SHOOTING THE BLACK POWDER REVOLVER
c John L. Fuhring
All learning requires WORK and so I'm NOT going to shortcut the process with "instant Internet knowledge" through videos. There are just some things that you have to spend time reading and thinking about rather than simply watching a video that's over in 10 minutes. Here you will encounter a series of detailed essays that you will have to spend some time with. Yes, it is work to read all this stuff, but it can also be fun for the "old hands" to learn how somebody else does things and these articles can be of interest to the new comers who might need some background and encouragement and a place to start. Best of all, my website is free, without commercials or anything for sale and you don't have to worry that your visit will be used for commercial purposes. So, if you have some time to do some reading and like the subject of black powder revolver shooting, please give my articles a look-see.
I would like to thank Roger Nelson and my great good friend Brian, his brother, for introducing me to black powder revolver shooting in the early 1960s with his Navy Arms Colt repro. I would like to thank the men of the old 7th Michigan Cavalry for welcoming me into their ranks and allowing me and Chester the Wonder Horse to reenact with them so long ago. Thanks to the many readers who have written to me with marvelous ideas that I have tried to incorporate into the following articles. I would especially like to thank my old friend Scott Allan with whom, during our shooting sessions after work, we developed many of the shooting techniques I will shortly describe. So much time has passed, I can't remember which improved techniques were his (probably most), but at any rate, to prove them, we worked them out together. It was Scott who first took my "reenacting revolver" and astounded me with some superbly accurate shooting. I never would have believed that a black powder revolver was capable of that kind of shooting. It was this demonstration and the subsequent shooting sessions with me after work that got me so interested in black powder shooting, so thanks again Scott.
Introduction to my articles on shooting the black powder revolver
This is first of 6 articles
The fun and challenge of black powder revolver shooting
You know, I own both cartridge revolvers and semi auto pistols and I enjoy shooting (and hunting with) all my firearms, but shooting black powder is, by far, the most fun kind of shooting I do or I have ever done (now that I've worked out all the annoying kinks). When a charge is fired, there is a very satisfying amount of recoil (that you can vary from light to heavy) and there's a big jolly blast of smoke & flame. Add to all that, there's the fun and satisfaction of hitting exactly what you're aiming at. When loaded right and carefully held on target, my .44 black powder pistol is an incredibly accurate weapon that is in no way inferior to my cartridge pistols. Black powder naturally makes you want to strive to be a marksman and not just a shooter. I might add that you get a lot more "bang for the buck" because ammunition is as cheap or cheaper than doing your own cartridge reloading and one shot with a black powder pistol is as satisfying as three shots with a cartridge revolver or six with a semi auto pistol (for me anyway).
Black powder shooting back in my "Bad old Days"Things weren't always this good. In the early 1960s I used to shoot a nicely made replica of a Colt New Army .44 Model 1860. I remember how graceful and flowing the lines of the barrel looked to me and how I admired the battle scene engraved on the the cylinder. The butt of the pistol fit my hand so nicely and working the action just felt good. Back then people (including yours truly) were very ignorant of black powder shooting and there was a lot of misinformation circulating around (there still is). Multiple discharges (chain firing) were the norm and considered inevitable. Of course, nobody expected the pistols to be very accurate and just hitting the paper -- anywhere -- was a major accomplishment.
Does any of this ring a bell with you?
I can hardly believe how
stupid my friends and I were back then. Our favorite loading
technique was to
pour black powder over the cylinder and into the chambers without
measuring it. When a
chamber would fill up, we'd rotate it to the next chamber without
stopping the flow. Of course, powder would get all over the top
of the cylinder, a cylinder made sticky because of the Crisco from the
previous loading. After pouring the powder in this way, we'd
ram in the bullets. To prevent chain firing (or so we believed),
we'd plaster (glomm)
on a thick layer of Crisco to the outside of the cylinder, little
realizing that the Crisco actually made matters worse. Speaking
of chainfires, any shot might include a chainfire, so we'd we'd
flinch every time we'd pull the trigger.
