February 28, 2021

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.

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