extension in the manner my old instructors called “flicky flicky” and you can actually trap some empty brass under the extractor star causing a jam up. If you use your thumb, train yourself to do it one full depression while the barrel is pointed straight up in the air.

Heaven forbid you hold the gun horizontal with the ground while doing an extraction. Sometimes it works just fine, but gravity is no longer you good friend and you can cause unloading and reloading extra friction. Why not do it “the right way”, tip it up and smack the extractor rod down- all done.

Right palm smacks extractor straight down.

Step Three is putting fresh ammo back in the cylinders, and once again let’s use gravity to help. With the revolver still in the palm of your left hand, cylinder held open by middle fingers, tip the barrel straight down at the ground. Pull the gun and back of your hand into your belt buckle for stability and insert the new rounds. This is a little ungainly when you first try it, but even if you fumble, gravity is going to pull those new bullets down to your empty cylinder no matter what reloading device you are using.

Gravity. Gravity. Gravity.

If you hold the empty revolver horizontal to the ground and push new bullets in “sideways” you are just doing it wrong, and any fumble will end up with new bullets falling on the ground. BTDT.

If you have a dump of five or six loose bullets in your right hand, as long as you have the barrel straight down you are still going to get some of them into the cylinder.

If you have a zip strip, snag the nose of the bullets into the cylinder and pull them off the strip. Usually one cartridge at a time, but on some guns you can snag two at once. Still not blazing fast, but it works.

If you have a HKS type speedloader, you absolutely need to have the gun pointed down and push the device and noses into the empty cylinder. If you are really lucky, it lines up perfectly and you can work the release and all five or six rounds drop in. Much of the time I have to wiggle the speedloader a quarter inch or so to get the noses to line up correctly then push the release.



Step Four. Resume your grip with your right or strong hand. Notice the whole reloading sequence was done with the gun solely in your left hand. Push the cylinder closed with the palm of your left hand and try to turn the cylinder with thumb or forefinger to insure it has locked up tight and not in between cylinder lock up and feels loose inside the frame.

Step Five. Extend your pistol and reassess the target area.

I think that is about it. Being an old/ancient shooter, I think this type of stuff is just “known” by everyone, but frequently forget not everyone grows up the same or has had the advantage of good training I was lucky to receive which was paid for by the government. I also frequently forget there are many many people on the planet younger than me and have not amassed the same time behind triggers. This Combat unload and reload technique is something you can teach yourself, and I hope it is of use to you.

Write in if you are still using revolvers in your arsenal. I used to kid agents showing up on the firing line “Excuse me Senior’ is that a revolver? Is it from the border? My Grandfather had a revolver!” But they are great and dependable guns, and good for you if you rely on one or more of them. I have not shot one in years and years, but still have a couple around I will never get rid of…just too darn handy and dependable!

2 Responses to Revolver Combat Loading and Unloading

  1. Ron Sparrow on May 18, 2022 at 7:58 pm

    Sign me up on the still using revolver club. In fact I don’t own a center fire pistol. I know it’s bigger, bulkier, heavier, and don’t carry as many rounds. I won’t defend any of those traits but I suppose I’ll stay with what seems to work for me. I have me a dandy CS-1 that’s cut for moon clips and those are a real upgrade compared to any of the old days ways.

    • Michael Keleher on May 19, 2022 at 12:51 pm

      Diggin that Ron! You don’t need to defend anything of yours as long as it works for you!