Fun with black powder revolvers

Getting started, six shots at a time
54

Pietta’s replica of the 1851 Navy Colt is an inexpensive and authentic
way to get started with black powder muzzleloading.

I’ve been mentoring a grandson and a couple of his friends in shooting, gun cleaning, reloading and DIY gunsmithing. It had been on my mind for a while to add black powder shooting to the items we learn about but I faced a challenge — I had absolutely no experience with it. The simple solution was we’d learn together!

This is a typical 10-yard target resulting from shooting the revolver as a .36 caliber muzzleloader.

Affordable

One of the easiest ways to get started with black powder also happens to be the most affordable. Italian companies Pedersoli, Pietta and Uberti make excellent replicas of early black powder revolvers made by Colt, Remington and others. These revolvers are very affordable and some can be bought for less than $250. They are not considered guns by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms therefore they can be delivered right to your door.

I had been eyeing the Pietta .36 caliber 1851 Navy Colt, which to me is one of the prettiest of the black powder revolvers and historically significant as Wild Bill Hickock’s favorite gun. Right in the middle of the COVID-19 gun shortage, Cabela’s put it on sale for $199.95. Decision made.

It’s called the Navy Colt because the cylinder has an engraving of a Naval battle between Texas and Mexico at the Battle of Campeche on May 16, 1843. The frame has a beautiful color-case-hardened finish and the grip frame is brass. The barrel is octagonal in shape and blued. It’s a beautiful gun to own even if you never shoot it.

I picked up a starter kit containing a powder flask, powder measure, inline capper and nipple wrench, plus a few balls and patches. Cabela’s had no percussion caps and this brought about the first learning experience. Percussion caps come in different sizes and nothing in the Pietta instruction manual indicated what size to use. An Internet search came up with two recommended sizes — #10 and #11 — with some preferring #10 and others preferring #11. When I went to order some, you’d have thought it was 9mm ammo as no one had any in stock. Persistence paid off, and I finally found some #11s at a Bass Pro shop and they worked perfectly.

Each reload of the conversion cylinder requires removing the barrel and cylinder as shown here. Here is the conversion cylinder (right) loaded and ready for the back to be put back into the revolver frame.

Troubles

The second learning experience also came before shooting the gun. The barrel on this and most black powder revolvers is locked on with a wedge through both sides of the barrel and the base pin which the cylinder rides on. The wedge has a piece of spring steel to keep it in place. To clean the gun, you need to take the barrel off. Squeeze the little tab on the right side and pull the wedge out from the left. This is what you’re supposed to do, but I couldn’t budge it.

It became obvious from YouTube and various black powder forums I’m not alone in encountering this issue. I solved my problem with a bit of judicious Dremel grinding.

For gun powder, I bought Pyrodex. Pietta’s handbook recommends 17 grains of Pyrodex with a .36 caliber round ball. It is also recommended to shoot a blank cap on each cylinder prior to loading the gun for real. This is to burn out any oil left from cleaning, or in my case, manufacturing. The caps go on a device at the back of each cylinder called the nipple. Pressing a cap on each nipple and firing it was a simple task.

When you load a black powder muzzleloader, the powder goes in first, followed by the ball, then something to keep the powder blast from lighting off adjacent cylinders — bad news if it happens. After using the cotton patches from the starter kit, we switched to Bore Butter patches. They were more difficult to compress in the chambers, and they flew down range so far, they added extra holes in our targets. Bore Butter not only does the job of containing the burning powder in each chamber but aids in cleaning the gun.

The percussion caps split upon firing and can fall between the hammer and frame. Just watch for it and dump it if it happens by turning the revolver upside down while carefully keeping the muzzle pointed downrange.

When fired as a muzzleloader, the 1851 Navy revolver depends upon percussion
caps pressed on the nipple for each chamber to ignite the black powder.

Value Added

There is another benefit to buying this type of revolver. Taylor’s, Howell and Kirst Konverters all offer conversion cylinders allowing most black powder cap and ball muzzle loading .36 caliber revolvers to shoot .38 Long Colt or .38 S&W cartridges, or .44 caliber revolvers to shoot .44 or .45 Long Colt cartridges. I ordered a cylinder for my gun from Taylor’s, paying $215 plus shipping. It doesn’t have the naval battle engraving scene on it but was nicely blued and shipped promptly.

I had some .38 S&W rounds on hand but they wouldn’t fit in the cylinder. I began a search for .38 Long Colts and found nobody had them in stock. Starline had some brass but I was at a loss because load data for .38 Long Colt is noticeably missing from all my reloading manuals. Never fear, I asked John Taffin if he had any .38 Long Colt cartridges he could send me to shoot for this article. JT had a better idea, suggesting I shoot .38 Special 158-grain wadcutters. I had some on hand and those cartridges dropped right into the conversion cylinder.

Now, back to the importance of being able to easily remove and insert the wedge. The conversion cylinder loads from the back like a normal metallic cartridge revolver, except there is no gate on the gun to load the cartridges. To compensate for the way the gun handles nipples and caps in its native state, this cylinder has a removable back allowing the chambers to be loaded. To load the cylinder, it must be off the gun — this requires removing the barrel — which is why you need to be able to easily remove and reinsert the wedge.

When equipped with a conversion cylinder, each chamber has its own firing pin (below).

Range Time

Shooting the gun was interesting. We started by loading .36 caliber round lead balls over 17 grains of Pyrodex, topped off with patches from the starter kit. I had my chronograph set up to see how this load performed and was surprised at how consistent the measurements were. Over 24 rounds, the low was 438 fps and the high was 468 fps with most in the 442—446 fps range.

The rear sight on the gun is notched into the hammer and the front sight is a brass pin. The combination works quite well when shooting black powder from 10 yards, allowing us to keep our shots within a heart-sized group.

After each of us had fired 12 rounds with black powder and lead balls, we switched to shooting the .38 Specials. Even though we had to remove the barrel to load the cylinder each time, it really went a little faster than loading the black powder. The sights didn’t work the same for these higher-pressure cartridges, which averaged 744 fps over 16 rounds. Once we learned to adjust our sight pattern lower, the .38 cartridges were decently accurate.

Here is the conversion cylinder loaded and ready for the back to
be put back into the revolver frame.

Cleanup

After the first session shooting, I washed the gun in hot soapy water, rinsed it with water as hot as I could stand, and after drying wiped it down with a light coat of oil. The next time, I used Simple Green cleaner instead of soapy water and it worked just as well.

This is a fun gun to shoot and, compared to a lot of other things you can do in the shooting game, very economical. At the public range where we shot, we attracted a lot of attention from people who recognized the historical Colt 1851 Navy.

If you’ve been thinking about it and have not yet walked down this path, go for it!

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