What's Up With Wheelgun Market?

With loads of new semi-autos in the market, where does the classic revolver fit with your customers?
What's Up With Wheelgun Market?

There are certain questions — like the newly rejuvenated 9mm versus .45 debate — that will never fully be put to rest, and the popularity of the revolver is among them. No matter what new material auto pistols are made of, how many rounds they hold, or how far their reliability has come, the revolver stubbornly retains a strong position in firearm sales. To find out why and what this means to your customers, however, requires looking a little deeper into the market itself.

Just like automatics, there are different tools for different tasks — the customer shopping for a S&W Model 41 probably isn’t comparing it with Glocks — and that’s the key to much of the revolver’s market share. There is a certain element of nostalgia that draws some customers to vintage-styled sixguns like Smith & Wesson’s Classic line and the cowboy-styled single-actions. Other shooters are drawn to single-action revolvers for hunting or defense against predatory animals because their combination of accuracy and ability to chamber a potent, fight-stopping caliber in a fairly compact package can’t be matched by an autoloader.

In the case of higher-end revolvers such as the Colt Single Action Army, the purchase might also be made as an investment. The largest part of the market, however, appears to be for small, compact revolvers that can be easily used for concealed carry. Of the major gunmakers, the four perhaps most strongly associated with the revolver are Colt, Ruger, Smith & Wesson and Taurus, and we’ll start by making a brief survey of each of them.

The Classic Colt

While once a powerhouse in the double-action revolver field — its Python .357 has long been legendary for its smoothness, and its snubnose Detective Special Colt remains iconic — Colt now focuses its efforts primarily on auto pistols and currently produces only the Single Action Army revolver, also commonly known as the “Peacemaker.” Colt reports strong demand for the SAA, and its customer service regularly fields calls about production and availability. Some of the current popularity of the SAA might be attributable to the promotional value of Sam Colt’s 200th birthday on July 19, 2014 — the most recent in a series of high-profile anniversaries for Colt, including its 175th birthday and the centennial of the M1911 pistol.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that’s the only cause for the SAA’s popularity, or that it’s a fad. Because the company is generally credited with inventing the revolver (the story goes that founder Sam Colt was inspired by the capstan of a sailing ship to carve a wooden model of the revolver he later manufactured), the Colt name has tremendous historical significance, and Colt guns tend to hold their value very well because of this. It also makes them desirable as collector’s pieces and as investments.

This is especially true of the higher-end pistols available from the Colt Custom Shop, which are often available with engraving that was added in-house. This can add exponentially to the value of a pistol, especially when the engraving is attributable to one of the Colt master engravers, whose work, like that of famous painters, often increases in value with time.

Time will tell if Colt reintroduces a double-action line of revolvers, such as its short-lived Magnum Carry .357 snubnose, but it’s worth noting that the SAA was once out of production, too, and was brought back when the market showed a demand for it.

Diversified Ruger

Ruger is in a somewhat different position, as its diversification in the handgun market encompasses perhaps the broadest array of products in the revolver field — from small-caliber, lightweight compacts to the recently reintroduced .480 Ruger Alaskan and some of the most highly respected hunting single-actions in the industry.

We asked Ken Jorgensen, Ruger’s director of media relations, whether they were seeing a resurgence in the revolver.

“I don’t know that ‘resurgence’ is a good word,” he told us, and pointed out that revolvers have always been a large part of Ruger’s business, and remain a strong product line.

The point is well made, since Ruger’s .22-caliber Single Six was introduced just a few years after the company opened its doors with the still-popular Standard Model .22 semi-auto pistol, which we know now as the Mk III. Ruger’s Blackhawk centerfire single-action was introduced shortly thereafter, filling a gap in the market that was left when Colt had stopped making the SAA after World War II.

By using a customer feedback system to help determine what it brings to market, Ruger is able to evaluate demand prior to introducing a new model, because its customers have already told them what they want. In the past couple of years, Ruger has reintroduced the Flattop model, which was largely the result of customer nostalgia, and expanded its GP100 line with models that incorporate Novak sights. The company also introduced the venerable Single Six in 10-shot guise and the short-barreled double-action Alaskan in .480 Ruger, a caliber that compares with the fearsome .475 Linebaugh Magnum. No doubt a bit of a niche product, but for those who need one, little else will do.

