Loading and Firing
Cap and Ball Revolvers
Learn All About the Loads, Bullets, Balls, Procedures and Accoutrement for Shooting Colt and Remington
Cap and Ball Revolvers
by Timothy P. Banse
1. Before loading the cylinder, first snap two percussion caps on each nipple to blow clear any dust, oil or crud that might have otherwise fouled the flame path of the nipple. Tip, if the revolver takes #11 caps and you have #10s lying around that won't fit any other muzzleloader in your inventory, consider burning them up clearing the nipples.
2. Load each cylinder with powder. While some old-timers claim black powder boasts an edge over Pyrodex, that is not my experience. Even if this were true, black powder is more dangerous to store and can be harder to find. Look to the sidebar charts for recommendations as to how much powder to charge the cylinders.
Cap and ball revolvers are either brass or steel framed. Brass is historically correct as the Confederate Army, lacking iron foundries and the machinery necessary to make steel framed guns, produced brass-framed revolvers. That's all well and good except that reproduction/replica brass firearms cannot withstand the chamber pressure that a steel framed revolver can. You'll see this reflected in the powder charge recommendations located in the sidebar.
For example, Hodgdon recommends against using its potent 777 Propellant in any brass-framed revolver. Triple Seven's high energy lends higher velocities when used in the same VOLUME as blackpowder. Important note: In order to duplicate a blackpowder load's velocity using Triple Seven, you must decrease the powder charge by 15%. Even in a steel frame, Hodgdon 777 propellant is not designed to be used volume-for-volume. You must reduce the amount of 777 by 15 percent. Important note: According to Hodgdon, Triple 7 granular can be used with any type of ignition except flint. It's only the Triple 7 Pellets that require 209 primers. So Triple 7 is entirely appropriate for cap and ball revolvers.
Pyrodex is lighter in weight than blackpowder, weighing only about 70% as much as blackpowder. However, because Pyrodex yields more energy per pound than blackpowder, the same volume of Pyrodex gives similar performance to blackpowder. Pyrodex loads are measured by volume, not weight. Restated for clarity, Hodgdon Pyrodex P is used volume-for-volume against black powder, which means the same powder measure used to throw X-volume of black powder can also be used for Pyrodex.
You also need to know Pyrodex pellets, as opposed to granular powder, make cap and ball revolver shooting less messy, faster reloading and much more consistent down range. When loading with these preformed Pyrodex charges, there is no flask or spout and therefore no loose powder mess. Pyrodex pistol pellets are offered for .44/45 caliber handguns in a pellet equivalent to 30 grains volume of FFFG black powder, loaded 100 pellets to the jar. To load a revolver with Pyrodex pistol pellets, simply drop a pellet in each chamber, insert a Wonder Wad, ram, insert a ball, ram and then cap the gun's nipples. Obviously, with a 30 grain charge, you won't want to load pistol pellets in a brass frame revolver.
3. Once charged, place a greased wad on top of the powder. Restated for clarity, the wad goes between the ball and powder. Seat the wad firmly on the powder before seating the ball. For wads you have several choices including, RMC OxYoke Originals Wonder Seals, Thompson/Center Bore Buttons, Dixie Gun Works Wonder Wads, NS Sagebrush Products Cap and Ball Wads and others. Or, in the alternative to factory wads, you can make your own wads, as detailed in the accompanying sidebar.
Ram the wad, so deeply that the rammer comes to its full stop, if possible. Now load the ball, keeping in mind how important it is to ram deeply enough so that there is absolutely no air gap lurking between the powder/wad and ball.
This is simple enough when loading a full powder charge. But when loading a more accurate, albeit less potent, target load of say just 15- or 25-grains of powder the length of the rammer arm may be too short to seat the ball deeply enough to compress the powder. As a result,accuracy will suffer. To compensate, black powder enthusiasts shooting small loads compensate by adding corn meal(10- or 20-grains) or, multiple felt wads to take up space in order to ensure the ball compresses the powder.
