John D. Leppert: Double-Action Revolver Shooting

The following information on double-action revolver shooting by John D. Leppert comes from Burning PowderBurning Powder is also available to purchase in print.

In the past several years double action revolver shooting has been receiving more and more attention from hand-gun shooters, particularly among the police departments where the ability to combine great accuracy into an extremely high speed of fire is of the most vital importance.

The following article by Lieut. John D. Leppert, a distinguished Pistol Expert of the Saginaw, Mich. Police Department and instructor of many shooting organizations so interested the author that he asked and received Lieut. Leppert’s permission to include it in this edition of Burning Powder. In his article the Lieutenant emphasizes an outstanding characteristic of Smith & Wesson revolvers…their smooth and positive functioning when used for double-action firing.

By John D. Leppert

 At some time in his career every revolver shooter has been intrigued with the idea of double-action shooting; that is, by letting off the piece by pulling the trigger entirely back, without first cocking the hammer.

Not one shooter in a thousand becomes even fairly proficient in using the double-action. There are many reasons for this, and chief among them, I believe, is the fact that the shooter does not first become proficient in ordinary single-action fire. Double-action practice should not be attempted until one has become fairly expert at single-action. Consistent scores of 80% or better at slow fire, and 85% or better at timed and rapid fire, should be made before taking up the double-action method.

Another reason for lack of success along this line is the fact that very few revolvers lend themselves readily to this type of shooting. Some of the better known makes have a cocking action that is far from being smooth enough for the purpose. Their spring tension varies so much that the trigger cannot possibly be brought back to the point at which let-off occurs, without a lot of “hesitation” at different points, and this is not conducive to good double-action work.

I have practiced double-action shooting since about 1910, and believe I have attained some proficiency along that line. Perhaps a knowledge of my methods may prove of value to others. I have found only one make of revolver suitable for the job. The Smith & Wesson, in the Military and Police models for the person with small to medium hands, and the Outdoorsman model, or the Magnum, for those with medium to large hands, is perfectly designed for the purpose. The Smith & Wesson cocking action is as smooth as could possibly be desired. Spring tension is so regular and even that one never knows what point he has reached in the draw-back until let-off occurs. The cylinder is turned to the next chamber, and locked in place, long before the point is reached where the hammer falls. The frame is of such shape that the weapon is easily held and controlled. All these things constitute the very essence of adaptability for double-action shooting.

Here are my methods: Place your revolver well back in the crotch of the thumb and forefinger. This is even more important in double than in single-action shooting. Place your forefinger through the trigger guard, to a point where the inside of the first joint contacts the trigger. Bend the first joint of the forefinger more than is usually done in single-action work. Take a slightly more firm grip on the piece than is usually done, but not to the point of tenseness. Now pull the trigger straight back, slowly and evenly, to a point where the tip of the trigger finger lightly touches the left side of the rear part of the trigger guard. That is the point at which let-off is about to occur. If it occurs earlier, then crook your finger at the first joint a little more. If let-off does not occur immediately after the finger-tip touches, then do not crook the finger quite so much. (See illustrations on the next page showing three stages of the double-action pull. Note especially finger position). A little practice with the dry gun will soon indicate just how to hold the trigger finger so that the hammer position may be gauged by contact of the tip of the finger with the trigger guard.

John D Leppert double action trigger squeeze

As the finger tip contact with the trigger guard is your only indication that the piece is about ready to fire, you must practice a very slight pause, just a fraction of a second, at that point, then squeeze off your shot just as you would in single-action work at rapid fire speed. Considerable practice is necessary to bring you to the point where let-off can be had at just the proper time, but it is not particularly difficult after you have mastered the process.

Follow this procedure slowly and regularly for some time. Do not speed up until you have thoroughly mastered the idea of the thing. After that you may step up your speed little by little. You will be surprised, finally, to find that you can flip the trigger back, pause, and have the arm ready to fire, in a small fraction of a second. Incidentally, and to satisfy your probable curiosity, the speed possible with this method is five good hits in somewhat less than three seconds. By “good” I mean that you should stay within the 9-ring on the standard 25-yard target at that range.