Back in those days, I remember that the Crisco made holding the smooth wooden butt of the pistol about as easy as holding on to a greased pig. I mean, the doggone pistol was so slippery that the muzzle would slide down as I'd try to hold it on target. Then there was all that nasty grease all over my hands and eventually all over my clothes as I'd forget myself and wipe them on my pants and shirt. No way did anybody want to ruin a leather holster by putting a loaded and greased pistol in it. And where did most of this Crisco come from (?), it was blown from the adjacent chambers to the outside of the pistol rather than to the inside of the pistol where it would have done some good.
To make matters worse, there was the rapid build up of fouling that resulted in poor precision and accuracy (even without flinching). It was just accepted that after the first three to six shots, the bullets would be all over the target. Finally, after about 18 shots, the pistol would be jammed with fouling, the cylinder wouldn't rotate anymore and so we'd take it home to wash it out with soap and water and thus stink up the whole house with the odor of rotten eggs.
I developed a mistaken impression that
black powder revolvers were terribly inaccurate, highly prone to chain firing, were as
slippery as a greased pig, they jammed up after just a few shots and were a
nasty mess to clean, so after my initial fascination with them, I
finally gave up and got rid of mine. For years afterward I shot
but cartridge pistols and used nothing but smokeless propellants in my
reloads. Years ago, if anybody would have asked me, I'd have told
them that black powder revolvers are a lot more trouble than they are
Everything changed about 15 years ago when I got into cavalry reenacting and bought good quality Civil War period reproduction firearms as part of my equipment. I wanted to learn about the Civil War by living the life of an enlisted cavalryman (in so far as I could) and one thing I was eager to know was just how effective these weapons really were and how to get the most from them. I had to relearn how things were done back then because "much that once was is lost for none now live who remember it." This gave me an opportunity to do some interesting experiments and the more I experimented, the more I learned to enjoy black powder shooting.
Well, I have learned a lot since those days and now I never get a chain fire, my bullets hit the target where I intend them to time after time, the outside of my revolver isn't greasy or slippery, I can shoot round after round without the pistol fouling up and cleaning my pistol is fast, easy and odorless. For me today, black powder shooting is much more enjoyable and satisfying than it was "back in the good old days" and, as I said earlier, it is now my most fun kind of shooting. In the following articles I want to share with you some of my experiences so that you too will find black powder shooting your most fun kind of shooting.
The two most popular pistol styles then and nowBy far, the most common revolvers of the Civil War era were the models 1851 & 1860 Colts and the model 1858 Remington. Both the Colt and the Remington styles were and are today available in the "Navy" (.36) and the "Army" (.44) calibers (except the 1851 and Patterson's of course).
Since the Colt and the Remington types are still, by far, the most popular styles in modern reproduction, I'd like to say something about each and confine my remarks to just those two types. The fact is, all the rest of the reproduced revolvers have design features very similar to the Colts and the Remingtons, so these remarks apply to them too. In fact, with the exceptions of Rogers & Spencers, Starrs, Roots, Whitneys and Remingtons, most of the revolvers in reproduction today are basically Colt knock-offs so what I say about the Colts applies pretty much directly to them too.
Before the beginning of the Civil War, the Colt model 1860 Army began production and was manufactured in large quantities. There were no U.S. government contracts for these revolvers yet, so almost all of the early production was eagerly bought by agents from those States that had or were about to succeeded from the Union and who were rapidly arming for the conflict. From those purchases, the revolvers made their way to the Confederate army and navy for use against the United States military. By the way, the word 'Army' in that model's name does not mean that these pistols were meant for the U.S. Army, only that they were in the .44 Army caliber. Once the war began, buyers for the U.S. Government began to buy up all the revolvers Colt could manufacture and few if any Colts were left over to be sold to Confederate buyers. Nevertheless, with the revolvers purchased by government agents, the revolvers bought during the Antebellum for personal use and the revolvers captured in raids and battles, the Confederacy was fairly well equipped with genuine Colt revolvers.
