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    The Performance of the .45 Revolver

    Black Powder and Early Smokeless Factory Loads

    In the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, .45-caliber revolvers using various cases were combined into a variety of factory loads, both military and commercial. Levels of power desired and perceived recoil drove the development of these. In an effort to understand the drivers of this technology, it was decided to investigate the power, efficiency and recoil of these loads. As almost none of the original loads are available, it was necessary to recreate them so they could be tested.

    Antecedents and Case Varieties:

    The U.S. Army was equipped with a wide variety of cartridge and percussion revolvers in the early 1870s and desired a new metallic-cartridge revolver with all the modern features to replace them. The Model of 1873 Revolver and its .45 Colt cartridge were developed by the Colt Company in response to a U.S. Army requirement in 1872 to 1873.1 This case has now been in use for 149 years. Over those years, a large number of variants of this case as well as loads have appeared.

    From the 1899 Winchester catalog.
    From the 1899 Winchester catalog.

    Butler (1971) cited the 1874 Ordnance Manual showing that the M1860 .44-caliber percussion revolver used 30 grains of powder under an ogival bullet of 216 grains.2 The army had experience with metallic-cartridge revolvers prior to the adoption of the M1873. Prior to 1869, rimfire .46-caliber conversions of the Remington New Model Army .44 percussion revolver were in use.3 The army had also purchased, in 1870 to 1871, Smith & Wesson American revolvers chambered for the .44 S&W American cartridge. They also acquired Colt Richards conversions in .44 Colt centerfire between 1871 and 1873.4 The .46 Short rimfire was loaded with 227-grain bullets and 20 grains of powder in the Remington version and a 230-grain bullet and 26 grains of powder in the Winchester version.5 The .44 Colt centerfire cartridge was loaded with a 210- or 225-grain bullet and 23 grains of FFg black powder.6 The .44 S&W American centerfire cartridge was loaded with a 218-grain bullet and 25 grains of powder.7

    The army was apparently looking for the same level of power and recoil in its new cartridge. The original commercial load was a 230-grain bullet with 40 grains of powder. Other authorities have stated that it had a 255-grain bullet.8 Gould in his 1888 work, described it as having 30 grains of powder and 250 grains of lead.9 The .45 Colt cartridge with a 250- or 255-grain bullet and 40 grains of black powder has substantial recoil. Cutting the charge to 28 or 30 grains and reducing the bullet weight lowers the recoil, making the revolver easier to shoot.10 Military loads used the same bullet and only 28 grains of powder.11 Parsons (1950) cited an 1877 report that showed the Colt 1873 revolver being tested with “Bridgeport ammunition” that contains 37.6 grains of powder and a 249.6-grain lead bullet (890 fps) versus “service ammunition” with a 230-grain bullet and 28 grains of powder (733 fps).12

    Mattern (1926) stated that the “old army load contained only about 30 grains of black powder, with either a 230-grain or 250-grain bullet.” He also stated that the 34-grain black-powder load was “more or less standard today.” Mattern also described the standard smokeless load of that day as duplicating the 30-grain black-powder load. The standard smokeless load was given as 5 grains of Bullseye.13 Hatcher (1935) described the standard as around 34 grains of FFg black powder.14 He also listed the factory smokeless load as 5.7 grains of Bullseye.15 Himmelwright (1908) mentioned a gallery version with 7 grains of powder and a 139-grain round ball.16 This gallery version is also shown in the UMC 1905 Ammunition Catalog.17

    Both the .45 Colt and .45 S&W cartridge were usually factory loaded with FFg black powder. Mattern listed the velocity with 34 grains as 825 feet per second (fps) and with 40 grains as 910 fps.18 The recoil of the 40-grain loads explains why the 28-, 30- and 34-grain loads were produced commercially for many years. Civilians had problems with its recoil as well. The .45 Colt case at this time had a nominal length around 1.275 to 1.285 inches and a rim of around .506 to .510 inch. Manufacturing variations in both could be expected.

