Cap & Ball Sixgun: 1930 Advice


March 13, 2010, 07:38 PM
I have a complete set of American Rifleman magazines dating from 1929 to the latest issue, about 900 issues. Reading these old issues often reveals something interesting.
The Dope Bag column of the May 1930 issue (p. 41) caught my eye : LOADS FOR A CAP-AND-BALL.
A reader, J.F.D., wrote to ask what loads are suggested for a Remington .44 cap and ball revolver. Remember, this is for an original Remington; reproductions were not produced until nearly 40 years later.
Major Julian S. Hatcher responded to J.F.D. with responses that remain interesting 80 years after they were published. Among the most interesting points:

This marks the earliest record I’ve encountered where a greased, felt wad was suggested for use between the ball and powder of a cap and ball revolver. Prior to this 1930 report, the earliest reference I’ve found was Elmer Keith’s 1955 book, “Sixguns.”
Born in 1899, Keith was 13 when Civil War veterans showed him how to load his original Colt 1851 Navy. To my knowledge, Keith never said where he learned to use a greased felt wad.

The lubricant that Hatcher suggests is interesting: Vaseline and paraffin or beeswax. Today’s experienced black powder shooters prefer natural greases and oils, rather than those based on petroleum. Experience has shown that petroleum lubricants, when used with black powder, often produce a hard, tarry fouling. Natural greases and oils keep fouling soft and easily removed by each shot, or with a damp patch.

King’s Semi-Smokeless powder is mentioned and recommended. It was once popular for old shotguns and target rifles originally designed for black powder. King’s Semi-Smokeless was made to measure in the same volume as black powder, and produce equal pressures, but with less smoke and fouling. It was discontinued about 1936, probably because America was swinging into pre-World War II production and the older, black powder guns had fallen out of favor.
Today, there is no smokeless powder safe to use in a cap and ball revolver, even revolvers of modern design and materials.

Hatcher advises not to use black powder granulation smaller than FFG, but cap and ball revolver shooters have been using FFFG granulation for decades, with improved burning characteristics. Interestingly, in “Sixguns” Keith suggests FFFG grade for revolvers of .28 and .31 caliber, and FFG for those .36 caliber and larger.
Myself, I’ve had excellent results in all bore sizes, from .31 to .44, with FFFG and I believe that most experienced cap and ball revolver shooters would agree it’s the grade of choice. But if you can’t find FFFG, then FFG will certainly work well.

The need for plenty of lubrication is noted by Hatcher, and that remains true today. Not only does the lubricant ease the passage of the projectile down the bore, but excess lubricant tends to get sprayed onto and into areas covered with black powder fouling, keeping the fouling soft and reducing drag and binding of moving parts.
The best lubricant remains some type of natural soft grease, such as Crisco, lard, Bore Butter, mutton tallow or related blends. These soft greases are readily distributed with each shot, and don’t dry out from the heat of firing, as oils do.

Back to the 1930 inquiry from J.F.D. to The Dope Bag:
The reader notes that he’s been using Ideal (Lyman) 450225 conical and 451118 (.451 inch ball).
“I have used the latter (.451 inch ball) with good results with 40 grains FFG. Are there any other bullets that you would recommend?” J.F.D. wrote.
“Is FFFG black better than FFG? With the load mentioned above I got excessive fouling. I suppose this is due to an over charge rather than to the size of grain of the powder.
“Is there any smokeless powder that I could use, such as bulk smokeless?,” J.F.D. wrote

Major Julian S. Hatcher replied:
“The two Ideal bullets you are using are O.K. for your gun. Forty grains of black powder is a heavy load. You can use this or any smaller one with these bullets. As long as you use over 20 grains of powder. Do not use any smaller size than FFG.
“The only other powder I have tried for a gun of this kind is King’s Semismokeless. You might try 20 grains of FFG with this powder.
“The excessive fouling may be due to insufficient lubrication. Fouling with black powder is almost always severe under any conditions, and the only way to avoid having it bother you is to use a well-lubricated wad between your bullet and powder,” Hatcher wrote.
“To get good results with these guns, it is essential to use plenty of lubrication. One way to do this is to use greased shotgun wads, and another way is to use greased felt wads that you can make yourself out of an old hat or any other similar material. The felt should be soaked in an equal mixture of Vaseline and paraffin or beeswax.
“The use of these wads will greatly alleviate the fouling you obtained,” Hatcher replied.

This is now the earliest reference I’ve found to the use of greased, felt wads in cap and ball revolvers. Their use prior to this 1930 reference remains unknown, but it must have been common knowledge for some time before this date. Ideally, I’d like to discover a reference to greased felt wads in cap and ball revolvers in the Civil War, or earlier. We may never know when this practice began.

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March 13, 2010, 09:47 PM
as far as regarding the use of wads INSIDE the powder charge, those dont appear in print until after ww1. There is a theory that Keith was told about the use of lubricated wads in bp revolvers from civil war vets, but nobody has found a letter or piece of writing from elmer kieth veryifying it.

however as to lubrication of the bullet, colt did indeed see a problem with fouling of the barrel after prolonged shooting sessions, most likely as a result of military endurance testing. with the early patents for revolving rifles he has designs for several externally mounted lubricating devices for dispensing small amounts of lubricating oil upon the projectile during the loading sequence.
arguably its not known if they went past prototype stage. the Cody musuem wished to refrain from getting into a discussion upon the construction or rarity of them last year via email.
however it is known they never became government issue, or for sale to the public. hence the colt revolver manual postit note about powder, round ball, and nothing else int eh chamber.

