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Cap & Ball Revolver History: Everything You Need to Know

How to appreciate where it all began.

Cap & Ball Revolver History: Everything You Need to Know

(Dave Emary photo)

Most of the press about blackpowder firearms involves long guns and hunting. But there is another aspect of blackpowder shooting that highlights historically significant firearms that are just fun to shoot: cap-and-ball revolvers. The cap-and-ball revolver was patented by Samuel Colt on February 25, 1836, resulting in the Colt Paterson.


Until the Colt Paterson, pistols were either a single-shot affair or employed multiple barrels, which were often heavy and cumbersome. The Colt Paterson revolver was the first single-barrel pistol that featured a revolving cylinder and gave the shooter five shots from separate chambers. Even as inconvenient as a blackpowder revolver is by modern standards, the Colt Paterson was a step forward at the time in terms of firepower and convenience.


The Colt Paterson ushered in a new design era and paved the way for the invention of centerfire ammunition in 1861. A shooter could fire five shots without reloading and carry an extra loaded cylinder for a quick reload. It was the forerunner of almost every modern revolver we know today. Further development resulted in safer and more powerful revolvers in time for the Mexican-­American War in 1846 and the Civil War in 1861. Immediately after the Civil War, many cap-and-ball revolvers were converted to use .44 Henry rimfire and the then-new .44 Colt centerfire ammunition. Colt quickly began producing these conversion firearms from leftover parts after the Civil War. Several new model firearms were essentially based on cap-and-ball revolver designs. Such work even led to the Colt Single Action Army (SAA) revolver in 1873.

Replicas & Reproductions

Original cap-and-ball revolvers can still be found, but are increasingly expensive and collectible firearms that you’d probably be reluctant to shoot. Fortunately, nearly every popular revolver of the era is available as a reproduction from Italian manufacturers such as Pietta (piettausa.com) and Uberti (ubertireplicas.com). Reproductions are available from a number of sources including Cimarron F.A. Co. (cimarron-firearms.com), Dixie Gun Works (dixiegunworks.com), E.M.F. Company Inc. (emf-company.com), Navy Arms (navyarms.com), Taylors & Company (taylorsfirearms.com), Traditions (traditionsfirearms.com), and Uberti (uberti-usa.com), to name a few. Most of these revolvers are made in Italy, then imported and marketed by U.S. distributors. Some, such as Cimarron and Taylors, commission unique models for their brands. Most of these are well made and have very good fit and finish.

Cap & Ball Revolver
EMF Co., INC. 1836 Texas Paterson, .36 CAL., MSRP: $780 (Dave Emary photo)
Cap & Ball Revolver
EMF Co. INC. LEMAT CAVALRY, .44 cal., MSRP: $1,025 (Dave Emary photo)
Cap & Ball Revolver
Pietta 1858 Remington brass army, .44 CAL., MSRP: $230 (Dave Emary photo)
Cap & Ball Revolver
Uberti 1851 navy, .36 CAL., MSRP: $359 (Dave Emary photo)

A wide range of blackpowder revolvers are available. Pietta offers the original-style Colt Paterson revolver and the massive LeMat revolver, for example. Reproductions of the most significant models of the era are available such as Uberti’s reproduction of the enormous 1847 Colt Walker and the elegant 1860 Army.

The unique 1858 Remington is offered in several models from different companies. It is one of the few period revolvers manufactured with a topstrap and was widely considered the strongest and safest revolver type of the period for this feature.

High-luster blue finishes, color case hardening and engraved models are also popular. Calibers range from .31 to .44, but .36 and .44 caliber are the most popular. Conversion cylinders are available for firing centerfire cartridges, as well as revolvers built for centerfire that were cap-and-ball designs originally.

The power of these cap-and-ball revolvers is anemic by today’s ballistic standards, but they were obviously adequate for self-­defense in their day. The Colt 1849, 1851 and 1860 models, as well as the Remington 1858, were the most prevalent revolvers of their time. The cylinders hold about 30 to 35 grains of blackpowder, and in .44 caliber, they would produce 200 to 250 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.) of muzzle energy. For comparison, the .32 H&R Magnum produces about 235 ft.-­lbs.

