What is percussion revolver?

Updated: 8/19/2023
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A percussion revolver is a handgun in which percussion caps, fitted to "cones" or "nipples" at the rear of each chamber of the rotating cylinder, provide the spark which ignites the gunpowder. The percussion caps are made from very thin copper and contain fulminate of Mercury, which explodes when inpacted. These caps are press fitted to cones that are hollow in the center. When the revolver's hammer strikes the cap, it the priming comound is crushed or impacted, and the flash from this travels down the hole in the center of the cone to ignite the gunpowder in the cylinder. Examples of percussion revolvers include the 1851 Colt in .36 caliber and the later 1860 Army Colt. Arms of this type were used by calvary during the U.S. Civil War. After the war, they played a significant role in the westward expansion of the U.S. and continued to be used long after the advent of more modern handguns firing fixed ammunition, by lawmen and lawbreakers alike. The .36 caliber 1851 Colt is roughly equal in "stopping power" to the .380 ACP pistol cartridge. The .44 caliber 1860 is roughly equal in stopping power to .38 Special +P pistol ammunition. While the technology may be "old school," percussion revolvers are still used by recreational shooters today. Original revolvers are still found in shootable condition, but most people who shoot percussion revolvers today use replicas of civil war era revolvers which are made in Italy by Uberti and Pietta. In spite of the rudimentary sights that most replica percussion revolvers use, arms of this type can deliver a level of accuracy that many modern "combat handguns" can't match. A practiced handgun shooter will often have little trouble grouping a string of shots inside a two inch circle at 25 yards with a percussion revolver. They are used for target shooting and hunting. To load, one first decants the proper powder charge for the revolver in question from a purpose-made powder flask. One charges all chambes. After the chambers are charged, greased felt wads are seated on top of the powder. The wad swabs out the bore between shots and deposits grease which helps keep the fouling from firing soft so that it can be more easily cleaned out when the time comes. Balls are seated on top of the wad. Thess are pure lead, or nearly so. The loading lever under the barrel is used to ram wad and ball firmy on top of the powder charge. Once all cylinders have powder, wad, and ball, the next step it to cap the piece. It is now ready to fire.

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A percussion revolver is a handgun that does not use fully self-contained ammunition.

They utilise a cylinder containing 5 or, more commonly, 6 separate chambers. At the rear of these chambers, removeable hollow-centered cones or "nipples" are affixed. In loading, a percussion cap is pressed on to these nipples. These percussion caps are made from thin copper and contain a substance such as fulminate of mercury which ignites when impacted. Upon pulling the trigger, a percussion revolver's hammer impacts the percussion cap with enough force to detonate it. The sparks generated from crushing the priming compound travel down the hollow center of the nipples, igniting the gunpowder in the chamber. Thus, the percussion cap serves the same purpose as a primer in modern metallic fully self-contained cartridge ammunition.

In military use, percussion revolvers were loaded with combustible cartridges in which the proper measure of gunpowder and a lead projectile were contained in nitrated paper. These cartridges where inserted into the chambers from the front or muzzle end and seated with the ram and loading lever usually affixed under the barrel of percussion revolvers in common use. After loading the chambers with combustible cartridges, percussion caps were affixed to the nipples of the cylinder, thus readying the arm for firing. Alternatively, these arms could also be loaded with loose powder decanted from a special flask purposely designed to charge the cylinders with the correct measure of gunpowder. Once the cylinders were charged with powder, lead round balls or conical lead bullets were seated on top of the powder charge. "Capping" the nipples then readied the arm for firing.

The common calibers were .36 (as in the so-called "Navy Colts) and .44 (as in the so-called "Army Colts). The .36 caliber percussion revolver would provide stopping power equivalent to modern .380 ACP cartridge ammunition while the more powerful .44 percussion revolvers would provide stopping power equivalent to modern .38 Special +P cartridge ammunition.

In terms of accuracy, in spite of their rather crude sights, percussion revolvers in common use during the Civil War are capable of matching the accuracy of modern cartridge revolvers and often surpass the accuracy delivered by modern semi-automatic combat pistols.

Revolvers of this type were manufactured domestically from the 1830s to the early 1870s. Production was then supplanted by manufacture of revolvers firing fully self-contained metallic cartridges. Percussion revolvers continued to be utilized throughout America's western frontier long after production ceased, and probably played a larger role in civilizing the "Wild West" than later catridge revolvers like the 1873 Colt did. My great grandfather preferred the 1860 Colt over more modern choices, as did others, and continued to use his own example well into the 1890s. He carried it while serving as a peace officer, and used it for the sorts of things rural dwellers use small arms for today.

In terms of reliability, my great grandfather's 1860 Colt remains in fully functional and fireable condition, though I refrain from actually shooting it, in deference to its historical significance.

In the 1950s, replicas of Civil War percussion revolvers became available. These were manufactured in Italy, for the most part, and remain available today, as do the various bits and pieces required to actually use percussion revolvers, such as the percussion caps, gunpowder, and projectiles needed to fire them, and the special tools such as nipple wrenches needed to maintain them, and the spare parts, such as replacement nipples and various lockwork springs, which require periodic replacement under heavy usage.

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