S&W 320 Revolving Rifle at RIA

The Model 320 Revolving Rifle was one of Smith & Wesson’s least successful commercial products, and as a result has become one of the most collectible of their guns – less that a thousand were ever made. The problem with the guns was the same problem that has plagued virtually all other revolving rifles: the cylinder gap sprays the shooter’s forearms with hot gas and lead particles if they use the fore-end to support the gun. The S&W 320 was no exception. It was built on the action of the vastly more popular No. 3 revolver, and made with 16-, 18-, and 20-inch barrels (this particular one is the 20-inch type) with a detachable shoulder stock.


  1. Well done Ian; I think the biggest trouble of revolving rifles, was not much about particles hitting the other wrist, but mainly to our eyes… ! I once shot a Ruger .44 in Sweden and
    although handling it normally with stretched arm, I got a warm little thing hitting half inch below
    my right eye (and I am left-handed) I was not wearing safety glasses, which did not even exhist when those rifles were produced, so you can imagine…

    Normann, Venice, Italy

  2. On the plus side, the metallic-cartridge revolving longarms didn’t have the multiple-discharge problem of percussion arms like the Colt 1855 Revolving Rifle. Which could take your “off” hand completely off if you were unlucky.

    Still, I’ve often wondered if it wouldn’t have been possible on a top-break like the S&W to have a sort of “shield”, just made of sheet metal, either side of the barrel, to deflect sideblast upward and away from your wrist. It wouldn’t really have needed to be very big, the shape would be more critical.

    Incidentally, here is the data on the .320 Revolving Rifle round;

    Year of introduction; 1880
    Bullet diameter; .321″
    Bullet type; Conical, inside lubricated
    Bullet Weight; 98-100 grain RNL
    Neck diameter; .345″-.347″
    Base diameter; same (case was straight-walled, no noticeable taper)
    Rim diameter; .410″
    Case length; 1.465″
    Case type; straight, rimmed, centerfire
    OA cartridge length; N/A (due to bullet being seated entirely within case)
    Primer size; Small pistol
    Original powder charge weight; 17 grains black powder

    The data was found here;


    And apparently came from this book by David Chicoine;


    No, I don’t think reloading and firing would be a great idea, considering the age and value of the piece.



  3. Great in theory, revolving rifles have been around since someone decided they needed more than one shot. Without metallic cartridges, it would be the only practical way to produce a reliable repeating rifle at the time. I’ve even seen a 3-barreled hand cannon, a revolving matchlock from India, and several French revolving flintlocks. A black-powder revolving rifle, like the Paterson Colt (or later side-hammer) or the earlier Collier would have been an awesome example of portable firepower in their time, but the real danger was in a chain-fire, with multiple cylinders discharging at once into the support hand, reducing the rifle’s shooter to a pistoleer in the future! Many early revolving rifles incorporated a shield ahead of the cylinder to offer a bit of confidence if not actual protection (the force of the prematurely detonated rounds still had to go somewhere). Others featured elongated frames and/or angled trigger guards like the Third Model Colts, LeMats and some based on the LeFaucheaux pinfire, in order to keep the support hand behind the open-end of the cylinder, but the method would result in a somewhat awkward shooting stance. Turret rifles like the Cochran and the Porter attempted to alleviate this problem, but having a loaded chamber pointed at the shooter’s face created its own potential for disaster. Samuel Colt personally equipped a Connecticut militia unit in the Civil War with his percussion revolving rifles, the remedy being to coat the entire cylinder in heavy grease to reduce the chance of chain-firing, but the rifles were quickly withdrawn from service. The Smith and Wesson design (along with the even rarer stocked Colt “Buntline Specials”) with their self-contained cartridges would be safer in this regard, particularly with S&Ws proprietary cartridge that would seem to contain some of the discharge, but evidently they were still uncomfortable to shoot. I know that the idea would seem to be that one could have a handgun that could be made into a carbine for greater accuracy, but with barrels ranging from 16″-20″, the S&Ws would have been quite impractical as handguns, and a bit front-heavy if held by grasping the wrist of the stock with the support hand. It seems as though these would be more of a “take-down” or “travelling” rifle” that could be carried in a valise or small saddlebag. Still, I’ve always found these to be a nice curiosity that would be great to have in a collection. The example in the video is a truly beautiful firearm. As dangerous and impractical as they are, there is still something “cool” about a revolving rifle that I’ve always found compelling, and considering their constant re-appearance throughout the history of firearms development, I guess I am not alone. Taurus has recently attempted to revive the concept with their “Circuit Judge” revolving shotgun/carbine, with limited success, and Uberti is marketing a carbine based on the Colt SAA. Once again, good in theory. I’ve entertained the notion of getting one or the other just for fun, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.

  4. I bought a Circuit Judge through Wal*Mart a couple of years ago just to have a .45 Colt carbine. It’s actually a good gun, accurate out past 50 yards with most .45 Colt loads. The deflectors on either side of the cylinder gap do their job.

    One interesting note about this gun, though. It is the oddest sounding firearm I have. Either shooting it or just standing nearby, you notice a distinct metallic sound, almost a ringing. I can’t figure out where it’s coming from.

