Loading and firing blackpowder revolvers of the early 1800's was considerably different then today’s modern firearms. Today’s modern handguns, both revolver style and semi automatic pistols all use metal cartridge ammunition. Civil war vintage revolvers however were limited to primarily loading each cylinder by hand. In the field a soldier would become used to loading his particular weapon and could be expected to reload on a fairly rapid basis. Loading all 6 cylinders in under 1 minute is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility for an experienced soldier.
In 1836, Samuel Colt designed the first useable variant of a revolver called the Paterson. The Paterson had five cylinders which all required manual loading of the powder, ball, wadding, and primary ignition source. In only a few years, six cylinder revolvers were the common style, although the rotating cylinder could have as many chambers as the MFG. deemed possible. Unique among these was the LeMat, which used nine chambers.
Metallic cartridge ammunition of today is not entirely new however. In 1856, Smith & Wesson had their model 1 rimfire revolver. There were a few copies of this rimfire revolver, Uhlinger being one of them. The French built Lefaucheux was a second metallic cartridge based revolver using pinfire cartridges. There also were a few rifle designs, which used metallic cartridge rounds as well. The Spencer Rifle is the best known of these rifles.
Despite the fact that there was metallic cartridge based ammunition during the Civil War, these weapons were never in large supply. The primary reason against them at the time was the difficulty of producing the metal cartridges. It was much simpler to build a hollow cylinder, with six chambers, and pour in the powder and ball, than it was for the factory to produce the high quality, metallic cartridges. The Confederate troops never did produce a working metal cartridge based rifle or pistol; they simply did not have the machinery and knowledge to produce them.
The loading of a revolver can be broken down into two main methods of loading, and it will be obvious there was quite a bit of difference between the two methods. These methods are, Loading with paper based cartridges, and the second method used less frequently in wartime was, Manual loading of the chambers.
The reader is sure to be confused at this point. In the following context and descriptions, a paper cartridge is a single almost complete round that is ready to be fired from the pistol. These paper cartridges are not the same as a metallic cartridge such as modern handguns use. These non-metallic cartridges were also made from linen.
During the Civil War, the Governments of both sides supplied their troops with paper based cartridges to speed up the loading of weapons during battle. Very seldom would a soldier need to manually load his weapon. Paper cartridges were supplied in small ammunition boxes, which contained the proper amount of rounds to load one revolver. These may have been six, or even nine rounds in a box. The small box also contained caps for igniting the round as well. Single shot rifles, shotguns, and pistols also would be supplied with paper based cartridges and caps.
A paper cartridge of the 1800's was a handy device. This paper cartridge was a roll of thin paper, that in the bottom section contained a measured quantity of powder, and in the top section it contained a ball or bullet. Sometimes this cartridge would also contain a patched ball as would be used in a single shot rifle. There were also two styles of paper cartridge; the standard paper based cartridge and a combustible cartridge, which will be explained shortly. In addition, the soldier also needed a method of igniting their weapon. The cap was used for this as a primary ignition source. The cap was a loose separate item from the paper cartridge.
Ordinance departments of the time had a huge combination of cartridges to keep on hand for all the many different types of firearms then being used. Added to this problem was the fact that there was no single central based arsenal, which produced all paper cartridges for the many style weapons. The Confederacy made an effort at this in their Macon Georgia facility, however the war ended before it was fully utilized. Just considering revolvers alone, there were 4, 5, 6, 7, and 9 shot revolvers. These revolvers could have .31, .32 .36, .40, .44, .54, and .58 caliber chambers. There were revolvers that required different charges of powder and many different shape bullets as well. Surprisingly the arsenals of the civil war did a fine job of supplying all the different paper based cartridges to their troops.
Of the two types of paper cartridge, a soldier could be supplied with the standard paper cartridge, or a combustible cartridge. It is necessary to describe the steps of loading a revolver in more detail before these two types of cartridge will be understood.
Loading a revolver consisted of six basic steps outlined as follows.
If a soldier did not have a paper cartridge or combustible cartridge, he would have to perform those six steps for each of the chambers of his revolver. A standard paper cartridge eliminated step 1; the powder was already measured for him inside the cartridge. Many cartridges had a greased ball, which would also eliminate step's 3 & 5. It also placed the ball and powder in one nice unit, which he could grab from his pouch quickly.
