By Otis Earle
Fordyce Beals. Sounds like the name of a shady character lurking in the wisteria of some Flannery O’Connor story, doesn’t it? Only Fordyce was very real – born in Massachusetts and died in Connecticut. In between, he was granted US Patent No. 21478. Today, we know Old Number 21478 as the Remington 1858 . . .
Now, 155 years later, you can still buy brand new versions of Fordyce’s design, mostly made in Italy. And they still shoot just as straight and true as the originals. None other than William “Buffalo Bill” Cody wrote of his old 1858 Remington, “It never failed me.” If you had a few briefcases full of C-notes sitting around last summer, you could have bid on Buffalo Bill’s 1858 Remington, along with his hand-written note extolling the virtues of Beals’ revolver.
The 1858 Remington is a single-action, cap-and-ball percussion revolver, usually .44 caliber, although versions were also made in both .31 and .36 calibers. In the .44 version, each of the six chambers can hold up to 40 grains of black powder. Most folks shoot them with charges down in the 20-grain range. And that’s part of the beauty of cap-and-ball revolvers; you can vary the powder charge any time you want—light loads for plinking, and heavy loads for whatever.
In Iowa, muzzle-loading pistols of at least .44 caliber, with barrels at least four inches long and without shoulder stocks are legal for deer hunting. A standard 1858’s barrel measures eight inches. With heavier charges, it’s good to go when trying to put Bambi’s mother in the freezer. And man, do we have a lot of Bambi’s kin running loose here. Of course, only shoot from distances from which you know you make clean, ethical kills. Not only is that the right way to hunt, deer that go down fast and clean taste better.
Mmmmmm……lightly-grilled, corn-fed Bambi’s mother backstrap…….mmmmmmm.
Sorry. Got distracted there.
The Remington-Beals – as it was called back then – came into its own with the onset of the Civil War. The US Government needed as many revolvers as it could get. The Remington cost about 50 cents more per copy than the various Colt models, due to the “top strap” frame construction, and was not as widely issued. But that same design made the Remington more robust than the Colts and also gave the advantage of rapid cylinder swapping. On a Remington 1858, all you have to do is flip down the loading lever, pull the cylinder pin forward, and ECCO! The cylinder! She just a rolls out inna ya hand! And if you happen to have another pre-loaded cylinder with you, PRESTO! You’re reloaded. Like this guy.
Of course, walking around with fully-loaded and capped extra cylinders on your belt or in your pocket can be a bit dicey. One good smack on the percussion caps, and BOOM! You could become the next Farinelli…if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky, then you’ve got a tear in your femoral artery and only a few minutes to stop the bleeding before you’re introduced to Eliphalet Remington at that great gun factory in the sky. For Civil War pistoleros the best way to rapidly reload any cap-and-ball revolver, including the 1858, was to carry several of them, like this other guy—a Confederate guerilla from Missouri.
He’s got an 1858 Remington in each hand, and looks like at least two more on his belt. That’d be 24 shots of fairly rapid fire, not shabby even by today’s standards. And you thought the “New York reload” was a modern invention? Or even from New York? Bah!
The 1858 Remington has safety notches cut into the cylinder in between the nipples, giving the un-cocked hammer a place to rest that’s not on a percussion cap. Colt cap-and-ball revolvers usually don’t safety notches.
The safety notch feature makes it easy to safely carry a fully-loaded 1858 Remington. The strong top-strap design, the ease of swapping cylinders and the safety notches are all reasons why so many modern cap-and-ball shooters still turn to Fordyce Beal’s design. Not to mention that shooting ’58 Remington reproduction is just an absolute hoot.
My personal recipe for 1858 fun is 25 grains of holy black with a .454 diameter round lead ball seated firmly atop it. You know you’ve got a good, airtight seal in the chamber when the mouth of the cylinder shaves a small lead ring off the edge as you seat the ball. I like to put some Bore Butter into the mouth of each cylinder on top of each ball. Some folks claim doing so helps prevent chain fires, or all the cylinders going off at once. There is research indicating that chain fires are probably caused by sparks getting under loose-fitting percussion caps.
Either way, a good dose of lube also helps keep the black powder fouling moist and pliable, and easier to clean out. One of the knocks against the 1858 Remington is that the cylinder tends to bind on the cylinder pin as the pistol gets fouled, and Bore Butter, or even some Crisco, helps keep that cylinder turning smoothly all day long.
My 1858 is an Uberti model previously owned by a North-South Skirmish Association member. Although original 1858s were finished in a very uniform blue, I particularly like the color-case hardening on the frame and the plain-jane, oil-finished grips. Its trigger was lightened for target use, so it’s ridiculously easy to fire.
The strong Remington frame made it fairly easy to convert the pistol over to metallic cartridge use, as firearms technology rapidly advanced after the Civil War. Remington made a cartridge conversion in .46 rimfire, after they ponied up the royalty fee to Smith & Wesson and their fancy-pants bored-through revolver cylinders for metallic cartridges. Eventually, the design inspired the 1875 Remington, a true metallic cartridge revolver, but one that clearly shows the influences from the 1858.
Today you can quickly convert your own Remington 1858, without first paying off some big corporation, by merely dropping in a cartridge conversion cylinder – two popular versions are the Taylors R&D and Kirst conversions. Even though today’s 1858s are made with modern steels and CNC machines, you still want to shoot only light “cowboy” loads through them. Do not try to turn a century-and-a-half old black powder design into a modern magnum. And be sure to get the correct version of conversion. Pietta and Uberti cylinders do not interchange.
The Kirst conversion is named after probably the most famous cinematic example of the 1858 Remington rapid cylinder change, the final gunfight from Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider. There’s that great close up of Preacher’s hands as he swaps cylinders, preparing to deal final justice to Stockburn, the evil marshal who’s been terrorizing the small-time miners and the townsfolk with his equally-evil posse of deputies. If you look closely during that scene, you can see the metallic cartridge loading gate cut into the 1858, as well as the metallic cartridges themselves peeking out of the cylinder that Preacher grabs with his left hand.
If you’ve ever thought about getting into cap-and-ball pistols, and want an easy-to-use handgun that’s also rugged and dependable, check out an 1858 Remington. Fordyce Beals knew what he was doing. His design has been in constant use since before the Civil War. And if both Buffalo Bill and Clint Eastwood liked it in different centuries, you know it’s got to be good.