Milestones in Nineteenth Century Firearms Development, Part Four

The Cap-and-Ball Revolver

My well-used Uberti reproduction .44 1860 Colt Army revolver

Introduction

Every month my gun club holds a guest day when members can bring along friends and family to ‘have a go’ with their firearms. Maybe it’s because we were raised on a diet of Westerns and most men played cowboys and Indians with a cap gun when they were kids but whatever the reason, the gun that puts the biggest smile on the faces of my guests both male and female is without a doubt my cap-and-ball revolver. Getting their hands on and actually shooting the real thing is a dream come true for many people.

Although most muskets, rifles and pistols prior to the invention of the percussion cap were single-shot, numerous attempts had been made over the years to provide one or more backup shots, usually by adding additional barrels and locks to the weapon. This of course added not only to their expense and complexity but also to their weight and bulk making them more cumbersome to use. What was needed was a simple and robust mechanism that allowed multiple shots to be fired without reloading and the revolver answered these requirements.

While the principle of the revolving cylinder had been known since the 17th century, the safe and reliable ignition of multiple charges by the flintlock system had proved to be both complicated and expensive to achieve. The invention of the percussion-cap lock was a great leap forward as it allowed a major simplification of multi-shot firearms.

One type of pistol that was popular until the perfection of the revolver as we now know it was the ‘pepperbox’ which comprised a number of separate barrels (usually six) in a manually or mechanically rotated cluster. These usually smooth bored weapons were muzzle loaded, capped and typically fired by means of a bar hammer on top which lifted and fell when the trigger was pulled.

Pepperboxes were unwieldy to use due to their weight and lack of balance. They were also inaccurate as there was no provision for front sights but for all that they must have been very intimidating.

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The business end of a typical pepperbox – note the lack of sights and the bar hammer

Samuel Colt and his revolvers

In 1830 Samuel Colt sailed as a crew member from Boston to Calcutta and back and it is said that during the voyage he was impressed by the precision of the ship’s wheel and that this inspired his revolving pistol. This is probably apocryphal but on his return he nevertheless persuaded a local gunsmith to produce his first prototype pistol and in 1832 he left home again to tour with a medicine show in order to earn money to finance his experiments. In 1835 Colt was granted a British patent for a six shot, folding trigger pistol followed by French and US patents and by 1837 Colt revolvers were being manufactured by the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company of Paterson, New Jersey.

In 1844 15 Texas Rangers armed with .36 Colt 5-shot ‘Paterson’ revolvers defeated a band of 80 Comanches, killing an estimated 42 in the engagement. Prior to this, Indian tactics had been to wait until the enemy had fired their first shots and then attack en masse before they had time to reload. The four further volleys fired by the Rangers as the Comanches attacked must have come as a very unpleasant surprise.

Unfortunately for Colt, the Paterson Company had gone into liquidation in 1841 but when the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, Colt wrote to Captain Samuel Walker a former Texas Ranger who visited him to thrash out the problems with the original Paterson pistol. The resulting design that went into production in 1847 is known as the Colt ‘Walker,’ surviving examples of which are rare, now very much sought after by collectors and hence extremely valuable.

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The massive Uberti reproduction Colt Walker revolver of 1847 – note the lack of a retaining catch under the loading lever

The Colt Walker Dragoon revolver was a formidable weapon. It had a 9 inch barrel, weighed 4lb 9oz and fired either a .44 round ball or a conical bullet over a 60 grain powder charge at 1,500 feet per second. According to Uberti, the Walker was the most powerful handgun in the world until the introduction of the .357 magnum cartridge in the 1930s. The main problem with the Walker (apart from its tendency to blow up due to defective steel in the cylinders) was the way the loading lever would drop under the heavy recoil jamming the cylinder and preventing it from rotating. Later Colts were fitted with positive latches under the muzzle to prevent this happening.

Colt exhibited his pistols at the Great Exhibition at The Crystal Palace in 1851 to much acclaim. In 1852 he opened a factory in Vauxhall, London where first he assembled parts imported from the USA and from 1854 produced pistols from the raw materials using Sheffield iron and steel. In addition to private sales, the Colt factory supplied 24,000 revolvers to HM Government, many of which saw action in the Crimea, together with spare parts, bullet moulds, powder flasks and millions of his patent waterproof tinfoil cartridges.

