COWBOY SHOOTING CAP-N-BALL STYLE
They did it again! Hollywood that is. The opening credits talked of the violent time after the Civil War setting the time period in 1865, and as the villains made their entrance, it appeared that this movie would be different. The bad guy numero uno, Yakima Canutt, packed a Remington 1858 cap-n-ball sixgun that he twirled with expertise and dropped back into a holster that was threaded on a belt that did not carry cartridge loops. The sixgun, the belt, the holster, all were from the proper era.
Now enter the good guy, the white-hatted hero, in this case the Duke himself, John Wayne, in one of his many B westerns. Someone forgot to tell him The story line as he was packin' a Colt Single Action and a belt full of .45 Colt cartridges, neither of which arrived on the scene until 1873. The 1935 movie, which wasn't very good anyhow, was ruined for me.
In spite of what the prop departments provide in many Western movies, neither the War with Mexico nor the Civil War were fought with Colt Single Action Army sixguns. During the Civil War especially many good men on both sides fell to .36 or .44 round balls from front loading Colt and Remington sixguns, and to a lesser degree, such revolvers as Leech & Rigdon, Spiller & Burr, Dance Brothers, Whitney, and LeMat. The latter carried a nine-shot .44 caliber cylinder plus a shotgun barreled tube under the barrel prior to, in fact more than 125 years before either Smith & Wesson or Taurus brought out 'sixguns' with seven and eight shot .357 Magnum cylinders.
The peak time of both the gunfighter and the large cattle drives was during the era in which the cap-n-ball sixgun was king. This was the four year period directly after the Civil War prior to the first big bore cartridge sixguns from Smith & Wesson and which also began eight years before the Colt Single Action arrived upon the scene. That most notorious pistolero Wild Bill Hickok still carried a pair of cap-n-ball sixguns when he was shot from behind in 1876. He certainly could have laid his hands upon the Colt Single Action Army .45 or a Smith & Wesson .44, however he still preferred round ball loaded percussion sixguns. With the advent of Cowboy Action Shooting and classes for both smokeless and black powder, the cap-n-ball sixguns are naturals for cowboy competition. And as one of the main goals of Cowboy Action Shooting, at least for those whose sole pleasure is not in winning but in the spirit of the game, is authenticity, the cap-n-ball sixguns are perfect. From 1836 until 1869, the only big bore sixguns available were cap-n-ball sixguns. And although Smith & Wesson brought forth the first big bore single action sixgun in 1869, soon to be followed by the Colt and Remington, everyone did not rush down to their local gunstore to trade in a perfectly good and trustworthy sixgun for one of the newfangled cartridge guns. Many stayed with their cap-n-ball sixguns, while others simply had their Remington and Colt revolvers converted to brass cartridges.
Replicas of the cartridge conversion sixguns are just starting to appear as this is written and gunsmiths such as John Gren and Ken Howell are offering conversions of present day cap-n-ball sixguns to centerfire .38 and .44 for use with black powder only.
As far as I can determine, the following replica sixguns suitable for Cowboy Action Shooting are offered by various importers. From Colt, the 1847 .44 Walker, the transition .44 Whitneyville Walker Dragoon, the .44 First, Second, and Third Dragoons, the .36 1851 Navy, the .44 1860 Army, and the .36 1861 Navy. In addition, such hide-out guns such as the 1848 Wells Fargo and 1862 New Police are also to be found.
Two basic Remington Models are offered, those being the 1858 .44 Army and the 1858 .36 Police, both full-sized six-shooters. Other sixguns available, most of which are found in the Navy Arms catalog are the Griswold and Gunnison, Leech and Rigdon, the Spiller and Burr, Rogers and Spencer, and the LeMat. These latter three will be covered at a later time and I have also very purposely avoided the various models offered that never existed such as the .44 caliber 1851 Navy and the long barreled "Wyatt Earp" Remington, and especially the brass framed Colt and Remington copies. Neither Colt nor Remington ever made sixguns with brass main frames. Remington copies are also found in stainless steel and target models neither of which were found on the frontier. For a stainless cap-n-ball or a target sighted front loader, I prefer the modern route and choose the superb Ruger Old Army, a sixgun far superior to any cap-n-ball from the frontier period.
For this project, an even dozen cap-n-ball sixguns were gathered from various sources. From EMF came their four Hartford Models, a Colt 1847 Walker .44, A Colt 1851 Navy .36, a Remington 1858 Army .44, and a Colt 1860 Army .44 plus an 1861 Navy .36. The Hartford Models are the top-of-the line authentic sixguns from EMF. All EMF replica sixguns are imported from Armi San Marco.
