A revolver is a repeating firearm that has a revolving cylinder containing multiple chambers and at least one barrel for firing. The term "revolver" refers to a handgun, but other weapons may also have a revolving chamber. These include some models of grenade launchers, shotguns, and rifles.
In the development of firearms, an important limiting factor was the time it took to reload the weapon after it was fired. While the user was reloading, the weapon was useless, and an adversary might be able to take advantage of the situation and kill or wound the user. Several approaches to the problem of increasing the rate of fire were developed, the earliest being multi-barrelled weapons which allowed two or more shots without reloading.
Later multibarreled guns, called pepper-box pistols, used a revolving cylinder containing multiple chamber-with-barrel passages. Many early true revolvers (multichamber cylinder revolving to feed one barrel) were partly an attempt to improve on pepper-boxes. Firing through a single barrel saved the expense and weight of having the multiple barrels of the pepper-box.
The earliest examples of what today is called a revolver were made in Europe in the late 1500s. One is a shoulder-gun-length weapon made in Nuremberg, Germany, circa 1580. Another is a revolving arquebus, produced by Hans Stopler of Nuremberg in 1597.Another early specimen, now in the Tower of London armouries, is dated to the middle 17th century and attributed to John Dafte of London. This example, a flintlock, uses a single lock, with a flash pan for each of the six chambers. The cylinder is rotated by hand, and locks in place for firing. This was still not perfected, however, as it was apparently destroyed by a misfire.
James Puckle patented a revolving chamber gun in 1718. This gun, which had a 1.25 inch bore (30 mm), was tripod mounted, and the 11-shot cylinder was operated by a hand crank. It is often cited as the first machine gun. By changing cylinders to reload (an early example of a speedloader), the gun was fired and reloaded to fire a total of 63 rounds in seven minutes.
Elisha Collier patented a flintlock revolver in Britain in 1818, and significant numbers were being produced in London by 1822.
In 1836, Samuel Colt patented a revolver mechanism that led to the widespread use of the revolver. According to Samuel Colt, he came up with the idea for the revolver while at sea, inspired by the capstan, which had a ratchet and pawl mechanism on it, a version of which was used in his guns to rotate the cylinder. Revolvers proliferated largely due to Colt's ability as a salesman. But his influence spread in other ways as well; the build quality of his company's guns became famous, and its armories in America and England trained several seminal generations of toolmakers and other machinists, who had great influence in other manufacturing efforts of the next half century.
Early revolvers were caplocks and loaded like muskets: the user poured powder into a chamber, rammed down a bullet, then placed percussion caps between the hammer and cylinder. After firing a shot, the user would raise his pistol vertically as he cocked the hammer back so as to let the fragments of the percussion cap fall out and not jam the mechanism.
A more ambitious idea that had features of both revolvers and prefigured belt-fed machine guns circulated in the 1850s and 1860s. Instead of a simple cylinder, these guns used a larger capacity, somewhat flexible circular chain of chambers that was indexed by a slightly more sophisticated mechanism involving one or more sprockets. Examples include the 14-round Treeby "chain gun" developed in England,the 20-round Josselyn "chain revolver" developed in the US which is now part of the Smithsonian collection.None of these achieved much commercial success. George Chinn commented that "It is relatively easy to imagine what embarrassment might be experienced by a man who, in defense of his person, is required to extract from his pocket a gun with a foot or so of loose chain attached. Nevertheless, although the gun no doubt does not represent the most convenient hand arm, the basic idea is sound from the mechanical viewpoint and might even have proved to be useful in a machine gun. At any rate, it serves to demonstrate that very few stones were left unturned in the search for the ideal form of the multiple chamber mechanism."
Revolvers have remained popular to the present day in many areas, although in the military and law enforcement they have largely been supplanted by magazine-fed semi-automatic pistols such as the Beretta M9, especially in circumstances where reload time and higher cartridge capacity are deemed important.