    Also, as a .410 shotgun it’s – Ahem! – no great guns. To be fair, I’ve only tried shot and slugs with the smooth “choke” in place, so they still had spin. With the straight “choke” in place to despin them they’d probably do better. Though the one 3″ I fired at a gallon milk jug full of water at ten yards effectively sprayed so much water over the area my brother-in-law accused me of drowning his paper target. 🙂

    • Thanks for the info, stickmaker. I’ll have to give the Circuit Judge another look. It seems like it would make a decent utility weapon for use around the farm, and my wife is very comfortable with a revolver, so it might be a good choice for her.

  5. which raises the question..did anyone ever make a nagant revolver carbine, or think to use the gas-seal system from that to make a GOOD revolving carbine? seems like a no-brainer other than the weak cartridges the nagant is chambered for.

    • If I’m not mistaken, Izhmash (a gun factory in Izhevsk, Russia) produces KR-22 “Sokol” (Hawk) hunting rifle based around Nagant revolver chambered for .22 LR ammunition. Looks quite interesting, but the use of fixed cylinder and a loading gate makes it necessary to remove the handguard before using brass extractor. It is easy due to spring-loaded latch but still, not the best solution around.

      • Being aware of Nagant gas seal feature working with the reciprocating cylinder and with a special round with an enlarging case mouth providing the real gas check effect, using .22″ LR cartridge in a Nagant would do nothing to
        prevent hot gas and lead miniparticle blast at cylinder gap section.

        • A better choice would be a special loading of the .22 WMRF case with the bullet completely inside the case as with the 7.62 Nagant. Considering the ballistics of the hypervelocity .22 LRs, this wouldn’t necessarily lose significant velocity compared to the standard .22MR load, even allowing for keeping breech pressures down.



    • I think the riding gauntlets would have been useful for the cartridge weapons, but they would have not been much protection against 3 or 4 pistol balls from a percussion chain-fire. I had one with a .32 caliber Ethan Allen pepperbox a while back. I fired the first round, then the sparks set off the other barrels like a volley gun. Looking back, it was kind of fun, but my left hand was behind me and there was no barrel lug or loading lever to shear off. My shooting buddy had a very odd look on his face at first, then we both had a good laugh. 🙂

    • there are plenty of weapons that were declared “obsolete” that soldier on in spite of some armchair generals declaration.

      mostly what becomes obsolete is tactics. the weapons continue to work just fine. as any russian about how “obsolete” the lee enfields were in afghanistan.

    • 1. Self-loading actions are only as reliable as their ammunition. A dud primer stops everything in its tracks until dealt with, usually by a Tap-Rack-BANG drill. A revolver just bypasses the dud and goes on to the next round, either by double-action trigger-pull or single-action thumb-cocking.

      2. Generally, it’s easier technically speaking to build a revolver for high-pressure ammunition than it is to build a self-loader for such rounds. Self-loaders for Magnum-level ammunition tend to be big and heavy by pistol standards, due to the need to handle pressures more into the range of rifle ammunition. Revolvers can be engineered to deal with this by careful heat-treatment of the cylinder, barrel, and frame, and if necessary by using a cylinder design that puts more metal around each chamber. The various five-shot compact .357 Magnum revolvers are an example of this, as are the Freedom Arms type single-actions in .454 Casull, .500, and so on. This is the reason the Smith & Wesson Model 500’s cylinder is a five-shot, as well.

      3. Finally, for those who are not “experts”, or whose pursuits do not allow time for regular practice, the revolver is more “error-proof”. Among other things, it can be visually inspected without opening to determine if it is loaded, and how many cartridges are “in residence”.

      Also, most revolvers do not have extra manual or semi-manual (i.e., “grip”) safeties that need to be released before firing. The revolver is a very simple, direct, “grab, point, and shoot” weapon. In an emergency, simpler is almost always better.

      The revolver may be “low-tech”, but don’t bet it won’t still be around a few centuries from now. Because it will still likely be able to do its job the way it has done it going back to matchlock days.



      • But, one should also keep in mind that, revolvers, along with the bulkier mass and gas blast through the cylinder gap,

        – Need more parts and care for manufacturing,

        – Gets moore importance at headspace, a primer set back will change a revolver into a paper weight(Don’t ask what happens to the owner if were in a combat situation),

        – Especally in low power round users, quick trigger pulls mostly cause trigger disconnection with hammer or rotating hand causing dud trigger pulls,

        – High power round users may cause auto firing with unsufficient holds,

        – A squip load does not stop the functionality and cause sending another discharge over the plugged bore to ruin the gun,

        – Functionality of DA triggers may be stopped by an opponent with a firm grasp at the
        cylinder section,

        – At most examples, high front sights may cause users mind confusion to think enchanted approaches about firearm ballistics,

        – Genarate more voices and less remedies to lessen them,

        – Causes the inventors to work vainly to design nearest construction sto the similar working in their simplicity.

      • I think it is safe to say that revolvers are “obsolete” as serious combat pistols. Nearly every army adopted a semi-auto pistol already between the World Wars, and many even before that. The last stragglers (e.g. the British Army) switched to semi-autos soon after WW2. Law enforcement agencies were a little slower in some countries, especially the US and perhaps surprisingly, France*, but even those had mostly switched to semi-autos by the 1990s.

        Revolvers are still viable as self-defense and sporting pistols. In most cases you probably won’t need more than 5-6 shots in a self defense situation and if you need more than 5 shots for hunting, you are doing it wrong. Revolvers also offer a somewhat different shooting experience for target shooting and “plinking”. So, I agree that revolvers will probably be around as long as metallic cartridges.

        * I think some French LE organizations still carry the Manurhin MR73.

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