    The U.S. Army also adopted the Smith & Wesson Schofield revolver in 1874, which became the Model of 1875, with procurement beginning in Fiscal Year 1876.19 The Schofield had a shorter cylinder and used an automatic extraction mechanism that required a larger rim that was found on the .45 Colt case. The .45 S&W cartridge used a shorter case, around 1.1 inches and a rim of around .520 inch (plus or minus). It was loaded with a 230-grain bullet and 28 grains of powder. The first production of this cartridge by Frankford Arsenal was in 1874.20 The longer cartridge with the small rim was generally referred to as the “.45 Colt’s Revolver Ball Cartridge” and the shorter one with the larger rim as the “.45 Revolver Ball Cartridge.” The speculation is that there was confusion over the two types, with units with Schofields receiving .45 Colt’s Revolver Ball Cartridges, (which wouldn’t work in the Schofield) instead of .45-Revolver Ball Cartridges.21 Garavaglia & Worman (1985) cited a “semi-fictional” work called Trials of a Staff Officer that such occurred.22 Other than that, I’ve not seen any documentation to this happening. My own thought is that the army did not see any reason to maintain two cartridges of the same power when one version would work in both revolvers. Hackley et al. indicated that the longer Colt revolver case was discontinued at Frankford Arsenal after 1874.23

    Cartridge technology was changing through the 1870s and in 1882, the army decided to adopt a solid head, Boxer-primed .45 cartridge that could be reloaded. The “Model of 1882 .45 Revolver Ball Cartridge” had a length of 1.11 inches, a rim diameter of .524 inch and was loaded with a 230-grain bullet and 28 grains of powder.24 This is the .45 S&W cartridge. In 1887, the rim diameter was decreased from .525 inch to .513 inch.25 This, I believe, is the genesis of the .45 Colt Government case and cartridge. Production of this version of the 1887 revision of the 1882 cartridge continued through 1902. This was the cartridge sent to the Philippines when .45 single- and double-action revolvers were issued there during the insurrection. These were loaded with a 225-grain lead bullet and 26 grains of black powder.26 Commercially loaded rounds with the short 1.1 inch length and the smaller circa .506- to .511-inch rims were generally headstamped “.45 Colt Government,” or sometimes, just “.45 Colt” and the 1.1-inch cases with the bigger .520-.525 rims were headstamped “.45 S&W.”27 Hatcher stated that all the earlier Smith & Wesson and Colt revolvers bought by the army were sighted at the factory for the short .45 1.1-inch cartridge with a 230-grain bullet and 28 grains of powder.28

    From the 1899 Winchester catalog.
    From the 1899 Winchester catalog.

    The 1911 to 1912 Remington-UMC catalog shows the .45 S&W cartridge with 30 grains of black powder and 250 grains of lead. The .45 Colt cartridge is listed with a 250-grain bullet and 28, 35 and 40 grains of black powder and a single smokeless load.29 The 1923 Remington Catalog shows a single black powder and a single smokeless load with the notation, “Long Shell” beside the smokeless load. The implication being that the black powder load was in a shorter case than the smokeless load.30 Mattern (1926) stated; “For light loads, use the 1.1-inch case; for heavy loads use the old standard 1.3-inch case.” This indicated that there were two lengths of .45 Colt cases circulating at that time.31 Elmer Keith (1955) described a “… short variety that Remington turned out…” He was not very complimentary of this version complaining that, while it had a 250-grain bullet, it was inaccurate due to the long bullet jump, further speculating that it was loaded for use in the Schofield.32 My opinion is that he was describing the .45 Colt Government cartridge as loaded by Remington, which had been dropped from production by 1955. The 1925 Peters Catalog shows the .45 Colt cartridge loaded with a 255-grain bullet and either semi-smokeless or smokeless powder.33

    Himmelwright in both his 1908 and 1922 books has a discussion of the differences between “bulk” and “dense” smokeless powders when loading revolver cartridges. He stated that with “dense” smokeless powders, a certain airspace is necessary for the “dense” propellants to be safely used.34 The UMC 1905 and 1910 catalogs have a notation “1¼ in shell” beside the .45 Colt smokeless loads. The 1923 Remington-UMC catalog has the notation, “(Long Shell)” beside the .45 Colt smokeless load.35 The implication here is that the factories believed that the smokeless loads needed the longer case and its airspace.36 Himmelwright also emphasized that with smokeless powder, a firm crimp was required to ensure proper combustion.37

