One thing is for sure. If you have a revolver, you’re going to be doing a lot of reloading.
On the range, it doesn’t matter so much, and indeed, depending on the practice drills you are doing, it is generally a good thing to have a break after every half-dozen shots or so anyway. Regular breaks, whether for reloading, or checking your target, or whatever else, help to keep you unstressed and fresh.
But if you find yourself in a self-defense situation, it is a very different story. We’re not going to re-debate the merits of revolvers vs semi-autos for self-defense purposes in this article; we’ll start off with the assumption that – for whatever reason – you’re carrying a five or six shot revolver.
If you’re facing a single adversary, and if you’re lucky, those five or six shots will hopefully be sufficient to stop the threat posed by the adversary. If you’re facing multiple attackers, then you’re almost certainly going to reload at some point in the proceedings – either a combat/emergency reload due to having emptied your gun and needing to reload, or a tactical reload where in a short pause in the action, you top it up, replacing perhaps only spent cartridges with fresh ones.
Before we talk about reloading, one more point about the need to reload. Say you’ve just successfully saved yourself from a violent attack from a single offender. What is the first, second, and third thing you should do?
As soon as the attacker appears to have stopped pressing his attack on you, you should move to one side or the other (ideally away from wherever it is he is either now lying or running away towards) and do a quick scan about your surroundings. Are there any other bad guys nearby? Or, for that matter, any good guys – any witnesses to what had just happened?
Secondly, having confirmed there are no more attackers about to spring out at you, and having called out to witnesses, you now need to focus on your former attacker. Is he truly down (or did he truly run away), or is he about to come right back at you a second time? This rarely happens – most people, when being shot at by a determined defender, will end the fight and run away – only if it is a ‘grudge fight’ or contract assassination will the other guy keep shooting. But if/when it does happen, you don’t want to be caught out! Remember – ‘It ain’t over till its over’.
Now for the third thing. You need to do a ‘tactical reload’ of your revolver (or semi-auto for that matter, too). Whether you fired one, five or fifteen rounds, your gun is no longer at full capacity. Reload your gun – swap magazines if a semi-auto; eject spent shells and replace them with new shells if a revolver.
The Four Revolver Reloading Options
There are many different approaches to reloading a revolver, and in presenting four to you, we’ve ignored some which are either not useful for ‘normal people’ or which are so similar to the four approaches we do list as to not be worthy of separate mention.
So, now for the four ways to reload your revolver.
1. Loose rounds – perhaps from belt loops or a pouch
The first option is the oldest, simplest, but also usually least satisfactory way of reloading. You have a collection of loose rounds – maybe in belt loops, maybe in a dump pouch or other carry pouch. You eject your spent rounds and replace them, one by one, with fresh rounds.
On the face of it, this is an easy, simple and straightforward process, albeit very slow. But in a combat situation, where you have an adrenalin rush and a loss of micro-motor skills (to put it bluntly, you’re shaking like a leaf), the fiddly business of getting each individual shell, holding it just right, and then fitting it into an empty chamber is going to be difficult and take you more time than you expect.
On the other hand, if you’re doing a tactical reload where you only need to ‘top up’ your gun by replacing two or three spent shells with fresh ones, it is a more acceptable approach, and all the more so because a tactical reload isn’t quite as time critical – you don’t have a bad guy rushing at you, closing the distance at a rate of 30 feet every second.
Although the perception of speed loaders is that they are a modern invention, this is not entirely correct. Speed loaders can be seen dating back to the 1880’s when Colt advertised a type of speedloader made out of wood. The device, which looked quite similar to modern speedloaders, had a central removable wooden cone. While in place it held all six rounds in their slots; when removed, it allowed the rounds to fall freely into the cylinder.
Perhaps the predecessor to the speed loader concept was very early revolvers with reasonably readily removable/exchangeable cylinders. Rather than simply swapping over a set of rounds, you could – in theory – swap over a complete cylinder for a new cylinder, preloaded with another six rounds.
But this was a design approach that didn’t last for long and probably was never a prime purpose of allowing for replaceable cylinders in the first place. It required bulky, heavy, and expensive cylinders rather than light and cheap speedloaders, and was probably a hold-over from prior to the invention of cartridges. Reloading an earlier ‘cap and ball’ type revolver was a slow and complex process, and so some revolvers (and some shooters) would carry preloaded spare cylinders to change over as needed in a fight.
Early revolver design with a fixed cylinder and a gate on the side at the rear of the cylinder for extracting/reloading cartridges one at a time obviously couldn’t be converted to allow for multiple rounds to be removed or replaced simultaneously, but these early designs were replaced with revolvers that either hinged open with a ‘top break’ so the revolver ‘breaks’ into an inverted V, exposing the rear of the cylinder to allow access to all rounds, or revolvers where the cylinder swung out to the side on a crane arm, again exposing the rear of the cylinder to access all rounds. The latter approach is close to universally adopted in all modern revolvers.
Modern speedloaders started to become more common from the 1970s, and these days their use is widespread to the point that few people consider other options beyond speedloaders when thinking how to best/quickest reload their revolver.
