Compromise Part One: Percussion Pistols

Cap-n-ball for self-defense? Sure!
; .

Two easy carrying 5-1/2" Percussion Pistols are the .36 1861 Navy and the .44 1860 Army.

For several decades, the 7-1/2″ style of single-action was my favorite. However, everything changes in life as we grow older. The 7-1/2″ Single Action, be it Colt or Ruger was the easiest for me to shoot and the 4-3/4″ was the easiest to pack. Then came the time I felt it was advantageous for me to compromise. The compromise consisted of coming up with one sixgun both easy to pack and having sufficient sight radius to make it easy to shoot. The choice was not difficult as I started turning more and more to a 5-1/2″ Single Action which would do it all. It may be not quite as easy to pack and maybe an eyelash slower to get into action, and while not having the long sight radius, it is still more than adequate for anything I need it for. Over the years, way too many years, I have used the Compromise Single Action for just about everything. I also thought about having 5-1/2″ Single Action Sixguns of every possible kind. Over the next few Campfire Tales we will be looking at these in their different categories starting way back in the beginning with cap and ball revolvers, the Percussion Pistols.


The Ruger Old Army (below) is without a doubt the finest percussion pistol ever offered.

Original Equipment

All of the Colt and Remington percussion pistols had long barrel lengths from 9″ in the case of the Colt Walker, 8″ for the 1860 Colt and Remington, and 7-1/2″ for all the others. All of these were very effective although somewhat difficult to carry. The movies will tell us everyone was openly armed in the Old West, however, this was not true and most carried their weapons concealed, at least while in town. We do know many sixgunners on both sides of the law cut the barrels to a shorter length to make them easier to carry and conceal. Today, shorter barrels, usually 5-1/2″, are available in both Colt and Remington replica percussion pistols as well as the Ruger Old Army.

In the early 1970s, Ruger reached way back into history, took a good look at the cap-and-ball sixguns from the middle of the 19th century and decided those designs could be easily modernized. The result was the Ruger Old Army. Ruger used the same coil-spring-operated action in the Old Army as found in their extensive line of single action sixguns. They also offered it in the much-easier-to-clean stainless steel, made the loading lever stronger, easier to remove and replace, and provided easily adjustable sights. The gun is rugged, simple and extremely accurate. I purchased my first Old Army nearly 50 years ago. In fact, it was the first Old Army to arrive in Idaho.

The original barrel length for the Old Army was 8″ and it was available in both blue and stainless steel as well as fixed sights or adjustable sights. When Ruger offered a stainless steel, fixed-sighted version with an easy handling 5-1/2″ barrel, I quickly purchased a pair. They have proven to be much easier to carry than the longer barrel versions without giving up much muzzle energy.

These 5-1/2″ Old Armies perform well with a Speer 0.457″ round ball, Thompson’s Lubed Wad and a CCI #11 percussion cap. With 35.0 grains by volume of Triple-7 FFFg, muzzle velocity is 925 fps with six shots in 1-3/8″ at 20 yards. Moving up to 40.0 grains of Triple-7 FFFg yields 1,130 fps and a group of 1-3/4″. These are serious loads! Just how potent are black powder loads? The standard .45 ACP Hardball load of a 230-grain bullet at 820 fps has long been regarded — rightly so — as a highly dependable fight-stopping load. This can be duplicated in a Ruger Old Army Percussion Pistol with a 220-grain conical bullet over 35 grains by volume of Pyrodex. The standard 140-grain round ball at 1,000 fps is an easy handling and powerful load.


The Old Army using black powder shoots as well or better than many modern pistols.

Finding One

During the original days of the cap and ball revolvers, from about 1836 until the arrival of cartridge-firing sixguns in the late 1860s, Perfect Packing’ Percussion Pistols are not easy to find. In his excellent book Colt Model 1860 Army Revolver, author Charles Pate states there was at least one factory that produced 1860 Army revolvers made with a 5-1/2″ barrel. Today, Taylor’s & Co. offers 5-1/2″ 1860 Army and 1851 Navy easy packing pistols. Both Taylor’s & Co. and Cimarron Firearms offer both blue and stainless steel 5-1/2″ 1858 Remington models and I found a 5-1/2″ 1861 Navy .36 at Dixie Gunworks.

These short-barreled sixguns today are often called Sheriff’s Models. There are three ways to get one of these. First, they can be ordered directly; however, as of this writing, very little in the way of replicas are coming out of Italy so they are very hard to find. A second way is to have a competent gunsmith shorten the barrel, re-crown and install a new front sight, but it also requires shortening the bullet seating lever. This can be quite expensive. Another way is to simply purchase a new 5-1/2″ barrel along with the loading assembly. This not only gives us a Sheriff’s Model, the original barrel and loading lever are still available should we want to go back to the original. The necessary parts are available from VTI Gun Parts.


The 5-1/2" .44 cap and ball sixguns compared — the Remington 1858 and the Colt 1860.


Before carrying a percussion pistol afield there are several things that can be done to make sure it is as totally reliable as possible. There are three major areas to consider. One is to replace the original nipples with higher-quality aftermarket stainless steel or bronze alloy nipples. These have a smaller charge hole that helps prevent hammer blowback, which can allow fired caps to fall into the mechanism. A heavier mainspring than normally used on, say a Colt Single Action, also helps along this line as well as providing positive ignition.

Making sure the face of the hammer is smooth also prevents the hammer from pulling fired percussion caps off the nipple when the hammer is cocked for the next shot.

Personally, I find the replicas of these old original percussion pistols to be exceptionally interesting. They not only shoot well but open the pathway to the beginning of the long history of single-action sixguns. Whether the replicas chosen are Colt, Remington or Ruger, they are all Perfect Packin’ Percussion Pistols.

Subscribe To GUNS Magazine

Purchase A PDF Download Of The GUNS Magazine May 2022 Issue Now!