The percussion—or cap & ball—era was a short one, compared to the duration of the flintlock, which lasted about 200 years. The percussion era began shortly after the beginning of the 19th century, specifically with Forsyth’s patent in 1807. The development of the fulminate cap and its myriad applications to firearms took a while to catch on, as would any new invention in the conservative world of firearms, but by 1815 the system was in common, if not universal, use.
By the time of the Civil War the percussion system was well accepted, but cartridge development was already progressing rapidly, and took over from the cap & ball system shortly after the Civil War’s end in 1865. The percussion era lasted about fifty years.
Cap & ball revolvers were made in many shapes and sizes, and in several calibers from about .30 to .45. The most practical were the so-called .36s and .44s, having bore sizes of 0.38 and 0.45 inch, respectively. In this test report, we’re concerned with the so-called .44s, the most prolific of which was Colt’s 1860 Army.
The 1860 Colt Army was considered by many to be the perfect combination of power versus weight in percussion revolvers. The 1860 Army used the frame size of the .36-caliber 1851 Navy, but the 1860 had an enlarged forward portion to its cylinder that accepted .45-caliber balls. The result thus used the heavier, more potent .45-caliber round ball (not quite at the “magnum” velocities of the very heavy Walker or Dragoon) in a gun of about the same handy weight as the 1851 Navy. The grip of the 1860 was bigger than that of the Navy, though the Navy’s grip could be installed if desired.
The 1860 Colt Army and its many copies saw extensive use in the Civil War. Most rifles of that conflict were single shots, so the value of the six-shot revolver in battle can be easily appreciated.
The percussion era is still alive and well, practically speaking, as you can buy firearms, percussion caps, powder, and other supplies in any gun shop nationwide. Cowboy Action shooters can use cap & ball revolvers in specific events, and these guns can be lots of fun on or off the cowboy range. If you load them right there isn’t much mess, and cleanup is a snap. And you can —maybe we should whisper this— buy the guns through mail order.
One of the main suppliers of cap & ball revolvers and other black-powder arms and accessories is Cabela’s. In response to reader requests, we decided it was time to pick out a good “.44-caliber” revolver from the company’s several choices.
We chose three Cabela’s revolvers, all made in Italy by Pietta for Cabela’s. Two were close copies of the 1860 Colt, one blued and the other antiqued, which means it had all its lovely finish removed so it looked like an old gun. These were designated the 1860 Army and 1860 Army “Old West.” The third revolver was a brass-frame copy of the 1851 Navy, in .44 caliber, called the 1851 Confederate Navy by Cabela’s.
The barrel length of all 1860s in this test was 8 inches. The 1851 had a 7.4-inch tube. The two Cabela’s 1860 clones were identical in size, weight and balance, differing only in finish and price.
We also tested a Second-Generation (2nd-Gen.) Colt 1860 Army, made in 1979, which we had on loan. Its owner also gave us some information on a first-generation Colt 1860, made in 1865, which he had owned and fired extensively.
The three Cabela’s guns were prepared by breaking them down into their main components, degreasing everything with naphtha, and lubing all surfaces with Ox-Yoke’s Wonder Lube 1000 Plus grease. The loaner 1860 already had this done to it.
All four guns were loaded by a method suggested by Elmer Keith in his book Sixguns, though we used modern pre-lubed wads instead of Keith’s tallow- and beeswax-lubed units. We used GOEX black powder in FFg and FFFg granulations, and Remington No. 10 caps, which fit all four guns perfectly. Here’s how we proceeded:
Before loading any powder into each revolver, we popped a cap on each chamber. This cleared out any remaining lube from each nipple and ensured positive ignition. We then loaded all six chambers with powder, covered that with a lubed Wonder Wad from Ox-Yoke Originals, and rammed the ball down on top of that. We used no grease over the ball.
We did not clean the guns, nor swab them in any way from the beginning of the shooting test until we were completely done with each revolver. None of the revolvers showed any signs of sticking or tying up from powder residue throughout all our testing. As Elmer Keith put it, “A percussion sixgun thus loaded will shoot clean all day….” As usual, he was right.
