If you ask some folks what their favorite handguns are to shoot they will probably tell you a .22 or maybe a Glock. For me and a few other shooters though there is nothing like the smoke and smell of a black powder revolver.
The muzzleloading revolver first came to be thanks to Samuel Colt and his 1836 Paterson. The gun made its debut on the hips of the fledgling Texas Rangers and was used to great effect against Comanche warriors. Although primitive by today’s standards, these guns were considered state of the art compared to the single shot pistols that previously ruled the day.
Soon better revolvers followed like the massive Colt Walker, then the Dragoon, the popular pocket .31 calibers that found a following with miners and anyone who needed a small and compact gun. What followed were better combinations of power and portability, clearly evident in the 1851 Navy .36 and the 1860 Army Colt .44 calibers.
Colt was not the only player in the revolver game as Remington joined in with the New Army in 1962. The durable New Army featured a top strap over the cylinder that added strength to the frame and allowed the user the ability to change the cylinder quickly and without having to use any tools. From there, the floodgates were open and the demand for innovative muzzle-loading revolvers occasioned innumerable designs coming from all over the country.
During the Civil War the Confederate Army fielded the powerful LeMat revolver with its nine shot .44 caliber cylinder and the nastiest surprise of any gun of the time, a smooth bore barrel underneath designed for a shot load. Even less common were the Spiller and Burr and Dance Brothers revolvers, both of which can fetch a pretty penny at auction today. Other obscure names include Griswold and Gunnison, Leech and Rigdon and Freeman revolvers.
The concept of loading and shooting a black powder revolver is fairly simple. First you pour a measured charge of powder into one cylinder, then you use a felt lubricated wad (a modern invention but standard for black powder revolver shooters today) to tamp down an oversized lead ball through the barrel into the cylinder. When jammed home with the rammer, the barrel and cylinder shave some lead off which helps seal the chamber. You can also use a conical bullet but I have always had my best results with a lead round ball. In the old days shooters would then have to seal the end of the chamber with grease to prevent chain firing of more than one cylinder at a time.
Today’s modern black powder revolvers are actually made of better steel than the originals, and they are very cost effective. Most new muzzleloading revolvers cost under three hundred dollars and can be used for small game at close ranges (just check your local regulations as what you need before you go packing one).
Muzzleloading revolvers can be used in competitions, which is where I have spent most of my time with one. They can be surprisingly accurate with the right powder loads even out to twenty five yards and beyond, though with their primitive sights, I have never seen one compete with any guns designed more than a century later. To me, this is really telling about how people had to shoot and live back in the mid 1800s.
The best part about black powder revolvers though is the fun. There is nothing like shooting a gun from another era and watching it belch gray smoke and the smell of sulfur. It makes you think you are at the high water mark at Gettysburg or defending the stone wall at Fredericksburg. There is nothing quite like it.