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Thread: Original, historic loads for cap & ball revolvers

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jul 2004
    Remote Utah desert

    Default Original, historic loads for cap & ball revolvers

    The February 1972 issue of the American Rifleman has an interesting article on what loads were used in Civil War .36 and .44-caliber paper cartridges for Colt revolvers.
    No mention is made of Remington or other cap and ball revolver charges but they were likely identical or nearly so.
    No granulation (FFG or FFFG) is noted in the article. Round balls were not used in paper cartridges, but were loaded loosely.
    There was a surprising disparity in bullet weights and powder charges in paper combustible cartridges for the Colts, according to the article.

    Conical bullets for the Colt M1860 Army .44-caliber revolver ranged from 207 grs. to 260 grs. Powder charges ranged from 17 to 36 grains of black powder.

    Conical bullets for the Colt .36 Navy ranged from 139 to 155 grs. Charges ranged from 12 to 21 grains.
    Nearly all of these variations are found in prepared, paper cartridges manufactured by private contractors. It appears that U.S. government arsenals made few paper revolver cartridges, preferring to contract this task.

    Union Army ordnance manuals of 1861 specify a load of 30 grs of powder with a .46-caliber, 216 gr. conical ball in Colt M1860 revolvers of .44-caliber.
    The same manual specifies a .39-caliber conical bullet of 145 grs., over 17 grs. of powder, for the .36-caliber revolvers.

    An official Confederate States publication specifies a 250 gr. conical bullet over 30 grs. of powder for the Colt M1860 revolver.
    The Confederate specification for the Colt Navy is the same as the Union (.39 caliber conical of 145 grs. over 17 grs. powder).

    In the 1860s an average load for the Colt M1860 .44 revolver was 25 grs. of powder with a 146 gr. (about 460" diameter) round ball or a conical bullet of about 230 grs.

    The average load for the Colt Navy was 15 grs. of powder with an 81 gr. (about .380" diameter) round ball or a conical bullet of about 146 grs.

    Old loadings will occasionally list a 218 gr. conical bullet with a 40 to 50 gr. powder charge. This is intended for the Colt Model 1847 Walker or the later Dragoons, which have a larger capacity than the Colt M1860 .44 revolver.
    Of great interest in this article is the apparent dissection of original paper cartridges and the weighing of their powder charge and conical ball weight.
    The results follow:

    COLT ARMY .44
    Hazard Powder Co. - 211 gr. conical / 36 grs. powder
    Bartholow's - 260 gr. conical / 19 grs. powder
    Johnston & Dow - 242 gr. conical / 35 grs. powder
    Unknown - 257 gr. conical / 17 grs. powder
    Unknown - 207 gr. conical / 22 grs. powder
    Hotchkiss - 207 gr. conical / 22 grs. powder

    COLT NAVY .36
    Hazard Powder Co. - 141 gr. conical / 21 grs. powder
    Bartholow's - 139 gr. conical / 14 grs. powder
    Johnston & Dow - 150 gr. conical / 17 grs. powder
    Unknown - 155 gr. conical / 12 grs. powder
    Unknown - 149 gr. conical / 13 grs. powder

    The 2003 Dixie Gun Works catalogue recommends loads very closely resembling the above, but with a ball, not a conical bullet.
    All .36 caliber revolvers: .376 inch ball over 22 grs. FFFG black power.
    .44 Remington and Colt original gun: .453 inch ball over 28 grs. FFFG black powder
    .44 Remington and Colt reproductions: .451 inch ball over 28 grs. FFFG black powder
    In my own experience, I've obtained the best accuracy in reproduction guns with balls measuring .380 inch in the .36 and .454 or .457 inch in the .44 Remington and Colt. I have never fired an original cap and ball revolver.

    In "A History of the Colt Revolver From 1836 to 1940" by Charles T. Haven and Frank E. Belden, the authors list load recommendations from Colt in the 1850s and 1860s.
    Haven and Belden note, "FFG black powder is best for the large and medium-size revolvers, and FFFG for the small pocket models, but any grade that is available will work reasonably well."

    Gatofeo notes: In my own experience, I use FFFG in my .31, .36 and .44 revolvers with fine accuracy. I don't see much need to use FFG powder in the .36 and .44 revolvers if you can get FFFG.

    Colt recommended the following, more than 125 years ago:
    1 dram = 27.3 grains (grs.)

    .44 Dragoon: 1-1/2 drams of black powder (41 grs.) and a round bullet of 48 to the pound (about 146 grs, which calculates at about .46 caliber) or a conical bullet of 32 to the pound (about 219 grains).

    .44 M1860 Army - Powder charge about 1/3 less than the Dragoon, or 27 grains. A conical bullet of 212 grains (33 to the pound) or the same round ball used in the Dragoon above (about .46-caliber or 146 grs. weight).

    .36 M1851 Navy - Powder charge of 3/4 of a dram (20 grs.) and conical bullet 140 grs. (50 to the pound ). Or a round ball of 81 grs. (86 to the pound, which would be about .379 or .380 diameter).

