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So you want a cap and ball revolver?

Discussion in 'Blackpowder' started by Gatofeo, Sep 24, 2006.

  1. Gatofeo

    Gatofeo Member

    Feb 17, 2004
    Remote Utah desert
    In checking my previous posts in The High Road, I could find no entry for this submission I wrote some time ago. Lately, I've noticed a few folks asking which cap and ball revolver to buy. I think this might be helpful for them.
    If possible, post it as a Sticky so it remains at the top.
    Many thanks. --- Gatofeo

    So you want a cap and ball revolver?
    Here are some points to ponder:
    (Note: This is long, so print it out for future reference)

    SIGHTS --- If you want one because of its historical context, then you'll get a revolver with crude sights (unless you buy one of the Remingtons with adjustable sights, which is historically incorrect). But don't despair, even with the rudimentary sights a cap and ball revolver can do some fine shooting.

    CALIBER --- I have both .36 and .44 caliber revolvers and suggest that, for the beginner, he buy a .44-caliber. Hornady and Speer sell balls of .451 .454 and .457 inch, and they are readily available.
    However, the two manufacturers only make a .375 inch ball for the .36 caliber. I prefer a .380-inch ball for better sealing in the chamber and improved accuracy. If you want .380 inch balls, you’ll have to cast them yourself or special-order them from a black powder supplier.
    If you buy a .44, you won’t have the problem of special-ordering balls or making your own. However, if tomorrow Hornady or Speer introduce a .380 inch ball, then I’d recommend the .36-caliber because it uses less powder yet is plenty accurate and powerful for targets, tin cans and small game such as rabbits and grouse.

    BUY A STEEL FRAME --- Brass frames may look pretty (I think they look gaudy and childish, personally) but they don't hold up as well as the steel frames. Also, I've seen few brass-framed revolvers that were truly well-made. Most are clunkers. Yes, there are clunker steel-framed guns out there but not nearly as many as brass-framed ones. Spend the extra few bucks and get a steel-framed gun.

    PURPOSE --- Plan to use it for hunting? Frankly, most cap and ball revolvers are not suitable for hunting anything larger than coyotes.
    The Ruger Old Army has taken deer, when a conical bullet is used, but you have to get awfully close.
    The Walker and Dragoon revolvers have the power but lack the necessary accurate sights. A notch in the nose and a brass bead for a front sight are non-adjustable and not conducive to the fine accuracy required for hunting.
    I don't recommend any cap and ball revolver for hunting anything larger than a coyote, and even then only at close range.
    For target work, it used to be said that the .44 was king. But the .36 caliber can hold its own with the .44 caliber out to 50 yards. The trouble is, to my knowledge no one has ever made a .36 cap and ball revolver with modern, adjustable sights. I wish they would, I'd stand in line to buy one. The best that can be done is to buy a Remington .36 and add adjustable sights.
    Or, if you'd rather not go through all that trouble, buy a Remington .44 with adjustable sights for use on the range, or buy the world's most modern cap and ball revolver, the Ruger Old Army .44-caliber with adjustable sights.

    HOW ACCURATE? --- Just how accurate is a properly loaded cap and ball revolver? They’ll amaze you. At 25 yards, from a benchrest, it’s not uncommon for a fixed-sight revolver to put six lead balls into half a playing card. Some will do better. My Uberti-made Remington 1858 will often put six balls into a 1-1/2 inch or 2-inch circle from a benchrest. Most cap and ball revolvers will shoot tighter than a modern semi-auto pistol, and give a target-grade .38 Special a close run for its money out to 25 yards.

    EASE OF MAINTENANCE --- A stainless steel revolver is best for easy maintenance. The Remington has fewer parts than the Colt, but is not quite as easily reassembled in my experience. You have to grasp the mainspring with pliers to wrestle it in. No big deal, just a minor aggravation. The Colt disassembles more easily than the Remington design but has more parts to lose or misplace.