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A Colt advertising broadsheet circa 1854

The London factory was closed in 1856 after an armistice was declared in the Crimea and the British government decided to adopt the Beaumont-Adams revolver as the standard service sidearm.

Samuel Colt died in January 1862 but his company continues in business to this day.

Next time you watch ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ look out for Clint using a pair of huge Walker Colts together with an 1860 Army, Colt’s last and arguably best muzzle-loading revolver, the model that we will now look at in some detail.

The Colt ‘Army’ Revolver of 1860

The Colt Walker and subsequent Dragoon models that succeeded it were heavy things to carry about and use but .36 ‘Navy’ and ‘Police’, ‘Pocket’ and ‘Baby’ models in a variety of barrel lengths and calibres were also available. The 1851 .36 Navy as used by James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok was Colt’s biggest seller but what was needed for military use was the stopping power of a .44 in a lighter, more manageable frame. The 1860 Army was light, streamlined, beautifully balanced and powerful; it was the most used revolver by Union forces in the American Civil War.

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1860 Army fully stripped, cleaned and ready for reassembly

The first stage in reassembly is to locate the ‘hand and spring’ into the hammer. The hand rises as the hammer is pulled back and engages with the pawl on the rear of the cylinder moving it round so that the next chamber lines up with the barrel.

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The hand and spring is the pistol’s Achilles’ heel as the spring is apt to break off where it is pressed and crimped into the hand. Fortunately spares are readily available
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Underside of the frame with hammer, trigger, bolt and trigger/bolt spring installed
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Here the brass trigger guard has been attached to the frame – note the end of the mainspring located under the roller at the rear of the hammer, the slot in the cylinder arbor for the wedge and the rebated frame – the wooden grips can now be attached
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With the hammer at half cock, the ‘bolt’ (the rectangular piece in the hole in the frame) is retracted allowing the cylinder to be rotated by hand for loading
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Here, with the hammer at full cock, the bolt has risen to engage one of the slots in the cylinder. This indexes and locks each chamber in turn in line with the barrel

The large screws above the trigger on either side of the frame are there to locate an optional shoulder stock that converts the pistol into a carbine. These were issued to the US Cavalry but were never popular as they were something else for troopers to carry and were not particularly useful. The problem being, how do you hold a revolving carbine safely without risking burning your left hand or worse, losing your fingers in the case of a chain fire? 

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This view of the cylinder shows the rectangular slots into which the bolt locates. Note how the cylinder is rebated or stepped so that a .44 ball can be loaded in a lighter, more compact frame. The engraving depicts a naval engagement of 16 May 1843 between the Texan and Mexican fleets
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In this rear view of the cylinder you can see the pawl which the hand engages as the hammer is pulled back to full cock and the six shielded nipples that take the caps
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The barrel assembly: from top to bottom – rifled bore; location for the arbor with wedge retracted; the channel for the loading ram and the two frame-locating pin holes

To complete the reassembly, grease is worked into the grooves on the arbor upon which the cylinder rotates, the cylinder slides on and the barrel and loading lever assembly is located onto the arbor and the two small pins on the frame. Finally, the wedge is tapped in to keep everything tight and the revolver is ready for use.

Loading a Colt revolver

All Colt cap-and-ball revolvers except for the early Patersons which were a bit unusual in that they had to be dismantled for loading, are loaded in the same way. With the weapon held with the barrel vertical, a measured charge of powder (which varies according to model and calibre) is poured into each chamber followed by a ball or conical bullet which is rotated under the rammer and forced down below the face of the cylinder. The pure lead projectiles have to be of a greater diameter than the chamber so that they fit tightly and do not jump forward when the gun is fired thereby preventing the cylinder from turning. Some people use a lubricated felt wad under the ball while others prefer to load without a wad and fill the face of each chamber with grease. This is supposed to be to prevent flame from one shot somehow by-passing the loads in the other chambers and setting off a ‘chain fire’ where all go off simultaneously. I have seen this happen but believe it to have been due to badly fitting caps on the nipples at the rear of the cylinder.

When I first started shooting some years ago, I was shown how to load a revolver with a powder flask and loose balls but it would not have been done like that back in the mid 19th century. Back in the day, cartridges made of combustible paper, nitrated animal intestine or tinfoil were sold in packs of six together with seven or eight caps.   A cartridge was rammed into each chamber without wads or grease and the nipples were then capped. It was considered dangerous to carry a loaded gun with the hammer down on a capped chamber so only five would have been loaded and capped in practice.