It is probably true that for a ‘combat reload’ – a situation where you have fired all the rounds in your revolver and need to urgently reload to continue the fight – a speedloader can be the quickest way to transition from empty to full again. But for a tactical reload, the problem is that the speedloader is an ‘all or nothing’ device – you first have to eject all the rounds in the cylinder, whether they have been fired or not, before then dumping a speedloader’s new set of rounds in.
This is not a huge problem if you have unlimited ammunition, and/or spare time to carefully sort through the mix of spent and unfired rounds. But in any sort of real-world situation, you probably do not have unlimited ammunition with you, and you almost certainly do not have the time to leisurely manage your ammo in brief pauses in the gun fight you’re trying to win.
With only five or six rounds in a revolver to start with, you’ll be doing tactical reloads any time it is safe to do so in an encounter, and so you need a way to conserve your ammunition. To put that in context, most people get nervous, with a semi-auto, when the magazine gets down to about one-third full (or, if you prefer, two-thirds empty) – and one-third full in a modern semi-auto magazine is typically 5 or 6 rounds, the same as a revolver when it is full!
3. Moon clips
Another variation on the speedloader concept is the ‘moon clip’ – a metal clip commonly holding three rounds together in a semi-circular or ‘moon’ shape. Other moon clips exist that hold two or six rounds. Moon clips date back to around the turn of the 19th/20th century (eg for the Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver – which also could use a Prideaux speedloader).
Unlike a speedloader, the moon clip stays attached to the cartridges, meaning that when you reload, you have to remove a full clip’s worth of cartridges, whether or not they have all been fired. This could be a problem if you’re short of ammo, and wanting to do a tactical reload. Say you’ve fired two rounds – one from each of two moon clips. You have to remove both moon clips and replace them with full ones, wasting four of your six rounds.
Moon clips have also been used to modify rimless ammunition designed for semi-autos to allow them to be fired through revolvers, which are generally designed to require a rim on each round to hold it in position in the cylinder (and also for the extractor to eject as well).
Reloading with a full moon clip (ie holding six rounds) is comparable in speed to reloading with a speed loader. Possibly the moon clip is a slightly more fragile way of carrying the rounds, but if you have a protective pouch, this should not be an issue. On the other hand, reloading with two half-moon clips is clearly slower than with a single speedloader and so is a less desirable option (assuming you have options).
4. Bianchi Speed Strips
Now for a more truly new approach to keeping your revolver running. The Bianchi Speed Strip (and now also sold by a competitor as the Tuff Quickstrip). You can see an example of one in the photo at the top.
This is a flexible plastic strip with space for six cartridges. When using it to reload your revolver, you flex the strip and use it to place two cartridges at a time into two chambers of the cylinder and squeeze them out of the flexible plastic, then turn the cylinder, shift your grip on the strip, and repeat the process again (and again to do all six).
Yes, it sounds complicated, and yes, it is a bit slower than using a speedloader, where one simple action drops a full cylinder’s worth of cartridges into the revolver. But it can be surprisingly quick, and only a little slower than a speedloader.
Where the Speed Strip really comes into its own however is in doing tactical reloads. You simply eject the fired rounds, and then replace them, two (or even one) at a time from a Speed Strip. No rounds are wasted.
Here’s a great Youtube video with Massad Ayoob demonstrating how to use a Speed Strip. Note that he recommends only carrying five rather than six rounds in a Speed Strip to allow for easier handling of the Strip.
There is another advantage to Speed Strips too. They are easier to carry in your pocket. A speedloader is more bulky to have in your pocket if you are carrying concealed, whereas a Speed Strip is flat.
And, lastly, one more small benefit of Speed Strips. A single Speed Strip will hold either .38 SPL or .357 Mag rounds, and can be used with any revolver. Speedloaders (while also interchangeably accepting the two calibers) have to be matched to specific pistols, due to the different diameter of the cylinder and number of rounds held in the cylinder.
How Long Should it Take to Reload a Revolver
Okay, so that is a question a bit like asking ‘how high is up’. It takes however long it takes, of course. But to give you a feeling for what a reasonably proficient person should train for, Front Sight in its proficiency tests requires its students to do either a tactical or combat reload in no more than seven seconds.
Seven seconds sounds like a long time to be out of a gunfight. In that period of time, a person can run 50 – 70 yards, and if they have a semi-auto, they can fire a full magazine’s worth of bullets at you, reload, and be more or less finished emptying a second (high-capacity) magazine’s worth of ammo in your direction. Most violent encounters only last a few seconds.
Now it is possible to reload a revolver in much less than seven seconds, but it will take you a huge amount of training to be able to do so, and whether or not you’ll be able to perform as well in the stress of a combat situation is dubious at best. Here’s a video showing one of the all time greats of revolver shooting, Jerry Miculek, who first shoots all six rounds in his revolver, then reloads, then shoots the reloaded six rounds – all in 2.99 seconds! That is staggeringly fast and is the world record. Few people could hope to fire twelve rounds out of a semi-auto – with no reloading in the middle – in the same time frame.
