Ruger Old Army – Is it Really All That?

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I wish I could say that everything that everyone believes about the Ruger Old Army is true, but in my experience it is not. After owning probably a dozen of them over the years, and shooting them side by side with the rest of my cap & ball guns, I think they are just no big deal.

But that gun is always going to have it’s fan boys, and I can explain why.

For one, it looks just like a Ruger Blackhawk. So everyone automatically expects that it is better. But fortunately Ruger did not employ that silly transfer bar on the Old Army, so the gun is really closer to a true 58 Remington than it is to a Blackhawk. The frame is beefier, but unnecessary so, and the reason was that the engineers at Ruger designed it to be “extra safe.”

The Ruger Old Army was developed in the early 1970s due to the success of Navy Arms bring replica cap & ball revolvers into the US market. It was very popular at the time to add a little smokeless pistol powder to your black powder loads, so Ruger made a robust cap & ball revolver of their own to rival their own Blackhawk series of single action cartridge revolvers.

Ruger made the Old Army from 1972 to 2008, and back in 1972 there were very few cap & ball revolvers at all. It was the golden age of people like Val Forgett bringing them into the country under the Navy Arms and many other banners. I was only six years old, but I bought my first Navy Arms ’51 Navy not many years after, and I still have it today.

Even by the time I entered the game there was a lot of buzz about black powder, because prior to this era, muzzleloaders were primarily for an extra week of deer season and hardcore mountain man fanboys. Nobody shot their original 19th Century guns, so having the replicas opened up a new and somewhat exciting avenue for the gun nerds and history buffs among us.

One of the regular topics you would read about was “duplexing.” This means taking a few flakes of a fast pistol powder and dropping it in first, before the black powder. The world was not governed by lawyers as much back then, so some experimentation actually made it into some of the print mags of the day (before they all turned into whorehouses).

The stainless guns came along later, and most of the ROAs you’ll see out there have these adjustable sights. I have never personally owned a fixed sight ROA, but they do exist.

Ruger jumped on that trend, and at the time their engineers designed the gun to be able to withstand an entire cylinder full of Unique, which is one of the fastest if not the fastest pistol powder, compressed with a ball…and not blow up. They of course did not advocate this, but that was the story anyway.

My goto bullet for the ROA is the 255 grain Dragoon bullet from Eras Gone. This lets you load it right up without fear of it getting too fast like a 141 grain roundball would. These days you can use Hodgdon Triple Se7en instead of real black powder, so the old experiments with duplexing are irrelevant. These are paper cartridges made with the kits at cartridgekits.com.

I can’t say I ever tried duplexing, because I could carry a cartridge gun legally in New Hampshire, and by then there were plenty of stories about yahoos blowing themselves up with duplex loads. I actually had never heard of that story from Ruger before ten years ago, after I already had several of the Old Armies.

The ROA cartridge former is slightly longer than the regular 44 to take advantage of the extra width of the cylinder, without making the cartridges extra tight to load. It gives you the most you will get out of this gun.

These days, duplexing is irrelevant, even if you wanted to experiment with blowing yourself up. Hodgdon Triple Se7en is not corrosive to use at all, and in the FFFG size it gives you all the velocity you could want out of a cap & ball gun. I am careful to not load my cartridges too hot because I have experienced leading in my barrel, even with a ton of lube double dipped. You have to use regular soft lead with cap & ball guns, because you have to be able to shave the bullet with the loading lever as it presses into the cylinder, so I try to not go over 900 to 1000 feet per second.

While you will never find me shooting mouse fart loads in any of my guns, I do not push cap & ball revolvers to the limit due to barrel leading that happens generally when you get over 1,000 feet per second.

Loaded up to snot, the wider cylinders of an Old Army will easily accommodate enough powder to push a ball over 1,000 feet per second, and probably even a 200 grain Johnson & Dow bullet. So why would you need to duplex? That’s my 2 cents anyway.

As I eluded to in the video, my experience with the Ruger Old Army can be summed up in one word.

Inconsistent.

When velocities are all over the place in a cap & ball revolver, it is almost always because different boring drills were used for the cylinders, and those drills were wildly inconsistent. They may have all been bored at one time, I have no idea. But Pietta makes what they call their “Shooters” revolver in a 58 Remmie, and one of the features of that gun is that the cylinders were all bored with the same bit. It also has progressive rifling, and has won many competitions worldwide. Goes for about a thousand bucks, like a lot of ROAs. One of these days I will cover that gun on my Black Powder Project, because I do have two of them.