     In 1905, the army was considering adopting a new double-action revolver and Frankford Arsenal was directed to develop a suitable ball cartridge for this revolver with a full jacketed bullet. This cartridge was unofficially designated as the “M1906 Caliber .45 Revolver Ball Cartridge.” Its case was shorter than the M1882/87 case as it was .923 inches in length versus the 1.11-inch length of the M1882/87. It also had a much bigger rim at .533 than the earlier case. The nominal charge was 7.2 grains of Bullseye smokeless propellant.38 Hatcher stated the cartridge had a 234-grain cupro-nickel bullet and that the nominal propellant charge was 6.9 grains of RSQ powder.39

    I think that the length and thus volume of the case was reduced to provide better loading density for the smokeless powder charge. This case also probably owes that design feature to the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol Case. Frankford Arsenal had begun working on ammunition for an automatic pistol cartridge in 1904 and 1905. They were using the commercial Winchester .45 Auto case as a basis of design and produced a cartridge for trials that was .470 inch in diameter at the head and neck and it had a length of .918 inch. This was a rimless case known unofficially as the “Caliber .45 Automatic Pistol Ball Cartridge Model of 1906” and was loaded with a 230-grain bullet.40 As the head and neck diameter of the M1906 .45 Revolver Ball Cartridge was .473, the revolver cartridge was basically a rimmed version of this automatic pistol cartridge. The automatic pistol cartridge appears to have been developed prior to the beginning of development of the M1906 Revolver cartridge.

    A Smith & Wesson Army revolver, showing method of extraction.
    A Smith & Wesson Army revolver, showing method of extraction.

    In 1904, the Frankford Arsenal began to develop a suitable cartridge for a regulation automatic pistol, this culminated in the “Caliber .45 Automatic Pistol Ball Cartridge Model of 1911.”41 This cartridge is very similar to the commercial .45 Automatic Colt Pistol cartridge developed previously. During World War I, both Smith & Wesson and Colt produced variations of their respective commercial large-frame double-action revolvers for military use that chambered the .45 Auto cartridge, utilizing clips. In 1920, the Peters Cartridge Company introduced the .45 Auto-Rim cartridge.42 Comparing the dimensions of this cartridge with the M1906 Revolver Ball cartridge leads one to the conclusion that the .45 Auto-Rim case is the same as the M1906 case with the addition of a narrower and a .030-inch thicker rim to make up for the use of clips on the .45 Auto case. The .45 Auto-Rim utilizes the .512 rim of the .45 Colt case with a .085-thick rim versus the .055-thick rim on the .45 Colt.43 Hatcher and Suydam both list the nominal factory propellant charge as 4.5 grains of Bullseye.44

    In 2006, a Cowboy Action shooter by the name of Bruce Young created a component case called the “.45 Cowboy Special” and sold it online through Adirondack Jack’s Trading Post from 2006 through 2012. Reportedly, 500,000 cases were sold. In 2017, this case was picked up by and is now produced by Starline Brass.45 An examination of 10 unfired cases from a box of 500 purchased from the Starline company, show a diameter of .508-.510 inch for the rim and a case length of .893 .895 inch. The company’s website stated that this case is for light loads as used for cowboy action shooting. The reduced airspace in the case will give better loading density with the fast pistol and shotgun propellants used for light loads. This is basically a .45 Auto-Rim case with the thinner rim of the .45 Colt case. It can be considered a variant of the M1906 Revolver case, which was a rimmed version of the commercial .45 Auto case. The M1906 case was probably developed for this very same reason. This case will hold around 20 grains of FFg black powder with either a 200- or 225/230-grain bullet. These loads will have less recoil than the heavier powder charges in the .45 S&W or .45 Colt cases.46

    The .450 Revolver (.450 Adams)/.45 Webley Cartridges

    There are two other cartridges that based on the dimensions, should function in a .45 Colt/.45 S&W chamber. The oldest is the British .450 Revolver Cartridge (aka .450 Adams). This was adopted by Great Britain as its service revolver cartridge in 1868, with the adoption of the Adams cartridge revolver.47 This was loaded with a 225- or 226-grain bullet and 13 grains of black powder. In Hatcher’s book, the rim diameter is given as .503 inch and the case length as .69 inch. The head diameter is given as .476 inch and the bullet diameter .458 inch. The muzzle velocity is given as 590 fps.48 In Bussard’s work, the rim diameter is given as .510, the head diameter as .477 and the bullet diameter as .455 inch.49 Hoyem reprints an ICI Catalog from 1955, which listed a 13-grain black-powder load with a muzzle velocity of 650 fps and a smokeless load of 5 grains of Revolver Neonite with a muzzle velocity of 700 fps, both loads fired in a 6-inch barrel.50

