Cap-and-Ball Revolver
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My very first pistol was a cap and ball Colt

Shoot as fast as lightnin' but it loads a mite slow

Loads a mite slow and soon I found out

It can get you into trouble but it can't get you out

Steve Earle
The Devil's Right Hand

Basic Information

A Cap-and-Ball revolver, also known as a Percussion Revolver, is a pistol that uses a two-part (sometimes three-part) ammunition, a firing device known as a caplock mechanism, and a revolving cylinder to hold the ammunition.

Percussion cap loading was probably the last significant development in firearms technology before the introduction of cased ammunition. The revolver was the first reliable repeat-feed system. Marrying the two together gave an exponential increase in personal firepower over previous pistols both in terms of reliability and rate of fire.

The first caplocks were applied to muzzle-loading weapons around 1830, and eventually replaced Flintlock, which had in turn replaced the matchlock and wheellock.

The first cap and ball revolver was the Paterson Colt first sold in 1838. The most popular cap and ball pistol was the Colt Navy, released in 1851.

Cap and ball weapons were eventually replaced in the 1870s by modern cartridges that hold primer, the gunpowder, and the projectile all in one.

Loading and Reloading

To load the gun was a multi-step process. After breaking open or sliding out the cylinder, you would:

  1. First load powder into the chambers. this might be free powder poured from a horn, or it might be a prepared cartridge of powder wrapped in paper, foil, or intestine.
  2. Then each powder charge is topped with a metal ball projectile.
  3. Lastly, a percussion cap is placed on each of the nipples at the rear of the chambers. This is the primer for the reaction, and without it the gun won't fire.

This process is, of course, very slow. It's got at least three times as many steps as loading a bullet in a modern revolver, and each individual step is slower as well. Reloading after use was even more complicated, as you had to clean out the chambers before putting powder into them. For that reason, most gunslingers would carry 2 or more guns - drawing a hold-out weapon was much faster than trying to reload in the middle of a gunfight.

There was also the option of carrying multiple loaded cylinders and swapping them out rather than re-loading - something of a halfway house between a reload and a weapon change.

Most real-life gunslingers would clean and reload their guns at least once a day, even if they didn't fire it. Cap and ball revolvers are very cantankerous, and prone to misfire.

It was also very common to grease the bullets, or to place a greased wad of paper between the powder and the ball. Doing so would reduce the chance of a misfire or chainfire. These precautions, of course, further increased the time spent reloading the gun.


4. RPG Sourcebook: The Knuckleduster Firearms Shop by Forrest Harris and Knuckleduster Press

Game and Story Use

  • Most Westerns ignore the facts concerning what a terrible chore it is reload in the middle of a fight prior to the popularization of Cartridge-Fire Revolvers in the 1870s. You can either defer to tradition and do the same, or put a little more realism into your game. Playing it realistic does have some benefits.
    • Unless characters walk around with half a dozen guns poking out of a ridiculous assortment of holsters , they'll have to treat each bullet as a precious commodity.
      • If they do carry half a dozen guns, you might want to assess penalty of some sort. Reputation or Mobility could take a hit.
      • There's also the increased risk of one of them discharging unexpectedly, and the problem of keeping track of which ones you have and haven't fired in the heat of battle.
      • Having said that, carrying a lot of pistols was a time honoured tactic developed back in the muzzle-loading era, so it's not that much of a stretch to imagine it being carried on to (or reinvented for) the cap-and-ball era.
    • When someone is planning to betray, ambush, bushwhack, or just cause trouble, you'll might a visual warning because they'll show up with extra guns.
      • The Town Marshall will note when a stranger comes to town packing a lot of heat.
      • Clever players will come up with sneaky ways to hide or conceal their spare guns, so as to look less threatening.
    • Some oddball guns, like the LeMat Revolver, are bound to catch the eye of a power-hungry PC. Realistically, odd weapons like that had many drawbacks that RPGs are likely to Hand Wave away, such as the rarity of ammunition in their calibre, or a little bit higher chance of misfire. Enforcing the (true life) slow reload rates of such a weapon is one way to keep such guns from being the automatic best-choice weapon.
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