Cap and Ball Sixguns: Old Technology, New World, by Randy in S.C.

Ammunition is in short supply these last few months, and probably will be for the foreseeable future. RImfires and common defensive calibers like .380, 9mm and .45 went first, then .223/5.56. Since the election, even shotgun shells are scare as hens’ teeth. Leftist politicians may not have to gut the Second Amendment if shooters can’t find ammunition. When Mahbub Ali gave Kim a revolver, it was fully loaded. “Of what use,” the wily Afghan observed, “is a gun unfed?”

What ammunition is still available is often at scalpers’ prices. Paying a dollar a shot for steel-cased Russian junk is not my idea of a sweet deal, but what else can you do? In many parts of the country components for shooting muzzle-loaders are still available. Front-loading long guns now rival the power, accuracy and dependability of conventional cartridge firearms.

But what about handguns? Are cap and ball revolvers equally practical in today’s world?

My answer is a qualified “yes”. They are less convenient, slower loading, and require more care, but good ones are more than acceptably accurate. Power? Colt’s 1847 Walker, firing 60 grains of black powder and a 143-grain lead ball produces 396 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. A heavier conical bullet and the same charge pushes energy over 450 foot-pounds. That compares with the .357 Magnum and .40 S&W. Smaller-framed .44s and .36s equate to the .44 Special and .38 Special cartridges.

The Walker (Mattie Ross carried one in a sack in True Grit) was the most powerful revolver in the world until Smith and Wesson introduced the .357 Magnum in 1935. Nearly as large and only slightly less powerful were the various Colt Dragoons produced between 1848 and 1860. These “horse pistols” were intended for use by mounted troopers, to be carried in holsters on either side of the saddle. Few men would care to tote this much iron on their belt, although Clint Eastwood famously wore not one but two Walkers in his role as Josey Wales.

Eastwood’s movie outlaw also carried a proper belt pistol, the 1860 Army that replaced the cumbersome Dragoons. The Colt Army, also nominally a .44, fired the same bullets as its larger brethren, but used less powder. A 40-grain charge equates to around 300 foot-pounds of energy with a round ball. Remington’s 1858 Army is similar. Eastwood fans will remember him shooting one in Pale Rider.

1858 Remington .44 Army

Both firms also manufactured “Navy” revolvers in .36 caliber, roughly the same as a modern .38, firing 25 or 30 grains of powder under an 80-grain round ball or a 130-grain bullet and yielding around 200 foot-pounds at the muzzle. This was the weapon preferred by the redoubtable James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, who famously carried two, simply jammed under a belt or sash.

1861 Colt .36 Navy and .31 Pocket

Smaller still were the pocket pistols, sometimes in .36 but more often .31 caliber. Josey Wales carried one in a breast pocket as a last resort. The .31s were usually loaded with a .323 ball or .32-calber #O buckshot. Ten to 15 grains of powder produced from 25 to 75 foot-pounds of energy, about like a .22 short. Harder to shoot accurately because of their size and short sight radius, pocket pistols are less useful than their bigger brothers.

Belt pistols, both .36s and .44s, and the big Dragoons are capable of surprising accuracy, often producing clusters as tight as 1 ¼” at 25 yards from a solid rest. This is more than enough for hunting. The Navies are ideal for rabbits, squirrels and the like, but most conscientious sportsmen will prefer the larger bore for deer-sized game. Unfortunately, most replica guns have rudimentary sights that are hard to see in bad light and are not adjustable for windage or elevation. Those modeled after Colts are particularly deficient, the rear sight being nothing more than a notch on the front of the hammer. Some of the earlier Colts have a round front sight much like the bead on a shotgun while others have a more visible blade. Remington-style revolvers have both a larger rear sight milled into the frame and a blade front. In many cases the issue sights may be too short for sporting use, sending groups high.