    Hatcher and Suydam also show a .45 Webley cartridge with a 230-grain bullet with very similar dimensions, except for case length to the .450 Revolver cartridge; which is given as .82 in Hatcher51 and .802 to .816 in Suydam. Suydam also lists the powder charge as 20-22 grains of black powder.52 Hatcher shows a muzzle velocity of 550 fps and a bullet diameter of .450 inch.53

    Suydam shows specimens with bullet diameters ranging from .448 to .456.54 The Starline .45 Cowboy Special is very similar to these two cartridges, being only slightly longer in case length than the .45 Webley with very similar rim and body dimensions. The implication is that both the .450 Revolver and .45 Webley cartridges should chamber and fire satisfactory in both .45 Colt and .45 S&W chambers. In revolvers with automatic star extraction systems such as the S&W Schofield and Webley tip-up revolvers or side-swing revolvers with star extractors; the small rims could give problems due to the limited bearing of the rim on the extractor star. The .45 Cowboy Special is not only similar to the .45 Auto-Rim and the M1906 Revolver Ball cartridge, but also to these two earlier cartridges.

    Test revolvers, Ruger New Vaquero and a Buffalo Bill Percussion copy.
    Test revolvers, Ruger New Vaquero and a Buffalo Bill Percussion copy.

    Recreating the Ammunition:

    Nickel-plated cases headstamped “R-P 45 Colt” were used for .45 Colt loads and .45 Colt Gallery loads. The same cases shortened to 1.1 inches were used for .45 Colt Government loads. Starline cases were used for .45 S&W and .45 Cowboy Special loads. Black-powder loads used Federal No. 155 Large Pistol Magnum primers and Federal No. 150 Large Pistol Standard primers were used with smokeless loads. GOEX black powder was used for Fg and FFg loads and Swiss was used for FFFg. Black powder was measured with a handheld measure set by scale, except for FFFg, for which a Lee dipper .5cc was used. Bullseye smokeless was dispensed with a Redding 10x powder measure.

    Rear (left to right): A .45 Colt, .45 Colt Government, .45 S&W, .45 Cowboy Special and .45 Colt Gallery. Front (left to right): 250-grain bullet, 230-grain bullet .454 roundball and 200-grain .44 percussion bullet with felt wad.
    Rear (left to right): A .45 Colt, .45 Colt Government, .45 S&W, .45 Cowboy Special and .45 Colt Gallery. Front (left to right): 250-grain bullet, 230-grain bullet .454 roundball and 200-grain .44 percussion bullet with felt wad.

    The 250-grain bullets were Remington factory bullet 22897 .455-inch diameter and the 230-grain bullets were Speer bullets 4691 .452 in diameter. The round ball was .454 diameter Hornady 6070. This ball was tumbled lubed with Lee Liquid Alox and allowed to dry overnight. The Remington and Speer bullets were lubricated with whatever the factory put on them. The round ball was seated down on the powder. The case mouth flare was reduced with a Lee taper crimp die to allow chambering. The bullets were, in general, seated on the powder with no wads and little or no airspace, except for the Bullseye loads, which had airspace. The 40-grain, and 35-grain loads in the .45 Colt case were compressed using a compression die. The .45 Colt Government 28-grain load was compressed, as was the .45 S&W 250-grain bullet/28-grain powder charge load. The bulleted loads were roll crimped.

    The test firearm was a Ruger New Model Vaquero with .45 Colt chambers and a 7½-inch barrel. It weighed 2.675 pounds. The .44 percussion revolver was a Pietta Remington Army copy of the one used by William Cody when he was an active scout and hunter in the field. It has an 8-inch barrel and weighs 2.89 pounds. The 200-grain pure lead bullets were cast in a Lee 450-200-1R mold and were fired with either GOEX FFg or FFFg. A felt wad was inserted between the powder and the base of the bullet. A Remington #10 percussion cap was used for ignition. Keith (1955) recommends FFg black powder in .36- and .44-caliber percussion revolvers.55

    Muzzle velocities were taken with a Doppler radar and represent an average of five rounds.

