Black Powder Revolvers: Throwbacks With Firepower!
Though once the dominant form of handgun, black powder revolvers are now something of a curiosity, as smokeless powders and more convenient firing mechanisms have left them behind technologically. There are still fans of these anachronistic arms, however.
But black powder pistols still remain effective if a person ever got curious.
For the firearms enthusiast or person interested in Cowboy Action Shooting, there’s actually a lot to like about black powder revolvers and other black powder pistols if you look into them a bit deeper. Here’s what you should know.
Black Powder Pistols Generally Come Percussion-Fired
The final form of the musket/muzzleloaded gun – whether a pistol, rifle or blunderbuss – was the percussion-fired system, and most black powder pistols today are percussion-fired. To shoot, a percussion cap needs to be fitted to a nipple on the firearm. This acts as the primer in modern ammunition. The spark goes through to the chamber, where the powder and projectile are seated.
Spark ignites powder, powder goes boom!, and the bullet is sent out the barrel.
While black powder pistols at the dawn of the 19th century were muzzleloading single-shooters, they were soon replaced by black powder revolvers. Those remained the only game in town until the 1870s, when cartridges came into their own.
The first few generations of cartridges contained black powder until the end of the 19th century, when it was superseded by smokeless powder. Smokeless has too many advantages over black, as it’s less corrosive and yields far more velocity per unit of volume (measured in grains) than black powder does.
Today, you can purchase one of two types of black powder guns: legitimate antiques and reproductions. The former are old guns made a long time ago, the latter are modern reproductions of those guns. You can get a Hawken rifle (the one Jeremiah Johnson wanted so bad in the movie) a Colt’s Dragoon, 1858 Remington or even a LeMat revolver if you wish.
The former is likely to be quite expensive. The latter can be obtained much more easily in terms of cost and finding the darn things.
Caring For Black Powder Guns
Black powder guns require more care than modern firearms. A Glock can shoot hundreds, if not thousands of rounds with only a light cleaning and maybe a bit of oil. Any black powder gun…not so much.
You can go hundreds of rounds between cleanings with some pistols without issue. Do this with a black powder gun and your gun will turn to rust before your eyes.
A complete and thorough cleaning is required after every shooting session to keep the gun in good shape. You need to disassemble the gun as much as possible for cleaning. For black powder revolvers, you’ll need to take the cylinder out of the frame and the barrel, if possible (Colt percussion revolvers can be thusly disassembled) and clean every single spot possible as much as possible.
Some people actually clean black powder rifles in their bathtubs. For pistols, dunk their black powder pistol in a bucket of water with a bit of soap.
Though aficionados swear by the smell and smoke of black powder, plenty of black powder revolvers can be fitted with a cartridge conversion cylinder. Many are drop-in, meaning they can be installed with no need for any fitting. Some, however, require a loading gate be cut into the rear cylinder guard or minor fitting (meaning filing away excess material) to be used.
How they work is that the percussion nipple is replaced by an individual firing pin for each cylinder. Typically, the rear of the cylinder can be removed, the rounds inserted and the rear of the cylinder replaced. The Remington 1858 can actually swap cylinders, acting as the speed loader of the Old West.
However, cartridge conversions come with a caution. Just like reproductions of early cartridge revolvers (such as Colt SAA clones with the exception of the Ruger Blackhawk) care must be taken in ammunition selection. Ammunition in older times created far less chamber pressure than modern ammunition does, so high-power loads (such as modern .45 Colt +P loads or .38 Special +P) must be avoided.
That said, there are black powder and “cowboy” loads (loadings developed for Cowboy Action Shooting with equivalent loadings of smokeless powder to the original black powder loads) that can be used safely in cartridge-converted revolvers.
However, whether you use a cartridge conversion or stick to powder and ball…is up to you. There is no conversion for muzzle-loading black powder pistols, so back to the range you go to practice for dueling.
Black Powder Pistols And The Law
Gun regulations vary by state, of course, and this is not meant as legal advice. Please consult with your applicable state laws regarding the legal status of black powder guns. However, things get a bit different at the federal level.
As far as the federal government is concerned, black powder guns – and even reproductions thereof – fall under the heading of antique firearms. Antique guns, unlike modern firearms, don’t require a background check to purchase. They can even be shipped to your door!
Although…that’s with exceptions.
Federal regulations also provide that any antique firearm that can be converted to fire modern ammunition – such as black powder revolvers and muzzleloading rifles built on modern stocks – does not warrant this exception. Thus, a black powder revolver is still going to require a background check.
Then again, very few black powder wheel guns or reproduction revolvers are going to be very appropriate as a concealed carry revolver anyway. There are a few that might, but as a general rule they aren’t.
Are Black Powder Revolvers Good For Self-Defense?
As it happens, black powder revolvers actually ARE good for self-defense.
Obviously, they were used for decades as defensive firearms and also effectively. For instance, the Walker Colt was the most powerful production revolver in existence from its production launch in the 1840s and the advent of the .357 Magnum revolver in the 1930s.
The Walker, for instance, sat a ball or conical projection of about 140 grains over 50 to 60 grains of black powder, good for 1,000 to 1,200 feet per second and upward of 500 foot-pounds of energy. Granted, this is for the stoutest of loads.
Cowboy or black powder ammunition in .45 Colt yields performance equal or slightly less than that of .45 ACP, so 830 fps and 400 foot-pounds would be at the upper end of such ammunition. Not uber powerful, but certainly adequate for defensive purposes.
Black Powder Pistol Safety
However, there are a few cautions that must be observed. Proper gun safety is essential with any gun, let alone black powder guns – and black powder pistol safety involves a few tips and tricks that don’t apply to other pistols.
If carrying, you will want to leave one chamber empty and rest the hammer over that chamber. These older revolver designs were created prior to the advent of the transfer bar and thus are susceptible to drop fires. This is why people carried with an empty chamber in those days.
If using black powder, you’ll also want to add some sort of lubricant to the barrel-facing end of the cylinder. Trace amounts of powder can be ignited when firing, leading to chain fires – where all cylinders fire at once – and a catastrophic failure in the pistol. In their day, people would coat that end of the cylinder with lard to prevent this from happening.
That said, there is a lot of fun to be had in using black powder revolvers, as many people can attest. Black powder rifles also are used for hunting in nearly every state, and in some areas enjoy seasons closest to rut, offering the person willing to put up with the reduced range some fantastic hunting opportunities.
About The Author
Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.