March 13, 2010, 10:56 PM
The written description about some of the causes for the Sepoy rebellion - a.k.a. India's First War for Independence in 1857 mentions how the paper cartridges for the 1853 Enfield were going to be coated with pork lard or beef fat. Whether or not the greased paper was being used as a wad or patch, it shows that using grease and a carrier to deliver it into the bore was not a new idea to muzzle loading.
Maybe felt wasn't commonly affordable back in the old days but maybe greased leather or other materials that could be carriers saturated with grease were. So it doesn't really seem like felt is that big of a leap in technology but a material more contemporary with a more modern time period.
And just because the black powder gun just happens to be a revolver doesn't really make the fouling residue any different than with any other black powder gun.
Only the carrier material and the composition of the lubricant happens to be a little different depending on the individual circumstances. The practice seems to simply be a logical improvisation, at least using hindsight from our vantage point in history.
Weren't the paper cartridges issued for muskets and revolvers during the Civil War also coated with fat?
And if it gets shoved down the bore over the powder or when rammed then it becomes a type of lubed wad. So the practice here seemed to have been somewhat similar.

The final spark was provided by the reaction of Company officers to the controversy over the ammunition for new Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle. To load the new rifle, the sepoys had to bite the cartridge open. It was believed that the paper cartridges that were standard issue with the rifle were greased with lard (pork fat) which was regarded as unclean by Muslims, or tallow (beef fat), regarded as anathema to Hindus.[18] East India Company officers first became aware of the impending trouble over the cartridges in January, when they received reports of an altercation between a high-caste sepoy and a low-caste labourer at Dum Dum.[19] The labourer had taunted the sepoy that by biting the cartridge, he had himself lost caste, although at this time the Dum-Dum Arsenal had not actually started to produce the new round, nor had a single practice shot been fired.[20] On January 27, Colonel Richard Birch, the Military Secretary, ordered that all cartridges issued from depots were to be free from grease, and that sepoys could grease them themselves using whatever mixture "they may prefer".[21] This however, merely caused many sepoys to be convinced that the rumours were true and that their fears were justified.

Jim K
March 13, 2010, 11:59 PM
The Wikipedia article is correct but a bit misleading. The cartridge for the Enfield, like American paper cartridges for the rifle-musket, was torn (usually with the teeth) to allow the powder to be poured down the barrel, then the paper was broken or bitten open and the bullet forced out of the cartridge and rammed down. The cartridge paper was never loaded into the barrel, either as a wad or as a patch; it was discarded.

The grease to which the article refers was in the grease grooves of the bullet, not smeared on the outside of the cartridge, but of course would be touched in loading the bullet. I seem to recall that the lubricant, supposedly either beef or pork fat, was neither, though regardless of what it was, it was what the native soldiers believed that was important.


March 14, 2010, 12:10 AM
Do you know if the paper was discarded before the U.S. military issued revolver cartridges were rammed?

I also wonder if it was common practice to load using any lubricants whether it was bear grease, whale oil, or whatever. I'm not sure if the common fur trapper or frontier era practice was to load using a patch along with their ball or not, but some sort of lubed wadding must have been used when necessary even if the lube was just used to coat the bore. So I don't think that the practice of loading with the benefit of lubricants and coating the bore with some was totally unheard of.

March 14, 2010, 12:49 AM
I am confident, that once the discovery of reduced and softened Fowling was understood to be possible with Animal or Vegetable Oils or Greases, as saturated thin fabric or fiberous Wads, as 'Pills' or as may be, the advantages would have been appreciated by anyone who had much occasion to Shoot...and, word would have spread.

Seems odd that we can not find much for Historic reference on this.

March 14, 2010, 05:40 AM
Why would they coat the paper with tallow at all if they were going to just throw it away?
Could it have also been applied to the paper cartridge as a waterproofing agent?

March 14, 2010, 01:45 PM
I don't think many if any would have used a grease wad between powder and ball or bullet in the early days or even needed one if they did exist. To much grease. Only lubed bullets or lube over ball.

One reason is that civilians only fired maybe a couple shots a week or so to put food on the table. Fouling just wasn't a problem. If they had grease on the powder it would ruin the powder sitting loaded in a day or two. And most of the time their guns were kept loaded. For if your hunting you didn't carry an unloaded gun. And if you did kill some game you would clean and reload right after in case something else came along. And if not you would bring the gun home loaded. And they didn't unload it for it wasn't easy to get or afford bullets and powder for most. Plus it was always ready for what ever if left loaded.
Many would just take the cap off and replace it with a hand carved wood cap that was oil soaked that fits tight on the nipple to seal out moisture till the next time the gun was needed. On the occasion that they did bring the gun home unloaded they cleaned it well and reloaded it again and put it away.

Even in civil war time it would have taken to much time to load another component that really wasn't needed. They had mini balls and scraper bullets to help with the fouling problem. Also you didn't live to long to fire to many shots. Only issued around 40 rounds in first place and took about 12 minutes to fire them all. speed was a priority.

Any way my point is that if you don't fire many rounds you just don't need the wad. And in days of old they didn't fire many rounds.
Plus I think they tend to make your gun a little more inaccurate for the gas pressure will blow out through the felt unevenly at the muzzle.

March 15, 2010, 09:04 AM
Great write up Gatofeo, thanks.

Colt was aware of the importance of lube. The first Dragoon molds did not incorporate a lube groove in the conical bullets. This was soon changed to have a single groove and later a two groove mold was introduced.

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