Ruger Old Army: Modern Black Powder For Personal Defense

Dick Williams , GetZone.com Contributor

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Two things prompted this article on the Ruger Old Army. One was seeing a television rerun of the old Clint Eastwood movie “Pale Rider” in which Clint leisurely reloaded his black powder revolver by removing the empty cylinder and replacing it with a fully charged one as he strolled down the street toward the last remaining bad guy. Obviously the villain, an experienced gunfighter, could and should have shot Clint several times during that stroll before he finished the reload at a range of perhaps 10′, but Hollywood has always preferred contrived drama over a factual presentation. The second event was seeing an old article by Clint Smith on defending yourself with a single action revolver in which he suggested the use of black powder in your gun’s cartridges. The flame and smoke would perhaps confuse your opponent, and a shot taken within a couple of yards of your assailant might set him on fire — both good things — when your life is on the line. It got me thinking about what would be involved in using a true cap and ball black powder revolver for self-defense.

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Ruger’s Old Army with 5.5″ barrel, fixed sights, and three fitted cylinders make a formidable self defense weapon in the hands of a competent pistolero.

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I’ve successfully hunted wild pigs with the Ruger Old Army revolver and found the sights (either fixed or adjustable,) to be excellent during daylight hours. In appearance, the Ruger resembles the 1858 Remington revolver from the Civil War era but is a considerably stronger gun and sports a more modern design. On a Camp 5 pig hunt in Central California prior to the lead bullet ban, some other writers and I used stainless steel Ruger’s loaded with 40 grains of Triple 7, (a modern black powder substitute) and 200-grain pure lead, hollow point bullets. This was before I read Clint’s article pointing out the advantages of utilizing black powder’s ability to set your opponent ablaze! Muzzle velocity of this load was 1,200 fps, and one of the bullets traveled almost the entire length of a medium sized boar. On a slightly angled shot, another bullet totally penetrated the chest and lungs of a 125-pound sow.

Getting Started

Years prior when I got my first Ruger Old Army I took a Javelina using the swaged round balls. In a defensive scenario, the issue would not be adequate penetration with either load, but rather reloading time (Clint calls this down time) if the fight continues past 6 shots. The trick in duplicating the Pale Rider reload technique is finding extra cylinders for the Ruger, or even finding a Ruger Old Army since production may have ceased or, or at best, is quite sporadic. If you have a Ruger black powder revolver and want extra cylinders, you might contact Gary Reeder at Reeder’s Pistol Parlor in Flagstaff, AZ. He makes custom cylinders for a variety of handguns including the Ruger Old Army, or if you prefer, he can convert your gun to a larger caliber, like a 5-shot .475 caliber black powder magnum.

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Carry the gun safely in a Thad Rybka holster with all three cylinders pre-loaded and you have 18 powerful rounds quickly available to save your life.

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In the last 25 years I’ve had two different Old Army’s fitted with extra cylinders, one stainless steel gun with adjustable sights and one blue gun with fixed sights. The stainless gun’s barrel had been cut from 7.5″ to 5.5″ while the blue gun came from the factory with a 5.5″ barrel. Each of these Rugers now has two extra cylinders properly fitted to the gun. In addition to fitting extra cylinders on the blue gun, custom gun builder John Gallagher built a “take down” lever to replace the slotted screw (base pin retaining pin) in the frame that must be rotated for the base pin, loading lever and bullet rammer to be withdrawn from the frame and the cylinder removed from the gun.

Simple Reload

The reloading process is quite simple — place the hammer on half cock, rotate the takedown lever 90 degrees so it is in line with the barrel, release the loading lever latch, and slide the loading lever assembly toward the muzzle. The empty cylinder can now be removed from the frame (it actually drops into your hand with no effort) and replaced by a fully loaded cylinder.

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While the process sounds (and is) pretty simple, mastering it requires some dexterity and practice. A friend and I timed some reloads while on a recent hog hunt in Texas. As in many aspects of shooting, trying to go fast doesn’t make you fast — being smooth and consistent makes you fast. If we fumbled the reload, total time ran about 16 seconds including recovering from the fumble. When we switched the cylinders cleanly, total time dropped to under 9 seconds. I would expect considerable improvement on that with a little “empty cylinder” practice.

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With the lever rotated toward the muzzle, the loading systems slides forward releasing the empty cylinder to drop from the gun. Insert a fresh cylinder, slide the loading system back into the frame, and rotate the loading lever back up under the barrel and into the lock.

