The wide spread use of cartridge firing sixguns from Colt, Remington, and Smith & Wesson in the 1870s soon resulted in the cessation of production of percussion revolvers, and, for the most part, also their use, at least for serious everyday purposes, as many percussion revolvers were converted to cartridge firing. That era may have ended, however another would begin a century later. Today there are probably more cap and ball revolvers in use than there were in the 19th-century. Their shooting was mainly serious; ours is mainly for sport and enjoyment. Thanks to some forward thinking individuals as the late Val Forgett of Navy Arms we now have replicas of most 19th-century percussion revolvers at our disposal. Bill Ruger was also a black powder enthusiast whose appreciation of the Remington pocket revolver can be seen in the little .22 Bearcat. When it was decided Ruger would offer shooters a percussion revolver, looking back to the past for inspiration would be fine, however, it would have to be a thoroughly modern revolver. Ruger did not want a copy or a replica but rather a completely new design.
Ruger's Blackhawk is known for its exceptional strength and Bill Ruger wanted any percussion revolver bearing his name to be a strong as the Super Blackhawk and at least as accurate. There would be no thought given to a design such as the Open-Top style offered by Colt from 1836 to 1862; instead Ruger's cap and ball revolver would have a the top strap just as found on their Blackhawks. Ruger's 20th Century version of the 19th Century percussion revolver was based upon the Old Model Rugers produced from 1963-1972, and the Old Army, as it would be known used the same basic action and grip frame and would have all coil springs, mainspring, hand spring, and bolt spring, as found on all Ruger single actions since that first .22 Single-Six arrived in 1953.
The loading lever, rammer, and base pin of the Old Army are linked together and held in place by one large screw that is easily locked or unlocked by using a coin such as a penny. It exerts the best leverage in seating the ball over the powder of any percussion revolver ever produced: and the Old Army also has an excellent locking latch under the barrel to secure the loading lever. I have never had the loading lever come loose under recoil in shooting any Old Army.
The Old Army was first produced in 1972 and until recently was only available as a 7 ½” blued or stainless steel version with adjustable sights. It is very popular not only for general shooting but is also a proven winner at the firing line in black powder matches. I purchased one of the very early stainless steel Old Army revolvers as that finish makes cleanup after shooting black powder or a black powder substitute so much easier. That original revolver has been in use for over three decades now and is just as good as ever. The nipples have had to be replaced several times but it still performs better than I can.
When I had my 1960s 7 1/2” Super Blackhawk’s barrel cut to a more convenient to pack 4 5/8” and finished with a stainless steel type coating, I found the Super Blackhawk grip frame was larger than I needed on this smallish .44 Magnum, so I simply swapped grip frames and triggers with the Old Army. The handling qualities of both revolvers were greatly enhanced.
This is one percussion revolver that can be carried safely with six rounds as there are safety recesses between each chamber for resting the hammer. They should always be used unless the hammer is resting upon an empty chamber. Stainless steel nipples are set deeply into the cylinder to help prevent fragments from fired caps falling into the mechanism or behind the cylinder thus causing a jam. This has never occurred with any Old Army revolver I have used. The Old Army is also the only percussion revolver that can be dry fired as the hammer nose is designed to clear the nipples by .005”. The Old Army also bears the distinction of being the only Ruger single action that still has the old-style mechanism of the Flat-Top and Old Model Blackhawks rather than the New Model transfer bar.
Ruger proof tested the prototype Old Army by seating a round ball on top of the cylinder full of Bullseye. If such a test were tried using a cartridge case and bullet in almost any revolver results would normally be disastrous. The Old Army held, however it should be fired only with black powder or black powder substitutes and never with smokeless powder.
With a tremendous popularity rise in Cowboy Action Shooting especially in the decade of the 1990s, Ruger saw a market for a traditionally styled percussion revolver for the competition, which does not allow adjustable sights. The basic Old Army stayed the same except for the Vaquero treatment. That is, the adjustable rear sight was removed, the top strap rounded and given the old-style hog wallow rear sight groove, and the ramp front sight was replaced by a traditional blade. Those that prefer to stay authentic use replicas of such early percussion revolvers as the Colt 1851 Navy or 1860 Army or the Remington New Model Army; those that want the best possible percussion revolver when it comes to function and accuracy and also easy cleanup go with the Ruger fixed sighted Old Army. As with the original adjustable sighted Old Army, this version was first also available in both blued and stainless finishes with a 7 ½” barrel.