The magnums of the era were the .44-caliber Colt Dragoon and 1847 Colt Walker. These were very large and heavy handguns, and were primarily intended to be carried by cavalry troops. Dragoon models hold up to 50 grains of blackpowder and produce about 400 ft.-­lbs. of energy. The 1847 Walker holds 55 to ­60 grains of powder, and produces a little more than 450 ft.-­lbs. of energy. For comparison, the .357 SIG cartridge offers about the same 450 ft.-­lbs. of energy. While the .44 load in the Colts were proven in battle, most cap-and-ball revolvers are best used for plinking and, perhaps, small-game hunting. The primary reason to own and shoot these firearms is for fun and the historical perspective they give the shooter.

Components

The caliber of a cap-and-ball revolver, and the actual size of the ball used to load them, can be somewhat confusing. “Caliber” refers to the diameter across the rifling lands — not the grooves. The diameter of the grooves is a larger number than the advertised caliber of the gun, and the diameter of the cylinder may be slightly bigger than the grooves. The diameter of ball used for a given caliber must completely fill the diameter of the cylinder and grooves, or erratic performance and poor accuracy will result. For example, a .44-caliber revolver’s grooves generally measure in the .446-inch to .450-inch range, and the cylinder may be .001- or .002-inch larger. For this reason, rounds balls are offered in the .451- to ­.457-inch range to accommodate the differing groove sizes of barrels. This allows experimentation on the user’s part to see what shoots the best from the gun. The most commonly used ball diameter for .44-caliber revolvers is .454 inch. The smaller .36-caliber guns are loaded with a .375-inch round ball. Hornady (hornady.com) and Speer (speer.com) offer a broad range of lead round ball sizes.

Cap & Ball Revolver
Components to shoot cap-and-ball revolvers include blackpowder, wads, percussion caps and round balls. All are affordable and readily available. (Dave Emary photo)

Many replicas are close matches to include original twist rates, often a rather slow, 1-in-24-inch to 1-­in-36-inch twist. Because of this, these barrels will only stabilize round balls or very short conical bullets. However, there are some models of cap-and-ball revolvers that can be found having faster 1-in-­12-inch twist barrels that can handle longer, heavier, conical bullets. The discontinued Ruger Old Army revolver, produced from 1972 to 2008, is an example of this. The use of the heavier conical bullets produced better efficiency and performance from blackpowder propellant and provided better downrange performance.

Both blackpowder and blackpowder substitutes can be used in cap-and-ball revolvers — but follow manufacturers' recommendation closely! Revolvers usually perform best with the finer FFFg granulation of powder because somewhat higher charge weights can fit into the cylinder with fine granulation. Goex (goexpowder.com) and Swiss blackpowder  (grafs.com) are probably the most commonly found blackpowder brands, and both make FFFg granulations that are appropriate for revolvers. Hodgdon Pyrodex P and Triple 7 FFFg (hodgdon.com) are popular blackpowder substitutes for cap-and-ball revolvers, too. I don’t recommend the use of pellets in revolvers. Other substitutes are available that will work, but they are usually larger granulations and limit charge weight a bit.

Cap & Ball Revolver
Helpful tools to fire cap-and-ball revolvers include a powder flask and charge funnel, a capper and grease to prevent chain firing. In a pinch, you can use Crisco’s vegetable shortening. (Dave Emary photo)

Never use smokeless propellants in a cap-and-ball revolver! Smokeless propellants produce much higher pressures, and neither the designs nor materials used are capable of withstanding smokeless propellant.

Ignition for cap-and-ball revolvers is almost always No. 11 percussion caps. These are available from CCI (cci-ammunition.com) and RWS (rws-ammunition.com). The use of a capper that holds a number of caps will make capping the nipples much easier and quicker. I recommend a 90-degree capper as opposed to an inline capper. When capping, make sure the caps are all the way on the nipple; a high cap could bind up the rotation of the cylinder.