A call to Navy Arms brought forth three sixguns from Italy's Pietta factory, namely a Colt 1851 Navy .36, a Colt 1860 Army .44, and a Deluxe Model 1858 Remington .44, plus a Uberti-made five-shot pocket sixgun, the 1862 Colt New Police .36. The final three sixguns consisted of an Uberti-manufactured Third Model Colt Dragoon .44 purchased at our local gunshop Shapel's, an 1858 Remington .36 also from Pietta via Cabela's, and finally a second 1847 Walker was borrowed from friend Tedd Adamovich of BluMagnum Grips.
For this portion we will examine the Remingtons plus loading, management, and cleaning of cap-n-ball sixguns followed by part two concerning the Colt replica cap-n-balls.
On the one hand there are those who say that black powder is messy and not worth bothering with while at the other extreme 100 % black powder traditionalists maintain that smokeless powder is just a passing fad. I won't accept either position but land somewhere in the middle. Black powder is worth the time and effort however I also enjoy smokeless powder sixguns immensely.
Shooting black powder sixguns is almost a spiritual experience. From the time of the first adventurers to land on the shores of the Atlantic, through the settling of this country east of the Rockies, to the opening and subsequent taming of the West, a period of nearly three hundred years, all weapons used black powder. It is therefore easy to see that smokeless powder is a Johnny-come-lately leaving the shooting of the frontier sixguns as a soul stirring experience connecting with our roots as we enjoy black powder.
All cap-n-ball sixguns operate the same way. The powder charge is placed in the cylinder chamber, a wad is placed over the powder if desired, and an over-sized round ball is seated using the built in rammer under the sixgun barrel. Then and only then are caps placed on the nipples on the back of the cylinder. That's the simple outline.
Before any percussion pistol is loaded and especially after it has been stored in an oiled condition, percussion caps should be placed on each nipple and fired to clear the charge holes. Again this is before loading. If this is not done, there is a good chance that the loading will push oil into the nipple charge hole and the gun will not fire.
Powder is poured from a powder measure into each chamber. I find the new see-through powder flask and adjustable powder measure from Thompson/Center to be invaluable for this operation when experimenting with severals sixguns and several loads. The clear plastic may not be traditional but is certainly is handy. Once a load is settled upon for extended use, I prefer a traditional brass powder flask with a spout that has been set for the proper charge.
Once the charge has been placed in the chamber, a lubed wad is then pushed into the front of the chamber by hand. These are available from either Ox-Yoke or Thompson Lube. A round ball is then set over the wad, the cylinder rotated under the rammer and the ball seated solidly compressing powder and wad in the process. I then leave the rammer in the front of the chamber as it holds everything just right while I place the next powder charge, wad, and bullet.
When I first started experimenting with black powder as a teenager (with an original 1860 Army I wish I had back!), I would cast my own round balls of pure lead in a single cavity mould. The cutting of the sprue left a small teat on the ball, and I would try very hard to line this small projection up perfectly either facing up or down in the cylinder chamber. I rarely ever succeeded. Today life is much simpler. Speer offers perfectly swaged round lead balls without the teat in diameters of .375", .451", .454", and .457". The former has worked well in all .36 caliber sixguns I have used, while the .44 cap-n-balls require experimenting to find the proper diameter round ball. For example, the Colt 1860's use balls of .451", the Remingtons are at their best with the .454" size, and the two Walkers I tried are individuals with one going for the .457" ball while the other must have .454" diameter balls to prevent damage to the loading lever. More of this problem when we get to the Colt cap-n-balls.
Once all chambers are loaded, then, and only then, are the percussion caps placed on all nipples with the sixgun pointing safely down range. It is easy to see why as the gun is facing towards the shooter as the powder, wad, and bullet are put in place and one who enjoys life does not want a loaded gun facing towards oneself with a cap on the nipple.
The use of the lubed wads perform three functions. They help to compress the powder in less than maximum loads, they provide lubricant for the barrel and reduce fouling, and most importantly, they seal each chamber against a flash traveling to the next chamber setting it off as well as the chamber under the hammer. Without sealing the chambers against this it is possible for two or even three chambers to ignite nearly at once with one ball going down the barrel and the others coming from the front of the cylinder alongside the frame.
When maximum loads are used, there is not room left in the chamber for a wad. In this case, the front of each chamber is sealed with grease. I use that great wonder lube Crisco applied with a cake decorating type applicator from CVA. A squirt into each chamber, and then smoothing off with a knife blade and the chambers are sealed. Then, and only then, are percussion caps applied to the nipples. Selection of percussion caps are critical to ease of operation with each cap-n-ball sixgun and again experimentation is necessary. If the caps are not tight enough they will fall off as the cylinder is rotated. They must be press fit on the nipple. I use both Speer #11 and Remington #10 caps and keep both in my shooting box. A fired cap that is too loose also has the tendency to fall into the action exposed by a cocked hammer. The only malfunction encountered with the twelve sixguns tested was binding caused by caps falling in between hammer and frame. Actually it was more than binding as the sixguns in question were totally locked up tight. Three times different sixguns had to be disassembled and fired caps removed that were locking the action. Perhaps this factor as much as the slowness of loading an empty sixgun resulted in the two-gun sixgunner!
