Black powder revolvers, aka cap and ball, are some of the coolest guns to shoot but the loading process can turn new shooters away.
So how do you dig in to the loading these classic and historical firearms? Here is your guide to loading black powder revolvers.
When I first started my YouTube channel it revolved around the black powder revolver. At that time, there really wasn’t a lot of information about loading and firing them, and rarely a chance at seeing it done in real time.
Though I have reviewed much more since my start and have seen more great info come down the pipeline, the black powder revolver remains a misunderstood weapon. There is no shortage of amateur footage with inaccurate information, especially when referring to the load procedure.
Lets set the record straight right now.
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While we cannot argue that it takes more steps to reload a cap and ball revolver compared to the cartridge revolvers that soon followed, the process is not complicated. Here is some additional information to help guide you along the right path in cap and ball shooting.
Black Powder or Substitutes Only
- Black powder is recommended for percussion revolvers. 3F works great in all cap and ball revolvers, though some shooters use 4F priming powder in the small chambers of the little .31 revolvers for added velocity. Larger granulations work too, though it is not efficiently burned in pistols.
- Black powder substitutes that are often available at big box retail stores are acceptable for these guns too. There are many brands out there and in various granulations. Pyrodex P is a popular choice. I have used the larger granulation Pyrodex RS (Rifle and Shotgun) with success. Triple 7 and others work too.
- Never use smokeless powder of any kind. Even modern replicas were not built for smokeless powder pressures in mind.
- Lead ball ammunition is the most popular fodder for black powder revolvers. Their short lengths mean they are easier to load and seat into the chambers. These light pills afford higher velocity and are economical to make or buy. Choose a ball that is slightly oversized to the chambers on your revolver for a tight fit. The ideal is a slight ring of lead that is left on the chamber mouth once the ball is seated.
- Conical bullets are available and can be cast though they are not quite as cheap. These soft lead slugs carry more energy downrange, though at pistol distances it’s negligible. These too need to be slightly oversized.
- Both the ball and the conical are great choices, but if you are unsure about the size of your chambers, grab the calipers and measure. You want a projectile slightly oversized that will seat easily but leave a small ring of lead on the loading lever to ensure a tight fit. Here are some typical ball and bullet sizes:
- A .31 caliber revolver nominally takes a .323″ ball or bullet.
- A .36 caliber revolver nominally takes a .375″ ball or bullet.
- A .44 caliber revolver nominally takes a .454″ ball or bullet.
- A .45 caliber revolver like the Ruger Old Army take a .457″ ball or bullet.
Some shooters make the mistake of using No. 11 caps. Depending on the brand of gun you choose, they may work. But more often than not they simply fall off while manipulation the gun. Nobody wants a jammed action or a cylinder that is suddenly uncapped.
No. 10 caps are smaller and fit snugly onto the nipples of a percussion revolver and make sure those caps are seated well. To that end, a short dowel rod works well. Not entirely necessary, but another step to sure fire ignition.
Wads And Lube
Some shooters like to use lube-soaked felt wads between bullet and powder. Others like to put lube over the bullets in the chambers. But why? Many believe this stops chain fires from happening. But under normal circumstances, we would be using oversized balls or bullets to ensure a tight fit so that no spark could get past it.
But that does not mean you can throw away the lube or the wads. The lubricant keeps the black powder residue from caking up after continuous use so you can stay in action longer. There are plenty of store bought options like Thompson Center’s Bore Butter, though my personal favorite is vegetable shortening.
Brass Framed Revolvers
Many revolvers made today have brass frames and are often marketed as “Confederate” versions of various firearms. It is true that they produced their own handguns using brass frames because the Confederacy lacked the iron.
The modern replicas are very fun to shoot and are more inexpensive than their steel framed counterparts. It must be understood that brass is softer than steel and will stretch over time, resulting in timing and cylinder gap problems that make the gun unsafe.
Many shooters get by with lower power loads to extend the service life of their guns. However, I would just avoid the headache and spend the extra cash for a steel framed pistol.
In the end, there are some intricacies involved when loading and firing black powder revolvers. These cap and ball fighting handguns do deserve a place in your collection. They are economical to buy and to shoot, and have many uses.
Despite being obsolete since the close of the American Civil War, the old black powder revolver is more popular than ever. You do not need fancy equipment, a lot of knowledge on the matter, nor do you have to dress in Western garb to enjoy shooting black powder revolvers. So get out there and make some smoke.