Compromise PART 12:
Ruger Old Army

Cleaning A Black Powder Sixgun Isn’t Optional!

The redeemed Old Army radiates success.

Percussion revolvers date all the way back to 1836 with Sam Colt’s Paterson, which was the first successful repeating firearm using percussion caps. More than 125 years later, Bill Ruger brought forth his version of the Perfect Percussion Pistol with the Old Army. I pointed out at the time Ruger had reached back into history, probably took a good look at the Colt, Remington and definitely the Rogers & Spencer sixguns, and combined the best features of all of them.

Spring To Action

The Ruger Old Army used the same virtually unbreakable coil spring action as the Blackhawk, and although the Old Army arrived about the same time as the New Model Blackhawks, it maintained the Old Model Three-Screw action. It was offered in both blue and stainless steel finishes with fully adjustable sights and 7 ½” barrels. With the advancing popularity of Cowboy Action Shooting, Ruger soon offered the Old Army with fixed sights and I quickly picked up a pair of 5 ½” versions and thereafter a 7 ½” example, all in stainless steel. I have never encountered a blued fixed-sighted Old Army.

The 5 ½” Old Army sixguns quickly became favorites as they proved to be much easier to pack than the longer-barrel versions, while at the same time not giving up much muzzle energy. Using a 0.457″ round ball and a lubed wad, 35 grains by volume of Triple-Seven FFFg results in a muzzle velocity right at 925 fps, while 40 grains takes it up to over 1,100 fps. They both shot well, not only with the original percussion cylinders in place but also with .45 Colt Cartridge Conversion Cylinders shooting both round ball and cartridge loads accurately and very close to point of aim.

However, there was one thing missing — the versatility of adjustable sights. For a long time, I toyed with the idea of fitting S&W adjustable rear sights matched up with ramp front sights as I had done on Colt and Texican 5 ½” cartridge-firing sixguns. One thing held me back, actually two things. First was the fact these revolvers were no longer available from Ruger and secondly, I usually hold on to the old adage — “Don’t Fix What Ain’t Broke.” Usually, but not always as we soon shall see.

“Old fashioned” accuracy: Targets fired at 20 yards with the 5 ½" Old Army.

Nip N’ Tuck

I made the decision to have the barrel of one of the adjustable-sighted, 7 ½” stainless-steel Old Army sixguns cut back to 5 ½”, however, this was not just a simple job of cutting the barrel and remounting the front sight, as it was also necessary to shorten the loading lever under the barrel. I checked with friends at Ruger to see if they could find the shorter loading lever assembly — as found on the stainless steel fixed-sighted Old Army — but none could be found. We kept looking in several places to no avail.

Then, this past summer Bobby Tyler of Tyler Gun Works was here visiting with one of his gunsmiths and when he left, the Old Army went with him to be turned into a Compromise Single Action Sixgun. It came back to me two weeks later, cut to the desired length and fitted with beautifully grained moose antler grips complete with Ruger medallions. It turned out to be everything I wanted it to be. In the back of my mind, I filed away the idea of doing the same thing to a blued Old Army.

I am fortunate to have a real old time gun shop, Buckhorn, in my area. Over the years I have learned to forget gun shows and just check with Buckhorn at least once a week. Earlier this year I stopped at Buckhorn and found Matt Perry, the owner, had just bought a whole collection of guns and had them laid out on the table in the back room.

What really caught my eye were two black powder pistols. One was a Ruger Old Army, blue, 7 ½” with adjustable sights. I quickly noticed whoever previously had this gun knew what good sixgun feel was all about as the original XR3-RED grip frame, found on all Old Army and Blackhawk models from 1962 onward, had been replaced. The “improved” grip frame deviated from the original Colt Single Action-style found on the original Single-Six and Blackhawk Flat-Top by providing more room between the back of the trigger guard and the front strap, thereby changing the feel.

This Old Army before me was now equipped with an XR3 grip frame from an original Blackhawk along with checkered plastic/rubber grips with the Ruger Black Eagle insignia. I really prefer these older grip frames and have equipped many of my Old Model Blackhawks with this Flat-Top, Three-Screw grip frame. This one felt very good in my hand. I thought to myself, whoever had used this Old Army really knew what sixguns were all about. The feeling didn’t last long.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Whoever had it didn’t know much about cleaning it. I looked down the barrel and you could see nothing but black. Matt at Buckhorn looked down the barrel and uttered the dreaded words “Sewer Pipe.” Nothing could be seen in the barrel except black — no lands, no grooves, no rifling at all. Matt ran a cleaning patch through it and it came back dark. Really dark brown, and my heart sank at the amount of rust which came out of the barrel. I said, “Let me take it home and I’ll see if I can clean it up some.”

My first patch, soaked in black powder cleaning solvent, came back as the first one had, totally covered with rust. After patches and bronze brushes and patches and bronze brushes and then more of the same, I was surprised as it cleaned up fairly well. There was still some rust on the lands and I doubt if I will ever get it totally removed.

The barrel was looking fairly good with no major pitting, so the next step was to remove the nipples from the back of the cylinder. These should be removed after every shooting session and thoroughly cleaned. The threads should be greased before replacing them so they do not seize up, ensuring they will come out easy using a proper nipple wrench such as the Slix Wrench from SlixSprings.

These nipples would not budge so I soaked the cylinder in Kroil to try and loosen them. I woke up in the middle of the night about 3 o’clock and went into the shop to check if the oil had any affect. Success arrived in a small degree and I was able to remove two, so it was more soaking after that.

They soaked for two more days and still wouldn’t budge. So, I went out to the shed and clamped the cylinder in a padded vise. Tapping with a soft-face mallet on the Slix Springs nipple wrench, I was able to tap the remaining ones free. I finished cleaning the cylinder, greased the nipples and put everything back together. Now it was time to find out if this Old Army had been redeemed.

The 5 ½" stainless steel Old Army with powder, balls and percussion caps.


I shot it for the first time since the work. My first load was 36.5 grains of Pyrodex with a 0.457″ round ball and wad. The result was five shots in one hole at 20 yards and one shot just slightly above it. Now came the decision. Since it shot so well, should I leave it alone or follow my original desire to have it modified into a Perfect Packin’ Percussion Pistol with a 5 ½” barrel to match my Stainless Steel Version?

Back to Buckhorn I went to talk to Keith the gunsmith and see if he could perform the work. He took a good look at it and said, “I don’t know why not.” And, for a perfect match, he measured up the custom stainless steel Old Army.

It took considerable work to shorten that loading lever and reattach the latch to the underneath of the barrel. However, he performed it perfectly and I now have an unmatched matched-pair of 5 ½” Perfect Packin’ Percussion Pistols Old Army-style. They carry easily and securely in Simply Rugged Sourdough Pancake holsters, which ride high and tight, and can be used either regular straight draw or cross draw.

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