Since buying conventional cartridge firearms is difficult at best right now, have you thought about buying a black powder revolver for self-defense? Specifically, the cap and ball variety. We’re talking about the cowboy action guns, meaning those chambered in .38 Special, .44-40, .44 Special and light .45 Colt.
If you can’t get your hands on a conventional handgun right now, black powder firearms are a viable choice.
You’re likely to find more than one black powder revolver in better gun stores even now – usually Cabela’s will have a few that have been collecting dust in their case for years – as well as the supplies needed to shoot them.
These are guns that you can easily buy now and get the ammunition for them, too.
Supplies are likely to be ample. Not many people think about black powder handguns any more, but the guns and cowboy action powder — smokeless powders engineered to produce lower pressures than standard smokeless propellants — are liable to be on store shelves along with the caps (primers) and lead ball or conical bullets.
Even if they’re not, black powder firearms don’t require a background check. That means you can usually get them shipped directly to your door (check your local laws). If you have no other alternative and need something to protect yourself and your family, a black powder revolver is worth considering.
Does a black powder revolver make sense? This is a far more viable self-defense alternative than one might think, provided you’re smart about it.
Depending on what’s going on in your part of the country, this could be the only gun and ammunition you can get right now. And they’re plenty potent enough to put down hostile personnel.
After all, cap and ball pistols were the only game in town until metallic cartridges first entered widespread use in the late 1860s and early 1870s.
The Colt Walker revolver (which we’ll touch on momentarily) was capable of killing a man or a horse at 100 yards, and was known for great efficacy when used in the Texan/American/Mexican war. Wild Bill Hickok killed Davis Tutt at 75 yards with a Colt Navy revolver, which is even more amazing for reasons we’ll get into shortly.
However, there are some caveats and quids pro quo that go along with cap and ball revolvers. So, what do we know about black powder loads?
Bear in mind this is the Reader’s Digest version, and I’m skipping some details here. Feel free to expound in the comments.
Black powder revolvers were made for a specific caliber of ball or conical projectile, with the cylinder length usually determining the maximum powder charge. Common calibers were .31, .36 and .44, though the projectiles were more like .323, .375 and .454 inches in diameter.
Small cap and ball revolvers, such as pocket models in .31 caliber, held a typical charge of 15 grains, the medium pistols in .36 caliber typically held about 20 grains and .44 caliber revolvers held anywhere from 40 to 60 grains, depending on the model.
The Colt Walker pistol held a 60-grain charge, but also had a habit of exploding when charged with the maximum load, which is why fully one-third of the original factory run of 1,000 pistols were sent back with ruptured cylinders.
Remington 1858 pistols were produced in .31, .36 and .44 (see above) calibers. The Remington 1858 – by virtue of having a top strap – was known to be stronger than the Colt design and thus could tolerate stouter powder charges.
What do these loadings translate to in terms of velocity and energy?
Bear in mind that the propellant used makes a huge amount of difference, just as it does with modern ammunition.
Projectiles available today for the Colt Walker are typically 110- to 143-grain swaged lead balls, as the Walker was not designed with conical projectiles in mind due to the design of the loading ram (the bullet must be seal the cylinder with the powder behind it) though Picket-style conical projectiles can be used with some modifications. According to our Colt Walker review, the author also used 170-grain Picket conicals that he cast himself.
His loadings averaged 1158 feet per second and 506 foot-pounds of energy for the Picket conicals using 60 grains of Goex 3F black powder. Speer swaged lead balls (143 grain .457″ diameter ball) averaged 1115 fps over 60 grains of Goex 3F (roughly 395 ft-lbs of energy) but 60 grains of Swiss 3F yielded 1278 fps and 508 ft-lbs of energy.
By contrast, that is slightly less powerful than modern loads of .357 Magnum, but more powerful than 9mm.
The Colt Dragoon has/had a maximum charge of 50 grains of powder. John Taffin, writing for Guns Magazine, tested a Colt Dragoon replica using 141-gr .454-caliber ball, and achieved the highest velocity he published of around 1050 fps with 45 grains of Pyrodex P, which translates to 345 ft-lbs of energy.
Not as impressive, but in the same neighborhood as a slightly hot 147-gr 9mm load.
A post on CivilWarGuns.com catalogs some .36 caliber loadings using a Model 1861 Navy with a 7.5-inch barrel. The highest velocity achieved was an average of 901 fps, using a .375-inch lead ball. Speer’s round ball of that caliber is 79 grains, which translates to 142 ft-lbs. In other words, less powerful than .380 ACP.
Remember when I said that Bill Hickok killing Davis Tutt at 75 yards was impressive?
Is there any gel testing when it comes to black powder revolvers? Not much, but some.
Guns.com did a gel test of some black powder pistols and found they had some definite potential.
A .31-caliber ball of unpublished grain weight (and unpublished velocity) over 15 grains of FFFg powder penetrated 11 inches in 10 percent ballistic gelatin. A 130-grain Lee conical projectile, fired from a .36-caliber revolver and seated over 25 grains of same, penetrated 26 inches in gelatin leaving barely any wound cavity and retained 100 percent of its weight with the nose being flattened into a wadcutter-like shape.
They also tested a Colt Dragoon, using a 220-grain Lee conical bullet (.456 caliber) and loaded with 55 grains of powder, which is about the absolute limit of what you want to load in that pistol. The bullet penetrated 29 inches, producing a wound cavity in the first six inches and also retaining 100 percent of its weight.
No chronograph results were shown, but the author estimated 1000 fps for the Dragoon, which would translate to 489 ft-lbs. That would be in the same neighborhood as .45 ACP +P.
Granted, this is not the kind of ballistic performance that’s desirable for personal protection regarding handgun ammunition. But…the question is could you use a black powder revolver for self-defense if that is all you have?
You bet. They’ll poke serious holes in people, and that’s what modern guns do too.
If you wanted a recommendation for one, I’d opt for a reproduction of the Remington 1858, such as those made by Pietta, Uberti or – if you can find one – the Ruger Old Army, Ruger’s 1858 clone.
I have two reasons for doing so. First, I think they look cool as heck. Two, the Remington can swap cylinders (a speedloader for when you’re marching though Georgia) and – and this is a big reason – the Remington can rest the hammer between cylinders, so you can load and carry all six.
That is IF you can’t find a cartridge revolver and cartridges, because I’d take one of the single action clones in .38 Special or .45 Colt every day of the week and twice on Sunday before I bought a cap and ball pistol for personal defense.
There are plenty of people right now who, depending on their circumstances, can’t get their hands on a cartridge firearm, ammunition or both. That can be either due to supply problems or regulatory restrictions.
The benefit of a black powder revolver is they are available and don’t require government permission. You don’t even have to go to a gun store if you want to avoid the crowds. You can have one shipped directly to your home (again, check your state’s laws).
There’s a lot to be aware of when it comes to owning and operating black powder revolvers (see the video above for the involved loading process), so reasons not to get one is a good topic for another post.
What do you think, though? Sound off in the comments.