Assuming the technology level is about the same as that of the mid 1800s, what would be necesssary to equip a sizable army with revolver rifles?

I've seen pictures of individual soldiers with revolver rifles from the American Civil War, but never in great number. What are the factors preventing an army from equipping its soldiers with a great number of these weapons?

It seems like these rifles would be a great advantage on the battlefield when compared to traditional muskets, considering that the volume of firepower a single soldier could lay down would be greatly increased.

For the purposes of this question, magic of any sort will not be taken into consideation. In terms of economics, this country will be fairly powerful by the standards of the era, but not a superpower. The amount of territory will be similar to Prussia pre-unification.

Please tell me if there is more info that is required, as well as appropriate tags. Thanks in advance for the information.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ keep in mind they had lever action rifles during the civil war as well. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 1:41
  • $\begingroup$ So you actually mean revolvers specifically or just repeating guns generally? $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 20:11

5 Answers 5


Revolving rifles like Colt's New Model Revolving Rifle were pretty effective in battle when they worked well, but that wasn't often. There were two big problems.

First, all revolvers, both pistols or rifles, leak hot gases out the sides just in front of the cylinder. In revolving rifles, because of the larger rounds there's more gas and it comes out at a higher pressure. Some of it ends up in the other chambers and has a nasty tendency to set them off as well. This is an out-of-battery detonation and can blow up the gun. And it happens inches from your face.

Second, in a revolver pistol, both your hands are well behind and below the cylinder. Totally safe from those gases. In a rifle, your left hand is way in front of it, in the perfect position to get burned by the gases or shredded by the lead dust that also leaked out the side. Here's an example of what I'm talking about. Don't worry about gore, he uses a soda can in the video, but just imagine if that was your hand/arm.

So in summary, your nation has to solve the cylinder gap problem, and do it cheaply enough that you can arm a whole army that way.

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    $\begingroup$ "All revolvers, both pistols or rifles, leak hot gases out the sides just in front of the cylinder": except the immortal Nagant M1895 revolver, in service with various Russian armed forces from 1895 to the present; it served in the two Russian Revolutions (both times on both sides), in the First World War, and in the Second World War. Those Belgians, they know their firearms. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 10:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Couldn't you just put a strip of metal around the cylinder to block the dust? $\endgroup$
    – Skyler
    Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 16:34
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP I wonder if that would work with the higher pressure of a rifle round. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan_L
    Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Nagant M1895 still leaks gas, just not as much. Although I would agree it does not leak enough to be dangerous. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 1:38

Lever Action Rifles

While revolver rifles run into the issues that Ryan_L mentioned, thousands of Spencer and Henry lever-action rifles were used by US Army soldiers in the American Civil War.

The main factors delaying their wider-spread adoption were mostly logistics-related. The new rifles were much more expensive than the single-shot muzzle-loaders that were standard Army issue. They also went through ammunition so much faster that they would have placed a massive strain on the US Army's already overtaxed supply system. The Confederate army captured many examples of the repeaters, but weren't able to produce ammunition for them, and thus they weren't able to make effective use of them.

So as long as your country is able to afford to manufacture/purchase the rifles and can keep the ammunition supplies flowing (not a trivial task), then you can certainly equip your military with them.

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    $\begingroup$ I can't believe I'd forgotten about lever-actions rifles! Thank you for the suggestion. $\endgroup$
    – KaiGuyMBK
    Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 10:06
  • $\begingroup$ One problem lever action rifles have is that they can be hard to fire prone, because the ground is in the way of the lever. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan_L
    Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 16:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Ryan_L -- I'd rather try to shoot a lever-action prone than a muzzle-loader. ;-) $\endgroup$
    – Salda007
    Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 19:08

Several things:

1) Military bureaucracy and politics: at that time the military did not want to issue repeating arms to soldiers for fear that they would waste their ammunition too quickly. At the start of the Civil War, Napoleonic battle tactics remained the dominant philosophy of war-fighting despite being rendered obsolete and dangerous by the widespread use of rifles, which allowed a single soldier to accurately engage and defeat another soldier over 100 yards away.

2) Other repeating arms technology: Lever Action rifles like the Henry 1863 could carry more ammunition in a lighter, simpler package. Bolt action rifles with supersonic ammunition carried in detachable magazines followed a decade or so later. With the development of blowback and gas operated weapons offering both semi- and fully-automatic fire, manually operated actions quietly disappeared from military small arms.

3) Cost: revolver actions have lots of moving parts, which require extensive machining and high cost, making them expensive items to procure compared to muzzle loading rifles.

