SHOOTING THE BLACK POWDER REVOLVER
c John L. Fuhring
Items for the beginning black powder revolver shooter
and including some suggestions and warnings
This is the 6th of 6 articles
Link to article 1
Introduction to what you will needMany people, starting out with their first black powder revolver, want to know what accessories they will need. Below is a description of the minimum items and supplies needed to join the happy fraternity of black powder shooters.
Obviously, you will need a revolver. As you can guess from my previous chapters, the 1858 Remington types are my favorite, but it really doesn't matter what you choose except please stay away from brass framed models. Many people like the big .44's "Army" caliber because of their size, their blast, their recoil and the deadliness of their bullets. On the other hand, the .36 "Navy" caliber pistols are cheaper to shoot and easier to hold on target than are the .44 pistols all because of their smaller powder charge and lighter bullets.
Whatever caliber or style of revolver you choose, buy a pistol that is slightly more expensive than you think you can afford. Do not get cheap here. If you spend the extra money, after a month you won't remember the difference in price, but if you buy a cheap pistol, you may regret it as time goes on, especially if you really get into this sport. It costs just as much to shoot a cheap pistol as it does to shoot an expensive pistol, but a cheap pistol will not give you the same pleasure, accuracy and pride of ownership.
After you buy your pistol, the first thing you should get is a basic cleaning kit. You won't need anything more than a cleaning rod with a jag of the right caliber on it and some cloth patches. You will not need any metal brushes, swabs or anything fancy, but you will need a nipple wrench. Your cleaning kit might also include a bottle of "Moose Milk" or Thompson/Center Number 13 Bore Cleaner for those really "baked on" super hard fouling problems you get when shooting blanks during a re-enactment. I've found that simple vegetable oil and especially jojoba oil works as well as regular black powder solvent, you just have to let it soak in for a while and wait for it to dissolve the fouling.
You can't shoot without bullets, so you will need is a supply of lead slugs of the proper diameter. Go to one of the many black powder catalogs such as the Dixie Gun Works catalog or go on line and order a box or two of the right size slugs to fit your pistol. Conical bullets are heavier and will penetrate deeper, but round balls are probably more fun to shoot. When you buy pre-made bullets, be sure they ram down snugly and never use slugs that fit the chambers loosely.
If you find that you really enjoy this kind of shooting and are doing a lot of shooting, think about buying a bullet mold and a lead furnace. Be aware that you will have to do a lot of shooting before any bullet making equipment pays for itself.
For loading the pistol with powder, you will need some kind of powder flask. There are several types out there, both traditional and modern. Get a flask that is small enough to easily fit in your hand and is easy to use, but still holds enough powder so you won't be running out all the time. A flask holding five ounces of powder is probably as big as you should go, I would think.
Various size spouts screw into the top of a flask so order a spout that will give the right charge for your pistol. For the .44s I suggest a 30 grain spout for conicals & wads and no more than a 35 grain one for round balls & wads. For the .36s it appears that a 20 grain spout is about a maximum charge for conicals and a 22 grain one for round balls. Consider this, bullets with a light charge behind them (10 - 15 grains) will hit the bulls eye more often than bullets shot with heavier charges. A light charge also builds up much less fouling so you can shoot a lot more between cleanings although if you load as I suggest in chapter 3 of this series, you will not have fouling buildup.
I'll tell you what I did for my .44. I bought a 20 grain spout and then I cut and filed the end down until it now throws 17 grains. If I want a light target charge that is still quite powerful and deadly, I put in a single charge, but if I want to go "whole hog" with lots of blast and recoil, I put in a double (34 grain) charge. If you have a .36 Navy, you might consider getting a 10 grain spout. Choosing a half-size spout eliminates the need for multiple spouts. The longer and narrower your spout is, the fewer spilled grains of powder you will have and the less likely it is you will have a chain fire from sloppy loading.
Many people strictly advise against loading a revolver's cylinder directly from a flask because of the (what I consider an extremely improbable) risk that there might be a spark burning in a chamber that would cause the flask to explode. Personally, I have never heard of a flask exploding while loading a revolver and loading a revolver from a powder measurer would be slow and impractical, so I've never done it that way. You will have to assess for yourself the risks and decide for yourself to use a powder measurer or not.
Buy a good supply of revolver wads in the right caliber. I think it is important for beginners to start out with these things so that they can start learning to shoot without worrying about chain-firing. Novices tend to be a little klutzy and sloppy with gun powder when they load. If you're still learning how to load and tend to be a little sloppy with your powder, these wads won't absolutely prevent chain firing, but they will help a whole lot. Please read chapter 2 on preventing chain firing.
