c John L. Fuhring 

Preventing chain firing
This is the 2nd of 6 articles

     This first article will be concerned with the problem of chain firing also known as "cross-firing" of the black powder revolver.  Black powder revolvers have earned a notorious reputation for chain firing and that is a great, great shame because chain firing is entirely preventable, as you will see.   My experience has shown me that chain firing (multiple chambers discharging at the same time) is almost always caused by sloppy management of loose powder and, secondarily, by poorly fitting lead slugs.  By some simple changes in our loading procedures and a very simple modification to our revolvers, chain firing can become a thing of the past.  I will say more about poorly fitting lead slugs later, but let’s begin with powder management.

The Importance of Good Powder Management:
     The most important reason why black powder revolvers chain fire is - believe it or not - because powder grains get caught between the slug and the chamber wall, get crushed into an extremely fine powder and form a "powder train" between the bullet and the chamber wall.  This powder train resists all efforts to eliminate its effects and not even glomming on a ton of Crisco has any effect on it.  If the train is there, you will have a chain fire.  Don't believe me?  OK, I don't blame you for being skeptical, what I'm proposing is a pretty radical theory that goes against "conventional wisdom" and, as they say "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs."  Please read on and see if maybe I have made a discovery that you will find useful.

Number 1 cause of chain firing
A cross section of a revolver chamber showing crushed powder grains caught between the slug and the chamber wall
and forming a powder train.  A discharge from an adjacent chamber will set this burning and result in a chain fire.

     When I was "soldiering" with the Union Cavalry, we would make up and carry paper cartridges (with Cream of Wheat in the front and black powder in the back) because paper pistol cartridges are what was used in the 1860s and it sure made reloading during battle reenactments a lot quicker than loose powder - besides that, powder flasks were forbidden during the reenactments for safety reasons.   I noticed that I never got a chain fire while using cartridges although the only thing between the hot gasses from the fired chamber and the powder in the next chamber over was a layer of compressed Cream of Wheat.   Gee, maybe it was because there were no powder grains getting caught up when loading.  

     With this insight into chain firing, I conducted many experiments to both prevent AND to induce chain firing and I have confirmed this powder train theory to my complete satisfaction.  I'll say this right now --  to prevent the vast majority of chain firings, the top of your cylinder must be very clean of all loose powder grains and you must not entrain any grains between the slug and the chamber wall when you ram home the bullet.  A little later on I will describe my experiments and suggest that you should try those experiments for yourself.

     OK, for the time being, let's just assume I'm right and that clean powder management is as important as I say it is.

     The cleanest way to load a chamber (and the method our ancestors used) is to use preloaded tissue paper cartridges since there is no way for loose powder grains to get between the ball and the sides of the chamber.  You might want to give some serious consideration to this method of preloading your ammunition using cigarette paper tubes because it's clean and reloading is really fast.  Because there are no spent cartridges to eject, reloading is nearly as fast as with a modern revolver.  You can even make up boxes of ammunition complete with a cap attached to each cartridge.  One bit of advice though, the rear of the cartridge (next to the flash hole) should be ruptured with your fingernail before loading, exposing the powder, or you may get a misfire and will have to put on a new cap and try firing it again.  

    Preloaded cigarette paper cartridges are a superior way of loading from many standpoints, but the fact is that most of us don't go to the bother of making them up.  Besides, it is difficult to apply the proper amount of grease when using paper cartridges and I'll say no more here about cartridges, but I would like to invite you to read my article on making and using paper cartridges if you are interested.  

     Hey, guess what???  I just heard about these 30 grain pellets of Pyrodex that are made for 44/45 caliber revolvers.  They are rather expensive compared to loose powder, but loading with them would be much faster and cleaner.  Using these pellets would eliminate any possibility of spilled powder getting on top of the cylinder and would be just about the cleanest way to load a revolver.  Pyrodex, especially in pellet form, is hard to ignite, so you have to put in the pellets so that their dark, black powder, side is facing the nipples.   By the way, the manufacturer of this product doesn't recommend coating the outside of the cylinder with grease, but does recommend using a wad of some kind.  

     From here on this article is all about how we can prevent chain firing by loading the "conventional" way using loose powder.  A chamber can be successfully loaded from a powder measure (or - heaven forbid -- a flask -- which most of us use), but only if great care is taken to prevent powder from getting on top of the cylinder where it can get caught between the chamber and the bullet .   The important thing is to be absolutely sure the top of the cylinder and the chambers are free from powder grains that can get caught between the chamber wall and the ball as you ram a bullet in.  

