Letter Re: Cap and Ball Revolver Options | Preparednessdaily.com

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Letter Re: Cap and Ball Revolver Options

Sat, Mar 3, 2012


From SurvivalBlog.com

There are many states and cities where people are not allowed to have modern pistols, without massive red tape by state and local governments. But replicas of old frontier pistols of the cap and ball type slip under most restrictions and can still be ordered through the mail, and no BATF paperwork is required. (Be sure to check you state and local law before ordering one!) But what most people don’t realize is the fact that most of these good quality reproductions of the old cap and ball revolvers of the mid-1800s are very accurate and potentially as deadly as any modern cartridge revolver, once you learn how to use and maintain them.
I’m the first to admit, their a real pain in the rear to load and maintain, but once you learn the basics of loading and cleaning the old style revolvers, you have a very good defense weapon, living where options are limited. There are many types and styles that were developed from 1836 into the 1870s, many of the later cap and balls were later converted to cartridge revolvers to speed up the loading process, and allow the pistolero to keep the feel of the original revolver.
Colt was one of the first to build a reliable cap and ball revolver, starting with the Patterson, it was a 5 shot, in .36 caliber, With no attached loading lever, took forever to load, but was quite an advantage over the single shot pistols of prior use and production. But most of Patterson’s shortcomings were corrected with the Walker Colt. Which had a 60 grain chamber, in .44 caliber, making it the forerunner of the .44 Magnum in power. Then came Colt’s Dragoons first, second, and third model, a scaled down version of the Walker, but still more of a saddle pistol than a hip pistol but maintained the large chamber capacity. Then came the baby Dragoon in 1849, a .31 caliber with about 10 grain chamber capacity, that was very popular in the gold fields of California, because of it’s smaller size. Then in 1851, Colt finally got it right with the .36 Navy and the .44 Army.
The 1851 model is one of the most natural pointing handguns I ever picked up, And was the life long favorite of James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickock, in .36 Navy model. They have a 30 grain chamber capacity, same as the .44 Army, which is essentially the same revolver with bigger cylinder holes. Then In 1858, Remington came out with their cap and ball revolver in the same calibers as the Colt’s, and about the time of the Civil War, Colt came out with the 1860 model, which has the same size cylinder, but a longer grip for the people with bigger hands. I don’t feel the 1860 has near the good feel of the 1851 models, but they are good shooters. At one time or another I’ve owned each one of the above mentioned reproduction revolvers with the exception of the Patterson.
I have one rule about a pistol before I’ll carry it, it has to be accurate enough to hit a rattlesnake in the head out to 25 feet, and each one of these revolvers I’ve had were well capable of this requirement! Now if you consider going this option, I’d stay away from the brass frame copies, as prolonged shooting will loosen the rod the cylinder rotates around. They make good wall hangers, but I don’t feel they are near the quality of the steel frame copies.