A second in overall production was the late to the market Remington model 1858. At first, government buyers bought Colts because that's all there were in any quantity, but when the Remington became available in large quantities, the government bought all they could. The price of the Remington undercut the price of the Colts by quite a bit (almost half the price). Trouble with contracts and price soon soured Colt's relations with the Government and then Samuel Colt died in 1862 and with a disastrous fire at the Colt factory in October of 1864, all Colt manufacturing ceased. Without Samuel Colt's business and manufacturing skill to give them direction, the company didn't resume manufacturing for almost two years, although they still assembled new revolvers from their inventory of parts. From the second half of the Civil War on, the numbers of Remington revolvers the government bought greatly increased even though Colt tried to play "catch up" by lowering their prices to within one dollar of the Remington price ($12). Sales and manufacturing records show that if the Civil War had gone on for a few months longer, the Remington production would have caught up to and exceeded the number of Colts that were produced during the Civil War period.
My favorite style of replica revolver is the Remington because of its highly superior frame design, its fixed and accurate sight & barrel alignment and its ease of disassembly. Another really important reason I like the Remington is because the head of its hammer goes through a slot in the frame so that fragments from exploded caps can't possibly get into the action and cause a jam. All the Colts I have ever shot have, sooner or later, seriously jammed up or misfired because their open frame construction allows cap fragments to lodge between the frame and the hammer or go down into the action. If you are lucky, all that happens is that you get a misfire, but most of the time the fragment goes deep within the action and really jams it up. Once a cap fragment is deep in the action, the Colt style pistol almost always has to be disassembled, the fragment removed and then the pistol must be reassembled before you can resume shooting. The primitive design of the Colt (pretty much unchanged from the original 1836 Colt Patterson) guarantees that particles of exploded cap will make their way into the action sooner or later. It is a fact that Buffalo Bill Cody carried a Remington 1858 revolver all his life even after the era of the cartridge pistol. He said of his Remington "it never failed me." I suspect he said that because earlier Colts HAD failed him when he needed them. According to some sources, officers who were technically savvy about weapons and who could afford it, would buy Remingtons with their own money rather than bother with the Colts the Government issued.
There is a way to mitigate this cap jamming problem that I'd like to suggest. After taking a shot, turn the pistol as close to upside down as you can with the barrel pointed down and to the front of you, pull back on the hammer slightly and shake any cap fragments out on the ground. When you think the pistol is clear of fragments, rotate the pistol to the firing position and with the barrel pointed down and to the front of you, cock the hammer to the next round.
Earlier I wrote about a technique where you keep the pistol nearly upside down while cocking to the next round, but I have found that this is a rather dangerous thing to do because of my tendency to support the pistol with my trigger finger which resulted in discharges that I didn't intend.
Despite the Colt's many and glaring design
defects, back in the old days, the
Colt’s outsold all other brands and during the Civil War they
issued to troops on a 2
to 1 ratio to the Remington at the beginning of the War (this radio was
to reverse later in the war). There were many reasons for
revolvers hit the market as early as the mid 1830's and the early ones,
including the powerful dragoon models, made a wonderful reputation for
Colt that captured the public's imagination. For decades,
used the word 'colt' to mean 'revolver' regardless of the actual brand.
For example: "the colt I carried was a 1858 Remington I
myself." Colonel Sam was
master salesman and he made friends with every important general,
admiral and government official in America. He shamelessly
presented all important persons with exquisitely
engraved & inlayed pistols as gifts. Finally, even
were beautifully made by skilled craftsmen using the finest materials
of the day (so-called "Silver Spring
Steel" - a homogeneous crucible steel with a carefully controlled
carbon content). Colt pistols have always fit the hand superbly
perhaps the finest hammer location and cocking action of any single
revolver ever made. Many people also insist that Colt single
action revolvers without a top strap have always had superior "point-ability" (important in
For all these reasons and because the Colts had been "battle tested" in wars from India to Mexico and in countless skirmishes by the most famous fighting men of the time, old Sam Colt felt he could charge big money for his revolvers and he did. Remington was a "Johnny come lately" and had no such delusions regarding the worth of their revolver, regardless of its technical superiority. Remington's reputation would have to be built from scratch and so they were satisfied to sell a lot of "plain Jane" revolvers without fancy color hardening and engraving for much less money and by doing so, impress government buyers that way (which they did). Once in the hands of fighting men, the Remington revolver would speak for itself and at the end of the War, it was the preferred surplus revolver the returning soldier would take home.