Everything I have said about black powder also applies to Pyrodex, the superb black powder substitute. I used both Goex FFFg black powder and Pyrodex P in all sixguns tested. Some shot better with one, some with the other. One sixgun absolutely required the use of Pyrodex or it would not operate.
Not only do I confiscate Crisco from my wife's kitchen for black powder or Pyrodex shooting, it is also here that I find the cleaning solution that keeps the cap-n-balls shooting. This wonder is found in the clear plastic spray bottle marked Windex. Windex contains ammonia and cuts black powder fouling right now. As a sixgun becomes sluggish in operation, I simply spray a little Windex at the front and back of the cylinder, and run a Windex soaked patch down the barrel. Black powder is highly corrosive and sixguns must be cleaned immediately after shooting not several days later. When I am finished shooting a particular sixgun, the cylinder is removed and sprayed front and back with Windex, and a couple of the Windex soaked patches are run through the bore.
Upon returning home very little cleaning is necessary to come up with a squeaky clean barrel and cylinder using hot soapy water. The biggest problem is reaching all the small areas such as around the hammer face. If there is a place, black powder fouling will find it. Here Q-Tips sprayed with Windex or soaked in black powder solvent work wonders reaching into all the nooks and crannies. The sixgun is then allowed to dry followed by being thoroughly oiled to prevent rust and corrosion. I prefer Outer's Metal Seal as it displaces any water that may have been left behind in the drying process. After every three or four sessions, or before long time storage, the sixgun should be completely disassembled and the lockwork thoroughly cleaned and oiled.
Place your self in the nineteenth century. It is 1858 and you are about to buy your first sixgun. Somewhat reluctantly you enter the local gunshop. You are not quite sure what you want except you do know it must be a sixgun that is easy to pack, powerful, and quick into action just in case.
The display case is lined with Colt sixguns and a few other makes. The gunsmith shows you a huge sixgun. "This is the Walker Colt. It shoots a .44 round ball and is the the most powerful sixgun made.It will never be equalled or surpassed in power." You heft it and find that its four and one-half pound weight would not be practical for daily use.
"How about this one? It fires the same .44 ball and is a little smaller and lighter." You heft the Colt Dragoon and find the emphasis is on a little smaller as it is still a huge sixgun weighing four pounds. "What about that one?" The gunsmith brings forth a trim sixgun that is more like it as he hands you a Colt 1851 Navy. It feels good and balances wonderfully well but you notice the smaller hole in the barrel. It is .36 caliber and as your travels take you through bear and mountain lion country you want a .44 sixgun.
"Don't you have anything that feels like the .36 but shoots the .44?" The gunsmith reaches under the counter and comes forth with a completely different sixgun. "I just got this one in. It is not a Colt but a Remington. It is in .44 and it weighs about the same as the Navy Colt." You handle the Remington and you think this is more like it. The gun even feels sturdier and although the grip is not quite as comfortable for your large hands as the Colt Dragoon or even the 1851 Navy, you know this is what you had been looking for.
You strike a deal with the proprietor and he throws in a Slim Jim holster and wide belt for a couple of dollars more. Had it been a few years later and the gunsmith could have shown you an 1860 Colt Army .44 the choice might have been more complicated, but from this day forth you would be a Remington man.
The 1858 Remington was available both as an eight-inch barreled .44 Army and a six and one-half inch barreled .36 Police Model. Colts were more readily available and in a greater profusion of models but the Remington cap-n-ball sixgun had several advantages over the Colt. The frame of the Remington was solid with a barrel that was permanently screwed into the frame while the Colt sixguns were all open-topped with removeable barrels that were held in place by two small pins at the bottom of the front of the frame and a wedge pin that entered the barrel assembly from the side. A town marshal or sheriff that used his sixgun to buffalo drunks would surely opt for the solidly built Remington.
The Remington also had a better sighting arrangement with a rear sight that was a hog wallow through the top of the frame mated up with an easy to see front sight. The Colt carried a brass front sight while the rear sight was a notch in the cocked hammer. The Colt had two great advantages. It was quicker from the leather with its easier to reach hammer and more comfortable grip, and it also would shoot longer without jamming from fouling.
When testing the Remingtons as well as the Colts, I started with two brands of black powder, using both Goex and Elephant Brand in triple F or FFFg granulations, plus the number one substitute black powder, Pyrodex P. When I could not obtain enough Elephant Brand to test all sixguns, I subsequently dropped all data acquired with Elephant Brand Black Powder and continued testing with Goex FFFg and Pyrodex P only.