When you think about it, a powder flask is really an unprimed hand grenade and their use at the firing point is now either banned or actively discouraged on safety grounds with most shooters using pre-measured phials of powder. After experimenting with nitrated paper, I prefer to make my own ‘tinfoil’ cartridges out of aluminium kitchen foil, 27 grains of fine black powder and a .457 round ball.

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‘Tinfoil’ cartridges in course of manufacture. The shaped dowel I use as a former can just be seen top left
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Homemade ‘tinfoil’ revolver cartridges ready to take to the range

At the range most shooters use some form of stand to hold their revolver with the barrel upright to simplify loading. The hammer is put at half cock so that the cylinder is free to rotate in an anti-clockwise direction when viewed from above. A cartridge (or powder charge and loose ball) is then inserted into the bottom chamber; the cylinder is rotated so that the ball is under the ram and the loading lever is pressed down to force the oversized ball into the chamber compressing the powder. This is repeated for each chamber and I then fill the chambers with grease before capping the nipples ready for firing. The grease gets splattered everywhere lubricating the moving parts and keeping the fouling in the barrel soft for easier cleaning but it is very messy.

Colt recommended that the base of each cartridge be ‘pricked’ before loading to ensure ignition by the cap but although I do this, I have found it not to be really necessary.

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Here with the revolver in a homemade loading stand, a cartridge has been pushed into a chamber with thumb pressure
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The loaded chamber has now been rotated under the ram and the ball has been forced on top of the powder charge by pressing down on the loading lever
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Grease or tallow is then smeared over the cylinder face

All that now remains is for the nipples to be capped and the pistol is ready to fire.

Shooting the 1860 Army Revolver

All Colt cap-and-ball revolvers are ‘single action’ meaning that the hammer has to be pulled back manually to cock the action and simultaneously rotate the cylinder to index the next chamber in line with the barrel and lock it in position with the bolt. A ‘double action’ revolver only requires a pull of the trigger to rotate the cylinder, cock & lock the action and fire the shot; they are therefore much quicker to shoot which is a definite advantage in a mêlée.

With the pistol pointed in a safe direction, the hammer is pulled back to cock the piece and the sights are lined up ready to fire. The sights on a Colt are another of its weak points as the rear sight is simply a small notch cut into the hammer which can only be seen when the action is fully cocked and then disappears immediately the trigger is pulled.

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Capped and ready to shoot
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At the instant the Colt fired you can clearly see the vertical jets of flame from the nipple, radial flame from the gap between the cylinder and the barrel and the discharge from the muzzle together with the cloud of sulfurous smoke so characteristic of black powder firearms

The non-adjustable sights on these Colts were set at 50 yards and hitting a man- or horse- sized target with them at that distance is not too difficult. At 25 yards it would be very hard to miss.

The main cause of failure in these pistols is their tendency to jam due to used cap fragments falling into the mechanism. Club range officers don’t look too kindly on shooters waving loaded guns around in an attempt to dislodge metal fragments so bench stripping and reassembly is often necessary. This leads me to suspect that original caps from the period must have either stayed in place better or disintegrated completely on firing to prevent this happening.

Surprisingly, revolver development in the USA lagged behind Britain due to a restrictive patent on the ‘bored-through cylinder’ granted to Rollin White in 1855. White licensed Smith and Wesson as sole manufacturers giving them a monopoly on the manufacture of cartridge revolvers until the patent expired in 1869. Colt responded to this by first converting their existing cap-and-ball models to cartridge loading before introducing their .45 ‘New Model Army Single Action Revolver’ in 1873 which lives on in Wild West legend as ‘The Peacemaker,’ a name given to it by its retailers.

Conclusions

So far I have concentrated on the evolution of handguns from the single-shot, smoothbore flintlock of 1800 to the highly effective, rifled revolvers of the 1840s, 50s and 60s that was made possible due to the invention of the fulminate percussion cap.

In the next article we will consider how the long arms of the period were improved and in particular look at the Pattern 1853 family of Enfield rifle-muskets and the new bullet they fired, the deadly Minié ball.
 

© Tom Pudding 2019
 

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