And one suggestion I’d make, due to the long time involved in loading these old timers, it’s best to buy a pair, if you can afford it. There was good reasoning for the old timer packing two cap and ball revolvers. And if you see the movie, “The Outlaw Josey Wales” Clint Eastwood was packing 4 or 5 of these revolvers. I’ve got several books on Orrin Porter Rockwell, a frontier marshal in the Utah Territory, according to these books Port carried a pair of 3rd model Dragoon 44s in saddle holsters, a pair of 1851 short barreled .44s on his hips, and a couple Derringers, along with a bowie knife, skinning knife and a rifle in a scabbard on his horse, and there was mention of a 10 gauge shotgun he took along on his buggy trips and wagon, when he was hauling freight and the mail from Missouri to the Utah Territory. Porter was another frontiersman who packed the 1851 models until he died in the 1870s of natural causes. Well, enough history! Lets get to the fun part.
If you buy a cap and ball revolver, you’ll also need a nipple wrench, a powder flask, a straight line capper, a good set of gun screwdrivers, a small brass hammer or rawhide mallet. You’ll notice there is no back strap on the Colts, the barrel and loading ram are held on the gun with a wedge through the lower portion of the barrel. This wedge is also what keep the gun tight, as it’s tapered and  too hard a tap will make the gun too tight for the cylinder to turn. It takes a few times to get the feel of the right wedge position. I’m looking at the copy of the 1851 .36 right now, so that’s what I’ll use for an example.
The chamber holes are tapered towards the nipples. Most of the Colt style flasks come with a 30 grain spout on top, to throw a powder charge, you put your finger over the end on the spout, turn the flask up side down, open the lever on the side, filling the spout with powder, then release the lever, turn the flask right side up and the spout should be full of powder. The tighter you press the ball into the cylinder on the wad and powder charge, the better the explosion, remember the chamber holes are tapered. Before I learned about the Bore Butter soaked wads, about 18 shots was all I could get out of a pistol, the powder fouling would get so bad, it was hard to cock the hammer. But the wad serves two purposes, keep the fouling down, and prevents cross fire, I’ll get into that one later.
At this point let me inject that I file the spout down to where it throws a 22 grain charge for .36 and 25 grain charge for .44 caliber, as I use a felt wad soaked on T-C Bore Butter over the powder, then ram the ball down on top. Then after all six chambers are loaded, use the straight line capper to install the cap on the nipple.  Never put the cap on the nipple first, as you ram the ball home, the flash hole acts as a vent hole to allow the air out of the chamber hole when loading. Then on the back of the cylinder you’ll notice there are little pins on the islands between the nipples, and notice a small groove in the bottom of the hammer where it strikes the cap. Set the hammer down on one of these pins, a very good safety feature, and it can be carried safely with all six chamber holes loaded, and doesn’t have to have an empty chamber to set the hammer on, as with the Colt SAA .45.