My most common velocities with the Dragoon bullet were in the 850 feet per second range, which similar to a 45 ACP ballistically. But I had wild fluctuations all the way down to under 700 feet per second.

I didn’t bring a lot of cartridges with me that day, so my accuracy testing was very basic. But I did unearth what I expected to unearth in shooting both a blued and a stainless model. I haven’t even had the time to sit and clean those guns, so I’m glad I didn’t dirty more of them.

The telltale detail in the video is that shooting roundballs, four shots went into almost one ragged hole, but two of them flew off to the side. Roundballs are always superior in accuracy to conicals. They just don’t pack as much punch in a gunfight.

Accuracy came out the same way, a few cylinders grouping into a ragged hole, with a few outliers. This usually means inconsistent cylinder diameters..

I didn’t pull those shots at all, and they were rested, so it really tells you the story of what is going on. Chronographing the guns, I also had several cylinders within a very tight range, and outliers that were as much as 200 feet per second off. I am very experienced with making paper cartridges, and was the primary engineer for the kits at cartridgekits.com, so though I didn’t weigh the charges, they were pretty tight.

That means that the Ruger Old Armys, or at least the ones that I have owned, are something of a tragedy. They could have been great guns and deserved the reputation that they have garnered all these years later, but they just don’t. My blued gun doesn’t even fire caps reliably, even the soft RWS 1075 caps I used for the video. And the nipples are original and identical to the others I have. That probably means that it needs a new mainspring, which you can still buy. There is no fixing the cylinder inconsistency though. I could noticeably feel and see the difference between the cylinder diameters putting balls and bullets into the gun.

The inconsistencies were so bad that you could feel and see the difference when seating balls. These cartridges were made with the standard Star & Bullock 44 kit, not the ROA kit, so they were very tame and should have been spot on accurate. The gun just wasn’t made well.

Now I can’t say that I have dated the Ruger Old Armys that I have owned, so I don’t know if all of the bad ones were made in the 90s, when Ruger fell to shit, or if the guns were all over the place throughout the production. I wish Ruger would come back and make them today, because I have had nothing but positive experiences with Ruger products in the last decade, and the word on the street has been that you can’t beat them.

The positives of the Ruger Old Army can’t be denied. It is a more robust gun than a Pietta or Uberti ’58 Remington. The ROA has a coil mainspring, not an easily breakable leafspring. The linkage on the loading lever is much heavier and more durable under stress, and for sure long term more reliable. I don’t think the beefy frame has any advantage, because a regular New Model Army replica handles the hottest practical loads anyway. But hey the gun does say Ruger, and for many of us that means a lot, which is why I have several.

There are some things you can’t take away from the ROA. It uses a captured coilspring instead of a leafspring, and the linkages are much more robust.

Ruger stopped making the ROA in 2008 not because the gun no longer had any demand. It was a political and legal decision after the development and commercial success of the Kirst Konverter. This was, and is, a replacement cylinder for the gun that fires the 45 Colt cartridge. Each cylinder on the Kirst Konverter has it’s own little firing pin, so the hammer that would normally fire the cap fires the shell. You are supposed to use only lead bullets with them, so that limits the pressure to where the gun can easily handle it. They make Konverters these days for most common cap & ball guns these says, and there are several copycats since the patent ran out.

Ruger stopped making these guns not because people didn’t want them anymore. Just the opposite! The Kirst Konverter created a legal loophole in firearms law whereby you could own a cartridge firing revolver with no FFL dealer involved. This is still true today.

I plan to cover cylinder conversions in a future installment, including the one for the ROA. My perspective has always been that a regular ’58 Remington, with easily swappable extra cylinders, is as effective a weapon as you need, and ballistically there is no advantage to 45 Colt. The legal loophole of the conversion cylinders has been around for decades now, so nobody rushed to ban them. It is still $400 you don’t need to spend.

Why Ruger did that, just because someone else made a compatible part for the their gun, is beyond me. But it has led to the ROA becoming something of a misunderstood entity since then.