As for the projectile, should you fire lead balls or a conical bullet? Opinions vary. Some shooters argue that conical bullets are not as accurate as a lead ball because ramming cants/cocks the conical off to one side causing the bullet (on firing) to enter the forcing cone at an off-angle. Personally, I prefer conical bullets compared to balls even though doing so sacrifices powder capacity in favor of muzzle energy (knock down power).
Ultimately, no matter whether you choose ball or bullet, load an oversize projectile. For example, with the .36 Navy instead of a .375-inch diameter ball load .380-inch. Similarly for for the .44, instead of .451, one would use either .454- or .457-inch diameter balls. Why? Because the larger diameter balls create a wider bearing surface for the rifling to grip, which of course, aids accuracy. With the wider ball a lead ring shaves off the ball when it's forced it into the smaller diameter chamber. What you end up with is a waterproof, flash-proof chamber.
Round balls are available as either cast or swaged. 0 buckshot measures about .320 inch in diameter and makes for an excellent ball for a .31-caliber cap and ball revolver. And as we just mentioned, Navy revolvers (.36 caliber) shoot .375 to .380 balls, while the Army Revolvers (.44s) use balls ranging from .451 to .457 in diameter. Most modern molds are sprueless, which is to say they cut off the sprue flush. Old style molds don't. Balls with a sprue should be loaded sprue up. Casting balls from a Lee or Lyman bullet mold is kind a fun.
As far as conical bullets are concerned, consider casting them yourself as well. Lee Precision MOLD D C 375-130-1R Lee Double Cavity Mold produces a .375-inch diameter 130 grain round nose bullet. It includes handles. If your Army Revolver likes .451-.457 round balls then the choice would be Lee Precision Mold .450-200-1r. This Lee Double Cavity Mold produces a .450 diameter 200 grain, round nose bullet. The bullet tapers with the larger forward diameter measuring about .451 According to the manufacturer, it's a super accurate bullet that loads straight and true. Two lube grooves prevent flash ignition and lead fouling. With its greater mass it delivers more energy and far greater accuracy than round balls. For lube, these bullets like Liquid Alox.
No matter whether casting balls or bullets, use pure lead. Don't use wheelweights because their tin content hardens them (Lead BHN 5 * Wheelweights BHN 8 - 12). Relatively low-pressure, low-velocity, cap and ball revolvers, require the malleability of pure lead in order to obdurate bullets, to seal the bore on firing. Not only does pure lead better engage the rifling, it's also significantly easier to ram into the cylinder.
Remember early on when we advocated using a wad between the powder charge and the bullet? Truth be told you don't absolutely need a wad if you slather grease over top of the bullet. Grease seals against the flame that shoots out from the gap between the cylinder and the barrel. Favorites include: Ox Yoke Wonder Lube, Bore Butter, Thompson-Center's Natural Lube 1000+, Hogdon's Pyrodex Lube, and CVA's Grease Patch. You can also use plain old Crisco vegetable shortening or its equivalent. Back in the day a traditional home brew lube was a 50/50 blend of beeswax and mutton tallow. These days you can acquire the stuff pre-made from Dixie Gun Works. Lubes keep fouling soft and therefore easier to clean out of the rifling grooves. Conversely, scrupulously avoid petroleum based lube because it leaves a tar-like fouling in its wake.
Ostensibly, besides keeping a bore in good shape, the reason given for over-ball lube is to prevent chain-firing, which is where the flash from firing one chamber sets off another, or worse, all five cylinders. Truth be told, this is highly unlikely scenario when using the properly over-sized ball, since an airtight seal is created during loading.
Finally, there is no dispute that chain fires are caused when hot gases reach powder loads in the other chambers of your revolver's cylinder triggering their ignition. Be advised chain fire could occur at either end of the cylinder, meaning theoretically flame could find its way into the chamber via the nipples should backflash from one caps ignition spurt sideways into an adjacent loose or poorly fitting cap. Use #10 caps on #10 nipples. Pinching a #11 cap onto a #10 nipple could cause as a problem.