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Practical Uses for the Cap and Ball Revolver

Practical Uses for the Cap and Ball Revolver
Terril Hebert

The percussion revolver, also known as the cap and ball revolver, is far more than a reenacting show piece.

The story of the percussion revolver began in the early 1830s when Samuel Colt developed a handgun that had a fixed barrel with a rotating cylinder that held more than one round of ammunition. After numerous failings, he came up with his Colt 1836 Patterson revolver. Upgrades, modifications, new metallurgy, and various competitors soon followed.

While these guns were made obsolescent by cartridge firing revolvers in the late 1860s, black powder revolvers, both originals and replicas, can get you into the black powder game for a minimal price. But your revolver doesn’t have to be an occasional plinker or in your reenacting holster. These handguns can still serve serious purposes should you choose.

Offhand shooting at twenty-five yards with a Colt 1851 Navy 36 caliber revolver. (Terril Hebert)
Terril Hebert

 Modern Uses for The Percussion Revolver

The percussion revolver’s handling characteristics and accuracy lend well to a variety of applications. The most obvious use is in the reenacting game where the goal is to relive the past, but that should go without saying. Self defense was why the percussion revolver was invented in the first place, but there are better options today. However, the three main uses for the percussion revolver that might come to mind are:

  1. Small Game Hunting
  2. Large Game Hunting
  3. Target Shooting

Because caliber often dictates what you can do with any black powder firearm, let’s see how well the three most common calibers of percussion revolvers fare at each of these tasks.

.31 Caliber

The .31 caliber class of revolvers was designed for discreet self defense. The 1849 Colt Pocket and the Remington Pocket Model come to mind. These revolvers are not small by today’s standards and feature small fixed sights that are now used on today’s small carry guns. The small five-shot cylinders hold only about twelve grains of black powder, so power is more limited in these small guns. At best, these guns propel a 50-grain ball at about 700 feet per second.

The 50-grain lead ball that is nominally .323-inch diameter is the most common fodder for these little guns, but 70-grain conical bullets are also available. Some shooters use 4F blackpowder that is normally used for priming flintlocks in the small chambers of this revolver for the best possible velocity. I have personally used Pyrodex substitute powder and 3F blackpowder with good results and the same is true for .36 and .44 caliber revolvers.

These little .31 caliber revolvers are best on small game though they are no slouch shooting targets at the range. The accuracy and power is ample for small game out to about 25-30 yards. Outside the target range, I have used a .31 caliber Remington loaded with 10 grains of powder and a 50-grain ball to dispatch rabbit in my traps, and one brain shot does the job. Another virtue of the .31 is the small ball and relatively low velocity means that if the shot is not perfect on game, it is not terribly destructive on meat.

The author's 31 caliber Remington pocket revolver with five 50 grain balls. (Terril Hebert)
Terril Hebert

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.36 Caliber

.36 caliber was developed for the U.S. Navy for shooting men without the concern of having to take down horses. .36 caliber guns tend to be more versatile in size than their .31 caliber cousins. Service style pistols like the Remington Navy and the Colt 1851 and 1861 Navy are available. Pocket varieties like the 1862 Colt Police (pictured below) that is little more than a .31 caliber Colt blown up to take a .36 caliber round are also available.

Each normally feature the small fixed sights and a five- or six-shot capacity. The Naval style pistols have a bigger cylinder and chambers which allows for more flexibility of loading.

A Colt 1862 Police 36 caliber revolver. (Terril Hebert)
Terril Hebert

The bullets are bigger and can be pushed faster. 80-grain lead balls of .375-inch diameter are normal fodder for the .36 caliber, though conical bullets of about 130-grain weight are also available. These can be pushed at about 1,000 feet per second with a maximum charge of powder. Thirty grains of pistol powder can be loaded in most of these guns, but I found ten grains to be on a more appropriate power level for small game. The flexibility in loading ensure the .36 can outperform the .31 when used on bigger game.

The .36 is also no slouch on the target range and predictable hits can be made out to 75 yards.

.375 inch diameter 130 grain Minie style conical bullets for a 36 caliber revolver. (Terril Hebert)
Terril Hebert

.44 Caliber

The .44 is the most popular cap and ball caliber today. It started out in huge holster pistols of the Mexican War, but evolved into streamlined service pistols thanks to breakthroughs in metallurgy. Guns like the big Colt Walker and Dragoon series of pistols are available, as are later service guns like the Colt 1860 Army and the Remington New Model Army. A particularly popular revolver these days is the Colt 1851 Navy in .44 caliber, though it is a gun that did not exist in that caliber in the 19th Century. These guns normally feature small fixed sights, but many new models feature longer barrels and adjustable target sights. The capacity is normally six shots, though the odd LeMat revolver of Confederate fame holds ten shots.

.44 caliber revolvers normally use a .451- or .454-inch diameter ball and in my experience, the Remington seems to like the smaller ball. The lead ball runs around 140 grains and conical bullets run about 200 grains. The .44 can digest more powder too. A service gun like the 1860 Army can hold 30 grains nominally, but the monstrous Walker was designed to hold 60 grains. These bullets can be pushed past 1,000 feet per second. Like most cap and ball revolvers, the .44 caliber is no slouch on the target range. Small game can be taken with light loads, but in my experience the .44 caliber ball causes too much meat damage unless headshots are taken.

The .44 really shines on the big game field, however. In most areas, calibers over .40 are legal for big game. In my home state of Louisiana, .44 caliber is minimum. I have carried a .44 caliber Navy on my past deer hunting adventures. Though I never took a deer with it, I have taken the odd coyote coming too close for comfort at camp. I have, however, seen deer taken with the .44 caliber. Close, clean shots are recommended.

Final Thoughts

This is not the ultimate guide to hunting with black powder revolvers, but instead mere suggestions and pointers regarding what the revolver you have can reasonably be expected to do outside of having fun at the range.

These old fighting handguns are my favorite firearms to shoot. The balance, feel, and accuracy are all there. The loading process is as versatile as it gets, and you get more than one shot if you need it.

So, break out your revolver, check your game laws, and happy hunting.

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Practical Uses for the Cap and Ball Revolver