Colts have a more elegant look, and many shooters feel they handle and point more naturally. Others maintain that the Remington, with a solid top strap, has a stronger frame. The Remington frame can be even fitted with adjustable rear sights. Although they may offend the purist, such sights are better for hunting and target shooting. For even greater practicality, look for the “target” Remington in stainless steel. The Ruger Old Army could be considered a Remington 1858 .44 on steroids. No longer in production and therefore quite pricey when found, it was made in blued and stainless steel, with and without adjustable sights. A stainless Ruger with target sights is my idea of the ultimate cap-and-ball handgun.

Your first revolver should have the full-length (7½- or 8-inch) barrel. Black powder burns more efficiently in longer barrels, and the longer sight radius makes precise aiming easier. If you can afford two guns from the same manufacturer, the second might be a short “Sheriff’s model”.

The two most respected Italian manufacturers are Uberti and Pietta. Even these sometimes need tuning for best results, so shy away from lesser-known brands, and avoid any revolver with a frame made of brass. These will soon shoot loose on a steady diet of full-power loads. Stick with Colt and Remington replicas from the Dragoons through the Civil War era and you can’t go far wrong.

Replicas of the Colt Patersons and those pocket models without loading levers are less practical. Lack of this feature is also a problem with Uberti’s percussion-only Peacemaker. The best solution is a stand-alone press: remove the cylinder, load, and reinsert. The Starr double-actions from Pietta are intriguing, but seem to be somewhat problematical like the originals. I would, however, love to try one of Pietta’s LeMat replicas. The 20-gauge barrel in addition to nine rounds of .44 puts a shotgun in your holster. Civil War cavalrymen like Jeb Stuart loaded theirs with “blue whistlers” – buckshot. A charge of #4s, 6s or 7-1/2s would be dandy for shooting small game or snakes. Another tempting option is a revolver with a detachable stock, or even a carbine such as Uberti’s 1858 Remington.

LOADING

Loading a percussion sixgun is reasonably straightforward. One could use the press mentioned above even on guns with loading levers, but most shooters leave the revolver fully assembled. The empty gun may then be held in the hands or placed with the barrel upright in a rack that looks a bit like a wooden bookend. It is a good practice to fire one or two percussion caps on each nipple before loading to clear the chamber of oil and debris.

During the percussion era, fine-grained black powder was the only choice. Real black powder is explosive rather than merely flammable and leaves a great deal of tarry residue behind. Many shooters prefer black-powder substitutes such as Pyrodex or Triple 7. Depending on the manufacturer, this may be labeled as “Three F”, “FFFg” or “P” for pistol. Pyrodex also comes in cylindrical 30-grain pellets for .44/.45 caliber guns. FFFFg powder, intended for priming flintlocks, may raise pressures. NEVER use smokeless powder: it will turn your revolver into a pipe bomb. Original Walkers are said to have blown cylinders with full 60-grain charges, but modern replicas in good condition are unlikely to do so.

One pellet or a measured charge of powder goes into each chamber. You could use a dipper, but a flask with a spring-loaded gate makes life easier. One finger goes over the open spout, then you invert the flask and press the lever, allowing powder to flow from the flask into the spout. Release the lever and pour the charge. Screw-on spouts of different lengths allow throwing charges of various weights with the same flask.

Some shooters add a lubricated felt wad on top of the powder. A ball or bullet is then seated on top, using the loading lever under the barrel. These are made of soft pure lead, without the tin or other alloys used in bullets for centerfire projectiles. If using a round ball, it must be slightly larger than the chamber diameter. A .36-caliber “Navy” revolver may have a bore as large as .375, so a .380 ball is recommended. “Army” .44s, with a bore around .451, are best with balls from .454 to .457. Place the ball on the chamber mouth and the cylinder so that the projectile sits squarely under the loading lever’s plunger. Pressing the lever should require some effort: as you seat the ball you are actually shaving off a ring of lead.

This is important for several reasons. The tight fit generates more velocity because the gas produced can’t escape around the ball. It also helps to prevent chain-fires, in which a spark from one chamber ignites the charges in its neighbors. Note that this is contrary to the practice with muzzle-loading rifles, in which the ball is smaller than bore diameter. There a cloth patch seals the gap and engages the rifling. Conicals for revolvers, on the other hand, are cast at bore diameter. A hollow-base bullet similar to a Minie ball could be used but solid slugs are easier to cast. In either case the exploding black powder “bumps up” the bullet to fill the grooves. Ball or bullet, it is good practice to top off the loaded chamber with lubricant such as Bore Butter, especially if you did not use a wad between powder and bullet. Either way the lube adds a safety factor, enhances smooth operation and softens powder fouling for easier cleaning.

