PERCUSSION REVOLVERS: A PRIMER

by

Darryl Y.C. Choy


Honolulu, Hawaii



Care and feeding of the modern Cap and Ball Revolver:

The history of the black powder percussion revolver spans a four-decade period of manufacturing between the middle 1830ís and the middle 1870ís. This period encompasses the Mexican American War, the Gold Rush, the Civil War and the Old West Era. This rich period of our history has sparked a great and long-term interest in original and reproduction cap and ball revolvers. There are two basic types of percussion revolvers. First, the Colt open top type exemplified by the 1851 Navy and the 1860 Army. Secondly the Remington close top type such as the New Model Army, incorrectly referred to as the 1858. Virtually all are in .44 or .36 caliber, with the pocket models in .31 caliber. The current value of original revolvers prohibits any owner of common sense from actually firing these very historic pieces. Fortunately in the late 1950's "replica" manufacturing began modestly and has grown since.

A. MODERN REPRODUCTIONS: Cabelaís, Traditions, Taylor and Co., CVA, EMF, Navy Arms, and Dixie all offer, but do not manufacture cap and ball reproductions. Virtually all reproductions are made in Italy by Euroarms (Armi San Paolo), Pietta, Uberti, and Armi San Marco (ASM). Pedersoli sells a Roger and Spencer made by Feinwerkbau (Germany). The Colts are fitted and assembled in the U.S.A. with Italian parts. Colts are the best and are very expensive. The Ubertis and Pedersolis are excellent. While the Piettas and ASMs are affordable, they have quality control problems. All are made of materials that are stronger then the originals. These companies also offer historically incorrect reproductions. Colt 1851 Navys in .44 never existed nor with a brass frame except for the Griswold and Gunnison and the Schneider and Glassick Confederate revolvers. Brass Colt 1860's and Remington New Model Army revolvers were never made. The Colt 1861 and 1862 models were never made in .44. All were in .36. Historically inaccurate reproductions are discouraged.

B. CHECK LIST OF ACCESSORIES; Modern reproductions come dripping in oil and grease with poorly written and error filled instruction books and nothing much else. You will need the following:

1. Degreaser (carburetor cleaner works well)
2. Nipple wrench, revolver type
3. Nipple pick (corsage pin works well)
4. Bore brush, .45 cal., .375 cal or .32 cal
5. Cleaning rod
6. .45, .375 or .32 jag
7. Cleaning patches, Natural/Wonder Lube, (TC, CVA, and Uncle Mikeís brands are excellent)
8. Old tooth brush
9. Pipe cleaners
10. Screw driver
11. Percussion caps #11
12. .451 lead round ball for .44 (.375 for .36 or .32 for .31)
13. 3F black powder
15. Powder measure (adjustable type)
16. Old rag
17. Long nose pliers
18. Ear and eye protection

(Following are optional.)

1. Brass 1/8" rod about 4 to 5 inches long
2. Powder flask with 10, 15 or 20 gr. spout
3. Capper
4. Ball bag
5. Holster,
6. Horse and saber

(You do not really need black powder solvent or over powder wads.)

C. DISASSEMBLY CLOSE TOP REMINGTON: Field stripping only involves the removal of the cylinder. The important parts are the:

1. Cylinder pin (it runs through the center of the cylinder)
2. Loading lever that pushes the plunger that seats the balls
3. Hand ( it emerges from the recoil plate to push the cylinder clockwise as you bring the hammer to full cock).
4. Bolt or cylinder stop (it holds the cylinder in place so the firing chamber lines up with the barrel)

To remove the cylinder start with the hammer down, not just at half cock. Lower the loading lever enough to allow the cylinder pin to be pulled out, but not to the point that the plunger enters a chamber. Hold the revolver in your right hand and turn your wrist to the right so that the trigger guard is to the left and the top of the revolver is to the right. With the cylinder pin pulled out as far as possible and the plunger not inserted in a chamber, place your left hand under the cylinder. Now slowly pull the hammer back about a 1/8". This will cause the hand and bolt to withdraw and the cylinder will fall out into your left hand. Turning the cylinder clock- wise will also help it fall out. To place the cylinder back in the frame, pull the hammer back 1/8". You will see the hand and bolt retract. Push the cylinder in gently from the right side turning it clock- wise. Line it up, push the cylinder pin all the way in and raise the loading lever.

