Shooting with ball & cap revolvers is a separate and very interesting discipline of cowboy action shooting. These are incredible guns to shoot with and are not only more pleasing to the ear but require more care and maintenance to shoot successfully without incurring miss-fires or other mal-functions. The single action percussion cap black powder revolvers were a significant improvement over their predecessors, the single shot flint-lock pistols. Although the flint-lock pistols and rifles had been around a long time from about the 1500's until 1855 and beyond, the ball and cap black powder revolver was relatively short lived with the development of the cartridge guns shortly thereafter.

The 1860 Army Colt - Arguably one of the most handsome revolvers ever produced. Note the absence of the top strap on the frame. The Colt 1860 cost approximately $20 per revolver. This was rather expensive during the 1860s, both for the United States Army and private citizens


The design of the 1858 Remington differed from the Colt with the frame incorporating the top strap over the cylinder for added strength. The cylinder can be removed and replaced with a charged cylinder somewhat faster than the 1860 Colt design. The nipples are also angled slightly off-side for easy reloading of percussion caps.



The loading procedure is straightforward. Check to make sure that the revolver is clean and dry, empty, and that the nipples are clear. Then pull the hammer back to the half-cock position; this frees the cylinder so that it can be freely rotated. The chambers can then be charged individually with powder, wad, and ball, or each operation can be performed on all chambers before going on to the next step.

The revolver is now loaded, but the hammer must not be left at half cock--this is not a safe hammer position. The hammer should be pulled back slightly, using the thumb of the shooting hand, just enough to free the sear from the half cock notch . . . use the trigger finger of the shooting hand to pull the trigger all the way back. Use the off hand to rotate the cylinder as necessary so that one of the safety notches on the back of the cylinder (between each chamber) is directly under the middle of the top strap and therefore directly beneath the hammer. Then slowly lower the hammer until its tip comes to rest in the safety notch.

The percussion cap, when struck by the hammer will ignite the powder charge. When fired, balls have a muzzle velocity of about 900 feet per second. That coupled with a heavy lead ball in .44 caliber can deliver a lethal blow and resulted in serious injuries if not fatal in its time.


Ball and cap revolver shooting is more challenging than shooting with modern conventional cartridge revolvers. There are precautions to take when shooting with black powder ball and cap guns.

Common malfunctions can include either of the following situations:

  • The gun does not fire when the hammer falls on the percussion cap.
  • The hammer cannot be pulled back freely (or at all).
  • There is a double blast (Flash fire) whereby the flame from the fired cylinder reaches the charge in one or more of the adjoining chambers of the cylinder causing discharge from them at the same time.
  • The gun starts ceasing up after a few reloads due to black powder residue build up.

In order to reduce the chance of malfunctions the following basic guidelines can be followed:

  • The gun should be clean and dry. Cleaning is important after a black powder firearm has been fired. The residues from black powder attract moisture and the sulphur promotes rusting. Cleaning involves taking the gun apart (preferably completely) and immersing in soapy water or other cleaning agents available, scrubbing and cleaning of all parts, insides of barrels, frame and cylinders and drying on completion.

Particular care needs to be taken to ensure that the holes of the nipples (the part over which the percussion cap fits) and the chambers in the cylinder are clean. Nipples can be cleaned internally with a tooth pick or similar device. The nipples should be removed in order to effectively clean the internal chambers of the cylinder. A lot of miss-fires occur as a result of blocked (or partially blocked and damp) chambers or nipples. The hole thru which the spark must pass is small and should not have any obstruction. If there are black powder residues in the chamber of the cylinder this can result in the fresh powder being dampened by the residues not thoroughly removed. Any old residues attract moisture from the air, even in a gun safe! If the gun has been in storage for any length of time, it is a good idea to take a hair dryer and blow warm air into the cylinder and thru the nipples, thus ensuring that all traces of moisture are removed prior to charging with powder.

The percussion caps must fit & be seated properly. The percussion cap must fit snugly over the nipple and care must be taken to ensure that it is seated all the way onto the nipple. Often a miss-fire occurs because the cap is not seated all the way or it is too tight to seat as a result of the percussion cap size being one size too small. It may be necessary to have the nipples machined to size to accommodate the caps available, normally down one size. If the percussion caps are too loose, they can become dislodged from the recoil of firing the weapon and end up being where they should not be, either on the floor or in the mechanism. Traces of oil should not be present on the nipples as this can also facilitate the caps becoming dislodged from the recoil of firing. If the percussion caps are slightly loose they can be crimped at the upper open end slightly. However, this does not guarantee that they will become dislodged on firing the weapon.

The main hammer spring must be strong. When the hammer spring is weak it allows the percussion cap to become dislodged from back pressure thru the nipple upon firing. A typical sign of this is a hot cap landing on your hand after firing. Or worse still, the cap getting flattened by the lower portion of the hammer and falling into the path of the hand within the frame, thus causing a jam whereby the hammer cannot be activated for the next shot as the cap now lies in the path of the hand. (The hand being attached to the trigger within, and moving the cylinder up to line up for the next shot, simultaneously with the pulling back of the hammer – Single action).