The shooter with the small hand or short fingers will encounter some difficulty in that his trigger finger cannot be thrust far enough through the guard to use as a “stop” when it contacts the guard. However, this may easily enough be corrected, in either of two ways. First, try swinging the gun to the right, turning the grip in your hand, so that the piece does not seat in exact prolongation of the wrist and arm. This will tend to permit the finger tip to more easily reach the guard. Don’t forget that this is not good practice in single-action usage, but does not particularly matter in double-action. The other method is to build out from the trigger guard an attachment of either metal or plastic wood, so that the trigger finger touches the attachment at the proper time, without the necessity of touching the guard itself. I use such an attachment on my Outdoorsman, as it is just a trifle too large for my hand.

As no revolver firing pin strikes the primer as hard a blow when fired double-action as it does when the hammer is cocked, care must be taken to see that the full tension of the mainspring is applied to the hammer or a misfire will result. If you have acquired the bad habit of loosening your mainspring screw, then be sure to tighten it again when you take up the double-action work, or you will encounter trouble. In passing it might be well to mention that loosening the mainspring is always poor practice.

Another cause of difficulty in double-action shooting is the changing of parts in the gun from the way it was properly built. Many Smith & Wesson shooters have found that they can lighten their trigger pulls to the point of nothingness by cutting off a part of the rebound slide spring. Without too much comment on this bad practice, you must be informed that it is simply out of the question in double-action work. This is the spring that returns the trigger to the forward position after each shot, and at double-action your trigger MUST be returned as rapidly as possible. If the trigger does not return after each shot you will be unable to pull it for the next shot, or it will stop at a point where the sear is not engaged, but the hand which rotates the cylinder is in place, resulting in the cylinder being turned to the next chamber, but the hammer not raised. A good, strong rebound spring, such as is installed at the factory, will always give the quick and smooth action so desirable in this work.

I will repeat that you must hold the weapon in a firmer grasp than would be good practice in single-action usage, but not to the point of tenseness. When aiming you will find that you can hold very closely to the bull’s-eye, then when your trigger finger has contacted the guard you will not find it difficult to hold and squeeze off the shot. Incidentally, the tighter hold, for me, results in a lower shot grouping, so I practice holding slightly higher for my double-action practice.

One of the difficulties encountered in this game is that your 5-shot groups may change widely between scores; that is, your first string may be five nice 10’s, close enough to be covered by a half-dollar, while the next string, of equally good grouping, may find itself in the 8-ring, or worse. This is caused wholly by changes in tension and placement of grip or hold. Standardize on that, and you have it whipped. I may say here that I have repeatedly made creditable scores at 50-yard slow fire, using the double-action method. The experienced shot has of course learned that the ideal condition is ignorance of exactly when let-off will occur, and that condition is naturally always present when shooting double-action.

The beginner will find it difficult to fire the gun double-action because of lack of sufficient strength in the trigger finger. I would suggest a week or two of double-action snapping, with the dry gun only, and without any attempt to aim or to gauge let-off by finger-tip contact. Use the gun as an exercising instrument only, in this instance, rather than as a firearm. Your forefinger will then develop a strength and freedom of movement that will make actual practice of the method much easier and more comfortable.

Revolvers used at double-action require quite as much, if not a little more care than those used the conventional way. Naturally the action must be kept free of dirt, dust, grit, and other foreign matter, by frequent cleaning. The Smith & Wesson revolver is easy to take apart and reassemble.

The parts may be doused in ordinary (not ethyl) gasoline, then thoroughly dried. After the parts are all in place, and before the side plate is attached, a few drops of light oil should be applied to the working parts. A sperm-base oil is very satisfactory, as it is a very “oily” lubricant. Beware of the cheap oils, such as may be purchased at filling stations. They do not belong on firearms. I have used Gunslick to good advantage on my revolver actions. It does not harden appreciably in cold weather. Be careful, however, about using greases in too great quantity, or those which become stiff in cold weather.

There are other methods of successfully employing the double-action principle in revolver shooting. That great master of the art, Ed McGivern, who also swears by the Smith & Wesson revolver, has a method which no one can fairly criticise. I would suggest that the interested shooter pick up whatever information he can on the subject. I have had some success, using the system as outlined herein, and am convinced that anyone may attain a high degree of proficiency if he is sufficiently interested to practice earnestly and often. I hope the reader will derive some benefit from these instructions.

Police Department, Saginaw, Michigan.