One of the more common questions I receive before and after the publication of The Handbook of Modern Percussion Revolvers is about how these old smokers stack up against modern handguns. Lyman’s Black Powder Handbook has been my go-to reference for muzzle velocity and energy information followed closely by the Gun Digest Black Powder Loading Manual by Sam Fadala. Velocity and muzzle energy are all good fun, but these do not answer the fundamental question of how does a bullet from a percussion revolver will behave when it is applied in a defensive capacity.
“For its size and weight nothing is so deadly as the round ball of pure lead when driven at fairly good velocity. Maximum loads give these slugs fairly high velocity from a 7 ½ inch barrel gun. Both Major R. E. Stratton and Samuel H. Fletcher told me the .36 Navy with full loads was a far better man killer than any .38 Special they had ever seen used in gun fights.” ~ Elmer Keith in his book “Sixguns” pp. 211.
Major R.E. Stratton served in the 1st Texas Regiment, C.S.A. under Gen. Robert E. Lee in Virginia. He later served the Texas Rangers for 9 years.
Samuel H. Fletcher served in the 2nd Illinois Cavalry, U.S.A.
From “Sixguns” by Elmer Keith, pp. 14-15.
To begin with we have to understand the difference between a spherical projectile and a cylindrical or “conical” projectile like the ones fired from modern guns. In the pre-20th Century literature the term “bullet” was used interchangeably with the word “ball” hence the modern term “round ball” is used to refer to a spherical projectile intended for use in a muzzle loader.
As firearms evolved over the centuries almost every reasonable shape under the sun was tested. Eventually people realized that the projectile that could be loaded most consistently delivered the most consistent accuracy at the target. One of the challenges of loading a conical bullet into a muzzle loader was getting the long axis of the bullet aligned with the long axis of the weapon’s bore. If things didn’t line up, the bullet would not fly true.
Ned Roberts talks about “picket bullets” in his book “The Muzzle-Loading Cap Lock Rifle.” The illustrations in the book make these bullets resemble sharply pointed gumdrop candies more that modern bullets. The wide base was the only bearing surface in contact with the barrel. In addition, these bullets were loaded using a linen patch to center them in the bore of the weapon. Imagine trying to poke a Hershy’s Kiss down a gun barrel using a ramrod, and you can see how the bullet’s nose could get tilted off center.
The alternative was to hammer a groove diameter cylindrical bullet down the barrel. Of course this deformed the bullet’s nose and was no guarantee the bullet was loaded concentrically since hammers tend to be inconsistent tools. Even the fearsome Minie (pronounce min-Nay, not mini) Ball made famous by the War of Southern Independence (1861-) was never “properly” loaded because it was a full caliber smaller than the bore of the rifle that fired it. Having a smaller diameter bullet allowed the gun to be loaded after powder fouling from prior shots reduced the interior diameter of the weapon’s bore.
This kept the soldier in the fight longer, but when the bullet is not centered along the bore, it will not deliver its full potential accuracy.
Sharpshooters (aka snipers) of that conflict would wrap thin strips of paper around the body of the bullet to make it lie as close to centered in the bore as possible. This method was called a “paper patch”, and remained in use until the development of copper jacketed (aka “metal patch”) bullets around the turn of the 20th Century.
The bullet that was most economical in terms of lead, and easiest to load consistently was the spherical round ball whether loaded with a patch or without. Noted authorities like Elmer Keith documented the superior accuracy of the round ball over the conical bullet when fired from a percussion revolver. Keith attributed the improved accuracy to the inability to load the conical bullets concentrically aligned to the pistol’s bore.
Now that we hall of that out of the way, we can return to our question of how effective these guns were in real life. For that we turn to some great guys over at The Box O’ Truth, and an experiment they conducted using two single shot black powder pistols.
The pistols use are both .45 caliber which gives us a good comparison to the 1860 Colt’s Army and the Ruger Old Army pistols. For the most reasonable comparison, let’s focus on the longer barreled Kentucky pistol featured in the experiment.
For comparison purposes:
My Pietta replica of Colt’s 1860 Army tops out at about 35gr of Pyrodex P with a felt wad under the 128gr roundball.
My Ruger Old Army will hold 40gr of Pyrodex P under the same wad and ball.
The FBI standard for adequate penetration of a handgun round in ballistic gelatin is 12 inches.
Based on the results from The Box O’ Truth, the 1860 clone with 35 grains of powder barely meet the FBI standard for penetration, and the Ruger Old Army with 40 grains of powder should be no worse than a .38 Special. The percussion revolvers meet the minimum FBI criteria, and do not show any tendency to over penetrate a human body. This means 100% of the bullet’s energy is delivered to the target which is the stated goal of modern defense ammunition.
Would I trade a snubnose .38/.357 Mag or 9mm compact for a percussion revolver for personal defense?
It would not be my first choice.
Would a percussion revolver do the job of protecting my life?
I firmly believe it could, and an awful lot of dead men would testify to that idea.