by William F. Rothschild
I have to start this article with a disclaimer. Firearms law is almost always a mess to figure out. If you are reading this, you most likely are a law abiding American gun owner or potential gun owner, and you very possibly have no idea what is legal and what is not legal regarding guns in your state. There is a lot of misinformation out there and you have to be careful. This article is not intended to inform anyone about how to skirt their local gun laws. It is meant to give you information on what may be legal for you if you are stuck in a local jurisdiction where one politically motivated individual or department is costing people their right to own a handgun. The BATFE recently released a top ten frequently asked questions we will be covering here soon, and one of the questions is about guns like the ones in this article, that are not classified as guns by the federal government, and therefore, under federal law, legal for everyone to own.
I have heard dozens of stories where two guys living across the street from each other have vastly different access to guns. In many states the ability to purchase a handgun is up to your local police department. Often these departments are run by political appointees, and sometimes that appointee got their job by agreeing to do the will of the politician above them. They are also sometimes just one of the brainwashed misinformed masses who believe that less guns equals less crime.
Regardless of the reason, it adds up to the same thing. You just can’t get that foolish permit to purchase a handgun. If you already owned a gun or were able to make one yourself (which is not a crime under federal and many state laws), it would be perfectly legal for you to own, shoot, and sometimes even carry a handgun. You just can’t buy one.
There is a long standing exception in federal firearms law for guns that were manufactured prior to 1898, and it includes all replicas of those guns that do not used fixed ammunition. This would include cap & ball percussion revolvers from the era of the Civil War until the mid 1870s when the center fire cartridge revolver came into being. That is what this article is about, cap & ball, or percussion revolvers. They are extremely effective weapons and were carried by Wild Bill Hickock and many other gunfighters throughout the old west. They may look like antique mechanical marvels, but are just as effective today as they were back then. And modern propellants have made them even more so.
Call it a “loophole.” The federal government says that the guns that killed tens of thousands of Americans in the bloodiest war in our young history aren’t guns, and so they are therefore not included in any of the laws regarding the purchase and possession of firearms as we know them today. You don’t have to fill out a form 4473 to buy one. There is no NICS check. You can transfer them over state lines with no paperwork, and believe it or not, you can even order them in the mail, delivered right to your door like Netflix.
States laws however are a different story. Since most criminal statutes are handled at the state level anyway, the states have weighed in regarding percussion pistols and the rulings are as varied in their allowances and wording as any other gun law state to state. Some states exempt them entirely from firearms law like the federal government, loaded or not. Some states consider them guns if you even possess all of the components to load and fire them. Some states say you can carry them unloaded as much as you want. Some say unloaded can be loaded without fitting the percussion cap on the cylinder. Some states flat out call them guns and include them in with all other guns specifically in their state laws. Some cities have ordinances specifically on percussion firearms. And many states say simply nothing.
So the disclaimer I started this discussion with involves all of these issues. You are going to have to figure out if it is legal for you to own, load, shoot and carry a percussion revolver. My point here is to assume that many of you out there can legally own and shoot them, so this can serve as both an introduction and a sales pitch for the effectiveness of a standard, inexpensive cap & ball revolver dating its history to the time of Grant, Lee, and Lincoln.
This whole conversation would be a matter of semantics if the guns we are talking about here were not extremely effective weapons. The scope of “extremely effective” is subjective of course. Many would argue (including our resident gunfight expert Jim Higginbotham) that there are no “powerful handguns.” For my tests I’m comparing the effectiveness of cap & ball percussion pistols to real world examples, like a standard 9mm 124gr. .Federal Hydra Shock shot out of a 5″ service pistol. According to a website I use frequently, ballisticsbytheinch.com, the velocity of this round is 1115 fps, which when calculated by the formula energy equals one half of the mass times the velocity squared, comes out to 342 foot pounds of energy. I have also applied this to other examples.