Percussion caps are simply copper cups lined with a layer of a pressure-sensitive compound similar to that used in conventional primers. Use #10 or #11 caps, depending on the size of the nipple. The slightly larger #11s can sometimes be made to work on the smaller nipples by pinching them slightly. They may fall off during recoil, causing a misfire, or the loose fit may result in chain firing from the rear of the chamber. It’s far better to match the cap to the nipple. If necessary, replace your nipples to match the size of the caps available. I’d have a set of spares on hand anyway. Be sure to buy nipples that match the threads on your pistol. Pietta uses metric nipples (threaded 6m x .75m x .200″). Ubertis are 12-28 x .200″ except for Walkers and Dragoons, which are ¼” x 28 x .215. The Ruger Old Army threads measure 12-28 x .250″. Expect to pay from $12-to-$40 for a set of 6.

Any percussion arm requires cleaning as soon as possible after shooting. Triple 7 may be somewhat less demanding in this respect than old-school black powder or Pyrodex, but why take that chance? Here along the coast humidity and the acid salts left behind can literally destroy a barrel overnight. Even “stainless” steel is merely rust-resistant, not rust-proof. Most shooters find the Remington pattern easier to take apart and reassemble than the Colt style.

If complete field-stripping is impossible, at least remove the wood grips before cleaning. Use water-based solvents; black powder does not respond to the same chemicals as modern smokeless powders. Many old-school shooters rely on very hot water, with or without soap. Murphy’s Oil Soap is a favorite. Rinsing afterward with plain water that is as close to boiling as practicable heats the metal so that it dries faster.   Once the piece is dry, reassemble and oil before putting it away. Another time-tested practice is cleaning again, or at least checking for rust, the following day.

There are any number of patent black powder solvents and cleaners that may be as good or better than the traditional methods. Once a torrential downpour hit camp after a Civil-War reenactment. Forced to bundle everything into my vehicle instantly or risk getting marooned in a sea of mud, I sprayed an aerosol foam down the barrel of my musket and hit the road. Hundreds of miles later, I was relieved to find that the new-fangled treatment had done the trick.

I would not hesitate to use a cap-and-ball sixgun in the hunting field, especially now when bagging a buck or a bunny is not a matter of life and death. Again, the “belt” models are best for all-round use. Walkers and Dragoons are best suited to hunting from a blind or stand because of their weight.

Good percussion revolvers can be had for two to three hundred dollars, and they are still available online, shipped direct to your home with no paperwork in most jurisdictions. The fact that Federal law does not consider them to be firearms does not mean you can carry one concealed with impunity.

 

Cartridge Conversion Cylinders

Also available for many guns are conversion cylinders which allow firing low-pressure cartridges known as “Cowboy” loads from their use in cowboy action shooting. These are available through retailers like Midway, USA. They are not inexpensive: you may pay nearly as much for the converter as you did for an Italian-made revolver. For loading, take the cylinder out of the frame and remove the rear portion, which contains individual firing pins for each chamber. When using conversion cylinders, the .36 caliber revolvers s usually take .38 Long Colt, and .44s accept .45 “Long” Colt (not .45 ACP). Conversion cylinders are generally considered a “gun part” and so ship direct unless they are purchased with a matching revolver. In that case the pistol is considered a modern cartridge firearm and must go through an FFL.

The Colt Single Action Army of 1873 pretty much made percussion handguns obsolete. Colt used up leftover parts from its Civil-War-era Armies and Navies making similar cartridge conversions. Gunsmiths also converted revolvers for individual owners. Unless they added loading gates and ejector rods, shooters had to remove the cylinders to reload, but even this was faster and easier than using loose powder and ball. Combustible “cartridges” of nitrated paper containing powder and a pistol bullet were issued during the Civil War. These are loaded (of course) with the powder to the rear and the ball in front. The paper is completely consumed in firing. They can be bought from Dixie or made at home.