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Although an adjustable sighted 7.5″ barreled Ruger Old Army provides an edge for precision accuracy, the fixed sight, shorter 5.5″ barrel model is really a more easily handled self defense gun. The fixed sights are extremely rugged and more than adequate for self-defense. In fact, my coworker on this project used his fixed sighted Ruger to take a deer using his standard black powder round ball load. With the large, square notch rear sight and wide front blade.

It was quite simple to keep both loads tested inside 3″ at 15 yards shooting off hand. The shorter loading lever assembly on the 5.5″ barrel requires a bit more muscle than a 7.5″ barrel model when seating round balls in the cylinders, but you don’t have to be Hercules to get it done. I used swaged round balls instead of bullets for a couple reasons. First, being round and without a sprue, they require no specific orientation when seating them in the cylinder. Of course, being round makes their aerodynamic characteristics terrible, which doesn’t really matter in terms of retained energy at very close range, but it does reduce penetration should your assailant have some partial cover. The swaged round balls from Speer and Hornady weigh right around 145-grains, and while their original diameter of .457″  will be slightly reduced as lead is shaved during the loading process, the projectile still enters the target with that semi-magic .45″ diameter.

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It takes a lot of gear to load a cap and ball from scratch. You can carry all this around with you or get a couple of pre-loaded cylinders — your choice.

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Load Em’ Up

Bullet velocities near the muzzle were 860 and 1,080 fps  with the two loads of Triple 7 powder I tried, specifically 30 and 40 grains. Recoil was not bothersome at the higher velocity, but you might find a load in between 30 and 40 grains with which you’re more comfortable. For close range self defense, velocity variations aren’t terribly important, although it was comforting to see extreme spreads in velocities over six shots were 55 feet per second for the lighter load and 40 fps for the higher velocity load. That’s pretty good consistency. I experimented briefly with the 30 grain Pyrodex pellets a few years back and had terrible velocity variations. Loading the pellets was quicker than loading the cylinder with loose powder, but since you’ll be entering the fight with pre-loaded cylinders, I strongly recommend loading loose powder.

Ruger old army, old army, black powder, modern black powder, guns, shooting, pistol
You don’t want to be doing this in the middle of a gunfight. Extra cylinders pre-loaded with black powder dramatically reduce your down time and keep you in the fight.

When pre-loading the cylinders, some kind of loading stand (like the one I purchased years ago from Cabelas) makes things much easier. I also prefer to use lubricated, over-powder wads rather than slapping on grease to prevent a flash firing of multiple cylinders. The lubricant helps prevent excessive fouling and keeps your firearm functioning. Simply place one wad in each chamber mouth after pouring in the powder and gently push it down with the Ruger’s rammer. Both wads and plain grease will prevent multiple cylinders from firing.

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Cylinders are much easier to load when in the gun and with the Ruger in a loading stand like this one. Do this at home rather than after gunfire breaks out.

After loading powder and ball, it’s a good idea to run a wire pick through the nipple holes to insure a clear passage for flame and reliable ignition. Press the wire all the way through the powder until it touches the lead ball at the front of the chamber. There are small, special tools that make it easier to put percussion caps on the individual nipples in the last stage of loading. Once installed, I strongly recommend insuring each cap is properly and firmly seated. Be firm but gentle in this process; you are dealing with fully loaded cylinders that are ready to fire, and you don’t want them firing prematurely just as you don’t want them failing to fire at the crucial moment. The point is when all 3 cylinders are loaded — you have 18 powerful rounds of a large caliber weapon ready to protect you and your family from harm.

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Under Gunned?

If you think you’re under-gunned and short of ammo, remember lots of folks rely on a 5-shot .38 caliber revolver for self protection, perhaps with only one reasonably quick reload available. The Ruger may not be lightning fast to reload, but it’s much quicker than you might think, and in terms of total rounds available and stopping power per shot, it certainly out performs the typical pocket pistol. Many of the serious professionals I know carry a 1911 with one spare magazine. There’s no contest here in terms of speed load, but the Old West cap and ball solution offers about the same number of shots and in the same, historically proven .45 caliber. But here’s the kicker — black powder guns are not subject to the same firearm restrictions as cartridge weapons because they are not classified as modern firearms. So when guns are being confiscated after the next Hurricane Katrina or other natural disaster, you might be the only armed person in your neighborhood. And during the next urban riot when the politicians prohibit delivery of handguns and ammo to lawful citizens, you might be the only one in your neighborhood getting a decent night’s sleep. I’m not saying the Ruger Old Army with extra cylinders is the best option for self defense — I’m saying there have been, and may again be occasions where it’s the only option.

Note: Past experience hunting with Ruger Old Army shows Pyrodex black powder substitute produces velocities close to 777 for comparable loads.