     When I would carefully observe what was going on during my ordinary reloading process, I noticed that the problem with grains of powder getting entrained is made much worse if lots of sticky ‘Crisco’ or other grease had been glommed on the cylinder during the previous loading.  I will talk more about "mistaken" ideas regarding glomming on Crisco or other stuff in a next article, but for now just let me say that, against all advice, you should not put any substance on top of a cylinder after you have rammed the bullets in.  You read that right, do not put anything on top of the slugs after they have been rammed in their chambers.  Plastering on grease over the slugs after they are rammed in does absolutely no good because, after the first shot, all the remaining grease will be blown away and blown away grease will not prevent chain firing, but more importantly, having all that sticky residue there when you go to reload definitely contributes to sticky conditions that attracts powder grains to stick on places they shouldn't be.  
     If what I have written so far makes sense to you and you want to try out this for yourself, I urge you to go on the next page after you have finished this page.  In the next page, I describe three ways of loading your pistol that prevents chain fires and prevents fouling from building up inside your pistol.  For now, please continue with more suggestions on preventing chain firing.

A simple test you should perform for yourself.
     Here's a little experiment I have tried several times to test my theory and you can do it too.  Please note that this is an experiment who's goal is to CREATE a chain fire and you should be prepared for it.  Chain fires are not dangerous if your field of fire is clear and you hold the pistol securely.  Try to do this experiment where people not involved in the experiment will not see this as it is sure to cause unfavorable comment.

     Load a cylinder the conventional way with lots of Crisco on top of the bullets so that the cylinder is sticky with the stuff and then fire your pistol.  For safety, on the next loading, load no more than two or three chambers with powder, but be extra sloppy and get some grains on top of the cylinder and don't use revolver wads.  Ram down the bullets without brushing anything off, then plaster on the Crisco as you normally would.  Hold on tightly to the grip and then fire the pistol.  Hold on tightly to the pistol because I can almost guarantee you that at least one or both adjacent chambers will also go off.  

     After all the chambers are discharged,  wipe the cylinder clean of grease with a cloth and then load all six chambers with a lot of care and be sure you don't get any powder anywhere except inside the chambers.  Again, don't use any revolver wads, but make absolutely sure no powder grains are visible and none get trapped when you ram the slugs in.  Don't bother putting any grease over the slugs and then fire the pistol again.  I can almost (almost, but not quite) guarantee you that you won't have a single chain fire no matter how many shots you take.  I say "almost guarantee" because you see, there is still a minor cause of chain firing that I haven't addressed yet.

Poorly fitting bullets as an important but secondary cause of chain firing
     As mentioned above, powder grains from sloppy loading sometimes gets caught between the bullet and the chamber wall and forms a crushed powder train and that, as unlikely as it sounds, appears to be the major factor in chain firing, but another important factor (and there appear to be only two) is due to bullets that become damaged while being rammed into their chambers and end up poorly fitting their chambers.  Skeptical?  Please read on.

     Some years ago, while experimenting with a Colt replica, I made a useful discovery.  After formulating the clean loading procedures mentioned above, the rare chain fire that still occurred entirely disappeared  when I simply removed the sharp edges at the entrance of each chamber.  The following is my understanding of why I stopped having even that rare kind of chain fire.

     As most revolvers come from the Italian factories, the openings of the cylinder chambers are machined with sharp edges.  I noticed that these sharp edges tend to bite into the soft lead of the ball as the ball is started and when the ball (or conical)  is rammed down, the ball is shaved down.  This shaving must leave the slug undersized and, depending on how the bullet first encountered the sharp edge, it would probably be unsymmetrical too thus creating a gap where hot gas from another chamber can enter and ignite the charge.   Bullets not fitting the chamber walls tightly can allow hot gases from a neighboring chamber to ignite the underlying power and again, plastering on a lot of Crisco on top of the loaded cylinder does little good, the charge in the chamber remains vulnerable to a cross fire.

     Backed by the testing I've done, I will say right now that you can improve your revolver's accuracy and eliminate this probable cause of chain firing by using a countersinking tool to remove the sharp edges at the entrances of the chambers.  It is easy to do and only takes a couple of minutes.  Simply hold the cylinder in you left hand and carefully grind with your right hand until the sharp edges of all six chambers are removed.  Apply no more than hand pressure, but keep the alignment straight and take off no more steel than necessary to remove the sharp edges.

