How to Troubleshoot a Revolver; Inspection May Tell You Why Your Gun's Messed Up

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How to Troubleshoot a Revolver - Inspect the Hammer and Firing Pin

Cocking the hammer of a revolver often allows inspection of the firing pin.
The hammer is cocked on this Smith & Wesson Model 66 revolver, allowing inspection of the firing pin. The firing pin (indicated by the arrow) should be rounded on the end - not jagged or sharp. Photo © Russ Chastain

I received this inquiry from a reader:

"I am having misfires with all types of ammo. Visually everything appears okay, but suddenly it is only putting a dent in the cartridge and only one or two rounds will fire. Any help?"

This shooter clearly has a problem. Let's walk through the steps that I would take in a case like that in order to determine what was wrong with my gun.

Before you begin, review the basic rules of gun safety.

First, unload the gun. If you think it's unloaded, check anyway. Check it twice - eyeball every chamber in the cylinder to ensure that there is no ammunition in the gun.

If it's a double action revolver, close the cylinder.

Cock the hammer and examine it. The reader above was shooting a Smith & Wesson Model 66, which is the same model shown above. The firing pin on this model - and on many other revolvers as well - is attached to the hammer.

By the way, a revolver is not a pistol, and vice versa.

If your firing pin is attached to the hammer, look closely at it and make sure the end of it is rounded, not jagged or sharp. If it's not nicely rounded, the firing pin may have broken, and if it fires a cartridge at all it may pierce the primer, allowing hot gases to spew rearward. Not good.

On many models with hammer-mounted firing pins, the firing pin is mounted loosely to the hammer. If so, don't panic. This is okay, it's meant to be that way.

If the firing pin isn't present, examine the hammer's face. With use, it may become slightly peened, and that's usually okay - but severe damage to its forward face (which hammers on the firing pin or transfer bar in order to fire a cartridge) could result in misfires.

If the firing pin is broken or doesn't look right, it's time to head down to the gunsmith's shop to confirm your diagnosis and have the pin replaced if necessary.

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How to Troubleshoot a Revolver - Inspect the Area Forward of the Cocked Hammer

Cocking the hammer of a revolver lets you see inside; make sure nothing's there that shouldn't be.
The cocked hammer of this Smith & Wesson Model 66 revolver allows inspection of the area forward of the hammer, down inside the frame. Sometimes, crud or objects get in there and interfere with the mechanism. Photo © Russ Chastain
While you have the hammer cocked, look down in the area between the hammer and the frame. That's the area in front of the hammer. You're looking for anything out of place (such as a foreign object) that might interfere with the mechanism and/or block the hammer from going all the way forward.

Things falling down inside of that area can cause lots of trouble - especially when it comes to cap & ball black powder revolvers. Pieces of the spent percussion caps often fall between the frame and the hammer, which can be a real pain in the hind end.

If you see some junk in there, try to get it out. Tweezers or long picks may come in handy for a job like this. Don't get too aggressive - something that looks out of place to you may actually belong there, so only remove objects that are loose and/or which definitely don't belong.

If there's something in there that doesn't look right and/or which you don't understand, then the gun probably should be in the hands of a qualified gunsmith for this inspection.

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How to Troubleshoot a Revolver - Check the Firing Pin's Reach

Make sure the firing pin can reach forward enough to do its job.
The hammer of this Smith & Wesson Model 66 revolver has been carefully de-cocked, and the trigger held back. Here we can see that the rounded end of the firing pin sticks through the frame sufficiently to reach a cartridge and fire it. Photo © Russ Chastain
Okay - the revolver's hammer is still cocked. Now, put your thumb on the hammer spur to hold the hammer from falling. Next, pull the trigger all the way back and hold it there.

With the trigger held back, lower the hammer all the way. Keep holding the trigger back and look between the cylinder and the frame (from the side of the gun). The firing pin ought to be sticking through the frame a pretty good ways, as indicated by the arrow in the photo above.

On many guns, you need to hold back the trigger all the time while you're performing this inspection. Many double action revolvers will move the hammer rearward and/or lower the transfer bar when the trigger is released, and this will allow the firing pin to move rearward and retreat back inside the frame.

The end of the firing pin ought to reach forward of where the rear end of the cartridge would be if the gun were loaded. Do not load the gun to test this theory! Just use your eyeball.

If the firing pin won't reach, then it's time to head to the gun shop and see what the gun repair folks there can do for you.

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How to Troubleshoot a Revolver - Check the Mainspring

Inspect the mainspring for damage.
The grips were removed from this Smith & Wesson Model 66 revolver to expose the mainspring. This gun uses a leaf type spring; other revolvers may use coil springs. Photo © Russ Chastain
Finally, you should inspect the mainspring. This can usually be done by removing the grip panels from the frame's butt. The S&W Model 66 here uses a leaf spring, and if it breaks then that is usually very evident. Other guns use coil springs, which may not show damage as readily.

Look for indications of breakage. That's about all you'll be able to determine, usually. After checking to be sure that the gun's unloaded, cock the hammer and gently lower it while observing the mainspring. The spring should move, and allow you to look for any breaks, cracks, or other strange things.

If your mainspring is busted, it's time to contact your gun's manufacturer. Chances are they may be willing to repair the gun free of charge if you send it to them. If the gun is no longer supported by an active company, head to the gun shop and ask the 'smith there for advice. The sad fact is that some guns aren't worth fixing, while others may afford an easy and very feasible repair.

The spring shown here is adjustable, but adjusting it is rarely a good idea. There is a screw (partially visible in the photo) threaded through the front of the grip frame, and the end of that screw bears against the front of the leaf spring. If your gun has always been striking primers lightly, then turning that screw inward a little bit may help fix the problem - but it will not fix a broken spring and shouldn't be used to compensate for a faulty or broken spring.

I hope this helps you find out what's wrong with your beloved handgun, and helps you get it back in shooting shape.

- Russ Chastain