Thursday, December 6, 2018

Loading a Cap and Ball Revolver

Cap and ball weapons were all “the thing” during the Civil War and later—right up until Smith & Wesson’s patent ran out on the bored-through cylinder and Samuel Colt could get in the self-contained cartridge game. Numerous models of cap and ball revolvers were produced until 1873.

If your character is using a cap and ball weapon, there are limitations. For instance, a muzzle-loaded long gun gives you one shot; a cap and ball revolver with six shots is just that—six shots. And  it can’t be reloaded quickly. Your characters won’t be reloading it while running from the bad guys or riding to the rescue. Keep reading and you’ll understand why.

Unlike a modern cartridge, where the bullet, powder and primer are enclosed in a brass case, reloading a cap and ball revolver takes 6 steps for each chamber. That’s six steps times six chambers to fully reload a revolver.

I took most of these pictures of my friend and fellow cowboy action shooter, “Major Misalot”, reloading his cap and ball revolver cylinder. The reloading can be done while the cylinder is in place on the revolver, too.

The loading is done in reverse order of the firing process, from the barrel side of the cylinder:

1. Add powder

In this picture of “Major Misalot”, he used a reloading “station”. Another cowboy friend “Noz” used a powder flask to measure the powder for each cylinder.

2. Place a lead ball on the powder in each cylinder

3. Ram the ball home, all the way down into the chamber. 

“Major Misalot” is using his modern reloader, but this can be done using the ramming rod on the revolver, as in the next picture. The rod is firmly pressed into the chamber then the cylinder is rotated until all six lead balls have been rammed pushed into place.

4. Grease the cylinder to prohibit chain firing – where the burning powder from one shot ignites the others in the cylinder. Obviously not a good thing!

5. Cap the nipple (think blasting cap here)

Another method to “cap” the chamber is to use a capper, a spring-loaded brass disc that presents the cap. Above, “Major Misalot” hand capped his. “Noz” uses a capper. He pressed a cap into position six times then went back over all six chambers to be sure the caps seated properly.

NOW its finally ready to fire.

With practice, it doesn’t take all that long to reload the six chambers in a cylinder, but you really can’t pour powder, ram a ball, cap the nipple and grease the chamber at a gallop. I can certainly see why many who relied on a cap and ball revolver carried fully loaded spare cylinders.

And, just to remind you why someone shooting black powder can’t hide…

Tracy Garrett


  1. Great article on Cap-n-Ball pistols. Many western writers minimize these details. It good to remind readers once in awhile of the working of the older pistols and why lawmen, scouts, and bad-guys carried more than one revolver. Thanks.

    1. You're welcome, Frank. I learned so much from my Cowboy Action Shooter friends. If I can, I'll dig out a night picture. Depending on the amount of powder, the fire shoots many inches out of the barrel. So