Still Viable: Black Powder Revolver Part 2             

Welcome back to this two part series on black powder revolvers. Today we will be looking at the operation, performance, and cleaning of these versatile weapons.

Table of Contents

Operation

The operating procedures for all black powder revolvers are nearly the same from weapon to weapon. To load the revolver, follow the following steps: (assuming the cylinder is free from oil and debris)

  1. Place the weapon at half-cock.
  2. Charge a cylinder with the appropriate amount of black powder or equivalent.
  3. Add any filler required to the cylinder (I use oatmeal, my neighbor used Kix cereal)
  4. Place a round ball or conical bullet on the cylinder mouth and push it down firmly into place with the ram lever underneath the barrel. The cylinder mouth should shear off a thin ring of lead from the round ball as you push it in.  
  5. Repeat steps 2-4 for the remaining cylinders (note: if your model does not have resting notches between the cylinders, then one cylinder must be left empty, or uncapped, for the hammer to rest on when not cocked.)
  6. Place percussion caps on the nipples.
  7. Smear a small amount of Crisco or Bore Butter into the front of the cylinder to seal it and prevent chain-fire. Alternatively, a drizzle of melted wax over the ball after loading, and a drizzle around (but not overtop of) the percussion cap will keep the charges dry and ready to fire in all but the worst monsoon. I did this to my 1858 before I left for basic training and when I fired it a year later all the chambers went off without a hitch.
  8. Lower the hammer onto a resting notch or empty cylinder.

Performance

While not in the same league as a .357 or .44 Magnum (with the exception of the Colt Walker), black powder revolvers offer enough power and accuracy for most hunting or defensive tasks. With a round ball the velocities can approach 1000 fps in the .36 cal and 850 fps in .44 (per my ancient Black Powder Shooters Guide). This is plenty good enough for small game, and I can testify that a .44 round ball with a moderate charge will kill a Michigan whitetail with a neck shot at ten yards.

The accuracy of BP revolvers is as good as the shooter is. The sights can be crude, and on a Colt, they are regulated for 50 yards. But with some range time good proficiency can be achieved. My Navy Arms built 1858 will shoot cloverleafs at 15 yards if I do my part and use a moderate load.

Cleaning

Cleaning is the only major downside to black powder revolvers. It can be a time consuming process simply because there are more parts than a BP rifle. There are many ways to get the job done, I will detail the method that I use.

  1. Disassemble the revolver (not the lockwork!). Remove the cylinder and grips, take the nipples out of the cylinder. For a Remington pattern, cylinder removal is accomplished by partially lowering the ram and pulling the cylinder pin. For a Colt, the barrel wedge must be pushed out and the barrel assembly removed from the center pin before the cylinder can be removed.
  2. Flush the entire weapon with boiling (or close to) water to neutralize the corrosive residue from the cap and powder. Place the nipples in a jar with hot water, put a lid on it, and shake it profusely. If the weapon is very dirty or has been let sit for a couple days, add Dawn dish soap to the water.
  3. Run a bore brush and wet patches through the barrel until they come out clean. Then dry patch till dry.
  4. Put the cylinder business end up in a dish with some hot water. Using a short section of cleaning rod with a handle and a swab pump the swab up and down in each cylinder to scrub clean.
  5. Let all components dry (if the water was very hot this should not take long) or blow-dry with an air compressor.
  6. Flush lockwork of pistol with T/C #13 or similar non-petroleum preservative.
  7. Run patches of Bore butter or similar through barrel and inside of cylinder.
  8. Coat exterior of weapon in light coat of Bore Butter. Do not use Petroleum based products with black powder firearms as the chemicals will react with the powder and primer residue the next time you fire the weapon, and it will rust up in a matter of days!

Conversion Cylinders

If your black powder revolver has a steel frame, then you may be able to use a conversion cylinder in it. A conversion cylinder is a spare cylinder that has been adapted to contain centerfire cartridges. I have seen them for both the Remington and Colt pattern revolvers and they are specific to both the pattern and the manufacturer (typically either Pietta or Uberti). Cylinders for the .44 BP revolvers are chambered in .45 Long Colt, and cylinders for the .36 caliber weapons are either .38 Special or .38 Long Colt, depending the design. I have also seen them for the .31 caliber guns, and these are normally found in .32 Smith and Wesson Short.

There are two varieties of conversion cylinder. The first has a rear cap that contains a firing pin for each chamber and the cap must be removed to change out the rounds, so the cylinder must be removed from the gun each time. The second kind is commonly known as the Kirst Konverter. It also features a rear cap or plate, but this plate does not turn with the cylinder, but instead has a single, fixed firing pin and a loading gate. Essentially turning a BP revolver into a standard cartridge weapon.

There are two limitations on these devices. The first is that only low-powered “cowboy” ammunition can be used in them. Still formidable enough for most uses, (especially in the .44s) but not anything spectacular. The second limitation is a legal one. Putting a conversion cylinder in your pistol converts it to a modern weapon and can place it under different rules. For example, in Michigan a BP revolver is considered an antique weapon and not subject to registration. But if you put a conversion cylinder in it now it is a modern cartridge handgun and you are required to register the revolver. Please be aware of your state and local laws if you are taking advantage of the legal gray zone occupied by these weapons.

Conclusion

The black powder revolver is a tool from a bygone era that continues to hang on in this modern one simply because they are still effective, fun, and in some cases, legally discreet. I consider the cap and ball revolver to be an ideal weapon for the preparedness and self-reliance community because you can cast your own bullets and make your own powder. The only component that needs to be sourced are the percussion caps. The caps can also be fabricated if you are adventurous but that is a whole other article.

The point is that black powder revolvers are not just a prop from an old movie. They can take game, defend life, and are a lot of fun at the range. Give one a try and you’ll see what I mean.

Until next time…

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