While Ruger has had strong demand across the board over the past few years — what it’s made, it’s sold — as the market starts to normalize a little, small-frame revolvers are still popular largely because of demand for personal defense and from new shooters, who value the simplicity of a wheelgun. In fact, this part of the market is where Ruger has perhaps the greatest innovation in recent years with its LCR, a lightweight polymer-framed snubnose that debuted in 2009.

Since it’s pretty hard to innovate with a design that hasn’t changed much for more than 100 years, the use of polymer in a revolver was a coup and enough of a game changer that both Taurus and Smith & Wesson each followed suit with one of their own. First available in .38 Special followed by models in .357 Magnum, .22LR and .22 Magnum, the range of calibers also makes it possible for beginning shooters to pick one that doesn’t deliver the punishing recoil that often comes standard with most small magnum-class handguns.

Taurus Goes All In

Taurus, who has been producing revolvers for some 75 years now, describes itself as the world’s largest revolver maker and has a dizzying array of models to back up that claim. According to Scott Rothenberg, Taurus director of sales, in spite of the slight softening of the market, the 85, the company’s bread-and-butter fixed-sight snubnose, is the best-selling family in Taurus’s revolver line and is “popular with new firearm owners and those who are looking for a great concealed carry option.”

The Taurus .410 bore Judge model, which shook up the self-defense world when it was introduced a decade ago, continues to be popular, but more as a home defense gun than one for on-the-body concealed carry. While the concept was not entirely new — the Thunder Five revolver that had gone before was chambered for .410 shotshells, and there were also derringers available that fired them — the Judge was the first truly successful attempt to package the added hit probably of the shotgun with the compact size of the handgun, where the short barrel would also significantly increase pattern spread. Fast-forward to today, and the ammo manufacturers make handgun-specific shot cartridges, which speaks volumes about the popularity of the concept.

Taurus also reports that it has seen an increased interest in handgun hunting this year, and it has long produced guns for that market, such as its Hunter and Raging series of revolvers that come in .44 Magnum and .454 Casull in a variety of barrel lengths.

“Old School” Smiths

According to Smith & Wesson, whose potent .500 and .460 revolvers are also oriented toward the hunting market, the company still has a backorder, and 75 percent of its sales deal with personal protection and concealed carry. According to Director of Marketing Paul Pluff, “every time a state passes a concealed carry law, our sales go up.” Consistent with the theme that revolvers seem to have their greatest strength with new shooters and for concealed carry, he noted that 35 percent of the guns they’ve sold over the past five years have been to first-time buyers, and the company has seen a bump in sales among the J-frame models, which is Smith’s standard snubnose frame size.  

Although it still offers J-frames in the Classic configuration, Smith has also taken steps to address one of the basic shortcomings of many small revolvers by adding more modern sighting options to snubbies, including nights sights, fiber optics and lasers. Smith also offers its Governor, which fires .410 shotshells as well as .45 Colt and .45 ACP cartridges, making it perhaps the most flexible of the shotshell guns. The .45 ACP cartridges are held in place in the Governor by moon clips, as has been done for many years with the auto pistol cartridge when fed into a revolver. Smith has also used moon clips for some of its 9mm and .357 pistols, which eliminates one of the perceived shortcomings of the revolver — speed of reloading.

While speedloaders, speed strips and spill pouches all leave a little be desired, especially when compared to a magazine-fed semi-auto, moon clips are an entirely different issue, and watching a video of the mythically good Jerry Miculek reloading a moon-clip-fed revolver should clear up any doubt you might have about their practicality.

Tracking The Parts

Looking at the aftermarket also helps paint the picture of which guns are popular and what they’re being used for. With this in mind, we spoke with Larry Weeks at Brownells, perhaps the leading supplier of parts and gunsmithing tools, about the revolver parts that are most in demand. Although Smith & Wesson’s competition-oriented revolvers, which have been largely inspired by Jerry Miculek, are being well-received, the bulk of the revolver market still appears to be concealed carry. While Brownells isn’t showing a large number of new revolver parts, the things that remain steadily popular are sights, which includes lasers, and spring kits to help adjust trigger pulls.

