Ed Harris Friday: Blackpowder Revolvers

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(Editor’s Note: I’ll admit to knowing nothing about blackpowder arms, so this article from Ed was quite enlightening! If you’ve thought about getting a cap-and-ball revolver but weren’t sure about how to use it, Ed’s article will tell you everything you need to know!)

Handling Cap & Ball Revolvers
By C.E. “Ed” Harris

Learning to shoot a cap & ball revolver requires common sense and attention to detail, but these guns are effective and satisfying. Safety, reliability and accuracy of a black powder revolver all depend on care exercised in loading. Doing this correctly requires 2 or 3 minutes. It cannot be done hurriedly. Think of your cap & ball revolver as being little different from a modern one, except that it has its own reloading press attached. If you give it the combined attention you do in shooting, plus reloading ammunition, AND at the same time, you will be OK.

Dry each chamber thoroughly prior to loading and ensure the nipples are clear of oil or debris. This is done by “snapping caps” on each nipple, and observing the disturbance of a leaf, paper or other light material near the muzzle. In a hunting situation when you don’t want to risk scaring game, dry the chambers thoroughly with patches. Use a straight copper wire to clear each channel. Hold the cylinder up to the light and ensure you can see daylight through each flash channel, then degrease the chambers with a light volatile solvent such as Outer’s Crud Cutter or Birchwood Casey Gun Scrubber and dry with patches. When this is done, the revolver will be sure-fire.

If despite your best efforts, a chamber has misfired, clear the flash channel with a wire, re-cap it and try again. If this doesn’t work, the safest way to clear a misfire in a cap & ball revolver is to carefully pry caps from all nipples with a small screwdriver, while wearing safety glasses and pointing the muzzle in a safe direction. Then remove the cylinder. Unscrew the offending nipple and carefully pick out the powder with a copper wire or other nonferrous object until you can freely insert a 5/32″ diameter straight punch into the chamber until it solidly contacts the base of the ball or bullet. Then carefully tap out the ball from behind.

Round balls are still the best choice for general use in either light or heavy loads. They are extremely easy to cast, accurate, and effective for small game. A round ball attains 900-1000 f.p.s. in a full load and is a better killer and more accurate than the slower conicals. I don’t use the conical bullets in cap & ball revolvers, because they offer no advantage in game killing power or accuracy. The 200 and 250-gr. Lee R.E.A.L., H&G #130BB or Saeco 131, cast soft, are better options for heavier bullets in the .44 and .45 revolvers. The Lee R.E.A.L. is also available in the .36 caliber, and can be used in cap & ball revolvers of that bore size with the same charges used for round balls.

I recommend a starting load of 20 grs. of FFFg or the same volume of Pyrodex P in the .44 cap & ball revolvers and 16 grs. on the .36 cals. Then work up the load as needed to get best accuracy. Best target accuracy is usually obtained with 18-20 grs. in the .36 cal., and 20-25 grs. in the .44. Full service charges are 24grs. in the .36, 28 grs. in the brass frame .44s, and 35 grs. in the steel frames.

A wadcutter bullet like the R.E.A.L. is sized and pre- lubricated like a conventional bullet, eliminating the need to apply grease over the ball. I lubricate REAL bullets for my Old Army in a .454″ sizer, and use a .450-.451″ for the replicas. You can either use your favorite black powder lube, or do simply tumble the bullets in Lee Liquid Alox.

Firm compression of the charge is necessary for best accuracy. With charges less than 20 grains bulk measure in the .44 replicas or 25 grains in the Ruger Old Army, the stroke of the loading lever is inadequate to compress the charge unless a wad or filler is used. I thumb an Ox Yoke wad over the powder as I load each chamber. This also avoids the risk of an inadvertent double-charge or seating a ball with no powder under it. The wad also avoids spilling powder from adjacent chambers when seating the ball or bullet, keeps the bore cleaner and improves accuracy too.

If you cannot feel the charge compress slightly before the end of the rammer stroke, you may need to also pour a bit of Farina, Cream of Wheat or corn meal to take up the empty space in the chambers. I dispense mine from a catsup bottle. Cream of Wheat or Farina do not cake in wet weather, but do not compress, so the amount needed must be carefully determined, to leave enough room for seating the ball. Corn meal compresses and is more forgiving if you use a bit too much.