When you go to buy a Ruger Old Army, there is a chance that the seller will insist that the gun has to be shipped to an FFL dealer. As I explained in the video, I actually personally boycotted Rock Island Auction because they would not send my two won and paid for ROAs directly to me, even though they have been long time advertisers and friends here. I just can’t abide by companies that want to create their own gun laws.

The Ruger Old Army is a cap & ball pistol, period. Under Federal law, it is not a firearm, and it can be shipped directly to your door. Now, there are some states that require that cap & ball guns go to an FFL, but even they do not require a 4473. Illinois, where RIA is located, is apparently one of those states, but state law would not have applied shipping the gun out of state.Their legal team disagreed.

The Ruger Old Army is the same legal entity as any other cap & ball pistol, and don’t let anyone tell you different. It is a nearly identical copy of the Remington New Model Army from 1858. If 209 primer guns, even integrally silenced rifles, are considered replicas, there is zero chance that the ROA is to be considered a cartridge gun, and anyone who wants to create gun laws on their own should just kicked in the teeth.

So I guess my point is, for the sake of this series, that you can buy a Ruger Old Army because you want one and can afford one, but do not be fooled into the thinking that they are a superior firearm. They aren’t. You can buy a Pietta New Model Army and a dozen extra mainsprings for a lot less, and your Pietta will most likely be more accurate and consistent, and you can get cheap extra cylinders for it. There is no reason to assume that the ROA is in a class by itself. It isn’t. I just says Ruger on it, and yea, I’ll probably buy another one. 🙂

{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Charlie Boudreaux May 13, 2022, 10:38 am

    I did not know about production ceasing over the conversion part. The answer must be Fudd in charge. Bill Ruger, genius engineer but extreme fudd.

  • Tyler May 13, 2022, 5:54 am

    Ahhhhh, refreshing. I own a pair of these, and they are by far among my favorite guns to shoot.
    I use triple 7, and in my experience, it is LESS corrosive than BP but still pretty corrosive.
    I tried something a few years back with an 1860. I loaded but did not cap it, and stuffed it in the back of the safe for one full year. After a year, I pulled it out and inspected it, and it looked like it did the day I loaded it. I capped and emptied it, then let it sit for 2 days just to see what would happen. Ended up seizing the cylinder up, and had to involve a rubber mallet to get the gun into the 3 main pieces. Cleaned up well, no lasting damage. Sold that off and kept the ROA’s So I treat triple 7 just like I would BP. Lay out the cleaning supplies and make sure I’ve got a good 30 minutes to an hour to devote to take care of business before I start shooting.
    By the way, 35-40 grains of FFF T7 over a .457RB works well for me. And I use #11 caps, because my nipples are a little too big (hehe) to squeeze #10’s on. I haven’t measured the chambers, but they’ll all shave a ring off the roundballs and that’s good enough for me. I can print sub 3″ groups at 25 yards in either pistol with that load. Doesn’t have as much stopping power as conicals, but I really only use them for recreational shooting so that doesn’t really concern me.
    I also took the initiative to lay into a small supply of critical/high wear parts, so if I can keep the rust knocked off, they’ll be in service for many many years to come.
    If any of you happen to be YouTube aficionados, ROAG passed away last year from the coof. She was an inspiration to the ROA shooting community, and her presence is missed. Rest in peace, Joanie.

  • George Szaszvari May 11, 2022, 3:11 pm

    Thanks for an interesting article, even if differ on some points made. I’ve found that 777 black powder substitute will leave crud residue that needs prompt cleaning up to maintain smooth trouble free operation over time, even if nothing like as corrosive as real black powder residue. Apart from my old model 17 S&W in 22LR the ROA is the most accurate handgun I’ve shot with, whether smokeless, cap n ball, or cartridge conversion. There are so many variables in loading and shooting cap n ball, that only rigid consistency in loading practices with quality materials will give unwavering accuracy. The modern design of the cylinder fit to barrel throat significantly slows the rapid fouling build up that afflicts older cap n ball designs, and I prefer to slightly chamfer the front openings of the chambers so the complete ball goes into shape on loading without shaving off lead, thereby retaining the original mass of the ball. I gave away the bulk of my black powder revolver collection, mostly 1858 and 1860 Piettas, now retaining only an Uberti version of the 1866 Remington revolver carbine, and two ROAs. Keep on truckin’…

  • Kane May 9, 2022, 9:23 pm

    Great info. I bought a ROA probably a little before 2000. The dealer had it for years and the pistol did NOT draw much interest. I am sure glad it fell to me.