You will need a supply of the right kind of gun grease. You have several choices here. If it is cool to cold out, lard works fine as a gun grease and smells great. Crisco works well too and people tell me that the very best grease and what our ancestors used is sheep tallow. I've never used tallow, but right now my all time favorite gun grease is Thompson/Center's Bore Butter. It really keeps my pistol's barrel clean of fouling, it also smells great and it stays reasonably solid in warm weather. Buying Bore Butter in a tube is so much easier than making gun grease yourself and it works well in all but the warmest weather, so that's all I use anymore. As odd as it sounds, the gun grease must be put in the chamber BEFORE you ram in the slug (as told about in chapter 3).
OK, since writing that I've made up a mixture of 85% Crisco and 15% beeswax and this stuff is by far the best revolver grease I've ever used. I highly recommend using a mixture like this because it works well on warm days, it doesn't seem to mix with the powder and it's cheap. The grease seems to atomize when the charge goes off and it keeps the fouling even deep in the chambers soft and almost non-existent. Experiment around with this stuff, you can't loose.
This grease is a bit stiff, but if you melt it into
a jar or something similar, you
can scoop it out with your finger.
To fire your pistol you will need primer caps. Nearly all revolvers take the number 11 cap. Under no circumstance, I repeat, under NO circumstance should you try to use undersized caps and please, never try to shove a cap on the nipple with a stick. You will have to buy them at a gun store or pay a big extra charge to have them shipped to you as a "hazardous material" or, if you are lucky, you might be able to buy them from somebody at a shooting range during a black powder shooting contest.
Back in my early days of shooting, my best friend blew out the webbing of skin between his thumb and index finger when he tried to jam an undersized cap on a nipple with a stick and the chamber went off. Yes, his caps were undersized so he got frustrated and tried to force them on with a stick. What a bloody mess that was and what a scene he made at the emergency room of the hospital. Trying to put on undersized caps with a stick or a rod or any kind of extraordinary force is terribly dangerous and a disaster waiting to happen, so don't do it. If your caps are too big and fit the nipples loosely, squeeze the open end partially shut with your thumb and forefinger and then put them on the nipple. Don't worry about "loose fitting caps causing chain firing" because that is an old wives tale (chapter 2).
You don't absolutely have to have one, but if your pistol's cones aren't undersized, I suggest you think about getting a pistol capper. They are wonderful and make placing caps on the nipples a whole lot faster and easier than using your fingers. I love my capper and I suggest you get one too. They do take a little bit of getting used to especially when capping a Remington type pistol because of the Remington's recessed nipples. With the Colt's more open nipples, even a certified klutz can use them. Be sure the capper you buy is designed specifically for pistols because a rifle capper won't work.
Pistol capper. Notice the unique shape.
If your pistol's cones are undersized,
you won't be able to use one of these.
Finally, you will need FFFG black powder or its equivalent. FFG will work OK, but FFFG is better. I pretty much stick with real black powder although the substitutes are more readily available in gun stores and have certain advantages over black powder. You can usually pick up a pound or two at a shooting range on those days when they have black powder shooting contests. Almost always there is somebody there selling black powder supplies who will sell you a pound or two of powder and small tins of 100 No. 11 primer caps. Folks selling supplies at black powder meets generally sell near cost and don't charge nearly as much as gun stores.
By the way, entering a shooting contest is a lot of fun and if you've never done it, I sincerely suggest you do so.
A List Of What You Need To Have
There are a lot of accessories such as holsters and loading stands and whatnot, but for the beginner, this is about all you will need to get started after you purchase a good quality revolver.
Here's the list of the minimum items you will need to buy or send away for:
1. A simple cleaning rod with a .36 or .44 jag.
2. A nipple wrench.
3. A powder flask holding 3 to 5 ounces of powder.
4. A spout for your flask throwing the proper volume of powder. (You might consider getting a powder measure too.)
5. Revolver wads. Felt or home-made cork disks.
6. Gun grease (placed behind the slugs to keep your bore from fouling).
7. The right size caps (and maybe you'll want a pistol capper too).
8. FFFG black powder or black powder substitute.
9. A supply of lead balls or conicals of the proper size for your revolver.
10. Eye protective safety glasses.
11. Ear plugs or muffs to safeguard your hearing.
Additional Suggestions for Remington Shooters new to the SportOne of the really big advantages of the Remington style pistol is the ease and speed with which the cylinder may be removed and a pre-loaded cylinder may be put in. For the beginner, this may be a disadvantage over the Colt types as it takes a little knowledge and practice before the cylinder can be removed and put back in again.
