SELECTING, SHOOTING, AND CARING FOR
THE BLACK POWDER CAP AND BALL REVOLVER
Copyright Dave Markowitz
Last revised April 7, 2006
Selecting a Piece
There are several types of cap & ball revolvers available, both replicas and modern designs. Selection is basically a matter of personal taste, influenced by what you want from your new toy. In general, you'll undoubtedly use it for informal target shooting, maybe formal bullseye shooting, cowboy action shooting, and possibly defense. The piece should be fun to shoot, accurate, have a good-looking finish, and be well made from good quality steel. There are two major types of cap & ball revolvers, replicas of original 19th century guns (or bastardizations thereof), and modern designs.
The replicas are broken down into two major categories: Colts and Remingtons. Distinguishing features of the Colts are an open top frame with no top strap, and a rear sight consisting of a notch on the nose of the hammer. Remingtons have solid frames, withs have solid frames, with a rear sight groove milled into the top strap. The Remington sights are much better for target shooting, being easier to see, and the rear sight doesn't vanish when you pull the trigger. However, surprisingly good shooting can be done with the Colts after you get used to the sights. Both Colts and Remingtons come in Army (.44), Navy (.36), and Pocket (.31) models. Unlike modern guns of equivalent caliber, the .44s won't pound you with severe recoil, even with full loads. The .36s recoil about like a .22 pistol. In general, the Navy models are a bit smaller and lighter than the corresponding Army models. You can also get the Remington Army model fitted with an adjustable rear sight and a target front sight, for a few extra bucks.
There are replicas available of other Civil War revolvers, such as the South's Leech & Rigdon, an 1851 Navy derivative, and the Rogers & Spencer Army .44. The North bought 5000 of the latter in 1865, never issued any and sold them to Bannerman's around 1900 for scrap. Bannerman's turned around and sold them for about $2.50 each. In general, this is the reason why original Rogers & Spencer revolvers tend to be in very good condition.
The other major category of cap & ball revolvers is pretty much summed up by one model: the Ruger Old Army. This is a completely modern design, with music wire coil springs, your choice of click adjustable or fixed sights, and stainless steel internal parts. Available in blued steel or stainless steel versions, it's basically a Blackhawk turned into a muzzleloader. It weighs over three pounds, and can take a hefty 40 grain powder charge.
One thing to keep in mind when buying the revolver is to make sure you get a steel frame. Brass framed guns are cheaper, but will shoot loose over time, especially with full loads.
And yes, you read the first paragraph right. One reason to get a cap and ball black powder revolver is for defense. I don't recommend doing so as a first choice, but in some jurisdictions legally obtaining a modern pistol is next to impossible. Some states don't permit persons under the age of 21 to own modern handguns but do permit black powder guns. Or, it may be all you have. BP revolvers are not the ideal choice for defense in 2006 but they are not toys. They were originally cutting edge weaponry and are still deadly. Learn how to load, shoot, and care for one, and it can still be a reliable weapon. If you are going down this route, I suggest the .44s because they are significantly more powerful than the .36 and .31 caliber guns. Also, give serious thought to a stainless steel model if selecting one for defense. I'd rather have a quality .44 or even a .36 BP wheelgun than a modern gun less powerful than .38 Special if I had to defend myself. I'd certainly take one over even the most "tactical" of knives or pepper/tear gas spray so commonly sold these days for defense.
Accessories You Should Buy
You'll need to buy a few accessories when you get the revolver. A nipple wrench and powder measure or flask are essential. If you don't have a cleaning rod long enough for the pistol's barrel, buy one or make one from a dowel. I highly recommend a powder flask as the most convenient way to carry the black powder. Make sure you get a pistol flask, not one meant for rifles. (The spout will throw too big a charge.) Many replica Colt flasks come with two spouts, one throwing about 15 grains and one throwing 28 grains. The Colt Walker/Dragoon flask should have an adjustable spout allowing you to vary your charge from 30 to 50 grains. If you get this then you don't need a separate powder measure.
A special cap with attached pour spout to go on your can of powder is very handy. These can be obtained from muzzleloading supply shops or you can make your own. First, take the cap off of the powder can and drill a .25" hole in the center. Take an empty .30-06 or similar cartridge case, and cut the base off. Then solder or epoxy this onto the cap. An empty .44 Magnum or .45 ACP case can be used to cap the spout, either will be a snug fit. (Unless you want to blow yourself up, make damn sure that these cutting and soldering operations are done well away from the can of powder.)
For powder buy FFFg ("3f"). Fg is for muskets, FFg is for rifles .50 caliber and up, while FFFFg is used only for priming flintlocks. The most common brand of powder is Goex brand. (Goex bought out Du Pont's black powder operation in the 1970s.) You can also use Pyrodex P grade or Pyrodex Select, though the latter is better used in long arms. If you do use Pyrodex, do an extra good cleaning job, and make sure you do it the same day you shoot the gun, or you are going to get some really nasty rusting. Other acceptable powders are Swiss black powder and Hogdon's 777. I have not tried either, preferring Goex.
