Fastest gun in the west by
Frederick Jackson Turner
I'm a big fan of Cowboy Action Shooting. If you haven't
tried it, you're just plain missing out on a lot of fun. While I have won
both National and World Duelist Championships using smokeless powder, I
also enjoy competing in Plainsman and Frontiersman categories. What's
more enjoyable than the BOOM and the big cloud of smoke of black powder?
The truth is, the period old time that we regard as the
Old West – from 1865 to 1880 – was dominated by cap and ball pistols.
The 1851 Navy was well documented to be Wild Bill's favorite sixgun.
John Wesley Hardin did much of his notorious work with an 1860 Army.
These guns were and are capable of serious work. Well, if I compete,
I'm going to do my best to win. So I thought I'd devise a test to
discover; which sixgun was the Fastest Gun In the West?
If life and death mattered – if the game was on the line
– which cap and ball sixgun would be the best choice? The split second
that could make the difference between life and death to an Old West gunslinger
is enough to win in a modern shooting contest!
For the test, I assembled a representative cross section
of firepower available in the era described. I chose an 1851 Colt
Navy, an 1858 Remington, an 1860 Colt Army, and the obscure, but well-regarded
Rogers and Spencer. I would test them against my established benchmark,
a brace of 5 1/2 in. stainless Ruger Old Armys.
(click image to make larger)
I want to thank the Brimstone Pistoleros, an all black
powder club that shoots with the Cajon Cowboys in Southern California,
for their help on this article. They donated time, expertise, and
some wonderful revolvers to make this possible. They also moved steel,
and kept a good fire going in the background, to keep us warm on an unseasonably
cold autumn day.
For my 1851 Navy, I got my hands on a brass-framed Uberti
copy. It's a beautiful piece, that I use in Civil War re-enactments.
As a Southern artillery officer, the brass frame is period correct, and
it just looks good.
The 1858 Remington was loaned by gunsmith Owen Muny.
It was touched with deft tricks, as befits its owner. The Remington,
either cap and ball or cartridge, has a devoted following.
Probably most familiar Civil War-era capgun is the 1860
Army. The powerful .44 found its way into more Union holsters than any
other sixgun. I secured an Uberti copy, as well as an authentic 2nd
Generation Colt for testing purposes.
Richard Clark, Old Scout, knows more about powder and
guns than most textbooks, and he swears by the Rodgers and Spencer cap
& ball pistol. I thought I would see what all the shouting was
about, so at his offer, I borrowed a pair of his. The Rodgers and
Spencer .44 was a late entry into the Civil War, but it rapidly earned
a good reputation for strength, reliability, and ease of disassembly.
This last is important when shooting black powder, because you are going
to have to clean it when you're done; especially before you return it to
a meticulous shooter like Old Scout!
How would they stack up against the modern Ruger Old Army?
The Old Army's bore diameter is larger than the .44s on the market -.457
vs. .452 for the originals and their Italian made clones. Market
penetration must be good due to Cowboy Action Shooting; Ruger keeps this
model in production with the fixed sights required by -CAS, and they are
clearly listening to their audience, having brought out the handy 5 ½
in version of this gun in easy-to-clean stainless steel. Have they
been able to improve on the breed in 152 years? Let us see.
I wanted a level playing field, so my game plan was this:
I would shoot a typical Plainsman stage using each pistol twice, average
the results, and find out which, if any, conferred any advantage speed-wise.
That would be my race gun for the 2005 Cowboy Action Shooting season.
For the purposes of the test, I fired one of each pistol
stock, out of the box. Many people will slick them up – although
there's not much that needs to be done to a good cap & ball pistol,
and you want a pretty stout hammer spring to make certain of cap ignition.
I loaded each pistol with a moderate load of 28 grains
of Dragon 3fff powder, except the dainty .36 Navy. The most I could
stuff into its .36 cylinders was 23 grains, so that's what I shot.
Gamer advantage? Wait and see.
I used Remington #11 caps because – well, that's what
I use, and I have a lot of them in stock.
After some fiddling around, I settled on a methodology
that I thought would be fair to all sixguns. Rather than fish guns of differing
in and out of my holsters, I started at aready position, thumb on
the hammer, pistol pointed down at a 45 degree angle. On the beep,
I swept three steel, 12 x 12 inch steel targets at a distance of 10 yards
in what we call a Nevada Sweep; 1,2,3,2,1. I shot each pistol twice,
and averaged the results.
Shooting duelist with my main match guns using smokeless
powder, times should be in the mid 3 second range. Add the smoke and recoil
of black powder - lets see!
Saturday at the Cajon Cowboy's excellent range on the
Gem Ranch in Southern California. Weather is cold; about 46 degrees,
overcast, with a stiff, blackpowder-friendly breeze blowing right into
First up is my stainless steel 5 ½ in. Ruger Old
Army. Easy to clean, strong and reliable, I have done absolutely
nothing to this gun since I got it; just shot it a lot. Ruger’s coil
springs are pretty smooth to start with, and it takes a stout whack to
make sure of cap ignition, so I just took them out of the box, and use
It's cold, but I blow on my hands to keep them warm.
The Ruger is heavy as a brick, big, and a bit clumsy. But it's
got large, easily acquired sights, I know it well, and at the beep, it
booms to a 4.18 sweep. Not bad for the first run of the day.
I draw a stock-from-the-box 1860 Army next. It is
graceful and well balanced, despite its long 8-inch barrel. It settles
comfortably into my hand, points well, and a sweep rewards me with a time
of 5.48. Then Rowdy Yates hands me his gunsmith special; a genuine
2nd Generation 1860 Colt. It looks too nice to shoot, but he's loaded
it up, and I sure don't want to hurt his feelings, so I do. 4.41;
Yowza! What a sweet capgun! All the nice things I said about
the stock Army are still true, but this one is so slick and smooth I want
to go out and shoot a whole match with it.
