What Is a Transfer Bar System?


In modern times, new shooters seem to feel that all handguns are safe to handle and safe if dropped, or if an object strikes the hammer.

This isn’t always the case. Revolvers are generally perceived as safer than self-loading handguns. This depends on the revolver.

While most handguns are safe enough for a handler that respects safety rules, there are millions of older revolvers that are not.

Even inexpensive revolvers these days feature a transfer-bar ignition system.

This is a great improvement in revolver manufacture and something that should be understood. Let’s start at the beginning.

Revolver transfer bar system
Note in this disassembled Ruger SP101, that the hammer doesn’t have an integral firing pin. The transfer bar is connected to the trigger. 

Single-Action Revolvers

The first revolvers were single-action designs, but there were many double-action revolvers among the early revolvers.

When the revolver is cocked, the hammer is under spring pressure from the mainspring or hammer spring.

When the trigger releases the hammer, then the hammer drives forward. The cartridge is ignited by the hammer fall.

At one time, the hammer mashed a percussion cap, later the hammer was fitted with a firing pin integral to the hammer.

Later, some revolvers were fitted with a firing pin mounted in the frame.

The problem with these revolvers is that when the hammer is at rest, the tip of the hammer or firing pin may be in contact with the cartridge primer.

If dropped and the revolver lands on the hammer, then the revolver will fire.

If a rider contacts brush and the hammer is raised slightly and then dropped, it may fire the revolver.

A few revolvers featured a notch in the cylinder that the hammer could be placed for safety.

But this is a manual type of safety and if the user doesn’t remember to set the hammer in the notch between the cylinders, the revolver isn’t drop-safe.

The means of ensuring safety was simple. The revolver was kept ready with an empty chamber under the hammer.

The procedure is to load one chamber, skip a chamber, load four, cock the hammer and lower it on an empty chamber. This works well for safety.  

Revolver cylinder
This 1858 Starr revolver with notches in the cylinder for safety was far ahead of its time. 

Double-Action Revolvers

When double-action revolvers were developed most were no safer than the single-action, but a few featured a hammer rebound.

After the revolver fires, a spring moves the hammer back to a resting place out of contact with the primer of the chambered cartridge.

Eventually, reliable hammer blocks and rebound levers became part of the revolver action.

Smith and Wesson revolvers after the 1943 upgrade and most Colt revolvers with their earlier positive lock are safe to carry fully-loaded.

An even earlier revolver was foolproof, so much so that early advertisements illustrated a hammer striking the hammer.

The Iver Johnson ‘Hammer the Hammer’ action was among the first truly safe revolvers.

It was called the automatic safety revolver, as the safety did not have to be set by the user, it was automatic.

A note — there are single-action revolvers with a ‘safety notch’ that requires the hammer be pulled back until it clicks.

These are not true safety notches, as they are easily broken if the revolver is dropped, and the revolver will fire.

Webley revolvers also featured a mainspring auxiliary as it was called.

By any standard, the Iver Johnson revolvers were among the first truly drop-safe revolvers. 

Iver Johnson DA Revolver
The Iver Johnson “Hammer the Hammer” safety automatic revolver set a trend for safety in revolvers. 

Transfer Bar

This brings us to the safety-bar ignition. The transfer-bar ignition is simple enough.

The transfer bar lies between the hammer and the firing pin, preventing the hammer from contacting the firing pin.

As the revolver is cycled, the trigger is pulled, the hammer is brought to the rear where it will break against the mainspring and run forward powered by energy stored in the mainspring.

As the hammer flies forward, the trigger presses the transfer bar upward.

The hammer strikes the transfer bar and the transfer bar strikes the firing pin, firing the revolver.

There is no dependence on speed, the transfer bar works as designed whether cycled slowly or quickly.

The transfer-bar system is an effective tool. It was used in a number of economy revolvers for many years.

Charter Arms revolvers were introduced with the system in the 1960s, and a few years later Ruger followed suit with the Security Six.

Ruger also changed the lockwork of the Ruger single-action revolvers to the transfer-bar system.

Today, the Traditions line of revolvers also use the transfer-bar system.

While traditional in appearance, the 1873 and other revolvers are safe to carry with all six chambers loaded.

Use caution, as all single-action revolvers including the expensive Colt do not use this system and are not safe to carry fully-loaded. 

Smith & Wesson Snub Nose Revolver
The Charter Arms Undercover was among the first modern centerfire revolvers to use a transfer-bar system. 

Transfer Bar Issues

When firing a heavy double-action revolver, there is a slight chance of a misfire if the transfer-bar system isn’t handled correctly.

When firing, the double-action trigger is pressed to the rear. The balance or pivot of the revolver may move the finger off the trigger.

The transfer bar may move as you attempt to re-position your trigger finger and the hammer may fall and the transfer bar prevent firing.

This is rare, but it is a fact. If you have misfires off-hand but not when firing from a bench rest, then you have been mishandling the trigger.

The transfer-bar system is a safe consistent type of action that finally addressed the problems of revolver safety.

It has been in use for more than 100 years and offers real safety. 

What do you think of revolvers with a transfer bar? Let us know in the comments below!

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