My recent interest in shooting and modifying S&W .38 Safety Hammerless revolvers has spurred interest in top-break revolvers among my friends and raises the question of why there are no modern top-break auto-ejecting revolvers? It seems like an eminently practical thing- open the action and the shells pop out, drop in a speed-loader or moon clip full of fresh ammo and you are on your way. Better and faster, right? Yes… and no… and maybe.
With only a couple of exceptions top-break revolvers all but disappeared after World War 2. The only readily available new top-break revolvers are the Uberti copies of 19th Century Smith & Wesson designs- which run right around $1000 US. Later this year North American Arms will be reintroducing a .22 Magnum top-break micro-revolver as well, and as far as new top-breaks on the American market that’s about it. Other than those two if you want a top-break you are pretty much limited to buying an antique. So if these guns are such a good idea why aren’t there more of them? Let’s look at the issues.
Most affordable antique top-breaks in the US are available in low-powered cartridges like .32 S&W and .38 S&W. By todays standards most people consider these to be too anemic for self-defense, and there is no commercially produced defensive ammo in these calibers that is recommended for firing in a top-break revolver. Buffalo-Bore does make defensive ammo in .38 S&W but advise that you restrict it’s use to solid frame revolvers or Webley/Enfield Mk.IV revolvers. The reason frequently cited for the lack of more powerful .38 S&W ammunition is that the top-break mechanism is ‘too weak’ for larger calibers. What is very often too weak are the guns themselves. Aside from the Webleys the majority of top-break antiques available on the used market can be lumped into Smith & Wesson and ‘other.’ The others include companies like Ivor Johnson, US Revolver, Harrington and Richardson etc. These others are mostly cheap knock-offs of the S&W guns, often using inferior materials like iron instead of steel for major components. Modern ammunition is loaded to be reasonably safe in these inferior guns.
The mechanism is not inherently too weak, as witnessed by Webleys which routinely fire .455 or .45 ACP cartridges, or the Uberti S&W copies that fire .44-40 or .45 Colt. Is it weaker than a solid-frame revolver? Yes, but it isn’t too weak. There have been a few prototypes for modern full-power top-breaks, but thus far none have made it into production. With modern materials and heat-treatment top-break guns could be made for any handgun caliber made today. So why aren’t they?
One reason is mechanical complexity. Auto-ejecting top-breaks have more to go wrong with them than conventional swing-out cylinder revolvers. Mechanical complexity is also expensive- there’s a reason that these guns went out of fashion and those Uberti revolvers cost a thousand dollars.
Another problem is that if you don’t do it right you can have a cartridge slip under the ejector and fall back into the cylinder, preventing you from reloading or even closing the mechanism. This isn’t a big deal on the range, but in combat it is a serious problem. It’s not particularly difficult to clear, but there’s no way to do it quickly.
But the real, largest and fatal flaw of top-break revolvers is simple; modern solid-frame swing-out cylinder designs are better. They are inherently stronger, they are easier to produce and contrary to what you might think they are just as fast to reload with speed-loaders or moon clips.
No, i am not on drugs. Rapidly and reliably reloading either sort of revolver is a two-hand operation that requires training. I do love the top-breaks so I am training- the S&W .38 top-breaks can use J-Frame speed loaders, so I developed a drill for using these. I can go into this in detail another time, but the net result was that with the proper drill for each revolver neither is notably faster than the other. A person that is pretty good at a reliable reloading method with either sort of gun should be able to manage a reload in about 4-1/2 seconds. Someone really dedicated might shave a second off that, especially using a competition set-up where the reload is very easy to access. The best revolver shooter I’ve ever seen was able to reload a S&W 25-2 .45ACP revolver, using a competition gun-belt, in 2 seconds. I think it might be possible to achieve a similar level of proficiency with the right top-break, especially a longer-barreled example like a Webley reground to accept .45 ACP moon-clips. I honestly cannot see it happening faster than that, and repeatedly slamming the action open one-handed would accelerate wear on what is already an antique gun.
So basically the reason for the lack of modern top-break revolvers is simple- they are more complex, more expensive and offer no practical advantage. It’s sad- I would love to see a modern production Safety Hammerless, made with modern material science, chambered to take 9x19mm in star clips. But I doubt I’d love it enough to pay more than twice the cost of a conventional revolver to get it.