Loading Modern Percussion Revolvers

These guns and components were used in the video, "Modern Percussion Revolvers. Part 3. Loading." and are described below.

Percussion revolvers that most people know from the Civil War era are now available in modernized guns that both replicate the originals to varying degrees or are completely new designs. The new guns include Ruger’s Old Army, Pietta’s 1858 Remington-style  Buffalo with a 12-inch barrel, an 1873 Colt Peacemaker look-alike from Traditions,  and .22-caliber stainless revolvers made by North American Arms.  In addition, new powders are available such as Hodgdon’s Pyrodex P in granular and pellet form,  Triple Seven and other black powder substitutes as well as bullets, lubricated wads and accessories.  

  These modern components  make these revolvers easier to use, improve  accuracy and offer more flexibility for a variety of target, plinking and hunting uses. I am a hunter, and if I have a gun I am fairly well going to kill something with it. This was a real challenge with some of the guns such as the weakly powered .22 revolvers which are best used on small rodents at close range and others with such poor sights that they are best employed for follow-up shots on big game at point-blank ranges.

 Solid-frame all-steel revolvers can take loads of Triple Seven powder which develops 10 percent more energy that the same granulations of black powder. Additional killing power is added with  magnum-strength percussion caps and modern conical bullets.    These improvements, combined with adjustable sights and long barrels,  have the potential of improving these revolvers’ capabilities as killers of  smallish big-game species.  I am investigating the hunting potential of these guns in a 7-part video series.

  Part 3, “Loading” reminded me that there are some  contradictions in the literature about these guns in that they are sometimes called .44s or .45s  in different references. The Colt designation for these guns was that the .44 was considered the Army caliber, whereas the .36 was the Navy caliber. Replica .44 guns take .454 balls made of pure lead. As these are loaded, a ring of lead is cut from the bullets by the steel cylinder walls. Leading of the bore is prevented by putting lubricant over the top of the bullets, which also prevents chain firing. This is when flame jumps from chamber to chamber and the entire gun fires at once – a spectacular event.  Lubricant over the top of the ball and a felt wad beneath it  helps prevent chain-fires.

  The Pyrodex pistol-pellet load gave uncharacteristically non-uniform performance in  Traditions’ Peacemaker look-alike. The first load apparently caused sufficient recoil to cause the 6 O’clock chamber to fire because the cap slammed against the gun’s backplate. The next shot sounded like a squib and the others fired normally. Some lube did get into the “squib” chamber during loading. This appears to have spoiled the pellet which partly ignited, but did not generate normal pressures.  Additional shooting revealed that this revolver would not shoot round-ball loads primed by CCI Magnum percussion caps and charged with either Pyrodex Pistol Pellets or 30 grains of  FFFg  without simultaneously discharging one or two other chambers.  More work with this gun will be needed to develop workable lower-pressure  loads. DO NOT TRY HEAVY LOADS IN THIS GUN.  

  For reasons probably having to do with the barrels or tooling he had available,  Bill Ruger’s Old Army uses a larger .457 bullet. Sometimes these are called .45s, although they are only fractionally larger that the .451-bullets used in the .44s.  Also, conical revolver bullets are sometimes designated as .45-caliber for the Ruger and the slightly smaller balls used in  Colt and Remington  replica revolvers are called  .44s.  Muzzleloading rifles,  that are commonly called .45s,  very often use a .440 round ball and patch. These round balls are not intended for .44-caliber revolvers.

 Although elongate, or conical, bullets were originally available for percussion revolvers, several more modern styles have been developed that give better results. The one shown in this video is Buffalo Bullet Company’s Round Nose Pistol Bullet (stock no. 44050) . On the box this is labeled as “.44-caliber, .451 diameter.”  This is the size designed for the Ruger Old Army revolver. In the video I call it a Ball-Et which is a designation the company uses for a line of  similarly shaped rifle bullets in various calibers.

  The Pyrodex pellets that are shown are special pellets designed for pistol use and marked “for CAP and BALL REVOLVERS.” These are also sold in round containers in contrast to the rectangular boxes used for the rifle pellets. These do not have the black-powder priming charge molded on the end of the pellet as used on Pyrodex rifle pellets.   These pistol pellets do not work well as blank charges. They may project as flaming missiles out the end of the barrel if fired with only a wads because insufficient pressure is generated to combust the powder. Shooters have reported  inconsistant results with these pellets in percussion revolvers.

 Ox-Yoke Originals makes both the lubricated felt wads (No. 4400) as “Wonder Wads 1000 Plus,” and the wax chamber seals as “Revolver Wonder Seals” (No. OXO2344). These can be purchased from dealers or ordered on-line  from Dixie Gun Works, Cabela’s or other catalogue stores.

 Pyrodex pellets and substitute black powders are often more difficult to ignite than black powder, and I use CCI Magnum No. 11 percussion caps. This size cap is “standard” for replica percussion guns, except for those that use the larger musket cap. Originally, there was a variety of nipple sizes and caps to fit them, with smaller guns taking smaller caps.

“Modern Percussion Revolvers. Part 3. Loading” may be seen as a YouTube video at:  http://youtu.be/kzLfX1UfILA.

6 thoughts on “Loading Modern Percussion Revolvers

  1. In the muzzle-loading era, rifled weapons were caliber-designated by the bore size, not the groove-size. The C & B revolver arrived during the muzzle-loading era and was caliber-designated as a muzzle-loader.

