Ruger Old Army Stainless Cap-N-Ball Revolver

By Chuck Hawks

Ruger Old Army
Illustration courtesy of Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc.

Sturm, Ruger and Company, Inc. is America's largest producer of recreational firearms. After achieving tremendous success with his fine Single Six, Blackhawk, and Super Blackhawk single action cartridge revolvers, the late Bill Ruger set out to design and produce the finest cap and ball revolver ever made. The result is the Old Army, which is based on the three-screw Blackhawk lockwork and uses the same grip frame. This is a traditional single action revolver with a half cock hammer position, not the Ruger New Model lockwork with the transfer bar ignition system.

Most experts agree that Ruger achieved his design goals with the Old Army black powder revolver. It is known as the strongest cap and ball revolver on the market, and one of the most accurate. It is not a replica of anything, although it does have the look and feel of a traditional black powder revolver.

Like other Ruger revolvers, the Old Army uses an investment cast steel frame with a solid top strap, a separate one-piece grip frame with two-piece Western style grips, coil springs, and modern construction throughout. The barrel is screwed firmly into the frame, as with modern single action revolvers, and unlike Colt style cap and ball revolvers. According to Ruger, the Old Army features an interlocking base pin and rammer assembly that will not unlatch during recoil. It also makes cylinder removal a little more trouble than with Ruger single action cartridge revolvers or Remington pattern cap and ball revolvers. The Old Army is available in satin stainless steel, gloss stainless steel, or blue finishes; it can be had with or without fully adjustable target-type sights, and with a 5.5" or 7.5" barrel.

The cylinder is removed by first loosening the cylinder pin retaining screw on the right side of the frame about 1/2 turn--no need to remove the screw. Place the hammer in its half-cock position and then lower the loading lever until it clears its barrel mounted retaining lug. The loading lever, ram, and cylinder (base) pin can all be pulled forward and clear of the frame. The cylinder can now be rotated out the right side of the frame. The cylinder is replaced by reversing the process. Care must be taken, especially when replacing the cylinder, because while the bolt is completely withdrawn by placing the hammer in the half-cock position, the hand is not. The cylinder must be replaced from the right side of the frame, and rotated to the right as it is inserted so that the hand is pressed into the frame by the ratchet at the rear of the cylinder as the cylinder slips into the frame. Also, getting the cylinder properly aligned with the base pin and the ram aligned with its hole in the frame, while simultaneously keeping the loading lever, base pin, and ram all properly linked is a bit of a hassle. The process is not actually difficult, but it is a little fiddley.

The specifications of Ruger's Old Army .45 revolver are as follows.

  • Type: muzzleloading, cap and ball, six-shot revolver
  • Caliber: .45 BP
  • Barrel: round, tapered (blue or stainless steel)
  • Barrel length: 5.5" or 7.5"
  • Number of grooves: 6
  • Twist: right; 1 turn in 16"
  • Bore diameter: 443"
  • Groove diameter: .451"
  • Proper ball or conical bullet diameter: .457"
  • Frame: blued carbon steel or stainless steel
  • Nipples: stainless steel for #11 percussion caps
  • Trigger guard/grip frame: blue or stainless steel
  • Grip: smooth, two-piece rosewood or simulated ivory
  • sights: fixed or fully adjustable rear
  • Overall length: 13 1/2" (with 7.5" barrel)
  • Weight: 2 7/8 pounds
  • 2003 MSRP: $499 to $576 depending on features and finish.

The gun that is the test subject of this review is a stainless steel model with 7.5" barrel and adjustable sights. This is Ruger catalog # KPB-7, and its 2003 MSPR is $535. Actual cost at a local gun shop was $417. My friend Gordon Landers had taken delivery of this revolver just three days before we test fired it at our local gun club's outdoor pistol range.

The Ruger Old Army feels good in the hand, at least to me. The Ruger Blackhawk grip has always fit my hand well. The satin stainless metal finish is attractive and durable. There is virtually no cylinder endplay, the bolt locks the cylinder with minimal movement, and the flash gap is tight and uniform. The rosewood grip panels are a different story, indifferently finished and poorly fitted to the frame.

The hammer draw is fairly stiff due to a heavy coil mainspring (typically Ruger). The tension can be easily reduced by cutting some links out of the main spring (3 coils is usually sufficient). The stock trigger pull was excessively heavy, and gritty, with plenty of travel. A little work with a stone eliminated the gritty feel and reduced the pull weight to 4 pounds, but the travel remains. Ruger springs all seem to be stronger than they need to be, but this is easy to correct with a pair of side cutters. The pull weight of any three screw Ruger trigger can be reduced by cutting some coils off of the trigger spring, although neither the hammer nor trigger springs had been modified on the brand new test revolver.

The Old Army's rear sight is identical to the fully adjustable target type supplied on Blackhawk and Super Blackhawk revolvers. The front sight is a ramp front blade sweated onto the barrel near the muzzle. These excellent sights are probably the best feature of the gun.

The Old Army .45 is intended for use with traditional black FFFG, Pyrodex P, or Triple Seven FFFG powders, and should never be used with smokeless powder. For the shooting portion of this review we used GOEX brand FFFG black powder (20 and 25 grain loads). We also used RWS #11 percussion caps, Ox-Yoke Wonder Wads, and Hornady .457" diameter round balls.

