As I pen these words, on this date (April 12th) in 1861, Rebel forces fired on Ft. Sumpter in Charleston (SC) Harbor. This lit the fuse that exploded into the Civil War. This “War Between the States” often saw brother fighting brother as the Southern states sought to break with the Union. Likewise, the Northern states stood determined to prevent the succession that would split the United States. Cimarron Firearms commemorates the Civil War with two percussion revolvers in use at the time.
Cimarron Firearms Percussion Revolvers Commemorate the Civil War
This war came at a pivotal period in history as the Industrial Revolution ushered in new technologies. This helped create weapons of destruction not previously seen on the battlefield before. Smoothbore muskets were replaced with accurate rifle muskets and, later in the war, carbines and rifles that shot self-contained cartridges.
The percussion revolver was at its epitome. Correspondingly, various Navy Models in .36 caliber and Army Models in .44 caliber were prolific in the fields of conflict. Cimarron Firearms Co. has chosen to commemorate the Civil War by offering five revolvers. The company has called them the “Blue & Gray Series.”
I have chosen two of these five revolvers to test and evaluate.
1860 Army “Grant’s Gun” USA
The most numerous cap-and-ball or percussion revolver during the Civil War was the Colt 1860 Army Model. It was the number one choice of the Union forces. 129,730 of the big revolvers were purchased from Colt before their factory was destroyed by fire on February 4, 1864.
This six-shot .44 single-action wheelgun sported an 8-inch barrel with a German silver blade front sight and a “creeping” type loading lever. Unlike the blocky-looking Model 1851 Navy, the 1860 Army had a streamlined round barrel and loading lever assembly.
The frame was the same size as that of the Navy. However, it was relieved to allow the use of the larger diameter, rebated .44 cylinder. The forcing cone of the barrel was shorter on the Army model, which allowed a longer cylinder for increased powder charges.
A large fixed center pin and an attachment point at the barrel/frame juncture held the revolver together. However, this necessitated removal of the barrel in order to take off the cylinder. A typical load was 30 grains of black powder behind a round ball or conical bullet, which produced about 900 fps. A much more powerful weapon than the .36 Navy.
Named After Ulysses S. Grant
Fittingly called “Grant’s Gun,” the commemorative 1860 Army from Cimarron is named after Ulysses S. Grant. He was the Commanding General of the U.S. Army by the end of the Civil War and later the 18th President of the United States. The decoration of this six-gun is truly “presidential.”
Like the original, the barrel, cylinder, and trigger are polished blue. But the loading lever, frame, and hammer are color case-hardened. The backstrap/butt of the grip frame is also blued, while the frontstrap/triggerguard assembly is polished brass.
Smooth, oil-finished walnut stocks with an inlay in the right grip panel of a sterling silver 33-star Old Glory flag enhance the handsome appearance of this handgun. In addition, is laser engraving of the scroll-style, covering portions of the barrel, loading lever, cylinder, and grip-frame/trigger guard assembly.
The frame is fully engraved, as are the sides of the hammer. Flowing scrolls on the left and right side of the barrel, just ahead of the cylinder, encase the words “LIBERTY” on the right side and “UNION” on the left. These embellishments elevate an already handsome revolver into a virtual artwork.
Leech & Rigdon Revolver CSA
While the Northern states composing the Union were generally an industrial society, the Southern states of the Confederacy were still primarily agrarian at the time of the Civil War. That meant that “Johnny Reb” was perpetually short on weaponry.
The Confederate States of America (CSA) had to rely on mostly captured and imported firearms. They did produce limited numbers of rifles and handguns, but most were “knock-offs” of designs made by Northern producers. One of these so-called counterfeits was the Leech & Rigdon revolver.
Charles Leech and Thomas Rigdon secured a contract with the Confederate Government to manufacture 1,500 revolvers. They were to be copies of Samuel Colts 1851 Navy .36-caliber percussion six-shooter. Production began in Columbus, Mississippi, where some 200 or fewer were made before the factory, in danger of capture in late 1862, closed. It was moved first to Selma, Alabama, and then on to Greensboro, Georgia, in early 1863.
