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Loading a Cap and Ball

The pistols carried into battle in the Civil War were almost exclusively (over 90%) cap and ball revolvers. They were loaded with loose blackpowder and a bare bullet, or with paper cartridges. Both round ball and conical bullets were used.

Loading is from the front of the cylinder. The term "revolver" comes from the cylinder revolving to bring the chambers in line with the barrel one at a time for firing.

The original invention of Samuel Colt in the 1830s was how to have the hammer automatically revolve the cylinder as the hammer was cocked. Nearly all Civil War revolvers had five or six chambers.

Before loading with powder, fire a percussion cap on each chamber, and another if needed, until the flash hole is clear of oil. Point the pistol at the ground. There is enough power in a cap at close range to damage an eye or bend blades of grass. Try it on the grass.

Loading was by measuring and pouring the powder in the front end of each chamber followed by the bullet. Don't smoke while loading as blackpowder is very easily detonated by a spark. Powder is usually measured by volume. Most shooters buy a tube pre-made for the correct powder charge to use with a powder flask.

The slightly oversized bullet was then swaged and crammed into place by a built in loading lever. The tight fit of the bullet was essential to keep the unfired bullets from jumping out the front when the gun recoils when fired.

Jamming the bullet into the chamber requires a strong hand, experience, or both. Liberal manufacturing tolerances during the Civil War occasionally left chambers less than perfectly round. The unlucky happenstance of an out of round chamber and a misshapen bullet could leave a gap along side a bullet. The powder flash leaking from the slight clearance between the cylinder and barrel could send flame through such a gap alongside a bullet to discharge another chamber.

To prevent such accidental secondary discharges, and to keep the blackpowder barrel fouling soft, a dab of grease or lard or candle wax was put on top of each bullet. For most of the twentieth century, Crisco cooking shortening was a favorite blackpowder lube. In the last several years better products have been developed.

After all the chambers are loaded with powder and ball, then a percussion cap is fitted to the back of every chamber in the cylinder. The loading sequence of the caps last is for safety. Most shooters would not want the hammer to accidentally fall on a loaded chamber while doing something else with the gun pointed at the user. The hammer must be at half-cock to revolve the cylinder for all this laborious loading work. The most likely time for trouble is when cramming the bullet down with the loading lever. 

Put the percussion caps on last. To cram the bullets into place, everyone holds the pistol by the grip in one hand, cram the loading lever with the other hand, but to maximize their arm power, almost everyone at some time will have the pistol held close into their own chest with the barrel pointing directly at their own face! Do everything else first making the last step to put on the percussion caps.

However, for experienced cavalrymen going into battle, there was another problem. Rain, or any water, could ruin the percussion cap, or the powder. Therefore, the caps might be put on first with hot candle wax dripped around each cap to seal it against water. If the candle or wax ignited a cap, it would go off without any powder to ignite. The risk of an accidental discharge during loading by an experienced trooper is slight. Putting the caps on first is an unacceptable risk for peacetime recreational shooting.

Cap and ball revolvers misfire more often than the subsequent metallic cartridge guns. The primary causes of a misfire from most likely to less often are

  1. The cap fell off (the remedy is to slightly squeeze each cap just before sliding it in place),
  2. Oil blocked the vent tube from the cap to the powder (only applied to the first loading and the remedy is to snap a cap on each chamber without powder until you can see clear light through the hole),
  3. Rain water damaging a cap,
  4. The fired caps fall backwards into the mechanism and soften the hammer fall,
  5. For loosely fitting Colt revolvers, the barrel moved too far forward allowing the cylinder to move forward out of reach of the hammer, and
  6. No powder.

Regarding the caps falling backward, the powder charges in some modern references are less than the original full power powder charge. One of the differences is how badly flared the caps become during firing with full powder charges. The badly flared caps can come loose and fall into the space between the hammer and frame and block the fall of the hammer causing a misfire.

Reloading a cap and ball revolver with loose powder can take several minutes for the inexperienced. Using paper cartridges somewhat speeds things up. The best method during combat was to carry extra revolvers or an additional cylinder or two fully loaded and capped.

Click here for full size image

The Remington revolver is the quickest to exchange cylinders with the fewest parts to hang onto while riding a horse. In switching cylinders, the Remington becomes two parts of the gun and the cylinder. The Colt becomes three parts of the frame, the barrel, and the cylinder.

The Colt may be nearly as quick to disassemble as the Remington if the parts are a loose fit, or impossible to disassemble with bare hands if the parts fit too tightly. But an undesirable loose fit of the barrel and frame can cause a misfire by allowing the cylinder to move forward and move the percussion cap out of reach of the hammer. The caps and grease on a fully loaded cap and ball cylinder are obvious. They are more obvious than whether a cartridge revolver has loaded or fired cartridges.

For both original antique guns or newly made replicas, always shoot in a safe way in a safe place with a good backstop. Read instructions and seek advice about safety and otherwise.

Only some of the ammunition components can be sold by mail order with blackpowder being the most difficult item. There are legal restrictions as to buyers and quantities. Consult a local sporting goods store or gun shop for a resource near you.

The percussion cap is the "cap" essential to firing cap and ball revolvers which required enormous quantities of caps to be manufactured.

Shooting a cap and ball revolver is fun. The loading is a more personal experience and more educational than merely stuffing cartridges in the back end. And the time taken to load reduces the cost of ammunition to a fifth or less of the cost of ammunition to spend the same amount of time shooting the more modern faster loading guns.

More About Civil War Guns

 

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Emory Hackman

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