Cap & Ball Revolvers For Self-defense
One of the most common questions I get, is which cap & ball revolver should I carry for self-defense? And, for many years, my answer was “None of them.” There are much better handguns available today, and, when it is time to preserve your hide, that is not the time to be relying on 160-year-old technology.
I have to admit that I used to treat that question about as seriously as I’d treat, “Which crossbow should I buy for self-defense?” But, lately I’ve moderated my stance somewhat. I’ve come to understand that some people have no other options. In fact, a number of my overseas friends have told me that cap and ball revolvers are the only handguns they can legally own. The sad thing, is that some states in the USA are just about as bad to gun owners as foreign governments. Buying a modern gun in New York state can be a lesson in both bureaucracy, and in frustration.
So, I have agreed to suspend any judgments on why someone would want to carry a cap & ball revolver, and just concentrate on the technical question. That said, I would be derelict to my duty if I didn’t mention that there is usually a considerable difference in the law in regards to buying a cap & ball sixgun, and the laws that govern carrying one.
While it is true that C&B revolvers are not categorized as firearms under the provisions of the Gun Control Act of 1968…to be called GCA 68 from here forward, so you don’t need to buy them through a Federal Firearms Dealer, they rarely have any special standing under state laws. For instance, in my state of Pennsylvania, the law states, “Generally, antique firearms (including all flintlock and percussion cap firearms) are exempt from Pennsylvania’s Uniform Firearms Act. However, antique firearms are not exempt from the provisions relating to carrying without a license or possession by prohibited persons.” In other words, the Feds say you can buy a cap & ball revolver, but the state says you can’t possess it if you are a felon or mentally ill, and you can’t carry it around unless you have a valid concealed carry permit.
Some states are even stricter. A few years ago, in New Jersey, a 72-year-old gun collector was arrested during a routine traffic stop, for having a flintlock pistol, made in the 1760’s, in his car. The charges were eventually dropped due to the public outcry, but it was touch and go for a while. I mention this so you will understand that a C&B revolver is not a magic ticket around your state’s gun laws.
So, that said, which C&B revolver should you carry for self-defense? That’s easy, a .44 caliber Ruger Old Army revolver is the absolute best choice. These guns are the Swiss watches of cap and ball sixguns. The Ruger Old Army revolver is the most reliable cap and ball revolver out there. They are precisely built, and they run like tops. With their deep chambers, Ruger Old Army revolvers hold heavier powder charges than standard Colt or Remington Army clones.
The only problem with the Old Army is that you may not be able to find one. Ruger discontinued the Old Army model in 2008, so they are getting a lot harder to find in the marketplace. And, when you find them, the price reflects both their rarity and their desirability. Some people will point out that the cost of your funeral would be at least $5,000, so, spending a couple of thousand dollars on a well-made defensive handgun is still worth it to keep yourself alive.
Personally, I agree with that…up to a point. Everyone isn’t made of money. A lot of people I talk to are shooting cap and ball guns because they have limited funds, and you can get a good C&B revolver for three hundred dollars, or less. So, of currently available cap and ball guns, which are good choices for personal protection?
Before we pick a gun, we should set out some criteria. It doesn’t do much good to ask what they used back in the nineteenth century. Back then the .31 caliber Colt Pocket Pistol was one of the most popular revolvers, but carrying one today would be a very poor choice. These guns are so underpowered you would be putting yourself at a serious risk.
In the last 20 years dedicated researchers have done great work determining what works in actual gunfights. Twenty years ago, the findings of researchers like Evan P. Marshall and Edwin J. Sanow in their book “Stopping Power,” overturned a lot of long-held misconceptions about handgun stopping power, and it resulted in a revolution in handgun bullet design. More recently, the work of Greg Ellifritz has largely confirmed Marshall and Sanow’s findings.
So, to set the stage, in the majority of instances where a civilian draws a gun, no shots are fired, the deployment of a firearm is enough to change the bad guy’s mind about initiating an attack. In many other cases, getting shot once is sufficient to take away the attacker’s will to continue the fight. If you confidently expect every gunfight to end that way, it doesn’t matter what you carry because the bad guy is stopped psychologically, by the gun, rather than being rendered physically incapable of finishing the attack.
If every bad guy gave up the fight at the sight of a gun, or just quit after being shot once after being shot, it wouldn’t matter what we carried, but some don’t. Some bad guys are high on PCP, some are adrenalized by religious fervor, and some are just mean as snakes. They may be the minority of cases you’ll meet in a gunfight, but you only need to go up against one to have a real bad day.
