Cap and ball weapons were all “the thing” during the Civil War and later—right up until Smith & Wesson’s patent ran out on the bored-through cylinder and Samuel Colt could get in the self-contained cartridge game. Numerous models of cap and ball revolvers were produced until 1873.
In past blogs, I’ve discussed the limitations of a cap and ball weapon because it can’t be reloaded quickly. A muzzle-loaded long gun gives you one shot. A cap and ball revolver with six shots is just that—six shots. Your hero won’t be reloading it while running from the bad guys or riding to the rescue. Keep reading and you’ll understand why.
Unlike a modern cartridge, where the bullet, powder and primer are enclosed in a brass case, reloading a cap and ball revolver takes 6 steps for each chamber. That’s six steps times six chambers to fully reload a revolver.
I took most of these pictures of my friend and fellow cowboy action shooter, Major Misalot, reloading his cap and ball revolver cylinder. The reloading can be done while the cylinder is in place on the revolver, too.
The loading is done in reverse order of the firing process, from the barrel side of the cylinder:
1. Add powder
In the above picture, Major Misalot used a reloading “station”. Another cowboy friend “Noz” used a metering flask to measure the powder for each cylinder. He put his index finger over the hole at the top, tipped the flask upside down and back upright to measure out the correct grains of powder, then poured the powder into a chamber.
2. Place a lead ball on the powder in each cylinder
3. Ram the ball home, all the way down into the chamber. Major Misalot used his modern reloader, but there is a ramming rod under the barrel of the revolver. The revolver is held muzzle up, the rod is firmly pressed into the chamber then the cylinder is rotated until all six lead balls have been rammed into place.
4. Grease the cylinder to prohibit chain firing – where the burning powder from one shot ignites the others in the cylinder = obviously not a good thing!
5. Cap the nipple (think blasting cap here)
Another method to “cap” the chamber is to use a capper, a spring-loaded brass disc that presents the cap. Above, Major Misalot hand capped his. Noz uses a capper. On every stage of our 12-stage shoot, Noz pressed a cap into position six times then went back over all six chambers to be sure the caps seated properly. Then he loaded his second gun.
After all that, the revolver is finally ready to fire.
With practice, it doesn’t take all that long to reload a cylinder, but you really can’t pour powder, ram a ball, cap the nipple and grease the chamber at a gallop. I can certainly see why many who relied on a cap and ball revolver carried fully loaded spare cylinders.
And, just to remind you that someone shooting black powder can’t hide…