As mentioned previously, three replica Remingtons were obtained for testing and all three are perfectly suited for Cowboy Action Shooting Cap-N-Ball Style. They are easy to handle and safe to carry fully loaded as all Remingtons carry notches between cylinder chambers for the hammer to rest within. Recoil is very mild with both the .44 and .36 caliber sixguns.
I also found the Remingtons much easier to prepare for serious Cowboy Action Shooting than the Colts as the sights are such that sighting in is relatively easy. The .44 Remington from EMF shot 2 1/2 to 3 1/2" high at fifty feet with groups averaging 2 1/2" so it will be used as is. It would not function well with Goex FFFg as it was tightly fitted and the cylinder would bind up when a cylinder full was fired. Switching to Pyrodex P eliminated this problem.
The Navy Arms Deluxe Model went 2-3" low with all loads and it is a simple matter to remove the few thousandths of an inch of metal from the top of the front sight to dial it in exactly. I may just file the front sight to provide a sixgun that shoots two inches high to mate perfectly with the EMF Remington and thus not have to remember which gun shoots where.
The Deluxe Model is especially tuned with a very tight smooth action and also carries a barrel with gain twist rifling for target shooting. It retails for twice as much as the standard model however it pays its way as groups average less than one-inch with this superb model. The best load with this sixgun was 35 grains of Pyrodex P by volume, under a Speer .454" round ball, sealed with Crisco and ignited by a Remington #10 percussion cap. Velocity is 822 fps with five shots going into 3/4" at fifty feet. That is astounding performance for a replica cap-n-ball to say the least.
These two sixguns make a superb pair for Cowboy Action Shooting, so I spent a pleasant weekend fabricating a Cowboy Shooting rig consisting of a Slim Jim holster to be worn cross draw on the left side and a double looped Mexican-style hoster to be worn on the strong side. Both are carried on a sturdy 2 1/2" wide belt.
The complete shooting results of the two Remington replica .44's follow. All loads were assembled using the Thompson/Center adjustable powder measure and all Pyrodex loads are by volume not by weight.
NAVY ARMS DELUXE 1858
LOAD LUBE MV GROUP/5 SHOTS AT 50'
25 gr. GOEX FFFg Thompson Wad 650 2"
30 gr. GOEX FFFg Thompson Wad 752 1 1/4"
35 gr. GOEX FFFg Crisco 948 1 7/8"
40 gr. GOEX FFFg Crisco 1053 1 1/8"
30 gr. Pyrodex P Thompson Wad 648 1"
35 gr. Pyrodex P Crisco 822 3/4"
40 gr. Pyrodex P Crisco 827 1 1/2"
EMF HARTFORD 1858 .44
LOAD LUBE GROUP/5 SHOTS AT 50'
25 gr. GOEX FFFg Thompson Wad 3 1/2"
30 gr. GOEX FFFg Thompson Wad 2 1/4"
35 gr. GOEX FFFg Crisco 2 1/4"
40 gr. GOEX FFFg Crisco 2 1/2"
30 gr. Pyrodex P Thompson Wad 2 3/4"
35 gr. Pyrodex P Crisco 3"
40 gr. Pyrodex P Crisco 2 1/2"
Very few distributors advertize the .36 caliber Remington 1858 but I did find one in Cabela's Fall Catalog for a sale price of only $104. Now what can one expect for only $104? I was pleasantly surprized to receive a well-finished, well-timed sixgun that also certainly shot well enough for Cowboy Action Shooting with groups averaging two-inches at the Cowboy Action Shooting distance of fifty feet. This gun shoots 6-8" low at fifty feet so again it will be simple matter to file down the front sight to dial it in perfectly for whatever load I happen to settle upon. It makes a grand understudy for the pair of .44 Remingtons.
1858 REMINGTON .36
LOAD LUBE MV / 5 SHOTS AT 50 FEET
15 gr. FFFg Ox-Yoke Wad 722 2 1/4"
20 gr. FFFg Ox-Yoke Wad 805 2 1/8"
25 gr. FFFg Ox-Yoke Wad 929 2 3/4"
20 gr. Pyrodex P Ox-Yoke Wad 704 2"
25 gr. Pyrodex P Ox-Yoke Wad 936 1 7/8"
I do believe it was Val Forgett of Navy Arms that first brought replica Remingtons into the United States and if memory also serves me correctly, that first Remington I had in the 1950's was from Belgium. Now all Remingtons, be they from EMF, Navy Arms, or Cabela's are manufactured in Italy by Pietta. If you are into Cowboy Action Shooting and want to be a little more authentic than either modern class or traditional smokeless class afford, try Remington 1858's loaded with black powder or Pyrodex. The smell, the mess, the fouling, the grease, all are guaranteed to get into your blood.
....Courtesy of AMERICAN HANDGUNNER