Do Revolvers Have Safeties?

Smith Wesson Model 40

This is a Smith & Wesson Model 40. It’s one of the few revolvers to use a safety. Instead of a switch or button, it uses what’s called a “grip safety.” It sits behind the grip, and must be pressed (i.e. palmed) before the gun can fire. This is the exception, not the rule. The vast majority of revolvers do not use safeties. (Smith & Wesson photo)

TLDR: Assume that revolvers don’t use safeties unless you can prove otherwise through research. Mention that specific model in the story.

Here’s an easy one. The short answer is no, revolvers do not have safeties in the same way some semi-automatic pistols do. There isn’t a switch or other device to press before the revolver can be fired. Usually.

This is as close to a hard and fast rule as you’ll find in the world of handguns. Because of their lengthy history, revolvers with safeties do exist. They’re uncommon, though. When writing, assume all revolvers do not have safeties unless you can prove otherwise through research. Then make sure you point out the specific model of revolver in the story. Otherwise, you’ll wind up looking like someone who can’t tell the difference between a revolver and a revolving door.

The rule of thumb is easy enough to remember, though: Revolvers don’t have safeties.

What Can Characters Do Instead of Switch Off a Safety? Stop, Hammer Time

If the thought of a revolver without a safety gives you a sense of uneasiness, I can tell you the feeling is unwarranted. A safety is a mechanical component of a firearm. Just because it’s called a “safety” doesn’t mean it’s the only way to prevent an accidental discharge. By design, a loaded revolver will not fire unless some specific things happen. What those are depends on the type of action the revolver uses. By the way, an “action” is the mechanism a firearm uses to fire and cycle ammunition.

I’ll do my best to keep this simple. Revolvers can be divided into two camps.

Single-Action Revolvers

With a single-action revolver, the hammer must be pulled back (i.e. “cocked”) before the trigger is pulled. If it’s not, simply pulling the trigger won’t fire the gun. For reference, here’s what a hammer looks like:

Where is the hammer on a revolver

Not all revolvers have external hammers, but many do. Here’s what a typical one looks like. (Gun Digest photo)

That cocking requirement (band name, called it) acts as a sort of safety all on its own. However, single-action revolvers are old hat. Most modern revolvers are…

Double-Action Revolvers

With double-action revolvers, the shooter can just pull the trigger without cocking the hammer first. In fact, some double-action revolvers don’t have external hammers at all (they’d be called “hammerless revolvers” generally or “striker fired” specifically, depending on mechanical set up). Others offer the option of using a hammer just like a single-action revolver, but it’s not a requirement.

Either way, the primary method double-action revolvers use to prevent accidental discharges is in the trigger pull. Unlike other firearms, these triggers offer more resistance. They’re not “hair triggers,” and they take a serious squeeze to fire. It’s hard to explain that without putting a revolver in your hands and showing you. But take my word for it.

Here’s what one of those hammerless revolvers looks like:

Smith Wesson Model M&P340

This is a Smith & Wesson Model M&P 340 revolver. Nope, it doesn’t have an external hammer. A character would just pull the trigger to fire. Any time you see a revolver that doesn’t have a hammer, you know it’s a double-action. Write it that way. (Smith & Wesson photo)

Cheat Sheet for Characters Using Revolvers

Here’s a quick reference to sum up these points.

If a character is using a single-action revolver: Don’t switch off the safety. Have the character cock the hammer first, then fire, then cock the hammer again, then fire again. Repeat until the ammunition runs out. (Note that not all revolvers are six-shooters.)

If a character is using a double-action revolver: Don’t switch off the safety. Have the character pull the trigger. That’s it. It can get more complicated than that if you’re more familiar with firearms, but it doesn’t have to be.

If you’re not sure what kind of revolver a character is using: Don’t switch off the safety, and don’t mention a hammer being cocked. Depict the character firing the revolver and leave it at that. Write around what you don’t know. So long as the story is moving forward, no one will notice.

It Happens to the Best of Us

If you’ve made this mistake, you’re in good company. None other than David Morrell, creator of Rambo and author of piles of awesome novels, wrote in a character switching the safety off a revolver. In fact, he wrote about it in his foreword (I still can’t get over how cool that is) to my book, The Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction. Here’s an excerpt:

I had foolishly decided at the last minute (the very last minute, because the novel was at the galley stage, my final opportunity for corrections) that there were a lot of semi-automatic handguns in the book and for variety maybe I should change one of them to a revolver.

So, presto, a semi-automatic pistol became a revolver. But I didn’t think to change any other details. Thus, in a major action scene, as my protagonist prepared to scale a wall, he pressed the revolver’s safety catch. Later, he released the revolver’s safety catch.

Writing those words, I grit my teeth. My chest tenses. My face turns warm with shame. Aarrgh.