    .36 M1862 Pocket and Police - Conical bullet over 15 grs. of powder. No weight is given the conical bullet for this model but it's known that it had its own bullet mould, casting a shorter and lighter conical bullet than the Navy .36 revolver.
    Presumably, the .380 ball above is used with the same powder charge. In my own 1862 reproduction, I use 20 grs. of FFFG under a .380 inch ball.

    .31 Old and New Model Pocket Pistols - Conical bullet of 76 grains (92 to the pound) over half a dram (13.5 grains) of powder, or a round ball of 50 grs. (140 to the pound and about .320 inch diameter).
    Gatofeo notes: Present day 0 buckshot measures about .320 inch and makes an excellent ball for the .31-caliber cap and ball revolvers. Cheap too!

    .265 M1855 Sidehammer: Ball of 35 grains (200 to the pound, about .285 diameter) or a 55 gr. (128 to the pound) conical bullet. No charge is listed, but I would guess that 10 grains of powder would be correct.

    The late gun writer Elmer Keith (1898 - 1984) wrote a book, "Sixguns" in the mid 1950s. In it, he included a chapter on cap and ball revolvers.
    Keith learned how to load and shoot these revolvers from Civil War veterans when he grew up in Helena, Montana. In 1912, at the age of 14, he began carrying a Colt 1851 Navy in .36 caliber.
    Keith recommended FFFG black powder for the .28 and .31 caliber revolvers, and FFG black powder for theh .36 and .44 guns.
    He didn't list loads by weight, but he instructed to pour in the powder until it almost filled the chamber, leaving room for a greased felt wad.
    Keith punched felt wads from an old hat, and soaked them in a lubricant made of melted beeswax and tallow.

    Gatofeo notes: I use a mix of paraffin, beeswax and mutton tallow. I use canning paraffin, regular beeswax and order mutton tallow from Dixie Gun Works.

    This wad was placed over the powder, then the ball rammed down with it until the ball was slightly below flush of the chamber.

    Gatofeo notes: I seat the wad as a separate operation, then seat the ball.

    Keith noted, "A percussion sixgun thus loaded will shoot clean all day if you blow your breath through the bore a few times after each six rounds are fired. It will also shoot very accurately if it is a good gun."
    "I had one .36 Navy Colt that had a pitted barrel, but with the above load it would cut clover leaves for its six shots, at 20 yards, all day with seated back and head rest and two hands used between the knees to further holding," Keith wrote, adding that he later traded it for a modern .38 Special revolver that was never as accurate as that Navy.

    So, as far as a "standard load" for the old Colts, there ain't no such animal! The soldiers used what they were issued, and that issued ammunition varied greatly.
    Last edited by Gatofeo; 01-19-2013 at 09:21 PM. Reason: Incorrect magazine date -- 1972 not 1975!

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jul 2004
    Remote Utah desert


    Just putting this at the top, because I referenced it earlier in a post wondering if a .44 cap and ball could be a good defense gun.
    Those of you new to the site may find this interesting.
    The next time someone says with authority, "In the Colt (or Remington) cap and ball, the factory standard load was X-amount" you can reply, "t'aint so. The ugly cat dredged up an old article that showed otherwise."

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jul 2004
    Remote Utah desert


    Necro posting, so newcomers can find it. I'm sure they'll find it interesting.
    Oh, Grand Poobah of the Postings, I humbly beseech you: Can this be made into a Sticky for permanent posting at the top?

  4. #4


    What about loads for the Colt Walker?

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Jul 2004
    Remote Utah desert


    I am uncertain that paper cartridges were yet used, when the Walker was issued. I believe it was issued with conical bullets and a powder flask.
    In any case, the paper cartridges later used in the Dragoons would work in the Walker.
    Remember, only 1,000 Walker revolvers were made for the U.S. Army. An additional 100 were made for civilian sale.
    So, only 1,100 Walkers were ever made. It was replaced by Colt in a few years, with the Dragoon.
    There's a reason Walkers command such premium prices: so few were made, and so few survived to today.

  6. #6

    Default General user notes for a new shooter of black powder pistols

    Just a note to those who are new to black powder handgunning. I shoot both with a Colt .36, 1851 Navy and a .44, 1860 Army. I use balls mostly but ONLY because the best bullets ever made for these weapons are hard to find. The very best bullets are those made by The Buffalo Bullet Co. You might find them at Cabelas, but look online as this company was out of business for a ew years and came back again in early 2011.

    Anyway, when shooting ball ammo--always use a patch, but I do not always grease the load.
    When shooting conical bullets I delete the patch or the wad and always grease the load over the bullets . Most conical bullets have a slight depression, or ring, on the powder side of the bullet. Almost making the conical a hallow based bullet. Some have a small ring of lead at the base . This ring or hallow is there to expand and let the bullet grip the rifling when fired. NEVER use a wad of any kind under a hollow-based bullet, such as the Buffalo Bull-lot. The wad will interfere with the expansion of the bullet , preventing the bullet from gripping the rifling and will adversely affect accuracy.
    NEVER place a wad over a solid projectile (either a conical or a ball). That wad may act as an obstruction in the bore, raising pressures to catastrophic levels. Put a NATURAL grease or lube on top of the bullets, after they are seated.