D. DISASSEMBLY OPEN TOP COLT: Field stripping only involves removal of the cylinder and barrel assembly from the frame. The important parts are the same as in part C plus the wedge and wedge screw.

Place the revolver in half cock. Tap out the wedge until the wedge spring rest on the screw. Do not loosen or remove the wedge screw. This screw is intended to keep the wedge from completely separating from the barrel assembly. With the wedge held by the screw to the left side of the barrel assembly, turn the cylinder until a wall between two chambers is lined up under the plunger. Slowly press down the lever so the plunger pushes on the chamber wall pressing the barrel assembly away from the frame. Do not just pull the barrel assembly from the frame. When reassembling the revolver, do not tap the wedge too far in. The wedge spring should not hook on to the right side of the barrel assembly. The wedge should be flush. If it is in to far the cylinder will drag or may not turn at all.

E. OUT OF THE BOX PREPARATION; You must remove all factory petroleum grease and oil. A can of carburetor cleaner works great. Remove the cylinder and nipples and spray the entire revolver in and out. Remove the wood grips first. Apply natural lube to everything in and out with special attention to the cylinder pin.

F. IMPORTANT DOíS AND DONíTS

1. Use black powder or pyrodex only. Smokeless powder will blow apart the revolver
2. Wear ear and eye protection
3. Do not dry fire. You will damage the nipples
4. Donít turn the cylinder unless at half cock. The bolt will score the cylinder
5. Do not use petroleum products like gun oil or Hoppeís no. 9. These will increase the fouling.
6. Do not force the revolver to full cock if you feel resistance. The revolver is fouled or a cap is jammed. You will break the hand if you force the hammer. Stop!

G. SHOOTING THE CAP AND BALL REVOLVER: Be sure that the nipples are clear. Fire caps through each empty chamber or push a pin through each nipple. The basic load for the .44 is 20 to 30 grains of 3F black powder or pyrodex and a .451 round ball. If you do not have a powder measure use a fired 38 spec. case (holds 24 gr.), a 45 acp case (holds 28 gr.) or a 9mm case (holds 12 gr.). Shorten the case to decrease volume if needed and twist paper clip wire around the case to form a handle. Fill the case to the top with powder and pour it into the chamber. The basic load for the .36 is 15 to 20 grains of 3F. The .31 is loaded with 8 to 15 grains of 3F. Shooting the revolver with minimum loads normally result in better accuracy, less recoil to dislodge unfired caps, less wear and tear on the weapon, plus conserving powder. Be sure the revolver is at half cock so you can turn the cylinder. Fill all chambers with powder and do a visual check. Place a ball over a powder filled chamber and turn it under the plunger and seat the ball. The fit should be tight with a thin ring of lead cut off by the chamber. If this does not occur, the ball is too small. Do not crush the powder, however the ball should be firmly seated on the powder charge and must be below the top of the cylinder face. If the ball protrudes, the cylinder will not turn. Once all chambers are loaded, cover the top of the balls with natural lube. This will keep the fouling soft. Point the revolver down range and place caps firmly on the nipples. Keeping one chamber empty for the hammer to rest on applies only if you are carrying the loaded revolver. It is doubtful that very many revolvers were historically loaded with just five chambers. These were six guns.

If the revolver jams, most likely a spent cap or fragment has fallen into the action. Remove it with long nose pliers. After a fair number of full cylinders you will notice that the hammer slowly becoming harder to cock. The revolver is fouling. Complete the shots if you can without forcing the hammer back. Remove the cylinder and wipe it down with a damp rag. Clean the frame and the cylinder pin. Re-lube with special attention to the cylinder pin.

Sighting in a fixed sight revolver is a challenge. A few revolvers will shoot dead on. Most will shoot as much as 1 to 2 feet high or low and to the left. There are a number of methods to correct the problem, none of which are very good.

