Which is faster, a Single Action or a Double Action
By Dennis Adler
To conclude this review of the latest 7-1/2 inch Peacemaker from Umarex and Colt, I’m going to answer a question that has loomed over revolvers since 1877 when the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Mfg. Co. introduced the first American cartridge-loading double action revolver. “Is it faster than a Single Action?” The answer depends upon a great number of variables, the greatest of which is, who’s doing the shooting?
The legendary exhibition shooter Ed McGivern set a record shooting two S&W Model 10 double action revolvers on August 20, 1932 and emptying both in less than 2 seconds. The following month he set another record firing 5 rounds from an S&W Model 10 at 15 feet in 2/5ths of a second and grouping his shots close enough that he could cover them with his hand. He was actually faster with a double action revolver than anyone with a semi-auto! So, if the question is “which is faster, a single or double action revolver” and the person pulling the trigger was Ed McGivern, the answer is Ed McGivern. (You should check out on line videos of McGivern’s shooting exhibitions in the 1930s. They are unbelievable).
For the rest of us lacking the incomparable dexterity of an Ed McGivern, the advantage of just pulling the trigger still seems pretty obvious, but there have also been legendary shooters who used a Colt Single Action. The late Bob Munden was as fast as McGivern, at least at emptying a sixgun.
In today’s competitive shooting world, wheelguns are greatly outnumbered by semi-autos, except of course, for Cowboy Fast Draw and Cowboy Action Shooting, and even in CAS there is a Wild Bunch class for 1911s. For those of us who still like the reliability and handling of a revolver, the age old question of “which is faster” still looms large.
Putting a theory to work with CO2
I’m not a particularly fast shot even with all the practice I get. I know people who can out draw and outshoot me (I’ll never get in a gunfight with any of them!) but both Single Action and Double Action revolvers have features that offer unique advantages. The number one advantage of a Single Action is getting off the first shot; there’s nothing faster out of the holster. Of course I’m not talking a 7-1/2 inch Peacemaker but rather a shorter barreled 5-1/2, or 4-3/4 inch gun. Since Umarex and Colt have yet to partner up on a “correct” 4-3/4 inch six shooter, (and yes I could use the “Ace in the Hole” but that’s a ringer in my book), I am going to use the 7-1/2 inch and a 5-1/2 inch Peacemakers against as close to a vintage double action CO2 model as there is, the Webley MK VI. To keep everything equal, the MK VI is going to be the latest Battlefield Finish model because it has a double action trigger pull closer to an actual centerfire Webley. The test is simple enough; how long does it take me to draw and fire the first shot, and then how long to empty six chambers. And no fanning the Peacemakers!
In the lead photo you can see centerfire Colt Peacemakers and a Webley MK VI for comparison with the CO2 models, so this is a legitimate standoff c.1915 if you will. Since no one has yet built an early 20th century double action Colt or S&W CO2 model, the Webley is the next best choice, and a good one. I’m going to use the same holster from the previous two articles for the test. The Webley sits high in a Peacemaker holster with the entire triggerguard exposed, but it will do, (otherwise I’d have to cut the flap off a Webley MK VI holster and that seems a little extreme even for me). The Chisholm’s Trail holster I’m using has a well-formed pouch with just enough room to cock the Peacemakers in the holster as I begin to draw. It’s a commonly used fast draw technique with Single Action revolvers but still risky business with cartridge guns, even shooting blanks. Even with pellets you can still get an abrasion if you trip the hammer before clearing leather, so, if you’re going to practice this (only with a holster designed for it!) do it with an empty gun until you are absolutely ready to try it with a loaded one. A tall, heavy western boot (like I wear) would still be a good idea! Even those who have been professionally coached and have a lot of practice occasionally slip up. The cautionary tale in the photo below is from a 1959 Warner Bros. publicity shoot featuring their top TV Western stars.
Is there a difference between handling centerfire and CO2 models?
The answer to that obvious question is yes, but outside of recoil on these extremely authentic models, it is mostly the hammer draw and trigger pull, which is lighter than Colt Single Action cartridge guns (with the exception of those with custom tuned actions), and there is roughly a 1.2 ounce difference in weight on the 7-1/2 inch, and 2.0 ounces on the 5-1/2 inch Colts. On my scale, the Webley MK VI .455 caliber gun weighs 2 pounds, 5.5 ounces, and the Webley CO2 model 2 pounds, 5.5 ounces. That’s as close as you can get to the weight and balance of a centerfire pistol. In regards to how the CO2 models draw and handle (right up to the moment you pull the trigger), the differences are insignificant. The CO2 models are ideal for indoor or backyard shooting practice. And if you don’t have the actual centerfire models, you’ll still know almost exactly what they feel like and how they handle, except for felt recoil and the sound of an actual gunshot. For those of you who shoot airguns but have never been to a shooting range (indoor or outdoor) and have never fired a cartridge handgun, the felt recoil and the sound of a gun firing is a big difference. A lot of actors in movies and television shows, who know how to handle guns, even disassemble, clean and reassemble them, have actually never fired a live round, just blanks! Shooting a CO2 Peacemaker or Webley MK VI puts you right there with them. I should add that there are also a lot of actors who are very experienced with guns, shoot for sport or as a hobby, so you never really know!
Range time and real time
For the short series of tests I am going to draw and fire one shot from the 7-1/2 inch Peacemaker, 5-1/2 inch Peacemaker and double action Webley MK VI, and then compare the times. This is, of course, based entirely on my skill level, some of you will be faster, others a little slower but practice does make perfect. The second half of the test is really the most telling, firing all six rounds. With the Single Action I am going to do this one handed, so I have to use my shooting hand thumb to re-cock the hammer. No matter how fast I do this, it is unlikely it will be faster than pulling the 10 pound trigger on the Webley six times. We’ll see.
Drawing and firing one round with the 7-1/2 inch Peacemaker, I averaged 0.8 seconds. With the 5-1/2 inch Colt, I cleared leather and fired the first shot in half a second. Switching to the Webley, drawing the stocky MK VI and firing the first round double action took an average of 0.81 seconds (but remember with the Single Actions I was cocking the gun while it was still in the holster). However, there turned out to be a definite upside to the Webley. To fire all six rounds from the Single Action Peacemakers thumbing back the hammer one-handed, averaged 6.58 seconds (remember, no fanning), firing double action with the Webley MK VI, all six chambers were emptied in 2.01 seconds. (Ed McGivern’s record is safe with me!) Nevertheless, for rate of firing, the hands-down winner shooting single-handed goes to the double action revolver. I did it and I’ll take my oath on it.