    Results and Conclusions:

    Knowing the muzzle velocity and the bullet weight, the average muzzle energy of each load was calculated. Efficiency was calculated by dividing the muzzle energy in foot-pounds by the grain weight of propellant resulting in foot-pounds per grain weight of propellant. The muzzle impulse was calculated by adding 1.6 times the mass of the propellant and adding the mass of the projectile and multiplying that sum by the muzzle velocity of the bullet resulting in the muzzle impulse in pound/seconds. By knowing the mass of the firearm, it was possible to calculate the recoil velocity and thus the free recoil energy of the particular load.56 The statistics of a 2-pound revolver with a .38 Long Colt black-powder load is given for comparison. The statistics of a 2.89-pound .44 percussion revolver are also given, as I think the army was looking for similar performance in its new self-contained cartridge firing weapons.

    The loads in the table above cover most of the common factory loads in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries as well as two .44 percussion revolver loads for comparison. The two smokeless loads are given as the nominal smokeless propellant charges in the early smokeless loads. Himmelwright (1922) and Mattern (1926) given the nominal .45 Colt factory smokeless load with a 250-grain bullets as 5 grains of Bullseye. Hatcher (1935) lists the nominal smokeless load with a 250-grain bullet as 5.7 grains of Bullseye. These smokeless loads were listed as giving around 770 fps in a 5- or 7½-inch barrel. The 5-grain load is equivalent to the 28/30-grain black powder loads. The 5.7 grains of Bullseye is equivalent to the 34/35-grain black-powder load, producing almost the exactly the specified velocity. Due to the smaller mass of the propellant charge, the recoil is considerably less for the same muzzle energy. The high muzzle impulses and resulting heavy recoil energy explains why the lighter black-powder charges persisted so long. The even lighter recoil energy, with the same muzzle energy as the black-powder loads, also explains why the smokeless loads eventually drove the black-powder loads into obsolescence. With the test revolver, I found that as the muzzle impulse reached 1 pound-second and the recoil energy exceed 5 foot-pounds, it became uncomfortable. The load with a 250-grain bullet, 841 fps muzzle velocity and a recoil energy of 8.4 foot-pounds, was painful to fire in the Ruger test revolver.

    It is also notable that the finer granulations of black power had higher efficiency that the courser granulations. One method of reducing recoil with black powder, is substitution of a courser cut of powder for a finer cut, albeit at a loss in efficiency and performance.


    • Barnes Frank C, et al.: Cartridges of the World 14th Edition 2014

    • Bussard Michael: Ammo Encyclopedia 6th Edition 2017

    • Butler David F: United States Firearms, The First Century 1776-1875. 1971

    • Gould Arthur C: The Modern American Pistol and Revolver 1888

    • Hackley FW, Woodin WH, Scranton EL: History of Modern U.S. Military Small Arms Ammunition Volume I 1880-1939 1967

    • Hatcher Julian S: Hatcher’s Notebook 1962

    • Hatcher Julian S: Textbook of Pistols and Revolvers, Their Ammunition, Ballistics and Use 1935

    • Himmelwright A.L.A.: The Pistol and Revolver 1908

    • Himmelwright A.L.A.: Pistol and Revolver Shooting 1922

    • Hoyem George: The History and Development of Small Arms Ammunition Volume Three (British Sporting Rifle Cartridges) 2005

    • Garavaglia Louis A and Worman Charles C: Firearms of the American West 1866-1894 1985

    • Keith Elmer: Sixguns, The Standard Reference Work 1955

    • Mattern John R: Handloading Ammunition 1926

    • McDowell R. Bruce: Colt Conversions and Other Percussion Revolvers 1997

    • Parsons John E: The Peacemaker and its Rivals, an account of The Single Action Colt. 1950

    Peters Ammunition Catalog No. 40 1925

    • Smith Roger: Mini Big Bore? The Truly Short .45 Colt Guns Magazine Old West Special Addition 2022 Volume #88