I also recommend the use of wads between the powder charge and the ball, or the use of a cap of grease on top of the ball. Doing so will eliminate chain fires, which are somewhat common if you don’t load this way. A chain fire is when several cylinders fire at the same time. Blackpowder is very easy to ignite and can ignite an adjacent cylinder if the charge is not protected by a wad or a grease cap on the chambers. If you’ve never experienced a chain fire, well, you don’t want to. Ox Yoke (rmcoxyoke.com) makes fiber wads that can be placed on top of the blackpowder charge, and then the ball rammed on top of the wad. This protects the powder from chain firing, and sometimes produces improved accuracy. If you don’t want to use wads, after the cylinder has been charged, and balls rammed into the cylinder, blackpowder lube grease can be used to fill the top of the cylinder above the ball. Crisco, available in a grocery store’s baking section, can also serve well for this, but it can become pretty soft in hot weather. One advantage of filling the top of the chambers with grease is that it also provides a level of protection for the powder against moisture in a wet environment.




Shooting Cap-&-Ball Revolvers

Loading a cap-and-ball revolver is somewhat tedious and takes time. After you have done it, you can see why many soldiers and frontiersman carried two revolvers or multiple loaded cylinders.

A powder flask or powder horn with a long funnel will be required to charge the chambers on a revolver. The funnels are available in different sizes to provide different charge weights, and they speed up the loading process. With the gun held upright, each chamber is charged with powder, a wad added on top of the powder, and a ball rammed with the loading lever. Then the cylinder is rotated and the next chamber is charged. If you are using grease (or Crisco) instead of wads, the last process is to fill the top of each cylinder with grease. After the cylinder is completely loaded, cap the nipple on each cylinder. You are now ready to fire. I recommend carrying a loaded cap-and-ball revolver with the hammer on half-cock. To me, it is a little nerve-racking to be carrying around a loaded blackpowder revolver with the hammer resting on a cap.

The sights on most of the cap-and-ball revolvers are crude, usually consisting of a front blade or bead and a notch in the hammer. Shooting to point of aim calls for some careful adjustment of the height of the hammer with a file, adjustment of the front sight height or the use of some Kentucky windage. Shooting these revolvers will certainly make you appreciate modern centerfires, but will also help you understand their advantage over single-shot pistols. Good accuracy can be achieved, but it will take some practice with the sights.

As with all other blackpowder firearms, it is important to clean the pistols after each shooting session. Do not let these guns sit around dirty, particularly in humid environments. Rust can quickly ruin these firearms.


A great source for loading, shooting techniques and data is the Gun Digest book, “Black Powder Loading Manual” by Sam Fadala ($30-$80, amazon.com). It contains detailed discussions on most aspects of shooting black powder firearms and a complete section on loading data for a number of firearms, including blackpowder cartridge loads.

Try one!

It’s good to go back and experience things that require a little extra effort. Cap-and-ball revolvers are typically not terribly expensive, and they are not costly to shoot or maintain. If you still need justification, they are also great for teaching new shooters of any age. The experience offers a unique perspective on history, and helps to expand our understanding of it.

Steps to Loading a Cap & Ball Revolver

Step 1. Make sure the proper funnel is placed on the powder flask to give the desired charge weight. Place a finger on the end of the powder flask funnel, tip the flask down and fill the funnel. Make sure the fill valve lever is closed, and rotate the flask upright before removing your finger from the end of the funnel. (Dave Emary photo)

Steps to Loading a Cap & Ball Revolver

Step 2. With the flask upright place the tip of the funnel into an empty chamber and carefully rotate the revolver and flask so that the powder in the funnel empties into the chamber. (Dave Emary photo)

Steps to Loading a Cap & Ball Revolver

Step 3. Place a ball over the powder charge. If you are using wads, place an appropriate-size wad over the powder. Cock the hammer to the half cock position. Rotate the cylinder until the ball resting on the chamber lines up with the ram. Using the ram lever, ram the ball into the chamber. Ram the ball with firm pressure against the powder. (Dave Emary photo)

Steps to Loading a Cap & Ball Revolver

Step 4. If using grease to prevent chain fires, after loading all chambers, place the hammer on half-cock and rotate the cylinder to a position so that the top of each chamber can be filled with grease or Crisco. (Dave Emary photo)

Steps to Loading a Cap & Ball Revolver

Step 5. Using a nipple capper, cap each nipple while making sure the cap is fully on the nipple. You’re now ready to fire! (Dave Emary photo)

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