Removing the Remington cylinder: First, from a hammer down position, half cock the revolver. Do not go to half cock from the cocked position. Make very sure the cylinder rotates clockwise freely with the hammer at half cock. Holding the revolver with its grip in your right hand and with the right side of the pistol facing down, open the loading lever, but not so far that the loading ram touches the cylinder. With your right index finger, gently support the cylinder so it doesn't just fall out on the ground. Pull the cylinder pin forward all the way to free the cylinder. Now support the cylinder between the thumb and fingers of your left hand and carefully rotate the cylinder clockwise while gently pressing the cylinder down and out of the frame of the revolver.
Replacing the Remington cylinder: With the pistol at half cock and with it held with the right side down as described before, GENTLY begin to fit the cylinder into the frame while rotating it clockwise. Be sure the loading lever is up enough and the loading ram does not interfere with the cylinder. At some point while rotating the cylinder clockwise, the cylinder will fit into the center of the frame about where it should be. When the cylinder is about centered in the frame, slide the cylinder pin back into its normal position and close the loading lever.
A locked-in Remington cylinder: This can be a very bad deal. Sometimes it happens that the cylinder is pushed too far into the frame and the 'hand piece' - that sticks out of the rear of the frame - goes into the center hole of the cylinder and locks the cylinder in. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCE TRY TO FORCE THE CYLINDER INTO PLACE OR OUT OF THE FRAME. If you do, you will ruin the 'hand piece' and for nothing. If you have a locked in cylinder, carefully bring the hammer off of the half cock position and then press the trigger to bring the hammer all the way down to the frame. With the hammer all the way down, the 'hand piece' will be fully retracted and the cylinder may be safely removed from the top (left side). Under this special circumstance, never try to remove the cylinder from the bottom (right side) as you normally would because the 'cylinder bolt' is now up and you will gouge your cylinder if you try to force it through the frame. Of course, you will have to put your hammer on half cock once again before you can re-attempt to put the cylinder in.
A chamber that is not in alignment when you ram down the slug: This is a problem that happens when you think the chamber is aligned with the rammer when in reality, it has gone beyond it. When you attempt to ram the slug into its chamber, the face of the rammer hits the top of the cylinder and the slug will not go all the way down into its chamber. If your revolver is a Remington type, this can lead to a major problem, but here's how to handle it before you get the pistol all jammed up:
When you first notice that you have made a mistake and the rammer isn't able to put the slug all the way down into its chamber, stop and think what just happened. You have a problem that requires more than just brute force. To get out of this situation, first get the rammer out of the way, pull the hammer a little past half-cock, press the trigger and let the hammer come all the way down into the frame -- do not bring the hammer up to full-cock while doing this. While you are letting the hammer down, slightly rotate the cylinder clockwise. When the hammer is all the way down, leave it down for now. The chamber with the protruding slug will be perfectly aligned with the rammer and the slug may now be rammed home with the hammer down. After the slug is rammed down, pull on the hammer again and bring it to half-cock and resume your loading.
I might add that this problem occurs more often when we old geezers don't have our reading glasses on and fail to see that our cylinder has rotated a tad too far and it isn't in proper alignment with the rammer.
Additional Suggestions for Colt Shooters new to the SportAs I mentioned in my first article, all the Colts I have ever shot have, within a few shots, 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 shoot the damned thing again.
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.
The alignment problem I mentioned above also occurs with Colts sometimes, but you are less likely to get into trouble if you foolishly rotate the cylinder. I mean, you can always remove the barrel and slide out the cylinder. The potential jam may be avoided in the same way as with the Remington if you don't want to remove the barrel.
Going from half cock to full cock after loading any type revolverAfter you have loaded and capped all chambers and you are ready to fire your first shot, pull back on the hammer to full cock, but before pressing the trigger make absolutely sure the cylinder is in proper alignment and is locked in. Many times when going from half cock to full cock, the cylinder fails to rotate properly. This is a very common occurrence with all these revolvers and does not indicate a malfunction. What you do next is to very, very carefully lower the hammer down all the way and then bring it up to full cock. Do not rotate the cylinder by hand or the cylinder bolt will scar the cylinder. Put your pistol on half cock, spin the cylinder and then bring it to full cock a few times and you will see what I mean about the cylinder not always going into alignment. This is another reason that half cock is not considered a safe way to carry the pistol because going from half cock leaves your pistol's cylinder misaligned more times than not.
