Many wheelgun owners have heard of them but never used them, as they are a throwback to yesteryear. We are talking about the humble but very effective speed loader, and once you figure it out, you'll fall in love.
Speed loader 101
The first revolver speed loader patented was that of William H Bell in 1879. Bell's device was a simple metal disk with a rotating locking mechanism that held six revolver rounds. When used with a top-break revolver of the time, such as the Smith and Wesson Lemon squeezer, the speed loader would drop six ready rounds in the cylinder extremely rapidly.
The Brits used a number of Prideaux and Watson speed loaders during World War I for their Webley topbreaks and, after a thirty year hiatus, by the 1950s Pachmayr of Los Angeles built a rubber-plastic speed loader while Matich and Dade Machine Screw quickly followed in their wake.
By the 1970s, police and security as well as those "in the know" had were using speed loaders and their ugly stepsister, the speed strip, for faster reloads.
Today's speed loaders
HKS, Safariland, and 5 Star make the most commonly encountered loaders.
First off, there are two types of speed loaders.
The first, made by companies such as HKS and 5 Star, use a center loading knob that hold 5-6-7-8 cartridges, depending on your revolver choice until you are ready to use them. Turning the knob one way secures loose rounds when you are charging the loader. Turning them, the opposite will drop the rounds. HKS generally makes them with plastic bodies while 5 Star runs flashy aluminum billet jobs that cost a little bit more.
The second type are made by Safariland and others that, similar to the other style, use a small plastic knob in the center to lock the rounds into place, but use a centerline button on the opposite side that, when popped by the ejector rod dimple on the revolver's cylinder, set the loader free and drops the rounds into the chambers. These are very fast and often used in competition. Safariland makes three different models of these.
Finally, there are speed strips with the best-known maker of those being Bianchi. With no moving parts, these phenolic strips are very durable and easy to use.
Learning your loader
These rapid reloading devices are a little tricky to use, but can cut that dangerous time without a loaded gun very short indeed.
With speed loaders, loading your revolver is a four-step process.
First, switch the revolver to your offhand. If you are right handed, this means it goes to your left hand. Then pop the cylinder out, pushing your two center fingers (middle and ring) around the cylinder to hold it in place to keep it from spinning-- kinda like spiderman's web grip. Having those fingers in place when you go to reload is very important.
Next, using gravity as your friend, point the cylinder face towards the earth and the barrel towards the sky and smash the ejector rod *hard* (some advocate doing this 2-3 times to ensure you have no brass left in the cylinder).
Third, rotate the gun back around and have your speed loader ready to align with the cylinder face. Again, gravity can be your friend in this so point your barrel towards the deck to help pull those new rounds into the cylinder.
Finally, once you have your rounds lined up, turn the knob of your HKS/5-Star, or bang down on your Safariland Comp series, then take the loader away and drop it while closing the cylinder and gripping your hands back together.
Yes, it sounds like a lot, and it sounds like you will have to take up a lot of time in doing this. Nevertheless, if you practice you can pull this off in just a couple seconds.
And when I say practice, I mean do it with an unloaded gun using your speed loaders and some plastic snap caps and never squeezing the trigger-- and do it a few hundred times till your fingers go through the motions without having to think about it. My department used to issue us Smith K frames with a six shot scabbard and two 6 shot speed loaders on the belt and trust me, once you fool with these loaders enough.
For speed strips, the best way I have found is to take it two rounds at a time and push them into the cylinder while peeling the strip away. This too, takes practice.
Still, these simple devices are worth their weight in gold when seconds matter.
I like a nice minimalist EDC set up that includes a Smith 642 (or Ruger LCR) with 5 rounds loaded, 5 in a 5 Star speed loader, and 12 in Bianchi Speedstrips for a total of 22 rounds of Federal Premium LE +P. Knife is an old school Case folder and the penlight is a Steamlight Stylus. All told, we are talking about handgun, blade, illumination, and leather that weigh in at 1 pound, 15 ounces (according to my kitchen scale) and conceals well in jeans or shorts.
It all compacts nicely and I can wear this with slacks at church or out to the movies with no one noticing anything.
Go forth, be safe, and if you have a revolver, consider a speed loader. They can typically be had for $10-$15 a pop and Ive never seen one break.