1. Indexing or slight screwing the barrel in or out. This does not really work with octagonal barrels with a loading lever attached to the bottom
2. Bend the front sight - be careful, the sight is silver soldered and may just snap off
3. File the right side of the front sight - not much adjustment
4. File down the front sight to raise the impact - works great
5. Install higher front sight to lower impact - works great but a hassle. New front sight should be 1/8" and as much as ľ". Use silver solder or JB weld. The straighten wire of "all brass" hooks make great front sights
6. Widen the rear sight notch left or right - not much adjustment
7. Cut a 3/8" dovetail and install a new high sight that can be moved left or right and filed down - works great but a hassle.
8. Live with the problem and aim low or high.

More trouble shooting! You may encounter a ball creeping out of the chamber enough to keep the cylinder from turning. Push it back in. However, this is a sign that the balls are too small. Try a slightly larger ball. Rarely a ball may get stuck in the barrel due to little or no powder. Do not fire the next round to push it out. You will bulge the barrel or blow apart the revolver. Remove the cylinder and tap out the ball from the muzzle end. If you forgot to load powder in a chamber, remove the cylinder unscrew the nipple and fill the chamber with powder or tap out the ball with a brass rod. Remember always to remove all live caps from the nipples when trouble shooting a problem.

H. RANGE PROCEDURE: Point the revolver down range at all times except when loading. It can be pointing straight up during loading. At cease-fire, the revolver should be empty at half cock. Lower the loading lever and point the barrel down range. Keep your powder supply a safe distance while actually shooting. The cylinder gap will shoot hot gases out to the sides. Leave the range with an unloaded revolver. Visually check each chamber and every nipple. No powder, no balls and no caps are the rules.

I. CLEANING: Do not wait more than 24 hours after shooting to clean. Do it the same day.

1. Revolver must be unloaded
2. Spread out old newspaper
3. Field strip the revolver
4. Place the cylinder nipple side down in a small container (margarine tub) filled with hot/warm water with a bit of dish washing soap. Insert cleaning rod in each chamber and work it in and out drawing the solution through the nipples and chambers. Clean the exterior of the cylinder with the toothbrush. Now remove and brush the nipples with special attention to the threads. Put the cylinder back into the solution and pump each chamber again with the rod to clean the chamber nipple threads. Rinse off the cylinder and nipples, dry them the best you can and set them aside to air dry
5. Clean the barrel using the rod
6. Turn the revolver frame upside down and with a wet rag and tooth brush clean the entire frame. Keep the solution from entering the lockwork. Clean the hammer and hammer recess area using the toothbrush and pipe cleaners. Clean the loading lever and plunger. Wipe down the entire frame. Swab and dry the bore. To help dry the revolver place it in the sun or use a hair dryer
7. Consider cleaning the lockwork. This is not difficult. There are only four major parts: hammer, hand, bolt and trigger plus the pins, screws and springs. Be sure the lockwork is degreased and natural lubed
8. Apply natural lube in and out with extra attention to the cylinder pin and cylinder hole. Re-assemble and store in a cool dry place. Do not over tighten the nipples
9. Check the revolver a week later, If you did a good cleaning, it will be rust free
10. Do not bother with black powder cleaning solvents. Water with Joy or Dawn soap works best to clean out the salts in black powder fouling. Water base cleaners like 409 and Simple Green also work well.
11. Leading rarely happens with low velocity, low temperature, slow fire, soft lead and natural lube. If it does, use a stiff bronze or stainless steel brush.

J. REPLACEMENT PARTS: The following are sources for cap and ball revolver replacement parts. It maybe best to first obtain a catalog and then place an order instead of just ordering one or two needed parts. The shipping cost on a small order may exceed the price of the parts. Also keep in mind that a good number of replacement parts do not "drop-in" but may need to be fitted.

1) Dixie Gun Works lists 12 pages of original and newly made parts.
2) The Gun Works, Muzzleloading Emporium list Pietta and ASM parts for the Colt 1851, 1860, Walker, Dragoon and Pocket Police, also the Remington and Remington Pocket.
3) S & S Firearms has parts for the Rogers & Spencer, Remington New Army and Navy, plus the Colt 1860 and 1851.
4) Taylor's & Co., Inc. has a $15 parts book with break-down sheets for Pietta, Uberti and Armi Sport revolvers with up-date service.