Laser sights, especially the grip-mounted ones pioneered by Crimson Trace — which offer “the comfort of a better grip” along with the laser — serve either as a supplement or in lieu of traditional iron sights, which are often difficult to use on the smaller revolvers. The difficulty is a function both of the unforgiving (and unalterable) short sight radius of snub-nosed revolvers, and the almost vestigial sights that have traditionally come on them — something that manufacturers (especially Smith) do seem to be addressing, though somewhat sporadically.

Using a laser sight bypasses both of these challenges, in addition to allowing accurate fire when the pistol isn’t held at line of sight and while keeping the eyes focused on the target. While lasers still have shortcomings — like relying on often-temperamental batteries — they’re only getting better, and the ability to stay focused on the target provides something of a shortcut on the training that’s usually required to learn to focus on your sights instead. All of which makes them appealing to those selecting their first carry pistol.

That these parts are popular squares with the mantra of famed pistolsmith and designer Wayne Novak, who recommends that every defensive pistol have good, high-visibility sights, a crisp trigger and a reliability package. Since the emphasis on better aiming and triggers is being seen at the aftermarket level and not just with the initial purchase, hopefully it’s more than just plus-selling and shows a thoughtful focus on increasing the usability of the smaller revolvers, which are notoriously difficult to shoot well and are often bought more as a security blanket than a serious plan for self-protection. Educated consumers tend to be more engaged, and when they’ll also be carrying a deadly weapon around in public, this can only be a good thing.

Cowboy Shooting Craze?

The demand Brownells sees for cowboy-style single-action accessories, however, is a little less indicative. Often focused more strongly on the authenticity and pageantry associated with the events than with the firearms themselves, the cowboy shooting world is a little more insular than other facets of the shooting world, having suppliers that tailor their goods and services to that niche market.

That’s not to say it’s at all a small one, though: the Single Action Shooting Society boasts some 100,000 members, several times what IDPA and USPSA can claim. According to Brownells, while the demand is up a bit this year for some of its single-action parts, the market is down a little from previous years. Demand is steady, though, and the lull appears to be cyclical. With the popularity of Ruger’s Vaquero, which was greeted with great fanfare when originally released and again when rereleased as the New Vaquero, there seems little reason to expect this to diminish significantly.

We also spoke with pistolsmith Hamilton Bowen, who literally wrote the book on custom revolvers (his highly regarded book “The Custom Revolver has recently re-released in digital format), about wheelgun demand.

“I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon,” he told us. Although Bowen is known primarily for high-end custom work on single-actions, often in the heavy Linebaugh calibers, he also provides parts and services for double-action revolvers (including models commonly used for defense) and hunting sixguns. He also felt that while there will always be a portion of the market drawn to revolvers out of an appreciation for history and craftsmanship, much of the revolver market is focused on the smaller, concealable guns used for self-defense.

So Who’s Going To Buy?

Many people are quick to recommend revolvers to new shooters, especially women, because of their simplicity: other than the trigger and sights, the only thing you really have to learn to operate is the cylinder latch. They’re also far more forgiving of ammunition tolerances than semi-auto pistols, which often prefer cartridges within a certain overall length in order to function reliably (if you doubt this, just start short-loading your cartridges and the problem will likely show up in due time). With a revolver, however, as long as you can get it in the cylinder, it’s pretty much going to work.

Both of these advantages bring up an often-unforeseen problem in recommending the smaller compact autos (such as the popular micro-9mms) to those who are physically smaller or don’t have a lot of hand strength. It’s often not recoil that’s most difficult for a shooter to manage, but operating the pistol’s slide. While a snubnose revolver offers no real advantage in the recoil department — the lightweight ones generally kick savagely, especially in magnum calibers — they require no real hand strength to operate.

If you can’t pull back the slide on an auto, however, not only can you not load and unload it yourself, but you’re also helpless to clear the weapon and get it back into action in the event of a malfunction. For the person making a defensive purchase, this is literally a life-and-death issue, and if they can’t fully withdraw the slide on an automatic, they either need a smaller caliber auto they can manage, or they need to consider a revolver.

No matter who your handgun customer is, one thing is for certain — the revolver isn’t going anywhere other than into more holsters, purses and hip pockets.


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