This loading system was fast and reliable, and not the least bit messy. Cleanup was easily accomplished with Ox-Yoke Original’s Liquid Wonder Competition Patch Lube, which is an excellent black-powder solvent. The solvent is available from Ox-Yoke Originals, (800) 231-8313.
One wet patch through the bore followed by a second damp patch and several dry ones got the bore clean. We did the cylinder in a similar manner, and wiped down the whole gun with Liquid Wonder, then gave all surfaces, inside and out, a protective coat of Wonder Lube 1000.
If we owned one of these revolvers we’d replace the nipples with stainless ones from The Log Cabin Shop in Lodi, Ohio, (330) 948-1082, but this isn’t really necessary. Occasionally removing the nipples for maintenance is a good idea, but they don’t have to be taken out every time you use the gun. Probably once-a-year maintenance, when you clean up the inner bits and pieces, would suffice, assuming the nipples had been treated with Wonder Lube before any shooting was done.
We had several day’s fun with this quartet. All the revolvers shot quite a bit higher than their sights. That’s how the original Colt Army was sighted, to give a longer effective point-blank aim for man-size targets. For precise shooting we would either grind down the top of the hammer—which formed the rear sight—or organize a higher front sight. Here’s what we found.
Cabela’s 1860 Army, $135
The first things we noticed were the outstanding bluing and metal work. The one-piece grips were made of not-quite-plain walnut, and the fit of wood to metal was very good. The metal polish left nothing to be desired, and the fit of metal to metal was also very good. The roll engraving on the cylinder was cleanly done, though not as crisp as on the 2nd-Gen. Colt. The trigger pull was a bit long and creepy, but broke cleanly ( 3 pounds) at the end of its travel.
The timing was good, though the hand was just a touch short, but that’s something we didn’t notice in normal handling. When we disassembled the gun for the initial cleaning we found no burrs or other visible problems. We broke the front edges of the chambers with a countersink (on all guns but the Colt, which already had it done) to ease loading.
A side-by side comparison of this gun with the 2nd-Gen. Colt revealed a few minor differences, the most obvious being the Cabela’s was heavier. The materials and finish of the original Colt design was exactly matched by the 2nd Gen. Colt and the Cabela’s version, and included case-hardened steel frames, loading levers, and hammers; blued barrels, cylinders, and back straps; and brass trigger guards, which were integral with the front strap.
On loading this revolver for the first time we found there was not enough room adjacent to the barrel to fit a ball into the chamber unless the chamber was almost underneath the rammer. This made loading clumsy compared with loading the 2nd-Gen. Colt chambers, which had lots more room there. We developed a loading technique that worked around this, but would have preferred more room for loading. This could be achieved by grinding metal out of the loading notch area.
On the range, the Cabela’s 1860 Army shot well with all loads. We tried 25 and 35 grains of FFFg GOEX, and came to prefer the lightest load because it gave more room in the cylinder for the wad and ball, and was just as accurate as the hotter loads. We also tried 33 grains of FFg, and found equally good accuracy and powder burning, though velocity was down from triple-F.[PDFCAP(2)]
Accuracy was all we could have asked for (which was true of all four of these revolvers). Most groups were 1.5 inches, with the best six-shot group being 1.0 inch at 15 yards, fired with 25 grains of FFFg and 0.454-inch diameter swaged lead balls.
Cabela’s 1860 Army Old West, $200
Yes, you have to pay $65 more to get the fine finish removed from your brand-new sixgun. The idea that some Cowboy Action gunslingers have, that an old-looking gun makes them look more authentic, is mistaken. The old-West gunfighters obtained the best firearms they could, which may have had a bit of holster wear from lengthy practice sessions, but that’s it. No gunfighter would be caught dead—or would he?—using a gun that looked like it had been dragged behind a horse for a hundred years.
The original Colt our source used to own, he told us, had essentially no finish on it, but it was smoothly polished or worn on the edges, a look the Cabela’s Old West didn’t have. Thus our initial reaction was that you could obtain a more authentic look by buying the blued gun, use it out of a holster for a year or so, or if you want it to show wear use very fine steel wool to polish off the finish here and there, where knotty hands or dirty holsters would rub the finish. And you’d save $65.