    You should actually grease all of the loads in every cylinder, everytime to prevent chain firing, but if you are shooting alot,say 30 to 40 or more rounds in a cap and ball pistol, the weapon will get very greasy after the 12th shot if you grease every chamber for all loads.

    I find that my guns stay fairly clean using a wad vs a patch. I will wipe the weapon down, and swab the barrel after every 6 shots to keep it shooting. The fouling that stops the shooting until the weapon is broken down to barrel, cylinder and frame for a feild cleaning is the grime that builds up on the cylinder rod. For that you have to field strip the gun and wipe the rod and inside of the cylinder channel.
    Also, for the Colt clones, for the .36 use a .357 ball, for the .44 use either a .454 or a .457 diameter ball. I prefer a tight fitting ball over a smaller looser load.
    Last edited by Prator; 01-06-2012 at 02:46 PM.

  7. #7


    I just use the recommended powder load that came in the instructions with my .44. I load the powder, followed by one of those prelubricated patches and then the ball. The lubed patch and the tight ball should prevent any chain fires, or so I've read. I was putting lube on the balls after they were loaded, but that REALLY slows things down, and the patch lubes the barrel without overdoing it. Very easy to clean up with soap and water.

    BTW, you have to take into account whether your gun is brass or steel. While the brass is pretty (what I have), it won't take the same loads as an all steel frame. You also can't install a converter for cartridges in a brass frame.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Jul 2004
    Remote Utah desert


    Ah, okay ... finally I'm able to post. Kept getting a box requiring me to write a title, and not a reply. Sheesh.

    What other posters wrote after I posted this thread on original loads needs clarification:

    "...when shooting ball ammo--always use a patch ..." -- You obviously mean felt wad. This is confusing to many because "patches" of thin cotton or linen wrap around the ball in single-shot rifles and pistols. No, you do not use a patch with a cap and ball revolver. You use a lubricated felt wad under the ball, but the ball is not wrapped in a cloth patch.

    I've been firing the Buffalo Bullet since the early 1980s. I've never found it very accurate, and it's expensive to boot. The Buffalo Bullet is sold 50 to a box, for $16. That's 32 cents per bullet, or $1.92 per six shots. In .36 caliber, I've yet to find a conical bullet as accurate as a lead ball. In the .44 caliber, the Lee conical bullet is accurate, but you have to cast your own. To my knowledge, no one sells the Lee conical bullet as-cast.

    Very few conical bullets have a hollow or dished base. Most will be found with flat bases.

    Never use a wad under a hollow-based bullet. True that. Upon firing, the wad will be pushed into the hollow and interfere with the bullet's ability to expand and grip the rifling. Using a felt wad under a hollow based bullet is not dangerous, but it will affect accuracy.

    The Buffalo Bullet has a dished base, not nearly as deep as a hollow. The last time I purchased Buffalo Bullets, about 15 years ago, they were supplied with felt wads for under the dished bullet. I tried with and without wads. Both methods gave me 6" groups at 25 yards from a benchrest. Lead balls with a lubricated felt wad beneath them gave me 2" groups.

    "Never place a wad over a solid projectile ..." True that. Prator's right, it could cause an obstruction ahead of the bullet and raise pressures to dangerous levels.

    You have two options for using balls or projectiles: a lubricated felt wad under the projectile (provided it is not a hollow-based conical) or grease over the top after seating. I've been using lubricated felt wads under balls for years. It's less messy and more effective.
    Conicals with grease grooves around them should have those grooves filled with a natural lubricant. If it has no grease groove, put lubricant over the conical. I rarely use lubricated felt wads under a flat-based conical because the wad takes up room best used for a little more powder.

    "Also, for the Colt clones, for the .36 use a .357 ball ..." WRONG! I suspect your finger slipped on the keyboard and you meant .375 inch, not .357 inch. You might get by with a .375 ball in some guns, but for many that size is nearly a slip-fit in the chamber. To ensure a good seal, and a tight grip on the ball to keep it from moving during recoil, use balls of .378 to .380 inch. I simplify things by using .380" diameter balls in all my .36s.
    In the .44s, use .454 or .457 inch balls. You might get by with .451" balls, depending upon the revolver. It's best to go to .454 inch and remove all doubt. The Ruger Old Army requires balls at least .457" diameter.

    Each projectile should be lubricated, not just some of them. This will prevent leading. If you use grease over the ball, the revolver will get greasy. It's cleaner, and as or more effective, to use a lubricated felt wad under the ball.
    The dry lubricant used on Wonder Wads is not nearly as effective as a moist lubricant. Simply moisten the wads in melted lard, SPG or Lyman Black Gold commercial lubricants, vegetable oil, olive oil or a mix of tallow and beeswax.
    The best lubricant I've found is a 19th century recipe that I improved by using very specific ingredients. An internet search will find the recipe listed as "Gatofeo No. 1 Bullet Lubricant."
    It is not sold commercially, you'll have to make your own.
    Last edited by Gatofeo; 02-05-2012 at 11:17 AM.

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