Never load a cap & ball revolver with smokeless powder. Doing so will turn your gun into a grenade.
Get a box of round balls, either cast or swaged. Thirty-six caliber guns shoot .375 to .380 balls, the .44s use balls from .451 to .457 in diameter. I use .380 balls in my 1851 Navy reproduction, and the .457 balls in my Old Army. Most Colt and Remington Armies will also use the .457s fine. An advantage of the slightly larger ball is that is has a longer bearing surface with which to engage the rifling. I've found that .380s give good accuracy in my Navy, for instance, but .375s do not. I haven't bothered with conicals because for my needs the balls have worked well. This may change soon. I recently received some pre-production samples of a new conical design that is very interesting. Once I get to shoot them I'll try to update this article with my results.
My favorite caps are CCI brand. Their quality is very high and they produce a hot flash. Navy Arms and RWS are also good. At one point Remington's quality control was poor and I used to recommend against them. I've been informed that they've improved QC and are now good, but haven't tried any yet. Get a couple tins of the number 11 size caps. CCI has recently brought back the slightly smaller number 10 size caps, designed especially for cap & ball revolvers, and they've also introduced a "magnum" number 11 cap. You may wish to invest in a capper to hold and dispense the little buggers, but it's not necessary.
The last item you need for loading your revolver is lube. My favorite used to be Ox Yoke Wonder Lube. Thompson-Center's Natural Lube 1000+ and Hogdon's Pyrodex Lube are the same thing. They all work extremely well. CVA's Grease Patch works well, too. If you're feeling cheap you can use Crisco or its equivalent. I've switched to Crisco, at least during warm weather, because I am cheap and it works just fine. A traditional lube was a 50/50 mix of beeswax and mutton tallow. This can be bought premade from Dixie Gun Works, or you can buy the ingredients from Dixie if you want to DIY.
Whatever lubricant you choose, avoid anything that's petroleum based. Petroleum based lubricants will combine with the results of black powder combustion and make the resulting fouling very tar-like. Natural lubes like Crisco or Bore Butter keep the fouling soft and make it much easier to clean your gun. One alternative for oiling the gun during storage to prevent rust is olive oil. Using natural lubes allows the steel to season, much as a cast iron Dutch oven is seasoned.
An alternative to covering your loads with a lube is to use felt wads, such as Ox Yoke Wonder Wads between powder and ball. Wads are less messy than grease, which could be handy if you are carrying a loaded gun in a holster. The wads aren't particularly cheap, and using a lube will do a better job of keeping the powder fouling soft. If you're going to be carrying the gun holstered, or if you intend to leave it loaded for awhile then the wads make sense.
A really handy thing to have is a flintlock shooter's priming flask. This is a little brass cylinder with a plunger spout which will dispense a few grains of powder at a time. You'll use it when you realize that you just loaded a ball into the cylinder without any powder first. What you do is first make sure all nipples are uncapped, remove the cylinder, unscrew the nipple on the powderless chamber and dribble in some powder, and reassemble the gun. You will do this, any black powder shooter who tells you he hasn't loaded a ball without a charge is either: (1) a newbie, or (2) a liar. I haven't had to use mine in quite awhile, but I bring it with me to the range every time I shoot one of my cap and ball revolvers.
A loading stand can be handy for the range but I usually don't bother.
You'll need hearing and eye protection when shooting, as well.
To round out your accessories you'll need cleaning patches of the proper diameter and a nipple pick. The latter can be made from a short length of wire with a loop on the end for a handle. The wire should be thin enough to pass through the nipple's flash channel, so it's got to be thin.
Shooting Your New Cap & Ball Revolver
Ahh, the day has come at last! You're all ready to go play with your new toy. Wait a minute. Make sure that you've cleaned off all the protective grease that the gun came in from the factory. Strip the gun and clean the preservative it shipped in off with a good solvent or hot soapy water, then oil it with one of the natural lubricants mentioned above.
When you get to the range snap a cap on each nipple, keeping the gun pointed down range. This is to ensure that the flash channels are clear. The flash should be enough to move leaves or a piece of paper from about a foot away. Remove the busted caps before loading. Don't worry if they have fragmented, this is normal. If you don't want to waste caps, you can clean out the chambers and nipples with a Q-Tip and alcohol.
To load, pour a measured powder charge into each chamber and ram a ball down on top. For safety's sake, never pour directly from the powder can into the gun, and firmly seat the ball on the powder. For target shooting, use 12 grains of powder in a .36; 20 to 28 grains in a .44. Typically, 20 grains is about a maximum load in a .36, while a .44 will take about 35 to 40 grains. The Ruger Old Army has a maximum load of 40 grains, while a Colt Dragoon can take 50, and a Walker Colt 60! The lighter loads will recoil less and recoil less and produce less fouling, and may be more accurate (this varies, though). The heavy loads are fun to shoot, with lots of smoke and fire, and the recoil isn't too bad. You can charge each chamber individually, and seat each ball before going on to the next charge, or you can pour all the charges and then seat all the balls. The next step is to put lubricant over each ball. The main purpose of this is to keep the fouling soft and to a minimum.