Of course, there are many other types of revolvers on the market ranging from the Starr double action to the huge Dragoons to the 9 shot + shotgun LeMat to the brass framed and historically accurate reproductions of Confederate manufactured pistols in .36 caliber to Pietta's popular, but non-historic brass framed model in .44 caliber (who's brand name I will not mention). They all work the same, load the same and are equally fun to shoot, but "also ran" models are only a small fraction of what people were shooting then and just a fraction of what people are shooting today, so I am not going to go into any detail about them. Let it suffice that the general information presented here applies to them just as it does to the Colts and Remingtons.
The fact is, no matter what type of revolver you have or you decide to get, it will be a lot of fun to shoot and the owners of each type comes to really like what they have. It is really hard to make a mistake here, so if you like the looks of a particular model or you like some historical aspect associated with it, buy it, you won't be sorry.
What brand and where to buy itSo what brand should you buy? I admit that I am prejudiced in favor of the Uberti brand and prejudiced against the Pietta brand. As far as I'm concerned, all the other brands lie somewhere in between. My Uberti is a top of the line model, it shoots very accurately and it is the most faithful reproduction of the original Remington on the market. I am prejudiced against Pietta firearms, but not because of their superb fit and finish (the external machining, fit & finish is indeed superb), but because of my early experience with them as inaccurate shooters due to what I saw as substandard & inaccruate machining of their firing chambers and especially their bores & rifling. Perhaps by now they have improved that aspect of their manufacturing and they can be expected to shoot as well as any brand.
OK, since writing the above, I've had an opportunity to do some minor but extensive gun-smithing on a friend's Pietta that he has had for several years, but had never fired before. After a bunch of work, I have it operating nearly as well as my Uberti. While working on it I noticed the internal machining was poor with a lot of tool marks in the deeper parts of the chambers and the chambers were not all exactly equal in volume. Based on this and my old prejudices, I "knew" that it wouldn't be a good shooter. Well, we went to the range to fire it for the first time and the first thing I did was show my friend how to load the pistol "properly" as I describe in chapter 3. My friend wasn't so sure it was safe, so he insisted that I take the first few shots (maybe he was afraid it would "explode" on me). Not expecting the pistol to be very accurate, I amazed my friend and myself by hitting in the black every time (and, of course, NO chain fires). After this latest experience, I think I might have to take back what I said earlier about Piettas not being accurate shooters. Obviously, Pietta has improved the quality of their barrels.
Just this last Christmas (2013) the son of a friend of mine was given a Pietta Remington as a present. Of course, I had to look it over. I looked it over very, very carefully with a strong magnifying glass and I admit that I was very impressed with both the internal and external workmanship of this latest example of Pietta's manufacturing. In nearly every respect it was the equivalent of my two Uberti pistols and I have no doubt that it will be a fine shooter. I now have to admit that Pietta's quality standards have vastly improved in the last few years. I would still be somewhat cautious about buying an older Pietta, but the newer ones are excellent.
Then there is a question of where you should buy. In most places in the USA, a black powder firearm may be ordered through the mail in addition to buying one at a retail store. These firearms are also available for sale at many Civil War reenactments at the areas reserved for the "sutlers." Personally, (and they aren't paying me to say this), I think that Dixie Gun Works is an excellent bet and I've only had the most positive experiences with them including their superb gunsmithing department. I am prejudiced against Cabalas only because they seem to really push their brass framed Piettas and advertise many of these cheap fakes with misleading or downright inaccurate historical descriptions. For example, their .44 caliber brass framed so-called "Confederate Navy" model is a fake, a falsification of history and what they say about the originals having been made in the South and used by Southern Officers just isn't true -- and they should know better than to say so. I have no experience with Cabalas' gunsmithing department (if they have one), so I can't speak to that. OK, I just learned that Cabalas doesn't have a gunsmithing department. Some good deals on Piettas and some lesser known brands may be had at the Civil War reenactments, but it is unlikely you will get any follow-up service from the seller. My advice is to buy the best from the best, but it is up to you to judge for yourself who and what the best is and for this you must do a little homework.
What about stainless steelLike brass, stainless steel is not historic, however the period bluing process was very soft and many revolvers were polished up very brightly and looked like stainless steel. As far as I'm concerned, stainless steel is just another finish option and is no better than a well maintained blued steel revolver. Stainless doesn't rust, but it can pit if neglected, so, in my opinion, all black powder revolvers, regardless of the metal of the frame, cylinder or barrel should be cared for in the same way.