In some benighted parts of the country cap and ball revolvers may be the only handguns readily available.   Having one close at hand when things go “bump” in the night would be a comfort: plenty of Boot Hill residents can attest to their effectiveness. Cartridge conversions are a better mousetrap. If such converters are not legal where you live, Western fans can probably remember both Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef swapping out spare “percussion” cylinders to stay in the fight. It’s not as quick as a tactical reload with a 1911, but the first step in surviving a gunfight is having a gun. Better yet, have four. Just ask Josey Wales.




24 Comments

  1. Good article! I suggest for further reading, the excellent “Percussion Revolvers”, by Mike Cumpston and Johnny Bates. It covers the various revolvers in detail, with tips on maintenance and cleaning, as well as disassembly. It could help a lot if you’re still uncertain — even after the excellent comparison the article gave — which revolver is for you.

    Another cleaning hint is to never lube your revolver with petroleum based greases or oils. They can combine with bp residues and make a hard to clean mess. Natural lubes keep fouling soft and make cleaning easier. Ballistol is one such lube and cleaner. There are many recipes for homemade lubes, such as beeswax and olive oil (the cheap olive oil, from Target and similar stores, not extra virgin oil) in 4 parts oil to one part wax (by weight) in cold climates, up to a 50/50 mix for Texas summers! My favorite is the “Gatofeo” lube, which includes sheep tallow. Go to thehighroad.org and search for “gatofeo lube” for more info, and for recipes of other shooters who chimed in.

  2. A couple decades ago my wife gave me two black powder revolver kits for Christmas. She told me later they were $75 or so each. They sat for a long time, one day when my project list was short and winter was cold I got to work on them. Loosely based on the 1851 Colt they are .44 caliber with round barrels and brass frames. They shoot beautifully with 25 grain charges. We won’t be shooting them a lot, I consider them my last line of defense. Cleaned up and put up, when the day comes each of my Sons will be given one in a presentation box. I think these kits are well over $200 these days. I have a.50 caliber Hawken kit on the way as a project for the present cold winter and a hedge against the likely severe gun control attempts of the incoming communist administration.
    Thank you for bringing this subject to our attention!

  3. Brass Framed cap and ball do not do well with full military loading. The above .44 using 25 grains is a decent load. A little like firing 38 P+ in an older 38 not a good idea over time.

    Steel framed are almost bullet proof unless you foolishly use smokeless powder.

    I’d not feel under gunned with a steel framed new army 44 with conical and full military loading. You can file CAREFULLY the front sight to get your point of aim correct. Dabs of bright yellow fingernail polish makes for better sight picture.

    REMEMBER no pistol punches through modern body armor, Two in the ARMOR means NOTHING as they shoot you. Belly Shots as body armor isn’t there. Lot’s of major blood vessels and CNS potential there.

    1. Michael,
      The enemy snipers in Iraq learned early to shoot “around” body armor. Our Marines and US Army warriors were commonly shot in the buttocks or thighs, a wound that could kill them, or at least end their tour.
      One of my civilian contractor partners, a State Trooper from a southern state, was hit in his left shoulder by a sniper’s bullet that did not penetrate his skin. He was going up the steps to a lookout tower near Baghdad. To his left, a step or two ahead of him and above him, was a US soldier. As they approached the top step the soldier was struck in his left hip by the sniper’s bullet, which passed through and struck the contractor in his left shoulder. The spent projectile fell to one of the steps and rested there.
      The US Warrior survived. My contractor friend received a bad bruise but nothing more.
      God was watching over them both.

      Semper Fi

  4. The demand for ammo is so great, all the usual reloading powders are gone. However there is a new powder they found at the bottom of the barrel called Vectan.
    Ordered up some for a friend’s 300 Win Mag, an equivalent of H4831 to H1000, called TU-8000. The price is attractive, only $25.00 for 1.1 pounds. Found this a Graf’s and Sons.