    • Suydam Charles F: US Cartridges and their Handguns 1795-1975 1979

    Remington-UMC 1911-1912 Catalog

    Remington 1923 Catalog

    UMC Illustrated Catalog of Ammunition 1905

    UMC Illustrated Catalog 1910

    1. Parsons John E: The Peacemaker and its Rivals, an account of The Single Action Colt. 1950 Chapter II

    2. Butler David F: United States Firearms, The First Century 1776-1875. 1971, page 204

    3. McDowell RB: Colt Conversions and Other Percussion Revolvers 1997, page 54

    4. McDowell: page 143

    5. Barnes FC; et al.; Cartridges of the World 14th Edition 2014. Hereinafter cited as COTW 14 page 625

    6. COTW 14: page 467

    7. Hatcher: pages 362-363.

    8. Suydam Charles F: US Cartridges and their Handguns 1795-1975 1979, page 230

    9. Gould AC: The Modern American Pistol and Revolver 1888 pages 46, 54

    10. Himmelwright ALA: The Pistol and Revolver 1908, page 46; see also Himmelwright ALA Pistol and Revolver Shooting 1922, page 51

    11. Butler: page 210

    12. Parsons: page 38 I suspect that the “Bridgeport Ammunition” was manufactured by UMC as that was where they were located at the time.

    13. Mattern JR: Handloading Ammunition 1926 pages 308-310

    14. Hatcher JS: Textbook of Pistols and Revolvers, Their Ammunition, Ballistics and Use 1935 page 371

    15. Hatcher: page 374

    16. Himmelwright 1908: page 46

    17. UMC Illustrated Catalog of Ammunition 1905, page 33

    18. Hatcher: page 371; Mattern, page 378

    19. Parsons: pages 31-32

    20. Hackley FW, Woodin WH, Scranton EL: History of Modern U.S. Military Small Arms Ammunition Volume I 1880-1939 (1967), page 10 (hereinafter cited as Hackley, et al.)

    21. COTW 14: page 477

    22. Garavaglia LA & Worman: CG Firearms of the American West 1866-1894 (1985) pages 86-87

    23. Hackley, et al., page 19; Chart of Major Case Types

    24. Hackley, et al., page 10

    25. Hackley, et al., page 11

    26. Hackley, et al., page 11

    27. Suydam: pages 226-229; COTW 14, page 477

    28. Hatcher: page 370

    29. Remington-UMC 1911-1912 Catalog, page 96

    30. Remington 1923 Catalog, page 131

    31. Mattern: page 310

    32. Keith E: Sixguns, The Standard Reference Work 1955; pages 285, 288

    33. Peters Ammunition Catalog No. 40 1925, page 39

    34. Himmelwright 1908: page 134, Himmelwright 1922: page 157

    35. UMC 1905 page 80, UMC 1910 page 93, Remington-UMC 1923 page 131

    36. It has often been stated that the 44 Special case which is longer than the 44 Russian, case was developed to allow the use of smokeless powder. Many people have wondered about this, as they felt that smokeless would have left more airspace in the case. After reading Himmelwright, there may be some truth to this idea, as the developers of the 44 Special were either, using bulk smokeless or thought that they need more airspace to safely use dense smokeless.

    37. Himmelwright 1922: page 158

    38. Hackley, et al.: page 12

    39. Hatcher: page 375

    40. Hackley, et al., page 21-22

    41. Hackley, et al., pages 21-23

    42. Suydam: page 238; COTW 14: page 471

    43. COTW 14: pages 484-485

    44. Hatcher: page 380; Suydam: page 238

    45. Smith: Mini Big Bore? page 120-121

    46. Author’s experience

    47. Bussard: page 815

    48. Hatcher: page 380

    49. Bussard: page814

    50. Hoyem: page 189

    51. Hatcher: page 381

    52. Suydam: page 224

    53. Hatcher: page 381

    54. Suydam: page 224.

    55. Keith: page 211. He has a whole chapter on Cap & Ball Sixguns: Chapter XIV, pages 209-213.

    56. See Butler: page 38-40, Hatcher: Text Book of Pistols and Revolvers, page 305-308; Hatcher’s Notebook Chapter XII, page 279-299. For efficiency see Hatcher’s Notebook, page 399 for “Distribution of Heat Energy of the Powder.”

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