Ruger's black powder hog leg: The Old Army

By Editor, May 11, 2015 | |
  1. Editor
    Most firearms companies specialize in either black powder guns, or modern smokeless powder guns. A notable example of one that dallies in both ponds is Sturm, Ruger, who have long-produced a black powder version of their M77 bolt action rifle (the 77/50) as well as an excellent reboot of a Union Army service revolver from the Civil War period-- the Old Army.

    The author's 1998-vintage Ruger Old Army in .457BP with 7.75-inch barrel. The gun is a massive three-pounder that is almost 14-inches long

    The Remington Daddy

    During the US Civil War, more than two million Americans were called volunteered for or called to the service of their state, territory, or country. They were armed with any number of weapons including muskets, carbines, shotguns, pistols, pikes, lances, sabers and of course, revolvers. One of the most common Union revolvers encountered during and after the war was the Remington 44. Also known as the Remington Model of 1858, they were produced by Eliphalet Remington & Sons, in Ilion, New York from a patent by Fordyce Beals between 1862-1875.

    The author's Remington New Army, complete with both U.S. and (likely Bannerman-applied) Confederate markings.

    Several versions of the Remington 1858 were produced with the 1863-vintage New Model Army being the most popular. The New Model Army has an 8-inch barrel, a new front sight, a low spur trigger, larger loading lever and a cylinder pin that was held by two pins. The New Model Army, with its solid top strap was one of the most powerful and rugged performers of its day and outlasted many of its competitors.


    Loading one of these revolvers was a chore, with each cylinder needing to be filled in turn with charge of black powder, a ball, and a wad-- then primed with a cap to enable it to ignite on fall of the hammer. The whole affair needed to be cleaned off to make sure random bits of powder did not ignite the other chambers when one was struck, a disaster known as "chain fire" which was often terminal for the revolver and dangerous to the firer.


    While a gunfighter or soldier could carry a second, loaded cylinder, this was impractical and most who anticipated a close-in fight with multiple adversaries would often carry a second revolver. In fact, William Quantrill and other infamous Confederate Missouri raiders carried as many as a dozen cap and ball revolvers as it was far easier to tug out another six-shooter than to reload an exhausted one.

    Quantrill Raider George Maddox shown in his fine hat and boots-- and pair of captured Remington New Army revolvers. He survived the war, worked as a prison guard and railwayman, and died in Missouri in 1906. Photo by the Library of Congress

    More than 132,000 of these New Army revolvers were made (as well as another 100,000 of the other Remington 1858 models). Of course, not all of these went to the Union Army (some were captured and reused by the boys in gray) and after the war a number were made for the Armies of the Tsar, the Mikado of old Japan, the King of England, and the Republic of Mexico, remaining in production until 1875. They were found in US service as late as the Plains Indian Wars and even carried by some volunteers as late as the Spanish American War.

    By the turn of the century with inexpensive Iver Johnson and Savage cartridge handguns available, those New Armies that were not converted to cartridge cylinder guns were going for just a handful of Buffalo Nickels. Today they are incredibly collectable.

    Enter the Old Army

    Bill Ruger had long been a fan of classic U.S. military sidearms. His Single-Six and Blackhawk revolvers, based on the Colt 1873 Peacemaker-- a gun that was the standard U.S. Army handgun throughout the end of the 19th Century, had been introduced in the 1950s but with a number of improvements for modern shooters. By 1971, with the old Colt example a good (and profitable) one, Ruger dusted off the plans of the classic Remington New Army, then over a century old, and went to work updating it.


    While the New Army was made with 1850s metallurgy, which in many cases was unsafe even for slightly overspec charges of powder, Ruger's Old Army is a modern all-steel design, which doesn't do anything for weight (it tips the scales at almost 3-pounds unloaded); it does give it an incredible safety margin. In fact, as a test of the design, they have been shot with much more powerful overloads of hot smokeless powder rather than spec black powder and did not spontaneously disassemble. (With that being said, do not try that at home!).


    Cheating a little, Ruger used the rear frame, sights, coil mainspring, and trigger system of his already proven Blackhawk series single action revolver, while roughly everything from the cylinder forward was new design drawing inspiration from the classic Remington of yesteryear.

    The guns were made from 1972-2008 in a half dozen variants with either 7.5-inch or 5.5-inch barrels and either matte, gloss stainless or deep-blued finishes. You can track your gun's serial number here and download a manual here.

    Overall, judging from the serial ranges, less than 125,000 of all types were produced.

    Shooting your Old Army

    Billed over the years as .44 or .45 caliber, these black powder revolvers accept either a .457 round ball or .454 bullet or a standard #11 percussion cap under a charge of FFFg or Pyrodex. As for load data, Ruger advises the following:

    A good starting accuracy load, using a pure lead .457" diameter ball, is 20 grains of FFFg and sufficient filler (corn meal is frequently used as a filler material) to seat the ball approximately 1/16" below the chamber mouth. Filler is not required and can be completely dispensed with if the powder charge takes up at least 1/2 of the cylinder.

    One neat thing about these guns, however, is that their beefed-up construction allows for the use of black powder cartridge rounds as well. Both Taylors and Kirst sell well-liked cartridge conversion cylinders that contain firing pins instead of black powder nipples, which allow Ruger Old Army's to fire black powder loaded .45 Long Colt cowboy ammunition without further conversion. Of course, the prices of these cylinders run from $250-$350, but they are a neat addition.

    A stainless 5.5-inch Old Army with a Kirst Conversion cylinder

    The Taylor versions

    These big bores run from $400-$700 depending on condition, accessories included, and honestly just how much someone wants to pay for them.

    But bottom line, they are just about the best-made muzzleloader revolvers in the world.

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