More realistically, you should consider the Front Sight seven second target as an appropriate first goal to achieve. Here’s a good step by step explanation of how to use a speedloader efficiently in reloading.
To put the seven seconds into context, Front Sight allow 4.5 seconds for a tactical reload of a semi-auto, and when the pressure is on, 2.4 seconds for an emergency/combat reload. With some practice, you should be able to do it in less than 2 seconds, and even in a high stress situation, the relatively simple movements are such that your reloading time shouldn’t slow down too much.
There’s another subtle issue. With a revolver, your gun is out of the fight from the instant you decide to start a reload (whether tactical or combat) until the final point where you’ve closed the cylinder and have it in a firing grip. With a semi-auto, in some cases you can do a complete reload and have your gun still able to shoot at all times. If you’re doing a semi-combat reload – a situation where you think you’re getting dangerously low on rounds and there’s a brief pause in the encounter but still a high probability of threats reappearing – you can do a combat style reload where you don’t release your partially full magazine until you have a replacement magazine in your hand, indexed, and ready to shove in. Here’s the good thing – at all times, there is still a round chambered and ready to shoot if things suddenly go high-intensity again.
Note that some semi-autos have a ‘magazine interlock/safety’ – they won’t fire if there isn’t a magazine in the gun. This can be a life-saver if you’re struggling to stop a bad guy from taking your gun from you – simply pop the magazine out and let him have it, there’s nothing he can do with it. While he’s trying to figure out how come the gun won’t shoot, you can be doing whatever you need to do in response. But this ‘safety’ feature can also be a major embarrassment if for some reason you need to use the round in the chamber while there’s no magazine in the gun. Browning Hi-Powers and FN Five-Seven pistols are two examples of such guns.
One more subtle issue. With some practice, you may be aware when your semi-auto is empty and needs to be reloaded, because the slide has locked back. In a high stress encounter, there’s no way you’ll be accurately counting your rounds fired, but you may dimly perceive that the gun felt differently after the last shot, or looks differently from your perspective behind the sights. So you might have this tactile or visual clue telling you to reload (although so too will any bad guys close to you also see the slide locked back).
A revolver gives you no such clue. You’ll again have no realistic idea of how many rounds you’ve fired, and your first indication of an empty gun will be when you pull the trigger and get a click rather than a bang (if we had a dollar for every time a person then pulls the trigger a second time, getting a second click, before reluctantly accepting their gun is already empty and needs reloading, we’d be relaxing on a tropical beach with an umbrella’d fruity drink rather than writing this article right now!).
Anyway, back to reloading revolvers. Our point is simply this : With a modern semi-auto and a high-capacity magazine, you can often work your way through an entire confrontation without needing to change magazines, and if you do need to change magazines, you have a reasonable chance of being able to do so before losing control of the situation. No matter what sort of revolver you have, and what sort of encounter you face, you’re probably going to empty the revolver as part of your response to the threat. If you’re lucky, the threat will be neutralized at the same time your gun is emptied. But if you’re not lucky, you’re going to find yourself with an empty gun that might take too long to refill while still facing an active threat.
Do we need to explain this? In the real world, you don’t shoot like at the range. At the range, most people take careful aim, doing all the things they have learned or are practicing, check for sight alignment and sight picture, then carefully squeeze the trigger, firing a shot, after which they stop, think about how the shot went, and look at the target to see where it landed.
In a typical life or death encounter where you need to use deadly force to save yourself, you’re going to be pulling your gun in a rush and shooting it just as quickly as you can, without pausing to see what is happening between shots, until such time as the bad guy has clearly stopped threatening you with extreme harm. It is very easy to fire all five or six rounds as part of a single decision to shoot. While you’re trained to fire fewer rounds at a time; in the real world, even highly skilled police officers will fire very many more than five or six rounds at a single adversary. Don’t expect to do any better, yourself.
At close range you have no choice but to fire rapidly, before the bad guy gets in physical contact with you – possibly to take your gun from you, possibly to stab you, or possibly just to use superior physical strength to take control of you. In half a second, most people can travel 15 feet or so, and a person running towards you can move very much faster and more nimbly than you can moving backwards. With most encounters taking place at this type of range or even closer, you have only half a second to solve the problem.
Anyway, back to reloading revolvers again. Don’t be disheartened. It is a million times better to have a five shot revolver than nothing. You’ve tilted the odds enormously in your favor. But it is even better still to have a 17 shot semi-auto (and with an 18th round already chambered!) at hand when trouble happens.
The Best Approach to Reloading Your Revolver
Okay, so how best to manage your revolver and keeping it fed? We suggest you do what we do ourselves. When carrying a revolver, we have both a Speed Strip and a speedloader with us. That way we have the best of both worlds. If we’ve emptied the cylinder, we grab the speedloader. If we’re doing a tactical reload, we use the Speed Strip.
If we had to choose only one way of carrying spare ammo – well, that’s a hard decision to make. Generally, we always have the Speed Strip and usually the speedloader too.