  • Pete Hendricks May 9, 2022, 2:54 pm

    Got a kick out of your observation that folks did not want to shoot their 19th century arms in the 70’s. They could get away with that since there were replicas around then. In the 50’s there were many of us shooting black powder arms. Hell, they were all over the place. I bought my 1860 army 44 for $15 and shot the hell out of it. An Allen &Thurber pepper box in .36 too, as well as both rifles and shotguns. Loads were by the seat of the pants and I don’t ever recall anyone getting hurt. We usually shot outdoors, but if we shot on an indoor range we were made to wait until everyone else cleared out due to the smoke and stink. Dixie Gunworks came on the scene around then and was a boon to us. I wish I bought up more of those old smoke sticks.

  • lefty May 9, 2022, 1:48 pm

    Mistakenly got a mail ordered blued used ROA,instead of what I thought was a stainless one.I wanted stainless for ease of cleaning[boiling water immersion].Not sure if I’ll trade it or keep it.
    FWIW,a 1976 Liberty Model Super Single Six had inconsistent chambers.Ruger-supposedly-fixed that,later it had a cracked loading latch,again: off it went to Ruger for repairs.
    If I ever get my NICS back [9 years,>$15 K lawyers fees to date c/o evil ex] ,I’ll look for the 5″barreled Super Redhawk 454Casull. .
    I don’t know if I’ll go with any further cap&balls[perhaps the LeMat?]-I’m more into flintlock or traditional percussion handguns.

  • Kenneth W May 9, 2022, 11:55 am

    Thanks, Paul. I’ve followed your black powder series, including cartridge making, and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve used black powder weapons for decades, but never a revolver. I ordered a Pietta 1858, and finally got one after waiting almost a year (my original order was cancelled after Pietta was reportedly having problems getting enough employees after the pandemic). The Pietta Remington is high quality and I was able to get an extra cylinder as well. I can recommend the customer service of EMF.
    Elsewhere, conversion cylinders are available for the Pietta for .45 Colt and .45 ACP, but appear to require removing the cylinder for loading and are expensive. Still, many of us who already have the reloading equipment could benefit from an article on conversion cylinders with brass cartridges using black powder substitutes.

    • Paul Helinski May 9, 2022, 5:43 pm

      That’s a pretty good idea. Have to get my reloading stuff going again.

  • Tommygun851 May 9, 2022, 11:28 am

    There is an easy fix for the Rugar cylinder problem. I have a Super Black Hawk that had the same problem and fixed it like this. First you slug the barrel to find the exact bore diameter, then take an under sized metal rod and cut it down to 3”. Then cut a slot in laterally down the length to 2”. Then insert a fine piece of emery cloth no more coarse then 400 grit and slip it into the slot created, wrapping it around the rod making sure that it fits fairly tight in the cylinder throat. Insert the rod into a drill and into the cylinder spinning only a few seconds at a time. This will gradually take off material and keep measuring and slugging the cylinder throat until they are all equally sized. I think that the author’s leading problem is NOT BECAUSE the bullets are going too fast, it’s because the balls are being sized down too small by the cylinder throat and when they go down the barrel, there’s hot gases that blow past the “too small” bullet and that’s what is creating the leading problem! Not speed!

  • Ronald V Ritter May 9, 2022, 11:08 am

    As good as the ROA is , I prefer a more historically correct example like the Uberti & Pietta models. Plus the prices the ROA goes for makes no sense even thinking about aquiring one. I’ll stick with the more traditional pieces.

  • Frank May 9, 2022, 9:59 am

    If you mike the diameter of each cylinder bore and fond inconsistency youcan bring the cylinder to a reputable machine shop qnd have all of the chambers opened to the size of the largest chamber

  • ROBERT MOOREFIELD May 9, 2022, 9:33 am

    I understand where the author is coming from, but I must take umbrage with one remark of his: “that silly transfer bar…”
    The lack of a transfer bar is probably the very reason the Fish & Game people had the regulation about only 5 chambers loaded on a 6 shooter.
    The transfer bar was a major safety upgrade to revolvers in the 1800’s, and I’m sure prevented numerous accidental discharges from then until now.
    I suggest you read up on a gentleman named IVER JOHNSON, including some of the ads (check out images.google.com).
    If you want to be a “purist,” that’s fine. Just don’t call the transfer bar “SILLY.”