|Name||Barrel Length||Projectile||Prop.||Gr.||Avg. Vel. (fps)||Energy (ft. lbs.)|
|’58 Rem.||8″||140gr. Roundball||Goex FFFG||25||780||189|
|’58 Rem.||8″||140gr. Roundball||Hodgdon 777||25||989||304|
|’58 Rem.||8″||140gr. Roundball||Hodgdon 777||40||1186||437|
|’60 Army||7 1/2″||140gr. Roundball||Hodgdon 777||40||1214||458|
|’51 Navy||5 1/2″||140gr. Roundball||Hodgdon 777||40||799||198|
|Walker .44||9″||140gr. Roundball||Hodgdon 777||60||1395||604|
|’60 Snubby||3″||140gr. Roundball||Hodgdon 777||40||685||145|
|Barrel Length||Projectile||Avg. Velocity (fps)||Energy (ft. lbs.)|
|9mm Federal||5″||124 gr. Hydra Shock||1115||342|
|.38 Special||3″||125 gr. Hydra Shock||831||192|
|.38 Special||6″||125 gr. Hydra Shock||1052||307|
|.38 Special||6″||125 gr. Hydra Shock||1052||307|
|.357 Magnum||3″||125 gr. Fed. JHP||1255||437|
|.357 Magnum||6″||125 gr. Fed. JHP||1702||803|
|.45 ACP||4″||230 gr. Hydra Shock||814||362|
I choose foot pounds over other methods of comparison because it is most easily measured, and I feel that it is the most accurate head to head comparison between two low velocity examples. As you can see from the formula, velocity is squared (multiplied times itself), so to compare a 3,000 fps rifle to a 1000 fps handgun is not so relevant when you think about stopping power, one shot stops, penetration through clothing and other issues.
But head to head, 124gr. in the 9mm vs. 140gr. in our revolvers here, and 1115fps. vs. 750-1400fps in velocity comparison in our examples, is what I would call apples to apples and will help us understand the firepower that these effective weapons entail.
I have selected a fairly standard array of what we all carry out there. There is a 3″ 38 special snubby, a 6″ .38 special (carried by almost all police departments until recent history), the same barrel lengths in .357 magnum, and the venerable .45ACP through a 1911 in a 5″ barrel. The only caveat here is the 1911. The heavier bullet (230gr. vs. 140gr. roundball) does bring down velocity substantially, which weighs the formula against the 1911. However we know that on the street a .45ACP is generally as or more effective than a .357 Magnum, so take it for what it’s worth. Even a cursory glance of our chart will tell you that even a short barreled cap & ball pistol is well within the ballpark of guns we carry in defense of our lives every day.
I will get into the specifics of what this table means as we go somewhat and why some factors are constant and others are more variable, but it is fairly self explanatory. We are dealing with a 140 grain round lead ball projectile. Its effectiveness as compared to a jacketed hollowpoint, or a jacketed rounded standard target bullet is not within the scope of this article. Theoretically, a hollowpoint expands, making it more effective in “stopping power.” A round lead ball expands as well. It is much softer than a jacketed round and upon hitting bone it generally will warp. flatten, and often even break apart. Layers of clothing do not slow down a round lead ball more than they do a hollowpoint or any other projectile. And I did add a practical test to my velocity comparisons at the range that you will see in the pictures. A 10 feet, my 58 Remington easily blew a hole through a 2×4 that I found at the range, taking a large chunk out of the back of it upon exit.
You will also see that I tested “overloading” the guns, filling the chambers to the top with powder and compacting the powder down with the loading lever and the ball. Because of the slow burn rate of black powder and substitutes, they are virtually impossible to overload. Even the big “magnum” didn’t do much better than a compressed full cylinder load in the standard 8″ revolver.
What Makes This Gun Different?
Here’s the catch in our loophole. There is a reason you don’t have to fill out a 4473 to buy a cap & ball revolver. They don’t work like any other gun you may have seen before. There are no convenient cartridges to pop into the cylinder. Instead, you make each cylinder the equivalent of a cartridge itself. You dump in the powder manually, cover it with a ball, use the lever attached to the barrel of the gun to squish (actually swage) the ball down into the cylinder, then turn the gun around, and on the back of the cylinder there are “nipples” onto which you push percussion caps. Instead of an internal firing pin or one on the face of the hammer, on a percussion pistol the face of the hammer is flat. It smashes the cap against the nipple, just like a regular kids cap gun. The fire travels down the flash hole, igniting the powder and making the gun go boom and kill whatever is in front of it at the time.
This means you only get 6 shots, at best, per cylinder. After those shots you can of course reload the weapon, but it is going to take you some time, and there is no such thing as a speed loader. Sometimes caps will dud on you. Sometimes pieces from the cap from the previous shot falls into the frame and binds the gun up and you can’t fire it again. This is the second most primitive of American firearm technology, and it just doesn’t work as good as your name brand auto pistol.
Don’t Blow Yourself Up or Ruin Your Gun!
