Skip to main content

Tips for Shooting the Percussion Revolver

If you shoot it correctly, a good cap-and-ball revolver will equal the accuracy of most off-the-shelf metallic-cartridge-firing revolvers. Here are some tips!

Tips for Shooting the Percussion Revolver

The first percussion revolver I shot during my youth belonged to a globe-sailing merchant marine who was a friend of my father. From his wonderful collection of Colt revolvers, he allowed me to keep a .44-caliber Model 1860 Army for an entire summer. Included with the gun was a supply of Remington percussion caps, FFFg blackpowder, and a Lyman mold for casting lead balls of plumber’s lead. Bitten by the bug, some years later, I bought a reproduction of the Remington New Model Army in .44 caliber, which was being imported from Italy by Lyman at the time.

I acquired an Old Army revolver soon after Ruger introduced it in 1972 and was impressed enough to add the stainless-steel version to my battery when it came along three years later. Considered by many to be the most durable percussion revolver built anywhere in the world, the Old Army is on a modified version of the classic centerfire Blackhawk frame. It has the same barrel as the .45 Colt Blackhawk, which puts the rifling groove diameter at 0.451 to 0.452 inch. Ruger discontinued the Old Army in 2008, but upward of 120,000 were built, so used guns (and the occasional new one) are still to be found, although prices are considerably higher than for reproductions of Colt, Remington, and other percussion revolvers made by Uberti and others.

Tips for Shooting the Percussion Revolvers

Percussion revolvers in smaller calibers are available, but those usually identified as .44 caliber are the most popular. Since most use a ball diameter exceeding 0.450 inch, they are actually .45 caliber, and that’s how Ruger often described the Old Army. Chamber diameter for it is 0.452 inch versus 0.450 inch for the Lyman/Remington and Uberti/Colt reproductions I have. The recommended ball diameter is 0.457 inch for the Ruger and 0.454 inch for the others.

And why does ball diameter exceed chamber diameter? As a ball is seated, it is sized to the same diameter as the chamber as the sharp edge at its mouth shaves a ring of lead from its surface. Fore and aft, the ball is still round, but a narrow flat now girdles its midsection. The larger the diameter of the ball to begin with, the wider the flat, and as its width is increased, so is surface area contact between the ball and the wall of the chamber.

This accomplishes two things. First, and most important, it forms a seal to discourage flame from a firing chamber from squeezing between the ball and chamber wall of its neighbors to cause a chain fire. This is a good thing to have in case someone decides to shoot the gun without properly sealing off the powder with an inert filler, a felt wad beneath the ball, or covering the mouths of the chambers with lube. Increasing bearing surface area also discourages the ball from creeping forward in the chamber during recoil.

Tips for Shooting the Percussion Revolver Propellant and Powder

Propellants & Percussion Caps

Only blackpowder or substitutes like Pyrodex and Triple Seven should be used. Hodgdon’s website has charge recommendations for the two substitutes, and while Lyman’s Black Powder Handbook & Loading Manual does not include Triple Seven, it has far more data for blackpowder and Pyrodex P with both the ball and a conical bullet.

It is important to note that charges for blackpowder and the substitutes are commonly shown in grains/volume, while smokeless powder charges are shown in grains/weight. Small measures made of non-sparking brass with adjustments ranging from 5 to 100 grains or so are available from several sources. It is equally important to remember that the same volumetric measurements of FFFg blackpowder and Pyrodex P will usually produce similar pressures. This does not hold true for Triple Seven FFFg, and due to its higher energy, the use of smaller charges is required.

Percussion caps should be a snug fit with the nipples. Some prefer the No. 10 cap, while others, like the Ruger Old Army, use the slightly larger No. 11. If the cap is too small, it may cause a misfire on the first hammer strike. If it is too large, it may fall off the nipple, although putting a gentle squeeze on the skirt of a borderline loose cap prior to placing it on the nipple will usually hold it in place. If nothing works, replace the nipples with the correct size from Old Southern Firearms. An inline capper should be used for pushing caps onto nipples. Eye protection should always be worn when loading and shooting a percussion revolver.

Tips for Shooting the Percussion Revolver Accuracy Chart

Tips & Techniques

As mentioned earlier, chain firing, or two or more chambers firing simultaneously, is prevented by covering a seated ball with lube or placing a lubricated Ox-Yoke felt wad or cornmeal filler between powder and ball. Lube over the ball also keeps blackpowder fouling in the bore soft. Crisco shortening works great when punching paper at the range, but it melts inside a holster during hot-weather pig chases. The melting points of Traditions Wonderlube 1000 Plus and Thompson/Center Bore Butter are a bit higher. Even better for summertime use is a mixture of one part beeswax and three parts mutton tallow, the latter available from Dixie Gun Works.

The cornmeal filler improves accuracy by positioning the ball close to the front of the chamber, and it can also increase velocity by reducing propellant gas blow-by. Measuring the cornmeal is unnecessary. After charging a chamber with powder, top off to the brim with cornmeal, and the ball will compress it during seating.