    Both a modern 45 cartridge pistol and a 44 Army C & B revolver have approximate 0.440″ bores, and approximate 0.450″ grooves. So in breech loading terms, a Colt 1860 Army C & B revolver is a “45”; in muzzle-loading terms it is a “44”. The 1860 Army cylinder chambers would be 0.450″ diameter, to match the 0.450″ rifling groove. Now it is very clear why a “44” Army cartridge conversion fires 45 caliber cartridges!

    To safely seal C & B chambers against flashover, moisture and bullet shift under recoil, a general rule of thumb is that balls/conicals used in revolvers be at least 0.003″-0.004″ larger than cylinder chamber. So our 1860’s 0.450″ cylinder chamber could use the common 0.454″ diameter soft lead projectiles, and it wouldn’t hurt to use 0.457″! The high leverage of the loading lever will barely notice the difference between 0.454 and 0.457 anyway, and the larger bearing surface of the 0.457″ may just shoot a bit more accurately, especially if high velocity heavy loads are used!

    The 36 Navy revolvers ran approximately 0.360″ bores and 0.372″ grooves, and the cylinder chamber of roughly 0.372″ required a minimum 0.375″ ball, although a 0.380″ works much better in my experience.

    The 31 pocket models ran approximately 0.310″ bores and 0.320″ grooves and the cylinder chamber of 0.320″ required a ball of around 0.323″ minimum, although most shooters often used 00 buckshot of 0.330″!.

    In the Italian replicas, Uberti revolvers run pretty close to original Colt C & B revolver chamber dimensions of 0.450″ for “44’s”, 0.372″ for “36’s” and 0.320″ for “31’s”. Pietta’s revolvers run about 0.003″ smaller diameter in the chamber dimensions than Uberti revolvers. And Ruger decided to use the same bore/groove dimensions of the 45 caliber cartridge models in the “Old Army”C & B revolver, resulting in a cylinder chamber of 0.453”, just slightly larger than original Colt “44” dimensions.

    So there you have the whole boring story of why C & B revolver calibers are so darn confusing. I hope this helps a bit, but I fear that all I may have done is stirred the mud up even more!

    If you want to get really confused just wait until I describe how converting Colt and Remington Navy revolvers to cartridge gave birth to the entire confusing 38 / 357 caliber designations for cartridges…..

    I think I’ll just shut up here and skedaddle before the lynch mob arrives!

  2. Dear Greg,

    Thanks for your excellent run-down on the .44-.45 issue. I have used .457 balls in Italian replicas that took the smaller .454 size. I don’t like to put that much pressure on the loading lever. I have bent them before. This was decades ago, and I don’t remember the circumstances – just the result. I was also doing a bit of bullet casting at the time and it may be that these were harder bullets as well as being oversized. At any rate, users who do cast their own must pay close attention to their chamber sizes and make sure that they either use pure lead or are very close to chamber dimentions with harder bullets.

    Parts for guns still in production may be replaced. I do not know how long any replacement parts may be available from Ruger. They are probably not throwing them away quite yet, but once any spairs are gone, they are not likely to make any new ones. If users find that they really love their Old Army and are going to use it a lot, it would be prudent to get some spare nipples, small lock parts, screws and a loading lever while you can.


    • “At any rate, users who do cast their own must pay close attention to their chamber sizes and make sure that they either use pure lead or are very close to chamber dimentions with harder bullets.”

      Excellent advice Hovey! Agree 100%. I normally use 80-1 Lead-to-tin alloy and no harder than 40-1. Both have a BHN hardness very close to pure lead and the small percentage of tin makes for much easier casting, especially for the conicals I like to use in my C & B revolvers.

      I have used Lyman #2 alloy to cast balls/conicals and it does make loading much tougher, and stresses the loading lever much more than an alloy very close to pure soft lead in hardness.

      Original C & B revolvers from Colt, Remington and Whitney that I have examined all have a light chamfer on the cylinder chamber openings, a feature lacking on the modern replicas and Ruger OA. I used a 1/2″ ball reamer, available from Brownells, to lightly chamfer the chambers on a spare Uberti Remington Army cylinder. The projectiles loaded much easier, being swaged into the chamber rather than shearing off a ring of lead as is common with modern-made C & B revolvers.

      I know spare parts are available for the Italian replicas and can be ordered online from VTI Gunparts,and Taylors. I too, hope Ruger continues to supply spare parts for the Old Army.

      With your new series on C & B revolvers, Hovey,you may just start a new interest in the practical use of C & B revolvers and Ruger may have to restart production of the Old Army to meet demand!

      At any rate, thanks for your efforts. I’m impressed by the quality of your production. I wish you much success. I do thoroughly enjoy your work here!

      Kingsport, TN

  3. Hovey, this series is very informative and well done. I can’t wait to see your range report and the hunting video that will follow. Kudos to you for the work you are doing and promoting my favourite sport of hog hunting with cap and ball revolvers.

    Keep up the good work!


  4. Haven’t tried the various subs except for granular Pyrodex. I like Pyrodex because it is cheap and works well. I understand the pellets can have a delayed ignition, so I stick to the powder. Been thinking of trying 777 though. l will have to try having a little more punch with a hotter ignition.

    • TripleSeven is a good powder. One thing I have noted is that it will degrade over time and lose velocity-energy. I use fresh powder in my pistols and the older stuff in my shotguns. I do like the facts that it creates less “gunk” in the barrel and is easier to clean up after use. It is however, also corrosive and you must use the same cleaning steps as black powder or Pyrodex P.

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