The finish of this Old West gun had been removed by a process that didn’t quite do the right job. There were small patches of bluing left here and there that didn’t look right, particularly on the rear grip strap and the cylinder. It was obvious the gun had been chemically cleaned, rather than losing the finish to an accelerated wearing process. The walnut grips were dinged up, but again the look was not honest, with the dings being in the middle of the panels, not at the edges where you’d expect to see them. Finally, all the edges of the gun and the markings on the barrel were just as crisp and sharp as on the blued version, again putting the lie to the “honest wear.” We found a ding on the muzzle that touched the rifling, and cured it with a hand-turned countersink.
The case-colored parts looked authentic. They were muted significantly from the blued gun, and looked like age-faded colors. The owner could get rid of the sharp edges and markings and make the gun look a lot better, and we’d do it if we owned this one.
The metal and wood fitting were at least as good as on the blued version. Timing and lockup were perfect, so maybe the maker spent time during the second assembly of the gun (assuming they distressed a previously blued one) making sure all the parts fit properly. The wood was slightly more attractive than that on the blued gun, and it was inletted extremely well.
Shooting the Old West 1860 was pretty much like its blued brother, but it shot better. It put 12 shots into a 1.2-inch hole, centered six inches above point of aim at 15 yards. Average groups were a bit smaller than those of the blued gun, probably because of the slightly better fit of the hand and tighter lockup.
Cabela’s 1851 Confederate Navy, $90
The Colt 1851 Navy was a .36-caliber revolver. Sam Colt never made a Navy in .44 caliber, and neither did any other maker on either side of the Mason-Dixon line, as far as we could discover. That’s too bad, because many folks feel there was never a better-looking handgun than the Colt Navy, but want it to be .44 caliber. In the Confederate Navy, Cabela’s offers a handgun that might have been produced, but probably wasn’t, and is therefore not historically correct, if that’s important to you. The brass-frame construction is thoroughly authentic. Many makers around the time of the Civil War built revolvers with brass frames.
Cabela’s actually offers two versions of this .44 Navy combination, our test gun and an Old West version with its finish removed. The latter has a steel frame and brass grips like the real .36 Colt Navy, but costs $200.
So what do you get for ninety bucks? This revolver was a fine-looking unit right out of the box. The fine polish of the steel parts, sharp edges on the octagonal barrel, fine bluing and bright brass all combined to catch our jaded eyes quickly. The gun was lighter than any of the Armies and had fine balance. There was no roll engraving on the cylinder. The loading lever, hammer and trigger were nicely color-case hardened. The front sight was a small brass cone, just like on a real 1851 Navy. Inletting and metal work were for the most part excellent, and as good as on the other two Pietta revolvers. The one-piece walnut was well inletted to the brass straps and frame. Wood finish was matte-glossy and well done, just as on the other two Piettas. There was a notch on the bottom of the grip, and it didn’t belong there. All the 1860s had this notch, but they also had a notch on the frame and protruding screw heads to accept a shoulder stock, but the notch on the grip of the Confederate Navy was meaningless.
The sides of the brass frame were not quite completely flat. The polish of the brass was very high, which emphasized this. The screw holes were not dished out, but there was some waviness there. The barrel flats were as flat and true as we’ve seen on guns costing four times as much, and left nothing to be desired.
The rammer was a bit small, being designed for .36-caliber balls, but it worked okay. The lever latched securely and stayed in place throughout all our shooting, as did the levers on the other three guns. We’ve seen some percussion revolvers that had trouble keeping the latch in place, but not these.
One thing we didn’t like was the lack of safety pins between the chambers, though there was a notch on the hammer for the pins. This means you ought not to load all six chambers if you plan to carry the gun anywhere. The hammer can be let down on the space between chambers, just like the other three guns tested here, but any force on the cylinder would rotate it so that a cap was under the hammer, making the gun unsafe. Adding the pins would be a simple job for a skilled machinist or gunsmith, and if we owned this one, we’d add ‘em.
The trigger pull was creepy, but broke at 2.5 pounds, so it was not all bad. We could do good shooting with a trigger like that. The hand was just a bit short, resulting in imperfect indexing, and we’d fix that if we owned this gun.
It was possible to cock the gun and have the chamber not locked perfectly by the bolt, which over time would accelerate wear or produce lead shaving. This would not be hard or expensive to fix, but we’d like to see it done by the factory, even if they had to raise the price ten bucks.
