Cleaning Percussion Revolvers: Pleasure or Pain?

Cleaning percussion revolvers requires time, knowledge and soapy water.

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  Shooting black-powder guns of any sort requires an added commitment of time, effort and knowledge gathering beyond that required of cartridge gun users.  If using black powder and almost all black-powder substitute powders, it is necessary to strip down the gun, wash in soapy water, dry, oil and then reassemble the guns after each use. The longer these guns sit, the more difficult it will be to disassemble them and the harder they will be to clean. In humid climates, such as in the Southeastern U.S., rust and corrosion starts immediately.

  You can remove the surface materials with ordinary gun oils and solvents, but the corrosive combustion products are in the micro-pores of the metal below the oil film where they can rust and corrode metal. In 90 percent humidity, this corrosion starts immediately on brass (also a problem for black-powder cartridge cases), is delayed a bit on carbon steels and a bit more for stainless steels. Stainless alloys are more corrosion resistant than other steels, but they will corrode if left in prolonged contact with these very corrosive combustion by-products.

  Even in dry western climates these black powder combustion by-products will build up overlapping films and “set” on the surface of interior parts making it increasingly difficult to operate the gun. Beyond the third cylinder-full of loads, it is necessary to remove the cylinder of many revolvers and clean the cylinder pin to keep them operating long enough to develop loads. As  a range expedient, I often use rubbing alcohol (which also contains water) on a rag to clean these pins prior to re-greasing them.  This keeps the guns going long enough to complete chronographing and load testing. If  this is not done you can deform the interior parts by putting  too much strain on them while attempting to cock these revolvers.

  I have had people bring me percussion revolvers with loads in the chambers that were  almost a solid black mass with crusted-on black powder. The guns had been shot to the extent that they refused to cock.  First, take the caps off the nipples if they are not corroded fast to them.  Then,  remove the wooden grips and put the entire gun into soapy water (Dawn dishwashing detergent is excellent, but almost any body or bar soap will do) and let it soak. Do this before you even put a screwdriver on the gun. After soaking for an hour or so, all of the components will disassemble much more easily. When wetted, powder charges can be teased out of chambers after the nipples are drawn.  Use wooden tooth picks or brass rods to pick out the charge if it is not liquified. It’s wise to re-soak the cylinder in water after the nipples are removed if there is any granular powder visible in the chamber. Finally, rinse the chambers in clean water and drive the balls out of the chambers with a small brass rod. Take your time, use fitted screwdrivers and go slowly.

 Black-powder loads in guns stay “alive” forever. Similar care must be used when cleaning an original gun which may be worth thousands of dollars (I remember when you could buy them for $125 in the 1950s.). If you do not have the patience to do this correctly, then have this done by another person who knows these guns and has the proper tools to clean them.

Heating revolver assemblies to drive out water.

 In the video I drop the assembled action parts of two guns, CVA’s Confederate Revolver and North American Arms’ .22 percussion pistol, into the water with instructions to “sling them dry and then put on a mild heat source to remove any interior water.” When these assemblies are in the water I use long bristled brushes to get as deep into the gun as I can to remove any surface materials. When they come out I use  Q-tips, twisted ends of paper towels and rags to soak up as much water a possible. The mild heat source is the eye of an electric stove. When the part is hot to the touch, that is sufficient. Let it cool, but while still warm re-oil. This allows even deeper penetration of the oil into the metal.

 If the gun is not going to be used, but only displayed, Conservator’s Wax may be applied to hot metal which will protect the gun against almost anything, including salt-water soaking, as long as the gun’s protective wax coating is not broken. This cleaning, heating and waxing is the proper method for museum storage of  firearms.

 If at all possible, clean these guns the same day they are shot. This has kept me up many late nights after matches where I might have five or more to clean. I could often clean two single-shot guns in the time it took to do one revolver. In this video it took me from 30 minutes to an hour to clean the guns. The Cabela’s Buffalo revolver took an hour  because I smoothed up a couple of parts with a grinder and oil stones prior to reassembling this new gun.  

  To ease reassembly, and also improve functionality, use a high temperature grease on the cylinder pins and put a touch of grease on the nipple threads before screwing them back in. Smooth cylinder pins such as on Cabellas’ Buffalo and other 1858 Remington replica revolvers may be put on a lathe and groves milled into them to hold additional lubricant, as Colt did on his guns. While not important in hunting where only a very few shots will be fired per trip, this improvement can be significant when target shooting and significantly increase your shooting time on the range.

  Properly cleaned, these guns can last for generations. Uncleaned, they can become worthless wall hangers in a few months.  Until you have the time, or develop the patience, to do the necessary “fooling around and fiddling with”  these guns in regards to cleaning them, they may not be for you. Go to the range and see of someone else will let you fire a few rounds through their gun. Perhaps this will be sufficient for you to say that you have done it and exorcise this particular demon.  

  If you are determined to buy one of these guns and shoot it,  “Remember, you have got to clean these things.”  

 “Modern Percussion Revolvers. Part 5. Cleaning” is now available as a YouTube video at: if you have any problems viewing it below. YouTube has branded two of my previous videos “hilarious.” This one may also qualify for that appellation, despite its unlikely subject matter.  One of  the other one they liked had to do with cleaning a wild turkey. Whoever knew that cleaning up things could be funny?

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