Sunday, January 16, 2011

Swapping Cylinders in Cap and Ball Revolvers

Recently James over at hellinahandbasket has been running an interesting series of post on increased firepower in the days of cap and ball revolvers. Much of the discussion has been on swapping preloaded cylinders in these handguns. Like in so many other things, the devil is in the details.

Most folks think there were two types of cap and ball revolvers in the civil war era. In truth there were dozens, but the Colt and the Remington were the most popular and best known, so we will discuss those.

These are the two weapons in question, the Colt 1860 and the Remington 1858. In operation they are identical. Both are single action. Both cylinders are loaded with rams mounted under the barrels. Both have percussion caps on nipples at the rear of the cylinder. The difference comes when the cylinder is removed. We will start with the Colt.

All Colt cap and ball revolvers (I can think of at the moment) are of an open top, or open frame design. This means to break it down you have to remove a wedge that holds the barrel and the frame portion of the weapon together. The wedge can be backed out using a screw set above the wedge slot, but I usually prefer a rawhide mallet. Once the wedge has been backed out the barrel can be moved forward until it clears the cylinder pin. I often use the loading ram to assist with this.

You end up with something looking like this. Keeping track of all these pieces in your hands won’t be any problem, to anyone that can juggle nine balls at once. To us common humans the potential for dropping one or more parts is pretty high. Move us to the back of a horse already freaked out and you will spend the next half hour looking for gun parts. Taking all this into account, switching to a preloaded cylinder on this sort of weapon isn’t really practical.

Next we have the Remington 1858. This is a closed frame revolver of the type Clint Eastwood used in the movie The Pale Rider. So, you might ask, how do you remove the cylinder from the Remington?

Drop the ram lever far enough to clear the cylinder pin. Pull the cylinder pin forward until it clears the cylinder. Pull the hammer back far enough to disengage the locking cam that holds the cylinder in battery with the barrel. The cylinder will roll out into your hand. Replace the second cylinder (or the same one for sake of the demo). Push the cylinder rod back into place, and lock the ram lever back under the barrel. You’re ready to shoot again!

With my wife timing me it took fifteen seconds. In my experiments the hardest part is getting the cylinder and rod aligned since you are doing it blind.

There are three other parts of the Pale Rider story. The first is how Clint prepared his loaded cylinders. After the cylinders were loaded and capped his character would run a string through the cylinder rod hole and lower it into a pan of hot was. With a thin layer of wax over the surface the caps were sealed in place and the entire cylinder was protected from moisture.

Would this work? I’m guessing it would but I don’t know. I’ve never tried it. I would be grateful for anyone who could shed light on the subject.

The second part question is did anyone ever carry preloaded cylinders for the Remington? Well, how would they be transported? One of James readers left a comment about the danger of dropping a handful of loose, capped cylinders into your coat pocket, or a saddle bag. The very thought scares the hell out of me. They would need to be kept separated.

Which brings us to the third part of the question; did anyone make belts with pouches for extra loaded cylinders before the movie The Pale Rider? We know dozens have been made since. The answer is, perhaps.

For anyone interested in old west gun leather there is a wonderful book called Packing Iron. It is the best photo collection of authentic western gun leather I have ever seen. Not having an example of this belt in Packing Iron wouldn’t mean they never existed. On the other hand, if there were such belts in the day, there’s a good chance one is pictured and described here.

Now, a well prepared blogger, that had his act together, would consult the book and determine if there was an example of such a belt in the cap and ball chapter. Sadly, my copy is packed away at this time.

So, if anyone out there has a copy of this most excellent book, I would be grateful if you could consult it and let me know what you find.
I got into the storage unit and found my copy of Packing Iron. I did not find a belt with cylinder pouches on it. Again, that's not to say no one ever had such a belt in "the day" but it isn't lister in this book.


  1. Good post! Thank for sharing your expertise!

  2. I'm not much of a cap and ball guy, but this was a very interesting read.

  3. Thanks folks. This is like anything else, the more you learn, the more you find out you don't know.

  4. What about bear grease to seal the cylinder ends? It was used on the main cylinder by some folks back when. Dogs might follow you everywhere, though.