K. RANDOM AND AFTER THOUGHTS

1. Historic accounts support pure lead round ball as the best projectile. Conicals did not seem to "put Ďem down" as well. The 1800ís prefabricated cartridges were made with conicals wrapped in nitrated paper filled with 15 to 25 grains of 3F. You can make your own using cigarette paper.
2. Chain fire is more than one chamber firing at the same time. This is rare considering that the balls are seated tightly into the chambers. The lube over the top is to keep the fouling soft and minor protection from chain fires. Poor fitting caps are more of a concern. While number 11 caps are recommended, 10 or 12 might fit better in individual revolvers. Keep in mind that caps also come in various lengths. A cap that is oversized and needs to be pinched to fit, may increase the chance of a chain fire. Percussion revolvers are designed to handle a chain fire by diverting some of the balls. The experience is not recommended.
3. The method of filling the chambers with powder and crushing down the balls is not recommended for 3F black. This method works well with pyrodex, but not with black powder which is too dense.
4. Revolver wrenches are brittle. Get a good grip and turn slowly. Do not mess up the threads. Do not over tighten. Lube the threads before re-installing. Note that the standard nipple wrench may not fit revolvers. The wrench must get into the cylinder recesses. Revolver wrenches for the .36 and .44 are the same, but the .31 needs a smaller wrench.
5. Brass frame revolvers are frowned upon and considered weak and prone to shoot loose. True! However a number of Confederate revolvers were originally made in brass, the Griswold and Gunnison and the Schneider and Glassick were copies of the 1851 Navy, Spiller and Burr a copy of the Whitney and the T.W. Cofer with a spur trigger. The first model of the Remington New Model pocket revolver in .31 is also of brass. Shooting a brass frame with mild loads should not be a problem.
6. The cylinder nipple recesses are sharp, especially Piettas. The six recesses are machined out and left as is. Consider needle filing down the sharp edge.
7. An after-market .45 Colt and .38 S & W replacement cylinder for percussion revolvers are available. Two types are made. One for the Pietta and the other for the Uberti. The cylinders are pricey, $200 plus!
8. Famous Remington users were Jesse James and Wyatt Earp, at least until 1873. Buffalo Bill Cody used his Remington from 1866 until the mid-1870s and said it never failed him. Wild Bill preferred the 1851 Navy. The Outlaw Josey Wales made the famous statement, "You gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?" Wales carried multiple cap & ball revolvers.


To determine if a cap and ball revolver is original or a modern foreign reproduction, the following maybe helpful:

1. Virtually all reproduction revolvers have the markings "Black Powder" or "Black Powder Only" No original revolvers have this marking since smokeless powder did not commercially exist in the mid-1800s and such a warning would have been meaningless. Such a warning on a revolver is a dead give away that it is a modern reproduction.

2. Virtually all reproduction revolvers are make in Italy ( many are so marked) and have a host of Italian proof markings. Two upper case letters in a box is the code for the year the revolver was proofed . "Star over a shield" is the proof house coat of arms and the "star over PN" are the actual Italian black powder proof marks. If these marks appear on the revolver anywhere on the barrel, frame and/or the cylinder it is a modern Italian reproduction most likely made by Uberti, Pietta, Armi San Marco or Armi San Paola. Examine the revolver very closely in a good strong light.

3. Any brass framed Colt or Remington are reproductions. The only original brass cap and ball revolvers are the CSA Griswold and Gunnison in .36, Spiller and Bur in .36, T.W. Cofer in .36 and Schneider and Glassick in .36. The Remington New Model Pocket first type in .31 with a spur trigger was also of brass.

4. Serious Civil War reenactors have been "defarbing" reproduction arms. This entails carefully removing all modern markings and imparting a worn patina finish to a modern reproduction firearm. Some are done so well it is difficult to determine if it is a copy at first examination. However, virtually all reproduction revolvers are metric.

5. Revolvers marked with model names such as 1847 Walker, 1860 Army, 1851 Navy, 1849 Pocket, 1858 Remington are reproductions. Original revolvers do not have such markings.

6. Modern reproductions have been manufactured since the late 1950s. A great many were well used and poorly cared for. Improper cleaning resulted in considerable rust and lost of bluing. They may look old and original, but are not. Look for the tell tale signs.




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