I use the cornmeal filler only when shooting small powder charges at the range. When bumping off pigs with larger charges, I load a lubricated Ox-Yoke felt wad between powder charge and ball. When using Triple Seven, I forego sealing the mouth of each chamber with lubricant. A lubricant is used when hunting with blackpowder or Pyrodex as it does a better job of keeping fouling in the bore soft than a lubricated wad alone.

Tips for Shooting the Percussion Revolver Ball

Shoot a percussion revolver often enough and you will eventually seat a ball in an empty chamber. A screw-type puller attached to a cleaning rod is an option, but using it incorrectly can gouge the wall of the chamber. Removing the nipple, inserting a brass rod through the nipple seat of the cylinder, and using a small hammer to drive the ball from the chamber works for me. A 0.175-inch rod is a good fit for the nipple seats of my Ruger revolver. The cylinder has to be removed from the gun, and when used carefully, the rod won’t damage the threads. If any of the other chambers are loaded, they should be fired prior to removal of the cylinder for this operation.

Recommended


A good cap-and-ball revolver will equal the accuracy of most off-the-shelf metallic-cartridge-firing revolvers. Guns usually have an accuracy sweet spot somewhere between small and medium-large powder charges and finding it boils down to punching holes in paper. Regardless of which propellant is used, the charge must be firmly compressed by the seating of the ball. Equally important for best accuracy, the amount of compression should be uniform in all chambers. Firing a gun with an air space left between powder charge and ball can severely damage it.

Conical bullets are fun to play with, but I see no practical advantage in using them for general shooting since the ball is just as accurate and there are more of them in a pound of lead. Balls of pure lead can be cast at home, but those swaged by Hornady and Speer are as good. During decades of chasing feral hogs with hounds, I have taken many of the critters with percussion revolvers. Shot distance on bayed pigs is almost always inside 10 yards. I find a ball exiting the muzzle at 1,000 fps or faster placed close behind the shoulder to be a quicker killer than a heavier conical at lower velocity. A frontal shot between the eyes zips right through the skull and into the brain. Contrary to popular opinion, a ball of pure lead does expand to a larger diameter.

Tips for Shooting the Percussion Revolver Target Grouping

When some percussion revolvers are carried in the field, the hammer should be lowered on the uncapped nipple of an empty chamber. On my Ruger Old Army and Remington New Model Army reproduction, the nose of the hammer can be lowered into deep notches between the nipples. This allows me to safely carry those guns with all six chambers loaded.

The more common percussion revolver designs are easily taken down for cleaning without tools, and it should be done as soon as possible after a shooting session. This applies to blackpowder and the substitutes. Using a wrench designed for the job, nipples are removed for cleaning their flash holes and threads and the threads in the cylinder. Prior to installing the clean nipples, coat their threads with seize-prevent lube, such as T/C Gorilla Grease or Briley choke tube lube. The chambers and the bore of the barrel must also be cleaned and the entire gun wiped down to remove propellant fouling. Nipple wrenches, cappers, powder measures, and everything else needed for shooting and maintenance are available from Old South Firearms and Dixie Gun Works.

In addition to being one of the more interesting firearms ever designed, the percussion revolver has proven to be too much fun to fade away.




GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

The Mossberg 500 Pump Action Shotgun is one of the most popular home defense shotguns on the market. Joseph Von Benedikt...
Guns

Browning X-Bolt Mountain Pro

The Mossberg 500 Pump Action Shotgun is one of the most popular home defense shotguns on the market. Joseph Von Benedikt...
Guns

Taurus TX 22 Competition

The Mossberg 500 Pump Action Shotgun is one of the most popular home defense shotguns on the market. Joseph Von Benedikt...
Gear

Federal FireStick Precharged Loads

The Mossberg 500 Pump Action Shotgun is one of the most popular home defense shotguns on the market. Joseph Von Benedikt...
Gear

Remington Core-Lokt Tipped

The Mossberg 500 Pump Action Shotgun is one of the most popular home defense shotguns on the market. Joseph Von Benedikt...
Guns

Walther PDP

The Mossberg 500 Pump Action Shotgun is one of the most popular home defense shotguns on the market. Joseph Von Benedikt...
Learn

Hodgdon Shooting Powder

The Mossberg 500 Pump Action Shotgun is one of the most popular home defense shotguns on the market. Joseph Von Benedikt...
News

A World Record Attempt: Practice Round and Media Day

The Mossberg 500 Pump Action Shotgun is one of the most popular home defense shotguns on the market. Joseph Von Benedikt...
Learn

How to Aim with Iron Sights

The Mossberg 500 Pump Action Shotgun is one of the most popular home defense shotguns on the market. Joseph Von Benedikt...
Learn

SHOOT 101: Know Your Handgun Types

The Mossberg 500 Pump Action Shotgun is one of the most popular home defense shotguns on the market. Joseph Von Benedikt...
News

Interview with Israeli Defense Forces, Part 1

The Mossberg 500 Pump Action Shotgun is one of the most popular home defense shotguns on the market. Joseph Von Benedikt...
Guns

Custom Mossberg 500 at the Range and Live Turkey!?

Shooting Times Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Shooting Times App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Shooting Times stories delivered right to your inbox.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Shooting Times subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now