After more than three decades of producing only 7 1/2” Old Army Models, Ruger is now offering a fixed-sighted, stainless steel or blue, 5 ½” Old Army. The only basic difference, other than barrel length, from the original long barrel versions, is the fact that the loading lever mechanism cannot be removed without unscrewing the catch from the bottom of the barrel. Standard grips on the 5 ½” Old Army are imitation ivory with the Ruger Eagle medallion. Shooting black powder does become a little messy and my hands tend to get a little slippery whether using a Thompson lubed wad between powder and ball or placing lube, I use Crisco, on top of the seated ball. This situation did not mate up well with the slippery ivory grips, so they were replaced with checkered buffalo horn Gunfighter stocks from Eagle grips. The dark horn color provides a nice contrast to the stainless steel finish, while the checkering prevents the overly slick feeling, and the Gunfighter style shelf at the top of the grip panel provides extra security and prevents the revolver from shifting in the hand while fired. This could be a concern with a heavy recoiling .44 Magnum, however even the heaviest black powder loads in the Old Army exhibit no more recoil than a +P .38 Special.
I prefer to shoot the Old Army with a full house load using of 35 or 40 grains of black powder or black powder substitute by volume measure. A Thompson lubed wad is seated over the powder, and then a Speer .457” round ball is rammed home. The extra leverage of the loading lever of the 7 1/2” Old Army is really appreciated when using this much powder, but the shorter lever on the 5 1/2” Old Army is much more difficult to use. Bill Cleghorn of Hillsboro Oregon solved this problem by sending along a clever little extension that slips over the end of the shorter loading lever. Works great. After all chambers are loaded, then and only then, are CCI #11 percussion caps placed on the nipples and the hammer let down in one of the safety notches if I am loading six rounds.
Even with the short barrel of the 5 ½” Old Army muzzle velocities are right up there. With 40.0 grains (by volume) of Goex FFFg, Muzzle velocity is 900 fps; 40.0 gr. of Pyrodex P is just under 1,000 fps; while a full house loading of Hodgdon’s Triple-7 FFFg gives even higher velocities in excess of 1,100 fps.
Thanks to Taylor’s & Co. and R&D, Ruger Old Armies can easily be changed into cartridge firing sixguns. Taylor's is now offering R&D conversion cylinders chambered in .45 Colt to fit the Ruger Old Army. These are available in both blue and nickel finishes. The latter matches up very nicely with the Ruger Old Army stainless steel. In order to use these conversion cylinders, one removes the original cylinder, and uses the same base pin that is part of the Old Army loading lever with the new cylinder. The R&D comes with a back plate with six firing pins, safety notches between chambers, and a locating pin in the back of the cylinder which mates up with a corresponding hole in the conversion ring/back plate.
To load, the back plate is removed, cartridges are placed in the cylinder, the back plate is replaced, and the cylinder is carefully placed in the Old Army frame and the base pin is returned. To unload, it is necessary to remove the cylinder, take off the back plate, and remove the cartridges. If they do not fall out by gravity, it is handy to have some kind of a rod or a wooden dowel to tap them out from the front of cylinder. One of the rings around the firing pins is a different color so it is easy to see which chamber is empty if one loads only five rounds. For extra added convenience, Belt Mountain is now offering a special large knurled head base pin to fit the Old Army when used with these cylinders. The entire factory loading assembly and base pin is removed, set aside, and replaced by the Belt Mountain pin. This makes removal of the empty cartridge cylinder and the return of the loaded cylinder much easier.
Selected Loads For The 7 1/2” Ruger Old Army
Speer .457" Round Ball / Speer #11 Magnum Percussion Cap / Thompson Wad
Load MV 5 hots/50 ft.
