Still Viable: Black Powder Revolvers – Part 1 

“God made men, but Sam Colt made them equal.” In 1836 a man by the name of Samuel Colt built a factory and began to produce a weapon that changed the face and odds of warfare and self-defense. That weapon was the cap and ball black powder (BP) revolver.

Considered by many to be an obsolete curiosity, the black powder revolver is still a useful, accurate, and capable sidearm. There are also some distinct advantages that these pistols bring to the table that will also be discussed. The first part of this series will touch on the legalities and operation of BP revolvers and the more popular models on the market.

Table of Contents

Legal Status

Under federal law, a BP revolver is considered a Pre-1898 antique (even if a replica) and therefore is not a firearm under federal law. This means that unless your state decrees otherwise, these pistols can be purchased without any paperwork by anyone.

It pays to know your state regulations as they vary greatly. New York treats them like a modern pistol for purchase and use, but Missouri does not. Arkansas and Michigan do not require a background check for purchase but treat BP revolvers as a modern firearm if you are carrying it. Local regulations can make this even more confusing. If you want to make use of the “non-firearm” nature of the BP revolver because you cannot own a modern arm or wish to have an “off-books” sidearm, then you will need to become an expert on your state and local laws regarding them.

Models

While today’s shooter has a mind-boggling array of pistols to choose from, the selection of yesteryear was more limited. There were many percussion sidearms built overseas and found in the US, but most of the originals (and replicas thereof) found today are American models. Below are some of the more popular replicas found on the market today.

Colt Walker / Dragoon

The Colt Walker was the most powerful repeating pistol ever made until the introduction of the .357 Magnum. It is a literal blast to shoot despite its quirk of dropping the loading lever when fired, binding the chambers. Its successor the Dragoon is slightly smaller but nearly as powerful. Many of the deficiencies noted on the Walker were addressed, leading to the Dragoon becoming a favorite sidearm, not only for settlers headed west but also for Civil War troops on both sides. Both pistols are the most capable of the BP revolvers at addressing large predator problems with proper shot placement.

Colt 1849

Also known as the Pocket, the 1849 fires a .31 caliber ball at sedate velocities. Modern testing shows roughly 700 fps with a round ball. The 1849 is a petite five-shot weapon that is small enough to conceal and cheap to shoot.

Colt 1851 Navy

Found in either .36 or .44 caliber with brass or steel frames, the 1851 Colt is a six-shot pistol capable of adequate power and good accuracy. Basically, a scaled-up 1849, the 1851s are one of the most common replica BR revolvers found on the market today, and are generally the most affordable.

Colt 1860 Army

Mechanically the same as the model 1851, the 1860 Army is the most elegant of the Colt BP revolvers. Found in .44 caliber, the grip is longer, and all the metal is sculped to an almost aerodynamic appearance. If you are after looks, this is your weapon.

Remington 1858 Army

A favorite of Buffalo Bill Cody, who carried his Remington throughout his time as a frontier scout. Packing the sidearm well after the advent of reliable cartridge revolvers. Cody famously stated of the pistol: “It never failed me.” The 1858 design includes a portion of the frame over top of the cylinder (a top strap) that allowed it to handle heavier charges than the Colts. Found in .44 or .36 caliber, the ones I have owned have been exceptionally accurate.

Remington 1863 Pocket

A pint-sized version of the 1858 in .31 caliber with a spur trigger. Performance is similar to the 1849 Colt, it’s just uglier.

Ruger Old Army

Based on the venerable Blackhawk, the Old Army is the Cadilac of Black Powder revolvers. Overbuilt in typical Ruger fashion, they will handle max charges without issue. Produced from 1972-2008, the Old Army is sought after by those who need a workhorse BP revolver. Examples command a premium on the used market, and they sell quickly.

The Great Paul Harrell on Black Powder Revolvers for personal protection

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.

Next in the series we will look at the performance and cleaning regiment of black powder revolvers along with a glance at conversion cylinders for them.

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