This problem is prevalent with the Colt open top frame revolver and can be overcome by ensuring that the main spring is tensioned. As the Colt does not have an adjustable spring tensioner screw (As with the Remington) it can be overcome by fixing a spacer under the middle portion of the spring, thus ensuring that the spring functions more effectively over the entire length of the spring. As the spring is attached only at the bottom portion to the frame, it cannot flex thru it's entire length, and by placing a spacer block under the mid portion, the spring can become more effective. Strong spring tension is important in ensuring that the cap stays on the nipple during the blast and does not become dislodged thru back pressure pushing the hammer back momentarily and allowing the cap to escape.

The balls must be sealed with a lubricant to prevent cross-fire. This is a simple step and must be done prior to fitting of the percussion caps. Once the lead balls have been seated, it is important to seal over the balls to ensure that no flames can make their way thru to other chambers. This can simply be achieved by smearing a stiff grease or vegetable fat (Holsum for example) over the seated ball as can be seen on the diagram above in the loading procedure. This ensures that the charged load can be sealed from the elements.


Black Powder is a mixture of Potassium Nitrate ( KNO3 or saltpeter), Sulphur and Charcoal. Black Powder is classified as an explosive. Black Powder will indeed explode with considerable force if ignited when uncontained. In mining, it was often poured down cracks or into drilled holes to blast rock. In light of this, one can see reference to the burning rate of Black powder; the reference is to the speed of passage of the flame front that brings ignition through the mass of powder, not the speed of the reaction of the ignited powder itself.

Saltpeter, the principal ingredient of Black Powder first appears in the writings of Arabia in 1200. Whether such technology originated in China, or in the Middle East, is still open to some question. The fact that no "arms", nor high power explosives were mentioned by Marco Polo as late as 1299, yet Arabic works exist describing Black Powder prior to their journeys, strongly suggests that Black Powder was of Arabic and not Chinese invention. It took from 1250 to 1312, sixty years, for arms somewhat competent to appear in the European battlefields. In the next 40 years, the arms, and by inference, the propellant had increased in competency to the point of standardization being required. Folks were very busy experimenting with Black Powder and using the arms it fueled. The European inventors of the black powder gun include a monk, Berthold Schwarz, in around 1330, and Roger Bacon, a friar from Ilchester, Somerset, in 1214. Both are credited with coming up with the idea of the gun.

With more accurate testing methods, it was discovered that different granulations of corned powder were appropriate to different applications. This brings ended up in today's grading system using the letters "F" and "g". The little "g" stands for Granulation, while the F stands for the size of screen mesh the granule will pass through. The smallest granulation commonly available is FFFFg (spoken: "4F"). It is used principally in the priming pan of flintlocks. FFFg ("3F") is usually recommended for muzzle loading rifles of .50 caliber or less. FFg is used in larger rifles, whether cartridge loaded or not. It also performs well in target class loads in cartridge pistols when the smaller internal dimensioned modern cartridge case is used.


The Colt Revolving Belt Pistol of Naval Caliber (i.e., .36 cal), later known as the Colt 1851 Navy or Navy Revolver, is a cap & ball revolver. It was designed by Samuel Colt between 1847 and 1850. It remained in production until 1873, when revolvers using fixed metallic cartridges came into widespread use. the gun was frequently called the "Colt Revolving Belt Pistol of Naval Caliber". The cylinder was engraved with a scene of the victory of the Second Texas Navy. (The Battle of Campeche on May 16, 1843).

Famous "Navy" users included Wild Bill Hickok , Richard Barter & Robert Lee and both sides of the Civil War. Usage continued long after more modern cartridge revolvers were introduced in 1873. The .36 caliber Navy revolver was much lighter than the contemporary Third Model Dragoon revolvers developed from the .44 Walker Colt revolvers of 1847, which, given their size and weight, were generally carried in saddle holsters. The Colt Army Model 1860 is a muzzle loaded cap & ball .44-caliber revolver used during the American Civil War, made by Colt. It was used as a side arm by cavalry, infantry, artillery troops, and naval forces. The Colt .44-caliber "Army" Model was the most widely-used revolver of the Civil War. It had a six-shot, rotating cylinder, and fired a 0.454-inch-diameter (11.5 mm) round lead ball, or a conical projectile, that was propelled by a 30 grain charge of black powder ignited by a copper percussion cap that contained a volatile charge of fulminate of mercury (a substance that explodes upon impact). The percussion cap, when struck by the hammer, ignited the powder charge. When fired, balls had a muzzle velocity of about 900 feet per second.

Unfortunately these original guns are very rare and sought after in this day and age. However, there are various manufacturers in Europe and America that produce exact replicas, and with better quality metal as is available in today's standard and metal technology.