Firing a Cap and Ball Revolver --Ron Ray

So you’re looking at one of those old-fashioned, black powder, cap and ball revolvers? Think it might be fun to shoot one? Well, you’re right. But they’re also very different from modern designs. I’ve had one for about six months, and here are my impressions.

You’ll need black powder, percussion caps, and a powder measure (required by range rules). I also recommend a powder funnel (fits on powder can so you can pour into the powder measure) and a small plastic butter dish to catch excess powder. The measure works like measuring cups and spoons for cooking- you slightly overfill it, then scrape the excess off the top. The butter dish catches the excess so you can put it back into the powder can later. You want a capping tool to put the caps on the nipples- bare fingers work but are tedious and frustrating.

You also need a small tub of grease or something similar- Crisco seems to be ubiquitous. After loading powder and bullet, you smear Crisco over the chamber mouth. The Crisco lubricates the bore, softens fouling, and prevents one chamber’s flash from igniting another chamber. In other words, pull the trigger and more than one chamber goes off- not a good day.

The range rules require you to have a way of rendering inert or unloading a charged cylinder if there is a range emergency or the thing just won’t go bang. To inert cylinders, squirt light machine oil or water through the nipples into the chambers to ruin the powder. Use a needle oiler, small oil can, or eyedrop bottle (my favorite). Don’t use WD-40, carburetor cleaner, or similar stuff- it’s too flammable and an ember might ignite both powder and fluid. You can also get unloaders that use BB-gun CO2 cylinders to blow the bullet and powder out of the chamber- but make sure it fits your gun. There is not enough clearance around the nipples on my Ruger Old Army to fit the unloader I purchased.

In your kit bag, you’ll want a vent pick to clean out any clogged nipples and a nipple wrench that fits your gun (check the fit- I have a wrench that won’t fit my Old Army). Bring a rag to wipe the crud and goop (think of copier toner mixed with warm Crisco) off your hands and gun. You also want a strong steel pick to deal with stuck caps. After firing, a cap can stick on a nipple, or fall into the hammer slot and cause a misfire by preventing the hammer from hitting the next live cap. I use a small hobbyist’s screwdriver to pry stuck caps off the nipples and retrieve loose ones from the hammer slot.

Loading the thing is time consuming- other people have loaded and fired three or more high capacity clips before I have six rounds loaded. But the reward is sweet! A modest flash, a large cloud of acrid smoke, and a pleasing shove into the hand. You’ll have everyone’s attention on the firing line. A quick look at the front of the cylinder confirms that a crud-wiping rag is a good idea.

The last big difference is cleaning. The best thing for black powder is hot soapy water. I remove the grips and put the gun in a dishpan of warm water and dish detergent. I scrub it down with an old toothbrush and use a bronze bore brush in the barrel and chambers. I’m told some people put the gun in the dishwasher. After rinsing, you need to dry and oil it. I put aluminum foil on my oven rack and heat it for an hour or so at 180 to 200 degrees. I’m also told a hairdryer works well. Afterwards, oil up- but remember that you need to wipe out the chambers before firing because oil will degrade the powder.

Originally published in the GGC Newsletter - Spring 2000