The most important difference in percussion revolvers is that it is extremely easy to blow the gun apart with the wrong gun powder. This effectively makes your cylinder a hand grenade that you plan to blow up only a few inches from your hand and a couple feet from your face. With the right powder the gun won’t ever blow up, even if you stuff as much in as you can fit. So don’t get worried, but also don’t ever try to use smokeless powder in your black powder pistols. That is the more common name for cap & ball percussion pistols. They are mostly commonly called “black powder” pistols.
Towards the late 1890s there was a revolution in arms technology. What was to be called “smokeless” gunpowder became widely available across America, rendering the old style gunpowder, that we now call “black” gunpowder to serve its place in the annals of history instead of inside the chamber of most firearms by 1900. Smokeless powder burned cleaner, didn’t foul, and didn’t release billows of smoke upon firing, smoke that clouded up your ability to fire a subsequent shot. A byproduct of the new nitrocellulose powder was pressure, increased chamber pressure, and firearms had to become stronger to handle this pressure, or risk being blown apart. Fortunately metallurgy also had something of a boom during the era and this gave birth to the firearms we have today.
The guns we are speaking about here were designed in 1836 by Samuel Colt and the technology remained unchanged until about the time of Colt’s cartridge revolver of 1873, deemed the “Peacemaker.” Gun geeks please forgive me for the cursory history.
This all means that you can’t fire smokeless powder in your black powder revolvers or you will blow them apart. There are “black powder substitutes” though, and I suggest you use them. Black powder is very caustic. It will rust your guns within a couple hours if you don’t clean them immediately. It also “fouls,” which means that leftover black gunk gets in your gun and jams it up. The bore also gets filled with this nonsense and it is overall a giant pain to use black powder.
If you look at my chart you will see one line with the propellant listed as Goex FFFG. That is the most common brand of black powder, and the FFFG is the granulation size, which is the second most fine that we use for pistols. All of the other lines use Hodgdon Triple Se7en as the propellant, which is a black powder substitute created mainly for for deer hunting with muzzleloaders. Hodgdon makes another replacement called Pyrodex I have used extensively, and there are no less than a dozen other brands out there that are specifically made to replace black powder in your guns that cannot handle smokeless.
I did try to use real black powder for these tests as you can see. I fired one cylinder out of my ’58 Remington and by shot #3 of 6 the cylinder had bound up to the point that I had to use my left hand to turn it while cocking the hammer. The cylinder gap had filled up with fouling. As you can see from the pictures, the entire gun became coated with soot, and the smell and smoke on that hot summer Florida day made my shooting session really unpleasant. So after the next cylinder of Triple Se7en, that had relatively no smell, much less smoke, no binding, no soot, and clocked at about 200fps. faster than the real black powder, I said goodbye to my Goex for the day. I do use Goex (and Swiss) black powder in my black powder cartridge rifles and even my lever guns usually, but for pistols I will be sticking to Triple Se7en and Pyrodex. Please note that since writing this, I have learned that Hodgdon does not suggest you compress Triple Se7en, so you will probably want to stick to Pyrodex.
Dry firing is something that can hurt many regular firearms and can kill your cap & ball revolver. If you whack the nipples even a few times with the hammer without a cap on the nipple you will most likely deform, or “mushroom” them, making the placement of a cap nearly impossible. Replacement nipples are sold by Dixie Gunworks and other retailers, but the threads sizes will not be guaranteed brand to brand.
Something that you will see in many texts and instructions on cap & ball percussion pistols is “greasing the cylinder.” The thinking is that there is a ton of hot gas and embers flying around the cylinder gap, and that since there is no crimp on the bullet like with a brass case round, theoretically an ember could find its way in under the ball in the next chamber, igniting the powder and causing what is called a “chain fire.” With a loose ball I think this may be a genuine worry, but I have always bought slightly larger lead balls and shaved a ring around them, which means they are perfectly snug. In a defensive carry situation, where your gun is not always going to be safely pointed downrange at all times, I suggest you use 25 grains of powder (see ballistics chart) and either use a Wonder Wad between the powder and ball, or seat the ball down against the powder and apply a thumb of grease over the seated ball. You can seal a thin layer of grease over even a ball seated on 40 grains of powder and to be safe you should. I don’t know of a minimum amount of grease that is suggested regardless. I have never seen a chain fire but it doesn’t sound like a fun time, even with glasses on and the gun pointed downrange.
And one last thing that I will mention regarding safety and the function of your gun is cap sizes. These days there are only a few companies making caps. The most common you will see are CCI and Remington (both available at Cabelas), and the CCI comes in a magnum and a regular. You will see two sizes, #10 and #11. Generally #10 is the size for percussion revolvers, but your nipples may require #11 depending on the brand of your gun, and no, there is no standard rule. I have never personally used the “magnum” version of the CCIs so have no input on them.