Owen Muny has loaded up an 1858 Remington for me next.
Remington attempted to address some weaknesses of the Colt design; it features
a top strap for greater strength, and a hammer-through-frame design that
helps keep expended cap bits from falling down into the action, a common
complaint of the Colt offerings. I try the stock one first.
OH my GAWD! It feels clumsy after the slick Colt I have just
fired, it's all I can do to get the hammer back for each shot (and remember,
I work a hammer one-handed about half a million times a year!), and the
wrestling match that ensues gives me a time of 6.53. It went off
every time, though, and they were all hits. Then I use Owen Muny's
personal, slicked up, hammer- lightened Remmie. WOW! From Yugo
to Ferrari. I'm still not liking the grip, but the wrestling is now completely
gone, it points well, and at 4.58, it cuts almost 2 seconds off my time.
Old Scout has been hopping on one foot and then the other
for some time. Either he's really cold, or he's dying for me to try
out his favorite; the 1864 Rodgers & Spencer. The R&S has
a high bore axis and a very broad flare at the bottom of it's grip; normally
I hook my pinky under the grip of a single action, but it's just not humanly
possible with this gun. It feels strange, but even I can see some
of the deft engineering touches; the cap nipples go in at an angle, making
it very easy to cap, and reducing any chance of spent caps falling into
the works. It has a broad trigger, a very high hammer, and that funny
grip. It feels awkward as I start, but Scout keeps saying to just
trust the grip angle, so off I go. The stock one is a bit clumsy,
but works fine, but the awkward grip and high bore give me a time of seconds
6.59, about the same as the stock ’58 Remmie. Then I go to his slicked
up, sight widened, trigger lightened R&S. Wow! I could
race with this gun. I get ahead of myself and actually AD a round
on this string, but the gun pointed very naturally, and I get the hit.
Total time: 4.49, second only to the 1860 Army.
At last, the ’51 Navy. I really like the way this
gun feels in the hand. It's smaller than the others, a .36, but the
ergonomics are just right. It points and hangs wonderfully, and feels far
and away the best of all the sixguns. This was designed for men who really
needed these things to stay alive, not just play games. Wild Bill
Hickock used them throughout his career, once ending the career of another
notorious gunman, Dave Tutt, at a distance of 78 yards, with a single shot.
At the buzzer, up comes the Navy and with far less recoil
than the other heavier caliber guns, it's off to the races, bang, bang
- then a cap falls into the lockworks, I struggle to get off the third
shot, and it does it again before the fifth shot as well. 7.09.
I start again. Bang, bang – again the third cap
falls into the lockworks. I sigh, and end with a time of 7.13.
Yikes. The next string - the results are even worse. Understand,
I'm getting good hits and reliable ignition, but I can't go fast with the
dang things, and I really want to! Old Scout explains there are a
few tricks to fix this:
1. The Colt Twitch - fire the gun and snap it sideways
to get the spent cap bits out of the action. This is not going to
help my times;
2. Cap keepers; tiny elastic bands placed on the caps
at the loading table to keep them in place while firing; are you kidding?
3. The Manhattan Conversion/cap shield/cap guard
installed, after narrowing the broad hammer face. Seems like an awful
lot of work, but if it'll make the gun go… But I don't have one here.
It seems that even with all these gunsmiths around, no one has got
that kind of time to spend on a ’51 Navy.
Just for fun, now that I'm as good and warm as I can be
on a 45 degree day, I load up the Old Army one last time and blister a
stage time of 3.47. It's good to be home.
What have I learned here? Well, on paper, the best
gun out there is the one with which I'm the most familiar. No surprise
there; but the times and shot-to-shot splits of the other ones are so close
- that I think the fastest gun will be the one that you're familiar with.
I'm also very respectful of the accuracy of these guns; I have fired all
afternoon long, pushing hard, and I have not missed a single target all
day. Not one. They're accurate, and they all point well.
I could trust my life to any one of these pistols. I have not had
a single failure to fire all day, even on the bone-stock out of the box
pistols. To be sure, some of the Brimstone Pistoleros evinced some
surprise about this, especially about the stock Colts. But each cap’n’ball
went off, every time, and they each drilled the target with authority,
If I'm going to change sixguns this season, I'm going
to have some polishing done by a competent gunsmith. In every case,
the gunsmith-smoothed pistol was a better performer. I've had a great
run of luck this year, winning several State Championships, and a host
of annual match events with my stock Rugers. Now I'm wondering about
the ones that I didn't win; might a gunsmith have helped?
Bottom line; these guns work, point and shoot great, and
offer a tremendous amount of fun in an inexpensive package. What
works in the game would work to save your life in 1860s. I'd bet
my life on any of them; especially if Owen, Rowdy, or Old Scout will tune
‘em and load ‘em for me! Load ‘em up boys; the season is just around
|Ruger Old Army
|Colt 1860 Army Stock
|Colt 1860 Army modified
|Rogers & Spencer stock
|Rogers & Spencer modified
|1858 Remington stock
|1858 Remington modified
|1851 Colt stock
|1851 Colt modified
Late Addendum: I have managed to lay my hands
on a slick ’51 Colt Navy, courtesy of Jack Slade. It has been polished
and tuned, and he takes the time to install cap keepers for me. I
don't feel that it's completely fair to include the times because this
is on a different day, it's about 20 degrees warmer, and I'm in a groove.
But I run the targets out to 10 yards, and let ‘er rip. My first
string is a 4.01; good time for my Rugers, and a decent time for my smokeless
guns. Like I said, I wanted to believe in this gun, and Jack's Navy
has restored my faith in it. Now, go out and burn some powder!
Frederick Jackson Turner