The Lost Art of the Revolver Speed Loader

dave1The following article by Dave Lewis will demonstrate how to use a revolver speed loader. I personally have a few and use them when I can. With practice you can load a revolver almost as fast as a semi auto.

It was qualification day  and I was pleased that I’d managed to put enough holes in the target to keep my reserve peace officer certification current for one more year.  After we shot the state mandated course of fire with our duty pistols we were allowed to shoot a “proficiency” round with our back up weapons. This was to demonstrate that we could safely handle our second (or even third) pistol and hit the target at conversational distances. I reported to the firing line with my Smith and Wesson Model 640 snubby. I loaded five rounds in the cylinder and then put five .38 semi wadcutters into the target. At the “reload” command I pulled a speed loader out of my jacket pocket and dropped five more rounds into the cylinder of my revolver.

After we’d scored out targets and found another good round for this tired old man, the young deputy who shooting next to me asked “What was that round black thing you used to reload your pistol with?” I showed him my HKS speed loader and explained how I could drop five rounds into my revolver at one go. He said that he’d never seen a speed loader before but admitted that the concept was pretty good if a guy was going to shoot an old wheel gun.

I was commissioned as a reserve law enforcement officer in 1991. In those far off days lots of  full time and reserve officers carried revolvers. At the time our sheriff wouldn’t allow reserve officers to carry automatics as he considered them to be “too complicated” and beyond the limited abilities of a part time deputy.  My first duty weapon, which I still own, was a 4” barrel Smith and Wesson Model 686 revolver chambered in .357 magnum. My 686 is an accurate and powerful pistol and I believe that its one of the best wheel guns ever made by Smith and Wesson.

We were taught to reload from speed loaders and for the first three years of my career I went to work with six rounds of Federal 125 grain .357 hollow points in my 686 and twelve more on my belt in Safariland speed loaders. I didn’t feel that I was poorly armed back in those days. Eventually the people of our county elected a new sheriff and we were allowed to transition to semi-automatics. I carried a model 4006 Smith and Wesson .40 cal until our current sheriff was elected in 2008. He was an old army MP and had a love for 1911′s. These days a Springfield Armory Mil-Spec rides on my duty belt and as I did in the old 686 days I don’t feel poorly armed with a powerful and accurate pistol.

A quality revolver from Colt, Smith and Wesson, or Ruger is still an excellent choice for personal defense. These weapons are as close to 100% reliable as a mechanical device can be. They can be loaded with mild rounds for practice and stouter magnum or +P charges for social purposes. The major argument against a wheel gun is the speed of reloading. Reloading individual rounds into a swing out cylinder was a big improvement over the loading gate of a Colt Single Action Army, but there had to be something better even in the 1940′s when the bad guys were shooting bring home Lugers and Walther P-38s. Enter the speed loader. Open the cylinder and drop in six (or five if you carried a Smith snubby) at one time. Close the cylinder and repeat as necessary.  Even in this day of plastic double stack automatics it still works.

So lets travel back a little in time and reconsider that Model 19 or Security Six. The motto is “six for sure” but what happens if we need to reload? Those “round black things” might have a use if we can only remember how and why. Are speed loaders a lost art?

Disclaimer: The steps and information listed here is from a firearms training program developed by the Oklahoma Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training (CLEET) using techniques that are generally well known and accepted within the law enforcement community. The author of this article and the authors and owners of this blog assume no responsibility or liability for the accidental or intentional misuse of this information. Always practice with a firearm that is known and verified to be unloaded. Never practice reloading or shooting while under the influence of alcohol or legal or illegal drugs. If you do something stupid like shooting yourself or somebody else its a result of your own ignorance and isn’t our fault! 

HKS speed loaders are the most common type on the market. Most major outdoor chains such as Bass Pro,Gander Mountain Sports and Cabelas carry the HKS line. They use a metal star wheel that’s controlled by a knurled knob to retain the cartridge rims. The knob is prominently marked with the model and/or caliber of pistol the loader fits (“586”, “.44 CART 29”, Mod 36 etc.) HKS speed loaders are available for almost all revolvers from .22s to the various .44 and .45 heavies.

The major disadvantage of the HKS type is that two motions are necessary to load your revolver. The cartridges are inserted into the cylinder with a simple pushing motion and then the knob is turned in a clockwise direction to release the cartridges. Its not a big deal but we know that fine motor control goes away in a stressful situation. So practice, practice and practice.