Less than 1,000 revolvers of the original 1,500 specified in the contract were produced before the contract was dissolved in December of 1863. Today Leech & Rigdon revolvers are rarely encountered and bring high prices from collectors.
Staying True to the Colt 1851 Navy
Leech & Rigdon (L&R) stayed pretty true to the design of the Colt 1851 Navy. But they took a few shortcuts to enable faster production with reduced cost. The L&R barrel was 7.5 inches like the original but was round rather than octagonal.
It maintained the brass conical front sight, but the cut in the housing that supported the loading lever assembly that allowed insertion of the ball atop the cylinder was more a triangular cut than the more U-shaped and sculpted port on the Colt.
The cylinder also lacked the roll-engraving of the Colt product along with other markings. A typical powder charge was 25 grains, which would produce between 950-1000 fps. The L&R was made of iron and had the same finish configuration as the Colt Navy.
Cimarron’s commemorative bespeaks Old Work craftsmanship. Its barrel/loading lever support assembly is highly polished and given a deep charcoal bright blue. The loading lever is color case-hardened. Additionally, the front sight is the ubiquitous conical brass “bead.”
The unengraved cylinder is also polished and bright blue, as is the trigger. Both the hammer and the frame are attractively color case-hardened. The two-piece grip frame/trigger guard assembly is fashioned from solid, polished brass.
Like the “Grant Gun,” the L&R has a sterling silver flag inlay on the right side of the walnut stock. But this is the Battle Flag of the Confederacy rather than the Stars and Stripes.
Percussion/cap-and-ball ball revolvers used loose powder and ball, plus percussion caps in place of metallic cartridges. Therefore, a bit more prior planning is needed before range time. Paper-wrapped cartridges were available during the Civil War to speed up the loading process. However, it was still slow and demanded fine muscle skills.
For my shooting test of the Grant Gun and L&R replicas, I procured a can of FFFg black powder from Goex. I’ve always found the slightly finer grains better suited for use in handguns.
To ignite the powder, the cylinders on percussion guns are fitted with nipples at the rear of the chambers. On these nipples are placed copper caps. I used caps from CCI #11 size. They come in small 100-cap tins. For balls, I used commercial (Traditions) swaged lead balls in .36 (.375 inches) and .44 (.454 inches) diameters.
The balls are made oversized, so they fit tight in the chambers. When you ram them into the cylinder chamber, they will leave a thin lead ring. Old timers would seal the chambers with grease to lubricate the bullet and prevent chain fires. Nowadays, we have “Wonder Wads” from Ox-Yoke Originals that can be pressed atop the powder charge in the cylinder prior to seating the ball. It’s a lot less messy!
The Backup Plan
Colt percussion revolvers and copies thereof used a V-notch cut into the hammer nose as a rear sight. It is rather crude but works, and you can only use the sight when the gun is at full cock. It is said that the sights were set for 75 to 100 yards.
Tradition has it that cavalry troopers would fire their revolvers at the enemy at this distance before closing with them at short distance with the saber. From what I’ve read, most cavalrymen carried two or more revolvers plus a carbine and generally left the saber in the scabbard.
Sometimes extra loaded revolver cylinders were carried for reloading. But Colt-designed revolvers didn’t lend themselves well to this. It was just as time-consuming to remove the barrel to get off the cylinder as it was to just load it on the gun. The best bet was to have extra loaded handguns!
Flash & Smoke
Cowboy action shooters and military re-enactors know about the “Fog of War.” It was a sulfurous haze produced by exploding black powder that quickly enveloped the area where the fighting was taking place. Unless there was a wind blowing, this smelly fog made accurate shooting difficult after the first volley.
Of course, some folks actually enjoy this, and I’ll admit that it is an interesting nexus with history to trigger a black powder firearm. So, I headed to the range with my brace of Civil War-era six-shooters. I was there to experience the fog of test and evaluation!
My first step was to put a cap on each nipple and then trigger them off to remove any grease or other blockage in the tube. The next process was to load up. I’d decided on 25 grains of FFFg powder under an 80-grain ball for the .36-caliber L&R and 30 grains of powder under a 145-grain ball for the .44-caliber Grant Gun.