    Keeping black powder dry could be a problem, but black powder works. There is plenty of BP for sale. Although we are not this desperate yet, there are lots of video on YouTube showing how to load a 12ga shotgun like muzzle loader. Just install a 204 primer in the brass after the plastic hull is cut away. Use Pryrodex. Read up on how to load a black powder shotgun.

    1. blackhorn209(dot)com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/b209blackpowdercartridgedata
      A loading data sheet for people wanting to load cartridges with Blackhorn 209 [a modern black powder substitute.]

      The information might be of use to people. An how to article might be of use to people too.

      1. Thanks! Always need more data. More data means more options. Never know when one will run into obscure components and might need to make use of them. Black powder out of a 29 inch 8mm Mauser, or long barreled shot gun just might make them think all you got is muskets! Just like 4831, fill up the case and stuff a bullet in there. There is always one more way to have fun with black powder.

        1. People starting Black Powder shooting should avail them of all the free information around. … Stay with SurvivalBlog and people like Tunnel Rabbit as a place to start.

          From the internet: usermanuals(dot)tech/d/lyman-black-powder-instructions-manual/part1#1
          Lyman Black Powder Instructions Manual

          A free 48 page manual for Lyman Products [PFD file or printable.]. This is NOT NOT NOT a manual for developing amounts (loads) inside a rifle. The excellent paper manuals cost money.

          ~~>This site allows people to just look at basic information ~without actually downloading anything. [Especially important, for people concerned about ‘trackers and viruses’ on their computers.]

          ~Hard Copy manuals are sold on line for loading data. Powder Substitutes [In my experience] come with a specification sheet. Plus as cited above, manufacturers will have information on the Internet.
          *****
          *****
          A collection of ~manufacturer’s information might be of use to people. It’s always good to have an understanding of the basics. = Stay with SurvivalBlog.

          The Internet has a lot of free information, and instruction videos; often the videos will come directly from a manufacturer.

          At this point, as our World turns on its axis, a lot of people would like to know how to load Black Powder and the Substitutes, into the empty cases they have accumulated.

          The link above for blackhorn 209 substitute has specifications for the older cartridges.
          Fortunately, for me at least, a .357/.38 special revolver is considered an old timer. The ‘pressures’ developed by blackhorn 209 is touted as being much lower than modern ammunition too.

          [‘Seeing how’ ~ I have an uncanny resemblance to Elmer Fudd, I worry about a firearm blowing-up in my face!]

          1. Trail Boss Powder

            Trailboss can still be found, and is an alternative for brass case black powder loadings, and can also be used in modern firearm without the risk of corrosive salts.

            Trail Boss that was developed for reduced pressure loads for Cowboy shooting. It is modern powder that may still be found for sale. I used for subsonic and plinking loads. It is a pleasure to shoot. Any cartridge up to .3006 can be loaded with Trail Boss. In the absences of load data for any cartridge, determine the depth of the bullet inside the case, and fill up the case with Trail Boss to the point where the powder is no higher in the case than the bottom of the bullet seats in the case. Do not compress this powder, or safe pressures could be exceeded. Because velocities are under 1800 fps, inexpensive and available lead cast bullets, and hard cast copper plated bullets, such as Berry’s Bullets, can be used. Last time I bought plated bullets, they were .10 cents each for 150 grain flat nose. I choose these because they require no lubrication, and are accurate at subsonic speeds. 16 grains of Trail Boss is the sweet spot for .3006 for accuracy, and a velocity just under 1,800 fps that does not strip off the plating.

    2. Tunnel Rabbit I know that the 303 British was originally a compressed black power load under a 200 grain round nosed lead bullet. I loaded some for reenactments for Zulu era. Most Cartridges of that time were also BP before smokeless became popular.

      When I was in the Philippines I did some hunting using 38 Special BP reloads that were primered by reforming the old used primer and loaded with strike anywhere match heads. They actually worked well with hand cast wheel weight bullets. I recall a few hang fires and a dud or two but under Marcos ammo was very hard to get. I understood some old Jap 7.7 was also done that way. Not a surprise as the 303 and the 7.7 were kissing cousins.