30.0 gr. Goex FFg 680 1 1/4"
35.0 gr. Goex FFg 816 1"
40.0 gr. Goex FFg 870 1 5/8"
30.0 gr. Goex FFFg 868 1 1/8"
40.0 gr. Goex FFFg 959 1 3/4"
30.0 gr. Goex CTG 693 1"
35.0 gr. Goex CTG 746 1"
40.0 gr. Goex CTG 920 1 1/2"
35.0 gr. Pyrodex P* 967 3/4"
30.0 gr. Pyrodex Select 651 1 1/4"
35.0 gr. Pyrodex Select 797 3/4"
40.0 gr. Pyrodex Select 1,045 1 3/8"
*Favorite Match Load
Selected Loads For the 5 1/2” Old Army
Speer .457” Round Ball / CCI #`11 Percussion Cap / Thompson Wad
Load MV 5 Shots/50 Ft.
35.0 gr. Triple-7 FFF 925 1 3/8”
40.0 gr. Triple-7 FFFg 1,130 1 ¾”
35.0 gr. Pyrodex P 740 1 7/8”
40.0 gr. Pyrodex P 983 2”
35.0 gr. Goex FFFg 854 1 ¾”
40.0 gr. Goex FFFg 898 1 3/8”
.45 COLT With Taylor’s R&D Cylinder
Bullet/Load MV 5 Shots/50 Ft.
AA Ltd 255 Conical/7.0 gr. HP-38 795 1 ½”
AA Ltd 255 Conical/9.5 HS-6 643 1 5/8”
AA Ltd #504 250 RNFP/9.5 HS-6 601 1”
AA Ltd #504 250 RNFP/30.0 Triple-7 783 1 3/8”
Black Dawge 235 SPG/35.0 CTG 692 1 ¼”
Black Dawge 235 SPG/35.0 Swiss FFFg 920 1 ½”
Oregon Trail 250 RNFP/7.0 gr. HP-38 673 1 ¼”
Oregon Trail 250 RNFP/9.5 gr. HS-6 608 1 ½”
Oregon Trail 250 RNFP/6.0 gr. Red Dot 863 1 ½”
Lyman #454190/33.0 gr. CTG 640 1 ½”
Black Dawge 250 BP 983 1 5/8”
Cor-Bon 250 BP 644 1 ½”
Wind River 250 BP 706 1 ½”
Black Hills Black Hills 250RNFP 716 1 ½”
PMC 250RNFP 724 1 ¼”
Ultramax 250RNFP 770 7/8”
Ultramax 200RNFP 739 1 1/8”
3-D 255 RNFP 638 1 3/8”
4W 200 RNFP 673 1 ½”
4W 250 RNFP 668 1 ½”
Ten-X 250 RNFP 786 1”
I often hear from shooters who plan on using the Old Army for hunting. A realistic look at the performance of the Old Army reveals we are basically shooting a Plus P .38 Special, which is certainly not to be considered very seriously for hunting anything above s up with mall game. There is, however a great answer for those desirous of using the Old Army for hunting. Gunsmith David Clements offers a custom five-shot .50 caliber Old Army, which is definitely serious enough for handgun hunting. Using a Speer .490” round ball, CCI’s #11 Magnum Percussion Cap, and a .50 Ox Yoke Wad, 50 grains (by volume) of Triple-Seven FFg results in a muzzle velocity of 1,175 fps; 50 grains Triple-Seven FFFg, 1,350 fps; and 50 grains of Pyrodex P clocks out at 1,110 fps. The Clements Custom .50 Ruger Old Army can also be used with a 250grain SPG Lubed .50 bullet with 45 grains of Triple-Seven FFFg at 1,140 fps, and the same charge of Pyrodex P at 1,105 fps. Now we have some serious hunting loads or the Old Army.
Thanks to replicas, shooters may have a choice of almost every percussion sixgun ever offered by Colt or Remington, even some of the lesser-known makers. However, without a doubt, the Ruger Old Army is the finest cap and ball sixgun ever offered, anywhere, anytime.