The powder was measured and dumped into each chamber, and then a Wonder Wad was seated atop it, and finally, the ball. Pay attention, and don’t forget a step as that can potentially end the day’s firing session.
When shooting time was imminent, I placed a cap on the nipple of each chamber. Both six-guns have small pins affixed in the cylinder between nipples for the hammer nose to rest on. Therefore, all six chambers can be safely loaded.
As I’ve said before, this is a time-consuming procedure but fun at the same time. Especially for those of us who are historically inclined.
On Target with the Cimarron Revolvers
Three five-shot groups were fired with each percussion revolver from the bench off a sandbag rest at a target distanced at 15 yards. I expected the two six-guns to shoot high, so I used a large oval, B-27 center-style target from HD Targets. When hit, this target produces a very visible yellow “halo” around the bullet hole.
Aiming dead-center with the .44 Grant Gun, my bullet impacts were 6 inches high with good windage. For my second group, I aimed at the orange-outlined 7 in the lower-scoring ring and got center hits. I had to hold below the target paper, aiming at a spot on the target backing for the third group. This turned out to be the best group, measuring at 1.29, while the three-group average coming it at 2.38 inches.
I basically did the same thing when shooting the .36 Leech & Rigdon. It shot about 5 inches high, so I held accordingly. My center, or second group, was the tightest at 0.92 inches, and the three-group average was 1.98 inches. When you think about the crude rear sights on these guns, frankly, I find these results pretty impressive.
Replacing Competition with Range Time
As this was being written, the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing. So, I was unable to use the two percussion six-guns in a cowboy match, as is my usual custom. I did go to my club’s cowboy range to use the Grant and L&R on steel targets.
I was wearing a replica half-flap military-style holster cross-draw as cavalrymen usually did. Then, I would draw and fire on the steel targets that were set up between 5 and 7 yards away. Shooting one-handed, I took a “flash” sight picture on the white-painted, rectangular steel plates.
Some of the closer-in targets I shot sans the sights. I managed to “ring steel” on every shot I took that day, shooting as quickly as possible while the black powder smoke puffed up in my vision.
I only encountered two “hiccups” during my range session. The first was with the .44 Grant Gun. I discovered one of the nipples was blocked up. I shot several caps through it, removed it from the cylinder, ran a thin wire through it, and still, it would not allow the cap to set off the charge. So, I replaced it with one of the spares I habitually carry when shooting cap-and-ball guns, and the problem was solved.
With the .36 L&R, it was a couple of cylinder chambers. Perhaps they were a bit over-large, but when I rammed the ball into the chamber mouth and withdrew the loading lever, the ball stuck to the ram and came back out. I more tenderly seated another ball and finished loading. None of the balls fell out during shooting, and as you can see, accuracy was in no way affected.
I really enjoyed shooting these two Blue & Gray Series revolvers from Cimarron Firearms. They definitely take you back to the short-lived cap-and-ball era and allow you to experience what your great-great-grandfather had to do in order to load and shoot his revolvers. Both guns are works of art, especially the Grant Gun. Best of all, they shoot as good as they look.
If you enjoy the smelly smoke, the process of loading loose powder and ball, and then the very messy cleanup involved after shooting percussion six-guns, then both Cimarron Civil War commemorative revolvers will be right up your alley!
For more information, please visit Cimarron-Firearms.com.
1860 Army Grant’s Gun Specs
Caliber: .44 (.454 inches)
Barrel: 8 inches
Overall Length: 14 inches
Weight: 42.7 ounces (empty)
Sights: V-notch in hammer nose, silver blade front
Grips: Walnut with “Old Glory” flag inlay
Finish: Blue and color case-hardened with engraving
Leech & Rigdon CSA Specs
Caliber: .36 (.375 inches)
Barrel: 7.5 inches
Overall Length: 13 inches
Weight: 42.8 ounces (empty)
Grips: Walnut with “CSA Battle Flag” inlay
Sights: V-notch in hammer nose, brass cone front
Action: SA, percussion
Finish: Charcoal Blue and color case-hardened
This article was originally published in the Guns of the Old West Spring 2022 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions at OutdoorGroupStore.com. Or call 1-800-284-5668, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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