  • Charlie Hathcock May 9, 2022, 8:34 am

    I bought one of these, as a back up for black powder hunts. I carried it on one hunt. It was as heavy, as a bucket of bolts & nuts. I shot the 5 rounds I had in the gun, and I never carried it again. Now before anybody gets excited, and says, it’s a six shot, I’ll explain. In Florida, the game comission had some rules about, riding on a buggy with a completely loaded revolver. One chamber had to be empty, and thats where you kept the hammer while traveling through the Everglades. I replaced that Ruger, with a CVA kit gun, in 44cal. It was half the weight of the Ruger, and basically did the same thing. I still have the Ruger, thats only had 5 rouns put through it, and is in mint condition. . Here;s a Ruger story you may find unusual. In 1968, I purchased a Ruger Single Six, 22- 22 magnum. Not long after that, I received a letter from Ruger, signed by Bill himself, asking me to send the gun back to Ruger, so it could be modified to the newer model single six. Seems that, some moron, while pretending to be Wyatt Earp, dropped his Single Six, which landed on it’s hammer, and the gun fired, thus shooting, the Wyatt wanabe in the leg. I believe, the dumb ass sued Ruger. So, Bill Ruger wanted to make sure that kind of mishap would not happen again, by converting the old style, to the new style. I got a second letter from Bill, telling me he would send me back, all the parts out of my gun, so I would have all the parts the gun came with. I sent Bill a second letter back, a letter telling him why I didn’t want to retro the gun. I told him, that retroing the gun makes it sound like a double action being cocked, and not like enery single action, you ever heard, or saw in virtually every western, tou ever watched. I told Bill Ruger, if I’m dumb enough to drop my gun, and I wind up shooting myself, then I had it coming. So, Bill, you can use this letter, as a legal document, as my rejection as per the retrofit. I still have the gun, and I still shoot the gun. To this day, I’ve never dropped the gun, let alone shoot myself. That was the last letter I got from Bill. Come to think of it, I should have kept both of those letters from, Bill Ruger, they’re probably worth more than the gun itself…………………

  • Tim May 9, 2022, 7:38 am

    I bought a Ruger Old Army back in the 70’s. I got rid of it around 1990. I got lucky because I didn’t have any issues with chamber inconsistencies. I wish I could say that about Ruger cartridge Blackhawks but I can’t. I have owned dozens with production dates ranging from the late 50’s and early 60’s into the early 90’s. Everyone one of them has had inconsistencies in the chambers to one degree or another. Some where so bad you could notice it while running a bore brush down the chambers during cleaning. I have had a couple 44’s made in the 80’s that had one or two chambers so rough that loaded cases would stick when you tipped the revolver up side down to unload it. You had to hit the ejector rod to get a loaded cartridge with a 265 grain bullet to drop out. I don’t buy any Rugers anymore because of it.

  • Roger May 9, 2022, 3:56 am

    I have a SS 5.5in that i have a SS Conversion cylinder in. Unlike the author I rather like mine. Mine sells used for 3x what I paid. So I guess.

  • Will Drider May 5, 2022, 5:23 pm

    Good read. I would also like Ruger to resume ROA production. Current used market prices for them shows their value crazy and replacement parts are scarce. Ruger could sell them with the conversion as “Firearms” so their lawyers wouldn’t cry.

    I’m suprised the article didn’t persue the advantages of a “stronger/beefed up” black powder gun from the prepping angle. When smokeless cartridges are spent, brass is worn out and your left with DIY powder formulation from scavange or your own black powder concoctions: which BP revolver would you choose?

    Some might not understand the cyclinder mis-bore issue since all projectiles ultimately go through X inches of barrel/rifling to provide uniform accuracy. It is my understanding that slight projectile deformity occurs when the cyclinder bore angle doesn’t center the projectile into the “forcing cone”. That projectile will also have a slight loss of energy while overcoming the misalignment due to increased friction. Barrels only spit out what’s put in.

    Thanks

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