A combustible cartridge was an extra fancy paper cartridge, which again, contained the measured powder and ball. The cartridge was made of nitrated paper that would cause it to burn quickly. The big difference was that the entire combustible cartridge could be placed entirely within the chamber of the revolver, and then the soldier only needed to seat the entire assembly with his loading rod. This Combustible cartridge eliminated steps 1, 2, and 3, and step 5 as well. When the pistol was fired, the entire combustible cartridge burned up. The reader can see that if you can eliminate two or four steps in a process that requires you to do the entire job for each chamber of your revolver, considerable time is saved. Imagine the time saved for a nine shot LeMat revolver.
Step #5 Place grease over the ball, was a necessary step for safety of the shooter. Black powder revolvers when fired will produce a considerable flash of fire. It is not unusual for sparks and even flames to shoot out of the barrel of the gun. Grease, paper or wadding is used in each chamber of the revolver, to prevent flame from burning backwards and into another unfired chamber. A multiple chainfire condition could occur with all rounds of the revolver going off at once. Chainfire was not a desirable condition for the soldier. Grease was commonly used because it would wet the powder, around the tip of the chamber. When the powder was wet, it could not ignite. The powder seated in under the ball would of course stay nice and dry. Grease also served as a secondary benefit to keep the revolver lubricated, and the barrel clean of black powder residue. After as few as six shots from an unlubricated revolver the cylinder will not rotate easily, and the barrel will begin to fill the rifling with deposits. Grease prevented these problems. I have seen this happen myself when testing various loads in my revolvers. Loading a single chamber, then firing it, and then doing this again, after only a few times I could tell that the cylinder of the revolver would become stiff. After only 12 shots sometimes, the cylinder would not even turn! This condition was caused from not using the grease in each chamber. Please be sure to ALWAYS use grease or some other source of flame protection when firing multiple rounds from a revolver.
Please do not consider these six steps to be the exact method or manner for loading an antique revolver that you may have. If you do own an antique revolver, it should be inspected by a gunsmith first to determine its ability to fire after 150 years. If you happen to own a reproduction revolver, please follow that manufactures instructions. With the value of antique revolvers being worth so much today, I would recommend a reader to buy a reproduction of their antique and shoot the reproduction instead.Loading with paper based cartridges
There was a very definite order to loading a revolver, and many manuals of the day had printed instructions for carrying out this procedure. A detailed description of loading a Colt style revolver as listed in Civil War manuals will show how a paper cartridge was used. I will not give the exact method of loading as was listed by Army regulations because there is much unnecessary information, which would confuse the reader. Instead, I will provide an accurate working method, condensed from original manuals.
A) Draw Pistol: At the command PISTOL, the soldier would draw his pistol from its holster and hold it pointed upwards in front of himself, holding the pistol in his left hand. The holster was on the soldiers right side, with the butt facing forward. This required the soldier to draw the gun with his left hand and then, if shooting it, transfer it to his right hand. The reason for this is antiquated war practises. The Military at the time of the civil war still considered the sword as a necessary implement of war. The sword or sabre was to be kept on the left side of the solider, so he could draw it with his right hand, ready for action.
B) Load: Place your left thumb on the hammer, your index finger beside the trigger guard, and pull the hammer aft to Half-Cock position. Half Cock is a position of the hammer where the cylinder of the pistol will rotate freely, but the hammer cannot be pushed forward. If the gun is dropped the hammer cannot slam forward and strike a cap. The cylinder can be spun around to any position by manually spinning it, usually with your thumb of the left hand.
C) Handle-Cartridge: At this command a soldier would remove a cartridge from his cartridge box, or ammunition pouch using his right hand, and hold the cartridge ready for use.
1) Lift the cartridge to your mouth and tear open the base of the cartridge, pour the powder into the chamber of the revolver. It should be noted here to readers that the soldier is pouring the powder directly into the chamber of the revolver, not down the barrel of the revolver. The cylinder being much wider then the barrel of the gun, there is a special carved area in the body of the pistol on the right side. This carved area, allows a soldier easy access to each chamber of the cylinder, as it is rotated to this position. On almost all revolvers, this position is just to the right of the barrel.
2) Insert ball. The soldier would now remove the ball from the rest of the paper cartridge and place the ball over the chamber opening where he just poured the powder, press the ball firmly into the chamber using your thumb.