Recommended revolver typesRuger Old Army. Totally over engineered, historically meaningless, but by far the very best black powder revolver ever manufactured. These superb revolvers are a true firearm classic and nothing like them will ever be manufactured again.
Post Civil War and Modern engineered black powder revolvers
Pietta .44 "Confederate Navy." Really a copy of the 3rd model Colt Dragoon with a short cylinder and a brass frame that the originals never had. It is seriously illogical calling a .44 Army caliber revolver a "Navy" and the frame size of this weapon is Dragoon size, not Navy size. Good shooting (for light charges), extremely popular, well liked by their owners and very affordable. This is an entry level black powder revolver that sells in huge quantities and has probably done more than anything to popularize the sport of black powder revolver shooting. I sincerely wish Pietta and everybody else would start calling these things "Confederate Dragoons" or just "Pietta Brass 44's" but please stop calling them "Confederate Navys" already. They are Army not Navy caliber and nobody in the Confederacy (or anywhere else) made this kind of pistol.
Rogers and Spencer. This model incorporates the best design features of the Remington in addition to their own improvements, but they are historically meaningless since the originals were never issued during the Civil War (or any war). When the originals were manufactured, they were already obsolete because cartridge pistols were on the drawing boards, there were plenty of revolvers left over from the War and the U.S. Army didn't want to issue a pistol they would just have to recall in a couple of years. Because they were never issued or used by the military, many originals are in outstanding condition and may be mistaken for modern reproductions. Besides their mechanical virtues, many people like the feel of the hand grip.
Northern States manufactured revolvers available in reproductionColt Type. Any model and caliber with a steel frame and full length barrel. For those who want a strong and historically accurate revolver, I do not recommend buying the modern brass framed models. Be aware that Colt never made a single brass framed revolver at any time or in any caliber. Even the very first 1836 Colt Paterson had a steel frame. If you are looking for a little .31caliber revolver, I hightly remmend the "Baby Dragoon" model in steel. The Colt type in reproduction is generally an excellent choice.
Remington Type. Any model and caliber with a steel frame and full length barrel. Strictly avoid the very poor shooting so-called .31 "New Model Pocket Pistol" by Pietta in brass or steel. The barrel is way too short for the bullet to achieve a usable velocity, the chamber diameter is less than the bore diameter and they are notoriously inaccurate beyond 10 feet. Remington never manufactured a revolver with a brass frame so brass framed models may be strong enough to load full charges, but they are historically incorrect. The Remington in reproduction is generally an excellent choice.
Root Side hammer. Model 1855 with a full steel frame. This reproduction by Pietta is widely reported to have serious quality control problems and are very expensive for a little .31 caliber pocket pistol. They are really an interisting looking novelty pistol, but I don't recommend them because of their reported lack of quality and high price.
Starr single or double action. I consider these interesting revolvers, but a novelty pistol since so few were issued. The double action model was unreliable and earned the pistol a bad reputation; this bad reputation is maintained by the modern reproductions by Pietta. The later single action model was much more reliable and popular.
Whitney Navy. A .36 Navy caliber revolver with a solid steel frame similar to a Remington. Even the grips are much like the Remington making it a barely legal copy of the Remington Navy. The original revolvers did not have a good reputation for reliability and relatively few were made. The reproduction by Palmetto is no longer in production (that I know of), but used ones are avilable.
Confederate manufactured revolvers available in reproduction.Leech and Rigdon. A copy of the 1851 .36 Navy Colt with a steel frame. Modern copies might be acceptable shooters.
Dance and Brothers. The .36 Navy models were a copy of Colt's 1851 Navy and the .44 Army models were copies of Colt's 3rd Dragoon but most of these pistols were manufactured without Colt's recoil shields. Less than 500 were made altogether and so I consider these a novelty pistol. Although these are strong pistols with a steel frame and are historically accurate, the modern reproductions come without the recoil shields (as did most of the originals) and I consider the missing recoil shields as a serious safety issue that renders these pistols dangerous to the face and eyes in case of a chainfire.