Hodgdon Pyrodex is more difficult to ignite than black powder, so it is doubly essential that the charge be fully compressed to eliminate all airspace, otherwise hangfires or misfires may occur. “Hot” caps such as CCI give the best results with Pyrodex. With black powder, failure to compress the charge results in lower velocities, greater velocity variation and vertical stringing.

Seating a wad over the powder, combined with a tight fitting ball or bullet positively prevents “flashovers”, but applying lubricant over round balls is essential to keep the cylinder from binding due to fouling. It also aids accuracy, reduces leading and makes the gun easier to clean afterwards. I use either Lee Case Lube or Hodgdon SpitBall, with no particular preference to either, both work well.

Its OK to load and cap all six chambers when target shooting at a range, when the revolver will be fired immediately. In the field never load more than FIVE chambers. Always carry the hammer down on the EMPTY one for safety! The substantial hammer notches between the chambers of the Ruger Old Army are much better than the puny “pins” on original Colts, but Sturm, Ruger cautions to load 5 only, and I agree with their advice.

Black powder folklore says pure lead is a must for bullets. It is best, if you can get it, but certainly not essential. I routinely use backstop scrap from .38 wadcutter and .22 rimfire bullets, 8 BHN, containing 1.5% antimony and 0.3% tin. I expect a good load to group 2″ at 25 yards. My best ones do better.

With black powder, a consistent bore condition is critical for accuracy. Serious black powder competitors dry brush the bore and chambers when they reload. An effective lube such as Hodgdon Spit-Ball combined with Ox-Yoke Wonder Wads also helps you shoot longer before needing to clean. Using Hodgdon Pyrodex rather than black also helps. I have found that when using Pyrodex I can fire 60 continuous shots or more without brushing and the last group is as good as the first.

The top black powder competitors buy as much of one lot of powder as they can safely (and legally) store and work up their most accurate loads with it. Once they find an accurate load, they measure velocities, but only to provide a working baseline. They emphasize that it does no good whatever to measure velocities while working up a load unless groups are concurrently shot on paper, because uniform velocity does not guarantee accuracy. Velocity measurement is most valuable after an accurate load has been found, because it defines a measurable parameter and gives at least some chance of being able to approximate the same good results.

Pyrodex is more consistent from batch to batch than black powder, and I prefer it for target loads because it seems more consistently accurate and produces less fouling. It is also more readily available in some areas than black powder because it can be shipped and stored under the same regulations which apply to smokeless propellant. Pyrodex is NOT noncorrosive, and requires the same attention to cleaning that black powder does. The cleaning methods and materials which work with black powder are also effective with Pyrodex, and vice-versa.

Cleaning a black powder gun isn’t the drudgery you have heard about. There are plenty of easy-to-use black powder cleaners for those who shun water. If you don’t want to mix your own “Ed’s Red” and want a store bought product, you can get fine results cleaning black powder guns with any of the various “waterless hand cleaners” sold in hardware and auto parts stores. These have an appearance and consistency like mayonnaise and are an emulsion of petroleum distillates, water, soap and lanolin, occasionally with surfactants or anti-oxidants added.

Never use brands which contain pumice or other abrasives! Brands such as “Go-Jo” or “Goop” sell for about $2 per 14-oz. can, and work extremely well.

To clean the revolver, remove the cylinder and unscrew the nipples. This enables the wire core of a bore brush to clear the nipple threads so the bristles will reach clear to the bottom of the chambers. Scrub the chambers well with hand cleaner on the brush. Then pack each chamber with paper towel, patches or tissue and use a 2″ long, 5/32″ punch to push the packing out. This leaves the chambers bright, clean, and lightly lubricated to prevent rust.

Scrub the bore with a bore brush and hand cleaner and wipe dry with patches. Use a toothbrush similarly to scrub the frame crevices and nipple seats. Wipe the exterior dry with a rag, lightly oil the cylinder pin, gas ring and ratchet, place a drop or two in the hammer pivot and reassemble. This cleaning method is effective with both black powder and Pyrodex and is quick and easy.

Use the waterless hand cleaner while at the range to clean your hands after a shooting session. It also makes a good expedient lubricant over round balls.

So, who says cap & ball revolvers are too much trouble? If you try it my way, you’ll be convinced that they do most sporting jobs as well as a modern cartridge gun!



About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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