Another reason commonly given for the over-ball lube is to prevent chain-firing, i.e. the flash from one chamber setting off another. It is highly unlikely this will happen if you are using the properly oversized ball, since an airtight seal should be created during loading. You probably shaved some lead off of the ball in forcing it into the smaller diameter chamber. Chain firing is more likely to be cause by ill-fitting caps being set off by flash over at the back end of the cylinder.
Note: If you are using Wonder Wads, you load them between powder and ball, and you'll need to force them in with the loading lever.
As the very last step, cap the piece, keeping it pointed down range. It's a good idea to squeeze in the sides of the caps a little before putting them on the nipples, to provide a snug fit.
One way you can increase the accuracy of a cap and ball revolver when using light loads is to fill up some of the space in the chamber with cornmeal. For example, in a .44 caliber piece, load 20 (twenty) grains of powder, then an empty .38 Special case full of cornmeal, then the ball and lubricant. This technique is usually only used by shooters in competition, who almost always use a .44 rather than a .36.
Your piece is now ready to fire. Keep in mind that high pressure gas will be escaping from the barrel-cylinder gap, and you may have flying cap fragments, thus it is very important that both you and anyone standing near you has eye protection on.
If you are not going to fire the gun immediately you should carefully lower the hammer into one of the safety notches between the nipples (Rugers and Remingtons) or the safety pins (Colts). It is not safe to carry the gun with the hammer in the half cock notch.
Cleaning a black powder gun is similar to cleaning a modern gun, but takes a bit more effort. Black powder fouling is a lot thicker and sootier than smokeless powder fouling. It is also hygroscopic, meaning it will suck moisture out of the air onto your expensive new toy. For this reason you'll need to clean it the same day you shoot it, or not later than the next day. With modern, noncorrosive caps, immediate cleaning isn't quite as necessary as it used to be in the days of mercuric or chlorate caps. Use of Pyrodex will keep the fouling down, but contrary to advertising claims, it is more corrosive than black powder.
A word to the wise: black powder fouling and the associated cleaning process are quite odiforous, so don't clean the gun in the kitchen unless the other household members don't care.
Plain hot water out of the tap works very well for cleaning. However, after I read in an article by Mike Venturino that he uses a vinegar-based window cleaner to clean up his black powder guns I tried out regular Windex and I was very impressed. Even though this wasn't the vinegar-based stuff it worked exceptionally well. Make sure that you get all of it off of the gun, however, as the ammonia it contains can be corrosive to steel if left on too long.
If you decide to use a cleaning solvent use one specially designed for cleaning black powder, e.g., either Hoppe's #9 Plus or Black Solve. First field strip the gun as indicated in your owner's manual. On the Colt's knock out the barrel wedge and take off the barrel and cylinder. On a Remington lower the loading lever, pull out the cylinder pin, and remove the cylinder. Now remove the nipples and put them in a bucket of hot water, dump the cylinder in, too. These can soak while you're cleaning the barrel and frame. I find the quickest way to do this is by holding the barrel so that hot water runs through from the breech end t breech end to the muzzle. This will remove most of the fouling, and there's less wear on your bore this way than running a whole bunch of patches through it. You will need to use a few, however; to get out the really stubborn stuff, a brush may help in this regard. When you've cleaned the bore and it's dry, run a patch with Wonder Lube or oil through, so it doesn't rust. Do the frame next.
Now that your cylinder and nipples have been soaking for awhile in the water it's time to clean them. A toothbrush will come in handy here for cleaning the nipple recesses in the cylinder. You may wish to use pipe cleaners to get inside the nipples and nipple seats. When done, give them the same rust-preventative coating you gave the barrel and frame. Put the gun back together and you're done.
If you use water for cleaning, make sure it's hot and you let the gun get very warm. The combination of very hot water and a hot gun will help ensure that all the water evaporates off the piece. You don't want to put it away wet and come back later to find it rusted.
Shooting a black powder revolver is pretty straightforward. I find the loading process to be a satisfying part of the shooting game, though the cleaning is admittedly less so. The smoke and flash really enhance the experience. I find that in exposing new shooters to guns for the first time this is a good way to go. They get to see what goes into making a gun shoot as you load the gun for them, and they nearly always like the smoke. As a bonus, the cost of shooting is quite low, much less than when shooting centerfire cartridges.
And as mentioned above, black powder revolvers are viable defensive arms for those who don't have access to more modern weapons. They still beat edged weapons or bare hands by a long shot.
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