On top of the safety issue, Morrell’s story hits home on another important point. If you’re going to change the type of firearm in a story, make sure to also tweak how it’s used. That goes for a semi-auto pistol switching to a revolver, a shotgun turning into a rifle, an assault rifle scaling back to an AR-15 (pro tip: read more about AR-15s and assault rifles here) and so on.

One Final Point

By the way, this isn’t a safety, even though it might remind you of one. It’s the cylinder release. Pressing that allows the cylinder to swing open.

Revolver cylinder release

What’s that tab that looks like a safety? That’s a cylinder release. (Gun Digest photo)

The cylinder is the round thing that holds the ammunition, like this:

What is a revolver cylinder

The holes inside the cylinder are called chambers. That’s what the ammunition is inserted into. There are six chambers in this example. (Shutterstock photo)

Your Revolvers

If you assigned revolvers to your characters, how did you do it? You can read about crime writer Dana King’s characters’ revolvers here.


Get the Book

The Writers Guide to WeaponsThe Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books) comes with everything but the ammo. Pick up a print or digital copy from these fine retailers:

10 thoughts on “Do Revolvers Have Safeties?

  1. A nice beginner’s guide. As a novelist w. 3 mystery novels extant, plus being a lifelong firearms enthusiast and shooter, safeties on revolvers seems to have faded in “popularity” as have revolvers in the modern era. But we have endless TV tropes where the cop or whomever pulls the Glock out and we hear a mystical “click” as the non-existent safety on the Glock is let off. Or, in a single action auto, the gun-holder has the weapon pointed at the other person, arguing and threatening to shoot, and then halfway through, cocks the hammer to show he “really means it” when in fact the gun was just a worthless piece of metal prior to that, not being double action. I review mysteries for OverMyDeadBody.com and I see countless “gun goofs” and even some major writers make mistakes on such. Please check out my website. Thanks. Tom Wright put me on to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for stopping by, Sam. The Glock thing kills me every time. It’s as if there’s only one kind of semi-auto pistol out there, and it uses whatever safety you need it to at the time.

      That’s complicated by the fact that Glock uses three safety mechanisms, but none of them function in the way a lot of people picture safeties. So even a writer putting in an honest effort at researching can get confused. Better to just write around it if you’re not sure.

      P.S. If you’re interested, I’d be happy to host a post from you about the most common gun errors you see as a reviewer at OverMyDeadBody.com.

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  2. I recall that many years ago, late 70’s early 80’s maybe, that there was a manufacturer that made a revolver with a safety switch. Now I can’t remember the manufacturer’s name or whether is was a single action or double action revolver. I just remember reading about it in one of the gun magazines. Also, for years I was very confused when I watched the Maltese Falcon and Humphrey Bogart called what was obviously a revolver an automatic or maybe it was semi-automatic. That was until I discovered the Webly-Foster automatic revolver. Then everything made sense.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ben, the reference in the movie was accurate. The character Sam Spade identifies the gun as belonging to his partner. I was confused because at the time I didn’t know an automatic revolver had ever existed. One of the writers for the movie was Dashiell Hammett who was also the author of the book. I can’t recall if I’ve ever read any of his books, but I have heard that his writing was pretty accurate and he wasn’t likely to make a mistake when it came to firearms.

    My biggest complaints when it comes to firearms in television, movies and books are: 1. Revolvers with safeties; 2. Revolvers with silencers (suppressors); 3. Closing the cylinder of a revolver by flicking or snapping the wrist (worst thing you could do since this can cause the yoke to bend and prevent the cylinder from locking up); 4. The never empty six-gun, semi-automatic, machine gun, etc.; and 5. The character jacking a round into the chamber of a semi-automatic (sometimes multiple times) after drawing the gun (there is no point in pointing an empty gun at someone or trying to clear a room without a round in the chamber). Whenever I carried a semi-auto there was always a round in the chamber and I usually carried with the safety off.

    Liked by 1 person

    • With 3, I’ve seen plenty of people at the gun range do that. It might look cool the first time, but the wear and tear will eventually catch up to you.

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  4. I love guns. Know exactly how they work and think there should be the option 8f a positive hammer block safety on a revolver.

    A heavy trigger is not really a safety. If , for whatever reason you finger your trigger… pulling it back without thinking, the chance for negligent discharge exists
    … while much is made of first strike capabilities… for self defense… proper training can give an edge to those who sanely prefer to keep their gun disengaged while a live round is in the pipe.

    I

    Like

  5. I love guns. Know exactly how they work and think there should be the option of a positive hammer block safety on a revolver.

    A heavy trigger is not really a safety. If , for whatever reason you finger your trigger… pulling it back without thinking, the chance for negligent discharge exists
    … while much is made of first strike capabilities… for self defense… proper training can give an edge to those who sanely prefer to keep their gun disengaged while a live round is in the pipe.

    Like

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