    CLEANING --- Cap and ball revolvers require cleaning far more quickly than a smokeless powder revolver. Black powder and Pyrodex are corrosive, as may be other approved propellants. In any case, all of the approved propellants create far more fouling than smokeless powder and will gum the action much sooner.
    In a damp climate like New Orleans or Seattle, you may find rust on it the day after firing, because of the salts or perchlorates in the propellant.
    Much of the time, you can get by with just cleaning the cylinder inside and out (remove the nipples and clean them as well), cleaning the bore and wiping fouling off from the frame, hammer and loading lever.
    However, eventually you’ll need to clean the guts of that revolver as fouling builds. To do this, you’ll need to completely disassemble the revolver down to its last screw and tiny part, clean each part thoroughly, oil or grease as required and reassemble.
    Many smokeless powder shooters have ruined their cap and ball revolvers by neglecting to clean them, or clean them thoroughly. If you’re lazy or procrastinate when it comes to cleaning smokeless powder guns, then a cap and ball revolver is not for you.
    Owning a cap and ball revolver requires a little extra care --- almost immediately --- but with the proper cleaning equipment and knowledge it’s not an onerous task. Most of the time, a cap and ball revolver can be quick-cleaned in 20 or 30 minutes, or detail-cleaned in an hour or 90 minutes.
    Some shooters just can’t handle this. If you’re one of them, cap and ball revolvers are not for you.

    I prefer hot, soapy water for cleaning my revolvers. At the range, in my fishing tackle box of goodies I keep a small spray bottle with a mix of water, a few drops of Dawn dishwashing detergent (the dish kind, not the automatic washer kind) and a little rubbing alcohol. On a patch, this cuts the grease and fouling nicely.
    At home, I use a plastic tub of hot, soapy water with a bar of Ivory soap. Ivory’s great because it floats and you can always find it to work up a lather on your brush.
    Collect a variety of brushes, from tiny to toothpaste-sized. The smaller brushes are often found in gourmet cooking stores. They make short work of fouling inside the frame.
    After cleaning with soapy water, rinse with hot water from the tap. Shake off excess water. Run a dry patch in the bore and chambers to remove all traces of water.
    Place the parts in a shallow baking pan. Set the oven to 150 or less, put the panful of parts in, and leave the oven door cracked open to allow moisture to escape. After 20 or 30 minutes, retrieve the parts and coat liberally with olive oil or Crisco while still warm. Don’t be afraid to reapply later. Steel will soak up a lot of lubricant but that’s good. Allow the parts to soak up lubricant overnight or a few days then reassemble.
    Don’t forget to run lubricant down the bore and in the chambers, to discourage rust.
    Pack the innards workings with a little Crisco or my favorite, CVA Grease Patch. This will keep help the action shrug off fouling that accumulates from shooting. Put some grease on the rear of the cylinder too, where the hand bears against the ratchets. Coat the sides of the hammer, and the hammer channel in the frame, lightly with grease.
    If you rely solely on oil on these parts, it will soon be dried by the hot blast of firing and parts will drag. Grease lasts longer than oil in this application. Use only natural greases, not any that are petroleum-based!

    LUBRICANT --- Avoid petroleum-based lubricants such as chassis grease, WD-40, motor oil, STP, etc. Petroleum products tend to create a hard, tarry fouling that clogs the rifling and moving parts. Instead, use natural greases and oils such as lard, tallow, vegetable oil (safflower, peanut, canola, etc.), Crisco, etc. My preference is a mixture of mutton tallow (sold by Dixie Gun Works), beeswax and canning paraffin. Sharp-eyed readers will recognize that canning paraffin IS a petroleum product. It is, but it apparently lacks the offending ingredient of other petroleum products. See LOADING PROCEDURE below.

    EASE OF LOADING --- In my experience, the Colt is more forgiving during the loading procedure. If you can't quite get a ball down past the mouth of the chamber, because of an accidental overcharge, you can remove the ball by firing the Colt without its barrel assembly.
    Remove the barrel assembly by tapping the wedge from right to left all the way.
    B. Place caps on all loaded chambers to prevent flashover and deftly rotate the cylinder by hand and cock the hammer to bring the offending cylinder under the cocked hammer.
    Obviously, you must be very careful when doing this. Keep your hand and fingers away from the front of the cylinder.
    C. Fire the ball out of the cylinder to clear the chamber.
    I've done this a number of times.
    If you can't seat the ball in a Remington, you have to remove the cylinder, remove the nipple, then use a toothpick or brass pick (never a spark-producing metal) to pick out some of the powder. With some of the powder out, replace the nipple, return the cylinder into the frame, reseat the ball deeper and recap it.
    The Remington has more clearance between the frame and cylinder than the earlier Colts, so you can more easily load conical bullets. The Colt 1860 .44 and 1861 .36 have even more room for conicals.