You’ll notice there isn’t too much for sights on these revolvers, a post similar to a shotgun bead for the front sight, and a notch in the top of the hammer for rear sight. Most of the frontiersman that used these pistols were point shooters, shooting half way between the hip and shoulder, but unconsciously sighting down the barrel. Then If you have seen any of the old western movies made back in the 1930′s, you may have noticed most of the old cowboys threw the pistol back over their shoulder to cock it, then looked like they were throwing lead! Well, by cocking the gun back over the shoulder the spent percussion would fall off the nipple and down behind you, and not fall off down into the action and lock up the action!
I had an uncle that shot pistol this way, “throwing lead” I’d throw a marble out and he’d shoot it just as it hit the ground, he tried to teach this method to me, but I never could get the hang of it! But he never aimed and never missed a marble! But this way of shooting originated from the cap and ball days.
Now the dirty part… Cleaning these pistols isn’t easy, make sure all chamber holes are empty, then take the mallet or brass hammer, and tap the wedge out to the left, the wedge should have a little spring retainer that has to be depressed to completely take it out, but it will come out far enough to remove the barrel forward and off, you might use the loading lever to press the barrel off if it’s tight, just turn the cylinder to where the lever in on the wall between the holes.  Sometime the fouling makes this come off with difficulty! Then slip the cylinder off.
Take the nipple wrench and remove all 6 nipples, I usually take the nipples and drop them into a cup of hot soapy water and swirl it around. (Incidentally, I take the nipples and chuck them up in a drill and take a file or fine emery paper and sand the nipple to where the cap will slip on without cracking and can be slipped off with a fingernail), Then take a black powder solvent Hoppes #9 Plus or TC #13 and swab the barrel out, then swab the chamber holes out, wipe the rest of the gun down with the solvent. I’ve always use Hoppes #9 but any solvent you prefer will work. Make sure you dry the holes in the cylinder really well, light solvent then wipe dry.
Now take the nipples out of the hot soapy water wipe them down good with solvent. Blow through each one making sure the flash hole is dry and open, then I take a small drop of Hoppes and drip it on the nipple threads, careful not to get it into the flash hole, then screw them back into the cylinder snug but not tight, and once again holding the cylinder up to the light and make sure all flash holes are clear then reinstall the cylinder in the center rod and snap the barrel back in place and tap the wedge back in place, and your ready to load it again! About every  5th or 6th shooting, I disassemble the whole pistol and put all the parts except the grips, into hot soapy water and clean them all as above mentioned! Then put it all back together, without any extra parts left over, don’t laugh, it happens sometimes!
Note: Some Italian copies have #10 nipples and some have #11 nipples, be sure if you get two pistols they both have the same size nipples. I’ve had some that the nipples were very crude, and half way between sizes, these are the one I sand down to fit the cap properly then coat them with cold blue to prevent rusting.
Now for the cross fire. This is when the ball isn’t seated tight enough, or the sprue from a cast ball, isn’t seated straight up when rammed in with the loading lever, or too much gap between cap and nipple. One old collector told me it was common for the originals to have hairline cracks between chambers, from improper cleaning over the years, causing crossfire’s when fired! But it’s when two or more chambers go off at once! I have never experienced this mishap, but have talked to people who have, and it’s very scary, especially when all 6 go off!  back in the 1960s when I first started shooting cap and ball revolvers, my buddies told me to put Crisco over the end of the holes after you seat the ball to prevent crossfire’s. Well out shooting on a hot summer day, I had Crisco running out of the holster, down my pant leg down into my boot. So rather than put up with this mess, I went to a .454″ diameter ball mold instead of the regular .451″ diameter, shearing off a lead ring from every ball seated. This was a real bugger to seat, as I put the bottom of the grip on my thigh when I ram the balls home, and by the end of the day, I always had a bruise on my leg! Then when I started going to the Mountain Man rendezvous events, I learned about the felt wads preventing crossfire’s, then learned about the Bore Butter cutting down the fouling. Ahh, back to the .451″ ball and no more bruises on the leg!
I had to get a pair of 1851 Navy .36 calibers just to see what Hickock’s fascination was with this model. Less recoil right off, and just as accurate as the .44s, a real pleasure to shoot. Plus I can buy .375″ Balls instead of having to cast them. You can also buy the .451″ balls, but I have always cast my own. I can see that some of the shots Hickock was supposed to have made with these guns were very possible.
One word of warning, all these replicas are made strictly for black powder, or Pyrodex, never, ever use anything but black powder, as they will not take any nitrocellulose powders, the pressure is much too great. Black powder comes in 4 granularities, FG which is Cannon or large bore musket grade, FFG, which is rifle grade, FFFG which is pistol grade and small caliber rifles, And FFFFG which is the finest grade priming powder for flintlocks. I just buy FFFG and use it in everything from .58 caliber rifles down to the .31 Colt pocket pistol, and use it in some cartridge rifles and pistols. Cuts down on confusion, and with reasonable charges, works well in all calibers.
Now don’t get the impression that I’m strictly a cap and ball pistolero. I bought my first Colt 1911A1 .45 automatic when I was 16, and have never been without one since! Also love the S&W line of revolvers. But knowing what cap and ball revolvers are capable of, this might be a good alternative for the peppers who live in the non-gun zones, as these guns seem to slip through the cracks in the liberal laws. And they are inexpensive to shoot, for the price of a box of .45 ammo today, you can get a couple hundred shots for the same price with a cap and ball.

I recommend only buying the top of the line models. Though I haven’t bought from them, I see Cabela’s sells quite a few of these models. I get most of my supplies from Dixie Gun Works in Union City, Tennessee. There are several mail order houses that handle cap and ball revolvers, just judge the quality by the price. I have also picked up good quality cap and ball revolvers at a good price at pawn shops.

This might be a good alternative for some. And of course they are a lot of fun to shoot, if you are allowed to shoot at all in your locale. – J.M.

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