Whenever the Lone Ranger or Roy Rogers produced his gun in a Western, it was most likely a revolver known as a six shooter. While single-shot pistols were in popular use by the days of the Wild West, the six shooter revolver provided its user with a number of tactical advantages besides its small size and ease of concealment. This weapon could be reloaded much faster than a rifle or muzzle loader, for example.
Not all revolvers were six-shooters, however. Different manufacturers created revolvers with 5 shot barrels all the way up to 10 shot marine pistols. The six shooter became one of the most popular models among early law enforcement agencies, possibly because of its excellent balance and dependable action. The individual spent rounds remained in their chambers until cleared, making it much less likely to jam during rapid firing.
The earliest models could only be reloaded by placing one bullet at a time into an open chamber and rotating the barrel. The next generation of weapons had hinges which allowed the shooter to "break" the gun in half from the top and reload all six chambers at once. This improved the reloading speed considerably, but also created a weak spot at the gun's hinge. One of these top-loading six-shooters could possibly break after substantial usage.
The modern six gun has a hinged barrel and an extractor for easy clearing and reloading. The entire barrel can be swung out to one side, causing a mechanical extractor to push out all the used rounds. The shooter can use a special "speed loader," essentially a clip with six bullets in their proper positions. The new bullets can be loaded into the chamber all at once and the entire mechanism snaps back into place for more firing.
A typical six shot revolver can be described as single-action or double-action. In a single action revolver, the hammer must be pulled back by the non-shooting hand and allowed to lock into place. Pulling the trigger releases the hammer, which strikes the bullet and causes the gun to fire. In this case, the trigger itself only performs a single action: releasing the pulled hammer.
In a double-action six shooter, the trigger performs two actions. As the shooter pulls the trigger, a mechanism pulls the hammer back and locks it into place. Squeezing the trigger back further releases the hammer and the gun fires. This double action makes it easier to fire the weapon with one hand, but the added tension on the trigger can make accuracy more challenging.
A single-action six shooter would be similar to using a compound bow; the tension is eventually reduced and the shooter has time to aim. A double-action weapon would be similar to using a recurve bow; the tension remains high through the entire shooting process, reducing the amount of time a shooter has to hold the sights on a target.
With the advent of semi-automatic pistols with easily reloadable 15 shot magazines, the popularity of the six shooter revolver has declined in recent years, but it still remains a sentimental favorite among gun collectors and members of organized shooting clubs.