Convertible Cap & Ball Models: Ruger Old Army and Colt Walker

When we cracked some caps on one of the first truly successful percussion revolvers - the 2nd Generation Colt - we wondered how it would stack up against a thoroughly modern Old Army. Ruger Old Army No. 1401 .457 Ball/45 Long Colt, $450


The collaboration between Samuel Colt and Captain Samuel Hamilton Walker in 1846 resulted in the Colt Walker revolver, a massive six-shot 44-caliber handgun. The largest and most powerful percussion revolver ever made, it weighed nearly 5 pounds and was more than 15 inches long. Captain Walker wanted a revolver for cavalry troops that could dispatch opposing adversaries as well as horses in close combat situations. The massive Walkers were held in pommel holsters thrown over a saddle horn. Captain Walker used a pair of his namesake revolvers during the Mexican-American War and was killed in action shortly after the Colt Walkers began production. Numerous copies of the Walker are available today, with most made in Italy by companies like Uberti and Pietta. However, our second-generation Walker tested here was made by Colt Blackpowder, which was, at one time, part of Colt in the 1970s thru the 1980s. The Italian companies manufactured components, and Colt Blackpowder finished the gun. Our test item is known by collectors as one of the “black box” percussion Colts because it was packaged in a black box. Many shooters will recognize the Walker as the handgun Clint Eastwood carried in a belt rig in the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales.


Bill Ruger loved old guns, and his design for what he called the finest percussion revolver was the Old Army, introducing the cap-and-ball revolver in 1972. Ruger built the design around the old three-screw Blackhawk revolver. Unlike the popular open-top Colt percussion revolvers like the Walker, Ruger’s Old Army uses a full frame with top strap and looks very similar to the Remington Model 1858 percussion revolver. Ruger redesigned the loading lever to be more secure and added adjustable sights. Adjustable sights on a black-powder revolver was virtually unheard of, and they take the guesswork out of shooting these revolvers, as you will see.

While we wanted the authentic black-powder experience, we also wanted to see how a cartridge-conversion cylinder would fare in these handguns. Taylor’s & Co. ( imports cartridge-conversion cylinders from Italy, so we ordered a 45 Long Colt cylinder for both the Walker ($250) and the Old Army ($240) from The back plate, or rear of the cartridge conversion cylinder, is pulled off, the cylinder loaded with cartridges, the back plate replaced, and then the cylinder is inserted into the revolver’s frame and the revolver reassembled. It takes longer to describe than to do in actual practice for one of these revolvers. The back plate holds six firing pins, and a pin in the cylinder and a hole in the back pate mate to ensure they are reattached the same way each time. The cartridge-conversion cylinders are not conducive for fast reloads, but they do allow shooters to fire cartridges in percussion-style guns without the fuss of loose fixin’s like ball, caps, and powder. In fact the Taylor’s & Co. cylinders are patterned after an original Remington design for a drop-in fit.

To check each chamber for alignment with the bore, we used a revolver range rod and rod-head combo from Brownells in 44 Special/44 Magnum (080-617-044WB, $40). We found no issues with either the Colt or the Ruger or the aftermarket cylinders. However, we did notice putting a brand-new cylinder into a slightly used revolver required the cylinder to be cycled a few times so the pawl and the bolt worked better with the new cylinder. The cylinder-to-barrel space was measured using a Brownells feeler gauge (606-950-252WB, $28). On a modern-cartridge revolver, that space should spec out between 0.004 to 0.006 inch. However, because the Colt uses a wedge pin to attach the barrel to the frame, the space between the cylinder face and the forcing-cone area of the barrel can be slightly adjusted. In the old days, shooting black powder meant the revolver fouled quickly with soot, especially with repeated fire. The wedge pin could be slightly loosened so the cylinder would still rotate even if the fouling was noticeably binding the cylinder. Likewise, if the wedge pin is too tight, even in a clean gun, it will bind the cylinder. We found the dimension on the Ruger was 0.012 inch on the percussion cylinder and 0.010 inch on the conversion cylinder. We anticipated the pair of revolvers would soon bind up with extended cap-and-ball shooting. A note on the conversion cylinders: Use only low-power cowboy loads and install them only in steel-frame revolvers, not brass-frame revolvers. Also, we reiterate that you cannot load up these old designs with Buffalo Bore cartridges and go after bears.