The percussion cap is the "primer" that makes a flame to ignite the powder charge. The purpose of the powder is to produce the volume of gas that propels the bullet down the barrel. The wad is used to help to seal the powder gas behind the ball, and to help to clean and lubricate the bore on its passage through the barrel. The gun will work without wads, but it is better to use them. And the ball or bullet is what (hopefully) hits the target, be it paper, tin can, animal, or (in the old days) human.

The loading procedure is as follows. Check to make sure that the revolver is clean and dry, empty, and that the nipples are clear. Then pull the hammer back to the half-cock position; this frees the cylinder so that it can be freely rotated. The chambers can be charged individually with powder, wad, and ball, or each operation can be performed on all chambers before going on to the next step. The latter is the way it is most commonly done at the range, where there is a shooting bench on which to lay everything out. Here is how I load a percussion revolver at the range.

  • Pour a measured amount of powder into the first chamber, and then seat a wad in the mouth of that chamber with the fingers, sealing in the powder. Rotate the cylinder to bring up each empty chamber sequentially and repeat these two steps until all six chambers have been filled with powder and sealed with a wad.
  • Seat a ball on top of the wad in each chamber sequentially, using the pistol's loading lever. The ball should be pressed into the chamber until it seats firmly against the wad and powder, leaving no space between the powder, wad, and projectile. Ramming the ball into the chamber swages it down to the chamber's diameter. (When it is fired, the bore of the barrel will further swage down the ball's diameter, pressing it into the rifling.)
  • The last step before firing is to individually cap the nipples. This can be done by hand or using a little device known as a capper (which is a little dispenser for percussion caps). Due to the relatively small open space around each nipple on the cylinder of a Ruger Old Army revolver, only straight-line cappers will work; the larger capacity snail-shaped models are too bulky. In any case, press a cap firmly over each nipple. Insure that the cap is pressed all the way down over the nipple or a misfire is likely.

The revolver is now loaded, but the hammer must not be left at half cock--this is not a safe hammer position. The hammer should be pulled back slightly, using the thumb of the shooting hand, just enough to free the sear from the half cock notch. While continuing to control the hammer with the thumb, use the index finger (trigger finger) of the shooting hand to pull the trigger all the way back. Use the off hand to rotate the cylinder as necessary so that one of the safety notches on the back of the cylinder (between each chamber) is directly under the middle of the top strap and therefore directly beneath the hammer. Then, still holding the trigger all the way back, slowly lower the hammer until its tip comes to rest in the safety notch. Do not allow the hammer to snap forward; keep it under control at all times. The gun is now safe.

This process is much harder to describe than to do. With a little practice any normal person can learn to operate a single action revolver surely and safely. Safe operation becomes almost automatic, like shifting a manual transmission car. You don't really think about it, you just do it. Do not load one of these revolvers until you can handle it safely 100% of the time.

When you are ready to shoot, pull the hammer all the way back until it clicks into the full cock position. A rearward press on the trigger will now release the hammer, discharging the weapon. After firing, leave the hammer down on the fired chamber. It is neither necessary nor desirable to return it to a safety notch, since hammer down on a fired chamber is as safe as any revolver can get.

Pulling the trigger on a blackpowder revolver produces a flash, a bang, and a cloud of smoke, but not much recoil. Shooting the Old Army feels about like shooting a target load in a .38 Special cartridge revolver. If the shooter has done his or her job correctly, there is also a new .45 caliber hole in the target. These Ruger Old Army revolvers can deliver fine accuracy once the optimum load for a particular revolver is found.

The test revolver seemed to prefer 25 grains of FFFG and the Hornady .457" round ball, although it also shot well with 20 and 30 grains of FFFG and also with .454" Hornady balls. .451" Speer balls, which are undersized for this revolver, did not shoot as well as the slightly larger diameter balls.

The test Old Army produced excellent groups on the 15-yard pistol range. Five and six-shot groups averaged about 1.5" to 2.5" The best 5-shot group measured only 7/8"! It is hard to argue with accuracy like that from any handgun, let alone a cap and ball revolver. The Old Army's adjustable sights contributed to its excellent shootability.

It is generally recommended that the cylinder and barrel be swabbed out with a wet patch using some sort of bore cleaner every couple of cylinder loads. And perhaps more frequently if top accuracy is to be maintained. We used Three Rivers Unlimited Black Powder Solvent, produced locally in Springfield Oregon. Whatever you use, dry the chambers and bore before reloading the gun.

After shooting is finished, all black powder revolvers must be thoroughly cleaned; even stainless steel models like the Ruger. Black powder residue contains salts, which will attract moisture and cause rust and corrosion if not removed. Hot water with a little 409 cleaner added works well for the purpose. After the gun is clean, use a little gun oil or a synthetic cleaner/lubricant like Prolix to lubricate and protect the lockwork.

The stainless steel Ruger Old Army represents the final development of the cap and ball revolver. Rust resistant and very strong, it comes with excellent sights and delivers superb accuracy. It is a gun of which Bill Ruger was justifiably proud.

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Copyright 2003, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.