  5. It’s a good school in here…Looking at reloading basics and self-defense alternatives.

    I Picked up some Fort Scott, TUI 223 at a local building center on Sunday.

    Solid copper it was the last two boxes~ It’s still America in much of patriot, redoubt regions.

    You Can you still get your hardware and building supplies… in these blessed areas. Who your neighbors and friends are will mean alot in the years to come.

    Matt Bracken Has important insights in the last two weeks about what America will look like. I take the position of prayer and peace….With practical interpretation towards our Constitution.

    Trump made the deep state look bad for four years.

    Today, they are giving him the boot as a sendoff… retaliation (dishonor, fraud).. it’s actually a message for all patriots. The left-wing is an aggressive and violent / divisive force in America.

    God’s grace will help lead us. It’s the time we live in. We all have that unsettled feeling that our republic is sick…

    God bless you who love America, your familys and rural dwellers!

    1. You got that right- the left are violent and feeling emboldened by the media and the feds running interference for them. I seem to recall a politician bragging about a “civilian force to match the uniformed police in training and equipment”. My oh my the chickens have come home to roost; sad days ahead. Lord Jesus have mercy on us.

    1. “The film [The Outlaw Josey Wales] was adapted by Sonia Chernus and Philip Kaufman from author Asa Earl “Forrest” Carter’s 1972 novel The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales (republished, as shown in the movie’s opening credits, as Gone to Texas).” ~ Wikipedia

      Josey can be a nickname for Joseph or Josephine (according to the Internet). … I didn’t read the Book to try and figure out whether a ‘nickname or real name’ for Josey in the ~book. [It’s a fictional book and movie.]

      I did read a little bit about Asa Earl “Forrest” Carter on Wikipedia. Most likely, Asa E. Carter was NOT NOT ~ Black, Jewish or Catholic.
      [Conjecture on my part: Maybe, the book author liked the nickname ‘Forrest’ because he didn’t like being called ‘Ass-ah’ by everyone.]

  6. I knew nothing about BP ( except that my departed Dad had 2 wheel guns) until I bought what I thought was a kit. I got out to my truck with all the energy of a 5 yr old on Christmas morning, opened the box, and saw a fully functional Pietta brass frame .44. I was a bit disappointed that the weekend project I had envisioned had just evaporated!
    I went back into Cabelas, picked up all the necessary components to make it run, and headed home. I spent the next day on cloud 9!!! Although some people have had issues, mine was, and still is, a nail driver right out of the box.
    To my best guess, I have run about 900 rounds through it, give or take. Still as accurate as day 1.

    Given the clamp down on soft lead, I reclaim spent projectiles to melt and recast into usable BP projectiles. I have since expanded my BP Seed Spreaders to 3 more wheel guns and 2 long guns.

    I love the look on the faces of the youngins when I am more accurate with my ” old skool” sidearms than they are with their high speed, low drag new fangled slide guns!

  7. Rooster Cogburn: Why, by God, girl, that’s a Colt’s Dragoon! You’re no bigger than a corn nubbin, what’re you doing with all this pistol?

    Mattie Ross: It belonged to my father, he carried it bravely in the war, and I intend to kill Tom Chaney with it if the law fails to do so.

    Rooster Cogburn: Well, this’ll sure get the job done if you can find a fence post to rest it on while you take aim.

    (what a great movie… yeah, get a cap and ball pistol for when the last of your brass cases finally wear out… )

  8. You know everyone that black powder will be highly regulated or banned from private ownership. Think it through any threat to their BS will be quashed very quickly Look at the purge going on now. Leftist groups destroying entire business districts are no problem, But lets go after the people on the storming on Jan 6 with everything they can. No mention of Nashville anymore But when they do it will involve a Black Powder explosive. Please remember Ashli in your prayers. God have mercy on us

    1. Yeah, where is the “news” about that investigation?
      Unarmed and wrapped in either a Trump flag or a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag. I’m still not sure which is was. MSM evidently doesn’t either.

      Semper Fi

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