Investing in a percussion revolver also means investing in extra equipment like a powder flask, powder measure, capper, and nipple wrench. It also means buying the loose components to shoot them: black powder or a black-powder substitute like Pyrodex, percussion caps, lead balls, grease and wads. Percussion revolvers offer a lot of shooting fun, but they are high maintenance. After shooting a percussion revolver, the entire pistol needs to be field stripped and cleaned since black-powder residue absorbs moisture, which in turn will rust the revolver.

The loading procedure for both of our percussion revolvers required them to be placed on half cock so the cylinders would spin freely. A measured amount of powder — black powder is measured by volume, not weight like smokeless powder — is poured into a single chamber at a time into the front of the cylinder, then a lubed wad is placed in the chamber followed by a round ball. We used some Thompson Center pre-lubed wads with Natural Lube 1000 Plus Bore Butter and some Ox-Yoke Wonder Wads we had on hand. The ram rod is then used to press-fit the lead ball into the chamber. The ball diameter (0.457 inch) is slightly larger than the chamber and barrel, and when rammed into the cylinder, a slight ring of lead is cut from the ball, indicating the ball is sealed in the chamber. For extra caution and so as not to ignite additional chambers when fired as well as to relieve fouling, we placed more TC Bore Butter lube on top of the ball. Some testers have used everything from Crisco and Vaseline to axle grease on top of the balls, but best practice is to use a grease specifically made for muzzleloaders. After all six chambers are loaded, then the percussion caps are placed onto each nipple. Using a capper makes this step easier. It is important to ensure the caps are securely pushed onto the nipple. The nipples are slightly larger that the caps, so the cap, too, is press fit onto the nipple. If a cap is not secure and falls off during firing, the least you will have is a loose cap that jams the rotation of the cylinder. Worse, you might have multiple chambers fire at the same time, which is dangerous. So getting the caps installed on the nipples properly is worth paying attention to.

We used real black powder, GOEX FFFg, and a black-powder substitute, Pyrodex P. We also had on hand some Pyrodex 30-grain pellets, which we used in the Ruger. The pellets offer ease of use — no measuring — but loose powder offers the ability to fine tune your charge. We prefer to load the old-fashioned way with loose powder. Here’s what we found after we started cracking some caps on these smoky six-shooters.

Colt Walker 2nd Gen. No. F1600 .457 Ball/45 Long Colt, $1300

The Colt Walker was a massive and heavy pistol, and this reproduction was nicely made. The cylinder, barrel, and backstrap were blued, while the frame and loading lever were casehardened color. The cylinder was engraved with a battle scene from 1844, originally described by Walker and executed by Waterman Ormsby, an engraver whom Colt commissioned for the job. The trigger guard was squared off and made of brass. The grip was smooth walnut. Many testers liked the shape of the one-piece grip, which was thin and felt very different than the Ruger’s grip panels, which reminded us of a Blackhawk grip. Holding the revolver at arm’s length with one hand is tiring; get a quick sight picture and touch a shot off or else the more than 4 pounds of pistol will cause your aim to waver. Also, in our opinion, the balance was off, with too much weight forward of the firing hand. The size of the cylinder dwarfed the Ruger’s cylinder, and we found thumbing back the hammer took a bit more effort to rotate that massive cylinder of steel. The sights consisted of a V-notch in the hammer and a tiny brass front sight.

We first installed a cap on each nipple and fired the Walker unloaded to blow out anything in the nipples. We then used 50 grains of GOEX FFFg — the load the Colt manual recommended — and used #10 caps. The nipples of the Walker are larger than the Ruger and could have used #11 size caps, but we made due with #10 caps and used a knife to secure each one. The loading lever of the Walker provided plenty of leverage to load the lead balls, and an area near the frame and front of the cylinder was well scooped out to allow easy loading. The loading lever snapped into a latch built into the bottom of the barrel. We have found in the past that full-power loads produce enough recoil to jolt the loading lever free and impede rotation of the cylinder. We did not encounter this with the Walker. With the 50-grain powder charges, we had no issues and found the Walker shot 6 to 7 inches high. During the Civil War, it was common practice to aim at a man’s belt buckle to hit him center of mass, and this Walker lived up to this characteristic. Windage was dead on.

With 50 grains, the Walker had a soft, slow recoil, not sharp like a 44 Magnum. The weight of the pistol helped absorb some of that felt recoil. When loaded up to 60 grains, we got to experience the Walker battle ready with increased recoil and velocity. We saw better accuracy results using a 50-grain load of GOEX FFFg; 2.7-inch groups when using a rest. This old horse pistol still had game. We did encounter a few hang fires with 50-grain loads of Pyrodex P loose powder and preferred using the real black powder. After the third cylinder full, we encountered fouling and quick cleaning was needed to continue.