    LOADING PROCEDURE --- The procedure is identical for all makes of cap and ball revolvers.
    A. Snap two caps on each nipple, before loading, to blow all dust, oil or crud from the chambers.
    B. Use black powder if you can get it. My experiences have shown it beats Pyrodex for accuracy.
    C. Use a well-greased wad between the ball and powder, and seat it firmly on the powder before seating the ball. The rammer should come to its full stop, or nearly so, when seating the wad.
    I lubricate my felt wads with a mix of 1 part canning paraffin, 1 part mutton tallow and 1 part beeswax. With a kitchen scale measure 200/200/100 grams of the ingredients and melt them in a quart Mason jar, placed in 3 or 4 inches of boiling water. Mix the ingredients well with a clean stick or disposable chopstick and allow cooling at room temperature.

    Incidentally, the above mutton tallow/beeswax/paraffin lubricant which has come to be known as Gatofeo No. 1 Lubricant is now sold by Big Iron Barrel Works. Greased hard felt wads, lubricated with Gatofeo No. 1 Lubricant, are also sold. Visit its website at http://www.bigironbarrels.com/products.html

    Now, get a clean tuna can. Add two or three Tablespoons of hardened lubricant to it, heat it at a low temperature, and when the lubricant is melted add 100 wads. Stir the wads with the chopstick to ensure they all soak up the lubricant. Allow to cool at room temperature and snap a pet food can over the can.
    The paraffin is crucial to this recipe. It significantly stiffens the wads, helping them to scrape out the fouling.
    D. Use a well-oversized ball. For the .36 this means .380-inch, for the .44 it means .454 or .457 inch balls. Forget what the manuals recommend (.375 and .451 inch) and use the larger balls, they're more accurate. Why? When you ram the balls into the chamber, the larger ones create a wider bearing surface for the rifling to grip. This aids accuracy.
    E. Seat the ball firmly on the seated wad. There must be NO air space between the powder, wad or ball.
    F. Use a lead ball. In my experience, conical bullets are not nearly as accurate as a lead ball. Plus, they are often more expensive unless you cast your own from scrap lead.
    G. Use proper-fitting caps. Some nipples require No. 10 caps, others require No. 11 caps. Initially, buy both to determine which fits all the way down on your nipples. Before seating, pinch the cap into an oval shape so it clings to the nipple better. That unusable tin of caps may be used before loading, to clear the nipples by firing a cap on each nipple (see A above).

    STRENGTH --- This is largely a moot point when you're talking about the use of black powder and Pyrodex.
    However, Hodgon 777 generates higher pressures than black powder when measured volume-to-volume against black powder. For this reason, if you use Hodgdon 777, reduce the load recommended for black powder by 15 percent.
    If you plan to use nothing but 777 powder, then the Remington would be better. It is definitely stronger than the Colt. But as I've said, if you’re using black powder or Pyrodex, then the matter of strength is moot. Incidentally, Hodgdon does NOT recommend 777 in any brass-framed revolver. It’s stout stuff!

    QUIRKS --- There are certain peculiarities of the Colt and Remington.
    The Colt has a large cylinder pin, with circular grooves in it, to collect fouling and hold grease. The Remington has a small diameter cylinder pin without grooves. Generally, the Colt fires more shots than the Remington before the cylinder begins to drag from fouling built up on the pin.
    The Remington is much easier to sight on a target. Its square groove in the top of the frame, and square front sight, line up well.
    Both of my Remingtons came with unusually tall front sights, which had to be filed down a lick at a time at the range until the sights hit to point of aim.
    The Colt employs a wedge to keep the barrel assembly attached to the frame. This must hold them together tightly. If the wedge is not tight in the frame, accuracy suffers.
    The Remington is a solid-frame and no such adjustment is required.
    In time, particularly with heavy loads, the Colt's wedge will be battered narrower and no longer hold the barrel assembly as tightly as it once did. A new wedge is required, or you can put the wedge on an anvil and carefully widen it again by a few taps with a heavy hammer. A lot of checking is required with this method. Don't overdo it.
    The Remington is pretty much trouble-free but it doesn’t balance or point as well as the Colt.

    BALANCE & POINTABILITY --- The Colt revolvers win hands down. Even today, the Colt 1851 or 1861 Navies are considered the best-balanced revolvers ever produced. You can easily develop a point-shooting instinct with them that is amazing. The Remington feels massive in the hands and doesn't point nearly as well.

    ACCURACY --- For a long time, the Remington was credited with being far more accurate than the Colt. In more recent years, shooters have begun to understand that the wedge in the Colt must be in tight for it to be accurate. A well-made Colt pattern can be just as accurate as the Remington. I shoot both and have proven this to myself many times.