Safariland speed loaders seem to be a bit harder to find. Safariland products were aimed at the law enforcement and competition market and you may have to go to a specialty vendor to find what you need. I had to mail order my Safariland Comp II loaders 22 years ago, when revolvers were still in  common law enforcement use. The Safariland product line is fairly limited. If your revolver is one of the typical law enforcement models such as a Smith Model 19 or 586/686, Colt Trooper or Ruger GP100 you can find a Safariland loader that will work. If you need anything out of the normal “duty weapon” parameters you’ll have to look at the HKS catalog.

The big advantage of the Safariland loader is that only one motion is required for loading. The cartridges are held in loader by star wheels. As the loader is pushed into the cylinder the rounds are released automatically so the reload motion is a simple push-pull. When we shot timed qualification rounds with our wheel guns we believed that the Safariland loaders were “faster” and a couple on your duty belt identified you as a real shooter.

I’ve never seen a Safariland loader that was marked for caliber or pistol model. If you have one of uncertain pedigree, make sure that it fits your ammunition and firearm before you find yourself in a gunfight.



HKS (left) and Safariland (right) speed loaders. Characteristic appearance of HKS speed loader is metal knob marked with caliber or model. Both speed loaders in this photo fit my Smith and Wesson model 686 .357 revolver.


pic01hks&safariloadersRevolvers are pretty much right hand weapons. I’ve seen southpaws do very well but the drill of cylinder opening and reloading is still done from the right side. We’re going to review the reloading process here from the perspective of the right handed shooter so the terms “gun hand” and “off hand” will reference the right and left hands respectively.

We’ll show the reloading procedure using a Smith and Wesson J frame Model 640 pistol and an HKS speed loader. For the sake of safety all photos were taken using empty .38 special brass. Thanks to my wife Marge for taking the photos and putting up with my “advice”.




Step 1: When all shots have been discharged point the muzzle of the pistol down at about a 45 degree  angle in a safe direction. Wrap the off hand around the pistol’s frame from the bottom in order to support the weight of the pistol and relax the grip of the gun hand.



Step 2: Push the cylinder latch with the thumb of the gun hand while pushing the cylinder open with the  middle and ring fingers of your off hand.




Step 3: Remove the gun hand from the pistol, place the thumb of the off hand over the end of the ejector rod, and point the muzzle up.





Step 4: Push the ejector rod to the full limit of its travel and release. Make sure that the cylinder is completely open. All expended rounds should fall clear of the pistol. If the rounds do not clear or fall free, use the gun hand to clear the cylinder. This is the time to get the speed loader into your gun hand.





Step 5: Return the pistol to the muzzle down 45 degree angle position. With your speed loader in your gun hand align the cartridges into the cylinder. Push the loader forward and rotate the latch to release the rounds. Drop the speed loader – don’t waste time putting it in your pocket. You need a loaded pistol much more than an empty speed loader.



Step 6: With the muzzle still down, push the cylinder closed with the thumb of your off hand. Bring the gun hand back to the stock and move the off hand down to wrap around the gun hand for a secure grip.




Step 7: Raise the pistol to cover the target and resume the festivities as necessary.

For this drill to work correctly your speed loader(s) must be accessible to your gun hand. A right hand jacket or pants pocket is good if the pocket can be opened easily. I carry my 640 with two reloads for a total of 15 rounds.

Reload time using this technique isn’t quite as fast as a loaded semi-auto magazine on your belt but its lots better than fumbling with individual rounds. Practice your shooting and you may not need a quick reload.

Be safe my friends.



Dave Lewis worked for 34 years as a training specialist in the HVAC and OSHA compliance disciplines for the US Postal Service. He retired in 2008 and now works as a contract trainer for the University of Oklahoma Continuing Education Center. He has served as a reserve deputy sheriff for 22 years and currently holds the rank of Lieutenant in the Cleveland County OK Sheriff’s Office. He is a veteran of the United States Navy. Dave is married and  has one adult son. He and his wife Marge share their home in Norman Oklahoma with a Pembrook Corgi and a Red Factor Canary.


2 thoughts on “The Lost Art of the Revolver Speed Loader

  1. Our Cowboy Action club had a more modern steel plate shoot; most participants — matter of fact, everyone but me — brought self loaders.
    I brought the wheel gun I wore as a lawman.
    After I shot my stage, one of the ladies came to me and asked how in Sam’s Hill did I reload so fast with a revolver.
    She proved a very interested and fast learning student.

    • Having never competed with a revolver I am more used to the old dump pouch and loading them two at a time. However, I do practice with a speed loader and speed strips. Just never used them under stress.

Comments are closed.