The revolver has long served the American military. These early repeating firearms quickly made the old single-shot, muzzle-loading pistol obsolete. From 1836 until 1911, when horseback combat was common, the fast-firing revolver ruled the roost. Even after the adoption of the M1911 pistol, the revolver stuck around. Along the way, a number of weird wheelguns made their way into the various armories of the United States. Today we are looking at five weird wheelguns that went beyond the prototype stage and saw service with the U.S. military.
1) Colt Ring Lever Carbine
The Colt Paterson might get all the fame when it comes to early revolvers, but it wasn’t the first firearm designed and produced by Samuel Colt. He started with a revolving rifle known as the Colt Ring Lever Carbine. This gun saw service with the United States Army during the Seminole Wars.
Revolving rifles could already be considered weird wheelguns. As the owner of one, I can tell you how much of a pain they are, and I mean literal pain.
The gap between the cylinder and barrel releases some burning gas that’s quick to burn your hand. The Ring Lever Carbine was no different, but in a time where muzzle-loading muskets were the rule, this carbine offered a soldier five to six shots before needing to reload.
The Ring Lever portion was a manual action to rotate the cylinder and cock the internal hammer. This lever isn’t what you typically expect as it features a rather short action compared to traditional lever action. These guns saw service and were somewhat popular even if they chained fire here and there.
2) Savage 1861 Navy
The Savage Revolving Firearms Company is not related to the other Savage we all know and love, but it still made a revolver worth noting. The 1861 Navy was used by both sides of the Civil War: it was officially issued to the Union but was privately purchased by Confederates. As a Navy revolver, it chambered a .36 caliber ball. (Savage didn’t want to or couldn’t afford to refit machinery to produce Army variants in .44 caliber.)
A few things warrant the inclusion of the Savage 1861 in our list of five weird wheelguns.
First, the gun featured a gas seal, and the cylinder slid forward to meet the revolver’s barrel. A cut-out in each cylinder allowed for that gas seal. It’s not a complete gas seal but likely boosted the velocity of the .36 caliber ball and did limit the cylinder blast.
Additionally, the gun featured a ring lever that cocked it and rotated the cylinder. This proto-double-action design made the weapon easy to fire one-handed without compromising your grip. The barrel sat nearly in line with the wrist and gave off some steampunk vibes.
3) Tunnel Exploration Kit and its M&P 10
Vietnam was an excellent time for weird firearms, including weird wheelguns. Tunnel rats were tasked with clearing out underground tunnels in extremely close quarters. Due to these close quarters and dark environments, the U.S. military began experimenting with better weapons for the task, so it chose a revolver because the tight environments were hell on the function of a slide.
The Tunnel Exploration Kit was more than a gun: it was a complete tunnel rat kit. The revolver chosen for the kit was the perfectly normal Model 10 in .38 Special. What made it weird was that the military added a suppressor to the barrel and a big light on the top.
The kit also included earplugs because suppressed revolvers are tricky. In fact, they aren’t suppressed at all, and I’m betting the suppressor was actually to cut down on muzzle flash, which it likely did.
The big light across the top was a tightly focused beam designed to be an aiming device. I imagine using your sights in a tunnel was tough, so the light acted a lot like a modern laser. These kits were beloved, but only over 200 of them were sent to Vietnam. The rest of the kit included a special holster, a massive headlamp with a bite switch, and a radio.
4) Quiet Special Purpose Revolver
Remember what I said about revolvers and trench rats? Well, the Tunnel Exploration Kit wasn’t the only revolver intended for these fellas. The AAI Quiet Special Purpose Revolver is all kind of weird and certainly fits well with the rest of our weird wheelguns. AAI created an integrally suppressed revolver that didn’t rely on an external suppressor attached to the barrel and on a gas seal.
Instead, it used a cartridge system with a piston to propel the projectiles. The piston was still ignited by gunpowder, but because it was sealed, the gun was much quieter than an unsuppressed firearm. It wasn’t movie silent but likely wouldn’t deafen the shooter.
The QSPR used a Model 29 .44 Magnum loaded with a load of shot instead of a single projectile. The idea was that a buckshot-like load would be easier to score hits in the dark.
The QSPR made it to Vietnam, and according to a post-patrol document, an Army Ranger even scored a kill with one on patrol. It never reached mass production but did see some action.
5) The dart-firing HK P11 for frogmen
Are pepperboxes revolvers? It’s not a common debate, but I’m betting someone could easily make it. Even so, the HK P11 might not technically be a revolver, but I can’t leave it off. The HK P11 is far from normal. It’s certainly the king of weird wheelguns, even though it really doesn’t have the wheel.
The P11 was designed for the inevitable frogman wars that would surely come if the Cold War ever got hot.
This weapon fired steel darts and was designed to be fired underwater with an accurate range of about 15 meters underwater. The P11 held five of these darts, and when expended, the gun would then be sent back to HK to be reloaded.
The gun used electrical ignition to fire. The darts were 7.62mms in size, so even the fudds were confused on whether to love or hate it. It’s a weapon that got passed around NATO and saw service with not just American frogmen, but also with the British, Germans, Italians, and more.
Revolvers are a lot like shotguns in the fact that people tend to do odd things with them.
Revolvers tend to be easier to be weird with since their simplicity allows weirdness without affecting reliability. These are just the weird wheelguns that saw military service in the States. There is a whole armory worth of weird revolvers from around the world, but that’s a different article for a different time.
Feature Image: Staff Sgt. Carlos Mercado, a Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team paratrooper, practices his firing position inside the holding area of the mystery event of the Day Stakes portion of the 2018 Best Ranger Competition at Fort Benning, Georgia on Apr. 14. The Colt revolver was one of several firearms the teams were required to shoot during the mystery event. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Wallace/82 Airborne Division)