Some Final Words on Safety for the BeginnerIf you are new to all this, I would sincerely suggest you sit down with an experienced and wise friend who's an experienced shooter and have him/her go over with you all the principles of gun safety. If there's a black powder shooting club in your area, go to the meetings and get some instruction. Local gun stores and especially shooting ranges are great sources of information regarding local clubs and safety classes.
At the risk of offending some shooters, let me say this: the shooting hobby includes some very weird and even dangerous people and I would hesitate to even speak to some of them, but the black powder community is made up entirely of the most friendly and helpful people you will ever meet. If you need advice or have any question, these folks will be more than happy to help you.
Before you take your pistol shooting, get to know your weapon. Get very familiar with your revolver. Disassemble it and then put it back together several times. If you have an expensive pistol, the hammer will not quite hit the tops of the cones so it is safe to"dry fire" it , but if it is a cheap pistol, be sure the hammer doesn't touch the cones before dry firing it. If your pistol's hammer hits the top of the cones, take the cylinder out before dry firing it. At any rate, it is important to get to know what the trigger pull is like, how hard you must press the trigger and how much "creep" there is before the hammer is released. If you change weapons during a shooting session, be absolutely sure you are aware of the differences between the operation of two otherwise identical weapons.
For example, my beautifully made Uberti Remington has a light and crisp trigger pull with absolutely no creep, but a friend's Pietta Remington that I'm working on has a mile of creep and a ton of pull. After getting used to the trigger pull of the Pietta, handling the Uberti could be very dangerous unless you used your head first and checked out the superior trigger pull of the Uberti first. In other words, if you expected the Uberti to behave the same way as the Pietta, the pistol would go off immediately on touching the trigger and when you wouldn't be expecting it to. The pistols I shot look almost identical (Piettas do have good fit and finish), but their operation couldn't be more different.
The more you know about your revolver, how it is cocked, what the trigger pull is like, what the half cock is for, how to disassemble it and all that stuff, the safer you will be when handling it loaded. Always remember that when your pistol is loaded, it is an extraordinarily dangerous and deadly object and you have a legal and moral duty to yourself and others to handle it with the utmost care.
Remember that these weapons do not have any of the safety devices that modern cartridge weapons have and if mishandled, they are quite capable of producing wounds that are instantly fatal. Always, always be aware that these pistols can and do go off unexpectedly at times, so always keep your pistol pointed in a safe direction, away from your body and never in a direction where a bystander might be hit. Get into the habit of never, ever allowing the pistol to be pointed at any person at any time, even if you are sure it is unloaded. Even when I was doing my battle reenactments, I just couldn't bring myself to point my pistol at anybody and always shot off to the side of "the enemy."
After you have loaded your pistol and are ready to shoot at your target, you can leave it on half-cock until you are ready to start shooting or you can carefully lower the hammer down on the cylinder between chambers while keeping the pistol pointed in a safe direction. Do not cock the hammer until just before you intend to fire. If going from half cock to full cock, be sure your cylinder is lined up and locked in before pressing the trigger.
Never place the hammer all the way down on a capped nipple and certainly never carry it that way. Remember, if your hammer is down all the way on a cap and you drop the pistol or take a fall and something hits the hammer, the pistol absolutely WILL discharge sending a killing slug back at you or will hit and kill somebody nearby. If you have to carry your pistol in your belt or in a holster after it is loaded, do not put it on half cock (half cock is NOT a safety), but leave one cap off and put the hammer down over that uncapped nipple. When you start shooting with one of the chambers uncapped, don't worry about that uncapped nipple being vulnerable to a chain fire because an open nipple is not a cause of chain firing (please read chapter 2). Remember, these pistols (except the Ruger) do not have modern safeties so, as I've already said, be very, very careful when handling a loaded and capped pistol.
Here's a little story about what can happen if circumstances cause you to ignore safety rules. When I was a kid, back around 1963, I was with a two friends way out on a ranch. Friend Roger had just cocked his really nice single action .22 revolver when a guy on a tractor came driving near. We didn't want the tractor driver to know we were there (I think you can guess why - damned poachers!) so Roger slid the pistol back in its holster, put his thumb on the hammer and pressed the trigger to take it off of full cock. Wouldn't you just know it, his thumb slipped, the hammer came down, there was a muffled bang (the tractor driver didn't hear) and the pistol discharged a .22 caliber slug that entered the top of his calf and exited near his ankle. We had to help the poor guy hike the two miles back to the car and I could tell it was painful, but he was real good while we drove the five miles to the hospital. What a big deal we had at the emergency room and what a hassle with the police. I am reasonably sure that if Roger would have shot himself with an Army or Navy caliber black powder pistol, he would have lost his leg. At the very least, he would have done some very serious muscle damage to his lower leg and lost a whole lot of blood and we never would have got him to the hospital without professional help.
