The cap and ball revolver is at its heart a single or double action revolver that uses loose black powder, a lead projectile, and a percussion cap on a nipple for each chamber on the gun and is normally loaded from the front of the cylinder via a loading lever. These guns were the most technologically advanced for their time and were in widespread use from its invention in 1836 up until cartridge revolvers became more widespread in the mid 1870s. Many original guns survive today as well as many modern replicas by Uberti, Pietta, Colt, and others and are still very useful handguns.
There are two main styles of percussion revolvers available today. Colt and Remington styles. Others, like the Starr, Rogers and Spencer, the LaMat, and fine European revolvers are also encountered as well but by far Colts and Remingtons dominate today like they did during the American Civil War.
Colt- Many models of Colt, including versions that never existed in the 19th century, feature an open top action in which the frame is not a solid piece and the barrel is held onto a large cylinder pin via a spring loaded wedge. The sights are normally crude with a rear notch cut into the single action hammer and a bead front sight. Popular models include the Colt Model 1849, 1851 Navy, and 1860 Army revolvers. Colt revolvers are said to be the most naturally point able but are prone to getting spent caps into the mechanism leading to problems. The nose of the hammer may be filled in with fillers like JB weld to stop this from happening.
Remington- Remington revolvers seem more conventional compared to Colts to modern eyes. They all feature a solid frame with a strap over the cylinder and a rear sight as a groove in the frame itself with a blade front sight. The most popular model today is the 1858 Remington, which never existed by that name. A patent date on the Remington New Model Army has a patent date of 1858 and the false name stuck. Smaller belt models and pocket models are also available. The Remington’s design allows it to function even when spent percussion caps get into the mechanism and the gun’s cylinder can be easily removed and replaced by simply dropping the loading lever, pulling the cylinder pin out, and lifting the hammer slightly.
Today’s enthusiasts prefer solid lead ball ammunition though in the 19th century these guns would have been carried with minie bullets loaded. Both shoot well but the lead ball will give more velocity as it is lighter in weight. Slightly over sized bullets are normally used to prevent chain firing of all the chambers at once. The fuel is black powder or an approved substitute. Since these guns are percussion ignition they are basically waterproof and are not finicky with substitute propellants like flintlock guns are.
Because black powder leaves behind alot of residue, enthusiasts often find it necessary to put grease over the seated bullets or a greased felt wad under the bullet to keep the action lubricated in use. Standard percussion caps are used and the No. 10 variety is best in my experience as they fit tightly and won’t fall off the nipples of each cylinder.
1) The single action hammer has two positions. First click is the half cock position. Draw the hammer to half cock. This allows the cylinder to turn with your hand.
2) Pour a measured amount of gun powder down the chamber and place the lead ball or bullet on top. Then rotate the cylinder below the loading lever. Unhinge the loading lever and press the bullet into the chamber until firmly on top of the powder.
3) Repeat to load all the chambers and you may elect to use wads or grease.
4) There is a tube with a hole in it in the back of each chamber called a nipple. Place your percussion cap over each one.
5) Lower the hammer then pull it back slightly to rotate the cylinder to one of the safety notches or pins between the cylinders so you can carry on all six cylinders safely. Do not carry your gun with the hammer on a loaded chamber.
Calibers and Uses
Today there are three common percussion revolver calibers.
The following powder charges are from my personal experience only and powder charges is something you need to experiment with for yourself. These loads from my experience are from steel framed guns. Guns with brass frames will eventually warp with these types of loads and need to be lightly loaded.
The 31 was designed for concealable pistols like the Colt 1849 Pocket model and the Remington Pocket Model of 1865. These guns were low powered but thought highly enough to be issued to the first armed police in the US. Baltimore PD outfitted each of their men with a Colt 1849. It shoots a 50 grain ball or 70 grain bullet at about 600-700 feet per second at best and is best used to dispatch small game at close ranges. The small chambers really limits how much powder you can put behind the bullet and limits its effectiveness for much else. From personal experience, only about ten of powder can be put behind a projectile in these small guns.
The 36 was the US Navy’s caliber at the time as they were more concerned with shooting men than horses, though most 36s ended up in Army hands here in the US though countless nations adopted the Colt Navy model 1851 as standard issue. It is more powerful than the 31 but is a gun that still carries well. It shoots an 80 grain .375 inch ball or 130 grain bullet to about 1000 feet per second depending on powder charge. From my personal experience, twenty grains of powder is a good fair charge for the 36 though more could be put behind the projectile. These guns are most useful on small game and varmints and are quite accurate on the target range.
The US Army adopted a 44 caliber revolver so a horse may be dispatched at distance with little trouble and they proved just as good at downing men. It is a further step up in power from the 36 naval caliber but is normally little more powerful than a well loaded 38 Special. It shoots a 200 grain bullet or 140 grain lead ball to about 1000 feet per second. The famous Colt Walker that saw limited use in the Mexican War in the 1840s digested some sixty grains of powder over a bullet and was the most powerful handgun until the 357 Magnum was released in 1935. A more typical service charge, in my experience, is about thirty grains of powder. The 44 is a good target range caliber and has been used with much success on medium sized game like deer and boar within reasonable ranges.
While the cap and ball revolver’s days of combat are long over I dare say they remain useful and above all enjoyable. It is up to you to try them for yourself.