Weeding out the Deadwood
As you can see from the pictures, I have a lot of cap & ball pistols and I brought lots of them out for this article. Outside of some oddball stuff, there are three basic patterns of cap & ball pistol that are made by a handful of manufacturers. By showing you many of them here I am not advocating the use of them all equally.
Let’s start with caliber. The original caliber for Sam Colt’s Patterson revolver was .36, which works out to a .375 round ball that we shoot in them. This is a larger diameter than a .357 magnum and a 9mm (.355), but in real ballistics, the .36 caliber cap & ball pistols are not worth consideration. It is said of the original Pattersons, famous for being carried by the first Texas Ranger Jack Hays, that besides falling apart upon firing at regular intervals, close head shots were required to disable your enemy. I personally own two replicas of these pistols and they don’t fall apart when I shoot them, but they don’t have a lot of oomf either. Stick to the .44 caliber pistols, even if they are not always historically correct for the frame type of gun.
There are three frame styles that you may want to familiarize yourself with. They are the 1851 Colt Navy, the 1860 Colt Army, and the 1858 Remington. The Colts have a feature (more of a bug than a feature) in that they lack a top strap over the cylinder. This makes them point really well for snap shooting, and the notch for the rear sight is actually in the hammer. You will never feel a gun point more naturally than a Colt cap & ball revolver. The problem with them is that they are held together with a “wedge” that requires a screwdriver and a hammer to remove. This makes reloads almost impossible in the field.
The 1858 Remington has a top strap like a modern remover and the cylinder is removed with a slide pin. Therefore cylinders can be replaced in seconds, so carrying extra cylinders is the closest thing to a speed loader that you will find with a cap & ball pistol.
Another thing is that the Colts don’t have a notch between chambers on the cylinder (though sometimes they have a dimple) in which to rest the hammer. Don’t forget, this is old technology. The hammer smashes the cap directly, so leaving the hammer down on a chamber means that the hammer is sitting against a live cap. You aren’t going to do this, so if you don’t want to carry your revolver with an empty chamber (which is required in cowboy action shooting), you are going to want a place to safely rest the hammer for carry.
With the Colts you have to trust that if you put the hammer down on the space between chambers that it isn’t going to get bumped off and end up sitting next to or on the cap. Even a dimple is not a positive lock, and I don’t like to give Murphy’s Law a lot of room when dealing with firearms. The ’58 Remingtons have actual notches in the cylinder between chambers to secure the hammer for real. I also find, especially in the ’51 Colt patterns, that busted caps tend to fall off an jam the gun, regardless of the brand of cap. Whereas with the ’58 Remington, hot caps will sometimes fall in your hand (burning them) but they don’t tend to fall into the gun rending it inoperable.
This is why Ruger, when picking a pattern for their only cap & ball pistol, chose the ’58 Remington. From what I can tell the Ruger is no longer made. It was called the Ruger Old Army and it is most likely the strongest cap & ball pistol ever made. They are still available on the market and you can find them in both blue and stainless versions, with 8″ and 5 1/2″ barrels. I have never owned one because my guns were purchased for historical value, not defense. The Ruger is substantially more expensive than even the stainless steel Italian copies.
Most of the guns you will find for sale today are made in Italy by either Uburti or Pietta. I don’t see a lot of them listed on GunsAmerica, but if you search on 1858 or “old army” or sometimes even “new army” you’ll find them. I see them a lot in local gun shops. The brass framed ’58 was purchased from Kittery Trading Post in Maine for $125, the steel framed one was bought on GunsAmerica several years ago for $150. Both have served me well and been extremely reliable. I have also bought several pairs of cap & ball pistols from Cabelas (watch for the sales on the website), and even a few from Dixie Gunworks over the years, though they tend to be more expensive than most.
If you are intent on buying a new gun with extra cylinders, I would buy the stainless ’58 Remington currently on sale at Cabelas. They have some great prices for stainless so grab one while you can. Most are made by Pietta, and the parts for them are readily available and fairly consistent.
Cleaning Your Guns
There is no such thing as an article about black powder pistols without an important section on cleaning your guns. As explained above, real black powder is extremely corrosive and will destroy your guns if not cleaned immediately. The black powder substitutes are not even close to as caustic, but they require almost the same care. I generally do not leave guns overnight even if I am shooting straight Pyrodex or Triple Se7en. The good news is that you don’t have to buy expensive cleaning solvents, or even Hoppes #9. The most effective cleanser for black powder guns is soapy water. I use dish soap, a tooth brush, and cleaning patches on either a jag or a smaller diameter brush. Lead fouling generally isn’t an issue at these velocities and the guns clean up really easy.