To illustrate that, I’ll tell you about two gunfights, both of which involved Jeff Milton, on of the most famous western lawmen. On February 15th, 1900, Jeff Milton was the express agent on a train as it pulled into Fairbanks, Arizona. When the car door opened, Jeff was hit by a fusillade of high-powered rifle fire that shattered the bones in his left arm and severed an artery. Despite his wounds, Jeff killed one robber and wounded another before passing out from blood loss. The other fight happened in Tombstone, Arizona on November 3, 1917. Fred Koch robbed the bank in town and murdered the manager. Jeff Milton happened to be in town and pursued Koch, eventually shooting him once in the arm with a Savage .380 pistol. Koch immediately gave up the fight.
The moral of the story is that, even though you are more likely to get into a gunfight with Fred Koch, you need to be prepared to fight Jeff Milton. That means you’ll need a gun that is capable of putting down, and keeping down a committed assailant.
If we approach this problem rationally, we should ask what modern caliber sets the minimum requirement for self-defense, and then look for cap and ball revolvers that deliver at least that much power. From a pure ballistics standpoint, Uberti’s Colt Walker replica is the hands down winner, but with a nine-inch barrel, and weighing in at four and a half pounds, not many people will opt to carry a Walker. So we’ll look for something else.
Marshall and Sanow, and Greg Ellifritz have done extensive research in that regard. They each examined over 2,000 actual gunfights. Their data is well worth studying, but, for our purposes, we’ll use their findings to set a power floor for an effective modern self-defense handgun. Marshall and Sanow did this by looking at the percentage of one-shot stops a round achieved, while Ellifritz did this a little differently, by looking at how often a caliber completely failed to stop an attacker, no matter how many rounds hit them.
Their results were very similar. Ellifritz found that, with cartridges from .380 up to .45 ACP, failure rates were very similar, ranging between 13 percent and 17 percent. But, smaller cartridges with .22, .25 and .32 caliber bullets, had failure rates that were two to three times higher than the larger bullets. Marshall and Sanow found that one shot stops were much less common with calibers smaller than a .380 hollowpoint round. So, on that basis, they set the .380 cartridge as the minimum effective modern self-defense cartridge.
Based on that, when we are looking at cap & ball revolvers, we should ensure that they hit with at least the power of a .380. If we look at a .380 round that pushes a 90-grain bullet at 1,000 feet per second, we’ll see that it develops 200 foot/pounds of energy. So, if we are going to depend on a cap and ball revolver to save our lives, it needs to hit with at least 200 ft/lbs of energy. And that is the power floor set by both sets of researchers for a reliable self-defense round.
Using that criteria the venerable Colt 1851 Navy model barely makes the cut. I know some of you are saying, if it was good enough for Wild Bill Hickok, It’s good enough for me. But, in the immortal words of Matthew Quigley, “This ain’t Dodge City and you ain’t Bill Hickok.”
The fact is, loaded with an 80-grain round ball and 22 grains of 3Fg Goex black powder, the .36 caliber Navy only generates 166 ft/lbs of power. To get close to the .380 power floor, you need to load it with a 150-grain conical bullet over 18 grains of black powder, and even that load only hits with 198 ft/lbs. But, as Marshall and Sanow discovered, bullet performance is at least as important as power. Cap and ball conical bullets tend to drill right through a body. That over-penetration means the bullet leaves most of its energy in the wall behind your assailant instead of in his body. For that reason, I recommend you only use .44 caliber revolvers for self-defense.
I know some of you are saying .36 caliber guns killed plenty of people back in the day, ipso facto, it should be good enough for personal protection today. I get the logic of that, but I’d ask that you consider that the job of a personal protection side arm isn’t to kill your attacker, that is a side effect. The side arm’s job is to end the attack, thereby protecting you and yours from harm. If all you needed was a gun that kills, we would all carry .22s.
Stopping an attack with any handgun is problematic with a committed opponent. According to Greg Ellifritz, true one-shot stops are pretty rare, and they are usually what he calls psychological stops. This is when the attacker stops fighting because of the pain or the shock from the bullet wound. Often, criminals will stop their attack even though the bullet didn’t physically incapacitate them. They just don’t want to be shot anymore!
Wild Bill Hickok’s gunfights actually illustrate this principle pretty well. In his most classic fight, Hickok shot Tutt right through the heart, but Tutt lived long enough to run up to the courtyard portico before actually dying. He had time to shoot back at Hickok, but he had lost the will to fight.