  • $\begingroup$ Wasting ammunition is a serious concern. The US Army's experience in Vietnam with the M16 was that green soldiers would fire off their entire magazine in one burst and then get killed before they reloaded. Later models were reduced to three-round bursts, and only specialists (with much more ammo) got full auto guns. $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 20:17
  • $\begingroup$ Well they went to 3-shot bursts with the M-16A2/A3 guns but still employ large amounts of suppressive fire with the M-249 Squad Auto Weapon. The idea being the auto riflemen could pin down an attacking force with a large volume of fire while standard riflemen went in and took out the defending forces. It’s a different philosophy for modern warfare with the advent of the machine gun. Still wartime statistics show an expenditure of over 100,000 rounds per enemy KIA. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 21:58


A revolver, especially one with pre-cartridge technology, allows five or six rapid shots followed by a lengthy pause. Some early revolvers actually had to remove the cylinder to reload it. So your line of infantry fires five shots in rapid succession and then zip.

The sustained rate of fire would probably be higher with a decent single-shot breechloading rifle -- don't compare revolver rifles to muzzleloading rifles!

  • $\begingroup$ One could concievably have multiple lines of men rotating between reloads, no? There could be five lines of men. After line 1 fires off its volley, it would go the back, while line 2 advances, and fires. Line 2 goes to the back to reload while line 3 advanced. If the rate at which the men fired was tightly controlled, wouldn't it be possible to keep up a constant rate of fire? I do have to concede that such a strategy would eat through absurd quantities of ammunition, not to mention the manufacturing costs involved with making so many revolver rifles $\endgroup$
    – KaiGuyMBK
    Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 10:03
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    $\begingroup$ @KaiGuyMBK, if you have lines, they could use single shot breechloaders instead. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 10:15
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    $\begingroup$ @KaiGuyMBK - If your five-shot gun requires each of those five shots to be reloaded individually, then it takes five times as long to reload and, therefore, requires five times as many lines in your rotation than if you were using single-shot weapons. You also have a lot more men reloading - which means a smaller proportion of your guns are firing - at any given time. Much better to stick with single-shot until you have cartridge technology to enable quick reloading. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 11:15
  • $\begingroup$ @KaiGuyMBK, a good lever-action breechloader can manage a rate of fire at least as high as a revolver rifle, without the burst-lull pattern. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 22:14

As said in other answers, revolving rifles aren't very practical and were not widely used. However I wanted to comment on how I think it could most realistically have been done.

Tactically I think such a gun could have been issued to cavalry. Similar to how during The American Civil War, The Spencer Repeating Rifle was not used to replace the standard issue muzzle-loaders Springfield Model 1861/Model 1863 (worth noting the cost of 1 Spencer repeating rifle was $40, which is twice as much as a Springfield Model 1861.)

Side rant for everyone screaming about breech loading rifles: While breach loaded rifles did very much existduring the 1800s, only 2 countries came close to fully adopting them as their standard service weapon until after the american civil war: The Norwegian's Kammerlader of which ~40,000 were ever produced and The Prussian Dreyse needle guns even thou they only had ~260,000 for 437,262 men by the start of the austro-prussian war in 1866.

To avoid the problem of cylinder burns, we will use a much shorter barrel than a musket or even a Spencer Repeating Rifle. This means the gun's center of gravity is weighted twords the stock so there's no need to stabilize it with a hand in front of the cylinder. Woah, that means this revolver carbine thing can easily be cocked and fired with 1 hand, unlike the Spencer where you would need to take the stock off your shoulder, press it between the side of your body and your bicep, and then cycle the action. The freehand during shooting presumable means you can ride faster / control the horse better while working the gun, and when you really need the stability you can stabilize the grip by putting your offhand over the hand already on the grip.

For a base I would personally recommend the Colt Army Model 1860 because: it only cost $14.50, permitted easy cylinder removal to allow a quick reload with a spare pre-loaded cylinder - this being an advantage over other revolver designs of the time (1), and was reasonably effective at a distance of 75 - 100 yards (something like a Glock 17 are only effective to ~55 yards).

It turns out that this is actually such a solid idea that Military 1860s had elongated screw lugs on the side of the frame to mount a detachable shoulder stock. (Literally found that out while writing this)

Also as was learned in WW1: revolvers are VERY good in trench runs. Trench Warfare was most prevalent in WW1 but it saw consistent usage even as early as the end of The Napoleonic Wars, especially in sieges like: The Siege of Petersburg and The Siege of Vicksburg. More generally wars like: The Crimean War and NZ Wars saw huge trench systems.

So unlike other answers: not the worst idea. In a military centered around Cavalry (which is pretty good before machine guns became popular) and Cannons/Sieges, I could see most people having a revolver carbine like weapon.

Another rant about why using a sealed cylinder with rifle cartridges wouldn't work: The seal would need to be significantly 'heftier' to be usable with rifle cartridges. Then the cylinder's diameter would need to also be significantly increased to fit the added heft between the cylinder axle and the bottom of the seal. Also there is spring between the front of the frame and cylinder, around the seal / tube, which pulls the seal and cylinder shut. This spring would need to be much stronger so that the cylinder doesn't open when firing a higher power cartridge.

(1) This was probably not widely used by the US Army as none of the guns were issued with a spare cylinder, but I'm guessing it's feasibly as an extra cylinder is probably at most $5 more


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