    SAFETY FIRST! --- Wear hearing protection and impact resistant glasses whenever shooting. While shooting, keep all black powder and caps behind you, away from the sparks your revolver produces.
    Do NOT stand to the side or let someone stand beside you when firing. Gases, lead shavings, hot lubricant and other debris are ejected to the side when firing.
    Also, I cannot stress enough that these revolvers are not toys. They were used with deadly effect for about 45 years (1836 to the early 1880s) and are still deadly.
    The late gun writer Elmer Keith, who was taught how to use cap and ball sixguns by Civil War veterans, wrote, “For its size and weight, nothing is so deadly as a pure lead ball driven at 1,000 feet per second.”
    The ghosts of millions would sigh and agree.
    Give a cap and ball sixgun the same respect you would any modern firearm. They are not playthings.

    CARRY A GRAIN OF SALT --- Some of what is related at the range, and on the internet, is exaggeration, fabrication, unsubstantiated or downright dangerous. Some of the things I've listed here are opinion. Others may disagree with me, and they’re entitled, but I base the above on my own experience.
    Sooner or later, some jackleg will tell you, "Ya know, if ya put a pinch of smokeless powder in the chamber first, it'll shoot cleaner." Beware of this person; he's a moron. Cap and ball revolvers are NOT designed for smokeless powder. Period.

    SUMMARY --- what you buy largely boils down to personal preference. I like the Remington for its ease of target shooting, and the Colt for its handling qualities. I shoot both.
    If you really get bitten by the bug, as I have, you’ll end up owning more than one cap and ball revolver.

    Shooting a cap and ball revolver is work, but it’s fun to see how the old timers fared with these pistols. Keep the components in a fishing tackle box and buy a box larger than you think you’ll need, because sure enough you’ll buy more accessories.
    Store the powder and caps in a cool, dry place such as a spare room, but not near each other. Avoid storage areas with high humidity or heat fluctuations (garage, shed, vehicle, etc.). If you have children or childish adults in the house, keep the powder and caps locked in separate containers.

    Enjoy your cap and ball revolver. It’s taken me 35 years to learn what I’ve related to you. I wish I’d had a primer like this when I started back in 1970.

    Copyright 2006 by Gatofeo. Posted by the author.
    Contact Gatofeo at Gatofeo@cut.net
  2. hexidismal

    hexidismal Participating Member

    Sep 3, 2006
    Ulster County, New York
    While I doubt I will ever be buying a cap and ball revolver, it's still pretty interesting stuff. As far as I can tell, this is a very well written introduction to them. Thanks for the content Gatofeo.
  3. sm

    sm member

    Dec 22, 2002
    Between black coffee, and shiftn' gears

    Excellent! Thank you for doing this.

    Moderators please sticky this and add to THR Library.

  4. Dave Markowitz

    Dave Markowitz Mentor

    Dec 24, 2002
    Plymouth Meeting, PA
    Great post. I second the motion that it should be made a sticky.
  5. Plink

    Plink Participating Member

    Apr 5, 2006
    Great post! Definately sticky material.
  6. Shawnee

    Shawnee member

    Oct 17, 2006
    Along "That Dark and Bloody River"
    Newbie questions 1851 Colts

    Hi UglyCat (et al)...

    First, many thanks for the "primer" on C&B revolvers! Though quite familiar with "modern" handguns the C&Bs are a totally new venture for me.
    I bought (from Cabela's) a Colt 1851 .44 cal. "Civilian" revolver made by Pietta (and haven't fired it yet). The salesman also sold me Pyrodex pellets, Cabela's lubed over-powder wads, some other lube, .451 Hornady round balls, and a nipple wrench.
    Are there conical bullets that can be used in these handguns? If so, what is the source and how do they compare to the round balls?

    I liked the feel of the .36 cal. 1851 (a tad better than the heft of the .44) but chose the .44 because the salesman said the Pyrodex "pellets" do not come in .36 caliber and that the .36 is more prone to fouling and harder to clean. Would like to hear anyone's thoughts on those "factoids", as I would not hesitate to add a .36 (1851) to my "collection".