3) Rotate the cylinder using your left thumb until the ball is underneath the loading lever. This is generally a position on the bottom of the pistol, and just underneath the barrel. At the same time as you rotate the cylinder, use your right hand and begin to depress the loading lever into alignment with the ball.
This would be step 2 and 3 above as outlined in the basic steps. Step 1 measure the powder has been already done in the self contained paper cartridge.
If a soldier had a combustible cartridge at this command Charge-Cartridge he would place the entire cartridge inside the cylinder, push it down firmly with his thumb, and rotate the cylinder underneath the loading lever. This would eliminate the above outlined basic steps 1, 2, and 3: all in one smooth easy step.
At this point, any reader can see that a combustible paper cartridge was a large time saver.
E) Ram-Cartridge: At this command the soldier using his right hand, forces the loading lever down, and firmly seats the ball into the chamber. If a ball was not seated firmly upon its powder, when the powder ignites it will expand, and create excessive pressure in the chamber. This could easily cause the revolver to explode.
Load, Handle-Cartridge, Charge-Cartridge, Ram-Cartridge would all now be repeated for how ever many chambers a revolver had.
It should be noted here that at this time, basic step 5 Grease would also be applied to the top of each ball, however field manuals do not clearly state this. It may have not been stated because many cartridges had the ball already encased in grease, and it was not necessary to list this. If you are loading revolvers yourself, PLEASE do not forget this very important step. Today we are forced to load our revolvers manually, Crisco or similar fatty oil may be placed over each ball.
F) Prime: After all chambers were loaded the command Prime would be ordered. At the command Prime a soldier would lower the barrel of his revolver towards the ground, and place a cap over the nipple of each chamber. Caps are tiny objects that look like a cup, and just a little bit smaller then a pencil eraser. These caps are the primary ignition source for a revolver and for pistols and rifles as well. A soldier would rotate the cylinder with the right hand, or the index finger of the left hand, and place one cap upon each of the chambers nipples.
The revolver would now be capable of being fired. The soldier would draw the hammer all the way back to full-cock position, and then gently lower it forward until it rested on a special detent between the chambers of a Remington style revolver. This detent was necessary so that if the gun fell, the hammer striking the ground would not explode a chamber. Colt style revolvers had no detent however. If a soldier had a Colt style revolver, he would either leave the hammer resting directly upon the cap of the chamber. This would be a dangerous condition. If a revolver did not have any detent between cylinders, a soldier could leave one cylinder of his revolver empty and the hammer would be placed over the empty cylinder. In battle, it is presumed a soldier would load all chambers.
When the gun was ready to fire, the hammer would be drawn back to full-cock position, and then the trigger pulled. The hammer falls forward and strikes the cap. The cap will explode sending flame through a tiny hole in the nipple, and into the chamber of the gun. The powder now explodes and the projectile is shot forth from the barrel. If combustible cartridges were used, the nitride paper will burn, igniting the powder and all is consumed in the process.Manual loading of a revolver
The second major, method: Manual loading of a revolver is more involved then cartridge loading. A soldier would be required to manually measure his powder for each chamber he loads. To do this he would Pour in the powder; from his powder horn, or powder flask into a measuring tool calibrated for his revolver. He would then pour this measured powder into a chamber of his revolver. He would repeat this for all cylinders he was filling. The paper cartridge would eliminate all of these steps. On horseback, the paper cartridge and the combustible cartridge would be a tremendous improvement over manual loading. Imagine bouncing in the saddle of a horse, and trying to measure powder, and pour it into a cylinder while your old nag is limping along underneath you.
The soldier would now Load the ball or bullet: on the mouth of a cylinder and rotate the ball underneath his loading lever. He would pull the handle of the loading lever down and force the ball into the chamber of the gun. Now the important grease is applied to the mouth of each chamber, over top of the ball or bullet. This grease prevents a chainfire, and keeps the cylinder rotating freely. Again, the combustible cartridge eliminates this step.
The gun is now almost ready to be fired and can be held in a lowered position to apply the caps. At this point, the balls and powder are pressed into the cylinders so tightly by the loading lever they cannot fall out. A cap is now placed onto each chamber of the cylinder. The gun is now ready to be fired. The hammer would be placed over an empty cylinder or in the case of the Remington, the hammer could be placed in the hammer guard detent in between the chambers.