Spiller and Burr. A .36 Navy caliber copy of a solid frame Whitney, but with a brass frame. Another rare novelty pistol.
LeMat. I consider these novelty pistols too since so few were actually made and were probably too heavy and large to have actually been carried by the few Confederate officers they were given to. Originals were in .40 caliber so today's .44s are fakes.
Griswold & Gunnison. A .36 Navy caliber copy of the 1851 Colt. The originals had a gunmetal (reddish) bronze frame. Historically significant because this model, although greatly inferior to the Colt, was the best and most popular pistol made in the Confederacy (about 3,700 manufactured). Fortunately, today's cylinders and barrels are made from modern homogeneous steel and not from twisted bars of wrought iron, as were many of the originals. The barrels and cylinders of modern copies have a smooth, deep blue finish that the wrought iron of the originals couldn't have had. Modern copies are likely to have a frame of ordinary brass so avoid full charges and strictly avoid any fakes in .44 Army caliber. I wonder how many of the originals were thrown away as soon as the officer could get his hands on a captured Colt or Remington? This is one reproduction that is far superior to an original in terms of strength, appearance and reliability.
How much you should spend on your revolverAs it is with most things in life, the higher quality you buy, the better it works and the more fun it is to own. This is very true when it comes to the replica pistols. The cheap revolvers work OK, but if you really want to shoot well and own something you are proud of, buy something that is slightly more than you think you can afford. "Nobody was ever sorry they bought quality" is something that should be considered when hesitating to spend the extra money on an extra nice pistol. While I'm throwing out aphorisms, consider that "a thing of beauty is a joy forever" and something beautifully made is seldom cheap.
Now, having said all that, I must admit that many people would like to try the sport of black powder revolver shooting, but don't want to invest a lot of money in something they aren't sure they will enjoy. I hate to admit it, but the truth is, the Pietta .44 brass framed revolver (I just can't bring myself to call it by its oxymoronic brand name) is sold very cheaply and for what it is, it shoots very well, it is an excellent bargain and something that has done more than anything else to introduce a lot of people to the sport of black powder shooting. If you want to try this sport, but are not sure you will like it and you can't borrow somebody's revolver, go ahead and get one of these revolvers and I assure you that you will really enjoy it.
A Preface to John's Intemperate Philippic Regarding Brass Framed RevolversIf you have a brass framed revolver already, I hope you won't be too offended by what I say next. You see, I'm on a one-man crusade to stamp them out because they are mostly un-historical and brass is a soft and weak metal. On the other hand, if you don't care about historical accuracy and are happy to shoot light charges (the most fun kind of shooting anyway), then you will really enjoy your brass-framed pistol and you should just ignore the following rant.
(and why you might want to ignore the following rant)
Another reason to ignore my rant is this: even the most ardent opponent of brass revolvers (like me) must realize that the extremely low price, the superb value for the money and the shiny attractiveness of pistols like Pietta's (lord give me strength to say it) "Confederate Navy" revolver are what attracts many people to our sport in the first place. Unpolished brass does not pit, but forms a deep and handsome patina that may be enhanced with certain commercial products and that is a plus for many people too. Regarding all this, I (reluctantly) have to admit that the brass framed revolvers not only look pretty, but they shoot well, they are rugged (if not overloaded) and are a superb bargain. In short, they are a low cost, low risk introduction to the sport and in that respect, perform an invaluable service that even old curmudgeons like me have to appreciate.
John's Intemperate Philippic Regarding Brass Framed Revolvers
(you don't have to agree with because it's just my opinion)
OK, here is my unvarnished opinion for what it is worth: There is one kind of black powder revolver that I would seriously advise staying away from and that is the brass frame Colt types. These are beginner's pistols that can not shoot full charges and they are not historically accurate. It is a fact that Colt never, ever manufactured any of their pistols with a brass frame and no more than just a handful of brass framed Navy .36 caliber pistols were manufactured in the South during the Civil War. Furthermore, only Dance & Brothers ever manufactured a revolver larger than .36 caliber and no brass framed Colt type .44 pistols were ever made by anybody until Pietta started manufacturing them. By the way, I believe that there are some brass frame Remington types out there too. The fact is, Remington never, ever made a brass frame pistol in the Army or Navy calibers and all my research indicates that the brass framed New Model Pocket Pistol by Pietta is a fake, so any brass framed Remingtons you might see are historically inaccurate too. Because of the strong frame design, a brass frame Remington type pistol might be able to stand full charges without falling apart, but is it really worth saving just a few bucks and end up with something phony?