    Thanks All for any information and opinion and shared experience !!
  7. Tommygunn

    Tommygunn Senior Member

    Jun 14, 2006
    Morgan County, Alabama
    I haven't noticed any difference between cleaning a .36 and a .44. Blackpowder gets everywhere and all BP guns need thorough cleaning to prevent rust.
    I haven't used those pyrodex pellets and don't know how easy they make cleaning, but I think regular Pyrodex P is a bit harder than normal BP.
  8. dwave

    dwave Participating Member

    Jan 28, 2006
    The wonderful United States
    I own both a .36 1851 and a .44 1858 and I can say that both clean up the same way, only difference is the way the internals come apart. As for the pellets, I personally would stick to loose powder anyways. It is cheaper and you can work with it to find the best load for your gun. Different guns like different amounts of powder when it comes to accuracy.
  9. 1KPerDay

    1KPerDay Elder

    Jan 19, 2006
    Happy Valley, UT
    Question about natural vs. petroleum lube: is it something about the interaction between black powder and petroleum that creates the hard fouling? Certainly high-quality petroleum lubricants have been used with much success for many years in smokeless guns... or are you advocating natural lubricants on every gun? I can't imagine smearing crisco on my Glock...:D
  10. dwave

    dwave Participating Member

    Jan 28, 2006
    The wonderful United States
    To answer the question from my point of view, I only use the natural lubes with Black Powder guns. I have had it happen to me when I used regular oil on my gun. It created a hard residue on my gun. I believe it has to do with chemicals in the oil reacting with the BP residue from firing. Smokeless powder is made from different ingredients and doesn't react to oil like BP. When I use my smokeless guns, its oil for lube. My BP guns I use Crisco over the ball and Bore Butter for the gun lube.
  11. 1KPerDay

    1KPerDay Elder

    Jan 19, 2006
    Happy Valley, UT
    Cool. Thanks.:cool:
  12. dragongoddess

    dragongoddess member

    Aug 10, 2006
    Way Way out in West Texas
    So what lube does one use with pyrodex
  13. dwave

    dwave Participating Member

    Jan 28, 2006
    The wonderful United States
    Same as Black Powder. I use Bore Butter for lube and Crisco for over the chambers.
  14. provgencon

    provgencon New Member

    Nov 1, 2006
    First BP gun(s).... a pretty pair of fluted 1860 44cal Army, by uberti

    I've been digging around the web for answers, and better questions. i came across a website that offered "conversions" to use 45LC "cowboy" rounds( whatever they are) ... any thoughts? These things aint cheap... cost more than the gun itself.
    Also, any thoughts for the earlier question concerning conical bullets? wondering if any manufacturers have saboted rounds for the 1860 army's...
    Any suggestions in Literature for Beginners of B/P Firarms?
    thank you
  15. highlander 5

    highlander 5 Senior Member

    Sep 15, 2006
    the "conversions" are cylinders that fit your revolver that can use
    metallic cartridges. Friend of mine converted his 36 cal C&B to fire 38 S&W (not spl) AFAK it works but can't swear to accuracy.
    I don't own a C&B revolver but if you should decide to go the conversion route I would stick to BP,pyrodex or of the other BP subsitutes for your loads as not to end up blowing up you or your pistol with smokeless powder loads. Oh just one other thing check bore size so that you can match bullet dia for cartridges to bore dia.
  16. 1KPerDay

    1KPerDay Elder

    Jan 19, 2006
    Happy Valley, UT
    "Cowboy" or "Cowboy Action" ammunition is generally loaded to a lower level than the other factory ammunition.
  17. cdm15

    cdm15 New Member

    Nov 12, 2006
    1860 pietta army

    Great article on BP-Revolvers. I have one I recently bought and I've been wondering if those plugs to take the place of BP work and how you change the qrains,or if you can buy them with different grains. I like mine now but it is a bit tiering loading all the time. Mine needs 12-15 grains-its a 44. How high can I really go on grains? They recommend 12-15, I've shot it already and it seems ok but I wish it was more powerful. My target shots are at the top right and I have to aim down and to the left 1" from the target at 15yrds.
    This is on a 25yrd target. Hay thanks for any input Don-
  18. w_houle

    w_houle Active Member

    Jan 13, 2008
    Junction City, KS
    Something you could add to this is the anti seize compound that you use on your spark plugs is good to use on your nipples
  19. Pancho

    Pancho Participating Member

    Oct 23, 2007
    Southwestern, Ohio out in the country about 40 mil
    W, As a new member you did what a lot of people don't do and that is to read the stickie at the beginning. There is a lot of great info there. Anti-seize would work just fine for nipples. I've got some anti-seize that was sold just for muzzleloading breechplugs and I bet there's little or no difference
  20. Pulp

    Pulp Participating Member

    Aug 30, 2007
    Valliant, OK
    Very good article. But, oddly enough I know of one feller that removes the grips then dunks the whole revolver in a 5 gallon bucket of WD-40, then lets them drip dry. Another feller uses white lithium grease for over bullet lube. Neither has had none of the problems usually associated with petroleum products.
    Me, I'm like y'all. It's Bore Butter, Crisco, Ballistol for me.

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