     When finished, your cylinder chambers will be lightly ‘chamfered’ and I have found that no more than a very light chamfer is needed.   If you apply the pressure so the countersink is straight on, the chamfer should be acceptably symmetrical without use of any special alignment tools.  I've done this operation on cylinders for several of my pistols and several friend's pistols too and after inspecting the results under a strong magnifying glass, the job never fails to look good.   I promise that this operation is easy and will not disfigure your revolver in the slightest.  Just remember that the chamfering should be just barely visible to the naked eye.

Chamfered cylinder and countersink tool.

     Chamfering the chambers does three things for you.  First: instead of shaving off a lot of lead and ending up with an undersized, and perhaps unsymmetrical ball, the ball is ‘swagged’ into the hole, thus making it possible to have a gas tight seal (assuming no trapped powder grains).  Second:  because you aren't cutting lead,  but are swaging the ball in place (with just a very thin ring of lead shaved off), the rammer force is usually noticeably less.  Third:  because some or all of the balls in your cylinder won't be undersized or unsymmetrical by having been cut, each ball should fit the bore and engage the rifling better.  When a ball fits the bore and engages the rifling properly, you should get a much more accurate shot.

     Will you never get a chain fire ever again if you follow these suggestions carefully?  Probably not.  I haven't had a chain fire (I didn't artificially create) in years and I think it is highly probable that you won't have another chain fire ever again either.  The truth is, nothing can be absolutely guaranteed, I can only claim that the probability is now ever so much lower than it would be if you don't follow these suggestions.  Can you now rest the barrel of the pistol with your left arm or on a branch or something that might otherwise be hit by a side-discharge?  You'd be a fool to try it.  

A factor that is widely believed to cause chain firing, but for which I can find no evidence:
     Here's another experiment I tried to see where chain fires might come from.  After I formulated my clean "powder management"  loading techniques and chamfered the entrances to the chambers, I stopped having chain fires.  I mean, I just didn't get any more chain fires at all - period - which was great, but I was puzzled why an uncapped chamber (uncapped for safety while carrying my pistol) didn't ever go off when I'd shoot the rest of the cylinder.  I mean, shouldn't that chamber discharge when charges on either side of it go off?  All the "experts" say it should because the nipple is entirely exposed, which is even worse than simply having a "loose fitting cap."   

     Now that I could trust my revolver to not chain fire, I thought I'd use it as a test-bed to check to see if poorly fitting caps or caps falling off really could cause chain firing or if that was just another "old wives tale."  Every expert who has ever written anything about black powder revolvers tells you that "lost or poorly fitting caps are a major cause of chain firing,"  but being a curmudgeonly old skeptic, I had to check it out for myself. 

     In test after test, I put caps only on every other chamber with the two adjacent chambers loaded, but uncapped.  I then would fire the three rounds.  After firing I'd reload and then put caps on the three chambers unfired from the previous round and then shoot them off.  I did this over and over again on several occasions now and you know what?   It didn't work, I never got a single chain fire no matter how many times I tried it.  I would have all these open nipples and never get a chain fire.  I also tried capping one chamber at a time and I couldn't get it to chain fire that way either.  To me, this is very strong evidence, if not exactly proof positive, that poor fitting caps (or in this case, no caps at all) have nothing to do with chain firing.  

     I think that the idea that loose and missing caps causes chain firing came about because when a chamber would cross-fire, the unexploded cap would be blown off the nipple and this made it appear that you lost the cap first and that's what caused the chain fire.  In logic, blaming something on something else that occurred about the same time is called the "post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy." Although the evidence looks bad, you shouldn't jump to conclusions, but carefully test to see if they are related. 

     Now, having said all that, this goes against years and years of "common wisdom" that smart people have been claiming regarding poor fitting caps causing chain firing.  You are very right to be skeptical so I sincerely invite you to put your mind at rest regarding this controversy by experimenting for yourself.    If you hold the pistol tightly, having a chain fire is not dangerous or painful, so this should be a pretty safe experiment.  Of course, I don't think you will have a chain fire by doing this, but that is something you will determine for yourself.  I suggest you do this experiment because if you find your pistol is immune from chain firing from this source, it will increase your trust in your pistol.

     Before you perform this test, you must load with all the care I have suggested and you must have chamfered your chamber mouths as described.  If you have done all this, you can be reasonably sure that your pistol will not chain fire because of any other reason and you may proceed with the test, capping only every other nipple as described earlier.  

     Now, if I'm wrong and you do get a chain fire from an open nipple after doing everything I have suggested, please let me know right away and give me all the details.  Believe me, if I'm wrong, I sincerely want to know that I'm wrong because the very last thing I want to do is spread bad information - thank you very much.  It's just that I've tried it so many times without a chain fire, I'm completely convinced that I'm right.  