You re-enactors of either
side, do you want to "farb" yourselves this way even if the ignorant
public doesn't know the difference? You Southern re-enactors
wishing to have
"Confederate" equipment to be as "historically accurate as possible,"
just remember that the vast majority
of arms used by the South were
weapons that were in armories before hostilities began, captured
weapons bought from overseas - and
none of these were in brass.
It is highly unlikely (in my mind anyway) that any front line
Confederate officer or cavalryman would have carried a crude,
.36 Navy Colt knock-off, but that the very few pistols that were
issued to Home Guard units only.
To those new to cavalry re-enacting and who are just now buying their uniforms and firearms, you should know that most Civil War re-enactment associations forbid their Confederaste units from carrying brass framed revolver unless they are historically accurate copies of revolvers that were actually made in the South. I think that it is a well known fact that the famous John S. Mosby considered the Colt 1860 .44 Army (loaded with round balls) as the revolver of choice -- and that should tell you something. Then there is the fact that buyers in the South bought all the Colt 1860 Army revolvers Colt could manufacture directly from Colt at the beginning of the War, so if you buy a Colt reproduction, you will have a "Confederate" revolver without having to resort to a brass framed model. If you want to own a strong revolver and you want to be as "authentic" and as "period" as possible, if you want to avoid "farbing" yourself and ending up with the "wrong" kind of revolver or something forbidden to carry at a re-enactment, please stay away from brass.
More important than the historical inaccuracy of brass is the issue of strength. Let's face it, brass framed Colt type pistols have a terrible reputation and over and over people warn that shooting normal charges will cause the cylinder shaft to pull out of the frame. As the shaft pulls out, the pistol gets all loose and the thing is ruined. This is especially true of the big .44 caliber models that Pietta has the shameless gall to call a "Confederate Navy" model.OK, it has come to my attention that owners of recently manufactured brass framed .44 caliber pistols claim that their Colt style revolvers show no signs of becoming loose even after firing hundreds of rounds at full loads. Not seeing how this could be possible, I've done some research into the metallurgy of copper alloys. It seems that there are alloys that are called 'brass' (but are technically bronzes) which are much stronger than common brass or even gunmetal brass (bronze). Speaking of gunmetal, the few 'brass' framed .36 caliber pistols that were manufactured in the South in the 1860s were, no doubt, made of gunmetal bronze salvaged from worn out cannons, but, modern brass framed pistols can be made of god-knows-what kind of brass, some of which is so weak as to earn these pistols their notorious reputations.
I greatly suspect that some of the newer brass framed revolvers are made of manganese brass (called 'brass' but actually a bronze) and if so, they are in strength just a little below the low carbon steel used in steel framed revolvers. I would hazard to guess that a manganese brass framed revolver is probably strong enough for any kind of normal load. So, how can you tell if you have a brass framed pistol that is (almost) as strong as a steel framed pistol? Unless you have access to a metallurgical laboratory, you can't be certain, but if your frame has a pretty gold color to it, it is probably ordinary brass as the stronger bronzes have a less attractive, more reddish hue.
Now, the truth is, I'm just guessing that some recently manufactured brass pistols are made with a high strength alloy, I do not know FOR A FACT that any of this is true and, for all I know, a brand-new brass framed revolver is very likely to be made of a kind of ordinary brass that is too weak to allow shooting full loads.
If you already own a brass framed pistol, I would like to suggest that you take it out and shoot it and while you are at it, try out some of the suggestions I will be presenting. Please note that these pistols are loaded and shot exactly like any other black powder revolver and no special precautions apply to them except that most people advise against full (over 30 grain) charges. Now, if you like this kind of shooting (and I think you will), you might want to consider buying a second pistol and then use the new one as your main "Shootin' Iron.". A lot of shooters eventually buy more than one black powder pistol (I have 5), so when you go to buy your next pistol, consider a steel frame model. Once your brass pistol has served its purpose, you might want to consider polishing it up real shiny, put in in a picture frame and hang it on a wall where it will make an outstanding decoration.