When we fired the gun, we first tried our lighter load. We felt a bit more recoil than with the 1860s, but not enough to keep us from using a full charge of powder. The gun liked it, but we suspect the brass frame would prefer a lighter charge over time. We suggest a load of around 25 grains of FFFg in this handgun for most shooting. The brass Navy shot well enough, if not quite up to the 1860s. We got 2-inch average groups with all loads at 15 yards.
Colt Second Generation 1860 Army, about $600
Made as a continuation of the serial number range of Colt’s original production run of the Model of 1860, the 2nd Gen. Colt 1860 was produced from 1978 until 1982, in a total of about 11,500 units. As such, they’re starting to get a bit scarce and prices are slowly going up. We have no idea where to get one, so don’t ask. The fellow who loaned us ours paid around $600 for it some years back, in new unfired condition. Originals are more easily found than second-generation 1860s, though they bring at least twice as much for rough but shootable samples.
Our loaner Colt was made in 1979, early in the production run of the 2nd-Gen. Colts. It had magnificent wood, extremely well fit and finished. The grip was slightly smaller in circumference than the Cabela’s clones, and it was also lighter, which combined to give it a handy feel the others didn’t have. The roll markings on the cylinder were crisp and clean, with all details of the naval battle clearly visible. Timing was perfect, and lockup very tight. Metal fitting was clearly superior to the Pietta-made guns, and there were contours and bevels on the grip strap and frame that were just like on originals (and on the Single Action Army), but absent from the Cabela’s guns.
One problem was that the bluing of the barrel was off-color. The owner told us this was the only 2nd Gen. Colt he had seen with this odd plum color to the barrel bluing in a dozen or more guns he looked at over the years, but he overlooked it because of the fabulous wood. The remainder of the bluing was a rich blue-black color. The case colors were also eye-catching, much richer-looking than on the Cabela’s 1860s, yet were not garish.
In all respects, this was a very well made, high-quality revolver. The owner told us it was identical in size, weight, balance, feel, and in nearly every construction feature with his (sold) original Colt, which had been made in 1865. The biggest visible difference was that the original Colt had gain-twist rifling. The original also held more powder than the newer gun.
We had found that 0.454-inch diameter balls were adequately tight in the chambers of all three of the Cabela’s guns, but we had to use 0.457-inch balls in the Colt. The Colt-marked gun also had much higher lands than the other three.
Loading the Colt was much easier because it had more room at the back of the barrel, just in front of the cylinder, for that process. We could start a ball, turn it under the rammer, ram the ball home and leave the rammer down, then start the next ball with our thumb, lift the rammer, roll the next chamber under it, and repeat the process. This was far easier and faster than loading the Cabela’s 1860s. The 1851 Confederate Navy also had lots of loading room.
Like the Cabela’s guns, the Colt shot high. We put twelve shots into a 2-inch group with ease, and knew we could have done better.
But should you spend $600 or more for the Colt? No, not if you’re after for a fun-gun with the look of history. But yes, spend the money if you’re looking for a long-term investment.
Gun Tests Recommends
Cabela’s 1860 Army, $135. Best Buy. We found no problems whatsoever with this handgun, and gave it a clean bill of health. We believe it is excellent value for the money, and would serve its owner long and well.
Cabela’s 1851 Confederate Navy, $90. Buy It. We liked the look and feel of this handgun a lot. For the price you got a very useful revolver, one that would give excellent value and lots of fun. However, we felt the blued 1860 gave you more handgun for not much more money, and thus would be a better buy. But if you’re on a limited budget, or just want to test the waters of the world of cap & ball revolvers, this is the way to go.
Cabela’s 1860 Army Old West, $200. Conditional Buy. We concluded that if you like the look of the Old West, and its extra character, and don’t mind paying someone to remove your gun’s bluing, go for it.
Colt Second Generation 1860 Army, about $600. Conditional Buy. The Colt name will always bring good money over the years, and in this case you’re buying a gun that is extremely well made, far more so than any current reproduction by any company that we’ve seen recently. If you can find a 2nd Gen. Colt for a reasonable price, we believe you won’t lose money on it. But you don’t need one to have a decent 1860 clone.