In another Hickok fight, he shot Phil Coe twice in the stomach with his .36 Navies. Coe lived three days. He could have shot back, but he lost the will to fight.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always go that way. In Marshal and Sanow’s great book, “Stopping Power” Keith Jones writes about a police officer who shot a bad guy in the heart from close range. The bad guy lived long enough to shoot the patrolman in the head, killing him instantly.
Even in .44 caliber, don’t get the idea that an 1860 Colt Army revolver, or a Remington New Model Army revolver is the equivalent of Dirty Harry’s Smith & Wesson model 29. Compared to modern cartridge guns, cap and ball revolvers are pretty puny. A .44 caliber cap & ball revolver loaded with a 140-grain round ball over 30-grains of 3Fg Goex black powder only generates 242 ft/lbs of energy. In comparison, a 124-grain, 9mm round produces 304 ft/lbs of power. To get close to the 9mm’s power in a .44 cap & ball revolver, you need to load a 240-grain conical over a highly compressed 30-grain powder charge. That load will generate 280 ft/lbs, which still falls eight percent short of the modern 9mm.
But, as I said before, power alone doesn’t equal stopping power. I did extensive penetration tests on .44 caliber cap and ball sixguns, firing them into lines of one-gallon jugs of water. From an eight-inch barreled, Uberti 1860 Army revolver, a round ball, powered by 30 grains of Goex 3Fg black powder, stopped in the fifth water jug. In contrast, a 220-grain conical bullet penetrated seven of the one-gallon jugs of water. When I used the flat nosed 240-grain Kaido Ojaama conicals, which are designed for hunting, they penetrated nine water jugs. That deep penetration is an excellent characteristic for punching through the tough gristle and bones of a wild boar’s rib cage, but the heavy conicals tend to drive right though an assailan’s body, expending its energy in the wall behind him. A round ball, on the other hand, expends a lot more of its energy in the bad guy, it’s a rare case of less is better.
As to the model of .44 caliber revolver you should get, as I said, get a Ruger, if you can, because reliability matters. If you can’t get a Ruger, the Colt or Remington styles are pretty much equal. I have conducted several surveys on this issue, and the results show that most modern shooters are drawn to Remington’s because of the top strap on the frame. But, that many cap & ball shooters who have a lot of experience with both models tend prefer the Colt system due to its better handling characteristics. But, either type will do the same job.
That said, I have yet to see an Italian-made cap & ball revolver that was ready for primetime when it came out of the box. There’s a reason why a Colt Single Action Army revolver costs over $1,200 and an Italian clone costs half as much. When I buy a black powder revolver, the first thing I do is disassemble the gun and de-burr and polish all the internal parts, and all the contact points in the frame. The next thing I do is replace the nipples with either Slix-Shot or Treso nipples. Those two operations will greatly improve the reliability of your cap & ball sixgun, because the last thing you want in a gunfight is a malfunction.
Barrel length is the next consideration. The period correct, eight-inch barrel length is going to give you significantly more velocity, and hence, more power, but, if you will be using it as an everyday carry piece, you may not be happy with that eight-inch tube. Pietta makes both Colt and Remington models with five and a half-inch barrels. This is a better barrel length for most people, particularly if you intend to carry it often.
Some people will think that the five and a half inch barrel length is still too long for everyday carry. You may be tempted to go with a revolver with a three-inch barrel, and a rounded grip frame. These guns conceal about as easily as an N-Frame double action revolver. While they can be comfortable carry guns, they are not reliable fight-stoppers. Black powder burns pretty inefficiently. In an eight-inch barrel, 30-grains of 3Fg Goex black powder, under a 140-grain round ball will have a velocity of 882 feet per second, and an energy level of 242 foot/pounds, which is well above our 200 ft/lbs power floor. Reducing the barrel length to five and a half inches reduces velocity to 805 fps, with a power output of 201 ft/lbs, so it still makes the grade. But, when the barrel is cut to three-inches, velocity drops to 550 fps. That gives a power output of 94 ft/lbs, which is in the 25 ACP range. It is not going to be a reliable fight stopper.
On a final note, carrying any gun is a waste of time unless you can use it. If you’re going to use a cap & ball revolver to protect your life, you need to train with it. Ellifritz’ study shows that it usually takes two good hit to stop a fight. So, you need to train until you can draw and deliver two quick shots that hit where they need to. You have to be able to do that every time, and do it under pressure.
Once again, I don’t recommend carrying a cap & ball revolver for self-defense, but, if you must, hopefully this article will help you to do it effectively.
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