The Cody Thunderbird revolver: The face of innovation
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
The Cody Thunderbird revolver was produced at the end of the 1950s.
Want a look behind the scenes at what it’s like to write a blog? Yesterday, for example, I was about to test the Webley Rebel for accuracy, when everything fell apart. I will explain what happened when I do the report on the Rebel, but suffice to say I wasted 90 minutes fiddling around and getting nowhere.
That’s when I punt. I’d been wanting to cover the Cody Thunderbird revolver for a long time, so here it goes!
The 1950s were a time of great prosperity in the U.S. People were working, businesses were being started; and in the world of firearms, the future seemed bright. A number of companies were making .22 rimfire guns, including the toymaker Wamo and Sheridan, the airgun manufacturer.
In Chicopee, Massachusetts, a firm that was making M1 Garand parts under contract to the defense department was approached by a New York City company and asked to manufacture a 6-shot revolver called the Thunderbird. The new company was called the Cody Manufacturing Corporation, and they used an American Bison as their trademark.
Like many other firearm makers of the time, they would manufacture the new gun as inexpensively as possible so the retail price could be low. The design was new and not a copy of anything then being produced. At its heart, the Thunderbird is a 6-shot revolver that fires both in single-action and double-action modes. Double-action is a problem, however, because of a trigger linkage that wasn’t sorted out in the development stage. The DA pull is 35-40 lbs. and cannot be lightened without modifying the gun. The single-action pull is more on the order of 6-7 lbs., with reasonable crispness.
To cut down on manufacturing costs, steel in the gun appears only where necessary. The barrel is a thin steel tube that’s rifled with a right-hand twist of what I must assume is 1:16″. The barrel’s enclosed in an aluminum housing that was easier and faster to machine plus reduced the weight of the gun. My 4-inch barreled model weighs 19 oz., though the Cody ad says it should weigh 22 oz.
The actual barrel is a thin steel liner.
The gun came with barrel lengths of 2.5 inches, 4 inches and 6 inches. It came in two finishes, Brylite Black, which is a shiny black that’s on my gun, and polished aluminum Hybrite, which simulates polished chrome. The one-piece grip is made from reddish-brown plastic and features checkered panels with the company bison on both sides.
Ad from September 1957 “Guns” magazine.
The interesting parts of the gun are a front sight that adjusts for elevation and the method of construction that allows disassembly for cleaning the cylinder and barrel in seconds without tools. This is also one of the world’s few revolvers with a safety! Let’s look at the sights first.
The front sight blade is hinged on a pivot so it swings back to present a high blade for close work (gun will point down) and swings forward for distance shooting. But it doesn’t end there. There’s a slotted screw the size of an eyeglass frame screw in front of the front sight that allows fine adjustments up and down when the sight is swung forward.
Front sight flipped back for close range.
Front sight flipped forward for long distance.
Turn that screw in to raise the front sight blade when forward.
The rear sight is a fixed notch, but it’s also the latch that locks the revolver closed. To open it for extracting, ejecting and loading, the rear sight is lifted up. Then, the barrel breaks down and causes something called the starwheel to rise and extract the cartridges from their chambers in the cylinder.
As the gun breaks open, the “starwheel” rises to extract the cartridges.
The gun disassembles for cleaning in seconds without tools. Simply break open the barrel and rotate the cylinder by hand while pulling it up at the same time. When you reach the right point, the cylinder lifts up off its arbor and you have access to it and to the barrel.
It takes a second to remove the cylinder like this for cleaning.
Finally — this revolver has a safety! Safeties are rare on revolvers, and none work like this one. Pushing it up locks the action if the hammer is down. But if the hammer is back, the safety does nothing. So its only function is to prevent the gun from being cocked and fired single-action or the trigger being pulled for double-action when the hammer is down.
Take a good look, because outside of a British mystery, you aren’t likely to see a safety on a revolver again!
As clever as the Thunderbird is, it has several major flaws. First is the extremely heavy double-action mode that was explained earlier. Nothing can be done about that. An article in the book Pistols/A Modern Encyclopedia says that it can be corrected with gunsmithing, but the author had obviously never seen the gun in person. The linkage is just not suited to a good double-action pull.
Another big shortcoming is in the fit of the cylinder to the barrel. The cylinder-to-barrel gap is approximately 0.028 inches, or 28 thousandths. That’s 6 times larger than it should be! A tight gun would have a gap of 0.002 inches, and a loose gun would be 0.006 inches. With this gun, you can count on getting hit with shaved lead as the bullets enter the barrel.
But the final flaw is the most serious, because it affected every gun that left the factory. The gun’s frame is aluminum and the action parts are steel, which set up electrolysis in each and every gun! Without fail, all the parts were welded together over time. Every gun will have this problem. The only solution is disassembly, cleaning and protection with something like Ballistol.
When it was selling, the Thunderbird cost $29.95 in black or $32.50 in polished aluminum. That was expensive for 1957. While it had many exciting and innovative features, it seems to me like a real shooter never had a voice in its design. Innovation by itself can’t sell a gun. It also has to work.
I’ve taken a design similar to the front sight of the Thunderbird to many airgun manufacturers. They could make a rifle muzzlebrake that would be smooth for scoped rifles, yet have a front sight that pops up when open sights are used. They all ignored the idea! Yet, such sights have been on rimfire rifles since before the middle of the last century!
Several months ago, I wrote a report that said that many of the good ideas come from the past, and this is one example. Until airgun manufacturers learn what was done years ago and try to apply it to the guns of today, they’ll be missing out on a major source of wonderful ideas.