All reasonable hypotheses are falsifiable and must be subjected to experimental verification.
     Of course, I have not tested every black powder revolver that was ever made and I have not tried more than two loose powder types (FFFG Goex and P Pyrodex) nor have I tried every style, shape and size of revolver nipple ever made.  No, I have only experimented with three Remington style .44 caliber revolvers (an ASM, a Pietta and a Uberti) and one Colt "Baby Dragoon" style revolver( .31 caliber ASM brand).  Because I have been restricted to so few samples, this "Missing Cap Vindication" claim of mine is really only a hypothesis and it definitely may be falsified by an accumulation of data that contradicts my experiences.  By the same token, my hypothesis will tend to be verified by a large accumulation of data from people who (like me) are unable to get their open nipple chambers to cross fire.  For either of the above, I need your help, so please drop me line with your experimental results and a detailed description of your setup.  

     By the way, in all honesty, so far I have not received a single credible reply that contradicts my findings and, for now anyway, I am saying that people should look to the other (more probable) causes mentioned in this article if they are experiencing chain fires.

     OK, I said I have received no "credible reply" but just recently (June, 14, 2012) I did receive a report of a chainfire that occurred under the strangest circumstance I've ever heard of.  According to the report, a shooter's pistol (a brass framed Colt type) went off a second or so AFTER he fired and as he was cocking his weapon for his last shot.  Evidently the cap was on the nipple as it should have been when the pistol went off.  The whole account is so strange that I am not ready to take back anything I've said about what does and doesn't cause chainfiring.  

     Until I have more information, I am working on the hypothesis that a fragment of exploded cap jammed against the cap of the unfired chamber and when the cylinder rotated, the fragment was caught between the frame and the unexploded cap causing it to be jammed hard on its nipple, go off and discharge the chamber.  I realize that this is a bit far-fetched, but so far this is the only hypothesis that seems to provide a mechanism for this unusually delayed crossfire incident that occurred only when the pistol was being cocked.  

Some final thoughts on why eliminating chain firing is important

     I'm sure you know people who will not shoot the black powder revolver and think we shooters are a little crazy.  Besides the fact that black powder shooting requires work, their main objection stems from the black powder revolver's reputation for chain firing.  A lot of people think that chain firing is inevitable and that a lead slug coming out of a side chamber has to ability to damage the pistol and maybe even harm the them too.  It should be kept in mind that without a long barrel to accelerate the bullet, it can't get up to much speed and therefore, a glancing hit by a slow, soft lead bullet can't possibly damage any part of a pistol and it can't possibly come back to hit the shooter either.  The fact is, from the very first Colt Patterson dating from the 1830s, manufacturers have always designed revolvers to survive the worst.  I personally have never heard of or read of any historical account where a chain fire damaged a revolver or harmed the shooter. In the old days, I personally experienced many chain fires, including multiple chamber chain fires, but I have never experienced any damaging effects except perhaps to scare the bejezzus out of me and batter my hand a little.  Now, having said all that about chain firing not being dangerous, it is extremely important that we do everything to eliminate it and I'll tell you why.

     To shoot to your pistol's full accuracy, you should have confidence in your pistol and learn to trust that it will shoot without chain firing.  If you have confidence in your pistol, you will have the confidence to hold it on target without flinching and you will be in a better position to achieve the accuracy your pistol is capable of.  After going to so much trouble to reload your revolver, having a chain fire is disappointing and embarrassing and it brings ridicule and discredit on black powder shooting.  It is the fear of a chain fire that keeps many people from even trying black powder revolver shooting, and that too is a great shame.  As mentioned, chain firing isn't a dangerous thing, but simple, common sense techniques will eliminate it virtually entirely and by doing so, I sincerely believe you will find an increased pleasure in this sport.  I also think that as chain firing is eliminated, the reputation of this sport will grow and more people will want to share the fun of black powder revolver shooting.

The importance of applying gun grease correctly and how to load for minimum fouling and maximum accuracy
     In my next article I would like to share my thoughts on just how important proper bullet "lubrication" is to accurate shooting and my favorite loading techniques to prevent fouling buildup in the barrel of the pistol.   I think you will agree that accurate shooting, where you place your slugs on the target as well or better than the cartridge shooters can, is extremely satisfying, but you can only achieve this kind of accuracy if you keep fouling under control.  That is what my next article is all about.

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