We all know that brass pistols are just as much fun to shoot as steel pistols, but, unless you are sure you have a frame made of manganese bronze, I suggest that limit your loads to half charges. If you insist on shooting full loads and your pistol becomes loose, use that as an excuse to buy that (steel framed) pistol you always wanted. If you shoot full loads and it doesn't get loose, great, you have a pistol made of the "good" kind of brass and you can continue to enjoy shooting full loads. See, you just can't go wrong no matter what you choose to do.
For those who already have a .44 caliber revolver with a brass frame or to those who insist on buying a brass revolver because they don't want to risk a lot of money on something they aren't sure they will like or those folks who just like the looks and the outstanding "bang for the buck" that brass framed revolvers offer, let me say this: please, please, please don't follow Pietta's bad example and call your pistol a (shudder) "Confederate Navy." Please refer to your pistol as a type of "Confederate Dragoon" because that's what the frame and caliber of these pistols really are -- they are basically a Colt 3rd model Dragoon with a brass frame and short cylinder in the same Army (.44) caliber that the Dragoons came in. By calling your pistol a "Confederate Dragoon," you won't be exactly correct, but you will avoid the absurdly oxymoronic "Confederate Navy" name and you will demonstrate that you know the difference between Army caliber (.44) and Navy caliber (.36) and also that you know something about Colt frame design.
Finally there is this, if you don't already have a brass framed pistol and are still considering what kind of pistol to buy, I urge you to consider getting one with a steel frame because, for a trivial amount of additional money, you will own something that is superior in every sense. Look, for a few bucks more you can have a steel frame Colt or a Remington, so please don't bother with brass. These brass framed fakes (I will not call these things "reproductions") are flashy when they are polished up and they sure look "old time" to those who don't know much about period pistols, but they are vastly inferior to the same pistol with a steel frame. By the way, most colts have a trigger guard & mainspring frame that is made of brass and there is absolutely nothing historically inaccurate or weak about having this part made of brass.
Now, when all is said and done, all these revolvers, regardless of their type, frame material and caliber are a load of fun to own and a load of fun to shoot and that point can not be overemphasized. As mentioned before, you just can't go wrong no matter what you choose.
There, I feel better now.
A Foreword to my Black Powder ArticlesSpeaking of dangerous, these revolvers can be dangerous if mishandled and misused. They do not have many of the safety devices of more modern revolvers and they take more technical skill to load than do modern metallic cartridge weapons and loading involves handling a very flammable and explosive powder. It should never be forgotten that these weapons were primarily designed to kill other human beings and they are just as deadly as any modern pistol. For example, a .45 semi-automatic pistol will throw a slug out at about 900 feet per second which is exactly the velocity a .44 slug comes out of an "Army" revolver. A slug fired from a .36 "Navy" pistol has external ballistics identical to a slug fired from a modern 38 Special. Careless or stupid handling of these pieces (like everything else) can lead to tragedy. With proper care in loading them and sticking to common sense shooting rules -- like pointing them in a safe direction, wearing hearing and especially eye protection, Etc. -- they are quite safe & fun to shoot and surprisingly accurate. Always remember that you have a moral and legal duty to handle these weapons responsibly.
In the following series of articles I would like to share with you some of my ideas regarding shooting the black powder revolver. In the pages that will follow, I will discuss the causes and prevention of chain firing, a highly unconventional method of loading that prevents fouling from building up and spoiling your precision and accuracy, the fastest, easiest and best method of cleaning your revolver, some simple gun smithing you might want to try for your self and finally an article about all the things you will need to have and you will need to know before you begin this hobby. I have just added a new section on precision and accurate shooting tips that you might find useful, but please check out the other articles first. Much of what I will present goes against common practice and debunks many long held myths associated with black powder shooting. I invite you to be very skeptical of what you read and to try things out for yourself. One of the great pleasures of black powder shooting is the opportunity to experiment and try out new things. You may not agree with everything presented here, so if you think something presented here is stupid or might be dangerous for you to try, don't try it.
The first article in this series will be about the simple things you can do to absolutely prevent chain firing so you never have to worry about having a chain fire again.
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