Monday, February 16, 2015

Civil War Revolvers by Gordon Rottman

I was late putting this up. It should have already been up this morning. Follows is an article on Civil War revolvers from my The Big Book of Gun Trivia: Everything you want to know, don't want to know, and don't know you need to know. It’s available from Amazon as an e-book:

Revolvers came into wide use during the American Civil War arming cavalrymen, some light artillerymen, and officers. It was not uncommon for rank-and-file soldiers to purchase one of the many revolver makes available: Adams, Colt, Kerr, Lefaucheux, LeMatt, Remington, Savage, Smith & Wesson, Starr, and Whitney to name the most common makes. There was little standardization of calibers and cartridges with most makes having their own unique ammunition with common calibers being .31, .32, .36, .40, .44, .54, and .58. The Army did settle on the .44-caliber and the Navy on the .36-caliber, but some weapons of these calibers used different cartridges.
The modern “six-shooter” is thought of as a cartridge-loaded handgun, that is, self-contained cartridges with metallic cases containing the propellant, primer, and bullet. The cartridges are quickly loaded into the chambers though a loading gate one chamber at a time or breaking open the action or swinging out the cylinder. This was not the case with 1840s through 1860s era revolvers, which were cap-and-ball or “caplock” weapons. About the only revolver available chambering metallic, internally primed cartridges was the French-made Lefaucheux using expensive 12mm (.44-caliber) pin-fire cartridges. The Smith & Wessons used rimfire cartridges. It was not until the late 1860s and early 1870s that metallic center-fire cartridges came into common use in revolvers.
The revolver was a new technology spreading rapidly from the late 1840s—Samuel Colt’s (1814-62) .36-caliber (also .28-caliber) Paterson five-shot revolver was introduced in 1836. These were produced in Paterson, NJ and later Whitneyville, CT with assembly line advice given by Eli Whitney. Production was later moved to Hartford, CT. Further improvements were suggested by Texas Ranger Captain Samuel H. Walker (1817-47) during the Mexican-American War. Two of the most popular models used in the Civil War were the Colt .44-caliber Model 1860 Army and .36-caliber Model 1851 Navy*.
* “Navy” models were used almost as widely by the cavalry and other soldiers as “Army” models.
Most revolvers of the era used conical bullets held, glued, in a paper cartridge containing the black powder charge. Many revolvers used combustible cartridges rather than paper, which slightly sped up re-loading. These were made of nitrated paper, linen, or other materials. Cartridges were packed in six-round packets or whatever number the revolver held (there were four, five, six, seven, and nine-shot revolvers) with two or more packets carried in a belt cartridge box.
To load these weapons was a time-consuming process, which explains why many cavalrymen carried two or even three “horse pistols.” Some even carried extra pre-loaded cylinders, which required the revolver to be partly disassembled to change cylinders, but was much faster than reloading each chamber†. Since they usually fought dismounted this gave them considerable short-range firepower. The hammer was placed on half-cock and a cartridge removed from the cartridge pouch. If a paper cartridge, the bottom end was torn off with the teeth and the powder load poured into the chamber from the cylinder’s front, a “front-loading” weapon. The rest of the paper was torn off by the teeth, spit out, the bullet inserted into the front end of the chamber, and pressed in with the thumb. The cylinder was rotated by hand to align the loaded chamber over the trigger. The loading lever under the barrel was grasped and pulled downward to ram the bullet solidly into the chamber and compress the powder ensuring positive combustion. This process was continued until all chambers were loaded. Next a percussion cap was removed from the cap pouch on the belt and pressed by the thumb onto the cone (or nipple) over each chamber (then called “charge holes”) on the rear end of the cylinder. The cylinder was again rotated by hand until all nipples were capped. There was a partition between nipples to prevent the flash from igniting the other chambers. The piece was taken off half-cock and it was ready for action. It was smart to reload the guns every morning as lower night temperatures and dampness affected the powder and could cause misfires.
† This practice was adopted on the pre-Civil War Texas frontier and used during the Mexican-American War (1846-48) and did not originate with the Confederate cavalry and partisan raiders as sometimes claimed.
Combustible cartridges had the advantage that they did not have to be torn open, the powder poured in, and the remaining paper torn off. They were simply inserted into the chambers complete; they still required ramming with the loading lever and hand-capping. It took skill to reload a revolver when mounted, even at a slow trot. It was impossible at a full gallop. It was also a challenge to keep loaded weapons’ powder dry. The tiny hole through the cap cone fouled easily with black powder residue—the second most common cause for misfires—and a cone (or nipple) pick was carried in the cap pouch for frequent cleaning. Powder fouling was so bad that sometimes after a dozen or so shots the cylinder could not even be rotated on some revolvers. Regardless of slow reloading, period revolvers provided soldiers with a means of rapid, short-ranged fire when most soldiers were armed with single-shot, muzzle-loading rifles of notoriously poor accuracy. Confederate Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s (1821-77) cavalrymen carried multiple revolvers and often fought dismounted. One account tells of his dismounted troopers being able to see the boots on Union soldiers on the other side of a brush line. They opened up with rapid revolver fire shattering ankles. After the Civil War, many caplock revolvers were converted to metallic cartridge-loading weapons.


  1. This is a very good description of early revolvers and their use. The Walker Colt was developed according to my research at the request of Ranger Walker. My understanding was that this early pistol development (1847) was the most powerful black powder hand gun ever manufactured and well ahead of its time. Large and heavy, they were often carried in holsters on the saddle, as horse pistols. (So large and heavy not practical to be manufactured for common use in the Civil War?)

    It seems so strange to me that the general Army staff during the Civil War were so reluctant to arm the troops with more modern weapons. Wanting the Irish and other minorities to use bayonets, smooth bores, and to be used as cannon fodder, with the result of large numbers of casualties, seems especially callous.

    Certainly some of these soldiers on either side must have picked up the various pistols you mention and scavenged for ammunition in an effort to better protect themselves during battle.

    1. Pistols no doubt were valued booty. Just like Lugers were in World War II and Tokarevs in Vietnam. I read one theory though that maybe not so many men purchased their own handguns. So many photos showed pistols held by soldiers and were attributed to being provided as props by the photographer so many were of the same make. Could be, but there's little doubt that soldiers snarfed up handguns when they could.

  2. Gordon, thanks for the great primer. Packed with useful resource information, including the process required to reload these weapons.

    1. Thanks Tom. I'd wanted to include some pics, but was short on time.

  3. Fascinating. The loading of the early pistols does sound like a chore, but the alternative seems to have been much worse. Thank you for the very useful information. Doris McCraw/Angela Raines

  4. Fascinating. The loading of the early pistols does sound like a chore, but the alternative seems to have been much worse. Thank you for the very useful information. Doris McCraw/Angela Raines

  5. Excellent article, Gordo. Certainly one to be bookmarked.

    The tearing off of the paper cartridge is interesting. As I understand it, the term 4F for medical exemption originated from the need to have 4 incisors, two upper and two lower, to bite the cartridge. Unscrupulous dentists could earn money by removing the teeth so the person would be declared 4F (four front teeth) medically exempt. Alternatively, a pal could knock them out for him!