The rear of the frame on the Walker was scooped out so fired caps can easily be rotated out from between the cylinder and frame if they fell in the mechanism. This was a nice feature. The recoil shield on the right side of the frame was also scalloped out, allowing the shooter to place the caps on the nipples easier.

When using the cartridge cylinder, we needed to first knock out the wedge pin and remove the barrel from the frame. This took some doing, and we used a non-marring nylon hammer to separate the barrel from frame. This gun was LNIB, so we suspect that with continued use, the barrel and frame would more easily come apart. One installation note: We had to make sure we did not tap the wedge too far in because the cylinder would not rotate.

The 45 LC bullet had a bit of a leap in the cylinder before reaching the bore, but even so, we were able to shoot 1.5-inch groups at 15 yards using a rest, on average. The longer barrel and sighting radius, the weight of the revolver, and rest indeed helped accuracy. This was a fun revolver to shoot, but it was tiring to shoot for extended sessions. One tester joked you would need a hip replacement after toting the revolver around in a waist belt rig.

Our Team Said: The Colt Walker was fun, but it is massive and heavy. Changing out cylinders was a chore. For someone who needs to flesh out a Colt percussion-revolver collection, this would be an excellent addition. Because it was a 2nd Generation Colt, members of our test team opined that it would hold its value better compared to Italian name-brand reproductions. As far as availability, it is regrettable the 2nd Generation Colts and Ruger Old Army revolvers are no longer cataloged by either manufacturer, but they can be found in gun shops and online auctions.

Ruger Old Army No. 1401 .457 Ball/45 Long Colt, $450

The polar opposite of the Walker is the Ruger Old Army. What the Old Army lacks in brawn, it makes up for in modern design changes, such as the full frame with adjustable sights and loading lever. The Old Army lacks the historic appeal of the Walker, we thought, though it is reminiscent of the Remington Model 1858. Instead, it offers shooters a revolver that is familiar and much less expensive.


At one time, Ruger also made matte stainless and gloss stainless models of the Old Army, some with fixed sights and shorter 5.5-inch barrels. Our test sample was similar to the Old Army that debuted in the early 1970s, with blued metal and smooth wood grips and a 7.5-inch barrel. The nipples were made of stainless steel, which we thought was a great idea to reduce corrosion. This revolver had some bluing knocked off many sharp edges, but we didn’t ding this used gun for its cosmetics.

The hammer was stainless. The Old Army does not have the safety transfer bar so it, like the Walker, when loaded, must have its hammer resting between nipples to avoid an accidental discharge if dropped. We found the Ruger was easier to cock because the cylinder was smaller and lighter than the Walker’s. The trigger pull was just under 3 pounds, which we thought would have never made it past Ruger’s lawyers. We suspect a previous owner swapped out the original hammer spring for a lighter aftermarket spring. We had numerous failures to ignite with Pyrodex P and the Pyrodex pellets due to weak a hammer spring. We did not experience this type of failure when firing the conversion cylinder with cartridges. We also only had Remington caps available at time of testing and perhaps a change in caps would eliminate the failure to fire. With GOEX black powder we had better ignition performance.

The loading lever latch was spring loaded, snapping into a post under the barrel. The lever did not jolt loose when fired. The basin retaining pin, which looks like a screw, is rotated counter clockwise about 160 degrees with a screw driver to remove the loading lever and cylinder pin. The cylinder is then removed from the right side of the frame. With the loading lever removed, the parts of the lever can easily fall apart since they are not fixed together. This makes for easy disassembly and cleaning, but parts could easily drop off when swapping cylinders. The Old Army was equally easy to load, albeit smaller. The nipples were sized for #10 caps.

The Ruger had excellent adjustable sights that made shooting this revolver familiar and comfortable. There was no need to compensate point of aim with the Old Army like we did with the Walker. Once we had an accurate load of black powder, it was simply a process of zeroing the sights.

The conversion cylinder was a tight fit on the Old Army, and with our first shot we experienced slight splatter, but afterward we had no issues. The Old Army was accurate with the cartridges, and we feel we would use the cylinder more with the Old Army since to was easier to disassemble.

Our Team Said: The Old Army offered a modern take on the cap-and-ball revolver, sporting usable sights and a simple takedown method. We’d swap out the hammer spring to ensure solid hits when using the percussion cylinder; that’s just one of those small fixes sometimes required when buying a used gun.

Written and photographed by Robert Sadowski, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers. GT


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