We still talk about this incident all those years ago. The moral of the story is just this: safety is always more important than circumstances and if you take a pistol off full cock, you absolutely must expect there is an extremely good chance that it will go off. If there is a good chance your pistol might go off, you must have the pistol pointed in a direction where nobody (including yourself) will be hit by the bullet. In fact, any time your finger touches the trigger of a loaded and cocked pistol, expect it to go off and be sure to have it pointed where the bullet will do the least harm. Just ask "Old Three Toes" about what happened to him. If you must take a pistol off of full cock, but you can't take any chance of it possibly discharging, you might try putting your left index finger between the hammer and the frame while your right thumb is securely on the hammer. When the hammer is secured as best it can be, press the trigger, unlock the hammer, release the trigger and then carefully let the hammer down to the half-cock position.
Now I want to say something about black powder itself and how dangerous it can be. Black powder (or a substitute) is amazingly flammable and easily ignited. Black powder burns much more explosively than smokeless powder and very hotly and even a little pile of it will burn you badly. Any little spark can set it off so don't smoke while shooting and stay away from anybody who is smoking. Be sure your powder flask is well away from your pistol and never place it on the bench next to the pistol while shooting or, for that matter, anywhere near where sparks can set it off. Do not transfer powder from the storage can to your flask while on the firing line or where there is any danger of catching a spark.Try to do your shooting at a controlled range that maintains strict safety rules if one is available in your area. Listen to the announcements of the Range Master and think about what you are doing and where your pistol is pointing. If you are shooting at an uncontrolled location, leave immediately if people are acting foolishly and disregarding safe shooting practices. Being at a place where a lot of shooting is going on can get you excited, your heart may race and sometimes it is hard for novices to stay calm. Force yourself to be calm at all times and perform your tasks slowly so that you can think about what you are doing. If you get excited and start feeling rushed, you won't be shooting very well and you might start making some dangerous mistakes. Keep thinking to yourself: "if the pistol went off right now, where would the bullet hit."
Finally, I would like to say this: If you do not presently own and/or you have not had recent experience shooting a single action revolver, please ask yourself if you are physically capable of shooting one of these things safely. I know that most people will think that this sounds like a crazy question, but recently I went out shooting with a friend who has nerve damage due to diabetes and does not have good feeling in his fingers. When we shot my double action .357 and his old .38 police service revolver, we did just fine and he taught me a trick he learned in the PD regarding shooting double actions. When I loaded up my Remington and proudly invited him to compare its accuracy to his service revolver, he scared the bejezzus out of me. He cocked the pistol (pointing it up like John Wayne used to do), but without realizing that he was putting pressure on the trigger. When he released the hammer, the pistol unexpectedly went off right next to his ear. On the second round the pistol discharged while he was still bringing it down to the target. He shoved the pistol back at me and told me the thing was dangerous. Of course, there was nothing wrong with the pistol other than it had a standard trigger pull for a single action and believe me, I was eager to get my pistol back from my dangerous buddy.
The point I'm trying to make is just this: if you don't have a good sense of touch and good motor control of your fingers, perhaps you shouldn't even attempt to shoot one of these revolvers. Likewise, if your shooting buddy has these problems, perhaps you shouldn't invite him to shoot your pistol.
A final suggestionIf this is the only article you have read of my series on black powder shooting, I cordially invite you to read the entire series, especially if you have a new pistol and need to know how to avoid chain firing, how to load it and how to clean and maintain it properly. I would like to suggest you start at chapter 1 and read the entire series before you take your pistol out shooting. If you read nothing else, please read the chapter on preventing chain firing.
Finally, your pistol is a deadly weapon designed to be a serious tool in the hands of a serious and responsible person. The black powder revolver was never designed as a toy simply to have fun with. Your pistol was designed as a perfected instrument of war, able to instantly kill whatever or whoever was hit by one of its bullets and you should never, ever forget that. You should never clown around with your revolver and you should never allow it to be accidentally pointed at anybody, even when unloaded. Shooting is fun, but handling weapons as deadly as these are is perhaps the most lethal activity you can engage in and so all aspects of shooting should be approached with the utmost respect and caution. The alternative is tragedy and a ruined life.
A last word in All Seriousness
Best Wishes and be safe.
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