I personally stopped taking down my cap & ball pistols beyond the level of field strip many years ago and have seen no ill results. I try to keep the guts of the gun out of the water and use the tooth brush to get the black off. Brass frames will never be the same once you shoot them once, but the nickel, stainless and black finishes clean up almost perfect. I then let the guns dry overnight in a dish rack then spray they through with Rem-Oil until it drips out the other side. This method has served me fine for years and I no longer have boogered screws on my guns from wrestling them out and cranking them back in. I personally only use Rem-Oil in my cap & ball revolvers because I never remember to bust a cap in the chambers before filling them with powder after taking them out of the safe. Common black powder wisdom says to do this to burn off any oil that may be at the bottom of the chambers that would otherwise wet and deactivate the powder nearest the flash hole. In my experience Rem-Oil dries to dry and doesn’t leave any oil behind to get soaked up.
Storing Guns Loaded
The most common question I have gotten over the years when I tell people that I sometimes carry a Civil War pistol when it is legal and my normal carry permit doesn’t work wherever I am is “don’t the chambers get rusty from the black powder?” The answer is no, they don’t, even with real black powder, even if you leave the nipples uncapped for a long time. There have been guns found from the 1800s still loaded with no caps, and even with caps, and they have fired on the first cap. When cleaned the guns showed no rust inside. Rust needs air, and there is apparently not enough air in the chamber, even after years and years, to rust the gun. And even old black powder lasts indefinitely.
I personally tested this with two guns for this article. My brass framed ’58 Remington was left loaded, uncapped, after I carried it for a time back in 2007. Likewise a little 3″ 1860 Army that Cabelas used to sell back then. Both guns fired all of their chambers, and all but 3 out of 12 on the first cap. The snubby hang fired a bit but it fired, and boom is boom. Neither were intentionally kept in dry environments for the purpose of testing them at any time. Upon cleaning them, neither gun showed evidence of rust inside the chambers at all. Both were bright and shiny.
You may be wondering, how to do you empty the chambers without firing the gun? Technically you can, either with a ball puller that fits on the end of your cleaning rod (works like a cork screw), or with an air device that was made for deer hunters who went all season without getting a shot. If you don’t trust that your gun won’t rust if you leave loaded chambers in it you could clear them when you need to in either of these ways. Otherwise just suck it up and shoot them out and clean the gun. It’s a labor of love.
Whether you keep a loaded gun in your house outside of a safe for protection is a matter of personal preference and I won’t get into that here. Suffice it to say that a loaded and capped percussion revolver is the same as any other single action revolver. You have to thumb the hammer back for every shot, and except for a hot cap in your palm occasionally, they are no more safe or dangerous than any other single action pistol.
So There You Have It!
I have to admit that I have wanted to write this article for a long time. It is disgusting that political pandering has cost many people their ability to enjoy shooting a pistol at the range, as well as to defend themselves with a handgun. I am not advocating that anyone break the law or skirt what they know is legal and illegal. If you are in this sticky situation, do the research and see what your state and local laws say. It is worth your time and there is a good chance that this loophole in federal firearms does apply to you at the state and local level as well.
In closing I’ll mention (because this is a discussion board and people will bring it up anyway) that I do not suggest you buy conversion cylinders for your guns if you are in this situation with pistols where you live.
To digress a minute back into history, you may be wondering what happened to all of the percussion pistols of the 1870s when the cartridge revolver came onto the scene. The answer is that many percussion pistols were converted to cartridge use, and this is still available today. There are two companies making cartridge cylinders that fit right into a ’58 Remington and can be reworked into even the 1860 Army and other cap & ball pistols. The loophole for cap & ball pistols doesn’t apply to guns fitted with these cylinders under federal law. You are, according to federal law, manufacturing a working real firearm when one of these cylinders is installed, and if you can’t own a handgun legally you most likely cannot do this where you live. Otherwise it is perfectly legal, but again, the gun may have to be registered. As I have clearly shown in this article, you don’t need a conversion cylinder to have yourself an extremely effective handgun that can be reloaded easily with cylinder swaps. In fact I would argue that you can swap a cylinder faster on a ’58 Remington than you can remove and load six cartridges through a loading gate, and at $70 each you can buy 4 extra cylinders for the price of the converter.